When I was a remodeling contractor, I was constantly looking for better ways to organize tools and supplies. After I became a specialty contractor (we do window and door replacements), that quest became a passion.
For us, the key to becoming better organized has been the use of modular organizers — boxes that share the same footprint, stack easily, and can be latched one-to-another for storage and transport. We've tailored the shelves in our trucks and trailers to the size of the organizers. No more haphazard stacking of mismatched toolboxes and having to guess what's inside; since the boxes are labeled, we know what each one contains.
In the U.S., the big players in modular organizers are Festool, Bosch, and DeWalt. For this article my crew tested products from all three companies.
Festool Systainers were the first modular organizers to be sold in this country. They are widely distributed and have the most comprehensive product line. Systainers are produced by Tanos, a subsidiary of Tooltechnic Systems, the company that owns Festool. Tanos also sells under its own label, and their Systainers are compatible with Festool's, sharing the same latching mechanism, handles, and 15 5/8-inch by 11 5/8-inch footprint.
Shipped as standard carrying cases with specific inserts for Festool power tools (and a few accessories), Systainers are also available empty under the Tanos label from some online sources.
What makes these ABS plastic boxes so versatile is that they can be stacked and latched together, allowing several tools to be moved at once. They can be carried by the handles or rolled around on wheeled accessories.
The top handle recesses into the lid so another box can be stacked on top of it; the two boxes are joined at the rear by mating slots and tabs and at the front by a rotating T-Loc mechanism. The T-Loc can be oriented to hold the lid closed, secure the box to the box above it, or allow the lid to be opened. Older Systainers and current Tanos boxes use clip-like latches to hold lids closed and gang boxes together. The T-Loc models are faster and easier to operate and are partially compatible with earlier models; they can be stacked on old-style boxes but not the other way around.
Our company has used Systainers for several years and we've found them to be durable. We cracked one or two of the older ones, but that was a result of rough handling. We're now more careful and have had no problems since. If you like to toss your boxes in the back of the truck and throw a ladder on top of them, then Systainers are not the organizers for you.
Some of our hand-held power tools are from Festool, but most come from other manufacturers — and we house those tools in Systainers. We often put multiple similar tools, such as drill and impact drivers, into a single Systainer. This cuts down on the number of organizers we have to haul and ensures specific tools and related accessories are kept together. There are recessed areas for labels on the sides and front of the boxes; we label all our boxes so we can tell what's inside.
Though most of our tools fit into the standard boxes, longer tools — like recip saws and cordless kits — require the use of Maxi Systainers. These jumbo-size boxes have twice the footprint of standard models. They are 81/4 inches tall and use the older-style latches. But they're still modular: You can gang them to each other or put a pair of standard-size Systainers on top.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Mini Systainers; we use these pint-size boxes to hold bits, marking instruments, and other small items.
Another variation of the Systainer is the Sortainer, a modular box with drawers. Available in multiple configurations, it provides an excellent way to organize fasteners, bits, and other small parts. The drawers are modular and are easily interchanged; most have adjustable dividers. There's a spot on the outside of each drawer for the included label.
Systainers can be carried by the handles, clipped onto one of the manufacturer's dust extractors, or rolled around on a wheeled base or carrier. Festool offers the SysRoll hand truck, the SysCart, and the SysPort, which allows you turn a stack of Systainers into a European version of a rolling mechanic's tool chest. Tanos makes a Folding Trolley.
The SysRoll hand truck is a four-wheel carrier with an upright back that doubles as a handle. There's a shallow storage drawer under the base and a strap to lash the stack to the carrier. The SysRoll is surprisingly sturdy given that it's made from ABS plastic. My only gripe is that it doesn't fold to take up less space when not in use.
The SysCart resembles a mover's dolly and has clips to hold a Systainer on top. The wheels roll easily on hard surfaces, but are a bit on the small side. We leave one permanently attached to the stack of tools we use most often; it's one of the first things off the truck when we get to the job.
We particularly like Tanos' Folding Trolley. The large wheels roll easily over rough terrain, and it folds flat (5 inches thick) when not in use. The only thing missing is straps, but it's easy enough to fasten the load with bungees.
The Bottom Line
Systainers cost more than other modular tool organizers, but there are more boxes and accessories to choose from. They're a good fit for the tradesman who wants to be highly organized and can pay what it costs to get that way.
Bosch introduced the L-Boxx to the U.S. a little over a year ago and continues to roll out additional elements. The boxes are made by Sortimo, a German company that sells L-Boxxes in Europe under its own label.
In concept, L-Boxxes are similar to Systainers: All L-Boxxes share the same footprint, can be stacked and locked together, and are available in multiple depths and configurations. Current offerings include four boxes, an organizer with removable bins, and the L-Boxx 3D — an interesting customizable storage box.
At 14 by 17 1/2 inches, the L-Boxx's footprint is larger than that of the Systainer. L-Boxxes come in depths of 4 1/2, 6, 10, and 15 inches and can be purchased empty or as cases with select Bosch tools. They may accept tools that won't fit in other modular boxes. For example, the L-Boxx-4 is the only modular box large enough to accept our 10 1/4-inch circular saw.
Click & Go
The manufacturer refers to this product line as the Click & Go system because boxes can be connected very quickly. We found it very easy to operate the connector clips: You stack boxes so they align, push down on top, and the spring-loaded clips latch on to the box below. Reversing the process is a matter of grabbing the sides of the L-Boxx and lifting while pressing the clips.
L-Boxxes have generously sized top handles that recess into the lid when not in use and indentations for lifting from the side. The three smallest boxes also have front-mounted handles so you can carry them from the side, suitcase style. That's a more comfortable way to carry a shallow box, but if the contents aren't secured you risk jumbling them all together.
The walls of L-Boxxes appear to be about the same thickness as those of Systainers, but we put some calipers on them and discovered that they're actually about half again as thick. The tops and bottoms contain grids of reinforcing ribs. These boxes feel like they should hold up well. But we're not so sure about the lid latches; they seem less sturdy than the rest of the box.
We were particularly impressed with the L-Boxx-3D, which has a shallow compartment under the lid and a large front opening into which drawers or compartmentalized organizers called i-Boxxes can be inserted. There are several i-Boxxes to choose from. It's a clever design that permits the user to tailor the box to the task at hand.
If the box comes with a tool, it contains a molded insert for that tool. Inserts can be purchased as accessories for certain Bosch tools, and the manufacturer offers "pick and pluck" foam — similar to what's found in Pelican cases — that can be customized to fit any tool.
A two-wheeled folding aluminum hand truck recently hit the market but was not available at the time of this review. Bosch also offers a four-wheel flat similar to a mover's dolly. L-Boxxes can be clipped onto it and rolled around.
The Bottom Line
We like the L-Boxxes, especially their larger footprint relative to Systainers. The Click & Go system makes it possible to gang boxes together very quickly; our one concern is with the long-term durability of the latches. If I were starting from scratch, I would definitely consider standardizing with L-Boxxes — though it would be easier to get to yes if Bosch offered a larger selection of accessories.
The design philosophy behind DeWalt's ToughSystem boxes is different from the one that inspired Festool's and Bosch's boxes. There are fewer models to choose from and they are not as customizable as Systainers and L-Boxxes. But you can stand on a ToughSystem case, beat on it, and leave it out in the rain without damaging it or its contents. The same can't be said of boxes made from ABS plastic.
Constructed from 3/16-inch structural foam, ToughSystem boxes are the most rugged modular containers we tested. A gasket at the perimeter of the lid creates a positive seal against water and dirt. Sturdy metal latches secure the lid, and there's a place to put a padlock. Every box has a pair of side handles and a top handle that recesses into the lid.
The system includes three boxes of varying depth, an organizer box with removable part bins, and a wheeled "DS Carrier" for transport. ToughSystem boxes are considerably larger than other modular organizers — large enough to hold recip saws, rotary hammers, and other bulky items.
The boxes are all the same length, so they can be ganged and clipped together (even though the tallest model is an inch wider than the others). I have some reservations about the clips; they're plastic, and although we didn't break any, they seem like the weak link in the system. I can't see using the clips that often anyway — not if I had the DS Carrier.
The DS Carrier is a wide two-wheeled dolly designed to carry ToughSystem boxes and other items. The beauty of the system is that boxes do not have to be ganged to ride on the carrier; they also can be individually attached to adjustable brackets that project from the tubular steel frame of the carrier.
It's a quick and easy install: Lift the box by the spring-loaded side handles and place it between the brackets, and when the handles are released they will clamp the box onto the brackets. This makes it easier to get at your tools because you can remove boxes without disturbing the ones above or below. Also, if the lower position is not occupied by a box, you can use the platform to carry bulky items that are not in boxes. The brackets fold out of the way when not in use, so you can use the carrier like a regular dolly. We've used it to haul trash cans and bags of concrete.
The large wheels travel easily over rough ground, but the wide stance makes it tricky to roll the carrier through openings less than 30 inches wide. The carrier is ruggedly built and can support 260 pounds on the ground and 175 pounds on stairs. ToughSystem boxes are nice, but the DS Carrier is the star of the show — we really like what it can do.
The Bottom Line
ToughSystem boxes are a good fit for the builder or remodeler who needs heavy-duty boxes that can be ganged together or rolled on a specialized carrier. To get the most out of this system, buy the carrier.
DeWalt TSTAK Boxes
DeWalt recently released the TSTAK line of modular organizers. Smaller and less rugged than ToughSystem organizers, these polypropylene boxes are nicely designed and very affordable. They come in four configurations and have a 13-inch by 17-inch footprint. The TSTAKs stack and latch like ToughSystem boxes, though due to the size of its handle, the Long Handle Tool Case must be on top. DeWalt recommends against lifting more than three boxes at a time.
The walls of the TSTAKs are pretty rugged, and we found the oversized metal latches easy to operate even with gloved hands. They're not as water-resistant as ToughSystem boxes but still offer more-than-adequate protection.
The attention to detail is evident in this line; depending on the model, there are metal ball-bearing drawer slides, removable lidded boxes, foam inserts, and areas to affix content labels. DeWalt does not make a cart for these boxes, so we took to hauling them with a lightweight folding hand truck, lashing them in place with bungees. This improvised method works, but a dedicated cart with a means to secure boxes would be a welcome addition.
The Bottom Line
These organizers are well-suited to storing and transporting small tools, parts, and components. The shallow depth was a limiting factor for our needs. That said, we were impressed by the overall quality and excellent value offered by TSTAK. This line may be just the ticket for electricians and plumbers, as well as any other tradesmen in need of compact storage solutions.
Greg Burnet runs Chicago Window and Door Solutions, a carpentry contracting firm in Chicago that specializes in door and window installations.