Saturday, May 4, 2013

Practical, economical, magnetic miniatures storage in stackable, variable-height trays with case options - my perfect solution going forward?

Two magnetic tray solutions

There are several big, miniatures-related logistics dilemmas I've stared down over the years. One is related to basing solutions and another to game table solutions. But the biggest of all might be the question of how to store one's figures as lead mountain grows out of control. Happily, though, this is one I solved. I'm going to share two solutions here, both of which I use today. The first is good. The second is the holy grail as far as I'm concerned.

Here's the first solution I came up with, using Snapware brand trays:



And while I still put the Snapware to good use, here's the even better solution, using tough, reinforced plastic trays intended for the gem and jewelry trade, which have a corresponding range of cases, hard and soft:




Before I get into talk of the trays, though, why do I say this is possibly the biggest question? It's not obviously so. In my case I realized this was the big question as I faced a seemingly unrelated issue, workflow.

I was unhappy with my work flow, disappointed in how I couldn't make inroads against the piles of figures I had accumulated. When I traced the problem to it's source, however, I realized the true problem was I didn't have storage set up to move piles of figures from one stage of production to the next, and absolutely no way at all to accommodate the figures once they were done. The collection was like a hermit crab trying to make do with a shell too small.

Whatever solution, I needed a lot of it. It had to be a system and one that grow. Essentially it came down to magnetized trays vs foam trays. This wasn't a hard decision as I've never been happy with foam in the past. The capacity ratio to volume is less, the protection is arguably not as good and foam is more expensive per figure even when you factor in ten cents per figure for magnets. With magnetic trays you need to invest more time in gluing a magnet to each figure and lining the trays, but the only real disadvantage is the time and research needed to come up with your solution, which is done for you if you like the one offered here.

I should also say that it doesn't have to be either or. You could very well store all your figures in trays and skip the magnetization altogether, and pack them up in foam whenever taking them out. Or you could magnetize all your figures and only magnetize some trays. However, the advantage of going all in is your trays are always ready to just pick up and go, and don't discount the time it takes to load a hundred figures up each time.

Which trays

The easy part was settling on trays and magnets. The hard part was finding suitable trays. Dozens of hours divided over many weeks later, the decision was between LEWISBins+ divider boxes and Snapware. For various reasons I went with Snapware.

Snapware

Snapware trays are an excellent solution. They are sturdy and are infinitely modular. You can easily get just the trays you want and snap them all together. Medium height trays are the perfect height for most 25-28mm figures with enough headroom for all but the weapon-aloft type figures. These, I found, you can store all in the top tray as the top tray has extra headroom. The ribbon-dispenser tray size is great for larger monsters and those occasional figures too tall for the other ones, like standard bearers.

A tray holds 40 figures on 25mm round bases or 70 figures on 20mm square bases. One or two of them can hold a skirmish force, and you can fit one big unit or several smaller units per tray if you're transporting an army.

The bottoms of the trays are made from steel shingles cheaply bought from the home improvement store. I recommend the powder coated kind that come in the 8 x 12" size for less than $2 each, if I recall. One important note is you shouldn't glue the shingles to the bottom of the tray as it's much easier to slide your figures off the shingles sideways than stick your figures in and pluck the figures out one by one. So I make the handles you see here. Tutorial to come.

There is one problem with Snapware. The company got bought and the new owners, World Kitchen, LLC, no longer sell the trays individually. In fact, for several years the stuff was incredibly hard to find anywhere. Nowadays you can sometimes find Snapware at Target or big craft store or fabric store retailers but it's hit-and-miss. You can also get it direct and a limited number of internet retailers.

I don't regret going with Snapware and the trays I have are put to good use. But eventually I started looking further afield because I decided not to magnetize my 25mm D&D figures (mainly because the figures are thinner and I worry about the ankles), but rather lay them flat in 1" trays (more on this in a later post), and I can no longer buy the 1" height Snapware trays except in packs with two 2" trays, which I already have plenty of.

Gem Trays

The quest went on for at least another year before the true eureka moment, finding the gem tray. The price was so good I was a little wary of the quality, but if anything they are even tougher than I had hoped.

So, the trays are 14 3/4" x 8 1/4" trays are incredibly tough, reinforced plastic, and are available in tray heights of 1, 1.5 and 2". Those are the outside measurements, and the clearance is about 1/16" less per inch, i.e. the 2" tray has a 1 7/8" clearance. They're marketed to gem and jewelry sellers who take their wares to shows. I got them at gemsondisplay.com and couldn't be happier with the service I got or the product. These are going to last several lifetimes.


And listen to these capacity numbers. A 2" tall tray comfortably accommodates ninety-eight figures on 25mm round or square bases and one hundred sixty-two—yes, you heard that right, one hundred sixty-two—figures on 20mm square bases. Those numbers will be very slightly less for me as I plan to have removable trays with handles, but I still figure about ninety 25mm-based and over a one hundred fifty 20mm-based. The price for a 2" tray? Three dollars. The taller and shorter trays are priced accordingly.

Moreover, there are all kinds of different soft bags and hard cases to pair with them, which no ridiculous, unjustified markup like you see in the miniatures foam biz. I was a sucker for the aluminum locking one with wheels and pull-out handle, one of the most expensive and yet a bargain for a locking metal case case loaded with trays with a capacity of 12" of tray height—yes, that's a capacity of up to 972 magnetized figures. I'll probably pick up a soft bag in next order to have on hand just in case.

The one issue I knew I'd have to solve from the get go with these is you probably have some figures with a height greater than 2". You can either get wooden trays up to 3" height, or you can combine several plastic trays into one. I haven't tried the wooden trays but would be interested to hear how they compare. However, below here you see I cut the bottom out of one 2" tray with a steel retractable utility knfe and glued it to another one. Gluing these together is a bit of a challenge, but I'm hoping Gorilla glue will be the solution for this as it expands. I did this one with Liquid Nails and it's fine, but I think a better solution is out there. Keep in mind you're probably only going to need a few of these double-decker ones, though.

Double-decker trays for tall figures:




Now, as I mentioned while on the topic of Snapware, it's easier to slide figures off sideways than pull them out. This isn't because I use strong magnets, I don't, but just because plucking out figures one-by-one is a chore. For these double-decker trays I went ahead and glued in the magnets because it's not so tedious to pick out a few larger figures, but for the 2" trays I plan to have pull-out trays like I do for the Snapware. I may try to improve my handle design, too, though the handles have worked really well so far. I was considering drawer pulls, but these are expensive. I'm also considering soldering brass tubing.

Steel sheet inserts

As I mentioned I line the trays with powder-coated steel shingles, available at your local home improvement store for very little.

These are 8 x 12". You're going to need to cut them to size. For this, invest $20 in these badboys, Malco snips:


They cut the steel sheet with about as much as ease as scissors cut through cereal packet card. Seriously. Just be careful, wear eye protection, and make absolutely sure any slivers and offcuts go in the trash, not the floor. I also recommend snipping the corners off and sanding the edges if you won't be gluing them in the trays.

D&D figures

I mentioned this briefly, but a few more considerations here for vintage lead 25mm figures. I don't mean Citadel slotta figures, which have always been really robust, but rather Grenadier, Ral Partha, etc. I don't recommend magnetizing them unless they are particularly sturdy. After trying a number of things, eventually I decided the best way to store them anyway was to put down an soft layer such as bubble wrap, put t-shirt cloth layer, fold that over, and put pillow batting on top. This is way better than foam as it's much, much softer and yet conforms to the space cavities, keeping the figures immobile. You also get the same capacity advantage as with magnetized trays. These do take a little more work and I actually haven't yet made the padding for them. My plan is to make quilted pillows from the pillow batting and wind up with a pretty solution as a well as a functional one. Granted, this is a bit of effort.

A quick word on workflow

This post may be my longest, but I want to squeeze in a quick word or two about workflow, because it's not just finished figures that need a place to exist. I tend to assign trays to various stages of figure workflow, from need-cleaning or need fixing to primered to WIP, etc. You may do something similar. Whatever method you have I recommend giving a thought to sizing it to meet the scale of accomplishment you'd like to have. If you want to finish an army, it helps to have big trays to move figures along from one stage to another, rather than have them crowd up your desk and distract you from a particular task. Nothing slows me down like crap on my desk getting in the way so if it's not the primary focus of the day it goes in a tray out of sight.

Conclusion

If you're struggling to identify the bottleneck keeping you from making headway on getting all your figures painted, and you can't blame time constraints exclusively, it may because your subconscious knows there is no where for tons of WIP figures to sit, and nowhere for the painted figures to go. If you haven't considered how you're going to store it all, maybe now's the time.

Yeah, I know this sounds like a sales pitch, but I promise I own no stock in gem display trays. I just see a lot of people making what I consider poor choices when it comes to storage or trying to make do with none at all. Getting a bunch of these trays may have been the best move I've made to help my hobby reach a saner trajectory. I'm due for another order.

Let me know what you think, and feel free to pimp your own solutions in the comments!

24 comments:

  1. I used to base my minis on washers and for a time used 'box files' lined with a self adhesive a4 magentic sheet for storage. I switched to wooden bases and since then have used foam trays from Figures in Comfort, which I guess is rather conformist! I presume you saw Dave King's solution last week?

    http://kingsminis.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/rustoleum-magnetic-primer.html

    Both your articles have made for interesting reads, at any rate.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      I use wooden bases for D&D and embed magnets in the bases for anything larger than human. I'll throw up a tutorial. Foam might have worked ok for some of my collection, but not all, and the price per figure put me off. I never liked washers as I found primer and paint don't stick to them and I didn't want to break out enamels, which I assume would solve the issue.

      Yeah, saw Dave King's several posts and honestly that's why I hurried this post up the queue and out the door. The paint sure looks like a prohibitive amount of work and messy! Also am skeptical as to the holding power. Oh well, maybe shingles aren't readily available in Australia?

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  2. This is an hugely informative post...and storage is a problem that I fight with too...so I see a few of these cases in my future. The soft cases at that site are very affordable...but like you I see myself succumbing to the metal ones! Thanks!

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    1. Glad it was helpful! Hehe, yeah, the metal ones have a certain panache that's hard to pass up, although honestly the utility is probably about the same as the soft ones.

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  3. I've been getting increasingly fed up with foam storage. We have an annual gem and bead show I've been meaning to check out for tools and bits, so will make a point of seeing if I can get my hands on some of this stuff.

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    1. Hope they have some on offer there! I had 2 big GW foam cases previously, and when I passed them on they fetched enough on the 2nd hand market to cover the entire gem tray order w case. Not looking back. :)

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    2. Well, it seems that the cases aren't sold anywhere in the UK, conventionally. They are available on eBay from the US, but with extortionate postage. However, the next Rock, Gem & Bead show on my doorstep is in November, so I'll have to make a point of checking it out. If I can't get them, I may just have to go back to foam and start investing in KR Multicases.

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  4. Nice research project. I have admired your snapware solution, but thought the "snap" closures seemed like a weak link. I have magnetized my limited amount of figures I've been putting together in hopes of a foam alternative. The jem cases seem like a great match. Did you check with the manufacturer, maybe they make deeper ones, so to avoid the custom 3" tray? (Site says the 3" wooden trays are wrapped in leatherette, yuck) Do the plastic trays interlock well?

    This may be the route I take. I know it's your personal preference, but do you think the removable metal tray insert is a big plus?

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    1. Thanks and good luck with your own magnetization project, whatever you decide to use! I had the same reaction to the wood/leatherette option, but maybe I will throw one in my next order just to compare and report back. I didn't ask them specifically about a 3" plastic tray but I did hunt around at several shops that sell these or ones like them. The trays don't lock but you can see in one of the pics above they have feet to keep in the line, and they are heavy enough once loaded that I don't expect them to slip in the cases much.

      I do think the lift out trays are a big advantage. Otherwise you have to pluck each one out, and at a second or two per figure you can see how that would add up in a game. Plus sliding is probably a little easier on the figures' finish overall as you can slide from the base.

      You know, I've even spent some time thinking of a way, for rectangular base figures, anyway, you could have T shaped beams that are magnetized on the ends and for each unit rank of a unit you could snap these beams in place between them, alleviating the need for magnetizing each figure and making removal even easier. Probably a dead end but who knows, maybe I'll come up with something.

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  5. Interesting! I've been using Plano type tackle boxes and bead containers, but there are limits on the size of minis that will fit into them. I like having built-in dividers, since I move the boxes around a lot during a game.

    One other issue I have given a little thought to (but not really any action) is whether the containers are airtight, as outgassing from bases, glue, plastics, & woods might contribute to lead rot, so you want to let the lead minis get some fresh air.

    The big problem with my tackle boxes is that although they stack alright and are transportable, they can slide around; these trays you found look like a good alternative.

    I label the edges of my boxes so I know (in theory) where to find things. But they are clear so that makes finding the right mini a little faster.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I've given a passing thought to the air circulation question but I should probably give a few more. No, I don't think they would be airtight, but they aren't open either. I think drilling a few holes in the sides for lead figures would be a good idea and I think I'll do it.

      As for clear/opaque, I see advantages/disadvantages to both. It is handy I don't have to label the snapware, but at the same time I feel it's a little less classy when I show up at a con or the game store. Overall I don't think I'll miss the clear feature too much, but labels are definitely a must!

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  6. This looks like a great solution for the same storage problems I've been having for 28mm armies. Are there slots in the case the trays slide into? Or do they just stack up and when the door is closed they sit snug against each other (vertical) and the walls of the case (horizontal) to keep from shifting?

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    1. It's just gravity and the little feet you see in the pic above that keeps them stacked, but that works pretty well, especially if the trays are laden with metal. When the case is filled with 12" of trays there is a about a half inch gap at the top but the sides are snug. If you wanted perfect snugness at the top it shouldn't be too hard to line the bottom with something though.

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  7. When you write about metal shingles, are you speaking literally of roofing shingles, or the less common use of shingle as in signage (hanging out a shingle...). I went a head and bought myself a soft side case and about 12 trays ( a few are one inch) and have been trying to find the shingles of which you speak. I have also considered simply painting the inside with magnetic paint, as I have some lying around. I may consider other options... but I do like the idea of lift out trays.

    My old system was to cut down somethingx11 priority shipping boxes to two (top and bottom) approximately 2 inch deep trays. These fit nicely into paper ream boxes. They could be stacked by cutting the corners off cereal boxes and fitting them over the corners of the cut down trays. But, a fiddly process to build. These will probably still serve as my long term storage system.

    At any rate, thanks for the ideas..

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    1. I believe they are the roofing variety of shingle and are close by the other roofing shingles at my local Home Depot. In case it helps the part number on the sticker is S812BRWEA-100 and the upc code is 736223132555.

      Interesting system with the cardboard, sounds like it would work pretty well. I keep my unpainted figures so far in (used, of course) small flat rate priority mail boxes in pretty much solid masses of carefully packed lead. As efficient as you can get but I can't really see what I have. I just got another 2 dozen trays last week and have been standing my slottabase figures up in them to take stock.

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  8. Props to you for an AWESOME use of the carrying case and trays, and thanks much for the kind words about our products and company! :)

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    1. Cheers, thanks for stopping by and taking an interest, and thanks for great products and service! :)

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  9. Really like the jewelry case idea for storage. Had you considered hinging instead of cutting/gluing the 1" trays together? Could still use them for 1" models when needed if the magnets are strong enough to hang stuff upside down.

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  10. Really enjoyed reading your post. Those jewelry trays are the best solution I have seen so far.
    thanks mate !

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  11. Hi there, just in case someone is looking for plain steel to glue in the bases...I got it from here: https://www.themetalstore.co.uk/ I have order the 0.7 mm thick and cut dimensions are:353x200. In order to avoid rust I have painted one side of each sheet with Hammerite metal paint...it is great. I would like to thank the author of the blog again for his amazing contribution to the miniatures storage and transportation solutions. Many thanks

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  12. Hi there, this is somehow related to topic - magnetic cases: www.army-case.com

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  13. Great article! I have been checking out the stuff on the Gems on Display site. I'm thinking this is the best solution when combined with magnets.
    I'm looking at the snap lid trays along with the jar/gemstone liners. Thinking this might be a good paint storage solution too.
    The snap lid liners could be good for rulebooks too.
    Also I had an idea for taller boxes...for example, use the 4" tray as the bottom, and a 2" tray as a lid. Just need to glue pegs into the upper corners of the bottom tray so the lid can attach. Since they are plastic, could also screw on some clasps.

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    1. Glad it was useful info! Years later the trays are still my favorite solution of those I've seen and I've gone back for more several times. I started using the 3" and 4" wooden trays as is and while they are not as strong as the stacked/cut trays they get the job done fine. Maybe won't use them for lead figures. Have some of the velveteen liners I use with 1" trays for unmagnetized d&d figures and epic 40k. Haven't tried the snap lid ones.

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