It takes all sorts of sorts: LEGO organization and me, Chris Doyle [Feature]

Continuing our series on LEGO organization and sorting, contributor Chris Doyle invites you on a tour of his workspace and processes.

So, let’s start by putting things into context. One of my most vivid childhood memories is lying on a thick shag carpet, watching Battlestar Galactica, and being super frustrated that the clone brand LEGO that my parents had bought for me didn’t have the fine detail I needed to build Colonial Vipers. I remember swearing to myself that if I made it to adulthood, I would buy enough LEGO to fill a room. So, eventually, I did.

Workspace (better lighting)

But a collection like this comes at a cost. And I don’t mean just that official LEGO product is on the expensive side. It eats up space, and time, and quite a few additional purchases just to keep things organized. So, in a vain attempt to justify this non-trivial investment, let me show you around and share my sorting process. C’mon. It’ll be fun!

Workspace tour

First off, let’s walk through the layout. The majority of the space is dedicated to metal food-service style shelving I found at Target. I picked them mainly due to weight capacity — each shelf is rated for three hundred pounds, necessary when you plan to load them up with (plastic) brick. The majority of those parts are stored in clear shoe boxes, subdivided by ziplock baggies. Like a grocery store, I stock the good stuff at eye level, and the more esoteric stuff on the top shelf.

Sorting strategy

I also have a set of four screw-organizer style tackle boxes hanging on the wall. I use these for high-use parts that I don’t have a ton of. About half are Technic elements, since finding just the right one had always been a chore for me.

Tackle boxes

Beyond that, there’s my worktable (an old kitchen table we’d long since replaced), bunch of LED light kits, and the shameful overflow part closet. And a downstairs closet filled with all my unopened sets and tubs full of unsorted brick that I’m slowly working my way through.

So let’s talk about how I do that.

My sorting process

I dedicate at least a few hours to sorting LEGO every week. Some weeks are more successful than others. But normally I spend my Saturday mornings elbow deep in random brick. My process is pretty streamlined at this point. The random bins of brick refill a giant tub in my workspace. Then I rough-sort that brick a gallon or so at a time into four groups: Brick, plate, Technic, and “other.” Each group gets sifted into a set of plastic drawers leftover from an earlier LEGO storage layout.

Workspace photos - April 2020

Once a drawer is full, I do a “fine sort” on the parts. I have a bunch of smaller trays that I’ll use to further sub-divide things. Eventually, I’ll have things sorted down to the same granularity that matches what I have in the shoeboxes. All too often, I’ll find that I’ve filled a shoebox or tacklebox drawer to capacity, then I’ll have to divide it up into new boxes or groups. Depending on the volume of a part I have the groups can be as broad as “Misc Car Parts” and as fine as “2×4 Blue Brick”. I have a couple of bins grouped only by color: Transparent Purple, Chrome elements, and Gold elements.

Organizing for my building style

As I mentioned earlier, I try and keep the parts I use most often at eye-level. I also find that once part storage has hit the shape-and-color level, I get annoyed. More often than not, I just need one or two of a part, so I have a shelf dedicated to the fine art of “unsorted yet sorted” parts. These boxes are also really handy when moving from rough-to-fine sort. I can just postpone doing the really fine splits until my “unsorted” box starts overflowing. You can see that I’m going to have to spend some time fine-sorting my 1×4 brick soon, for example.

Workspace photos - April 2020

I also try and group things. For example, my plate is set up in rows of steadily increasing size (1×1 to 16×16), with brick in similar sizes on the shelf below it. But even when things are organized well, it’s still a challenge to find parts sometimes.

Sorting Tricks and Hacks

To make things easier, I’ve found a few tricks that make locating parts easier. The first is pretty obvious: Label everything. I use a cheap label maker to put a text description on the outside of all of my shoe boxes. I put the same text on both short sides of each box, so I don’t have to pay attention to orientation when I’m putting things back on a shelf. It also helps if you can get clear shoeboxes. Being able to see what’s inside without a lot of digging is super helpful.

Tacklebox drawers are harder to see into, though. Particularly when the parts are cast in dark plastic and like to hide at the back of the drawer. My solution? A glue gun and 1×2 plates. Hot glue a plate to the front of each drawer and stick one of the parts onto it. If a given part doesn’t quite fit, grab a modified 1×2 plate (or whatever) and try again. The nicest part is when things need to shift around it’s super easy to change the display part.

Tackle box sorting hack

I said clear boxes were a must, but what to do with those opaque LEGO storage bins? They’re still useful. I use them to store my instructions and catalogs. Not only does this help keep them flat, but it also protects them from sun damage.

Workspace photos - April 2020

Do you have a favorite sorting hack? Tell me about it. I’m always looking for ways to upgrade things!

Oh, and in all fairness, I should mention that while my parents never bought me LEGO, they did buy me just about every Micronauts toy ever made. They’re generous and loving people. I should probably have just asked them for LEGO. Live and learn.

15 comments on “It takes all sorts of sorts: LEGO organization and me, Chris Doyle [Feature]

  1. Mr Arm

    This is a fantastic article! I’ve been stalking your blog every day for probably two years and it seems your influence has come through more than I thought. We have recently organized our small (small as hell compared to yours) collection in pretty much the same way; right down to the same-brick-but-different-colors-until-overflow part. We do (will do again after this distancing thing) comedy nights and I set our little station up so the comedians can build things when they are waiting to go on. Haven’t tried it yet because of said distancing, but I am assuming it will be a lot of penises.

    Without further jawing, I want to thank you for the many hours your writing and construct searching you have given me. You do good work, and I mean that in many senses.

    If you ever visit Pittsburgh, PA please look us up: Trundle Manor, Pittsburgh’s leading tourist trap and wonder museum.

  2. Michael Wolf

    Your sort game is much more developed than mine. I have 2-3 huge tubs where I dump my stuff and I have three different sizes of vinyl tubs and as the collection expands types of bricks just gradually move into larger and larger tubs until they have to be split into a different category.

  3. jonhall18

    Most of my Lego is just sorted by colour – and that’s it! (although I have about a third of the amount of Lego you have!). I do also have 5 flat DIY organiser cases with removable trays for smaller, rarer and harder to find pieces though. Perhaps this is surprising, but I like coming across pieces I wasn’t looking for as it sometimes gives me ideas…

  4. Mad physicist

    Perhaps you have a vastly larger parts stash than I do, but sorting for a few hours every week? Wow! I sort for a few hours every month; most of that goes into squaring away unused parts after completing a build.

  5. Jon

    What tackle boxes for the smaller drawers do you use? And GLUE LEGO!? Never. Sticky tack from elementary school works just as well and you aren’t sacrificing precious pieces – of course I own a fraction of your inventory, can’t imagine a whole shoe box of hinges!

  6. chiprhoters

    Since I inherited a friend’s sizable collection, I have been reintroduced to the joys and pains of sorting…

  7. Chris Doyle Post author

    @Mad physicist – It’s the result of several years of not having any LEGO space (small apartment after moving) so things piled up…and a tendency to just buy waaaaay too many parts. It’s a huge backlog. I probably have another 30 or so gallons to get through. Hopefully then I can just deal with it as it comes in…

    @Jon – I’m not sure of the the brand; I’ve had them for years. As I recall I picked them up at target. (These days I’d suggest hitting up a hardware store to see if there’s a size that looks good for your space options). On the hot glue front, I’ve found that it pops off both the brick and the drawer pretty easily, so no long-term harm done. (Although you do have to be a little careful when swapping out display elements)

    @Bricktales – I had no idea that post was still around!!! That’s one of my big inspirations, too. Thank you for linking to it!

  8. Kimberly

    I use large Ikea silverware trays as storage and sorting of specialty parts small window tray,large window tray, arches, fences , etc. I think the level of sorting will increase with the collections growth. Love seeing how others tackle this

  9. Ben

    Sounds like you’ve bought heaps of Lego that you have no immediate need for. I find that strange.

  10. Chris Doyle Post author

    @Kimberly – I hadn’t thought of silverware trays as long term storage before…thank you for sharing the idea! The latest DOTS sets come in some divided trays that are also great for storage/sorting…the rounded edges of the compartments makes getting those little pieces out a lot easier.

    @Ben – At some point I started buying discounted sets in bulk, with just a vague plan to “make something with this stuff” and things sort of cascaded from there. I try and justify it with “Well, I make very large MOCs” but…well, yeah, it sometimes feels a bit out of hand.
    Do you have strong opinions on the brand/style of ziplocks you use? I know I’m trying to get the kind with the “zipper closure thingies” over the pressure-close type these days. (Something else I never thought I’d have strong feelings about…)

  11. Eric Morneau

    Great post! I’m always fascinated by the sorting and organization of others. I usually see that size and space usually dictate everything. I don’t have dedicated space for a wall system, so I do the Ziplock bags (stored in totes,) as well. The kind with the zipper tab mechanism are the way to go for the large bags. I’ve had some of the pressure fit bags let go when moving totes around before resulting in huge spills.

    I have a ton of black, white, grays, blue, yellow and red, so those colors get separated and then sorted into smaller individual bags (plates, tiles, bricks, slopes etc. etc.) Colors where I only have a few hundred pieces or less all up together in a gallon sized bag. Commonly used parts like brackets, clips, rods, and Technic bricks, pins and connectors, or other specific parts all go in individual bags regardless of their color.

    The system works pretty well, but there is no quick access to some parts. It is a pain if you want to go back and build an official model as you have to weed out all of the needed parts.

  12. Chris Doyle Post author

    @eric – I wonder if anyone is on the “pressure-over-tab” side of the ziplock issue? (Cost maybe? Or just ease of finding them)

    And I hear you on the “rebuild a set” side of things. There’s something to be said for the set-archival method. On the other hand, if you’re trying to modify an official kit, it’s nice to be able to see if you have the parts on hand to swap out colors or something…

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