Wednesday, 31 August 2011

I am One !

Surprisingly, this blog is one year old today, Wednesday August 31st 2011. I say "surprisingly" because I didn't expect to be able to maintain my initial enthusiasm for more than a few weeks when I started out this time last year. I also say "surprisingly" because I didn't really expect anyone to read it, to be honest. But against the odds it's still here, I'm still posting, and you're still here as well, according to the stats tab on my dashboard and the comments that you send me.
Time for some cake, and that's no lie.... (image from www.vexforum.com)
Given that the blog seems to be here to stay, I've recently added an Index in the interests of trying to make it a bit more user-friendly; the more eagle-eyed among you will already have spotted the link to this, imaginatively entitled "Index", under the "PAGES" heading near the top of the right sidebar. OK, so the availability of an index isn't very exciting, but it's necessary I think; since the blog went live I've posted more than 70 entries on a variety of subjects, and up until now the only way that a reader has been able to find posts on subjects that interest them the most is by trial and error. The index, which I'm currently populating with links to every single post I've ever made on here, will allow readers to look through subject headings and quickly and (hopefully) easily access posts discussing the things they actually want to read about.

Something else that I've recently added is a Search plug-in, again with the aim of making the blog easier to navigate as the back catalogue gradually increases in size. I've customized the search function so it'll return hits from both the blog and also sites that this blog links to from within the postings (such as Brickset), and you can find it under the title banner at the top of the right sidebar.

Finally, I've recently added a further new feature called "Bargain Hunt !", which is again linked from the "PAGES" menu on the right. I don't like paying full price for LEGO and hence regularly check the likes of Amazon in particular for bargains. Given this, I've started to post details of the best deals that I come across on the Bargain Hunt page so that other people can check them out and maybe get a bargain as well. I've been experimenting with this feature for a couple of weeks already and trying out a variety of different formats, so don't be surprised if the format continues to change over time as I try to figure out more elegant ways of doing things. Because it's only me here, and I have limited time, I'm only able to sniff out and post deals from Amazon's U.K. and U.S. sites at the moment, so apologies to readers outside the U.K. and U.S.. Please however feel free to send me links to any particularly good deals you find in your countries and if they look genuine I'll consider adding them to the list. If you order items by clicking on the Bargain Hunt links it brings a small amount of revenue into the site. The Bargain Hunt feature is work in progress, and I'd be particularly keen to get feedback from you on the format and things I might be able to do to improve it.

So that's a few of the things that I've been up to recently. The core of the blog is, and will remain, my weekly postings, but hopefully the new features will make the blog easier to navigate and maybe help you find some good deals as well. And now I'd be interested to hear from you - do you have any suggestions for things that you'd like to see more or less of on here ? Or should I just keep things as they are ? Please feel free to leave comments below or e-mail me your suggestions via the contact button in the right sidebar.

Thanks for reading, and happy birthday to me !

David.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Set 10221 Super Star Destroyer is now available !

After months of anticipation, it appears that the beast is finally here and available to buy in the UK and the USA !


If you need a reminder you can read my long, detailed and probably over-inclusive review here.


And if you're UK-based and ready to take the plunge then click the image below to be taken to the LEGO website where you can place your order....

icon

I hope you enjoy building it as much as I did !

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

"That's no moon....."

".....It's a space station". OK, so Ben Kenobi was actually referring to the first Death Star at the time, but it's too good a quote to worry about minor details like that.....

I bought Set 10143 Death Star II from an eBay seller back in early 2009 for a little under £150 + shipping. Not MISB, unfortunately, but complete and boxed with instructions. That I didn't get round to building it until a few weeks ago when when it was needed for the Brickish Association exhibition at the UK National Space Centre speaks volumes about my lack of enthusiasm for the set. As a LEGO Star Wars collector I was always going to buy a copy, and I could certainly appreciate what looked like an impressive bit of design from a technical perspective. Truth be told, however, I had a strong suspicion that the build itself might turn out to be a seriously tedious exercise in stacking grey plates one on top of another for days on end. Building large Star Wars UCS sets can sometimes get a bit repetitive, and Death Star II is particularly grey, and carries the promise of considerable repetition. Still, duty called, so I gritted my teeth and got stuck in.....


It's a big set - 3441 pieces, which by my reckoning means it ranks fifth in the all-time list of biggest LEGO sets ever ranked by piece count. Released in 2005, it had a RRP of £249.99 in the UK, or $269.99 for our American cousins who really don't appreciate how lucky they are when it comes to the price of LEGO in their country....

The solitary instruction manual is spiral bound and thinner than I expected given the huge piece count. The instructions were clear and easy to follow.





















As usual, I sorted the parts into 3 large crates - small pieces 2x2 or less, plates larger than 2x2, and everything else. Predictably, the vast majority of parts were plates - literally a dispiriting sea of bley swimming before my eyes....

After sorting was complete, the first building task was to construct the stand, around which Death Star II would gradually coalesce. Serial build pictures can be found below - click to enlarge.

















Consistent with other Star Wars UCS sets, Death Star II comes with a plaque (below). This attaches to the base of the stand and gives us Star Wars obsessives a number of invaluable nuggets of information to bore everybody else to death with. Did you know, for instance, that Death Star II is 160 kilometers in diameter and has a quadanium steel hull ? No, me neither. I almost hesitate to mention that Wookiepedia gives the diameter of Death Star II as 900 kilometers, but we'll not get into that right now....


Once the stand is completed it's time to start building the actual Death Star itself. First of all the sections forming half of the Death Star's equator are constructed and put into position.




(Rotated 180 degrees)
















Then it's time to start carefully attaching the panels which make up the outer surface. These panels are connected to each other via the use of Technic Connectors angled just right to approximate the curve of the Death Star's surface - clever and effective.



(Rotated 180 degrees)
















The next stage of the build is the construction of the complex exposed sections (below) which give the Death Star II its iconic "work in progress" appearance in Return of the Jedi. These sections are built up layer by layer, and are predictably fiddly and repetitive to put together. As a result, the "x 2" which appears in the instruction manual when the first of these sections is completed must rank as one of the more depressing sights in my LEGO building career to date....


Tedious or not, the finished effect is pretty impressive. Manoeuvring the two completed sections into place (one of them upside down) was tricky and took a few attempts, but once installed I could breathe a big sigh of relief.



(Rotated 180 degrees)
















The gap between the upper and lower exposed sections was then covered over, completing the 'equatorial trench' running around the entire circumference of the Death Star. Some external detailing (hanging down over the lower exposed section, visible in the picture below) was also added at this stage.


The next job was to complete the sphere by constructing the surface of the last remaining quadrant. Once again, the panels making up the outer skin were connected by way of angled Technic Connectors, with a large space left to accommodate the Death Star II's primary weapon.





















Just prior to installation of the final panels came the long-anticipated task of constructing the Death Star's superlaser, replete with a riot of neon green laser fire.... Yep - "that thing's operational !"


Then the final panels were put into place, completing Death Star II. The icing on the cake was a mini Super Star Destroyer (SSD) which was placed into orbit around the main model.


















You can see the finished model below, no doubt caught in the act of firing on a hapless MC80 Mon Calamari Star Cruiser, and complete with its orbiting SSD.



So the verdict ? Well, it's certainly bigger than I expected, and it weighs a ton. It's also less fragile than I thought it would be, having survived being hauled around my house to various display locations and also being transported to and from the recent Brickish Association display at the National Space Centre entirely intact. The build technique used to approximate the Death Star's surface curvature is clever and effective, as is the method used to mimic the 'unfinished' areas of the space station, and while close-up you can obviously see gaps between panels, the model looks pretty impressive from a bit further back. And as I think the pictures below demonstrate, while not exactly accurate, it's certainly an immediately recognisable representation of the source material.


(Picture from thefathead.com)

In terms of the overall building experience, yes - it was, as expected, pretty repetitive at times, although not as tedious as I thought it'd be. It's hard to estimate total construction time as I split the build over a number of evenings and was slowed down by the process of trying to capture a reasonable set of pictures as I went along. Plus I'm just a really slow builder anyway.

As stated earlier, the driver for building the set was a display of Star Wars UCS sets at the UK National Space Centre in July 2011. You can see a picture from the exhibition below, showing the finished model in the esteemed company of a number of other UCS sets.


So in summary, it's an impressive model which utilises some clever building techniques. Sure, it was a bit of a slog to build at times, but not half as bad as I expected. And it's a serious parts pack if you're into bley plates.....

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Power of Advertising

Something strange happened to me during a recent business trip. I was tired and a bit miserable after a long flight from the UK, and despite the grey, chilly weather outside I decided to go for a walk to clear my head before meeting with some colleagues. My hotel was situated near to an insanely busy road which was literally choked with huge trucks pumping out fumes. It was a truly dismal, depressing scene. And then something happened which instantly lifted my spirits and put a smile on my face - as I was waiting to cross the road, a truck went past, on the back of which was a large metal intermodal shipping container with the "Maersk" logo stamped on the side. Like the ones in the picture below, in fact.....

Something to cheer you up.......?
Crazy, isn't it ? That the sight of a Maersk logo in a far-flung location was enough to cheer me up ? Given that to the best of my knowledge I've never had any direct dealings with the Maersk company (although they've no doubt shipped many of my consumer durables around the world over the years without my knowledge) I can only surmise that my affection for this large, Danish company is their well-established association with fellow Danes LEGO. And more specifically, their association with some excellent LEGO sets....

A search of the trusty Brickset database reveals 7 sets with the word "Maersk" in the title. I unfortunately only own a couple of them, but they're both IMHO superb. Most recently, I picked up Set 10219 Maersk Train (pic below) which I plan to run on my LEGO City layout when the thing is finally finished (don't hold your breath on that one, though - still waiting for parts....). I think the Maersk Train ranks alongside the likes of the lovely Set 10020 Santa Fe Super Chief and Set 10133 Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) in terms of realism, and really the only downside from my perspective is that some of the parts needed to motorise it, including the motor itself, have been out of stock at LEGO S@H ever since I bought it.....


The other Maersk-branded set I own is set 10152 Maersk Sealand Container Ship. There's a veritable feast of old-fashioned ships in the LEGO back catalogue (most recently Set 4195 Queen Anne's Revenge from the Pirates of the Carribbean movie, and the beautiful Set 10210 Imperial Flagship) but the Maersk Sealand ship is one of the few more modern ships that LEGO has attempted a vaguely accurate rendition of, and I've loved it ever since I first saw it.


Up until recently, it was relatively hard to get hold of the set, which was originally produced for employees of the Maersk company in 2004 but subsequently appeared for a short time at LEGO S@H. LEGO surprisingly re-released the set as 10155 Maersk Line Container Ship in January 2011, however, and other than a change to the stickers on account of the name change, it's my understanding that the set is pretty much identical to the previous version; as I write this, it's still available in bricks and mortar LEGO brand stores and also online at LEGO S@H, although from what I'm hearing it might not be for much longer, so go get it before it disappears, perhaps forever this time....

Of the other Maersk-branded sets, well, I think I'm going to have to want them pretty badly if I'm ever going to aquire them.... At the time of writing there aren't any examples of 1974's Set 1650 Maersk Line Container Ship for sale on eBay on either side of the pond, for instance, and the cheapest Set 1650 for sale on Bricklink would cost me more than £300, with the cheapest MISB example on sale for more than £1650 at current exchange rates... Meanwhile, an unboxed Set 1651 Maersk Line Container Lorry from 1981, without instructions, would set me back more than £500 on Bricklink, and the only MISB example on Bricklink is listed at well over £3000.... You can see pics of a few of these rare, branded sets below (click to enlarge). Nice, but at those prices, I think I'll have to pass....

Set 1650 Maersk Line Container Ship


Set 1651 Maersk Line Container Truck

Set 1552 Maersk Truck and Trailer Unit











In addition to the fact that the Maersk-branded sets are generally nicely designed and desirable sets in their own right, there's another reason to covet them - Maersk Blue (pic below).
A crate of Maersk Blue bricks. But they're not mine. Unfortunately.
It seemed amazing to me when I first became aware of it a few years back, but LEGO produced, and continue to produce, pieces in a particular shade of blue just for the Maersk sets. And not just any blue, but a really nice shade of blue; lighter than the standard blue LEGO bricks, slightly greener than medium blue, it's just a really nice colour. And it's unfortunately rare because it only appears in the Maersk sets, making it all the more desirable.....

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Every cloud.....

I'm not a fan of flying. The motion makes me want to throw up, and I don't like the air conditioning, the noise, blocked ears as the plane descends, the food, "doors to manual and cross-check", screaming children in the next row, or any of it really. And that's before you even consider airport security prior to the flight and then queuing up for hours to get your passport checked when you eventually arrive.....

I stumbled across a partial antidote to my grumpiness on a recent long haul British Airways flight, however. While idly flicking through the duty free magazine, as you do on a 12 hour-plus flight, I was gratified to see some LEGO nestling among the perfumes, booze and other stuff. And better still, it was a set I didn't already have  - Set 7696 Commuter Jet. So I snapped it up and managed to get it home intact.


Although the box carries the "City" label and branding, it's apparently a promotional item only available from certain airlines. I was hoping it'd have the BA logo on the tail, but it appears that the sets aren't airline-specific which is understandable but a shame nonetheless.


The set contains 108 pieces. All but 2 of the pieces were sealed inside 2 bags. Somewhat bizarrely, a white wedge plate making up the leading edge of one of the wings was loose within the box, but the equivalent part for the other wing was sealed inside one of the bags. The other loose piece was a black 2x12 plate.

The set contains 2 minifigures (below) - a pilot and a passenger - and it appears that both of them are exclusive to this set. Random thought - why isn't the pilot wearing a hat ? I don't think I've ever seen a pilot in uniform without a hat, either in real life or in LEGO life....



The plane itself is a quick and simple build; it includes a pleasing sprinkling of dark blue pieces, but the parts palette is otherwise unremarkable. The design is somewhat reminiscent of the plane in the 2008 Air Mail set, albeit not yellow, a few studs longer and with jet engines rather than props. The logo on the tail is a sticker, and is the same as the logo on the tail of Set 3181 Passenger Plane, and also the plane in Set 3182 Airport.


The finished model isn't exactly sleek, but it's at least chunky and swooshable; some of the recent planes including 3181 and 3182 mentioned above have custom-molded cockpit sections, which means that the Commuter Jet looks somewhat retro in comparison. Given my dislike of large, custom parts, however, I guess I can't really complain. One thing I'm not impressed about however is the main 'play feature', namely the ability to open the fuselage in order to put the passenger in his seat. As you may be able to see from the picture below (click to enlarge) the roof tilts up by way of 2 large hinge plates which are so stiff that the roof invariably breaks apart rather than opening as intended - it's really not a very impressive piece of design....


If you're not planning a long haul flight on one of the qualifying airlines anytime soon and you're based in the UK you can pick this set up online for £15 + delivery from the British Airways High Life shop - at the time of writing there are 22 in stock. OK, so it's hardly a bargain for 108 pieces, but it's probably still worthwhile if you're an inveterate completist like me, and/or a minifig collector given the 2 exclusive minifigs in the set.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Change of Plan ?

I've always found the phrase "The Devil finds work for idle hands" a bit creepy, but I have to admit that it can sometimes be true. Well, metaphorically at least.

You may recall that work on my LEGO City layout came to a grinding halt a month or so back as I was waiting on some specific pieces that I needed to proceed. Then came the frantic rush to complete a number of LEGO Star Wars UCS sets in time for the Brickish Association LEGO show at the UK National Space Centre. That's now done and dusted, however, so my mind has returned to the work at hand, namely making some progress on my City layout. Problem is, the awaited Light Bley bricks still haven't arrived, and thus my 'idle hands' have had to busy themselves with something else. More specifically, I've started to re-examine some of the layout design choices I made initially, and as a result experiment with some alternatives....

Firstly, the track layout. The original plan was to have a completely enclosed lower loop of track running within the lower level of the layout, with an independent upper loop of track plus sidings etc. running at ground level. Then some bright spark suggested that it would be really cool if there was some way of linking the lower and upper track loops together so that a train could travel between the lower and upper levels of the layout. While twiddling my thumbs waiting for my missing pieces to arrive, I started thinking this suggestion over, and decided that it would indeed be cool if I could carry this off. It was however quickly evident that it probably wouldn't be as simple as it sounded.... After picking the brains of a few people on the Brickset Forum, the consensus seemed to be that in order for a LEGO train to be able to reliably negotiate a gradient, it would be inadvisable for the track to rise by more than one plate in height for every standard section of track. Given that the upper level of my layout will be around 13 bricks higher than the lower level, that's nearly 40 track sections required to get a train from the lower level to the upper level. Still, I sensed a challenge, so got cracking trying to see how it might work, and you can see the results of my experiment below; click to enlarge the pics.

Before.......
......and after !


As you can see, a whole circuit of inclined track was required to raise the level by just 13 bricks ! The gradient looked pathetically shallow to me, and I initially thought that the "one plate per track section" advice would turn out to be too conservative, but I soon discovered that it was spot on - my Emerald Night struggled to negotiate the curved track sections at anything other than full speed due to insufficient traction between the wheels and the track. You can see Emerald Night hauling herself up and down the slope in the short video clip below.

video

In practice, Emerald Night won't be used on the lower section of track - she won't fit comfortably within the tunnels which will enclose the lower loop, and hence wouldn't have to negotiate the gradient anyway. My choice for the lower loop is the train from Set 7938 Passenger Train with a couple of extra coaches bolted on for good measure, and it's this train which would have to scale the gradient if I decide to go with it, so my next job is to unseal the box, build it, and see how it fares on the uphill section.

Set 7938 Passenger Train - my choice for the underground tunnels
Including a link between the track loops might seem like a good idea, but it would substantially impact the design of the layout above ground. As the train negotiates the gradient, more and more of it would appear above ground level, meaning that I'd need to somehow accomodate a cutting running pretty much the entire length of the uphill section. This in turn would dramatically reduce the usable area for building on at ground level unless I can find a way of adequately landscaping over the cutting and building on top. It seems a daunting prospect for a relatively modest reward, but I'll keep mulling it over, and if anyone has any good ideas then I'd be delighted to hear them....

The other potentially significant design change I've been contemplating concerns the road system at ground level. Early on during the design process, MOC builder extraordinaire legoloverman aka Pete asked me whether I'd be using brick-built roads in my layout. My response was that it'd be nice to do, but that I wanted to try and keep things relatively simple to start with so as to maximise my chances of actually getting the layout built. I won't quote his response here, but suffice to say he was not in agreement..... Even so, I went ahead with the plan to use standard LEGO road plates in my design (click pic below for a reminder).


I've recently started to question that decision, however. Occupying a maximum area of 2.25m x 1.25m, my layout really isn't that big, and use of road plates would I think waste precious space, particularly as a result of excessively wide pavement areas. Also, the road plates are very inflexible - if you don't want a straight, curve, 'T' junction or crossroads then tough..... Finally, brick-built roads would look less generic and, I suspect, just better full-stop (or 'period', if you're an American). So time for another experiment, then ! There are a number of useful resources on the Web for anyone considering brick-built roads, and a number of techniques from simple to highly complex (you can get a taste here). After some enjoyable messing around, the result of my road building experiment can be seen below (click pics to enlarge).

Experimenting with brick-built roads, with help from Green Grocer...














Emerald Night pays a visit

So will I change tack and use brick built roads instead ? Well, I'm not sure yet, to be honest - they certainly look good to me, and the section I attempted wasn't too hard to build or integrate with other aspects of the layout (although to be fair I haven't attempted to build a junction or a curve yet...). It would however require one hell of a lot of Dark Bley bricks, not to mention a handy number of white and yellow plates, all of which I'd have to source. I'm definitely leaning towards doing this, however....

And as for linking the upper and lower track loops ? Well, once again it's a nice idea, but I'm wary of the impact that this would have on my building area at surface level, so unless I or any of you can come up with a viable workaround I'll probably not run with this idea. We shall see !

<-- LEGO City layout : previous blog entry        LEGO City layout : next blog posting -->