Getting Sorted II: Seeking Professional Help [Brick Architect Labels]

In which I attempt to label my storage drawers, only to discover technical difficulties getting in my way. I overcome these and have a Q&A with Tom Alphin, who has created a set of labels to use in these circumstances.

A couple of months ago (closer to three ) I set about getting some of my bricks sorted out. I now have lots and lots of small drawers, useful for the small fiddly bits, and larger boxes, more suited to traditional bricks and plates, of varying size.

But, its all very well having approximately 250 small drawers full of smaller LEGO® elements, BUT when they are semi opaque, how are you going to know what’s in them. I thought I might set out to label them. So, I reached for the trusty family label maker, perhaps a little underused in the last 5 years, typed up 1×2 with horizontal clip and pressed print.

Nothing happened. I went back a step, and tried turning it on. It turned out that this had failed too! Batteries! Fortunately, I live in a house, which for better or for worse, comes with a large supply of AA batteries. I opened up my Label Maker to change them, and the actual problem was brutally apparent. One of the batteries in the label maker has leaked, and started to split! So much so, that I could not even remove it from the device. This put me in the market for a new Label Maker.

But was this such a problem? I found myself wondering if such labels existed for LEGO elements.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I was already aware that a series of labels already existed, produced by Tom Alphin, from brickarchitect.com. Tom has been developing these labels since 2014, when he set about sorting out his 21050 Architecture Studio. With the release of version 3.3 of these labels, Tom has produced labels for over 1000 designIDs. These labels are designed to work with the Brother P-touch line of label printers. I am a Mac user, and the range of compatible P-touch printers is more limited, but I managed to track down a PT-D600 at our local Office equipment store.

The new labelmaker/printer/coffee maker

Please bear in mind that Brother P-touch label makers include models with no connectivity, some that connect only with your mobile phone (this one doesn’t work with the label set), and some that connect either by wires or Bluetooth. The PT-D600 allows you to design labels on your computer, and print over USB, or just create them on the keyboard and print onto the tape.

I downloaded the labels, and set about printing some off for my ‘clip’ boxes – some of my most frequently referred to boxes. Here is an example of the labels, as seen in a pdf contact sheet:

So how easy was the process? Let’s walk through it…

  1. Open the P-Touch Editor App; ensure my label printer is switched on.
  2. Find the current label file: Today, we are up to version 3.3. I downloaded it earlier, and it unzipped itself. I followed the file hierarchy to Clip.
  3. Looking at the contact sheet, I want to print line 1 one the CLIP-clip labels
  4. Open the CLIP-clip1.lbx file
  5. Print the file.
  6. The backing paper on the labels splits down the middle – cut the labels to length and stick onto those little boxes! The labels are small enough that many boxes might allow multiple stickers to be placed.
  7. Repeat until sorted.

Q&A with the Brick Architect

I can see that this activity might get a little addictive, and take some time. Rather than subject you to a blow by blow description of the process, I had an online Q&A with Tom Alphin, who runs the Brick Architect Website. This is a Recognise LEGO Fan Media site, with a focus on architecture and buildings. Tom has written extensively on the storing and organising your LEGO collection. He has just published version 3.3 of the Labels.

Rambling Brick: Tom, thanks for your time. Perhaps we could start with you telling us a little about your ‘non LEGO’ life?  

Tom: At face value, my day job is fairly typical for a LEGO enthusiast: I’m
a Software Engineer at Microsoft.  That said, unlike many of the LEGO fans I
know, I am not a developer, but rather a Program Manager in the Windows
team.  This role sits at the intersection of Engineering, Design, and
Marketing – resulting in a very interesting job that benefits from technical
skills, business saavy, design thinking, and communications.  In my current
role, I am exploring how an engineering organization can leverage
Storytelling techniques to create better products — a role that builds on my
work experience, as well as my experiences writing ‘The LEGO Architect’ and content for Brick Architect website. 

I find a lot of different things interesting, so it’s fair to say that I’m
a collector of hobbies…  Because I’m a pretty active person, many of my
hobbies reflect that including Hiking, Climbing, Cycling, Camping,
Photography, and Travel.  In the evenings and wet/dark Seattle winters, I
work on home improvement projects, web design tasks, and play one or two
video games a year. (My Wife and I have played most of the LEGO video games in two-player co-op mode; our favorites were the LEGO Star Wars and LEGO The Hobbit games.)

Our son Henry was born in 2018; I look forward to teaching him to build
amazing LEGO creations as he gets older. He’s already learned how to
dis-assemble towers that I build for him using several buckets of
second-hand Quatro blocks (the discontinued LEGO product that’s twice as big as Duplo.)

New elements, along with Tom’s Label Maker

RB: Could you outline your workflow for creating a label?

Tom: The current iteration of the LEGO Brick Label collection is the result
of several efforts which complement one another.  

  1. The first challenge was to find high-quality images of each LEGO part that I need which look great when printed on a relatively low-resolution black-and-white printer.  After a lot of trial-and-error, I created a selection of scripts which produce images that look great when printed on a label printer.  This includes optimizing the angle, lighting, and outline treatments for best results.
  2. The second challenge is to decide which text to put on the label. This includes creating a very short name for each part which fits on two lines of text, determining if there are multiple common ID’s for this part.
  3. The next challenge has been to organize the labels into logical groupings that make sense for a wide range of LEGO artists. I’ve settled on 15 top-level groups like Brick, SNOT, Slope, Curved.  Each group contains many sub-groupings making it easier to find what you are looking for.  (I have received feedback from many LEGO enthusiasts that these groupings are way more useful than the groupings on BrickLink.)
  4. The last challenge is to decide which parts to include in the collection. At first, I just created labels for the parts I owned, but I have evolved my process to be data-driven.  There are two primary ways for apart to end up in the collection. 
    • If it is very common – For my 2019 article (https://brickarchitect.com/2019/2019-most-common-lego-parts/ ) I created a list of the top 500 most common parts based on the assumption that you had bought one of every set from 2015-2019.  All 500 parts (should) be included in the Label collection.
    • If it is very useful – twice a year, I review all the new parts added to BrickLink database, and copy/paste all of the new “general purpose” parts into a notebook.  If the part comes in a large number of sets, a large number of colors, or is obviously going to become popular because it addresses a huge gap in the LEGO System/Technic libraries, I will add it to the collection.  This ensures the most popular new parts are added to the collection within 6-12 months of their introduction.
    • I also consider adding parts to the collection when people make arequest.  It has to be reasonably common for me to add it to the collection. I also focus on current parts, and am not adding retired parts at this time.

RB: How long does it now take to create a new label?

Tom: It only takes 5-10 minutes to make a label.  The bigger time
commitment is around deciding which parts to create labels for, and deciding where to add each new label into the existing collection.  On occasion, I will need to update an old label to make it more consistent with the image or text needed for a newer part. 

Elements featured in the 3.3 update to the Brick Architect Labels.

RB: Is there one element that was more challenging/satisfying than you
expected to create a label for?

Tom: The two most challenging things to get right are the part name (text)
and the image. Coming up with short, descriptive names for Technic parts is
especially challenging.  

For some parts, trial-and-error is required to select an angle that helps
you see the most important aspects of a specific brick.  An example that
comes to mind are the following four bricks: 

  • Part 87087 (1×1, Stud 1-side)
  • Part 47905 (1×1, Studs Opposite sides)
  • Part 26604 (1×1, Studs, Adjacent sides)
  • Part 4733 (1×1, Studs, 4-sides)

You need to be able to see the stud on the opposite side to distinguish
87087 from 47905 – this took trial-and-error!

RB: What is YOUR favourite element? Favourite Colour?

Tom: My favorite category of the collection is “snot” because it allows
much more interesting building techniques.  

I suspect the classic 4070 (1×1 Headlight) is my favorite brick due to it’s
unique geometry  and the tiny foot beneath the outward-facing stud which has the unusual dimensions of ½×½ of the thickness of a plate.

RB: I can certainly appreciate this: as a kid, this was one of the weirdest bricks I ever saw, a couple of years after the introduction of minifigures. This year, we celebrate 40 years since its introduction.

Of the less common colors, my favorites are Sand Green and Dark Orange –
they add important diversity to the color palette.  I also love the new
Vibrant Coral color but worry that it will age poorly. (it’s very close to
2019’s Pantone color of the year – LEGO doesn’t do well from being trendy.)

RB: I appreciate you look for elements used in more than 30 sets
(slightly fewer for technic elements because of their relative paucity). Do you identify this through Brickset? Bricklink? Some other database that I am yet to discover?

Tom: For quick analysis, I use Bricklink.  For deeper analysis I created my own database using data from Rebrickable.  This allows me to build more advanced queries needed for articles like my analysis on the Most Common Parts or Colors. 

RB:What are your feelings about some of the newer colours and elements? Do you have any favourites?

Tom: While I am especially appreciative that The LEGO Group has created
parts filling some pretty critical gaps in the LEGO system of parts in the
past few years, I do worry that the number of obscure, single-use parts has
also been on the rise.  Even the increased number of colors is a cause for
some concern, as a new color isn’t very useful if it’s only available in a
few moulds.

Nonetheless, here are a few of my favorite new parts: 

  • 49307 (1×1 Curved, Double)
  • 28974 (Minifig Bracket) – updated Geometry for an existing part to fit System better.
  • 65426/65429 (2×4 Pointed Wedge)
  • 35480 (1×2 Plate, Rounded)
  • 35464 (45° 1×1 Dbl. Slope)
  • 32952 (1×1×1⅔ 2 Studs 1-side)

One last closing comment is a hopeful message, in light of the recent LEGO Bricklink acquisition – maybe The LEGO Group will finally update theofficial names for each Part & Color to make a lot more sense.  Most AFOLSare aware that the official color names are confusing (ex: “Brick Yellow” vs“Tan”), but the official part names are just as bad!

Thanks for your time Tom.  

I’m setting about (slowly) getting my drawers labelled. Hopefully, I will get it done before the Next Big Project gets underway. Somehow, I doubt it though. Do you use Tom’s Labels to help organise you LEGO Collection? What has you experience been like? Leave you comments below, and until Next Time,

Play Well!

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