Thursday 30 June 2011

Breaking ground

Breaking ground. It's a term sometimes used to describe the point at which the design process stops and construction, or more specifically digging the foundations, starts. The good news is that I now have some of the parts I need to start building my LEGO City layout (look here for details). But the bad news is that I don't yet have the parts to allow me to build very much..... My meagre progress to date can be surveyed below (click pics to enlarge).

OK, so 24 baseplates and an oval of track might not look like much, but it's a start. And as well as the symbolic act of having finally moved beyond the design stage, it means that I finally have a complete and permanent oval of track to run a train on. This is a source of considerable delight to my son, and I have to confess, to me as well. We've finally been able to give the Emerald Night a good run on a decent stretch of track, with the promise of more to come....

Even at this early stage I've had to overcome a couple of building challenges. Firstly, how to lay curved track over the corner baseplates. Not too tough, thankfully - it was as simple as raising the track to a height of one plate above the baseplates all the way round. This was accomplished via a large handful of dark bley 1x2 and 2x2 plates which secured the straight track sections to the baseplates, while the curved sections were anchored at either end via 1x2 plates and then supported throughout their length by strategically-placed dark bley tiles. I did investigate the possibility of using 2x2 turntables to attach the curved sections to the baseplates, but after some experimentation it became clear that this wasn't really necessary, and that just providing support with tiles would be sufficient. It's admittedly not the tidiest solution, but once the track is fully enclosed the supporting tiles won't be visible anyway, so no harm done.

The other challenge I've faced required a more drastic solution. Due to the length of the straight track sections and the geometry of the curves, the baseplates at the corners of the layout initially jutted out by 2 studs in an unsightly fashion which you can see here. After trying to figure out a way of dealing with this without expanding the layout by 2 studs all the way round (not a satisfactory option given that the layout will already overlap the edges of the table by a couple of studs) I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the best solution would be to physically trim the baseplates to fit. A plea to the Brickish Association forums for tips on cutting LEGO baseplates yielded some useful advice, and a few swipes of a craft knife later the evil deed was done; you can see the results below. The cut edges could do with a rub with some fine sandpaper, but you get the general idea....

If there are any LEGO purists out there preparing to berate me for my heinous willful LEGO vandalism then save it - I'm done agonising about it for now. And it's just the beginning - completing the corner sections of the layout will necessitate me cutting a number of dark bley 16x16 baseplates down to 14x14 studs, so apologies in advance. You'll just need to trust me - it'll all be worth it in the end. Hopefully.

The 16x16 baseplates will hopefully arrive within the next month, after which all I'll be waiting for are some light bley bricks and then I can crack on with building the tunnel that'll enclose the track. I'll post another update when the parts have arrived and building can recommence.

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

Wednesday 22 June 2011


I've received a few messages of late asking me how I'm getting on with the LEGO city layout I wrote about on these pages a while back, so I figured it was probably about time that I provided a brief progress report.

On the surface, it might appear that progress has been non-existent, given that more than 6 months after taking my first, faltering design steps using LDD I've built almost nothing at all. Truth be told, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that if you want to build something fairly large out of LEGO, the actual process of building is the least of your worries....

To recap, last time I wrote about this project (November last year, believe it or not) I had already designed much of the lower level of my city layout using LDD. My plan was for the lower level to basically consist of an oval of railway track running completely enclosed within a tunnel. The outer wall of the tunnel would be made up of open arches so that you could see the train running within, and a section of tunnel on one side of the layout would be cut away to reveal an underground station platform with broad steps leading up to ground level (pics below - click to enlarge). The upper level of the layout, featuring another oval of track plus sidings, roads, buildings, vehicles and landscaping, would then somehow sit on top of this lower level.

Work In Progress : LDD Screengrab of MOC City Layout
I encountered an interesting issue as my virtual creation grew ever bigger; as the number of virtual bricks increased, LDD became increasingly sluggish. This problem was greatly magnified when I merged a few LDD files including some Modular Buildings and incorporated them into the upper level of the layout, whereupon LDD slowed to a crawl and became almost unusable. Evidently, LDD is clearly not designed to cope with large creations such as this this, and I consequently had to abandon any notion of designing the whole layout in one go within LDD.

Work In Progress : LDD Screengrab - experimenting with merging LDD files....

In parallel with my design trials and travails, I needed to carefully think through exactly where in my house I’d physically be able to put the model. I’d always planned on having a permanent set up in my study which I could work on over weeks (or more likely months or years….) and admire without interruption, and I estimated that the biggest I could realistically make it without it preventing me from using my study for work or other things was around 1.25 metres x 2.5 metres. I therefore needed to ensure that my LDD design didn’t exceed these dimensions. When you mark out an area of 1.25 metres x 2.50 metres on the floor, it looks like a respectable size for a layout, but in truth, you can’t fit a huge amount of LEGO track in a space of that size. I found that realisation somewhat disheartening, but I got over it pretty quickly and resolved to press on and just make the best layout I could in the space available.

Another thing I needed to consider was how best to position the model for building and display. The simplest and cheapest solution is just to build and display on the floor, but I quickly discounted that option for a number of reasons. Firstly, I decided that it'd be thoroughly miserable and frankly back-breaking to spend all those hours on my knees hunched over it while I was building. Secondly, I figured that the layout would be more agreeable to look at and interact with if it was at waist height. And thirdly, I'm desperate for storage space to accommodate my collection of LEGO (aren't we all ?) and I concluded that were I to elevate the layout somehow I would be able to use the space underneath for storage. I therefore made the decision to build the layout on top of something, and set about trying to figure out what that 'something' might be and where I might find it. After trawling the websites of all manner of furniture stores, D.I.Y. stores, hardware stores, large supermarkets and frankly anything else I could think of looking for something suitable, I eventually settled on some INGO dining tables from Ikea. These self-assembly pine dining tables measure 75 cm wide by 125 cm long by 73 cm high; three of them side by side therefore almost completely fill the maximum space available to me. Also, they're unfussy, they have lots of space underneath for storage, and they're ridiculously cheap at just £29 each. And as an added bonus, being pine they smell nice....

Assembling the tables was a breeze, and before long they were comfortably installed in my study. The space beneath was rapidly occupied by a variety of LEGO sets, and I had my blank canvass upon which to fashion a masterpiece......

Something to build on.....

...and somewhere to store some sets.

Except of course there's something missing. Something pretty important, actually. An area of 1.25 metres by 2.25 metres might not accommodate a very large train layout, but it can sure as hell accommodate a lot of LEGO bricks.... And that's really where much of the last 6 months has gone - accumulating the large number of bricks needed to make a meaningful start on the build. Bricklink, PaB, LUGBULK, my childhood LEGO collection - all these and more have been raided for the parts I'll need. My boxed, official sets were spared, but anything and everything else has been fair game in my quest for suitable building materials. And over the past week I've finally got to the stage where I can start to build. Of which more next time...........

LEGO City Layout : next blog entry -->

Sunday 12 June 2011

And the Mystery MOC is.....

OK, so enough already. It's literally months ago that I teased people with a sneak peek of the pieces from a LEGO Star Wars UCS MOC that I'd bought from eBay (you can read about it here if you missed it the first time). A surprisingly large number of people contacted me or left comments and tried to guess what the model was, but only Anio and Cavegod got it right - well done, guys ! I have to say I thought the bag of red pieces would be a bit of a dead giveaway, but clearly not......

Anyway, in case you're still wondering what I bought, it's high time I put you out of your misery - it's a Venator Class Star Destroyer. According to the seller, it's made up of over 2600 parts, and is around three-quarters of a metre long and a third of a metre wide. It certainly looked awesome in the eBay listing, so after some negotiations with the seller I shut my eyes, gritted my teeth and shelled out the cash....

First impressions were excellent - the parts arrived in a sturdy box with a picture of the model on the front (pic above; click to enlarge), and everything had been securely packaged for shipping so arrived in tip-top condition. All the parts were bagged up in pristine new self-seal bags. According to the seller, more than 95% of the parts were brand new, although due to sourcing difficulties a few had been previously used. Also in the box was a USB memory stick containing a PDF of the instructions and other documentation, and a sticker sheet, of which more later.

I quickly set about sorting all the parts into three clear crates in time-honoured fashion - small pieces 2x2 studs or less in one crate, plates bigger than 2x2 studs in another and everything else in the third - and got ready to build. Given that the instructions were 'home-made' they were pretty good, although certainly harder to follow than official LEGO instructions. Colour discrimination was tricky at times (particularly black and dark blue-grey), and some building steps involved large numbers of pieces, but progress was generally reasonably straightforward. The first stage of construction involved building a rigid frame out of Technic beams, with hinged plates to make the distinctive angles, and two sturdy stands were then bolted on to the frame (see below).

Next came the slightly tedious task of covering the outer surface of the frame with detailed greebles, and then the more interesting task of constructing the brick-built tail section and impressively detailed engines. Technic axles were employed to stop the sizeable engines from sagging, and I was pleasantly surprised how sturdy the engines turned out to be.

Once the frame and engine sections were complete, it was time to start putting some skin on the bare bones. Similar to Set 10030 Ultimate Collectors Series Imperial Star Destroyer (ISD), the upper and lower surfaces attach to the frame by way of magnets, although I'm pleased to report that the magnets on the Venator seem less prone to letting ago at the slightest provocation than those employed in the construction of the ISD. Another improvement over the ISD is the use of tiling on the upper and lower surfaces, adding a distinctly polished air to proceedings. I turned the model upside down in the picture below so you can see the lower surface with the distinctive red centre stripe and observe how the stand pylons pass through.

Once the lower surface was in place it was time to construct and attach the upper surface. You can see in the close-up below the magnets used to anchor the upper surface in place; these magnets and their holders attach to the frame via Technic pins.

Similar to the lower surface, the upper surface is tiled, even featuring a blocky, tiled representation of the red and tan Open Circle Fleet emblem. The upper and lower surfaces attached easily to the frame, being pulled into the correct position by the magnets and automatically bending at various hinged points to accomodate the underlying frame - nice !

The final major part of the build was the dorsal command structure, which includes the twin bridge sections. This structure slots neatly into place over the yellow guides visible in the picture above.

Once the dorsal command structure (above) is in place, the ship itself is done, and you can see pictures of the completed ship below (as ever, click to enlarge the pics).

The final task was to build the stand for the name plaque. The model came with a sticker sheet containing 2 different types of sticker to choose from. I plumped for the predominantly monochrome option which was designed to look like the plaque from an official UCS set, although the alternative colour version also looked excellent.

So, all done, and I'm delighted with it. As well as looking sleek and polished, I'm also extremely impressed with the stability of the finished model - it feels extremely well bolted together. It certainly wins out in terms of polish and stability in comparison with Set 10030 UCS Imperial Star Destroyer, although the ISD does admittedly take the plaudits from the perspective of sheer jaw-dropping size and impact.

Downsides ? Well, there's the cost of the set, which was considerable, although reasonable I think given the piece count and the effort required to source everything. The instructions were tricky to follow in places. There were also a few key pieces missing; some I could source from existing sets, but a couple I had to order from Bricklink which while not particularly expensive, did mean I had to put the building effort on hold for about a week. There was also a smattering of old grey parts in amongst all the blue-grey pieces. These old grey parts certainly stand out to my eye, and you can even see a couple in the pictures above. While it's always possible that the inclusion of these pieces was deliberate, and to me at least they really don't detract from the model, I'm pretty certain that's not the case. Still, all bar one of the old grey pieces are also available in blue-grey, and it'd be cheap and easy to replace those that are visible with blue-grey equivalents should I choose to do this, so a minor gripe, basically. Suffice to say that the downsides are far outweighed by the positives, so I definitely have no regrets.

A note about the designer; when I bought the model, I assumed that the seller had designed it himself, but it transpired that he'd actually bought the instructions from eBay and then sourced parts. I've been informed that the model was based on an original design by Primus. although if you know different then please let me know so the designer gets appropriate credit.

If you want to see this Venator "in the flesh", it'll be on display along with a large number of other Star Wars UCS models, both official and unofficial, at the UK's National Space Centre in Leicester on July 16th and 17th 2011, as part of a larger LEGO display being put on by the Brickish Association. Hope to see you there !

Edit - thanks to Anio, who identified the designer as Primus.

Sunday 5 June 2011

First impressions....

.....are pretty favourable, to be honest. I'm talking about my first brush with sets from the new "Cars" theme.

Given the glut of excellent new sets during the second half of 2011, not least the superb Alien Conquest sets, PotC, Pet Shop and others, I had always intended to pass on the Cars sets. I assumed that they would be dumbed down for a younger audience, and that there'd be an emphasis on play features rather than an interesting building experience and models that would be fun to own and display. So not my cup of tea, basically.

I was forced to re-examine my preconceptions somewhat when the first set images started to appear, however. Yes, it certainly looked like some of the models were going to turn out to be a bit of a "build in your sleep" experience, but there was the promise of at least one new colour and a number of new parts appearing in the sets. Also, and more importantly, the likenesses of many of the prominent "characters" from the Cars movies - Lightning McQueen, Tow Mater, Luigi, Guido and Sally - looked to have been quite well captured, and the sets in general appeared to possess a vibrancy which was quite appealing to me.

Anyway, the Cars sets have started to appear at retail over the past couple of weeks, so I thought I'd dip my toe into the water and order the two cheapest sets - 8200 Lightning McQueen and 8201 Tow Mater - from Amazon. At £4.99 each and free delivery I figured I couldn't go far wrong. The sets arrived barely 48 hours later and I was ready to dive in, with Lightning first in line.

Some of my earlier fears about 'dumbing down' were justified on the basis of some larger custom parts (pic below), but on the plus side, I was impressed that key parts were printed, particularly given that this is such a small, inexpensive set. Compare and contrast with some of the new non-licensed Racers sets (such as this one) which have lots of fiddly stickers and no printed parts despite their identical RRP....
The build was predictably short and sweet - with only 35 pieces I really wasn't expecting anything more - and the final result is surprisingly pleasing. Admittedly this is in part due to the aforementioned custom parts, but even so Lightning looks great from the front and sides. The lovely new red wheels play their part, as do the printed red 2x4 tiles on the sides.

If I have a criticism, it's that the back's a bit messy :

Overall,  have to say I like this set a lot. More than I expected, and if I'm honest, more than I should - I'm somewhat conflicted as the agreeable appearance is partly down to a couple of custom parts which have little to no utility outside the set. Lightning is zoomable (the automotive equivalent of swooshable...), cute, and by recent LEGO standards, surprisingly cheap given that it's a licensed set with so many new and printed parts. A bargain, basically, if you have any interest in the subject material at all. There are quite a few sets at lower price points in this theme, in fact, a welcome development given the licensed nature of the theme, and something which speaks to the intention to target the youngsters with these sets, I guess. On the flipside, completists may wince at the fact that the first wave of sets alone features an amazing 14 sets, or 15 if you include an upcoming promo polybag....

So will I be getting any more of the Cars sets ? Well, in a word, yes - once I've built Tow  Mater I'm looking forward to getting hold of some more of the main characters which are available in the Flo's V8 Cafe and Tokyo Pit Stop sets, and beyond that we'll see.... And even if I hadn't liked the look of these sets much, there's an added complication, namely my young son who is a Cars fanatic and who has already fallen in love with my LEGO Lightning, so I'll find it even harder to resist.....

[Edit.... I just had to come back and add the picture below - enjoy !]