Eight Simple Steps to Finding Small Bicycle Parts in the Home Workshop

There’s a difference between organizing bicycle parts and finding them.

Finding parts is what you want to do.

  • You want those Shimano SPD cleats you bought five years ago because your old ones are finally worn out.
  • Arkel handlebar bag mounts so you can finish your commuter bike project.
  • A quick-release spring to replace the one that bounced into the weeds while you were fixing a flat.
  • That spare rubber foot for your Click-Stand so the tandem continues to stand upright when parked.
It’s not disorganized. Think of it as multi-use zoning. Once you find an empty spot for your next part, you’ll never have to move it again, unless you use it, of course.

Organizing parts is what you don’t want to do. Because you don’t have time to organize. Because when it comes to miscellaneous bicycle parts you’ve accumulated over 45 years, there’s no joy in organizing–let alone reorganizing to accommodate all the newer stuff that keeps on coming, like hydraulic hose, disc brake shoes, Torx bolts, extra charging cables and GPS-related miscellanea.

Sorry, Marie Kondo.

You’ve got things to do. Maybe you work for a living. Maybe you need to mow the yard. Maybe you want to catch up on your John McPhee-related reading (personal favorite: The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed). Or maybe, like a lot of people with a basement full of bicycle parts, you’d rather spend your spare time riding a bicycle.

Here’s the good news: Organizing–the tedious sorting of small, unrelated parts–is unnecessary. Moreover, organizing parts so similar things end up in the same box can actually slow you down when it comes to finding the exact part you’re looking for.

Organizing takes too much time

Here’s an example of the life-changing drudgery of organizing: Say you have a bunch of old-fashioned bottom-bracket cups that take caged ball bearings. One pair is French-threaded, one cup is Swiss-threaded, and seven are English-threaded. You think you need to organize so you put them all in the same container, labeled bottom brackets.

Now you need the Swiss cup for your 1970s Champion Team. How long is it going to take to find, to turn over in your hand and determine, yes, this cup is for the right-hand side of the bike, it has the French thread pattern, 35mm x 1, but tightens in the opposite direction to the French, which makes it Swiss?

Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

What’s that? You’re really organized? You attached a label to each cup with a beaded cable tie so you can tell French from Swiss from English without your glasses? You know what I’m going to say:

Ain’t really nobody got time for dat. Nobody. Plus, now you need a container for beaded cable ties. When was the last time you went for a bike ride anyway?

Let’s focus on what you really want to do: to find parts. Here’s what to do.

Lose the beaded cable ties, keep the containers

  1. Evaluate your containers. You want durability. Think plastic, aluminum or steel containers. Definitely think containers with lids. Lids keep things clean and stackable. If some of your containers are storage bins or tool chests with pull-out drawers, great.
  2. Evaluate your storage area. You want to keep your containers off the ground so you can sweep. If your storage area is in the basement, keeping things off the ground means keeping things away from water.
  3. Position containers wherever they fit. Let’s assume you have shelves, and those shelves are not uniformly arranged. Doesn’t matter. Fill them with containers. You might have room to stack two or three smaller containers in places. Do it.
  4. Number your containers. Work from left to right, top to bottom, of each separate set of shelves. All you need on the container is a number. Avoid the temptation of labels like quick releases or headset washers; words are evidence of organization, and organization is dat with which we ain’t got no time. You can use stick-on numbers from the hardware store or an oversize permanent marker. Doesn’t matter. Just make sure you can read the numbers from a good distance away.
  5. Add parts to one container at a time. If you have a dozen rear quick-release skewers for 135mm hubs and a small, single-compartment container, drop them in. If you have a larger container with 16 compartments of different sizes, put something different in each compartment. Got a 40-year-old Cyclo chain tool pin? Put it in the smallest compartment. Three linear-brake noodles? Next compartment. A dozen interchangeable derailleur cable housing caps? Next compartment.
  6. The more unlike each part is from the next within a container, the better. (For instance, the 16-compartment container in Step 5 is a dandy place to store that Swiss bottom bracket cup. Move the French cups to a second container and the English cups to a third.) This isn’t a bottom bracket box or a brake box or a derailleur box: It’s a bicycle parts container with a number on it.
  7. Before you move to the next container, update a simple, two-column spreadsheet. The first column describes the part, the second column is the container number. Describe the part in a meaningful way. Instead of writing small bolt, write Bolt, 5mm, or, if you store 5mm bolts of different lengths in different containers, write Bolt, 5mm, length 20mm (or whatever length you have). Choose a significant first word, like Bolt or Bell or Brake, so you can perform a useful digital sort of your spreadsheet.
  8. Once all your small parts are stored–or you’ve filled a couple of containers and need to go ride your bike–print the spreadsheet and display it prominently. When you pick up the project again, or as other parts come into your life, add them to an existing or new container, and update your paper spreadsheet. Once you’re sick of all the pen scratches on your paper spreadsheet, update the digital file and print a new copy.
Yeah, my system still has letters. I’m working on it.

Congratulations, you’ve left organizing behind, and you can find what you need.

Frequently Asked Questions I just made up

Q: Why do you do this?

A: I have lots of little bicycle parts that have no value when I can’t find them and immense value when I can. I also have a lousy memory. What was your name again?

Q: Do you really do this?

A: For the most part. I started with two sheets of stick-on letters when I decided to switch from Failed Organizer to Successful Finder, so I used them first. That’s when I realized the limitation of our 26-letter alphabet. Don’t do what I did. Start with numbers and stay with them. I find it difficult to distinguish the number one from a lower-case L and impossible to tell the difference between a zero and the letter O. Eventually I’ll go back and renumber everything. Won’t take long, but I’m in the middle of reading McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, which, remarkably enough, conveys plenty of information despite the limitation of the same 26 letters.

Benefit from my mistake. Don’t use letters if you have more than 26 containers. Someday, you will.

Q: Have you ever thought of a simpler solution, like getting rid of a bunch of old parts?

A: My wife has.

Q: I’m parting out a bicycle with a broken frame, which means I need to store a bunch of parts. Do I need to sort everything immediately? How do I keep from being overwhelmed by incoming parts?

A: Excellent question about an important part of the system I forgot to mention: the Presort box. As you remove small parts, toss them in Presort to keep them isolated before you move them out to containers and update your spreadsheet. (If Presort seems familiar, it may be the “system” you used before you adopted the system described in this article.) Also, keep your teardowns modular: You don’t have to pull a broken rear derailleur apart for guide pulleys and anchor bolt. Chuck the whole unit into a container.

Q: So what happens when the container holding a given part is full? What if you get extra copies of the same part?

A: Let’s say you stored a Travel Agent cable-pull modifier in a small compartment in Container 12, and your friend, after finally replacing her thirty-year-old Weinmann brake levers with levers that actually match the cable travel of the linear-pull calipers on her bike, gifts you not one but two Travel Agents. You now have a couple of options: 1) Store the new parts in Container 25, which has only enough room for two Travel Agents, and update your spreadsheet to read Travel Agent/12,25, or 2) Store all three Travel Agents in Container 32, next to the SPD cleat bolts and original Spurcycle bicycle bell, and update your spreadsheet to read Travel Agent/32. (I’m kidding, of course. Nobody has a spare Spurcycle just laying around.)

Uniform presentation is not the goal. Your spreadsheet will tell you where you stored the stem extensions.

Q: Some small parts are bigger than others. Can I store unrelated parts–like a kickstand, a dropper post and a squeeze-bulb horn–in the same single-compartment container as long as the spreadsheet is accurate?

A: You absolutely can. It’s pretty easy to look at three to seven completely different parts and figure out which is which.

Q: Well, this is all fine and dandy, but what about the small parts I use all the time, like cables, crimps, cheap brake shoes and valve caps? Do I have to store them in a numbered container to keep the system working?

A: Not at all. We all have small parts we keep close to our tools. Just don’t let it get out of hand. If something is taking up working space and you haven’t needed it in a while, push it to a container. Keep overflow stock there, too. Then, when you’re about to run out at the bench, you can check the spreadsheet for the container and see if you need more.

Q: Why have the paper spreadsheet when you can do a word search of the digital spreadsheet?

A: My computer goes to sleep too fast. It’s not much of a burden, to wake it up and check the spreadsheet, but I’m worried about it becoming self-aware sooner than it otherwise would.

About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
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6 Responses to Eight Simple Steps to Finding Small Bicycle Parts in the Home Workshop

  1. Donald R Stier says:

    This is the system used at Amazon fulfillment centers. Everything is everywhere, the robot follows the spreadsheet.

  2. mitch hull says:

    I am doing to do this, I’m sick of my bike parts all in little drawers not labeled and waste a lot of time looking for things……

    My favorite, and first, John McPhee book is Coming Into the Country. I just love his work!

    • Good to hear from you Mitch. Still riding the Boxer?

      • Mitchell Hull says:

        Hey Sam,

        Rode the Boxer today, 5K+ for the year so far. Have upsized the Berthoud bar bag and added a Berthoud seat bag to carry all the warm clothes I shed during chilly rides, plus all food and most drink consumed during the ride.

        Now in Battle Creek (closed the circle 6 years ago) and retired, i ride over to Albion (22 mi) every Saturday year round (skipping the rain and slippery roads) to meet friends for an 8:15 breakfast ride (outdoors in Covid times), then visit my 97 YO mother in town, then ride back to BC. So I leave the house 6-6:30 and often get back 4-5 PM. It’s a long day but I love it.

        Also did a couple of years of Randonneuring, including only the 2nd R-12 in Michigan “history”.

        So still crazy about cycling.

        Are you still working at the bike shop?

      • Still working at the shop. My go-to bike these days has 38mm tires. My single-speed coffee-getter has 50mm. Comfy. Both bikes are tubeless. Longest ride this year probably not more than 35 miles. May end up just short of 3K, which would be about 1K higher than normal. I’ll take it.

  3. Steve Kurt says:

    I’ve labeled my storage tubs by category and it seems to work. The most important part is to start organizing and get control of your stuff!! At least be able to figure out what you’ve got when you need a part. No one wants to order a part and later realize they already had one squirreled away in a place they didn’t find.

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