Inventory Your Parts

So, you’ve got your kit.  You’ve read the instructions, you’ve stared at other modeler’s build logs online.  You’re ready to dive right into step #1.

Hold on there, tiger.

You need to spend a couple hours doing a full inventory of your parts.

Photo Apr 12, 6 24 13 AM
Inventoried parts for my Bluenose build.

Here’s how I do my inventory…

Your kit probably comes with hundreds (or thousands) of parts.  You’ve likely got wood strips, sheets, laser cut parts, rigging line, pins, nails, cast metal parts, and more.  Some items are unique – you’ve got just one.  Other items, like belaying pins, may include 50+ pieces.

Doing a full inventory does several things:

  • Ensure you got everything you’re supposed to get.  Kits are typically packed by hand, and mistakes are made.  If you’re missing something, you want to know up front.
  • Verify that everything is intact.  Wood can be mis-cut, or damaged during shipping.  Sometimes cast metal parts don’t come out quite right.  Make sure all your parts are in usable condition.
  • Get familiar with your kit.  Spending a couple hours looking at every part (and often having to refer to the plans to identify it) will really help you to get familiar with how things go together and where everything gets used.
  • Get your parts organized and labeled to make things easier down the road.  When you’re deep into your build, you’re suddenly going to need to grab a couple eyebolts.  If those are in their own bag or container, clearly labeled, you can grab them quickly instead of stopping for 10 minutes to dig through the kit’s box.

Start with the parts list.  It came with the instructions.  I usually start with the random pieces in the kit – dowels, cloth, thread, brass strips, etc.  These are typically very unique and easy to identify.  Verify each item against the parts list, check the quantity, and mark it off.

Some items come in huge quantities, like eyebolts, belaying pins, blocks and deadeyes.  I always try to count these out, but I’ll admit that sometimes I just eyeball it and say “that looks like 50 pins.”  Mark those off your sheet.  Note: many kits may include different sizes of blocks, each in a different quantity.  You may need to measure the blocks to be sure you’re counting the right ones.

The wood strips and sheets can sometimes create a lot of work during the inventory.  Of the four Model Expo kits I’ve had (two airplanes, two ships), only one came with the wood parts labeled.  The other three just had a big bag of random wood parts.  In this situation, use a caliper to measure the wood and identify it.  I use a digital caliper that I got on Amazon for $20.  Having a digital version lets you switch it to ‘fraction’ mode, which is how wood is listed on a Model Shipways parts list.  (For example, a piece might be 1/32″ x 1/4″ x 12″.)

Metal castings can also be a bit tricky.  Often these come in bags containing several parts.  I’ve never seen them labeled.  You basically have to pick up a part, look at it, and figure out what it is.  This may require extensive reviews of the plans.  Sometimes I used the quantity to help narrow the possibilities.  For example, if I only have one of something, and there are 5 items on the parts list that have a quantity of one, it must be one of those.

Labeling and Organizing

If you’re going through all this work to identify each part, don’t wreck it all by tossing everything back in the box.

I have a pretty simple process that evolved over the last few kits.  It requires two things:

  • Small, clear bags.  I use something similar to these from Amazon ($8 for 500 bags).  I prefer bags to hard containers because they take up less space.  I can see what is in them.  They are easy to toss up on the workbench, or pin/hook to shelf to keep the parts I’m using right now easily accessible.
  • Labels.  I currently use Avery 8195 Easy-Peel Inkjet Address Return Labels ($8 for 1500 labels).  These are a good size for sticking on the bags, and the ‘easy-peel’ nature lets you peel them off without leaving a mess.  This is especially useful since I stick these labels on wood parts too.
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Each group of parts gets its own bag, labeled with the part number and description.  Sometimes I use big keywords to help find frequently used parts (like belaying pins), or to make it easy to distinguish similar items (like single, double, and triple blocks).

Before I start touching the kit, I spend half an hour and print out labels for all the parts.  This is some repetitive busy work, but it makes the labels look nice.  If you’re going to spending months or years building this model, take the time to set things up nicely.  You’ll be interacting with parts throughout the build.  If you print the tags, they are easier to read, consistent, and just look better.

I use Microsoft Word and the free Word template Avery provides for their labels.  My most recent inventory required about 1 1/2 sheets, around 90 labels.  I label each part with the part number along with the size or description as appropriate.  I include the part number because I’ve run into instructions that refer to a part number or piece size/description interchangeably.

You’ll also notice that some items get a second label, with larger text.  I just started doing this on my most recent inventory.  I noticed that when I need a block, for example, I can quickly find a bag containing blocks because the bags are clear.  But telling at a glance if that is a single, double, or triple block requires closer examination.  More than once I ended up with the wrong bag of blocks out on the bench.

The second label is usually just a large ‘keyword’.  For blocks it might be ‘SINGLE’, ‘DOUBLE’, or ‘TRIPLE’.  For other items that you frequently use and might want to grab in a hurry, I’ll label them with a short identifier like ‘BELAY’.  I label all my rigging line with ‘THIN’, ‘MEDIUM’ or ‘THICK’.  I can see the color of the line, so I don’t need to write that out.

Each unique part gets a label.  Each unique part that can fit in a bag gets its own bag.

Some modelers use small containers, like pill bottles, and others use boxes or bins that are divided into many small compartments.  I’m not a huge fan of those.  First, I want my parts to be really visible.  Many types of containers are either opaque, or tinted.  This makes quickly spotting the part you need difficult.

I avoid the boxes with compartments because I very rarely need more than 2-3 parts at a time.  If you’re using a compartmentalized box, that whole box is going to end up on your table, all the time.  My wife uses those clear boxes with compartments to organize parts for her jewelry business.  About 1/3 of her workbench is taken up by stacked boxes.

Plus, for some things you’re going to have one or two pieces, and they’re small.  So a solid container (pill bottle, compartment, etc.) is going to have a lot of extra space, and those parts are going to rattle around.

Bags with a ‘zip lock’ top are also air-tight.  Nothing is going to fall out.  No moisture or air is going to get in.  Parts might sit for years…keep them protected.

All of the bagged parts for my Bluenose build can fit in 6″ x 6″ spot in my tool drawer.  When I’m going to be working with some parts for a while (eyebolts, pins, blocks, etc.), those bags (and just those bags) get moved up to the bench top.  Recently I’ve started using magnets to ‘pin’ the bags to the metal shelf just over my bench.  The parts are right there when I need them, and they take almost no space.

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Wood is bundled by size, and each bundle is labeled.

Wood pieces just get the label wrapped around the wood, with batches of the same stock rubber-banded together.  This kit came with wood pre-labeled, but I already had my labels printed, so I stuck them on anyway.

Another benefit of using labels that you prepare in advance is that it serves as a final check that you got everything.  Sometimes you can overlook that one thing on the parts list that didn’t get checked off.  But if you’ve got a label left over – you’re missing something.

What if You’re Missing Something?

If you’re missing something, you’ve got two choices:

  • Contact the manufacturer or retailer.  I’ve heard that some companies, like Model Shipways, will gladly replace any missing parts.  I haven’t tried, so I can’t vouch for that, but multiple people have had good luck with this.
  • Wing it.  If it is just a piece of wood stock, I’ll either pull something from scrap wood, or just grab the piece next time I’m out at a hobby store.  Sometimes it might be a part you want to replace anyway, like buying higher-quality blocks or deadeyes.

Aside from metal castings, everything in the kit can be replaced pretty easily.  As you build more and more models, you’ll end up with a pile of random materials and parts – often you’ll already have what you need to replace a part.

If the missing part is a metal casting, you’ve got to consider how hard it will be to make your own replacement.  Often it will make more sense to get a replacement from the manufacturer.

Bragging Rights

I also use the inventory process to do a couple final things that give me some bragging rights later with friends and family.  Take a picture of all your parts spread out during your inventory.  Also use the parts list to total up the total number of individual pieces.  This only takes a minute or two.

Inevitably as a friend or family member sees your build (either in progress or completed), they are going to ask about how the kit comes, trying to figure out if you really built all that.  Show them a picture of your inventory process, and rattle off something like “it comes with about a thousand little parts and wood pieces, you have to do everything else yourself.”  They’ll be staring at a pile of wood and parts that looks nothing like a ship, and they’ll have a new level of respect for you hobby.