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Sorting and Storing

I remember when my entire LEGO collection could be sorted into a single Akro Mils suitcase. (I also remember the days before that when I had to dig through piles looking for pieces as I built, but I prefer not to think about that.) The suitcase was great because I could bring my entire collection into any room in the house to work on a robot. In those days, I only built robots. I could always find a piece if I had it, because it would always be in the suitcase or already in use.

It was the empty bins that were the real problem. So my collection grew in order to keep the bins from going dry. But as I bought new sets to add parts I also added diversity to my collection, and I needed more bins. So I added more suitcases. But now I had a new level of organization/chaos to deal with, because now I had to find the right suitcase in order to find the right bin to get the right part. I then realized how much I relied on visual scanning instead of memory to locate the correct bin. Not hard when the bins are all laid out right there in front of you, but very hard when you have to shift through a pile of suitcases just to scan all the bins.

At about this time, my hobby had gotten serious enough that I commandeered our kitchen table to use as a building surface. This was the perfect excuse to invest in a couple stacks of Akro Mils drawer units. These particular units worked out very well for storing LEGO. The drawers are just wide enough to hold an 8-stud long piece of LEGO, and the distribution of drawer sizes and the inclusion of drawer separator tabs makes them ideal for the uneven volume requirements of storing a "useful" number of each piece. I was able to designate one cabinet for each major color of brick, with a consistent drawer layout for each color to make it easy to immediately retrieve any common brick or plate in any color. I had other cabinets to hold Technic beams, plates, pins, and gears, and others to hold "miscellaneous" or decorative parts. Large items like wheels were moved into tubs beneath the table.

Once I got to the point where I had any type of brick within arm's reach, I found that I became much less distracted and frustrated during a building bender. I don't scratch my pieces digging to find a piece, and I don't make so much noise when I stay up late to finish a project. I also find it easier to develop alternative mechanisms because I have already gone through the exercise of categorizing the pieces available to me and laying them out in a way that enables me to browse them while I think of how to construct something.

Over time, I have added more and more drawer units. Surprisingly, the organization of those drawers hasn't changed all that much. I still have one drawer unit per color, just more colors. And I have more bins assigned to store "miscellaneous" parts, although most of the added bins hold overflow of basic brick. I would like to add a few more of these bins, but they appear to have gone out of production. But my arms are only so long anyway, so the overflow that doesn't fit into the drawers I already have can be stored in buckets and bins for those less-frequent occasions when I really need 10,000 red 1x2's.

It is very important when using any type of drawer unit to make sure you can see what is in each drawer from a distance. I often place a bright-colored piece in the front, or even adjust the orientation of the front piece to make it easier to recognize from a distance. Also, be careful when using the dividers that the pieces you store in the back of a drawer are somehow associated with what you see when you look at the front of the drawer or you might lose pieces into your own sorting system!

After a trip to a local used office furniture outlet, the kitchen table has been returned to its rightful place in the kitchen. I got a couple of 3'x6' steel tables that are arranged in an L. These are deep enough that I don't miss the table space taken up by the drawer units. And the light surface is nice for building and photographing models upon.

I find that time organizing my LEGO collection is time well spent. It helps me not only to know where to find a piece when I need it, but it also reinforces my knowledge of what pieces I have and how they relate to one another. Some people tell me that sorting LEGO inhibits their creativity. They enjoy the random discovery of one piece while searching for another. There is much to be said for this. I achieve this effect through the use of project trays which hold a random mish-mash of pieces that I dump together either intentionlly or otherwise. I usually build any new project over such a tray to catch the crumbs, and I seed the tray with parts that I think might be useful to the project before I start.

I have that same experience of random discovery, accidentally finding a very useful piece, when I am searching through a few cabinets of "miscellaneous" pieces. In fact, I find this process of random discovery is enhanced because I have already filtered out all of the commonplace pieces, and I am looking only at the unusual pieces that might not immediately come to mind on their own.

You know what they say about a neat desk. Although not having a neat desk is not proof of not having a sick mind, I present a final few pictures that show the state that my building area often gets into after a building frenzy like that leading up to a train show. The project trays are usually stacked three or four high, and the spillage and chaos would make your skin crawl. Chaos is my middle name, so it doesn't really bother me until the next time I need to get at something in one of those lower drawers.

Speaking of which, I've got some sorting to do...

See my building area on BrickShelf

See my bucket rack on BrickShelf

Back to the Workshop

A man in a suitcase.
Pick a box, any box.
Honey, have you seen the kitchen table?
Real furniture and more bins.
Consistent drawer layout.
A rack for buckets.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Christopher Phillips. All Rights Reserved.
LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies, which does not sponsor, authorize, or endorse this site.