From buckets to bins: How to sort a lot of Lego
This article is the third in a series about buying and selling used LEGO.
In my previous article, I looked at strategies to get a good deal buying bulk unsorted Lego. Hopefully there are some complete sets buried in the buckets you bought, but before we can start sorting the bricks into their respective sets, we will need to sort them to see what we’ve got.
This article assumes that the bricks you purchased are largely unsorted and disassembled. Bricks that are snapped together should be disassembled during the sorting process, unless it looks like part of an official Lego model which you should set aside for now. (A kid’s half-assembled “MOC” or My Own Creation isn’t going to help you determine which sets you have.) I will go into the process of sorting bricks into specific sets in my next article.
Before you start sorting, take a few minutes to consider how your sorting goals. This will depend on your philosophy, the containers you will use to hold the sorted bricks, and the number of bricks you need to sort. For example, you might choose to sort a small collection of bricks by color alone, but you might want to sort a large collection so precisely that every different color of every different part has a separate container.
When I started sorting, I thought that I would sort by rough type and color. For example, put all the 2×2, 2×3, 2×4, 2×6 bricks of the same color in one bag. Once I started sorting the bricks into specific sets I realized that it is better to sort by brick type than color, since it is a lot easier to find a red 2×2 brick in a large container of 2×2’s than finding a 2×2 in a large container of miscellaneous red bricks.
An “Algorithm” is a computer science term for a repeatable process to solve a problem. In our case, the problem is sorting a ton of Lego, and we want an efficient system for getting it done. If you need to sort a lot of Lego, it will be impractical to sort everything into their final storage location in a single step. That’s why I chose a two-pass system which first quickly sorts the bricks by general part type, then I can sort them more precisely later.
- Chunks of partially assembled models. (They may help you determine what sets you have later.)
- Minifigures, Animals, and Minifig accessories (swords, guns, etc…)
- Anything with unique stickers or printing
- Technics pieces (Bars, Pins, gears, etc…)
- 1x Bricks (1×1, 1×2, 1×3, 1×4, 1×6, etc…)
- 2x Bricks (2×2, 2×3, 2×4, 2×6, etc…)
- Tall Bricks
- 1x Plates
- 2x Plates
- Large Plates
- Slope bricks
- Cheese Slopes (1×1) / Graters (1×2)
- Jumpers (1×2, 2×2)
- Tiles (1×1, 1×2, 1×4, 2×2, etc…)
- Bionicle pieces
- Other parts (Bars, BURP’s, etc…)
Since I purchased the bricks on Christmas vacation, I had lots of time to begin the sorting process away from home. (It was football season and I don’t care that much for the sport.) As such, I did a lot of my sorting into 1 gallon Ziploc bags which I could purchase inexpensively from the Grocery store. Large plastic bins would be easier if I had them available.
I found that the fastest way to sort was to grab a couple handfuls of bricks, spread them out on the floor. I then grabbed all the pieces that I could see of a given type, then moved on to the next type. I usually started with large common parts like the 2x and 1x bricks; this thinned the pile making it easier to find the smaller pieces that remained. (I didn’t worry too much about making sorting mistakes, since I would discover incorrectly sorted pieces in the second phase.)
When the initial sort was complete, I ended up with about 30 gallon-sized bags full of bricks. I had only a single small bag of Jumpers and Cheese, and but I had many one-gallon bags of 1×1 Bricks, 1×2 Bricks, Technics and Bionicle.
After completing the quick sort, I took one large bag at time and sorted the parts into smaller containers. In most cases I sorted each brick into a bag containing only a single part type, although uncommon parts would go into a bag of miscellaneous less common parts. (ex: “Other” clips.)
I don’t know about you, but I can easily distinguish a 1×2 from a 1×3 at a glance, whereas I need to count the studs to pick out a 1×12 from a 1×10. Technic axles are even worse! To make this precise sorting a lot easier, I designed and printed a Lego Ruler and sorting tool which I discussed in a previous article. I highly recommend using this to sort larger plates, bricks and Technics parts.
Sorting and Storage:
Even if your long-term goal is to sort the bricks back into the sets which they came from, you will need to temporarily store them in their sorted state. I looked into and tried several solutions, so you can pick the method which best meets your needs and budget.
- Ziploc Bags – You could sort everything into small Ziploc bags if you want. In my experience, a 60 pound collection will result in at least 200 bags containing all the parts of a given type. This is feasible if you have a large floor you can use. In my case, I made room in the center of the room to sit, and surrounded myself with 4 rows of individual bags of bricks on all sides. If you fold the lip of each bag over, the bag will sit up more easily and will stay open so you can see the contents from above.
- Hobby Boxes – Hobby shops sell plastic bins with a lid which fold over for sorting crafts. Most have removable dividers allowing you to adjust the size of each bin. This approach works okay, especially of you have sub-sorted each part by color, but it can be cumbersome if you need to find the one light-blue part in a tiny compartment since you can’t dump the container out without dumping all the parts out of their cubbies. I use this approach for my collection of White bricks for building Architectural models, but don’t recommend it for quickly finding and sorting bricks to recreate a large number of sets.
- Drawer Bins – Several companies sell storage units which consist of many removable plastic drawers. I found these to be ideal for this project, as you can see the contents of each drawer since they are clear, and they can be removed and dumped out to find a stubborn part of a specific color.
My storage system
As a picture speaks a thousand words, I wanted to show a few photos of my finished sorting and storage system.
As you can see, I am using five Akro-Mils plastic drawers. I have two units containing 64 small drawers which are perfect for fiddly bits like Technic pins, clips and hinges. I have three units with 24 large drawers which I use for Bricks and Plates, since they are more common parts. I also use them for Minifigures and other larger parts. I don’t have a great storage solution for big parts like wheels, large plates and BURPS, so for now I’m using a few large plastic drawers and some gallon Ziploc bags.
I have painstakingly labeled almost every drawer using a Brother PT-1230 label maker. It allows you to print labels from your computer on waterproof labels. I created the stickers quickly using images from Bricklink, but they have worked well for me so far.
I might share the files I used to print all the labels if that would be useful to people.
4/2/2014: I am pleased to share the files used to create these labels. You can find the link to download and print the labels in this article: Printable labels to sort your LEGO collection. I hope you find them useful!
I hope you found this article interesting. I’m very curious to hear the processes other use to sort a lot of Lego – do you do a two-pass sort also? Do you have a different way to store your sorted bricks?