Sorting, organizing, and storing your LEGO – the second hobby [Essay]

As I started building my second major creation (more on the first later), it became quite obvious to me that I was paying the price for over 10 years of nonexistent or half-ass sorting. It was almost impossible to build because I couldn’t find anything. So I got sucked into covering my entire living room with 25 years of accumulated LEGO in an effort to make some sense of it. Hopefully the lessons I learned from my mistakes and the help I got from my friends can help some of you who are struggling through the same process or paralyzed by the mere prospect (that was me for 10 years).

Model Shop BinsTo begin with, there is no single perfect way to organize a LEGO collection that will satisfy everyone. The closest thing is a receptacle for every element in every color ever made. But even The LEGO Group can’t have all the elements in all the colors up at any single time (thus a common [silly] complaint about Pick A Brick). There’s no point setting an impossible standard for yourself. And if you’re anything like me in the early stages of hobbying, you probably don’t have enough pieces to justify hyper-organization. (Photo at right, LEGOLAND Model Shop bins, courtesy of Tim Inman)

Broadly, the two most common ways to sort are either by color (yellow, gray, pink, etc) or by type of element (wheel, tile, brick, plate, etc.). Josh has also reviewed the Box4Blox, a device that allows you to dump unsorted elements in a box and then sift them down by size, after which you can sort those sizes into appropriate colors or types.

I’ve found sorting by type and size works best for me. It’s easier for me to spot the blue 2×4 plate among the other 2 x n plates, rather than finding the 2×4 plate among the other blue pieces. If taken to it’s crazy logical conclusion, both systems will result in sorting everything by color and element, but in the interim, I find sorting by type easier to both do and use for building.

That brings us to one of the other truths about sorting and organizing your collection: It will depend on your personality, patience and what you like to build. Sorting isn’t a must either, some people don’t do it. They just break down sets and keep them separated in boxes or baggies, then use Peeron or other resources to find the pieces they want, then dig out the set and find the piece they want. Some of the best builders out there have such huge collections that it’s out of control.

Sorting UnderwayDuring the actual sorting, I used 16-quart tubs to sort into plates, bricks, Technic, slopes, minifigs/accessories, vehicle parts, vehicle elements, and large building elements. As a tub filled up, I split it further, for example separating my 1 x n bricks from my 2 x n bricks. I also bought a couple 39-drawer hardware units to put all the smaller elements into. Lots of people use craft trays, drawers or they recycle yogurt/margarine containers.

Once you’re going for a fairly permanent home for your bricks, here are four broad characteristics of a good permanent containment system:

  1. Transparent. Clear containers are my choice, but others use labels or double-sided tape to stick an example element on the outside of the container. It’s just nice being able to look at a container and know what’s inside.
  2. Diverse, but compatible. Lots of drawers or boxes of various sizes. Hundreds of a small element will only take a tiny drawer, while a few dozen big pieces can take up a pretty large space. It helps if the types of containers you use are in some way compatible with each other. (Below, Alyse and Remi’s building table is a good example)
  3. Stackable. Use vertical space well by having boxes, drawers and/or shelves that stack on top of each other, or by just using tall units with lots of drawers.
  4. Expandable. As a collection grows, it’s good to have a system that you can just buy more of the same containers to expand. It’s also important to start a containment system that will be around for a while, so during a later round of expansion you’ll actually be able to find more of the same.

Bolt of Blue Desk

If you want to strive toward even greater perfection, here are a few specific things that I and others have found pretty helpful:

  • Hardware drawers that have anywhere from 6 to 40 small and medium sized drawers for holding bolts, screws and nails are ideal for smaller elements and specialty pieces.
  • Fishing tackle or craft boxes with lots of little dividers are also pretty handy. Be careful with any container that has removable dividers, if flimsy, they just result in everything spilling together when bumped.
  • Rubbermaid, Sterilite, Plano and other companies make a variety of stackable plastic boxes and 3-drawer systems that are exceptionally versatile.
  • Especially for sorting and building, drawers/boxes/bins with rounded bottoms and corners make it easier to scoop pieces out.
  • In a pinch, zip-loc bags, recycled margarine containers and the more solid LEGO boxes are great for both sorting and sub-diving within other bins.

Stacked BruceywanOddly enough, I find contrast is quite helpful, both in shape and color. For example, I keep my black and white 1×1 square plates together, I can see with my own eyes easily enough which is black or white, that way I can keep those elements that I have in huge quantities together. (Photo at right, Bruce Lowell does something similar). My 1×4 tiles and 2×2 tiles are also together; I’m not going to get them mixed up very easily and I really only have enough tile to justify 3 small containers. For me, the point is to be able to find something, not have a perfectly orderly universe.

Right now I don’t have enough of most of my large specialty elements to justify separate containers for them. Though I’m not 100% satisfied with the results, I’ve dumped them in boxes by general categories, such as architectural, vehicular, printed, tires, big ugly rock pieces, maritime, etc. Which brings me to one of the most important things: It’s an ongoing process. As needs, interests, patience and size of collection change, you’ll modify the system. Because of that, flexibility is good. Finding one or two compatible containment systems will help you adapt as time goes on and make sorting easier down the road.

Fortunately or unfortunately, because of BrickCon I now have a huge cardboard box packed full of unsorted LEGO, which has set me back a bit. My wife and I are also still in the process of the complicated marriage negotiation of where/how to make room for my LEGO amongst her Barbie, pottery, sewing and scrapbook collections. Thus my stuff is stacked in the living room:

My LEGO as is

23 comments on “Sorting, organizing, and storing your LEGO – the second hobby [Essay]

  1. Fred

    I don’t build any more.. I sort and sort.
    Everything is stuck in a long deep closet -not enough space to pull it all out.

    Recently I have been attempting to resort by shuffling drawers into sets of color rather than shape. I think that way I can pull out color X and Y for a theme along with a few other drawer sets with various random parts. It’s a painful process that hasn’t allowed me to build in years. My ultimate goal is to get a larger house so I can dedicate a room to the obsession.
    In the meantime sets come out with parts or parts in a new color.. so I buy more, open the bags and dump them into a to-be-sorted bin. never feels like I’ll get ahead

  2. Creative Anarchy

    I sort of saw where things were going early on as I came out of my dark ages and I started sorting early. I also figured out pretty quickly that there could be no pattern to my buying or sorting system so drawers were right out. I went stackable rubbermaid boxes. I orginally got a few deeper plasticn tubs which turned out to be horrible because it’s hard to dig through bricks to find what you want. I ended up using them for colors that I do a lot of detail stuff with like Brown and Tan where I have elements that I use frequently that I want to separate from general population. I just put the types of bricks I use all the time in those cute Pic A Brick containers that keep stacking up around my house and toss them in the tub. I got a garment roller, the big plastics with the wheels that slide under your bed for storing dresses or that tuxedo you wear every dozen years, it’s pretty awesome. I dump new sets into it and sort from there as time allows, big, shallow and fits under furniture. I also sort a mix of colors and types. If I’m looking for a red brick I don’t want to have to dig through a rainbow of other pieces but as my collection of each color grows it just gets easier to not have to search through 3lbs of wheels or windows to find a brick. So I box a lot of Legos by type as well. This has worked out well for me. If I’m building a vehicle and getting out the wheels I’ve got them all in one place so I can try out different types without searching the Bottomless Black Bucket or if I’m putting windows in a house I can try out different looks without having to dig through different bins.

    I find that the sorting helps me create too. If I’m not feeling motivated to work on a project I’ll grab a PaB cup and start sorting out my bin. I’ll find a cool element and fool around with it randomly and think of a cool way to represent something and either move forward with one project or start another.

  3. Church

    Yeah, that’s basically how I do it(by type of piece, not color) I really need to invest in some more containers. All of my small special elements are in one big drawer, or they’re scattered on the the table. Great essay, I think I can use a lot of that advise.

  4. Brad

    Hey Fred: I don’t know your exact situation (how much room you have, how much LEGO you own), but I can say this: you can get ahead! I recently finished sorting. It took me years! During this time, I was constantly buying new sets and adding them to a large rubbermaid bin. I kept trying to sort, but I’d either lose patience or get fed up with the system I was trying. I finally solved the puzzle through planning and through prep. Now, I have a system that works for me, and I’ve even built stuff! That is, stuff for which LEGO didn’t provide instructions!

    This is my advice, based on how I did it:

    1) Work out your sorting system in advance. I had to be willing to throw out my old system. That hurt, but it had to be done.

    Now, go shopping!

    2) Cheap and stackable plastic food containers are great for sorting. If you have a dollar store nearby, they might have some for REALLY cheap. I don’t, so I used the cheapest brand at my local grocery.

    3) Shop around for containers you like, then buy them when they are on sale. What kind and how many will depend on what you already have and how you plan on sorting. I also have lots of spare zip lock type bags.

    (optional) 4) If you need space, consider getting a shelving unit to give you more vertical room.

    5) Find a tv series you like, then get to sorting. I made it through two or three seasons of the X-Files before I finished.

    If you start broad (all plates together, all slopes together, etc.), you can give yourself easy stopping points and sort smaller and smaller every time you sort again. So, if you sort all of your plates together, you can sort ONLY plates for the next step, and then sort those out how you’d like.

    Of course, I don’t know how well all this advice will work for you. Maybe you don’t have time – maybe you have family obligations. But it can be done! Plan it ahead of time, have plenty of sorting materials (boxes, containers, bags, etc), and give yourself ‘steps’ – stuff you can do in an evening or a day*. Good luck!

    *For example, all of my technic stuff is in five stacked bins, none of it sorted. But if I ever want to sort it down, I’ll have a much easier time than I would have had if the technic was mixed with all my other pieces.

  5. Brad

    Here is the ‘tl;dr’ version or thesis statement version of my advice:

    Plan it out. Buy supplies. Sort out general, then more specific. Set accomplish-able goals (i.e., sort the plates into 1xn, 2xn, and 4xn) that can be done in a small window of time. This helps keep your home clean, too!

    The goal is to move your LEGO from a giant bin into smaller, manageable chunks. It doesn’t have to be completely discrete, as long as you can find what you want. And you’ll be able to sort it down further as you need.

  6. gambort

    For elements I only have a few of I tend to sort by ‘use’. Thus the 1×1 taps and pneumatic T-s are together, all bar type pieces are together, random greebling parts are together etc. That has the added advantage of encouraging you to get a bit creative as you might spot a better ‘greeble piece’ than the one you intended to use.

  7. Fred

    thanks brad.. I actually do have a sorting system. i have 30 of the ARKO-MILS 24/48/64 drawer systems, dozens and dozens of shoe box plastic boxes and much much more. It’s all hanging in a long deep closet on peg board. It’s great, makes sense, and is always growing. If I took a WILD guess there’s 1000 pounds or more in there.

    Trouble is I can’t take it out, the current system is by part type so I would have 5 of those draws and bins, etc with just the plates alone.

    Closet is too narrow to build in.

    So I’m attempting to re-sort by color so I can bring some out at a time to work with. It’s not going well…
    Time for a bigger house with a build room!

  8. Brad

    I see what you mean! My advice isn’t particularly helpful for your situation. I remember reading about ‘deep storage’ – keeping certain amounts of things you have a lot of stored away until you need them, but I don’t have any experience in LEGO at that quantity.

    Either way – good luck! I remember my elation when I solved my sorting problem, so I hope the same for you.

  9. Ochre Jelly

    Ah, I think I see your problem Than: You’ve got way too much Lego!

    Try thinning it down to just 2×2 plates, then bag these by color, and you should be good to go!

  10. Nolnet

    Quote Thanel: “For me, the point is to be able to find something, not have a perfectly orderly universe.”
    IMHO, this is pretty much the single most important pice of advice there is about sorting. Let’s face it: Most of AFOLs are men, slightly on the geeky side. They like things “logical”. But if you really want to find stuff, efficiently quickly, you often have to leave logic behind and sort by accessability :-)

    I went through about four different sorting methods after my dark ages and have now settled on a system with various types of brick discriminability. By part, part groups, theme, colour, colour groups, size, old (pre-dark age, dull) or new (shiny), and so on. All depending on the quantity of a part and the box size.
    Nobody else would be able to sort stuff into it properly, but it works perfectly for me.

  11. Herman

    I’ve been sorting by type, but haven’t set any clear rules about what part belongs where. As you may know every now and then you bump into a part you just don’t know where to put.

    There are two of us using the system, and it’s difficult to set rules.

    I’m now planning on making a part inventory straight from Lego Digital Designer and print it out. Label my boxes and drawers. I don’t have transparent drawers so finding a piece usually involves opening a few of them.

    But it’s working and when building I can find parts pretty fast. No major projects yet, though.

  12. Tristan C

    Something important– there is a thing such as sorting too much. I’ve fallen into this trap: every type has its own lot in a tackle box, and now I’m beginning to sort by color too. Sometimes, you just have to stop and live with a little mess.

    Also, I only recommend tackle boxes if you either have a lot of floor space or some pretty decent shelving. Or if you like picking up a thousand plus pounds of LEGO when you want to use the room for something else.

  13. legosoap

    >>My wife and I are also still in the process of the complicated marriage negotiation of where/how to make room for my LEGO amongst her Barbie, pottery, sewing and scrapbook collections.

    but but but…. which came first – the AFOL or the wife? I’m an AFOL but have no wife… am i doomed for singularity? meh

    Great collection and ideas though. My bricks are all in colour order… but i am now thinking that maybe, in these long cold dark english winter nights, that i might re-sort them all.

  14. Remi

    If you choose a drawer system, I *strongly* recommend the drawers have some kind of stop on their back, so they can’t just slide right out. It’s really handy to be able to open a drawer all the way and leave it open like that. And without a stop, I guarantee that once a week, you’ll end up with at least one drawer on the floor, upside down.

  15. notenoughbricks

    Aahhhh, the ever present discussion about sorting. As Thanel stated, there are many ways to sort but it is up to you how you want to organize your LEGO collection.

    When I fisrt realized that my LEGO was growing beyond the primitive sorting system I was using I googled LEGO sorting methods. This article by Remy Evard at Lugnet cracked me up and helped lighten the mood when it came to what felt like an impossible task.

    For the last 2 years or so I have followed the following sorting system:

    I have storage drawers/towers that are filled with bricks.

    Each drawer(s) has only 1 color in it. For example I have 2 drawers full of yellow. The top drawer contains the smaller parts such as plates, odds like plates with clips, rounds, tiles, etc.) The bottom yellow drawer contains the larger parts like 1x and 2x bricks.

    Inside each drawer are gallon ziploc bags that contain 1 family of parts (1xn plates which are bagged separately in snack or sandwich size bags).

    This has served me well over the last 2 years or so. Here is a pic of my storage units:

    This article on can also help you decide which method to use:

    Thanel, this topic is a great way for us to share our sorting dilemmas and solutions. Great article.

  16. Catsy

    One other suggestion: backlighting. I picked up some LED strip lighting and put it on the wall behind my shelving, and it’s probably one of the best decisions I made. Even during the day it makes it so much easier to see what’s in the containers and drawers, especially those little tiny hardware drawers that tend to be very dark when closed.

    Also, in general I can’t overemphasize the importance of sorting by shape first, then color. While there are limited circumstances where breaking things out by color makes sense–when you have few parts in a single unusual color, for instance, or when you use a lot of a particular color for a theme–the fact is that the human brain identifies color much more quickly than shape, making it much quicker to visually pick a particular color out of a bin of like shapes than vice-versa.

  17. Jake of All Trades

    I was brought up with an opposition to sorting LEGO (amongst other things). Digging through nearly-overflowing Rubbermaid bins in search of particular parts has always been part of the fun for me. Frustrating, sometimes, but ultimately rewarding. Not only is there a soothing, sort of zen quality to paddling through a sea of bricks, but I also find it to aid in creativity. It might be a negative comment on my LEGO skills, but I often inadvertently find pieces during my digs that work much better than the ones I set out looking for.

  18. DocRod

    I started collecting LEGO again about a year ago and have seen my collection bloom to about 50,000 pieces, including my ancient classic space stuff from when i was a kid (the first time :)).

    When I started buying new sets, I was worried about the pieces scratching each other in storage, so I was storing the bricks stuck together and inside ziplock bags so they couldn’t easily scratch each other.

    Then I read a few articles about the “grip strength” or “clutch power” decreasing over time with bricks stored in this manner, so I pulled them all apart again (I believe that this will happen and is due to stress relaxation in the plastic).

    I now keep parts loose in containers (mostly tackle boxes and small plastic containers) or in zip-lock bags in plastic containers. Storing parts loose in big containers is going to cause lots of scratches and general dulling of the parts, generally undesirable unless you are into apocalego :).

    Has anybody here experienced a loss of grip from LEGO stored connected for a long time?

  19. Dave

    Great article Thanel and I think you have really hit the nail on the head with the statement:

    “That brings us to one of the other truths about sorting and organizing your collection: It will depend on your personality, patience and what you like to build.”

    This is absolutely the truth and I think a lot of it depends on how you build. Gambort had a great idea of sorting by ‘usefulness’ which I would have never thought to do. But I really like his idea of adapting your sorting method to your building style. A very interesting concept.

    I think sorting also becomes more of an issue the larger your collection becomes and the larger the MOC’s you build get. Sorting for me serves two major functions. First, it gives me a more manageable way to find the piece I need amongst our 350,000 elements. Second, it offers me a way to gauge a ‘re-order’ point on various pieces. Every so often I go through our drawers, buckets, etc. and make a list of what pieces/colors we are low on for when I place Bricklink orders. If our stuff wasn’t sorted, I would have no way to know I am low on 2×2 Light Grey Tiles again. :-)

    It seems everyone has offered some good ideas for sorting containers, but you might consider custom made systems that use common parts. I built a custom wood rack for the smaller Plano totes that I think is wicked handy and then incorporated it into Stacy’s LEGO workbench. You can check out pictures here:

    It would be easy to adapt something similar to other sorting bins or to make it a wall mounted unit. You might also consider some of the cool IKEA storage solutions. They have so much I don’t even know where to begin, but there are a lot of useful solutions there as well.

  20. danbowles

    I started sorting only recently – I’m currently going by color and will later go by a hybrid of color/type.

    There is the part of me that wants to go back in time and scare 10-year-old-me into sorting early – and resisting the urge to deposit parts of action figures Tyco (shudder) bricks, and a myriad of other non-Lego stuff into the massive bins I used as a child.

    I’m currently using gallon storage bags as I really have no idea how much storage I’ll need until I get through a few phases of sorting. Here’s hoping I get to start building before I am an old man.

    Great post – thanks for the info :D

  21. legofesto

    Great topic, it sounds like there are a lot of well sorted collections out there. I favour notenoughbricks style of sort by colour then type, using big sweet jars, tubs and ziplocks for bigger pieces/collections, mini drawers for minifig parts, and tackle boxes/boxes-in-boxes ordered by usefulness. My entire collection has been hidden away in the attic for ages while building work goes on, mainly sorted but with some giant bins of unsorted stuff.

    But that’s about to change. I’m so, unbelievably excited to have the plasterers coming in to start the refit of new workspace…. oh the joy, the pure joy at thinking about how to order all the LEGO and art materials etc. Long working tables, tonnes of shelfspace. Oooh, can’t wait.

    Thanks for the links lads. Food for thought as the collection is ordered for ease of use.

    And Legosoap, there are some female AFOLs out there, with a geek thing for ordering bricks; don’t give up hope :)

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