OYLC Part IV: STORING Your Lego Collection

Welcome to Part IV of OYLC (Organizing Your Lego Collection). Links to other sections can be found at the end of this post.

This section may be long, but there's plenty of material to cover. This is the Big One. The one that causes the most trouble of them all. That's because no matter how well you sort and subdivide, your collection will still take up space, and the eternal question remains: Where do I put it?

Well, ultimately it's up to you. Every individual person will have different needs and desires. Devoted MOC builders may break everything into finely divided high-rises of compartmentalized trays, while parents of young builders might pull everything into a single box of "organized chaos." (P.S. don't do that; I'll explain why later).

The fact of the matter is that you need to envision what you want your collection to look like, and work from there. Those who like to keep sets built will need display space, those who don't care about sets don't need to sort them all out, and so on. The bottom line, however, is that it needs to be organized. I found some interesting points from a conversation with former designer Megan Rothrock, whose philosophy is identical to mine.
I’ve found that highly creative children will find sorting to be especially painful because they can look at a single brick as having so much potential. Categorizing them is like prematurely deciding that brick’s future and kids hate that. I told Megan Rothrock, former designer at the LEGO Group and author of the LEGO Adventure Book 1 and Book 2 about this problem and she shared this piece of advice: She usually asks the children about the size of their collection, and kids then describe the size of the large bins that contain their mixed pieces. She then asks them if they know what they could build out of it. “They all say no,” Rothrock said. Next, she asks them to picture what it could be like to pull out certain colors and the kids change their tune about the possibilities. “They say, ‘oh yeah, because I got these blue slopes, and these red ones’.” Rothrock says that once the kids start thinking about color, they’ll take off.

The original post is here if you're interested.
What I'm leading up to, however, is that it is possible to maintain a creative building environment without letting everything wind up in a single mass of jumbled pieces. My system allows me to keep all my sets sorted, stored and out of the way, while also allowing me to pull any pieces I need in order to build my latest creation. It's the best of both worlds.

So say you have a set. It's complete now, but you don't know exactly how to pack it away or where to put it. Unless you plan to keep it on display (I rotate a few through now and then), you'll need to store it, and the best way to do that is to dismantle it. From there, it all depends on the set--let's get started!

 In the last decade or so, I've arrived at the conclusion that the plastic bag is basically the king of all storage devices. It's cheap, dependable, easily replaceable if necessary and it takes up virtually zero space when empty. Moreover, they come in many different sizes, so you can find one to suit your needs on a set-by-set basis. I keep most smaller sets in a single bag, with the name of the set written on it in permanent marker. This isn't so much for finding the set, but for putting it away when you're done with it; if you take out multiple sets at a time, labels make it much easier to put the right set back in the right bag.

While they can wear out over time, the plastic bag has numerous advantages. They're light, easy to find and most importantly flexible. You can put bagged sets into any large container you want to (such as a big box or cabinet) and they will mold to the surrounding border, allowing you to greatly maximize your space. You probably won't be able to fit the instructions in with a bagged set, but we'll solve that problem soon, so hang tight.

Boxes are great. They come in all different shapes and sizes, plastic and cardboard, and they generally stack really well in cabinets or closets, thanks to their rectangular shape.
Boxes work very well for mid-range to large sets that you wish to store as a single section (or divided, but more on that later). Here are two sets that I keep in individual boxes, namely the Mistlands Tower (8823) and Republic Fighter Tank (7679).

Boxes are wonderful because they are easy to label, store and transport. The downside, however, is that they are usually only easy to find in sizes similar to shoeboxes or larger (unless we're talking about Tupperware or Rubbermaid, in which case all bets are off). An added benefit of boxes is that you can often fit the instruction books inside them with the bricks, making a convenient package deal. Boxes by themselves normally work best for medium-sized sets, but they work miracles when combined with further subdivision, as I will discuss next.

This is the ultimate storage strategy. I'm not kidding. It has all the space-saving qualities of a bag, plus the versatility, durability and stackability of a box.
Most large sets (and even small ones, nowadays), come subdivided into multiple sections (which I refer to as bags for convenience; sorry if it's confusing, but I think it's convenient) for greater building speed. The smaller the chunks the set is broken into, the smaller the pool of pieces is and the faster you build.
The point is, you can break the set back into these sections as you dismantle it, and bag each one individually. Then, find a box of the right size to fit all of the bags, and Voila! It's clean, compartmentalized and self-contained. You can't go wrong. Below is the Ewok Village (10236), just one of many sets I store with this method.

This one is by far my favorite, because it can be adapted to multiple sizes of set. Most sets above around $80 (USD) fit great in shoeboxes, but what if your set breaks down into multiple sections and isn't big enough to fit well in a box? Well, no worries--a variation of this strategy is the Bag-In-Bag approach, where you simply put the small bags inside a bigger bag, such as a gallon or bread bag (the kind with the wire twist-ties). You still get virtually all of the benefits of Bag-In-Box, but with the added ability to further group the set in a larger container, as you will see next.

Perhaps you have a lot of sets that are small enough for a single bag or Bag-In-Bag, but they all belong to the same theme, like Star Wars, City, or something else? You probably want to keep them close to each other! Never fear, you can put all of those grouped sets into a single, large box, just like the Bag-In-Box approach, but bumped up to a higher scale. I do this with my Mars Mission sets because I have most of them (ten or eleven sets), as well as other large themes like Star Wars and Bionicle. (I actually have five large boxes devoted to Bionicle--I was a fan).

This system has plenty of benefits. First of all, you can keep similar and related sets together, so you can get them out at the same time without hunting them down individually. Second of all, they all stay separate and complete while in storage, so they don't become jumbled as long as you remember to dismantle them when you're done. Lastly, large boxes offer the option to keep all the instructions for the theme within the box, which is a major plus.

Instructions are important for building the set and keeping tabs on all the pieces that should be in it, which is useful when borrowing pieces to build a MOC. However, some of the containment methods I use, such as bags, mean that the container for the set is actually smaller than the instruction book, so it has to be kept separately. For storing instructions, magazine racks work just fine. They're cheap and easy to find, and sometimes they can stack on top of one another. Here are some of mine:

In the future, I plan to upgrade to a subdivided bookcase system, to keep instructions for themes separate. Until then, magazine racks get the job done.

It's true, some sets don't lend themselves well to being stored as a single, combined unit, especially sets that don't even have instructions. Platforms like Mindstorms are designed to foster creation, and the easiest way to use them effectively is to know where all your pieces are at all times. Enter the Tacklebox.

Tackleboxes are great for fishing gear, but awesome for organizing different types of Technic pieces. There are plenty of compartments of customizable size, and the whole thing closes down to a single container--with a handle to carry it with! I keep both my NXT 2.0 and my EV3 in identical boxes, labeled to tell them apart. The boxes cost about $10 each.

Contrary to my normal color-based part sorting strategy, Technic pieces within a Mindstorms set need to be organized by type first, then size. Disregard color this time; you'll be happier in the end. As you can see above, I have made plenty of tiny labels for the tacklebox trays, making distinctions between types, shapes and sizes of beams, axles, gears and so forth. You can break it down however you like, but this works the best for me.

You can use whatever you want, really. You might have compartmentalized storage cases (which I use for extremely small sets), or you may find some type of container I haven't even thought of. Anything that will fit the set is fair game. I've even used frosting tubs before. It doesn't matter. Just break it down so it makes sense to you.

Now that your sets are packed and ready to go, you need to put them somewhere. The beauty of Theme Grouping is that similar sets are combined into large boxes, which are easy to stack in a corner, against a wall, in a closet or wherever you think is a good spot. Smaller containers such as boxes for individual sets or bins full of individually bagged, unrelated sets are most effectively stored in cabinets, such as the ones pictured below.

Cabinets allow you to further organize bags and boxes in a way that makes sense (mine are kind of messy still, but it's a work in progress). In the end, everything should have a home in a tidy, out-of-the-way place where you can keep track of it, and you can pull out any set or piece when you want it.

That isn't the end, though. There's much more to learn in order to truly master your collection, and it will be forthcoming in other parts of the series.
Until then, Good luck and Happy Building!

Part I: Sorting Bricks
Part II: Sorting Sets
Part III: Sorting More Sets (Special Cases)

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