A Lego Primer

This page will be updated from time to time in order to refine and add details.

Having just started myself, I can say I was really surprised at just how much there was to learn about building with Lego. I had no idea the vast variety of pieces or colors out there, how to buy them, how much they would cost, what I would need and.... as I quickly found out, how to build. I certainly thought I knew something about building, until I started poking around and saw what really could be done! With this realization, I felt like I was back in kindergarten all over again. But, thanks to the rich libraries of images built up by the Lego community, one can find treasures all over to guide one very quickly on the proper path.

The Joy of Lego
There is, without a doubt, something magical going on with Lego. It fulfills on many levels. Creating, collecting, miniaturizing, building. All very fundamental in Lego. It fills this sort of puzzle solving need as well. Coaxing and fitting pieces together can be an interesting mental challenge. And oh that feel and unique SNAP! as pieces bond perfectly together. Pick up. Snap. Pick up. Snap. The motions are calming. The repetitive motion, rewarded with that sharp sound can put one in a trance. Time passes without knowing. A sort of tunnel vision. In the end, you have created something, often a miniaturization of a real world counterpart. The power to control. You make your own little world that is your vision of things. After a while, you sit down and just stare. 'Wow. I made that?' ... later you show it off. 'Yes. I made that!'

First off, here is a list for you to poke around at. These are some of the resources that I found very helpful and present some basic information on Lego. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I invite others to help me add to this it. :)

Here are some of my favorite links I use all the time or have found of interest.

Lego Store (Pick a Brick) 

PRIMARY SHOWCASES (builder postings)
moc pages where builders post their mocs
brickshelf an older spot to post mocs

Curated blogs each showcasing a variety of work.
These are more general in nature, large in scope and have been maintained for a long while.

reMOCable a curated art gallery of fine works
The Brothers Brick: a comprehensive general showcase
Fascinating Lego Model of the Day a comprehensive general showcase
Klocki a comprehensive general showcase
Brickd  featuring the Micro genre
Legobloggen  a comprehensive general showcase
The Living Brick  a comprehensive general showcase
MicroBricks featuring the Micro genre
BrickTown Talk featuring the Architecture genre (specific style to Cafe Corner sets)
BioniBlog: featuring Bionicles
Classic Castle  featuring castles
Unique Brique Techniques featuring interesting techniques (no longer updated though)
HistoryBricks featuring historical themes

Building School
Snot Techniques (changing direction of studs)
flickr building techniques 
Roof Techniques (Eurobricks Forum)
Lego Digital Designer

Peeron catalogs parts in each set and more

The Brothers Brick Glossary


Buying Lego
Lego hobby can be expensive if one is not careful. These little plastic pieces, pennies a piece, all add up to a mountain of cash if one is not careful. 100, 200, 500 bricks can snap into a project quicker than one would think. How many times did I think, "500 pieces should take care of the job." Only to find I'd gone through them in 15 minutes to build up a portion of a wall. Additionally, pieces can get so specific, that projects may call for hundreds, even thousands of a certain piece in a certain color. For this reason, it can be advisable to start smaller and work up to the monumental sizes (if that even be a goal for you) as your collection grows.

Bricklink is the best resource I have yet seen for Lego. This is where I bought all my pieces from. It is convenient to find exactly what you need and prices are most often the best here. (Please let me know if you know otherwise, as I would be very interested.)
Bricklink home page
On this site thousands of vendors collectively have anything you will likely need, all linked together through one handy search engine. If you know what you want, search for it and all vendors selling even one of that piece will pop up with their price (usually pennies per piece). You can sort by price or by volume and narrow your search for other conditions, such as if they are US based. If you don't know exactly what it is you need, you can search through their catalog to find parts that might fit your description. This can be the most frustrating part – figuring out what you will need. What I found most helpful was to see how others built their own creations (see the blog showcases link above) and look for similar pieces.
Here we have a search result for 2x4 black brick. you can see that over 2000 vendors came up in the search! The cheapest one here is selling for 1/2¢ per brick which is very cheap. But he only has 13 bricks and it notes that they are playworn.
Some things to look out for with vendors. I bought from scores of folks and never had a major problem. A few were slow, one or two, extremely slow (3-4 weeks) but the great majority were speedy (usually within a week) and all honest. All vendors have a splash page which will list information on buying from them.

Minimum Buys
Not all, but some vendors have this. Usually around a few dollars to $10 or $15 for US. This amount will come up directly when you search for a piece, so it can be quick to weed out some sellers if you are not looking to spend that much.

Handling Costs
Some will have handling costs. This can be on a per 'lot' basis or total purchase basis or other that they decide on. (Each part type is considered a 'lot'. No matter how many of a particular piece you buy, that is generally considered 1 lot.) This can amount from less than a dollar to a couple of bucks. The charge is understandable as the profits can't be much when dealing with pennies and having to count out all these tiny pieces to exacting detail must take a while.

As you can guess, used is cheaper. Sometimes a description will list with the part if there is more wear and tear on those pieces. Vendors will sometimes identify on their splash pages what they consider to be acceptable quality for used as well.

State flags easily identify where they are from. If I need a piece fast, I will go with the closer one, even if pennies difference.

Payment types
I use Paypal which is universal. Vendors will have different options for you with Paypal being the constant.

Allergies and such
Some mention dog/cat free home, smoke free, etc if that is a concern for you. Never a problem for me, except once I received a package so smoke dense, I had to wash my hands as soon as I opened the package. Yuk! That is an extreme exception though.

Some things to take into account. Don't necessarily go with the cheapest price. If there is a minimum buy or handling charge on the cheaper priced piece, you might be better off paying a few cents more per piece to avoid. (I usually don't mind the handling cost though as it must take them a while to put the order together. A couple of bucks is a small fee in my opinion). International shipping costs and timing is a drag. Generally, it's not worth it unless they have lots of what you need as the shipping and timing can be a drag. Try and identify all that you might need ahead of time. Sounds common sense, but I can't tell you how many times I would go back and pay shipping for more parts I could have put into a previous order. If you are building large, try to buy more than you think you will need.... by a lot. I vastly underestimated what I might need to build over and over again. Consequently, reordering was frequent for me.

If you're starting out from nothing, (like I did), and you want to build larger, you will need a lot. I found it worked nicely to search for the best price for the most commonplace pieces that I would need lots of, like 2x4, 2x3, 2x2, 1x2 bricks of the color I was using and buy those in bulk from the cheapest vendor selling the amount I needed. While I was there, I would tack on as much in the way of secondary pieces as I could find that I needed smaller quantities of. Even if I could get those secondary pieces cheaper somewhere else, it worked out better to pay a little more for them and avoid shipping from another vendor.

Oh, and be sure and comment after you receive your order. The feedback is very helpful to them.

Lego 'Buy a Brick' online store
My first instinct was to go to Lego online. They have a 'buy a brick program' where, like Bricklink, you can buy individual pieces. The problem here is that they have a very small selection of pieces and the prices are generally many times higher, particularly when you might be just as well off buying used. I didn't buy from here in the end.

Lego Store
You can also try a Lego store near you if you have one. They have a lovely Pick-A-Brick section that carries maybe around 50+ different pieces or so. Given the small selection, you are pretty limited. There are a few ways they sell them depending on the store. With some you pay by the weight and others you pay by the volume (how much you can stuff in a plastic container). I have only done the volume method and can recommend it as a potentially economical way to get pieces. The trick is to stuff it as best as possible. Generally, I start with the very small 1x1 pieces. Let them gather in the cracks on the bottom. Then add the larger pieces. For larger bricks and plates, it's best to snap them together first before putting in the container. Believe me, you can gain as much as 50% more space – in some cases – with the larger bricks. After you get the container mostly filled, go back in and sprinkle in some smaller pieces, like the 1x1s. They will trickle their way down and fill up the holes caused by the larger pieces.

Another idea is to go for the Lego Basic Brick Set. For $30 you get an assortment of 650 bricks in 9 colors. Works out to about 4.5¢ per brick, which isn't bad. The downside is that you are not getting exactly what you might need for your particular situation.


Lego Lingo

Seems like common sense to me now, but I did need to learn the terms when starting in order to better my searches. There are certain classifications of Lego that make searching for them much easier. Some basic ones you will need to know:

The basic building blocks of Lego.

Like bricks only thinner.
Three of these on top of each other exactly equals 1 brick height.

Like plates only without studs (smooth on top). 
Very useful for finishing models making them seem non Lego in a way.

Thinner than plates and large to very large, designed to build models on top of.

Used often for roofs they are the angled brick types.

There are many other types, most with common sense names like arch, window, arm, etc

The brands are interchangeable and can be used with each other. Each one focusing on an aspect of creativity.

Working with these is akin to design (architecture, graphic, etc). It is mostly about surface detailing, form and looks. This is the type of pieces you might have grown up with and consequently probably the most common brand for us to start with.

Working with these is akin to engineering. These pieces look like beams, axels, gears and such. Fantastic moving cars, trains and such have been built with these. Objects built primarily with Technics tend to look skeletal. For those who primarily work with Lego (above), certain technics beams and pins can be great for hanging things on walls, for adding strength to objects or making things move. Again, it's perfectly right to mix these brands and often necessary.

Working with these are akin to sculpting. Many AFOLs avoid these as the pieces are too specific for the kit they come in to be practical. However, if you know what you are doing and have a great imagination, very extravagant, baroque works can be made with these. Here are a couple of pieces that might give you an idea: horse, samurai, scene with tree. In the hands of a gifted craftsman, some very realistic looking things can be made.

Mindstorm NXT
These are akin to robotics. This involves programming and making pieces do things.

Specialty architect's blocks. These came out in the '60s and were discontinued. Smaller than the standard Lego, they also were of a different proportion, namely, a perfect cube! This are somewhat hard to get and a bit pricey, but you can find them at bricklink and at minibricksmadness.

Is the iconic lego 'bump' on pieces for connecting.

Stands for 'Studs Not On Top.' A hugely important building concept to change the direction lego pieces face. For instance, if you want to hang shingles on the side of a house, like I did, a piece with a stud on the side (as well as top) works perfectly. That is a SNOT piece.

A no no. (I slipped a few times in some of my posts). Plural of Lego is just Lego.

Adult Fan of Lego. Us. Wear it with pride. :)

My own creation. Things you make from your imagination rather than instructions. MOCpages is a wonderfully organized site specific to showcasing MOCs.
Lego comes in a nice array of colors, though I wish there were more. Not all pieces are available in all colors though. The basic Lego colors (black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown and orange) generally have a wider range of pieces available than other colors. (photos of color comparisons to be added soon). Here you can find an official Lego color chart of colors available and comparable CMYK/ RGB/Pantone breakdowns.

Building with Lego
One of the first considerations you will encounter is scale. How big are you looking to make a thing? Smaller works can be challenging to coax ridged Lego forms into the correct forms, but they are cheaper to make and one can potentially make faster. Larger works take much more time, money and space. The payoff with larger formats is one can get greater detail and fidelity to objects they are trying to replicate. Additionally, larger formats have an incredible presence when it off in person. There is the awe factor to seeing something so big. Another factor to consider is transportation. If you are hoping to possibly show the work off at a con or one's local store, can you easily transport it without damage?

What to build is also a primary consideration. There are many standard genres of construction, each of which have blog specific coverage and plenty of folks who have built some amazing things to gaze at for inspiration. Often personal interest is a driver here. A car enthusiast will gravitate to cars, etc. Some folks specialize in one genre, while others jump around. Not that you have to be a part of any genre in particular, but it is interesting to see what others have done and expand on it.

Different genres tend to have different plusses and minuses to building.

Pictured below are a few of the many of the incredible works you can find in the links up top.
Lego does seem a natural fit for architecture. With all the straight lines and set angles, constructing simpler buildings can come very naturally. Replicating existing landmarks can be exciting for many. Arthur Gugick has done a nice job capturing famous landmarks and monuments. Here is a beautiful exhibit of some masterpieces. How real can you get a building? Can others recognize it? Or perhaps create a number of buildings to make a city block or cityscape. There is a series of sets out known as Cafe Corner and Green Grocer. These follow a specific building scale and general style so that all the sets can be put together to form a city block. Working in this format, adapting from the sets and improvising new buildings is of interest to many. Building architecture pieces is often a matter of good clean lines with bursts of decoration. Tricking pieces into looking like decorative details is a draw as well.

This is a popular specific architectural genre. As a resource for what can be done and techniques specific to castle building you can go here.

These genres tend to be for those interested in the particular subject and looking to replicate real objects. These can be tricky to create as real life objects can twist and turn in ways that are hard to translate with Lego (particularly at smaller scale). Rewards here come from getting realistic looking objects. Building into objects some sort of movement to them (doors, hoods of cards, etc) can also be a fun challenge to many. Personal expression can manifest in the types of vehicles one picks or manners in which they might be displayed. Additionally, having a collection of such displayed is also very satisfying.

Sci-fi Ships/Mecha 
This becomes more an aesthetic exercise within the world of sci fi. There are no absolutes here as there are in trains/planes/cars/boats. That is to say, one need not replicate a thing to exacting detail. (The exception being copying from existing brands). For lovers of sci fi, this is a creative expression. Some of the joys of working in this are creating unique, but aesthetically pleasing forms and colors, creative use of greebles (all those bits and bops of detailing that are meaningless, but appear to have function) and creative movement capabilities. Nate Nielson, nnenn, is highly regarded in the world of spaceships. For Mecha in particular, it can be rewarding to create forms that seem to defy gravity, with massive armatures or legs can be supported with minimal structure. Building fleets of similar ships or Mecha from the same timeline can also be exciting.

Off the beaten track 
Perhaps you have a fascination with something else specific. This is an opportunity to specialize in something unique that fits your own personality. Jason Ruff, an afol, does mostly bugs - very beautiful ones in fact. Mijasper specializes in 'collections of things' : mini chairs, pianos, and other such. Karyn Traphagen creates intricate patterns you would never think possible in Lego. Cole Blaq has brought graffiti into the picture which is refreshing. Unusual subject matters are interesting. Collections of unusual subjects are even more so. 
Generally involves recreating existing characters or types of people by mixing and matching minifig parts. Often these are then put in scenes or vignettes to tell a story.

Character Art
Another refreshing development is the rise of this art. Influenced by the designer toy / urban vinyl movement, these designers create extremely interesting characters on par, many times, with the vinyl designers. Angus MacLane has a whole line of hundreds of clever 'cube dudes'.

This is putting any of the above in a context. Generally, a love of that genre, expanded on to create a miniature world of sorts. Rewards here also come in the form of photography which can expand the possibilities of making objects look life like. Recreating scenes from movies or literature is also popular. Some vignettes don't include the standard genres above but are scenes of there own merit. Landscapes come to mind here. 
One genre that stands out different to me is called micro. It is more a building philosophy than a subject genre. This philosophy being a 'less is more', 'how small can I make a thing and still keep it recognizable using fewest pieces' type of mentality. It is the purity and clever use of objects. I find this work fascinating as it really engages the viewer. 

Typically, these are flat pictures of .... pictures. Since Lego only comes in a certain number of colors, the challenge is to blend colors by virtue of proximity to each other to give the illusion of a wider spectral or tonal range. Generally, these are of people or famous painting, but they can be of anything.

The Tinker
On the other hand, it may not be a particular something you are after but rather some sort of effect. Like the illusion of pieces bending around or some spacial trickery. Tinkering with pieces can yield interesting results for some as well. Here, it can be as much about the process as the product.

I found the following downloadable pdf as well as this handy flickr collection very helpful. I don't understand everything yet, but I got what I needed from it and come back when I'm stumped. Another idea is to google Lego instructions to a genre you are interested in. Lego posts many of their instructions online and some that they don't can be found elsewhere. Looking through these, you can pick up great beginner and more advanced building techniques. There are a few others that I'll add here soon when I remember where they are. :( 

One thing I do not do and do not encourage of newcomers is the adding foreign materials to your pieces – either to bond pieces together or for visual effect. This is a personal thing and more of a purist attitude, but it seems to me the nature of Lego calls for it. After all, part of the magic of looking at Lego is the suspended disbelief that a work is made completely out of Lego. At times, looking at the finished pieces, it seems impossible to believe! Whether it be that objects are comprised of smaller objects that you would never have guessed or just the notion that it doesn't seem like the work could support itself without glue. There is an allure here. A magic. Using glue or rubber bands and such to bond, or other things like cloth, wood or hobby landscape takes away that magic.

An example of that 'Lego Magic' moment. This piece by BMW_Indy . At first glance it is a convincing thick smoke cloud. Upon close inspection though.... you can see a very clever use of minifigure hair pieces. It is moments like this that create excitement and interest. That double take in which things are not what they appeared to be.
Personally, I desire to go a step further than that. If I can, I go 'brick-built'. This is a term to describe the use of multiple Lego pieces to create something larger of which there is a prefabricated counterpart. For instance, there is a big gray rock base. Plopping that down is no great feat. However, creating a unique interpretation of a rock face using slopes or other such is far more interesting and contributes again to 'Lego magic'. It's that dazzling experience of the double take. Seeing an object for what it is supposed to represent (like a big rock) and then suddenly realizing that the thing or part of it is made up of completely different pieces is magic. Another example, to me, is the use of pre-made plants. Now, I know, most everyone likes them and uses them. I would argue though that, for the same reasons as the rock, if another method could be used to achieve similar results as the plant prefabs, this other, non-prefab method, would bring about a greater sense of awe and Lego magic.

The Lego Brick Separator
The Lego Ruler
Good news, there are none!! The great thing about this hobby is you need virtually nothing. No glue, no wood, no X-acto knife or paint.... it's just wonderful that way. Lego has perfectly engineered the pieces to work for you. That said, a couple of things can come in handy. My best friend has been a tiny micro screwdriver. It works perfect as a lever to break piece apart or press tiny pieces together in cramped areas. I didn't encounter much in the way of scratching, but if not careful, one can scratch pieces this way. Lego has put out this tool - a brick separator (pictured above) - which I have not yet purchased but many swear by. It has been designed to break apart attached pieces and works well. Your fingers will thank you. Your broken finger nails will thank you. One other thing you may want to create is a Lego ruler. Lego sells one but you can make one yourself with Lego pieces as well for free. Keep in mind that a 1x1 lego brick is not a square. They are taller than they are wide. So, you will need two rulers – one for width and one for height.

Another tool we now have is a free software package (donations accepted though) called LDraw. Essentially, this is a very basic 3D program made specifically for Lego enthusiasts. It comes with a library of parts that is fairly complete. Lego puts out a free one that looks great, but I've personally not yet tried called Lego Digital Designer . Whichever one you choose they are great for when you are away from your set and you need a fix or want to practice with parts you don't yet own. The Lego one has some features like telling you how many pieces you used in total and a function to order the pieces as well.

Space and Storing Lego
This is a tough subject and has most to do with personal style, cost and space. I'm only going to touch on this in the most superficial terms and leave this subject to another post. Why is this tough?? Well... with over 2000 different pieces and a bunch of colors, coming up with a workable system can be tricky.

You probably remember as a kid, spreading out that box of pieces on the floor or table. I remember my bedroom was a minefield of tiny bits. Organization really is key for the hobby though. At least it was for me. I can't imagine sorting through a big box of all I have just to find that one piece. Not only would it take forever, but it breaks the 'flow' of creation. To that end, I found categorizing my pieces and putting in drawers worked the best. I bought a bunch of these, but honestly, while good, they're overpriced me thinks. Others have offered suggestions in comments in other posts here which I'll add soon, but I will be following up at a later date with another post specific on storage.

It requires a fair amount of rigor to clean up after a session. I found, for me, it worked to just slide the mess into the top drawer of my desk or some container. (Wish this trick worked with the dishes). Every few days or week, I'd take 10-20 minutes to resort into the proper containers. While it seems like a drag, the sorting can be relaxing as well.

At any rate, whatever your storage units, you will want to make sure you have plenty of room to build on a desk type unit where you have comfortable seating and good to very good light. A window is perfect for getting the precious daylight to view colors best and a couple of desk lamps are great too for catching details. If no natural light, daylight bulbs are great. If you are working on a nicer desk, you might consider buying a simple x-acto knife cutting board or some barrier between your Lego and your desk. I found out the hard way with my work that the sheer weight of my piece + a non baseplate bottom (just regular bricks stacked to make the base) turned into a nightmare of scratching on my desk as I shifted the piece from side to side to get to it. Also, another tiny tip. Turns out I have a near black desk and was using black pieces. I had a heck of a time during the evenings seeing what I was doing.


Dave Lartigue said...

Welcome to the AFOL world, Mike!

Here are a few other resources I would suggest:

Peeron, which is a valuable guide to parts, which sets they appear in, which colors they appear in, and, if you buy mostly through sets, which pieces you own.

There are also a few Tumblr blogs that specialize in Lego:

Lego Diem is mine and, as the name implies, is one image per day. I try to avoid things other blogs are covering and focus more on the sort of societal aspects of Lego.

Lego Express is similar, but posts more frequently.

Legozz also updates frequently and often has several themed updates in a row.

I'm looking forward to your models!

Anonymous said...

Nice primer. Out of curiosity, how long have you been an AFOL? What brought you back?

Also, did you mean to replace "train guy, boat guy, car guy" with names and links?

Thanks for sharing.

Mike Doyle said...

Thanks Dave! I'll check these links out and see to put them in.

As for second comment. Thanks! actually only 3months AFOL, so newbie for me. Visit to Legoland got me excited again. Yes on the replacing of names. My apologies to anyone who I might have shorted here. I will be crediting everyone and adding more as well.

Anonymous said...

Do you ever use LDD? (Lego Digital Designer) My kids use it a lot to work out the details of a build, and to see what they'll need parts-wise, and to have a record for later of what they built. Love the house! We're all very impressed with the results!

Mike Doyle said...

no I've not heard of LDD, but I'll be looking it up tomorrow! Thanks for the tip!

Claus said...

Digital designers:

LEGO's own:

Build by fan's:

AND, super job on telling the tale of beeing a AFOL!

Keep up the cool work.


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