Lego mess

Lego Organization on a Budget

Toys
Lego mess
Ok, find me a red 1x2x2 roof tile with lattice. Photo: Michael Harrison

I try hard not to be all Lord Business when it comes to the kids’ Lego bricks. But this past week, my son came to me with a big problem. He wanted to put together some of his old sets, and the pieces had all been reabsorbed by the hive mind: they’d been dumped into the giant plastic tub we keep all his bricks in.

So here he stood, instruction booklet for 60059 Logging Truck in hand, a hangdog look on his face. “I can’t find the pieces, dad.”

“Son,” I said. “I think it’s time that we had a talk about organizing your Legos.”

We tried this a few years ago, and it was an unmitigated disaster. He was too young, didn’t care enough, and after a few months, everything was cluttered and out of order again. And I’m not 100% convinced he’s ready now. But we’re going to give it a try, and we’re going to do it on the cheap.

The Gear

I happen to have a couple of Plano tackle organizers lying around, so we grabbed two of them for sorting.

Then I grabbed a stack of red Solo cups and a bunch of Ziploc bags. And my trusty brick separator.

We were really doing this. God help us.

Remove the Big, Weird Stuff First

A lot of the newer sets have a lot of specialized equipment. Go through your box and take this stuff out. The big stuff obstructs your view, and the weird stuff is just a pain to sort. I threw a lot of this stuff into large Ziploc bags. If you’re feeling obsessive, make a bag for themed stuff. “Car Parts” and “Spaceship Parts,” for instance. But always remember your goal: to make set building easier down the road.

Color by Color

Think about what it’ll be like to sit down with a set of instructions and your newly organized Lego collection. When you see a piece that you need, how would you like to find it? Colors are one of the most visible identifiers for Lego pieces, so that’s where we started our efforts in earnest. And that’s where the Solo cups came into play.

Any standard bricks and plates bigger than 1×1 and 1×2 went into the cups. Anything smaller went into one of the plastic Plano organizers. More on that later.

Resist the urge to grab other stuff as you’re sorting. Pick a color and stick with it until you can’t find any more pieces. Otherwise, you’ll be dancing all around, finding the right bin or bag or cup for that minifig accessory. Don’t do this.

I’m going to level with you, folks. This is boring work. Put on some music or an audiobook. Sing. Tell bad jokes. Do whatever you can to keep everyone entertained, because otherwise, you will give up.

Storage or… Not?

What do you do with the pieces once you’ve sorted them? Well, you can buy Sterilite organizers or fancy kid-friendly drawer sets. Folks love the IKEA Trofast system. You could even buy a heavy duty toolbox. But I’m going cheap here, so I’m planning on using… well, nothing, really.

My method of choice is the Evil Mad Scientist method. This is basically a way to stack similar bricks and plates together so that they’re both easy to find and easy to pull apart.

Does it take longer than just throwing everything into modular bins? Oh my God, yes. Is it just a teensy bit insane? No. It’s absolutely bat-crap-bananas. But it’s the only method that lets you build Lego structures while also organizing. That’s pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

Sort out a few colors, and by then you’ve probably cleared out enough space in the box to move on to something a little more fun.

Minifigures Are Maxi-Fun

Sorting minifigs is a blast. Save this particular job for when you need it the most. Show off each find and reminisce over the fun sets you’ve built in the past and the weird scenes you’ve done while playing with these guys.

Their accessories are just as much fun. I’m not separating the two. My rule is if it’s a minifigure (or a head, arm, torso, etc.) or if it can fit in a minifig hand, it goes in the bag. Again, down the road, when I’m looking for a specific piece, it’ll be enough for me to know that all related minifig stuff is in one place. But feel free to go more granular if you have a lot to sort.

The Bottom of the Barrel

By this point, you’re probably sifting through dog hair and sand and the occasional Lego. Take one final look through your box and see if there’s any other way you can group the remainders, and then… you’re done. Put the rest into a Ziploc, label it “Miscellaneous,” and go pour yourself a drink. You’ve earned it.

Maintenance

I’m not deluding myself. My son is eight. He’s not going to keep this system up for long. So I’m setting myself a reminder to sit down from time to time and help him reorganize. Good habits are hard won, but Lego is forever. These bricks are an investment, and, if he’s anything like me, he’ll be building stuff decades from now. Teaching him to take care of his investments is a pretty good lesson.

Now go soak your hands in some Epsom salts. Once your fingers stop hurting and you’ve scrubbed the dust and dirt away, it’s time to create something amazing together. Build it with instructions, or build it with your imagination. You’ve got all your Lego pieces to draw from, and now you know where everything is. Nothing’s in your way!

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20 thoughts on “Lego Organization on a Budget

  1. Awesome. Done the same thing at our house years ago. got racks full of bins, sorted by color. Worht every second when trying to built the classic sets!

  2. My son (7 at the time) came up with this idea, as he periodically likes to go back and rebuild different sets. It has worked pretty well for him. And, since it is his idea, he does the maintenance himself!

  3. Also, don’t forget to always go to http://service.lego.com/en-us/buildinginstructions/ and download the digital PDF instructions for your kits — kids tends to lose the instructions, and this is a way to keep them all in Dropbox or on a tablet (as I do — they take very little space). For USA, grab the V39 version of the instructions for 8.5 x 11 — European A4 versions are the V29 documents.

    1. We took ours and sliced through the pages with a razor and then inserted them into clear plastic sheets and keep them in 3.5″ notebooks on a shelf for future reference.

  4. I sorted by color with my first tub of Legos. Since then our Lego collection has exploded as over-zealous grandparents, friends and family, and even complete strangers have discovered how much my kids love Legos. Now I have one and a half tubs sorted. And 8.5 tubs in the Queue.

    We did not organize by size or clip pieces together, and this is something I regret as it is quite difficult now to get back into them and pull out the small pieces. We ended up buying one of these: http://indesignartsandcrafts.com/2012/11/kids-toy-storage/ which is just enough space for 1.5 tubs of color sorted Legos. My only regret about this is that the color bins don’t quite match all the colors we have put into them. And the kids point this out to me frequently.

    Separating the mini-figs from the accessories became necessary (in our case) because our collection is so large (we also have a separate collection of droids, robots and animals in their own bin). This ended up being quite fortunate because 9 times out of 10 when we have guests with kids over all they need are these two bins and they will literally play with just that for an hour or two.

    We just moved into a house, and the next step is taking over the entire family room for a dedicated Lego room, now that the wife has agreed….

  5. I could say something about the plural of Lego being Lego, but that would’t be very productive!
    We’ve done a very similar thing, except we don’t go for colour as the first sort. The trays we have have lots of separate sections for all of the small pieces so we organise by type of brick – ‘wedges’, 1x1s, barrels/cones, jumpers, switchers what we refer to as ‘clippy bits’.
    Once they’re sorted like that it’s easy to spot one of the right colour, as opposed to still hunting for the smaller bricks in amongst all the 2x2s and 2x4s.
    Ice cream tubs are great for eco-friendly storage of the bigger bits – we have them for tiles, wheels, windows, roof slopes, plates and so on.

    1. Technically, the plural is “Lego bricks” or “Lego pieces”. But the fact of the matter is that a large majority of people refer to the as “Legos” and therefore, to make it easier for those people to find this article, I used both.

      Yes, I did SEO. Yes, I feel a little dirty. 🙂

    2. For a more experienced builder, this approach is definitely the way to go. I remember sorting by color when I was little but then I would inevitably be digging around a bag full of gray bricks trying to find a little gray clip piece or something. Sorting by color goes faster, but sorting by type let’s you find pieces faster when you need them.

  6. Thank you for the article– this is a discussion that has been ongoing at our house since the holidays. However, I question if sorting by color first really makes sense.

    As you said, it’s easy to filter out by color. When I’m building, though, lets say that I need a 3 x 1 flat that is yellow. Is it easier to pull the yellow cup and look for a 3 x 1 flat –or– to pull a cup of 3 x 1 flat bricks, then quickly scan for a yellow one (and if I don’t have one, shucks, I can use another color.) I guess you could have a cup for each size of each color, but holy moley that would be alot of cups.

    I can’t necessarily say there is a correct answer– it is certainly up to the user, and it surfaces in our house in other ways too. When we work jigsaw puzzles, my wife and I work in two different ways– I sort by shape, she sorts by color. I argue that my way (just as with the lego) is better, as I can work the puzzle without seeing the image at all. She argues that I waste my time trying to fit a purple piece into an orange area, just because the shape is right.

    For the record, I grew up with a footlocker of ALL of the lego. No sorting involved. Lots of digging to the bottom to get that little 1×1– and there is no way to quietly do that.

  7. Great article, thanks for sharing! We’ve gone through multiple iterations of sorting and it took us several tries before we finally figured out what works best in our house. First we sort by color and THEN by size. We use a Trofast storage unit (the bench like ones) to house the Lego. We have an entire tray of 2×4 bricks but divide as we can. For instance, we’ve divided a tray into 2×2 bricks, 2×3 bricks, etc. As the pieces get smaller, we divide them into clear plastic boxes from the dollar store. The boxes have lids which is nice so they can be stacked. For the really small pieces we use Plano boxes (3600 ProLatch). It takes awhile to sort but is so worth it!

    We did try the Evil Mad Scientist approach but found it to be too evil for our taste. Our son found it to be frustrating when we had to separate the pieces to build what we wanted. Not to mention the added wear and tear on your fingers.

    In the end, the best way to sort Lego is whatever works for your family. Happy Building everyone!

  8. Growing up I sorted things by color in old slide boxes of my dad’s. Black and grey together, red and yellow together, and blue, white, and what little green existed at the time (mostly trees) in a third. Now I use bead boxes from craft stores for the small parts and similar sorting by color for larger parts. (I found they can be a bit cheaper than the Plano boxes especially with the frequent 40% coupons and craft storage sales). I debating some finer sorting in the near future though to facilitate building.

    Great article I enjoyed it. Other sorting thoughts can be found on the Brothers-Brick http://www.brothers-brick.com/2014/12/22/ask-a-lemur-sorting-joining-a-lug-the-founding-of-the-blog/, along with a link to this great article on lugnet http://news.lugnet.com/storage/?n=707.

    On the subject of digitized instruction http://www.peeron.com/ is your friend, they have quite a few instruction sets.

  9. I’ve the organization discussion with my son. He prefers the chaos of big tubs full of Lego pieces. The only thing we pull into a separate bin are the minifigures and their accessories.

    He typically builds a model once, then shatters for uses in other ways. So he has little need to find pieces of a certain size or color. he builds with what he digs up in the bin.

  10. I use a fish lure box for small especially unusual pieces and sorted everything else by size and type in yogurt containers that sit open in the drawers of a spare dresser that is closed between playtimes.

  11. don’t sort by color, you can search for that when you need it.
    sort by shape (and size):

    round
    rectangular [array of length, width, height (plate|brick)]
    triangular -> left, right, top, bottom
    oddball -> architecture, engines etc.
    minifigs

    or don’t sort and throw everything on a sheet and then gather up when done.

    1. That should be Tommy — not Timmy. The Original BrickEngraver. But seriously, keep loose as over time really do fatigue and lose clutch or ability to stick together.

  12. We sorted our Lego pieces before it became a disaster. We had already kept all the Star Wars pieces in their own storage box; we decided to sort them out kit by kit in gallon sized zipper bags with their instructions in the bag. The bags then went into a plastic storage container.

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