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 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 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.


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!