Thursday, 21 October 2010

Over the Rainbow

Once upon a time when I was a boy, LEGO was a pretty simple affair. Nobody ever talked about dark tan pieces, or nougat pieces, or flesh coloured minifig heads, or even Maersk Blue. We had a fairly rudimentary palette of black, blue, red, yellow and white pieces, plus a few clear transparent bricks and the odd green baseplate and tree, and we were grateful for that. Really, people today don't know they're born, with their chrome lightsaber hilts and tan cheese slopes.

Anyway, one day my parents bought me a big space ship (Set 928 Galaxy Explorer) and my world changed. OK, so the ship was mainly blue, but to my astonishment the wings were grey, the windscreen was transparent yellow and there were transparent red and green pieces stuck all over it. Honestly, it was just the sexiest thing ever.

Set 928 Galaxy Explorer - my ticket to a more colourful world
As the years passed, the LEGO colour palette continued to expand. I'm sure there were purists who probably complained bitterly, said that LEGO had sold out etc. etc., but most enthusiasts surely would have appreciated the flexibility that all these new colours brought.

And then in 2002 a dark cloud passed over the world of LEGO; for reasons explained in detail at the time and since, but which really don't make a great deal of sense to me (something to do with "creating a sustainable colour palette for the future", although others have cited a tendency for some of the original colours to fade badly in direct sunlight), the LEGO company changed some of its existing colours. The original brown colour was changed to a more red-brown shade, and the greys also changed. The dark grey became a more bluey shade of dark grey, and the light grey became a more bluey shade of light grey, nicknamed 'bley'. So just imagine - there you are, accumulating a massive collection of light grey pieces for your 500,000-piece model of Mount Rushmore or some massive castle somewhere, and then along comes someone and subtly changes the grey to a different shade, and all of a sudden the new pieces you aquire no longer match the old pieces in your collection. It's probably fair to say that all hell broke loose in some quarters as a result.

It's also a total pain for the collector trying to replacing missing pieces from older sets. The newer shade of (red-) brown is reasonably distinct from the old shade, and the newer shade of dark grey is again fairly noticeably different from the old shade, but the difference between the new and old light grey pieces can be very hard to spot unless (a) you're somewhere well lit, or (b) you mix the old and new pieces in a model and stand back, in which case you'll inevitably see the difference in colour sticking out like a sore thumb..... Man, it is such a total pain trying to tell the difference between the older and newer light grey at night when you only have a 60W light bulb for company !

New brown and greys (far right column) and the original colours (one column to the left)
These aren't the only colour issues faced by LEGO builders; there have also been concerns about variations in colour within sets. I've had personal experience of this - a distinctly greenish tinge in some of the yellow pieces in set 7997 Train Station was the first time I encountered this issue, and since then I've seen other examples, for instance some significant variations in the colour of dark red pieces in Set 10197 Fire Brigade and red-brown pieces in Set 40005 Easter Bunny which stuck out like a sore thumb after building. I have to admit I'm not unduly concerned by this, but some people do feel very strongly about it and have been extremely vocal in their criticism.

Set 40005 Easter Bunny - love the set, don't love the colour inconsistency....
I suppose one could argue that the explosion of new colours might conceivably have been responsible for these issues of colour consistency - it stands to reason that it'd be harder to keep tabs on the consistency of 100+ colours rather than just 5 or 6. Others have suggested that it's maybe because the LEGO company has expanded manufacturing to new countries such as China and quality isn't yet up to scratch. Whatever the explanation, I'm seeing some evidence from online forums that this issue is becoming less common, so fingers crossed.....

Perhaps if the LEGO company had just stuck with the traditional core colours of black, blue, red, yellow and white with the occasional splash of green and a few clear transparent pieces, this issue may never have reared its ugly head. But then the Galaxy Explorer would never have been the set it was, and I might therefore never have become an AFOL, sitting here and typing this. Which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.....


  1. Branko Dijkstra22/10/10

    Aaah yes, the Galaxy Explorer; the root of my addiction. Did you actually notice how rare and expensive that particular type of transparent yellow is? It's like gold! hey, it actually looks a bit like gold too!

  2. Ah yes, the 'bley-wars' of the early 2000s. I remember them well... It was actually 2004 when the palette was changed.

    The first sightings of the new colours were in November 2003, when someone in the US bought the new Star Wars minis. When he posted about it on Lugnet all hell broke loose and to make things worse it was before LEGO had, or were ready to, announce anything about it.

    I can't find the original thread at Lugnet (but I'd like to) but this gives a feel for the resentment felt by the community at the time:

    A lot of people were lost to the hobby as a result and indeed I stopped buying so much new stuff and it wasn't until Exo-Force was released some 2 years later that I came round to the view that, actually, the change was for the best. Now I've ditched most of my old grey and brown stock (some of it ended up in Ed's ships :-) )

  3. Thanks for the additional insights, Huw - the change from grey to bley happened during my LEGO dark ages, but the more I read about it, the more I realise what a major issue it was and how furious many people were.

    Ironically, some of the most realistic MOCs I've seen mix the old and new colours - colours are seldom homogenous in nature, be it rocks or indeed buildings like castles etc, which are built from rock. Furthermore, mixing the old and new colours in buildings, ships and other large vehicles can give them an authentic 'worn' look which is often quite convincing.

    Distinguishing grey from bley when sorting used sets in low light continues to be my main bugbear, though - almost impossible.

  4. Jason25/9/11

    Looking back on this now, it's pretty obvious why the colors were changed. No - it didn't have anything to do with being susceptible to UV light - additives are available that Bayer could have used without changing the color one bit. And yes - it really did have to do with "creating a sustainable colour palette for the future" ... they needed the color palette to match the dyes that were available for the new color-injection process. The "future" they talk about is one where LEGO makes an extra buck and same-color pieces with never quite match again.