Tool Box Shadowing with foam

 I have seen a few threads that do a decent job explaining how to shadow a toolbox yourself.  I just wanted to put it all together with pictures of my project.  If you are reading this, then you are in the minority of mechanics.  You are probably a little OCD about your tools, and it probably drives you crazy when people "borrow" your tools because they cannot find their own.  It takes a certain type of person to put the time and money into shadow their toolbox.

Toolbox Foam
    The first step to shadowing your toolbox is to decide if it is practical for you.  In my own experience, this is a very critical step that is often ignored in a fever of "look at how cool that toolbox in the Snap-On catalog looks".  Simply put, looks are not the best reason to shadow your toolbox.  It is a good enough reason for some, but the real reason for shadowing is tool accountability.  I am an aircraft mechanic, and for obvious reasons, it is vitally important that we do not leave tools in the aircraft.  A secondary consideration is that many of the tools that I buy from the aforementioned Snap-On catalog are very expensive, and I do not want to lose any of them.  It also seems to help people to remember to return the tools that they so often "borrow" from my toolbox. Those are the upsides to shadowing.  You do give some things up with shadowing - flexibility and space.  It is a pain if you need to add or subtract from your tool collection (though I have ideas to help with that), and shadowing requires a lot more space and is less flexible than an open toolbox.  I do not have every pair of pliers I own in my box.  They simply will not fit in a single drawer of a normal size box.  Shadowing also requires either a small monetary commitment and a large time commitment, or a huge monetary commitment and a small time commitment.  I probably have about 20 hours in the four drawers that I have done, but it is worth it to me.  I believe that aviation maintenance lends itself most readily to shadowing because we have a relatively small, relatively stable tool collection.  Auto mechanics have many more specialty tools that they have to add to their collection, and that makes it difficult to keep things fitted.  I cannot really speak for other jobs (diesel mechanics, maintenance, etc.), but for home use I think that this is only worthwhile if you are really fastidious.  I personally have only shadowed the parts of my work toolbox that I am worried about losing something from because I am highly unlikely to misplace things like my sledge hammer and pry bar (yep, I have them and use them a surprising amount), and I am still adding some specialty tools to my collection.

  If you still believe that shadowing is for you, it is time to get down to business.  Shadowing a toolbox yourself is a very laborious process, but it is hundreds if not thousands of dollars cheaper than having it done for you.  If you are like me, you would rather spend that money on tools that you can use to make money.   If you are considering shadowing, keep in mind that it will only help you to find things if you keep your tools put away.  I always pile my tools on top of my box throughout the day, and then take ten minutes to put them all away at the end of the day.  I have found that this method allows me to keep tools handy and easily found.  Having a place for everything really helps things to get put back where they belong.
  There are a lot of retail options out there for foam, but most of them run $30+ a drawer.  Message boards and forums drew my attention to a Camping Pad that Wal-Mart sells for $7.47, and it should do at least two drawers for the bargain basement price of roughly $4 a drawer!

I promise that I am not a salesman for Ozark trail, but this stuff is strong, lightweight, durable, and best of all, cheap!  I have had my main drawers done for a year now, and this foam has held up beautifully (as my pictures will show)!  You aviation guys probably know this, and if you are careful enough to shadow you probably wipe down all your tools before you put them away, but make sure you wipe off any skydrol your tools might have.  I have not tested this foam to see how it responds, but something tells me that skydrol will eat it just like it does your skin.  Ditto for MEK and other strong solvents.  The one other downside of this foam is that it only comes in 20"X 72" sheets, so it is pretty likely that you will have to use two pieces in some drawers (mine are 27" deep).

That foam, combined with the black drawer liner that you likely already have, is all that you need to get started. 

 The first thing that you need to do after you purchase your foam and drag it home is unroll it and flatten it out.  This part is frustrating, and you can skip it, but it is kind of a pain if you do not give it at least a week or so to flatten.

After you get your foam flattened out, take the drawer liner out of the drawer you want to shadow and lay it on top of your foam pad.  Use a yardstick or some kind of a straight-edge as a guide and a SHARP utility blade, and cut the drawer shape out of the pad.

  The next step is to lay out your drawers how you would like them.  I put the tools where I wanted and used them from that location for a week or so, just to make sure that it would work for me.  Common sense should be your guide here, put your most commonly used tools in front (this is especially important for guys like me who have the 27" deep drawers), but not under the front lip either.  You will probably want to leave 1/2" around the outside of the tools and beside the edges of your drawers.  You can cut it closer, but it is difficult to keep the foam stuck down if you do.  This step forced me to consider what tools I need, and I took all of the tools that I had not used back home.  A lot of people have duplicates or triplicates that they do not need, or else their drawers look like this.

  It is also important to consider at this point whether or not you will need to leave room for future expansion.  It is very frustrating to have a drawer just how you would like it, and then find that you will need another tool that will require you to re-cut the whole drawer!  I cannot stress too much how important it is for you to take your time and think through this process!  

 One thing that has worked beautifully for me and saved me a ton of time was buying Mechanic's Time Saver Socket HoldersI simply cut around the base of the holders, and they look great and still allow me to see if I have sockets missing and also to take my complete set of sockets if I need to go out on the line.  My 3/8 drive deep well sockets are just barely able to stand up in the drawer, so make sure that you have the clearance you need!  I also had a Lock A Socket Rail, but it was too tall for the deep well sockets, so I use it for the shallow well sockets.  I have a cheap metal rail for my 3/8" universal set, and it works pretty well as well.

   One other note I wanted to share was that you need to be careful how you store spring loaded pliers if you choose to store them with the handle compressed.  If you do not leave enough foam to carry some strength, your handles may compress the slots for neighboring pliers when they are removed.  (Voice of experience speaking here).  
Locate all of the tools where you want them and then remove the foam and tools from the drawer and lay them out on a flat surface.  
Now that you have the drawer all laid out, you can begin to cut.  Here is the best way that I have found thus far:
Use needle nose vise grips to grab a the smallest exacto knife blade that you can find.  I prefer the vise grips because of their low profile and the ease of changing blades and blade angle.  OSHA required note, do not be dumb and cut yourself, and if you do, please do not sue me for telling you how to do this.  
Using the exacto knife and a slight sawing motion to cut the exact outline of the tool PART WAY through the foam.  The smaller the exacto knife blade you use, the more fine your corners will be.  I work my way through the drawer, removing each tool after I cut around it.  
After you have cut out all of the shapes in a drawer, go back through and bend the foam slightly to expose the cuts that you have already made,
and use a blade to finish out the cuts you have already made.  I like to make my cuts on a slight inward angle in order to firmly grip the tool in the foam.  This works especially well on rounded tools like screwdrivers and ratchet handles, etc.  

I would hold onto the shapes you have cut out for at least a little bit, because if you want to make a change, the piece you have cut out will fit perfectly back where it was cut from and you cannot even tell that it was removed.  I am holding onto my cutouts just in case I want to change things around.  You can also cut them in half and use them to make shallower slots for smaller tools. 

I also used a 13/16 socket to cut out finger grips around the handles of some of my smaller pliers.  

I did not cut all the way through the foam, I just cut the foam on an angle so that the black underneath the grips would not be exposed.  
Another way that you can make handgrips easily for screwdrivers or other big sets is to simply cut a long slot in the foam.  I filled my slot in the screwdriver drawer with the piece I cut out cut in half. 
 After you have finished all the cuts, all that is left to do is to secure your foam to the black drawer liner (I found some yellow foam for this drawer).  I used spray glue and double sided duct tape.  The tape did a much better job, and it is all you really need.  
Now all that is left is to load up all of your tools and get to work!  

If anybody has other ideas or tips, I would love to hear them.  I am always a student!  You can email me at or you can just post comments.


  1. I have been researching how to shadow my boxes for the last few months. Your tutorial is by far the best I have found, and your work looks spot on. Thank you for taking the time to share, I greatly appreciate it.

  2. Jared,
    Thanks for the post/tutorial. I just (yesterday) picked up a contract that REQUIRES all tools to be etched and shadowed. I have tried before, but your way makes the most sense! Thanks again for the "lessons learned" tips!

  3. Great Tips I have a number of customers that would like to see this I am going to send them your way we also have foam kinda like this check it out when you have time.

  4. Dear Jared,
    Thanks for telling about how you solved this. I just finished aircraft maintenance school and in my spare time I help some guys (in Holland) to restore an F-104 to semi-new appearance. Due to the voluntary nature of this work the organisation won't buy a pre-designed tool box (can hardly blame them for it) and I made a custom made "drawer" out of Al.alloy sheet left-overs. Shadowing was a problem I was fighting severly with. Thanks a lot, realy :)

  5. Jared,
    I am a structures/ composite mechanic with my A&P, I strongly recommend you try a pin router in a dremel tool to cut out your foam. I am required to shadow my tools everywhere I go, and everywhere my tool need changes. So I have a lot of experience, unfortunately. Mark the outlines of your tools with a sharpie and cut on the inside of the lines, then when done use Isopropyl Alcohol to remove the marker. This method is quick efficient and is the same way several of the tool control companies (that you pay a premium) shadow tools. I can shadow my 40 in roll cab with 21 drawers and 1500-2000 tools in about a day and a half. Etching and inventory take longer than the shadowing. I hope this helps.

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  7. Jared, great information. We used something similar in my shop, Army Aviation Suppot Facility, Helena, MT. It was black and pretty expensive. We found that for some, but not all tools that heating them worked very well. A small pizza oven, or a heat gun worked great. After the tool is good and hot, just lay it wher you want it and it will melt its way in. This will not work with pliers with plastic cover handles. I was afraid to try it with a screwdriver. I'm pretty sure the snap on man would not have warrentied it.

  8. Hot knives work good for cutting foam as well. Wire shelving cut in half does a decent job of holding pliers big wrenches on edge if u have drawers deep enough

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  10. Cheap source of foam yoga mats and anti fatigue mats just bought a package of 10 2ftx2ft anti fatigue mats at a local dollar store for 18.99

  11. I do a lot of this and the marking with a sharpie first and then cutting is quicker and more effective

  12. Dear Sir/Madam,

    My name is Umar Khalid. I am currently studying my final year in the University of South Wales and I have chosen ‘Investigate Tool Control’ for my dissertation, in the aircraft industry. Therefore, I was wondering if you could provide me with some information for my research by give or sending me information on your tool box prices.

    it would be much appreciated if you could provide me with some cost information

    I look forward to hear from you soon.
    my email is:

    Umar Khalid

  13. Harbor Freight anti fatigue mat. Cheap.

  14. im setting up an aircraft wheel shop,this is 1 of the requirements. your post really helped. thanks

  15. The foam can be had much cheaper:!2966!3!56542798197!!!!!&ef_id=WIFrCAAABJ4M5dYc:20171020223241:s&kwid=productads-adid^56542798197-device^c-plaid^102361529877-sku^4NLN7-adType^PLA

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.