For a couple of years now I’ve tried to do something a little different for Christmas presents for the kids. I’m not particularly good with my hands but I’ve always wanted to be able to make them things: something that will hopefully mean a little more than the average gift.
For example one year I made them a level in LittleBigPlanet called Sackboy Saves Christmas. (Aside for data geeks: each LittleBigPlanet level now has its own unique URI). The level isn’t great, but I had fun making it, and they’ve enjoyed playing it. A little later I also made them some real pods for their sackboys.
This year I decided to do something with Lego.
Lego Digital Designer is a simple and free CAD package for building and designing lego sets. Once you’ve designed something you can get it priced and ultimately have it turned into a real set.
I’ve tried this package a few times but found that the brick set is a little limited and the price racks up quickly. I’m also not the world’s greatest designer so my creations weren’t great. So I decided to take a slightly different tack.
Lego Community Sites
There are a lot of great lego community sites. One of these is Peeron which is a lego inventory website that provides access to a database of lego parts, set inventories, instruction scans and photos. The whole thing is crowd-sourced so you can submit new inventories or scans.
One particularly nice feature is that you can build a personal inventory of lego sets and parts. You can browse sets, ticking off those that you own, and the site builds a database of the various parts that make up the sets. When you’re browsing a set you don’t have you can also click “try to build” and the service will run the set inventory through the list of parts you own, and let you know whether you have all of the required parts, if you have any of the right part but in the wrong colour, or which parts you’re missing.
The core of the family lego collection is the remnants of my childhood collection of Classic Lego Space sets. There were lots of parts missing, but we’ve been able to use Peeron to resurrect some of the sets with substitute parts.
While you can get new bricks, baseplates and minifigs from the lego shop, if you want to track down hard to find or discontinued pieces then there’s one place to go: Bricklink.
For the uninitiated, Bricklink is essentially an Ebay for Lego. It’s a marketplace where anyone can go to buy and sell lego bricks, sets, and instructions. Not only is it a fantastic resource for tracking down hard to find pieces, but I’ve found that even new bricks are much cheaper than buying them direct from lego.
There’s a search engine on the site for tracking down what you need. Lego part numbers are standardised so it’s easy to find what you want if you’re buying missing pieces for a set you want to build from Peeron. It’s also a great place to go to if you’re piecing together a custom set from scratch. You can maintain a wanted list and get alerts as pieces become available. And if you do buy from the marketplace, you can download the part list for your order for importing back into Peeron, to keep you part list up to date.
The Bricklink community is also very friendly and efficient. I’ve found that orders tend to be processed really quickly and come well packaged. I’ve taken care to rate sellers and comment on every order as that kind of quality interaction is something to encourage.
So if you’re thinking about building custom lego sets, Bricklink is definitely the place to start.
Finding and Creating Custom Lego Set Designs
Having ruled out trying to create something completely unique I settled on creating sets from other people’s creations. A bit of a cop out I suppose, but the end result would still be something different to what’s in the the Lego catalogue.
I’ve mentioned Lego Digital Designer already. There’s also a more “professional” Lego CAD package called LDraw which is essentially a suite of open source tools for creating and manipulating Lego model designs. As well as the core CAD package itself there are also tools to support creating rendered images from designs, and even to create complete instructions that are very close to those produced by Lego themselves. The tools are a bit fiddly to work with though and surprisingly I found it hard to track down many designs that people had actually shared.
Another resource is the MOCPages community. MOC stands for “My Own Creation”. It’s essentially a community site where people can upload photo sets for models they’ve created. There are some really great (and big!) Lego models on that site! Little in the way of instructions or parts lists though, so there’s an element of reverse engineering involved.
There’s also a community of people using Flickr to share their creations. I’ve been following Peter Reid for a while as he creates the most fantastic selection of Lego space and robot models. Again, you need to be prepared to reverse engineer, but this isn’t too hard for the smaller models at least.
A final source for some small simple models is the Brick Issue. This is the magazine of the Brickish Association and has a regular feature “5 Minute Model” feature that provides instructions for some simple models.
What I Made
Issue 7 of the Brick Issue, for example, has a 5 minute model of a Turtle droid by Peter Reid (photo). This was perfect for my purposes as my son and I had been admiring the Turtle Factory at the Great Western Lego Show (watch the video!). So this formed the basis for the first set I put together for my son.
I found the second set I decided to package via the Neo Classic Space blog. This is a Lego fan blog focused specifically on people updating the old Lego Classic Space theme to use modern parts as well as covering some fantastic new models made to follow the theme. There are some excellent micro-scale models featured on there, including this one of an X-wing. This was pretty easy to reverse engineer so I put together a second set that consisted of three X-Wings; one with some slight tweaks to make it the “squad leader”.
Lego has a pretty hit and miss affair when it comes to creating sets for girls. My daughter loves Lego too, but primarily for playing with the minifigs and the towns and buildings. So for her I assembled a collection of female minifigs to add to her existing small collection.
Once I’d ordered all of the parts — which involved probably ten or more individual orders across a number of Bricklink sellers — the remaining work was to order some boxes from the The Bag And Box Man. I created some custom labels, following the Lego box art style, which is pretty easy to reproduce. The availability of some great flickr photos of the models meant that I had plenty of existing resources to draw on.
I was pretty pleased with the end result and so were the kids! It was definitely a fun project over the pre-Christmas run-up and a welcome distraction from a very busy work schedule. If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, hopefully there are some useful pointers in this post.