How To: Mark your tools for easy identification


Steve Hoefer (a fantastic maker who I interviewed on the Make: Talk podcast earlier this week) has come up with a great way to clearly mark his tools so they don't get lost when he brings them to a hackerspace.

I also work at community workshops quite a bit, and while they often have a lot of tools around I sometimes like to bring my own. (Especially drill bits which seem to always be dull and in exactly the wrong size.) It’s best if my tools don’t mix with theirs.

And finally, tools add up to be a pretty bing investment, they sometimes like to get themselves stolen. It’s good to mark them in a way that might prevent that or aid in their recovery if they are. So, some identifying marks are in order. There are really two different things going on here, immediate identification, to separate your tools from others, and post-theft ID, to identify the tools as your own.

Steve Hoefer shows how to mark your tools for easy identification


  1. Lobstermen, at least those in Maine where I grew up, paint their buoys with a distinctive pattern of their own to make it clear which is theirs. They also stick one on their boat at the end of a pole, so any passers-by can see that they are indeed hauling their traps. My point is, you’ll want to get a tattoo that matches your ‘tool tag’ so nobody thinks you’re a thief.

  2. Trowels are a very personal piece of archaeological equipment, so we tend to come up with personalizations for those, as well.  I was very lucky to get a rather limited-run blue-handled Marshalltown (yes, I’m American), and I’ve only ever run into one other person with the same trowel, making it easy to keep mine separate.  

    1. I’m a geologist and all geology students buy a rock hammer (so even geologists who don’t use them in their work end up having one around the house). The one you want – and which everyone eventually buys, even if they buy a cheaper one first – is a blue rubber-grip one from Estwing.

      I bought one used on ebay that looked like it had been sitting in a shed rusting for years (it’s just discolored, not actually severely rusted) with a beat-up looking handle. Not only does it look way cooler than anyone else’s, but it’s unmistakable from all of the shiny ones.

  3. I remember my dad using an engraver to put his social security number on tools. This was >30 years ago, and he was way more worried about getting stolen tools back than someone using an SSN for no good. You’ve come a long way, identity theft.

  4. I do the same thing with electrical tape and audio cables, as “the long black one with the XLR ends” tends not to narrow down which ones are mine.

  5. This has been standard practice for grips/techs working in the movie industry, theaters, etc. for well over 40-50 years to ID their tools, clamps, cables, etc. 

  6. If you keep a lanyard strung with all the various colors of electrical tape on your toolbag (I favor the Veto Pro Pac XXL-F personally) you can instantly modify your pattern if somebody else shows up with the same one.

    I use pink tape a lot, because none of the other guys do, and I don’t run into a lot of women using serious tools so it’s not hard to tell which pink ones are mine.

    And I get a ton of pink tape for free, because the local research lab always has way too much.  Most of their techs are men, and they never use the pink roll from the multi-color pack, so it accumulates.

  7. The Toolmakers at Ford Motor have been doing this from at least the 1950’s. Dad’s were all yellow his best friend Joe’s were orange, so mine are red.

  8. The best way to keep your tools if you’re not leaving the house is to lock them up when you have anybody doing work there.  The contractor will wander off with your sledgehammer and the gardener can’t resist a new stepladder.  I’ve lost all my tools to professionals.

    1. Dude, I can’t afford a gardener;  I can’t even afford a plumber, electrician, or a carpenter…  I’ve got all these tools to pay for, you know!

      And, um, seven ladders.  But they are all different, it’s not like you can get by with only five ladders.

      1. The gardener was just for removing a full-sized tree. The rest of them: cheaper than a month in the hospital when I injure myself.

    2. Interestingly enough I had *no* tools go wandering during the first 7-8 months of housebuilding where it was all wide open. So far as I know, none of the subs had anything disappear either – oh, wait, a roofer thought he might have lost a pair of sheet bending grips. At one point I’d guess there might have been $15K or so of tools sitting around.

      Of course, this is a site in the middle of a rainforest on a Pacific island, so a touch different to, say, urban NYC.

  9. Heck, my first thought on seeing this image was “where the heck can I get my own VLC-branded tool set?!”

    My personal tools? Pink polka dots (spray paint and a stencil). Never get stolen *and* they make me smile.

  10. I always used those fat elementary school pencils for carpentry.  Pretty much no one will steal your Dora the Explorer and Hannah Montana pencils.

    I also engrave the cheaper stuff.  It may show up somewhere & help track down the rest of the stuff they took.

  11. Wonderful suggestions!  Gotta paint polkadots on my orchard ladders.
    Rather than an ID number, I engrave tools with my name and city, sometimes also my phone number and ham call sign.  Not that it’s ever helped; these engraved items remain lost: 2 bicycles, Simpson 260 voltmeter, Gerstner 7-drawer toolbox, Weller soldering gun, Rollicord camera, Eico FM tuner, pair of AR speakers, baby blue ADM-3A computer terminal, Xcelite screwdriver set, and a beloved homebuilt 6″ telescope.  Lost also, along the way, was my innocence, though that was harder to engrave.

    1. There are security systems that use microdots in clear super-glue. There are usually several hundred dots on the brush every time you dab it to something and as the super-glue is UV reactive the police know to use a magnifying lens to check the number on the dots. The number is then checked against a record and then the items returned to the rightful owner.  Systems like this are offered by several companies, but SmartWater is the biggest commercial brand. is a guide, but ignore any comments made by Professor Martin Gill because he has no idea about security in the real world.

  12. An electrician friend of mine sprays his tool with hot pink spray paint. The other electricians (all male) don’t want his pink tools.

    1. So many comments talk about men not wanting pink tools, this is crazy…especially since it’s women who often get mocked for paying attention to the colour of a piece of equipment when it’s irrelevant to its usefulness. D:

  13. Climbers have been marking their gear with individual tape patterns for ages.  Only way to figure out at the end of a climb who’s biners are who’s.

  14. I bolt uranium slugs to all my tools and equipment, so if someone walks off with it, I can just pull out my Geiger counter and follow the clickities!

  15. i’m all for IDing your tools, although if I may address a larger issue here, I wish we could skip the post-hippie bullshit terms like “hackerspace.” it’s OK to just call it a workshop, or a garage, or your backyard, and I promise you the shit you do there doesn’t get any cooler if you call your work area something new-agey. Cutting the lid off a can and using it as a pencil holder isn’t “hacking” it, it’s just “using a can to hold pencils.”

  16. I want some kind of tag where I can press a button and my tools will return, plus whoever is holding them.

    As a side note, considering that you all seem to paint your tools pink, you’d think this would lead to some confusion, no?

  17. I have always marked my tools, as my father has before me. 
    When all your tools are distinctly marked the same way, even strangers who recognized the pattern will be helping you to keep them together. 
    Most tools get lost in confusion, not so much from outright theft. 

    Also, there is a general rule:
    Don’t let anyone borrow your tools!!  One does not lend tools! 

    Of course, like many rules this one is meant to be broken. 
    Just let them know how special they are to hold your tool. 
    That greatly increases their return rate. 

  18. Biohazard tape for me, which means what while I was wrenching in bicycle shops, the occasionaly Precious Thing actually came back to me instead of disappearing into toolspace. 

    My Dad dunked the handles of his tools in a pot of particularly vile apple-green house paint. 

    And IIRC there’s “thisa belonga Ulf” graffiti on museum pieces.  :)

  19. The folks who run tech for most of the sci-fi conventions on the east coast have an official list of colored electrical tape stripes to mark their equipment (mostly cables, since those are some of the toughest things to tell apart). That way you can tell who a cable belongs to, and pick a unique code if you want to start bringing your own stuff.

  20. I know at cooking school we were told to do this on the first day to our tools. (Electrical tape was recommended) I believe only three people in my class bothered, but given how many things walked into other people’s kits, by accident or on purpose, I found it very valuable.

    More than once I spotted someone with a spoon or knife or whisk of mine from across the kitchen.  Most of the time it was innocent borrowing, but more than once I had to pointedly take them back, even with the markings. And someone took one of the few things I hadn’t marked and I couldn’t convince a teacher it wasn’t theirs (the largest fine mesh strainer of a nested set I had).

    In my case I used blue and white, someone else used yellow. The third person used rainbows on all her handles. It was well worth the investment in tape and time to replace it over the two years. In the real world outside of school I also found I occasionally needed this, in one job I had couple sous-chefs who had a bad habit of just taking people’s stuff and locking it into their own kits.

  21. My Father was a machinist his entire life, and I’ve inherited all his tools…every single tool has his name engraved on it.  Not an ID number, not fancy paint schemes, his full name (only abbreviated if space did not permit).

    He told me my whole life that if he died, don’t tell them at his work he was dead until AFTER I went and fetched all his tools from his crib.  “Get the tools first”.  Luckily he’s still alive and retired, and I’ve bought my own milling machine and lathe which he can use whenever he wants.

  22. Surgical instruments are usually marked with sterilizable tape to keep the sets together and make it easy for the nurses to reassemble the kits for sterilization. Sometimes instrumentation sets are loaned from one OR to another, or for example a trauma team has to go to another specialtie’s OR to solve a problem. Having separately marked sets only has advantages.

  23. “You want to repair a bicycle. Before you start, smear your hands with red paint. Then every tool you need to use will end up with red marks on it. When you’re done, just remember that red means ‘good for fixing bicycles’. Next time you need to fix a bicycle, you can save time by taking out all the red-marked tools in advance.”

    “If you use different colors for different jobs, some tools will end up marked with several colors. That is, each agent can become attached to many different K-lines. Later, when there’s a job to do, just activate the proper K-line for that kind of job, and all the tools used in the past for similar jobs will automatically become available”

    Marvin Minsky, discussing how memory works.

  24. If you were at Burning Man 1999 and took my 5 lb. mallet with the welded letters CPS, I want it back, please.

Comments are closed.