Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Picking up the pieces...

Despite the fact that the raison d’etre of Lego is that it’s a pile of pieces that you can combine in any way you see fit, I think it’s safe to say that it was the models themselves that drew me back to Lego, and specifically Technic.

If that video review I saw 18 months ago had been “Hey!  Lego have released a new cardboard box that’s full of over 2000 Lego parts.  Woo hoo!”, then I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice. (1)

But when it said “It’s a freakin’ huge Mercedes Unimog truck with working this, fuctioning that and powered the other.  That’s awesometastic!” (2), I took notice. (3)

So that, combined with some mild OCD, means that when I buy a set, I build it, but it’s really quite important (4) that all the parts are kept separate from any other parts.  And that they all go back into the original box once it’s stripped down (5).

Thus, when it comes to MOC’ing (6), I have something of a problem.  Because unless I could make something out of the parts of one set and one set only, then I was going to have to mix the parts from multiple sets. And that ain’t going to happen.(7)

Up until recently, it wasn’t really an issue, as I had (have) more than enough sets to keep me busy.  Plus, some Technic creations can be quite staggeringly complex, and I figured that the best way to learn the basics was to build things that professionals had designed. And on top of that, I didn’t really know what I wanted to make.

Then two things happened to change this.

Firstly, I found a book.  

And that book was ‘The Unofficial Lego Technic Builder’s Guide’ by Pawel ‘Sariel’ Kmieć.

Buy this book!

(Image from Sariel's excellent website, Sariel.pl)

Secondly, on the Eurobricks forum, I saw a MOC by a Dutch forumite who posts as Luc2000.  He’d built a working rollercoaster, made mainly of Technic, but also controlled by the Lego computer system, Mindstorms.  But more on that shortly.  For now, back to the book.

Pawel Kmieć, or Sariel, as he’s known, is something of a superstar in the Lego Technic community.  Born in the early 80’s and hailing from Warsaw, he was educated as a linguist and works as a webdesigner.  But it’s what he does in his spare time that makes him a legend in the brick world.  Largely self-taught, he has designed and built some of the most extraordinary Technic creations ever seen.
Fortunately for the rest of us rather less talented mortals, he decided to write a book, passing on some of the knowledge that he’s accumulated over 20 odd years of building, and it’s illustrated by another major name from the Technic world, Eric ‘Blakbird’ Albrecht (8)

I had a birthday approaching, and so the book went on my wishlist, which some kind souls (thank you, Tracey & Terry!) bought for me.  At the time of writing, I’m only part way through the book, but quite frankly it’s worth the purchase price for the first chapter alone.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been baffled by the concept of torque.  I’m probably not alone, as Jeremy Clarkson, well known buffoon and motoring journalist, who has earned approximately 47 bazillion pounds from the worldwide success that is Top Gear, admits freely to not having a clue what torque is. (9)

The thing is, I know what torque is.  It’s… you know… torque.  There’s definitely some twisting and turning involved, and slow things always seems to have more torque than fast things, and…

However, I can’t actually put it into words.

But Sariel can.

The opening chapter is like a mechanical engineering 101.  Written in plain, understandable terms he covers torque.  Gears.  Traction.  Friction.  Power.  Things that I’ve always had an idea about.  That I kind of understood.  

I sort of knew roughly what they were, but I couldn’t define them.  But Sariel explains them all.  I found it, if not quite a road to Damascus moment, then definitely some sort of happening on a road to somewhere fairly exotic.

And it probably doesn’t need pointing out, but much of what Sariel covers doesn’t just apply to Lego, but is equally valid in the real world.

Truly, Lego is an educational toy!

Anyway - after seeing any number of pictures of gearboxes, differentials and the like, I knew that I wanted to make some of those for myself, just to see how they worked.

At about the same time, I was browsing the Technic section of the Eurobricks forum, where I came upon the aforementioned Rollercoaster.

That was an eyeopener. 

As well as Technic, I’ve had one eye firmly on the Lego Mindstorms set.  Computer controlled Lego robots?  That’s Geektopia right there!

In fact the only reason I haven’t picked one up already is that Mindstorms NXT, which is the second iteration of the Mindstorms set, has been available for about 5 years, and is due for replacement by Mindstorms EV3 this Autumn.
I can wait a little bit longer.

Well Luc2000 had incorporated his Mindstorms set into the Technic Rollercoaster, and as I said in the thread at the time,Up until now though, the adult in me has been thinking, 'Yes, (Mindstorms) is undoubtedly cool, but after you've built some robots, what can you actually do with it?'

(This is) a perfect example of the sort of thing you can use it for when combining it with other Lego.  It's not a 'Mindstorms' project. It's a project that utilises Mindstorms.”

The net result of all that meant (apart from the fact that I’m going to be first in the queue when Mindstorms EV3 gets released) that I needed some Technic parts, purely for MOC’ing purposes.

As I think I’ve mentioned previously, there are three obvious ways of going about this.

i. Buy bags of assorted, second-hand Technic parts from Ebay or similar.

ii) Buy parts (new or secondhand) from specialist Lego resellers, which to all intents and purposes, means using Bricklink. 

iii) Buy new sets, specifically to break up for parts.

Looking at these in turn…

i) The Ebay option is ok, if you don’t mind the fact that you don’t know what you’re going to get.  For me though, the fact that sellers always feel the need to put ‘this Lego has been washed’ makes me think ‘I don’t want to touch it with a bargepole’. 

ii) Bricklink is a homebrew website that allows small-scale traders to reach buyers who want to buy specific parts, as opposed to the ‘1 kilo of random bits’ that you get on Ebay.  I understand that there are many, many people out there who use Brinklink quite happily.
Me - I took one look at it and thought ‘Life’s too short to wade through that.’  It’s a homebrew website, and boy does it look like it.
Just my $0.02, and not knocking those who run it or those who use it.
It’s just not for me.

iii)  It’s not a cheap option by any means, but in order to start building a parts collection, I decided to go down the ‘buy a few sets’ route.  I had some John Lewis vouchers for my birthday, and those, combined with staff discount brought the cost of a (second) mighty Unimog down to something approaching £75, or half price.

That’s 2048 parts to start me off.

And some posts back, you may remember that I might have bought a second 8043 Excavator while my wife wasn’t looking…

I was thinking I’d resell it in a year or so, but decided ‘what the heck’, and it became the second contributor to my parts box.

Another 1123 parts to add to the collection.

And last Saturday I happened to be in the Watford Lego store.  I didn’t need anything, as such, but..  I can’t get the 42000 Grand Prix Racer in John Lewis, and it’s got some interesting parts in it.

And another 1141 parts go into the box...

That’s a pretty good starter set as far as I’m concerned.  A good mix of liftarms, gears, cogs, axles, wheels, tracks and all those other bits who’s names escape me.  Chances are that if I see any more bargains, I may well add to the parts box, but that’ll certainly keep me going for now.

So back to Sariel’s book.  

Now where was I...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(1)  As will become clear, now if I found that Lego were releasing a set of 2000 Technic parts, I’d probably be biting their arm off for it.

(2) Ok, given that it was the Daily Telegraph motoring section doing the review, that probably wasn’t their exact turn of phrase.

(3) Hence my current, impoverished state. 

(4) And when I say ‘really quite important’ I mean ‘REALLY VERY IMPORTANT INDEED!’
I realise this sounds a bit nuts.
But I don’t care.

(5)  Remember, kids.  Whether it’s Lego, hi-fi, games consoles or indeed anything else.  Always keep the box.

(6)  MOC, as I’m sure you’re aware stands for ‘My Own Creation’ in the Lego vernacular.  MOC’ing, therefore, is the term giving to ‘making stuff out of Lego that isn’t a Lego set’.

(7) If it did, terrible, terrible things would happen.  Obviously.

(8) ‘Blakbird’ is famed for a number of things.  But the two main ones being, he has a complete collection of every Technic set ever released, and he is in the progress of creating the definitive Lego Technic website, Technicopedia.

(9)  Much to James May’s annoyance.

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