18 tips to ensure an organized restoration

Photography by Carl Heideman • Lead photograph by Craig Cameron/courtesy Unsplash

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

We’ve restored scores of cars and found that organization is a key component to success. Countless stories and books have been written about restoration organization. Most advise keeping lists, making sketches, and using plastic bags to keep parts organized in boxes. 

While we can agree with all of that, we’ve found three innovations that border on making the previous methods obsolete: digital cameras, inexpensive plastic storage bins, and low-buck wire shelving. 

No doubt all of these innovations are so ubiquitous and cheap thanks to our ever-increasing addiction to Chinese products. Nonetheless, we’ve found them indispensable and irresistible for our restorations these days.

We’ll get to a step by step very soon, but here’s an overview. While making sketches can still be important, we find that we can usually take digital pictures to replace the sketches, especially if they’re supplemented with a good service manual. However, digital photos help us probably even more by keeping track of all our parts in inventory. Photos pretty much eliminate the need to keep lists, and they certainly make it easy to find parts when necessary. Where do we keep those parts? In our low-dollar plastic storage bins on our wire shelving, thank you very much. 

Because of our country’s obsession with cheap Chinese goods, it seems we have developed an even greater need for storing all the cheap Chinese goods we bring home from the big-box stores every week. Fortunately, Chinese manufacturers have come up with a great solution for us by providing cheap, attractive plastic storage bins and cheap, attractive wire shelving to keep the bins on. These bins and shelves are perfect for storing car parts. The bins come in just about every size you’d ever imagine. The shelves are sturdy, long-lasting and very easy to assemble. The result is that you should never have to use a cardboard box or homemade shelf again. 

So here’s what we do: We sort all our parts into appropriate groups, like electrical parts, trim parts, engine parts and gearbox parts. Next, we put nearly every group of parts into an appropriately sized plastic bin. Then, we put every bin on our shelves. We usually buy shelves with wheels so we can roll them around when we need to. We label all of our bins, but more importantly, we lay out the contents of each bin and photograph them. That way, we’ve made an instant inventory of our parts. 

We keep the digital photos nearby on a computer, but we also print them out and put them in a binder. The fastest way for us to find a part isn’t to search through the bins; instead, we quickly flip through the printed photos of the appropriate bins. Once we spot the part in our binder, we open the appropriate bin and put it to use.

This all sounds trivial, but we figure these methods save us 30 to 50 hours of searching for parts and dealing with other details over the course of a restoration. It also saves us cash because we don’t have to replace lost parts. What would you rather do: Look for parts, or work on your car? Follow along and we’ll show you how we stay organized.

Step 1

Does this look typical? While in this case we’re organizing a basket-case Mini we just bought—we’ve been guilty of this type of parts storage in the past. Parts are just crammed into old boxes, several of which are ready to fall apart. Many parts aren’t in boxes at all. The results are frustrating: Parts are hard to find, boxes disintegrate, and the workspace is pretty much a mess all the time.

Step 2

So here’s how we started. We grabbed a box...

Step 3

...and laid out its contents on a table.

Step 4

Once the parts were on the table, we grouped them. Here we’ve taken gauges, some electrical parts, hardware, rubber parts, mechanical parts and junk and put them into their proper groups.

Step 5

We put the old wiring harness in a bin, and then we found these wiring bits and switches in our box.

Step 6

We bagged the bits and switches, then put them in the bin with the old harness.

Step 7

We kept doing that with the groups from our box—we either started a bin for the group, or found a bin to hold the smaller pieces. When our table was mostly empty, we brought out the next disorganized cardboard box and repeated the process.

Step 8

After a while, we had several bins to fill as we emptied and grouped the disorganized boxes and parts.

Step 9

Eventually, we had nearly everything in a bin on our shelves. We used several sizes of bins and set up our shelves to hold them with little wasted space. We usually buy the bins at big-box stores and have found that they go on sale after any major holiday—sometimes even in holiday colors. The shelves don’t go on sale as often, but they’re pretty fairly priced anyway. We figure we usually save at least that much by not misplacing and replacing parts. Plus, we save a lot of time by not having to constantly search for parts. While the full bins stacked on the shelves looked great, we weren’t quite done yet.

Step 10

In the case of this Mini, we spent about 3 hours sorting parts and putting them into bins. We had about one more hour to go, and it would be the most important hour. After filling the bins, we dumped their contents one by one. We carefully laid out the contents so we could see them clearly, took a photo, then put the parts back in their bin. For each of our 18 boxes, we assigned it a number, came up with a description of its contents, and stuck it with a self-stick mailing label that had this information on it.

Step 11

Here are the contents of Box No. 5: alternator, distributor, starter, horn and sundries. We printed this photo and put it in our binder. Now we won’t need to open the box to see exactly what’s inside.

Step 12

Here are the contents of Box No. 2: door handles, door latches, boot latch, and miscellaneous door hardware. We laid out all the parts in an organized fashion for the photo, pairing left parts with their corresponding right parts. At this step, our method was already proving useful: One of the door-check mechanisms was obviously missing, so we knew right away to either find a used one or order a new one. It’s no fun figuring out these issues in the thrash to finish before a big show or rally.

Step 13

Here’s Box No. 2 on the shelf. We won’t open it very often because we can see everything inside it in our pictures. This eliminates further risk of misplacing something while searching through bins.

Step 14

Some parts just won’t fit into bins. We put these on the shelves and photograph them by shelf. If we do pull them down, we make sure to return them to the shelf we take them from. Again, this makes it easy to find things and prevents them from getting lost during the restoration. In this case, we had a couple extra exhaust pieces that we don’t expect to use. We’ll probably keep them just in case during the restoration, then sell them off when we’re absolutely sure we won’t need them.

Step 15

This is about half the extra stuff we found in the cardboard boxes as we went through them. We’re confident they’re not Mini parts, so we’ll dispose of them appropriately or, in the case of the tools and jack, put them to use.

Step 16

The organization process can even unearth clues to a car’s past. We didn’t have much information about our basket case’s history, but we knew it had spent time on the West Coast and had been apart for a long time. Among the parts, we found some Washington State license plates from the 1980s. Plus, a lot of the parts were wrapped in “The Seattle Times” circa 1984. Looks like the car has been apart for about 25 years, and now it’s time to get it back together.

Step 17

Here are our shelves and bins again. We put the heavier parts on the bottom to keep the shelves stable, and the loose parts went up top since they tend to be lighter. We typically use wire to tie down some of the loose parts to the shelves so they don’t fall off. Additionally, we avoid using the top shelf: Experience has taught us that items are most likely to fall from that one. Most of the time, we can fit a complete car on one or two of these shelving units. 

Step 18

Our photo inventories are as important as our shelves. We keep all the images digitally on one or more computers, but having a printed set of photos really helps. Not only can we scan through the photos to look for specific items, but we can write notes on the pages to remind us of what to order or what we’ve done. 

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Torqued New Reader
9/14/20 9:16 p.m.

After a few costly mistakes, I developed a similar system myself.  I had a lot of extra parts for my MGA because a friend and who also owned an MGA moved out of state and give me all of his extra parts.  Over the years of work and travel while the MGA sat waiting prioper restoration I had ordered parts I knew I would need as they came on sale.  Finally retired, I began spending serious time on the project and I discovered that I had purchased parts that were already in the donated stash and were in perfectly good condition.  That was when I decided that I needed to go through it all and catalog everything.  I use an excell spreadsheet for the box numbers and contents. Makes it easy to sort and find parts.  With the extras I actually have three large shelves full plus some larger parts stashed in the loft, but that includes extra transmissions, wheels, hubs, trunk lids, fenders...  With it all organized and cataloged, I have avoided buying a part that I have in the stash several times now.  The shelves on wheels really help.  With limited space, the three shelves can be put side by side - no space between - then moved apart for access as needed.

300zxfreak Reader
11/2/21 1:04 p.m.

I don't think it's as much the American public that has the obsession with cheap Chinese garbage, it's more like the American retailer has made it pretty much impossible to purchase anything but. Take a stroll down any aisle in any big box home improvement center and try to identify any American made products versus Chinese crap. Probably 95% Chinese versus 5% anything else.

I'm one of the few that would much rather pay a few extra bucks and receive something I can use without fear of A: the product failing miserably, or B: injuring myself when the product self destructs.

I'm just very sick and tired of seeing "Made In China" on everything I pick up in a store.




Coupefan Reader
10/16/22 1:02 p.m.

Digital photography.

 I cannot begin to rate the incredible ability it has given to any structured, ridiculously documented, step by step procedure of literally ANYTHING in life.  The ability to immediately and cheaply document everything on the fly is powerful and irreplaceable.  

Coupefan Reader
10/16/22 1:04 p.m.

In reply to 300zxfreak :

Cheap procurement costs, but not a proportional check stand reduction in pricing.  It's obvious why. 

gsarahs New Reader
7/15/23 12:26 p.m.

One added point to digital photos:  A club friend was restoring his '66 Austin-Healey 3000 and did the "take photos of everything" routine, but prior to him needing them while things were all going back together, his digital storage memory card crashed, which of course meant that all of his photos were lost. As a result, he came over to my place to pour over my '65 and '67 Healeys in order to at least partially make up for what was now lost, and retaking a lot of photos. My friend learned a valuable lesson! 

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