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Put simply, are there any good tricks for keeping track of removed screws and bolts when you're dealing with a lot of them?


I'm officially one evening into an interior restoration job on my '88 BMW M5, and around twenty screws in, I've just gotten the first sticky switch out to be cleaned. I'm under the impression that just the simple task of keeping track of which length screw goes back in which hole is going to be an undertaking on its own.

Certainly for smaller jobs, it's normally no issue to just remember what came from where. But this is a fourteen-week process (at which point I get the engine back from being rebuilt), and pretty much everything needs to be taken apart. I don't expect my memory to be that good. And before you ask, of course, they're all different lengths, but the same diameter.

Are there any tips or tricks for how one can ensure the right parts go back to the right places? I'd hate to think this will be the hardest part of the whole job.


The only ideas I can think of so far are:

  • Take pictures: I've been doing this, but I'm not sure how meaningful my pictures will be. They might be more useful if I was holding every screw next to a tape measure or quarter for scale, and taking a few pictures each, but that's way too much overhead for every single screw.
  • Work in small batches: If I can reduce the number of screws I'm dealing with at any moment, that might help. But like I said, it took around twenty for me to just get this one switch out--I expect many more to get to anything meaningful.
  • Tape the screws across the holes each came out of: Most of what I'm dealing with is pretty clean, so Scotch Tape might do it, but it seems like this would run a very high risk of losing the screws if the tape didn't hold. I'm using a magnetic bowl to store my screws now, which is awesome for not losing them, but dreadful for organizing them.
  • A box for each part: From a strictly organizational perspective, it might help to have several boxes or bowls to put screws in, so I can say "all screws that go into this piece of the dash are in this box," but I'm not sure how well that would scale (how many boxes will I need!), and it wouldn't suffice alone if one part had a lot of screws.
  • Buy a Bentley Manual: I don't remember whether they list screw sizes (probably), but if so, a nice and clean solution--just worry about it later and read the manual when I need to put it together--except there isn't one for this car, and documentation is few and far between because the car is so rare.

Any advice would be appreciated, as I'm really not sure what to do. It's such a simple and frivolous problem in the scheme of things, but I'm seriously worried about getting it all back together.

I know this stuff tends to work out when you don't overthink it, so maybe I should just ignore it and do my best. I'd just like to think there was something better.

  • 1
    Meta comment: please, of course, feel free to retag if there are more suitable ones from someone more familiar with the site. screw doesn't feel particularly strong to me. – Matthew Haugen Dec 21 '15 at 3:17
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    Best not to overtook it, I agree! I have had great results with the "bag-n-tag" approach. Also, see how this DIY-er used styrofoam cups and strips of paper to store and organize the various screw and bolts that came out during dashboard disassembly: youtu.be/o3CP9RXiX0M . I'll post an answer later. – Zaid Dec 21 '15 at 3:41
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This is the sort of thing where one should let common sense prevail¹.

Based on my experience, a thorough job will keep track of the following aspects:

  • storage - ensuring that the part isn't misplaced when it's time to put everything back together

  • location - where that screw/bolt/nut/washer/grommet/O-ring is supposed to go

  • sequence - the order of disassembly and subsequent assembly

If any of these isn't accounted for, that's when cars end up with, errr, unexpected weight loss.


I've had good success with zip-lock sandwich bags, sticky labels and a pen. Others will swear by pieces of paper in a Styrofoam cup. Sometimes you can keep the fasteners attached to the disassembled part.

It makes sense to group bolts/screws/fasteners based on location or what they fasten on to. Use labels or photographs to keep track of what goes where.

One suggestion here is to add numbers to the label in order to preserve the sequence of disassembly. When it's time to put everything back together it should make it a whole lot easier to reverse the steps.

In case you need to maintain the order of parts or fasteners within a group, mark up an empty pizza box or ice cube tray and push them through to preserve sequence. This works well for valves, valve lifters, valve springs, etc.

Documenting through photographs can be painstaking and time-consuming, but I consider them essential where sequence is confusing or location is critical. This photo of my E39 M5 oil pump bolts turned out to be well worth the effort when the time came to button it up.

E39 Oil Pump Bolts


¹ - Although, to quote Voltaire, "Common sense is not so common"

  • 2
    This is essentially the answer that I was going to write. I have an additional step before bagging: Altoids tins with a powerful magnet (from a hard drive) on the bottom. That way I don't have to manage little baggies while I'm taking fiddly screws out. Drop the screw into the tin and tick it sticks in place. Manage the baggies after you've finished a set from a particular location. Pro tip: this also works well when disassembling laptops.... – Bob Cross Dec 21 '15 at 10:48
  • @BobCross - As per your "Pro tip" ... just don't use powerful magnets in conjunction with computer parts ... unexpected results may occur ;-) – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Dec 21 '15 at 11:36
  • @Paulster2, my magnets come from hard drives. The effects that occur are all entirely expected! ;-) – Bob Cross Dec 21 '15 at 13:01
  • @BobCross - Yes, watch your fingers with those things when you get them near each other!!! :D Love to play with them, though, lol! – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Dec 21 '15 at 15:59
9

One trick I've used before is to draw an outline of the part on a sheet of paper, then push the screws/bolts through the paper in the right places - this does both the association with the part and with the location, useful for things with different length bolts...

Another trick, as per Zaid's comment, is to use sandwich bags, which can be labelled as to where their contents come from.

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    Pizza boxes and ice cube trays for keeping track of valves, rockers, etc. :) – Zaid Dec 21 '15 at 10:07
1

A quick and dirty way to avoid tracking every fastener individually is to mark the common fasteners & locations with a paint pen.

1/4"-20 x 1-1/2" (Let's say this is common in your case) bolts get a dab of paint and IN the hole for identification later.

Other uncommon fasteners should be more obvious. If the job is particularly complex, blend this quick-identification method with a more complex tracking mechanism.

1

i prefer the IKEA way. you may have tons of screws but the actual number of screw types will be far less (to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible). Number the types, group the screws by type and stick numbered label on every single screw hole.

The other method for very small screws:

draw a sketch of the parts on paper and stick the screws on the paper on the right place.

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Step 1:Pile em all in magnetic tray Step2: when time comes re assemble Step 3: if screw doesn’t fit, try another screw Step 4: Any remaining screws = spontaneous weight shedding.

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    The number of left over screws is the indicator of the level of incompetence... – Solar Mike Aug 31 at 7:53

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