Mixing CAD, 3D printing, some basic woodworking, and the self-discipline to throw out obsolete cables, David Gewirtz takes you through the process of building the ultimate cable organizer and his tried and true seven-step system for organizing cables and keeping them in order.
Today, we're going to build the ultimate cable organizer, which you can watch in the accompanying video. We're going to use some CAD, 3D printing, and some basic woodworking. If I can do this, you can do this. Let's get started.
I had a specific goal for this project. I wanted to be able to build this with the tools that you could keep in a drawer in any IT shop. I didn't want to have big table saws or big miter saws or anything that required a large workshop to put it together. I just wanted to use hand tools and hand power tools.
Tools for the project
To build this organizer, I used exactly three power tools, The first is a Dremel rotary tool, and it was used to fill in corners and to rout grooves. Then, there's a drill. The drill worked in concert with the Kreg pocket hole jig, which allowed me to do all the joints.
I used a lot of measuring devices. These are inexpensive and come in very, very handy. I also used a lot of clamps. I 3D-printed two guides to allow me to precisely measure the shelf offset. And then, finally, the most important tool in the batch was a hammer, because when I'm building something, there's always something I have to bang into place.
And that's it.
Design in Fusion 360
I designed the cable organizer in Fusion 360, and while it has a lot of parts, many of them repeat, so it's really a very simple structure. The key component of this project are plastic bins (in my case Sterilite 16 quart storage bins), which I picked up quite inexpensively at the local discount store. The Fusion 360 CAD model is downloadable for you, so feel free to grab it from this link. You'll just have to resize it for your bins and your workshop space.
Supporting the bins are shelf units made up of 1x3 slats. I chose to do it this way because it didn't require the use of a table saw or a large circular saw. It was much easier to just simply cut those slats.
Tying these shelves together are a set of vertical panels. Each panel consists of two vertical 1x3s and three horizontal 1x3s. There's a left panel, a back panel and a side panel.
Finally, there's the peg board that goes on the left back and side, which provides options for holding all sorts of things from large extension cords to the gadgets necessary to organize the cables themselves. You can see all this in detail in the accompanying video.
So, let's get started making our collection of wooden slats.
Making the first jig
My big worry was that I was going to have to cut 44 boards from 1x3 stock at exactly the same size, consistently at a right angle, and I was going to have to do it with a handheld power saw. The challenge for me was I wasn't entirely sure I would accurately cut it. Even when I measure twice, I have often had to cut two or three times to get anything to go together properly.
It's why most of my family and friends were grateful that I'm a software guy and, at least until recently, have generally stayed away from power tools.
To solve my inaccuracy problem, I set out to build a simple jig. The wood to be cut slides into an exact spot, and I can cut it. worked out the basics of the jig in Tinkercad, which is simple and easy to use. I started with a piece of wood with an end stop. I added guide rails that controlled the position of the board as it slid into the jig.
I made sure to countersink the screws so they wouldn't interfere with the wood as it split open. A key element of this jig are right angle guides. I didn't discover until it was time to build it that I actually couldn't use the same three-quarter-inch board on the right side, because the saw doesn't have the same amount of clearance on the left and right sides. So, I wound up cutting down a piece of 1/4-inch plywood that I had used previously in the laser cutter.
In the video, you can really see the benefit of the side guides, because not only do they keep the saw level, they make sure that the saw doesn't drop as it leaves the cut and is perfectly aligned when it goes into the cut.
Assembling the shelves
To get started with the assembly, I used Kreg bench dog clamps and clamped down the Kreg jig, which is used for joining the pieces of wood together. I had 11 shelves, each made from four strips of wood. Each set of four strips had to be joined in a rectangular shape to create a shelf to hold the bins. I also had two sides and a back, made of strips joined together.
The process of joining pieces of wood together is called joinery, and there are probably hundreds of different ways to do it. I chose to use pocket holes, because that seemed like something I could handle with my minimal woodworking skill set, and it also can be done with just a drill and pocket hole jig.
The joints are called pocket holes, because the pocket hole jig creates little holes that are pockets in the wood, and the screws go into those little holes to hold everything together.
I want to talk briefly about the technology of this joinery. In IT, we normally think of technology as digital, but there's technology even in woodworking, in particular the way in which fibers in the wood are spun around the screw to attach these two pieces of wood, and it's really quite interesting.
It all starts off with a special drill bit which drills two different diameter holes with one drill plunge. This cutaway shows the two holes that have been drilled, and as you can see, the screw can only get so far through the wood.
The head is blocked by the wider section. Pocket hole screws have a wider head than normal screws. That larger head works well with the larger size hole. In the image above, you can see the screw coming out on an angle, which helps secure it as it goes into the second piece of wood.
Looking under the microscope, you can see in the attached video that there is a channel cut in the screw's metal. This allows for wood to be channeled out as the screw drills into the destination. Under the microscope, you can also see how the screw actually compresses the wood fibers in order to gain a grip on the piece of wood.
What becomes really interesting though is, as you move into the wood a little bit closer, you begin to see what I've called curlies. These curly spots are where the fibers actually wrap around the screw itself. Let's take a much closer look at one of those.
You can see how it's shaped from wrapping around the screw. When a screw goes into the wood, you not only have the hole, but you have these fibers holding on for dear life.
All told for this project, I drilled somewhere over 300 pocket holes and therefore used somewhere over 300 screws.
The shelves are made up of an equal number of two very slightly different sized slabs that are all joined together. A flat clamp is really important, because the screw squishes and pushes fibers.
If the clamp wasn't in place to prevent the screw from pushing the fibers apart, there's potential for the wood to split. But because the wood has no place to go, the screw is able to drill into the fibers as opposed to just separate them.
I can't begin to tell you how excited I was when I finally made the first shelf and it actually fit the bin.
The key to the side panels is that the pegboard is supposed to slot in and be secured by a groove cut in the spine of the 1x3 lumber. In order to do that, I wound up having to route with the Dremel router attachment.
I installed the rotary tool into the router attachment and then made sure that the bit offset was deep enough to be able to hold the pegboard. I also made sure that the guides were just the right distance so that I'd be able to cut a groove down the middle of the 1x3 rails and stiles. By holding the guide up against the wood and moving the router, I was able to cut the straight slots right in the middle of the wood's spine.
I found that the best way to have a stable routing surface was to put all of the vertical stiles (the vertical part of a frame) together and then run the router on top of the full set. I also did multiple passes so the pressure of the fast-turning bit didn't burn into the wood.
I had to create two separate grooves for each vertical stile, so I couldn't just cut all the way through the end of the wood; I had to plunge in, cut a section, and then pull the router back out.
Once all the rails (the horizontal elements) and stiles were done, it was time for assembly. I measured and checked for square on the first rail that goes onto the vertical stile, and then I repeated this process for all three rails in the panel -- carefully measuring and checking for square, making sure everything was as square and precise as I could make it.
I used a piece of 1x3 as a straightedge, and then I ran the saw along the 1x3 to create my long cuts. In the accompanying video, you might notice the pink foam that's under the items I'm cutting. That helps protect my workbench from the saw blade while supporting the cut. You can pick up foam insulation blocks at any big box home center store.
I did a test fit of a small piece pegboard in the first side panel and found that there was some material still in the corners where the two 1x3s came together. This prevented the pegboard from sliding into the grooves properly.
I put a round-shaped cutter bit into the Dremel, and then proceeded to carve out the corners of each joint. That turned out to work really, really well.
Then it was time to persuade the unit to clamp together. This was cheap wood, so it was also warped wood, so a little bit of pressure with clamps and a little judicious use of a mallet made everything come together. Then, I checked for square by measuring both diagonals and making sure they were equal. Once they were, it was time to screw the whole thing together.
Once I had all three panels assembled, it was time for final assembly. It's absolutely essential that the shelves be spaced properly.
So, one of the first things I did was design a jig in Fusion 360 and 3D-print it. While there's absolutely nothing difficult to reproduce about a 3D model that's a rectangle with two other rectangles, you're welcome to download it. Just remember that this model is sized specifically for the Sterilite 16 quart bins.
I made one 3D-printed jig that had angles on it for clamping and one that was a simple rectangle. Both were identical in size and allowed me to properly space each of the shelves. You'll see in the video how important that became as I put the system together.
These spacing jigs could have been made out of wood, but since I'm more comfortable getting exact sizes from 3D printing, I chose to do it that way. For me (and this could be for you as well), once I integrate a tool (whether that's 3D printing or a band saw), I use it wherever it might help out a project. So, while the spacing jigs consisted of simple rectangles, they're very valid uses of 3D printing, because they helped me accurately get the job done.
Attaching the first shelf to the first side panel was a big moment for me.
In the video, you can see my use of the 3D-printed spacer jigs and pocket hole screws. I designed the unit so the somewhat ugly pocket holes faced up for those shelves that were above eye height and faced down for those shelves that were below the eye height. That way, when we look at the unit, we don't actually see the pocket holes, just a fully assembled cable organizer.
Once I had the shelves mounted on one side, I next needed to start adding the other two sides. This wasn't as easy as it might seem, because the cheap wood was quite warped, but eventually with the use of hammer and clamps, it complied.
I worked on this project over the course of two months, and the one big fear I had was that when it came time to put it all together, it wouldn't fit. As someone who has always been challenged when it comes to building things that match my measurements, when it all fit together, I was incredibly excited -- and very relieved.
My 7-step cable organizing system
The cable organizer was finally finished, so let's talk about my system for organizing cables. If you're facing a big pile of cables and want to make them as accessible and organized as possible, I recommend you follow my seven-step system:
Step 1: Throw as much away as possible
Step 2: Keep only as many cables as fit in the organizer
Step 3: Use an "I don't know" box to speed up sorting
Step 4: Have a toss or donate box (and then toss or donate it)
Step 5: Strap your cables to prevent tangles
Step 6: Start with broad categories and refine
Step 7: Subcategorize when appropriate into baggies within bins
Step 1 and 2 are related. Step 1 is throw away as much as you can. Step 2 is you shouldn't keep more cables than will fit in the organizing bins or hang off the sides of the organizer on pegboard hooks.
Think about it this way: Most of your gear is already hooked up. No doubt, your network is pretty much fully wired. So, how many extra Ethernet cables do you really need? Really? If you have a full bin of Ethernet cables, that's enough. You can always order more and get them from Amazon in a day or so.
Think of the cables in your bins as your emergency cable supply, needed to tide you over until Amazon Prime can two-day deliver whatever you need. When you think about storing, keep in mind that you can store physical objects in the cloud, and order them when you need them.
Take advantage of the pegboards for big cables. In the video, you'll see I have a very long orange extension cord. I was actually quite careful how I wound it and secured it, so it would hang nicely. But rather than using up most of the space of a bin, that hangs off the side.
Step 3 is to establish an "I don't know" box while sorting. in order to get through sorting through something like this really quickly, an "I don't know" will come in very handy. If you're really not sure whether to keep or toss a cable, don't spend hours dithering over it.
Drop it into the "I don't know" box and come back to it later. Once you've done your full organizing run, sorting out the "I don't know" cables will be simple and relatively obvious.
Step 4 is to have a toss or donate box. Because it's not entirely clear there's any value to anyone else in my cables, I'm just going to toss most of them. But you could choose to try to donate them if you feel so inclined. In either case, though, the key to cable organization is throwing away the old and obsolete stuff.
Step 5 is to strap your cables so they don't get tangles. I like to use hook and loop ties, which cost about $12 for a hundred. They just strap around, and they're better than zip ties. They're better than just about anything else I've tried. If, while sorting your cables, you find that some are already tied up using a different method, you don't need to re-tie them with the hook and loop ties. Just don't keep any loose cables.
Step 6 is my recommendation that you start with relatively large categories. For example, you might start with a video cables category, but if you find that you have a huge number of HDMI cables, you might split video cables into HDMI and video. That's what I did. I have a bin of just HDMI cables in all sorts of varieties, and another bin of other random video cables.
I use index cards (you could just as easily use blue tape) to mark my categories. I'll often cross out one category and rename it as the sorting process continues until I have a clear understanding of how my collection breaks down. Once I have a final arrangement, then I'll make more formal labels. In this project, I 3D-printed two-color labels using two filaments, but I didn't do that until everything was fully and finally sorted.
Step 7 is to sort major categories into subcategories, but only when appropriate. I don't need to subcategorize Ethernet cables, but it's a great idea to subcategorize USB cables and Apple accessories. When I subcategorize them, I put all the cables that fit one of the subcategories into a labeled Ziploc bag, and those go into the bins.
As you can see in the accompanying video, this project is finally done. I've got my 10 bins organized to best fit my collection of cables. The categories I used are different from earlier organization runs, because my needs have changed.
This was a big project for me, and I was quite challenged because so many pieces had to be precisely sized and fit. But by using CAD (especially the Fusion 360 model), making sure to build jigs for sizing the slabs and the placement of the shelves, and with a little 3D printing help here and there, it turned out better than I could ever have hoped for.
Don't be intimidated by projects like this. Break down your projects into smaller steps, think through and plan your work, and double- and triple-check your measurements. Like I said at the beginning of this article, if I can do this, you can do it. All it took were three simple power tools and a lot of attention to detail.