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Open Diff: How do you keep track of loose nuts and bolts during a project?

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This is what organization looks like. I have never been this organized in the garage.

Like single socks that disappear in the laundry, nuts, bolts, and fasteners have a way of walking off when you’re working on a car project. How do you keep them from disappearing and, more important, how do you remember where everything goes?

The problem occurred to me as I start work on my resolution to work more on my Alfa Romeo Spider. My plan is to work 30 minutes a day for the next 30 days I’m at home (with a story to reflect on what I’ve learned when I’m done). I realized that with this slow and steady progress I’ll have a lot of bolts lying around and it will be weeks before they go on again. Right now I’m collecting everything from the interior in a magnet tray, which is a vast improvement over my under-the-car of leaving the fasteners attached to the removed parts or lying in the general vicinity of where they came from. That’s the current extent of my organizational system: put everything in a pile. For the most part, this works fine, but I wonder if there’s a better way.

My current system is to pile stuff in a magnet tray, which could turn out to be a mistake.

Once at a 24 Hours of Lemons race I saw a team doing major mechanical work on the engine, and every bolt that came out got stuck into a big piece of foam insulation, labeled in permanent maker and arranged in the correct relative orientation. A great idea for a bigger project, but it seems a little extreme for smaller jobs. Some people use plastic baggies or food storage bins labeled with what part things came from, which again seems a little much for my purposes (although good for, say, a full restoration). I’m always willing to reconsider that yes, maybe I should just be taking time to put away every single grouping of nuts and bolts as they come off the car.

I’m sure I’m missing some brilliant method of keeping track of parts and fasteners, and maybe some organizational product as well. Or is there no perfect method? Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments below, and we’ll round up the best answers into a follow-up post.