I think it’s happened to all of us at one point or another, for various reasons. You have a bunch of coffee cans, pill bottles, or baby food jars full of assorted nuts, bolts, screws, and nails. And you’d like to use them, because they’re expensive. But they aren’t useful if you can’t find anything. So here’s how to sort screws and nails and nuts and bolts.
The important part when you sort screws and nails and nuts and bolts is to identify the parts that are most useful to you, then set those apart. Also set apart items that exist in large quantities, figure out what those are, and determine if they’re useful. Then group them in a way that makes sense to you so the next time you need a bolt, you can spend two minutes in the garage instead of making a trip to the hardware store.
The benefit of sorting screws and nails
When we throw away a broken household item, I always take out all the nuts and bolts I can find, and put them in my storage bin. This completely goes against the mantra of people who say to throw away anything you haven’t used in some arbitrary period of time (which might be 12 months or 18 hours). But there was one time last year I ordered a monitor stand for my wife. It arrived, but was missing half of the nuts and bolts we needed to put it together. I complained, but in the meantime, she needed that monitor stand and we couldn’t really wait a week for the nuts and bolts to arrive.
But it looked like quarter-inch bolts would fit, and I was pretty sure I had some of those. I pulled a couple of parts drawers out of my organizer, found some parts that fit well, and got her stand up and working without having to wait for parts and without spending $5 at the hardware store.
What about the space it takes up? I have parts organizers taking up about a 3×2-foot space on the wall above my workbench. That’s not a lot of room. Admittedly some of the stuff in the organizers isn’t stuff I use very often. But the stuff I use almost every weekend would take up 1/3 of that space anyway.
If you have a small parts organizer cabinet and it’s missing drawers, here’s how to make replacements. You’ll put it to good use, once you get your parts sorted.
What’s the value in old hardware?
There actually is some value in old screws, nuts and bolts. A lot of old-timers will tell you they were made better in the past than they are now. I definitely notice a difference with larger nuts and bolts. Modern 6-32 and 8-32 hardware seems to be fine, but I have a few old 5/16 nuts and bolts and a new box of 5/16 nuts I bought for a project a few years back. The old 5/16 nuts thread on perfectly smoothly. The new ones thread on and get stuck in the middle of the bolt.
I won’t drive 30 minutes to hunt for old nuts and bolts at an estate sale, but if there’s an estate sale five minutes from me, I’ll happily buy a coffee can full of nuts and bolts from the garage or basement.
How to sort screws and nails
The first step in sorting screws and nails and other similar hardware is just knowing what you use on a regular basis, and what it is. Since I work on computers a lot, I use tons and tons of 6-32 machine screws. It also turns out that 6-32s are common in a lot of other things I do as well.
For me, it’s 6-32 and 8-32 machine screws and nuts that are most useful. For some people, it’s the bigger stuff that’s more useful. The key is finding the stuff that’s most useful to you, get it out of the chaos, and into something that helps you find it. I got myself a couple of big plastic tray organizers with dividers to sort 6-32 and 8-32s into, based on length. Between what I’ve salvaged and bought intentionally or unintentionally over the years, I have hundreds of both, and probably in a dozen different lengths. All I have to do is grab one or both of those organizers, and I’ll have something that will fit what I’m working on.
You can sort based on the type of screw head if that helps. You can also sort by finish: stainless steel, galvanized, brass. If it isn’t helpful, don’t worry about it.
How sorting saves you money
A little bag of 10 nuts and bolts costs a dollar. A box of 100 nuts and bolts costs more like $4 at an old-fashioned hardware store. A coffee can full of random hardware costs a couple of dollars at an estate sale.
The organizer storage containers cost me about $4 at Harbor Freight. Harbor Freight is a great place to buy things like that. They pay for themselves quickly by letting me find what I have so I buy hardware less frequently. And when I do buy something, I can buy what’s useful to me in large, cheap quantities. I put a label on the container to identify it.
Sorting parts you use less frequently
Items I use less often go into a small parts organizer with drawers or, if it’s more convenient, stackable parts storage bins. These cost around $15 at Harbor Freight, but I got mine at an estate sale. They typically have 40 drawers in them, and that’s enough to hold a lot of different parts. I put 10-24 and 10-32 nuts and bolts into their own drawer and label them. I use them infrequently enough that I don’t bother with size. Once I identify something, I put it in a drawer, then when I see something that looks like a 10-24, I test it against one already in the drawer. If it doesn’t fit, I try another type. Maybe it’s a 10-32. Maybe it’s a metric M5.
I sort parts I don’t know about by size. Usually I will eventually find a bolt with a nut on it that match some of my mystery parts. Then I can at least group them together until I can positively identify them. There aren’t that many different types of screws. I can take a coffee can full of random parts and when I’m done, have less than a pill bottle full of mystery parts.
Again, I put a label on each drawer or bin to identify what’s in it.
What about nails?
I don’t use a lot of nails anymore, so generally I just group them by approximate size so I have them when I need them. If that sounds like you, great. If you need to sort them more specifically, get more specific.
Positively identifying mystery parts
Maybe you have a matched nut and bolt but don’t know what it is. The next time you visit a hardware store, take a few mystery items with you. Most of them have a nut and bolt thread checker in the store near where all the screws, nuts and bolts are.
What to get rid of
I don’t generally throw hardware out just because I don’t know what it is. My mystery parts generally fit in a couple of drawers, occupying space that would otherwise just be empty. When something breaks and I need a part, I eyeball it and compare it with my known parts. If I don’t find a match, I reach for the mystery drawers. Frequently I find something that fits there. Maybe I still don’t know what size the part is, but I know it fits the lamp in the living room. If I separate that out and write “lamp in living room,” that’s better than nothing.
You do probably want to get rid of damaged screws and nuts. If the screw is bent or has damaged threads, it’s just going to frustrate you when you go to use it. Fix them with a tap or die right then if you’re going to keep them and reuse them. If you don’t have a tap or die to fix the damaged threads, recycle or scrap it. If it’s bent, recycle or scrap it.
Scrap metal isn’t super valuable but it’s not worthless. One of my landlord buddies recycles metal by the five-gallon bucket and depending on what it is, he gets anywhere from 10 to 50 dollars when he fills a bucket. Usable hardware is worth more than that, but damaged hardware isn’t worthless.