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A Crazy LEGO Journey
Where LEGO is measured by the pound, and sets cost pennies on the dollar
There are some truly passionate LEGO people out there, with entire rooms of their homes dedicated to their craft and collection, and elaborate custom models that they enter into shows and competitions. My family isn’t quite there yet, but we’re not that far off, either. Our collection is vast, organized, categorized, and tracked in a database that lets us know where to find every set. And that’s separate from our huge collection of just-for-fun LEGO pieces that the kids use to build creatively, which is also sorted and organized. But most importantly, we’ve stumbled into a world where we get LEGO sets for free or cheap. And you can, too. Here’s how we got to this crazy place.
It all started simply enough.
For his seventh birthday, our oldest son Russell decided that he wanted a LEGO party. We liked that idea, thinking how fun it would be to have all his friends work on creative projects that they could take home with them at the end. That seemed like a much better party favor than the usual cheap plastic junk kids tend to come home with.
But buying enough LEGO sets for a party seemed prohibitively expensive. We had just a few small superhero sets at the time, which wouldn’t cut it. And when you buy a retail box of various LEGO pieces, you get mostly standard bricks. You don’t get any of the weird special pieces that come with sets like cockpits, windows, wheels, doors, gears, etc that can further fuel imaginative play. So we looked at other options.
We found a bulk LEGO rental service that lets you rent LEGO pieces by the pound for parties. But it wasn’t a local company, and with shipping it ended up being more expensive than we were willing to pay for a birthday party.
I began to wonder what people who build their own elaborate LEGO creations as hobbies do. Where do they get their LEGO pieces? Surely they don’t pay full price.
To find out, I went to Reddit’s /r/lego forum, where AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO) share their MOCs (My Own Creations). There are some amazing projects on display in that forum. I asked them where people get bulk LEGO pieces. They gave me some advice:
Check the local Craigslist. When kids outgrow LEGO, parents have no idea what to do with a huge pile of unsorted pieces and are often willing to get rid of what they have cheap.
Make sure I clean whatever I get. They had horror stories about finding a dead mouse, a needle, and old food among their bulk purchases.
The going rate for bulk unsorted LEGO pieces is around $10 per pound.
My neighborhood does have an active listserv with lots of families. So I posted a message: “Seeking bulk LEGO — can be unorganized, just need a lot of it.”
I was surprised to get multiple responses, but one in particular was the jackpot. A neighbor wanted $100 total for several large storage bins full of unsorted pieces his kids had outgrown. When I got it home, I put it all on a scale. It came to around 90 pounds of LEGO — a major score at just over a dollar per pound!
Along with a few other smaller collections people sold me, we had plenty of LEGO pieces for the party.
So I have 100 pounds of LEGO bricks. What now?
We started cleaning it. While we didn’t find any dead mice, there were some crusty, sticky pieces, and some odd things like fishing lures among the bricks. So we washed everything in batches in a big sink, and then spread the pieces all out on towels covering our living room floor to dry overnight. There were so many pieces, our living room wasn’t big enough to do it all at once. It took a few days to wash and dry it all.
In the process, we realized that some pieces were clearly from specific sets. There was a really big piece that could only be an airplane wing. There were Star Wars minifigures. And sometimes there were chunks of pieces from sets that weren’t completely dismantled.
We wondered: Would it be possible to figure out what sets were among all these pieces, and then actually put them together? What would that take?
So once again I turned to the good folks of /r/lego and got some valuable advice:
If you want to do this, you’re going to have to sort all your pieces.
Don’t make the rookie mistake of sorting by color. Sort by piece type. Imagine trying to find a red 1x3 brick in a bin of red bricks. It’s much easier to look in a bin of 1x3 bricks and find a red one.
When you find an unusual piece, go to the website Bricklink and enter the part number to find out what possible sets it could belong to. That will help you figure out what you have.
It turns out that if you look very closely at LEGO pieces, they have a tiny identifying number on them. For example, here’s an unusual piece that must have come in a set. Using my iPhone’s magnifier, I can easily read the part number on the back that’s just a few millimeters tall.
Searching on Bricklink, I see that part 55817 is called “Wheel Wagon Viking with 12 Holes” and it appears in 21 sets. But in this particular color, it only comes in one set: “Jedi Starfighter with Hyperdrive.” So I could assume the rest of that set was somewhere in the pile.
Another resource that was helpful at this stage was LEGO architect Tom Alphin’s article From Buckets to Bins: How to Sort a Lot of LEGO. Tom lays out his sorting philosophy and includes printable tools to help identify and sort pieces. Tom’s collection is far more organized than I imagined I could ever be, with individual drawers for every little kind of piece, meticulously labeled with illustrations and part numbers.
The prospect of finding sets in the pile was starting to sound possible if approached methodically.
Let the Sorting Begin
And so we started. Every night after the kids went to bed, my wife and I would put on a stand-up comedy special to listen to while we got to work sorting the LEGO pieces.
This photo is just a small portion of the progress:
The big pieces go quickly and deceive you into thinking you’ve made a lot of progress. Then the tiny pieces like wedges, studs, and pins take the longest.
As we sorted, we managed to identify more than 40 sets that were likely to be in the pile. For each set we thought we had, we looked up the number of pieces and going price on Amazon, to help us prioritize which ones were worth attempting reconstruction.
We converted almost every food storage container in our house into temporary LEGO storage bins. But eventually we finished sorting all the pieces.
We were ready to attempt our first reconstruction.
The large airplane wing piece was too big to fit in any of our sorting bins, so we decided we might as well try building the airplane. We identified it as “LEGO City Passenger Plane,” which has 401 pieces. We downloaded the part list and instructions from LEGO’s website and began going through our sorted LEGO pieces to gather the parts we’d need.
Before long, we were pretty sure we had a complete set. We gave the instructions and pieces to Russell so he could build it and we would know for sure if we missed anything.
And it worked! Our first reconstruction was a success!
But could we do it again? And could we do it with an even bigger set? We went through our list and settled on a 1,072 piece set, a ship called The Malevolence from one of the Star Wars movies. It’s a discontinued set that originally cost $120, and can now be found on Amazon for $400.
Of course, it took a bit longer to gather 1,072 parts and build the set. But when we were done, we had a ship worth more than we had spent so far on all these LEGO pieces.
We were starting to get the hang of this.
Wasn’t this supposed to be for a birthday party?
Oh, right! All these LEGO pieces were supposed to be for Russell’s birthday party, weren’t they? We hadn’t forgotten about that. The party was three weeks away. We knew that once we let kids take home their LEGO creations, the chances of us being able to reconstruct any more LEGO sets would be almost zero because we would be missing lots of pieces. So we had the party as a looming deadline.
We gave ourselves two weeks to assemble as many sets as we could after work and on weekends, and then whatever was left would be for the party.
In the end, we reconstructed these sets before we ran out of time:
Star Wars Clone Turbo Tank (1,141 pieces)
Star Wars The Malevolence (1,072 pieces)
LEGO Movie Super Secret Police Dropship (854 pieces)
Star Wars Armored Assault Tank (407 pieces)
LEGO City Passenger Plane (401 pieces)
Star Wars T-6 Jedi Shuttle (389 pieces)
Star Wars Z-95 Headhunter (372 pieces)
LEGO Space UFO Abduction (211 pieces)
LEGO Skeleton Prison Carriage (192 pieces)
Star Wars Imperial Dropshipt (81 pieces)
Empire State Building (77 pieces)
Based on current prices, we figured we assembled around $1,600 worth of LEGO sets from our $100 haul, and we could have kept going if we didn’t run out of time.
We had Russell assemble them all to make sure we weren’t missing pieces. In instances where we were missing a few, we completed the sets by ordering individual pieces a la carte through vendors who sell pieces through Bricklink’s marketplace.
Poor Russell. I think by the time his birthday rolled around, he was getting sick of LEGO.
The party itself was everything we hoped for. We put most of the bricks in bins in the center of the space we rented, sorted by type, of course:
And we made LEGO Challenge Sets the kids could choose from as project starters. These had no instructions, just a picture to inspire a creative direction, and included a bag of starter bricks with each challenge:
We had a Make-Your-Own-Minifigure station with bins for heads, feet, torsos, hair, and accessories.
The kids had a blast and loved that they got to take home their creations. The whole project was a success.
But it didn’t end there.
Before the party, this project had taken over our kitchen table and living room floor. After the party, we realized that we didn’t have enough room to store all the leftover sorted LEGO pieces. So we kept a small amount of pieces for creative play, but donated most of what was left to our kids’ school.
Then time passed.
Our younger son Toby got older.
Toby also loves LEGO, but not the same way Russell did. Toby prefers to build his own creations, and he has gotten pretty good. So when he makes his own LEGO model, he often puts it on a shelf to display. And then he has fewer pieces to build his next project with. His creative LEGO stock was running low.
We knew what we had to do.
We went back to the Listserv. Maybe someone else’s kids had outgrown LEGO and there was a new generation of bulk pieces to be had.
We lucked out again. A family had a huge collection of LEGO pieces to give away. It wasn’t quite as big a haul as our last score, but it was close.
Again, we spent weeks cleaning and sorting. This time, we were more selective about sets that we reconstructed because our main goal was just to get pieces for creative play. But we couldn’t resist putting a few together.
For the rest, we finally got ourselves a storage system. It’s not quite as elaborate as Tom Alphin’s with fancy labels, but the kids know where to find the pieces they need.
Now we even have sets we don’t have
With this much LEGO, you can make just about any set you want. Just download the instructions and put the set together. And if you’re missing a few pieces, you can order them individually for a few dollars. Or, if you don’t care about getting the colors exactly right, you can make junk yard versions of your dream sets.
For example, my wife really wanted to make an AT-AT Walker. We didn’t have the set. But we have lots of pieces! So she downloaded the instructions and, disregarding color, she made her own version of this 1,108-part set:
There are also websites like Rebrickable that let you enter the bricks you have and it will tell you what other things you can make.
Storage and Retrieval
Most of our complete sets are disassembled in ziplock bags that are labeled and stored in bins but easily accessible. Between the sets we’ve reconstructed, sets we’ve purchased, and sets the kids got as gifts, we have 114 sets. At some point, it becomes a bit unwieldy. How do we know what we have? If the kids want to build something specific, how do they find it?
There’s a fantastic website called BrickEconomy that lets you enter your LEGO sets and it will do some interesting analysis. It will tell you which ones have increased in value the most, which ones are good investments, and break down how many you have in each theme category, etc. Here’s some of the reporting you can get:
But also, you can export your data as a CSV file. So we imported our collection into an Airtable database and added fields for where the kids can find the sets. Then we printed it out and the kids use it as reference when they want to find something.
Our family’s crazy LEGO journey only scratches the surface of what other people have done with vast collections that would dwarf ours. But for us, the system works beautifully. There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. As long as this system is adhered to, we’ll never become one of those families with a big mess of LEGO and no idea what we have. We won’t have loose bricks on the floor for people to step on. And we’ll never be missing any parts for any sets ever again.
Now if someone could just convince my kids to use the system, that would be great.
And that’s it for another newsletter! I got a lot of new subscribers this week, so if you’re new around these parts (no pun intended), please be sure to check out the archive. There’s a ton of evergreen content written with you in mind.
Until next time, may your LEGO bounties be plentiful.