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Much like the organization inside a house, the storage and shelving inside a garage says a lot about the owner. Labeling can suggest certain personality traits, tool brands might indicate manufacturer loyalty (or lack thereof), and storage containers can detail the types of food products the family buys — at least, in the garage I grew up with it does. 

The loaded garage at my parents’ house has a few large red toolboxes, much like anyone else’s garage, but one short side of the two-car building is completely taken up by large, open metal shelving. It’s been this way my entire life, and the items on the shelves have largely remained the same in exactly the same spots. The middle right is reserved for gardening gear, the lower tier keeps spare wood, chocks, conduit, and old jacks, the top level is where the car-care products live, and the middle left side stores a Costco amount of Mobil 1 oil and spare oil filters for my dad’s cars.

Metal peanut tins work just as well as coffee cans. – Image: Greg Markovich

Dispersed throughout the rest of the space are numerous food and drink containers that have turned into storage containers. Some are clear plastic bins from bulk-sized Kraft parmesan cheese, some are old cans from Planters dry-roasted peanuts, and some are just open-topped plastic drinking cups. But by far the most common reused container in the garage is the humble metal coffee can. 

That there are coffee cans in that garage make no sense. Neither of my parents has ever consumed coffee on any sort of regular schedule. Before I began drinking the black stuff, the only reason it was ever in their house was for the three holidays a year when my extended family visited us. Yet, there’s a can with assorted nuts, a can with a variety of bolts, a can with old deck screws, and on and on and on. The whole crew — Folgers, Hills Bros., and Maxwell House — has been there for as long as I can remember. When I inquired about their origins, my dad simply texted back, “Work.”

It’s a trick I know my father picked up from my grandfather, Paul. His garage used to look the same, littered with all sorts of makeshift containers with tape and Sharpie labels that really only made sense at the time they were written. They housed things like the parts off the neighbor’s curb-garbage lawnmower. Free bolts! 

It’s a pack-rat mentality, but not quite hoarder level. Many items have ended up sitting exactly where they were left years ago, but there are also dozens of items that have been put to use. When old machines, tools, or vehicles break down, the right part is not always immediately available, and that’s when the candy-store shelves of random bits and pieces come in handy. Nothing was ever broken in that household, it was just in need of fixing, and the accumulated treasures were great options to have available in the comfort of the home garage.

A metal coffee can is a perfect item for long-lasting storage, or sometimes paint mixing, too. They’re sturdy and durable, the large mouth makes them versatile for oddly shaped things, and they’re compact enough to stack or store wherever necessary. The bright blues, reds, yellows, and greens that made up the graphics stood out in the garage and added vibrance to the sea of dull concrete, metal, and wood.

Plastic coffee containers have become the norm in most grocery stores. – Image: Greg Markovich

It’s a reduce, reuse, and recycle success story, even if the organizational method is less than organized, and it perfectly aligns with the ideals of a resourceful gearhead. Not all old things are trash; some have value beyond their original intent and are worth saving. When you don’t have, don’t want to buy, or can’t afford polished and specially manufactured storage containers from Lowe’s or a Magnolia Home collection, you use what you have, just like a mechanic working with tools and parts available in the garage.

Today, it’s not as easy to find metal coffee cans at your local grocery store. Most have switched over to lighter, cheaper, more eco-friendly materials like cardboard or plastic. The metal cans still exist, like those from Café du Monde, French Market, Café Rico, and Chase & Sanborn, but most of those hold only 10-12 ounces, unlike the big 32-ounce cans. Though not designed in the same style, one of the coolest metal coffee cans you can buy right now is from Illy, but it only holds 8.8 ounces, so it’d be better for things like old cotter pins and split-lock washers.

Just like the items they’ve been storing for so many years, these metal coffee cans could soon become a thing of the past. So, if you have a stash of old Folgers cans, think twice before tossing them into the recycling bin. We suggest holding onto them. You never know when you’ll need one. 

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