Saturday 27 October 2012

Bargain Hunt Lives !

As a keen LEGO bargain hunter, adding the Bargain Hunt ! feature to this blog a little over a year ago was a logical step. Having discovered the delights of Amazon in particular, and more specifically their tendency to discount sets, I was regularly perusing the Amazon LEGO listings looking for bargains anyway, so putting some of my finds up on the blog so others could also benefit seemed like an obvious thing to do.

I expected some level of interest, but I wasn't prepared for how popular the feature would become. It quickly became the most visited page on the blog apart from the home page, and it has remained in pole position ever since despite a shameful level of neglect over the past few months. Many readers have even e-mailed me to moan about the lack of updates, and I guess I deserved it.

Having initially started out with the aim of identifying sets which were at least 30% off RRP, I experimented for a while with other formats, such as picking a different theme for each day and listing the best deals. Inevitably, however, the sheer time commitment inherent in finding the bargains and then manually coding the listings started to take its toll, and the updates became less and less frequent. The final nail in the coffin was probably my collaboration with Huw from Brickset on an automated system of finding and displaying the best bargains across Amazon sites in six countries - the Bargain Watch system, which is hosted on Brickset and has proved to be very popular. Once this was up and running, it became incredibly hard to motivate myself to manually code listings on a frequent basis, and so the Bargain Hunt page started to die a slow death, with only an occasional, sporadic posting saving it from total oblivion.

And yet....reports of the permanent demise of the Bargain Hunt ! page have it seems been greatly exaggerated, and like a phoenix from the ashes it has once again burst into life. This is largely thanks to the sterling efforts of Huw who has made it possible for me to more quickly and easily generate and display discount listings on Gimme LEGO, which makes posting bargains much less time-consuming and therefore greatly increases the chances of me pulling my finger out and posting regular Bargain Hunt ! updates. It should hopefully cut down the number of disapproving e-mails I get if nothing else....

Readers in the UK and US can therefore expect a diet of Top 10 discount listings by theme much like I used to post, albeit more regular, plus anything else that I figure out how to do once I've familiarised myself with the system.... I'll also keep a listing of deals 40% off or better for UK, US, France, Germany, Spain and Italy permanently displayed at the bottom of the page, and will occasionally throw in info about promos being run by other retailers if there's anything worth mentioning. Finally, there are links to take you straight to the LEGO listings for a host of different retailers at the top of the Bargain Hunt ! page, and if there are retailers you'd like me to add to the list then get in touch and I'll think about it....

You can access the Bargain Hunt ! page from the menu on the right side of the screen or else by clicking here. I hope you find the listings of some use; please feel free to contact me or leave a comment if you have any suggestions for how the listings could be improved, and happy hunting !

Saturday 20 October 2012

UCS AT-AT : Body Beautiful

So after the joys and distractions of STEAM, closely followed by another foreign business trip, I was finally able to crack on with the AT-AT over the past few days. When I last wrote about the UCS AT-AT build I'd got partway through the 422 building steps required to construct the internal skeleton and body of the AT-AT, and you can remind yourselves of the story so far here.

Before I could jump back into the build, I had a couple of things to consider. First up, should I upgrade to the latest version of LDD ? LEGO have released a new version (4.3.5) of the software, and now every time I boot up LDD I'm asked if I want to download the new version. Normally I'd dive straight in, but given I was partway through building a section of the AT-AT I was concerned about the possibility of the new version of LDD generating a building guide in a different sequence to the one I'd been using previously, meaning I wouldn't just be able to pick up where I'd left off. Also, I'm told that the new version of LDD doesn't like one of Pete's LDD files and omits a couple of pieces from it which have allegedly not been placed correctly (!). All things considered, I decided to hold off upgrading LDD for now.

Secondly, I've had an issue with LDD which appeared when I upgraded my iMac operating system to the latest version about a week ago. Since then, it's been impossible to see the outlines of the pieces on LDD; there's an option to show the outlines within the LDD menu but this is now set to 'off' and greyed out so I can't select it. This obviously makes it much trickier to see how everything fits together. I spent some time looking for a fix, but wasn't able to find anything so eventually decide to just press on with the build and hope for the best. Although now too late for this particular section of the model, if anybody reading this has any idea how to remedy this issue I'd be very grateful. I'm hoping that at the very least I'll eventually regain the ability to see the outlines when I upgrade to the latest version of LDD, but we shall see....

Anyway, back to business. Wrapping up the internal skeleton and body of the AT-AT involved a number of distinct stages - lengthening the floor a bit, construction of the front wall of the body, construction of the rear of the AT-AT, fashioning a robust Technic frame to ultimately support the roof and hang the sides on, and finally attaching all the multiple sub-assemblies that I'd constructed earlier, including figuring out where all the legion of small, individual parts were supposed to attach (see my previous AT-AT posting for a rant about that particular task....).

Completion of the floor and front wall of the body (pictures below - as usual, click to enlarge) was relatively straightforward, in stark contrast to the rear of the AT-AT which turned out to be hideously fragile and unstable until the very end when everything came together. The sizeable black and yellow section attached to the floor is the block which will eventually support the head and neck. A number of subassemblies fit inside this structure and should ideally be installed as you go along rather than at the very end, which is what the ludicrous LDD building guide would have you do....

A feature of the LDD file for the AT-AT body is the presence of a number of loose parts and structures which, on account of LDD's idiosyncrasies, aren't shown as being attached to the rest of the body; you can see these leftovers in the bottom left of the picture immediately below. As some of you are aware, it just so happens that I was fortunate enough to have seen cavegod's AT-AT at STEAM less than two weeks ago, so I took the opportunity to grab a few pictures of the rear of the AT-AT (below) while I was there. The pictures are pretty rough, but they were very useful in helping me to complete the rear of the AT-AT and figure out how all the loose bits and pieces are supposed to attach.

The last major part of the build is the long Technic section (picture below) which bridges the gap between the front and rear walls of the AT-AT body and which will eventually support the roof. Many of the "free floating" Technic pins that I commented on the last time I posted an update ended up being employed in the construction of the uppermost part of this structure, and you'd be well advised to work out where they fit and pop them into place as you go along. You can do this by jumping back and forth between the relevant pages of the building guide and the last page. Yes, it's a total pain in the backside, but it beats trying to attach them when you've finished building everything else which is once again what the building guide suggests....

I did my utmost to try and attach the multiple sub-assemblies and loose parts that I'd been collecting together during the previous 421 steps as I went along; all that was left therefore once I'd finally managed to stagger through to step 422 (the final step) of the building guide were a collection of Technic liftarms, the drive motors and the structures to which the legs would attach. The penultimate task was to drop the Technic section on to the top of the body section and knit these sections together (below) with the Technic liftarms.

Last but not least, I bolted the drive engines and the structures to which the legs would attach onto the underside of the body and I was done ! This last step was pretty tricky, but the results are impressive as you can see from the picture immediately below.

I experienced a real sense of achievement when I finally finished this section of the AT-AT build. Between the horrible LDD building guide and an at-times genuinely tricky build it's been a while since I was challenged this much by a LEGO model. Completing the AT-AT body used up 1,282 pieces, to add to the 2,120 pieces that went into the legs, meaning I'm now well over halfway done overall.

Next up is the neck section, after which I can finally upgrade LDD....

<-- Building the AT-AT : Part 4                              Building the AT-AT : Part 6 -- >

Thursday 11 October 2012

Blown Away

I spent last weekend at the 2012 Great Western LEGO Show (GWLS) at STEAM. It was my third consecutive year attending the event and it's really not getting old for me at all. There's no doubt that the standard of models on display was incredibly high - a quick skim through the 350+ photographs I took there immediately reminded me of that. At least as importantly, however, I probably enjoyed the social aspects more than ever as I've now got to know more of my fellow exhibitors, and some of them have become good friends.

Centerpiece of this year's LEGO display at GWLS was a collossal model of the British Olympic Stadium, complete with over a thousand minifigures, which was built by Ed Diment, Annie Diment, Stuart Crawshaw and Naomi Farr. Many of you will have seen pictures of this masterpiece during the extensive pre-Olympics publicity it got. As the show was wrapping up on Sunday, Ed and co. got to have their photograph taken with an Olympic Torch used in the Olympic torch relay (picture below - click to enlarge) which was a nice touch.

From L-R : Ed, Annie,  Naomi and Stuart
My contribution to the show was modest this year; all I had on display was the red Volkswagen T1 Camper Van that I posted about last week. It was part of a collaborative display coordinated by Robert Clarkson which brought together a total of 14 large-scale camper vans in various colours, including a neat pimped version in yellow and black, plus a number of smaller versions. What was interesting was how everybody seemed to have a different favourite; my picks were Robert's psychedelic multicoloured version and Vaughn Medway's black mobile disco van (pics below - click to enlarge).

Robert Clarkson's Psychedelic Camper Van
Vaughn Medway's Mobile Disco

One of the exhibits closest to my heart was the Gerry Anderson-themed collaborative build coordinated by Gary Davis. This featured creations inspired by such legendary TV series as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO and Stingray. The centre piece was Gary's magnificent model of Thunderbird 3 which was making its UK debut. Other top creations included Gary's huge Thunderbird 2 complete with elevator cars, Peter Salter's Thunderbird 2 hanger and launch strip complete with power functions, a beautiful Angel Interceptor, once again built by Gary, and a massive model of Stingray's Marineville by Andrew Danielli, complete with a wonderful LED-lit seabed scene. I'm not sure who built the UFO Control Room staffed by custom Homemaker figures below but I loved it ! If anyone knows who the builder is please leave a comment and I'll credit them. (EDIT : The UFO Control Room was built by Eleanor Thorn and Andrew Walker - thanks for the info, Gary !)

Thunderbird 3 by Gary Davis
Angel Interceptor by Gary Davis
FAB 1 by Andrew Walker

UFO Control Room by Eleanor Thorn and Andrew Walker
Marineville by Andrew Danielli

Thunderbird 2 by Gary Davis
As in previous years, Pete Brookdale (cavegod) brought a large selection of his superb Star Wars MOCs down to Swindon from his home in the frozen north. These included old favourites such as his huge AT-AT and Sandcrawler, and also some newer models including his 74-Z Speeder Bike and Rancor, plus the recently released Set 10227 B-wing Starfighter. This time out Pete was joined by first-time exhibitor Sam Pearce who displayed a superb crashed AT-AT - anyone who's seen The Empire Strikes Back will immediately recognise the downed AT-AT from the movie. STEAM veteran James Sutton displayed his model of Yoda with glowing lightsaber and some of his superb large-scale Star Wars figures alongside Pete and Sam's stuff.

74-Z Speeder Bike by cavegod

Sam Pearce's downed AT-AT

Yoda by James Sutton
Rancor by cavegod
Set 10227 B-wing Starfighter

Caroline (Savage_Steel) and Nick, a.k.a., had brought a bunch of their custom minifigures along. Having started out by making custom minifigures for their friends, including some superb Watford F. C.  minifigs for me (much obliged !) they branched out into making custom minifigures of the Team GB Olympic and Paralympic medallists which really caught the public's imagination and thrust their creators into the media spotlight. Caroline and Nick showed off a selection of their celebrity figures including our medal-winning Team GB Olympians and Paralympians, various incarnations of Dr. Who, the cast of Red Dwarf, and even a parachuting Royal.... Special mention for Lucy (lost_in_translation) who put together an excellent miniature Strictly Come Dancing set complete with band at late notice to show off some of the Strictly glitterati.

On yer bike...

Not amused....

Sorry, Doctor Who ?

Significantly better than the TV show...
The were a number of train layouts and townscapes on display. Some of my favourites were Eleanor Thorn and Andrew Walker's Alien Invasion diorama (I love the decadent minority partying in the jacuzzi as the city burns, and the cow abduction !) and Chris and Yvonne Mathews' Dutch Townscape, as well as the big collaborative effort between Naomi Farr, Huw Millington, William Howard and Jason Railton. These are the kind of exhibits that you can stare at for ages and keep seeing more and more neat details that you hadn't previously noticed.

Alien Invasion by Eleanor Thorn and Andrew Walker
Alien Invasion by Eleanor Thorn and Andrew Walker

Dutch Townscape by Chris and Yvonne Mathews
Dutch Townscape by Chris and Yvonne Mathews
Train layout built by Naomi, Huw, Jason and William

One of the things that struck me as I wandered the exhibition halls over the weekend was the sheer variety of LEGO creations on display. Alongside the dioramas above, which are classic GWLS fare, were Technic and NXT exhibits. These included an eye-catching series of models by Simon Burfield, who showed his huge moving T1 Robot complete with a pair of fearsome mini guns and also his LEGO-built wheelchair which can shift a full grown adult. The wheelchair had been featured on a ton of blogs and other sites in the run-up to GWLS so it was excellent to see it in the brick, or at least in the liftarm... When I asked him what he'd be building for next year he said he might try and build a car to move people around the exhibition hall; if anyone else had said that I would just have laughed at them, but I wouldn't put anything past burf.... There was also an appearance from the team responsible for Cubestormer II, which holds the world record for fastest completion of a Rubik's Cube. Their machine looks cool even when it's not doing anything, and it's amazing to watch the thing in action.

Burf's Wheelchair
Cubestormer II

Below you can see pictures of a few more creations that particularly caught my eye. I really want to give a special mention to "Twilight of the Gods" by renowned builder Luke Hutchinson (a.k.a. Derfel Cadarn). It's utterly wonderful, spellbinding even; perhaps my favourite model of the whole show. Click on the picture below to enlarge it and take a closer look at the little details. Even the purple moat at the base of the tower, complete with little pink bubbles, just works. I love it ! Incredibly, it appears from Luke's Flickr Stream that he built the whole thing in just a few days. Astonishing.

"Twilight of the Gods" by Luke Hutchinson
Friend's Kitchen by Yvonne Doyle
Tim Fegan's Iron Man

Ralph Savelsberg's Land Rover

Mouse by Tim Goddard
Maersk Container Ship by Tom Groombridge

In addition to those creations above there were others which I would have included if I'd managed to get better photographs....James Sutton's large-scale Superman figure, Robert Clarkson and Maria Sant's Mephistic Manor display, Barney Main's Galleons, Annie Diment's Looney Tunes characters, James Pegrum's Sacking of Camulodnum, Tim Goddard's Triport Spire and Space Police Hangar, Candlestick Hall by Michael Le Count, and Jeremy William's Neo-Classic Space models, for example. And there were others that I didn't even manage to photograph at all despite my 350+ pictures. I've therefore embedded a video below shot by film production company Infinite8 which captures a few of the GWLS 2012 creations that I've missed - click arrow to view.

In summary, I was blown away by the quality of the models on show - the bar seems to rise every year. And it's not just showing off, either - it actually seems to be inspiring people, and not just the AFOLs. I genuinely lost count of the number of parents I spoke with who said that their kids were wide-eyed with wonder at what they were seeing and would be getting their LEGO out and building as soon as they got home. LEGO can't buy this kind of PR and publicity. Attendance figures were extremely healthy, with around eight and a half thousand people visiting over the weekend; I think that might be the most visitors that GWLS has ever had during the ten years it's been going. Certainly the venue was heaving on both days, and the traders seemed pretty much rushed off their feet. So a fantastic weekend, then, and it'll take a lot to keep me away next year. Many thanks to Martin Long and his team for organising a wonderful weekend, and of course to all the exhibitors, traders and visitors.

Before I go, just a quick word about the frequency and timing of posts on this blog. For over a year now I've tried to stick to weekly postings, with new stuff appearing on Wednesdays, and up until the last couple of weeks I've pretty much managed to stick to that. The problem is, as my postings have tended to get longer and more detailed, I've increasingly struggled to meet my weekly self-imposed deadline, particularly when I'm reviewing a larger model which takes a longer to build. I've generally managed it, but this blogging business is supposed to be fun, and rushing to hit deadlines feels a little too much like work for my liking.... I'm therefore going to relieve the pressure a bit and allow myself more flexibility in respect of posting on here; it was either that or force myself to post shorter entries, and where's the fun in that ?! So just a heads-up to those of you who check in on Wednesdays for the latest post that you might need to wait a bit longer in future. Apologies, but I hope it'll still be worth the wait.

Thursday 4 October 2012


I suspect that some if not all AFOLs who buy more sets than they have time to build have some sort of mental 'build queue' of sets. Set 10220 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van has seemingly been near the top of mine ever since I bought the set soon after its release last year, but it's never quite reached the front of the queue. I thought the model looked great in the pre-release publicity pictures, and it's looked great when I've seen it at various events and in LEGO brand stores. Problem is, something always seems to come up just as I'm contemplating diving in.

But not any longer. Sometimes all you need is a little nudge in the right direction, and for me that little nudge was the 2012 Great Western LEGO Show, also known as STEAM to the faithful. This annual event showcases LEGO models built by members of the UK LEGO user group the Brickish Association, and some of you may have read the reports that I wrote for the 2011 and 2010 shows on here. As part of this year's show, Brickish Association member Robert Clarkson is organising a collaborative celebration of the VW Camper Van complete with LEGO versions in a variety of colours, and he was looking for someone to build the official red LEGO version. This provided me with the perfect excuse to finally get cracking on the set, so I signed up and have spent the last few evenings making good on my promise.

The box (above - click to enlarge) is HEAVY. Having become accustomed to a diet of licensed sets whose boxes often seem to contain more air than LEGO, it's a shock to encounter a box which is literally jam-packed with pieces, so much so that it even seems to bulge a little at the sides. Also unusually for a UK set, the generous 1,332 piece count can be found on the front of the box, alongside a huge picture of the completed model superimposed upon a suitably rural backdrop. The length of the finished model - 30 cm / 11.8 inches - is also printed on the front of the box. The back of the box (below) shows the van parked up with doors and windows open, plus some close-ups of the van's interior.

Cutting the seals releases 15 bags of parts, some containing smaller bags of parts. Unusually, the bags aren't numbered, and the build is consequently not divided into sub-assemblies each with their own bags, which makes a change. The box also contains two instruction booklets and two small sticker sheets, all carefully packaged in a plastic bag with a stiff cardboard insert to keep them flat and delightfully pristine. The instruction booklets are A4-sized, and each runs to around 80 pages; their front covers feature the same image as the front of the box  In addition to the building instructions, one of the booklets contains an inventory of parts spread over 2 pages, and there are also a few adverts, predominantly for LEGO Exclusives such as Set 10219 Maersk Train and Set 10214 Tower Bridge.

A few of the more interesting parts can be seen in the picture above. Pride of place goes to the tall tan window frame and the trans yellow modified 1 x 1 plate with tooth, both of which are unique to this set, while a number of other parts, including the metallic silver dishes which form the hubcaps, the pearl gold faucet and the red arches and facet bricks, are only available in a few sets. Certainly a nice selection of parts overall, and if you're on the lookout for white curved bricks, both studded and studless, this is your set..... Not shown is the fabric used for the van's pop-up roof section and the curtains, both of which are exclusive to this set

Construction commences with the van's chassis and engine (pictures below - as ever, click to enlarge). You get an early indication of the care and attention to detail lavished on this set while constructing the engine, which comes complete with hoses, metallic elements and a fan belt. I also love the elegant, clean lines of the front and rear bumpers (or fenders, for those in the U.S....)

The bodywork at the back of the van then starts to take shape, including rear lights, the registration plate and a hinged panel to provide access to the engine. The seats go in next, complete with the ability to recline, and the rear passenger seat even cleverly folds down into a bed as you can see in the picture below. I'm not sure about the gaudy claret and blue colour scheme, though - clearly an aquired taste....  After the seats come a variety of internal furnishings, fixtures and fittings including a sink with a golden faucet, some tan shelving and a plant in a pot.

Next the driver's cab starts to take shape, and a gear stick and pedals drop into place. A pair of doors to the passenger compartment are installed at this point, as is a fold-down table complete with a goblet of what looks like creme de menthe....yuk. I love the inclusion of the lava lamp at the back - very sixties, and a lovely little detail !

Now that the lower half of the van is complete it's time to start installing some windows. Each window in the passenger compartment comes complete with curtains - no expense spared ! More internal fixtures and fittings are then installed, most notably a mirror consisting of a shiny silver sticker applied to a pane of glass and placed inside a tall tan window. It's also time to put up a picture of a surf scene in the passenger compartment; the surf board features the letters "J H" which I suspect may be the initials of the designer. The driver's cab gets a pair of doors at this stage and also a steering wheel - left hand drive, unfortunately for us Brits, but understandable I guess.

The next step is to install the rest of the windows, including the rear window and the windscreen. This involves some tricky sticker action, of which more later. Once this is done, completion of the upper half of the van is a relatively quick and straightforward affair. The roof goes on next, and construction of the pop-up mid-section is more involved and time-consuming than it looks. Once the roof is on, all that's left to do is to build the two-tone front section of the van, where a pair of black hoses are employed to emphasise the interface between the red and white sections, and the wheels which feature rather nice metallic silver hubcaps. And then we're done !

In terms of moving parts, the model has opening doors to the driver's cab and passenger compartment. There's also an opening tail-gate and, as previously mentioned, an access panel on the rear of the vehicle which lifts up to reveal the engine. The coolest moving part is however the beautifully designed pop-up roof section This lifts up just like the real thing, and it works perfectly as well as looking great. The sides of this elevated roof section are made up of a ribon of orange fabric which neatly and invisibly concertinas down when the roof section is lowered - an extremely elegant and impressive bit of design.

In summary, building the camper van was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Probably my most enjoyable build of 2012, in fact. So far, anyway. And not only was the build thoroughly enjoyable, but the finished model is superb in my opinion. OK, so I'm no expert when it comes to VW camper vans, but the designers look to have captured the overall proportions and feel of the vehicle extremely well. There are also a multitude of lovely touches both big and small - the elegantly-realised engine, for instance, and the splendid internal fixtures and fittings, not to mention the superb pop-up roof section. Furthermore, the model employs a ton of ingenious building techniques to keep things interesting right to the end.

My only complaint is the blasted stickers. Yes, I know I'm always going on about stickers, but they were genuinely a total pain in the backside to apply on this occasion. The worst offenders were the (transparent) stickers which are supposed to be applied to the (transparent) front and rear windows. It's extremely hard to do this neatly - you really can't see if they're lined up straight or not until they're actually stuck to the glass, and if you do need to peel them off in order to reapply them (which I did, more than once) it gives the affected window(s) an ugly, cloudy appearance. Bloody infuriating. Also irritating, though marginally less so, is the need to apply the VW sticker to a round tile. Again, I found it very hard to apply this so that it was (1) central and (2) straight. Honestly, in a set of this size and price, is it really too much to ask that these parts are printed rather than stickered. Really ? If LEGO can manage to provide a handful of printed parts in a £4.99 Cars set, it's impossible for me to fathom why they'd take short-cuts on a big, beautiful set like the Camper Van. Ridiculous.

Anyway, stickers apart I think this set is a minor masterpiece and I wholeheartedly recommend it. And if that wasn't enough to convince you, at £79.99 / $119.99 for 1332 pieces it's also pretty good value for money. The set is a LEGO exclusive in most countries, which means that availability is somewhat limited; in the UK you can buy it online from LEGO shop@home or in person at a LEGO brand store, and you'll get double VIP points in October so it's the perfect time to buy !

I'll be carefully packing up the completed camper van tomorrow and taking it along to the Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon, UK. There, as mentioned earlier, it'll be on display at STEAM alongside more than ten other variants in a variety of different colours. STEAM promises to be an excellent show this year - bigger than ever, and with an enormous number of excellent LEGO creations to see, not to mention a pop-up LEGO brand store so you can pick up your own VW camper van set while you're there; having attended STEAM for the past few years I can personally vouch for the quality of the displays. I hope you can make it to the show, and if you see a guy with DrDaveWatford on his exhibitor badge then please come over and say hello !