I am a life long Lego Maniac, and my kits from when I was a kid were passed down to my nephew, who has just passed them down to my son (40 years of history...). The trouble is that none of my old plans/directions are still around, and neither are the plans/direction from my nephew's kits. My nephew and I started to do a quick inventory, but he couldn't remember all of the kits that were in the hoard (3 LARGE boxes so far). Is there an easy way to figure this out? Does LEGO offer any of their old plans for free online or will I need to pay for them? Can any one offer help in identifying some of the fairly recent stuff? I can post images if needed. Some of the newer parts are quite unique.
Your best shot is to identify individual piece and look them up on Peeron or BrickLink. Since both carry set inventories, you'll be able to find lists of sets in which the parts can be found. Try to start with more bizarre parts, chances are they are in a few models only.
Once you're sure you've found a model for which you've all the parts, build it using old instruction scans from PICSL.
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Lego has an online page that can be used to download manuals in PDF format. Unfortunately, the page mentions that manuals are only available for kits that were released in 2002 or later:
You might want to contact Lego customer service to see if they might be able to direct you to other resources for these older kits. According to squidoo.com, Lego customer service can provide older instructions for a fee. That page also lists several alternate resource that you can search to find older manuals for free: