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A Clean Workbench: Big Deal Or Not?

On my Facebook page, I’d posted this:

I’m contemplating an article about the relationship between being productive in scale modeling, and how clean your workbench is. What are your experiences? Do you find that a messy desk slows down your progress, or is it no big deal?

Here are a few of the responses I received.

I like to be organized. It makes me want to get back to the bench and build. I don’t like dealing with a mess. It’s not very inviting or motivating.

I have to clean my desk after each project to keep my mind straight and on task.

…a messy bench is beneficial when you enjoy conversations with model manufacturers because you can’t find the left side fuselage half and begging a new one is in order.

In my case, build frequency has no correlation to how neat or cluttered my workbench is.

A few years ago, I was busily working away on a model. I had just glued the fuselage halves together, and after setting those aside to dry… well, setting them on top of other stuff would be more like it… I looked for the sprue that had the wing parts.

I looked and looked and looked. No sprue.

I began to tear through the piles of sprues, instructions, decals, references, paint bottles, glue, sanding sticks, brushes, old kit boxes, a coffee cup or two, and even the remains of some nachos. And yet no joy – my airplane model remained wingless.

I finally realized the only place I had not looked was the trash can. So I began to dig through that.

Finally, near the bottom of the modeling waste, was the sprue I needed.

After the initial relief set in, I started to wonder “how did I think this was something to throw away?”

I began to try and reconstruct the scenario. The sprue had been in the middle of some similar sprues, from a similar kit (Yes… it was a Spitfire…). Because it was from the same manufacturer, the color of the plastic was the same. The sprues I had meant to throw away were for a kit that was finished. The parts I did not want to throw away had somehow gotten stacked into the others.

I realized I had a problem.

I was a slob modeler.

I don’t suppose I meant to start out that way. It just seemed more convenient. While my shelf and desk space was limited, the vast open stretches of air above all horizontal surfaces seemed fair game. Just stack things up. Make sure it all balanced out. 

Initially, this worked well. However, as I tend to work on anywhere from four to six projects at a time, things soon got out of hand. As I piled stuff up, the usable desk space went down from about 12 square feet down to less than 1. The slightest movement out of that usable window was likely to cause a pile o’ stuff to tumble over. The piles had gotten so high that it actually began to block off the light from my desk lamps.

And the more I thought about it, I realized that all that mess brought a sense of dread. Yes, I do want to work on that kit, but it’s beneath 32 sprues, 4 boxes, 2 books, and a peanut butter sammich. (Jif, Extra Crunchy, slathered on very heavy. Because peanut butter.)

Often I’d avoid working on models altogether. Which was a problem, because I sell what I build, and my family and I depend on that side income. Nothing like a hit in the wallet to wake you up.

So I did for many modelers what was unthinkable.

Gratuitous meme used in place of a picture of my model desk which I forgot to take.

I cleaned the model desk.

And I didn’t just clean it. I went through mounds of junk, throwing away items with the brutality rarely seen outside of an all-you-can-eat buffet down the street from an IPMS convention. All of those supplies that I was sure I would someday use went in the trash. Every bottle of paint was opened, and the old, dried up corpses of FS colors long past were tossed. 

I also made a few purchases. A rolling plastic 3 drawer organizer for under the desk. A large shoe organizer that became a deep shelf system. A kitchen cutlery organizer that when turned on it’s side became a paint rack. More plastic drawers that could stack on top of each other were added.

By the time it was over, I had several trash bags full of junk, a solid 8 square feet of working space, all my lighting clipped up and out of the way, and everything in drawers and jars and shelves.

But How Do I Sustain The Neatness I’d Committed?

Now, I know myself. Unless I was careful, the desk would be back in the state it had been in under two weeks. So I knew I had to apply something that I was normally loathe to do.

Discipline myself to be neat.

I know, I know… it’s a radical concept. And it was hard. Very hard. (Seriously, it was…)

But I made sure I did things habitually. Using the hobby knife meant putting it back in the jar as soon as it was no longer needed. Switching from one model to the other meant placing the parts back in the box, sliding it on the shelf next to the desk, and retrieving the next kit to work on. Paints were used and put away. Brushes cleaned and set aside.

While I tolerated some general loss of neatness during any particular session, the end of the modeling day meant everything went back in its place, so the next day I had a clean workspace to start from.

And a funny thing happened.

I liked it.

More importantly, I was more productive. And happier at that productivity.

Once I got in the habit of it. it was not hard to do. In fact, the process of being neat, in overall terms, was much simpler than the process of being sloppy. Parts were not lost. Decals stayed with their models. Instructions were in their place. Paints and tools and other accoutrements of the hobby were easy to find.

Since then, I’ve refined the process a bit. I added some more shelving, found more things I could remove, and have generally looked to eliminate obstacles in the work environment that curtail the process of building, and that sour the fun.

Of course, everyone is different. Some folks like to keep it simple, working one project at a time. Things are always in place because there is only one thing. That has a beauty of its own. And I do know a few people who can ignore the chaos of clutter and just build. So I’m not saying that change will automatically bring about positive results.

Still, I’d assert that looking for ways to organize, to clean up, and to create an inviting work environment can’t hurt you, whatever your current process is.

And it does not have to be expensive. A trip to a second hand store, garage sales, kitchen stores, or a big box discount store can yield some interesting tools for organization – even if they’re not purpose built for the task.

So if you’re having trouble getting the motivation to sit down and build, or if you’re at the point I was and take your life in your own hands each time you sit down at a messy bench stacked high, trying doing the unthinkable.


You never know. You might like it. 😉

Messy desk image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Pascal from Heidelberg, Germany.

7 thoughts on “A Clean Workbench: Big Deal Or Not?”

      1. Remember that scene in “BladeRunner 2049” where Ryan Gosling goes to San Diego to visit the orphanage to rack down Deckard’s daughter?


  1. Great read Jon. Got some good ideas for items to use for even further organization. And oh yes…… Jif Extra Crunchy. Cause you just gotta. 👌☺

  2. Great article, Jon! I’m thrilled to be quoted, too!

    My bench is organized chaos. Or as Cpl. Klinger once said, after taking over the company clerk job from Radar, “A pile for everything, and everything in it’s pile.”

    But let’s focus on the “organized” part. I’ve never lost a whole sprue of parts from an in-progress build, because I do tend to use the kit box to store the parts while the build is in progress. Cardboard soda and juice pallets serve as trays to keep things together, and allow some stacking for storage (to a certain level-they’re not structural steel, of course).

    My organization has grown in an unorganized fashion, or “organically”, as some might say. As I added supplies, the material overloaded older systems, and I had to adapt. A single box for spare parts and scratchbuilding supplies was soon inadequate. I like Chinese takeout, and when the Chinese restaurant industry switched to white plastic containers with clear lids, a solution presented itself. Now, I have that material sorted and stored, with labels on the box ends, so I can see what’s what.

    I used to have my paints on the bench, where they were in reach. That system failed quickly, as I added more paints. I had one of those round Danish butter cookie tins, so, that became a storage unit. Then another. Then another. All stacked on one another. I reached the point where I had to shuffle the deck every time I needed a jar of paint-the one I wanted always seemed to be in the tin on the bottom. The new solution-a Rubbermaid 3-shelf cabinet on casters, like the one you describe, Jon. All my jars of paint fit in one drawer. All my little eye-dropper bottles of acrylics fit in another. And I collected my various putties and some other tools, and stowed them in the bottom.

    And I’ve become Sterlite’s best customer. I use the larger tubs to organize my stash, and the small shoeboxes to store supplies too big for the Chinese takeout containers.

    I liked peanut butter, too (generic, and creamy, though). I use the leftover jars for storage and for solution baths for stripping paint.

    Today, the problem is simply space. Space for the stash. Space for supplies. And the inventory is stored in my M1964 Brain, human. I have had some things go missing, knowing that they were in the house, very likely in the cellar where my bench is, but where they were there, was the question. The choice was to go through everything, a box or a tray at a time, till I found what I was looking for. Twice it happened-once, for the Tamiya US Navy Pilots and Moto-tug set, and once, for the sprue of USAAF crew figures ICM included in one boxing of its P-51B. I found ’em, eventually, in the last place I looked. And then it occurred to me-I just started looking at the wrong end.

    If I had to, though, I think I could pare the whole operation down to the amount of gear I could fit into a large tackle box. More mobility, and the ability to work in a small space. Heck, I saw a video of a Japanese modeler, building Trumpeter’s 1/350 USS Lexington and painting it with his airbrush, in closet of a bedroom. It turned out great. Adapt and overcome, right?

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