Lego Posts

The Evolution of Lego Minifigs, Brick by Brick

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Lego is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the the Minifigure this year, but the history of block-based humans goes back further than that. So let’s take a look at The Evolution of Lego Minifigs (and their blocks in general) over the last 50 or so years.

The first Lego building sets were designed to build, well, buildings. Vehicles weren’t something that needed to be constructed, because Lego originally made separate, somewhat realistic cars and trucks to go with these sets. Those lines were eventually discontinued, so eventually the first wheel sets to be added so kids could build cars and trucks. But it would take several more years (and a change in scale) to bring about anyone to drive those vehicles.

Lego patent printsLego’s’s first wheel and tire pieces had a 2×2 stud arrangement in the middle of the hub. A human figure scaled to that size would need to be about 4 inches tall. Those would probably bee too big and require too many new parts, so Lego balked at the idea at the time.

The first Lego Minifigs appeared in 1975, along with smaller wheelsets. This was from the days when Lego blocks came only in black, white, red, yellow, and blue. And green baseplates. And clear window bricks. And a few gray pieces, but only technical ones like wheel mount blocks. (Okay, they actually had a quite few different colors going on back then.) And just like that, the Lego universe was dominated by a scale somewhere around 1/48.

Oh, and they weren’t officially called Minifigures yet. But we’ll go with that term for now.

The original Minifig head shape was a bit of a departure for Lego, as round pieces were not part of the universe yet aside from wheels. Also, the diameter of the head was a bit wider than a single stud brick, so it couldn’t be used in certain tight areas. But the shape and size just seemed right, so it stuck. The body had no moving parts, so fitting a character into a car wasn’t really even a consideration. Most of the time, adding a passenger meant just setting aside the legs and installing the torso and head. Some new bespoke pieces included a police hat, a farmer’s hat, and a bit later, simple male and female hair pieces.

lego original minifigsAnother feature lacking in Lego blocks at the time: There were no graphics printed on any of them. Some sets came with stickers, but permanent markings were years away. So that meant blank head pieces at first.

The heads did come with a new feature that was fraught with possibility. The diameter of the neck was perfect for nesting in the middle of of a 2×2 array of studs, meaning it could be centered in a way that threw the entire grid into a new dimension. That may be overstating things a bit, but soon after those pieces came out, smaller cylindrical parts debuted that had the same feature. Coupled with the happy accident that a 1/3 thickness plate could stand on edge between the studs, suddenly the world of Lego was pointing in all kinds of new directions.

lego first minifigs1978 brought a major evolutionary step in the Minifig. Moving arms and legs, as well as printed features including faces. Early ones had only one expression, a simple, noseless happy face. And they were yellow.  (Different facial features would not appear until 1989 with the first Pirate sets, and eventually, heads with faces on the front and back would become the norm.)

lego piratesThe legs fit the same dimensions as the early non-moving ones, but the torsos were now wider, as the arms stuck out from the width of the body. While we’ve become accustomed to this style, it did lead to some changes in the engineering of Lego kits. If you’ve noticed how real cars are getting bigger and bigger (along with the average real person), it’s happening in Legoland, too.

Vehicles, previously 4 studs wide at this scale, suddenly became six or eight studs wide. And that was to accommodate a single, centrally seated passenger. For them to sit side by side required space between the seats, as well as space on the sides.

lego space minifig1979 saw possibly the most important development in Lego history… the introduction of Lego Space sets. These featured new wing shapes in several sizes, new clear canopy parts (even molded in translucent colors!) and cylindrical and cone pieces. And a lot more gray bits. The characters now had a spiffy space helmet option and back mounted airtanks. (The tanks attached by being placed on the neck before the head went on, making the space people just a bit taller.) Sales rocketed (sorry!) to new heights, and kids fell in love with the new parts.

For several years, the yellow brick head and hands remained the standard. The folks at Lego liked the idea that even though only one skin tone existed, it really didn’t match any actual human hue, so in a sense they represented everyone and anyone. It also meant characters couldn’t wear yellow for the most part, as they looked sort of naked.

Around the turn of the century, Lego was struggling financially. Their toys were immensely popular and beloved, but costs were spiraling out of control. In order to keep up the precise, durable quality of the brand, they had to raise prices just enough to become an issue with consumers. Also, there were some issues with protecting the copyrights on their designs, so competitors popped up, some with lower prices, most with lower quality.

lego star wars minifigsThen came the first licensed sets. And despite the extra cost for the licensing rights, they were a huge hit. Instead of generic characters, buildings, and cars, these sets represented real fictional characters (if that makes sense). 1999 saw the first “Star Wars” sets, and more evolution came about. While the bodies mostly remained the same shape and size, new helmets and hair were introduced. And for some of the monsters, new molds were created, with head shapes almost completely devoid of lego simplicity. A shorter leg piece was introduced for the Yoda figure. And in 2003, for the first time, more realistic skin tones were used. By then, the color palette for other bricks had exploded into the dozens, so this didn’t seem too earth or space shattering.

lego ninjagoLego managed to right the financial ship by creating their own new original universes that didn’t require any additional licensing fees. The Ninjago series, introduced in 2011 has been one of their most popular lines ever. And best of all, it brought back the traditional yellow skin tones. Throw in the success of “The Lego Movie” and other assorted video game and entertainment properties, and the company is brick solid again.

The Lego Miniverse is now filled with thousands of different Minifigs of all shapes, sizes and colors. Superheroes (DC, Marvel and Pixar), Pirates (Caribbean and otherwise), wizards, and all sorts of movie and TV tie-ins can peacefully coexist in one toybox. Most licensed Minifigs now go with an approximation of the character’s skin tone, but there has been a notable recent exception.

lego simpsonsThe whole bricktone thing was all brought home with the first Simpsons set in 2014. While each character had distinctly molded heads, they were once again yellow, which in a way, makes them the most Lego-y of all characters.

What is your favorite Lego Minifig? Let us know in the comments!

This Lego Bugatti is a Million Bricks (Not a Million Bucks)

lego bugatti chiron

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Lego has a facility in the Czech Republic where designers are responsible for their really large scale models that go on tour and on exhibit around the world.. Most of them are more static, such as famous buildings from around the world. Then there’s the Lego Bugatti Chiron, a full-size, actual running, drivable car. And it’s built almost entirely from Lego blocks.

Total number of bricks is said to be around one million pieces. As a rule of thumb, Lego models usually retail for around ten cents per brick, so that would be about a $100,000 set. Considering the real car sells for about $2.4 million, that’s a bargain. Remarkably, almost the entire car is built of bricks. The wheels and tires, of course, are real Bugatti spec.There is a also a steel tube frame underneath everything for support. But the interior including seats, rear view mirror, even the removable steering wheel are all Lego.

lego bugatti chironAs with many Lego creations, you have to use a bit of imagination. There is no window glass, as there aren’t any pieces that will quite fit that size and shape. The bricks are primarily Technic brick, which lock together in more complex ways than the standard stacking bricks. Aside from the missing glass, the contours of the car are recreated rather faithfully.

lego bugatti chironLike any exotic racer, it required intense testing, so it was sent to the Ehra Lessien Proving Grounds to be driven by Bugatti’s own development driver, Andy Wallace. The car tops out at a whopping 19 miles per hour, just a bit shy of the real Chiron’s 261 mph top speed. The engine cranks out 5.3 horsepower (again, a tad short of the real car’s number at 1469). What’s remarkable is that the entire motor is constructed of tiny Technic Power Function motors, over 2300 of them, connected through a mind boggling array of over 4,000 Technic gears.

lego bugatti chironlego bugatti chiron

While you likely can’t afford a real Chiron, and this one isn’t even for sale, Lego has you covered in a couple of smaller ways. Set 42083 includes everything needed to create a 1/8 scale Bugatti Chiron. That’s 3599 pieces for  around $349, adhering to that ten cent a brick ratio closely. Despite the smaller size, (it’s still about 22 inches long) the car does feature working suspension, steering, shiftable transmission, and many other amazing parts. The engine block, with cranking pistons, is a work of art unto itself. The instructions even come in the form of a decorative coffee table book, to be displayed along with the model.

lego bugatti chironIf that’s still too rich for your tastes, there’s Set 75878, the Speed Champion Bugatti Chiron. This one is much smaller, built to Minifig scale (and it includes the driver), who can fit inside. It doesn’t quite have the same working features, but at about $15 for 181 pieces, it’s an excellent value. Even at this scale, the distinct contours and two tone livery of the Chiron are unmistakable.

The whole point of Lego toys is dreaming, imagining, and creating. This Bugatti just takes the concept to a whole new scale.

What’s Your Damage? A Guide To Common Less-Than-Mint Conditions

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Anytime you’re looking at buying a collectible online, you’re probably hoping to find mint condition, still in the package, never been looked at for more than 30 seconds perfection. Alas, such conditions don’t usually exist in the real world. So if something is “Near Mint” or below, that means something has to be not perfect, right? Of course, if your plan is to take the item out of the package, knowing these terms might help you find a bargain that others would pass on. 

Grading items from “Mint” to “Fair” to “Poor” and everything in between is subjective, so we’re not even going to get into those distinctions here. There are professional grading services that can handle that for a fee. But let’s look at some common terms that show up in collectible listings. Of course, there are certain collectibles like stamps, coins, and comic books that have their own unique forms of imperfection, which we’ll look at sometime in the future.

For now, let’s look at issues with boxes and blister cards, (especially diecast models) and see if we can define exactly what they mean. Here are some ” Less-Than-Mint Conditions .”


package shelf wearShelf Wear – This is some light scuffing, scratching, or rubbing on packaging that comes naturally with a collectible being handled and moved around in the store. Unless employees and customers are using padded gloves and extreme caution at all times, most store-bought items will have at least a few minor imperfections like this.


rubbingRubbing – A common phenomenon in older models that were not secured within the package. Over the years, a Hot Wheels car may have rolled back and forth inside the blister enough for the paint on the center of the hubs to rub off. It’s a shame when the package is perfect but the item inside isn’t. This also can show up on the roof of cars.


yellowed packagingYellowed – Usually this refers to clear plastic bits again. Over time, some plastic just turns yellow, and there’s not much you can do about it. Can also apply to other plastic bits, like hanger reinforcements.

Smoke Damaged – In addition to yellowing of plastic, or discoloration of other elements, the item also comes with the added fragrance of nicotine.


soft cornerSoft Corners – This happens when the corners of the card get a little bit mooshed but not necessarily creased. Layers of the cardboard are often separated. From the right angle, this might not even be visible when the item is on display. Sometimes this can be restored with a bit of glue to stiffen it up.


dented blisterDented Blister – Seems self explanatory, right? Usually the corners of the blister, closest to the edge of the packaging are susceptible. It may be possible to massage the dent out, but that might cause cracks or stress marks, which may look even worse.


stress marksStress Marks – Speaking of which… stress marks occur when a plastic piece bends enough to become discolored (usually white or a lighter shade of the original plastic.)


cracked blisterCracked Blister – Cracked, but nothing is missing. In this case, the entire blister should still be present and connected in some way.


detached blisterDetached Blister – The glue has let go, so even though the card, blister, and contents are in good shape, this is problematic. Even if it came off perfectly clean, it’s hard to prove there were no shenanigans when the collectible isn’t completely sealed in place. If it’s partially attached, but there’s still room for the item to be removed, it can affect value.


creaseLight Creasing – This is a fold that in the card that is light enough to easily return to its original shape, but may have left a scar where the fold occurred. Usually there is no discoloration or missing material.


crunched cornerCrunched Corner – It’s pretty common for at least one corner of a box to be a little bit crunched in. How much that matters to a collector depends on whether anything is torn or discolored, if the seal is broken at all, or if the damage is on the back or bottom where it won’t be seen while on display.


broken sealBroken Seal – Some boxed items have a tape seal of some sort to indicate it’s never been opened. You can have a perfect bobblehead in a perfect box, but to many folks that piece of tape makes a huge difference in value.


price stickerPrice Sticker/Sticker Residue – Price stickers added by the store are fairly rare today, but were very common years ago. To some, such stickers are a blight, but the alternative can be just as bad… sticky goop, discolored patches, or small tears in the surface.


factory sealed hologramMissing Hologram (or other identifying stickers) – Some newer models are supposed to come with a hologram sticker to indicate authenticity or some other status, such as an extremely limited run. If it’s missing or damaged, the value of the item can be lower. Also, if the sticker is placed on crooked at the factory, that can unfortunately make it less desirable.


cut blister card

Cut Card – Why do people do this? Occasionally you’ll see an older diecast car still in the blister, attached to the card…. or what’s left of the card. Was it for storage space? To send in an offer or proof of purchase seals? It’s still a mint car, but dang!


What other common imperfections do you run into either as a buyer or seller? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our list.

Halloween Means Thrills! Chills! Collectibles!

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Aside from Christmas, there’s no holiday that inspires decor, commemoratives, and good ol’ limited edition fun as much as Halloween. As the holiday rapidly approaches, we thought it would be a good time to look at some of our favorite Halloween collectibles.

nightmare before christmasFirst of all, a question… is “The Nightmare Before Christmas” a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie? Or should you just watch it every night for two months straight between both holidays? Regardless, there are so many great characters to base collectibles on. Nearly 25 years after its theatrical release, the Tim Burton stop motion masterpiece has only grown in legend, and more items pop up every year. This sculpture of Zero and his dog house is pretty neat.

funko ghostbustersOddly enough, many horror movies have become associated with Halloween, even though the vast majority of them have nothing to do with the holiday. “Ghostbusters,” more comedy than horror actually, has become another favorite movie that embodies the fun of Halloween. There is no shortage of collectibles from the classic 1984 movie (as well as its sequel, the 2016 remake, and the cartoons).

halloween chip n daleIn fact, Halloween has an interesting distinction for fans in that anything gothic, spooky, scary, or macabre fits in. It doesn’t matter if they are officially part of the holiday or not. Heck, you can take any popular characters such as Disney’s Chip ‘n’ Dale,  put them in vampire garb, insert them into a jack-o’-lantern, and presto… instant Halloween collectible!

hallmark great pumpkin peanutsSnoopy and the Peanuts gang hold a special place in Halloween lore ever since their 1966 animated special introduced the world to Linus and his story of The Great Pumpkin. This 1996 Hallmark Keepsake set includes everything you need for a good time except the Dolly Madison snack cakes.

labbit skeleton hello kittySkeletons are always a popular Halloween theme, even though they’re everywhere year ’round. (Here’s a fun joke to play on little kids… ask in a scary voice, “Do you know where you can find a skeleton? INSIDE YOUR OWN BODY! Bwahahaha!” Never gets old!) Apparently Kidrobot’s Labbits have skeletons. Slightly less scary is this Hello Kitty skeleton figure from Funko.

lego skeletonLego has also done minifig skeletons a couple different ways. One version that came with various building sets has a bony, hollow structure, while the other version, sold by itself in blind packs, has a more traditional costume look.

tin wizard harold maude hearseHearses are used year ’round in the real world, too, but if you park one in front of your house the rest of the year, people look at you kinda funny. But in October? No sweat. There are lots of miniature hearses out there to collect, by the way. Just in case your HOA frowns displaying the real thing. (By the way, Ecto-1, the Ghostbusters’ car, is an ambulance, not a hearse.)

halloween hot wheelsSpeaking of driveable collectibles, Hot Wheels has commemorated various holidays over the years with limited edition cars. After Christmas, Halloween is probably the most popular among these series. 2017 is no exception, featuring cars with special skull-themed wheels.

liberty promotions halloween drag busFor something even more limited, Liberty Promotions has offered yearly, low production Drag Bus models for Halloween and other holidays, along with Chase versions.

kfc colonel sanders maskYou like zombies? Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recent ad campaign features multiple actors doing off kilter impressions of the Colonel Sanders , making KFC a pop culture phenomenon. Now you can add your own take on the long-deceased company founder and spokescharacter with this Halloween Harland costume. It was available very briefly on the KFC website this before selling out.

Regardless of your age, Halloween is a fun holiday, and there are collectibles of all kinds to enjoy throughout October or year ’round if you dare.

Do you have a favorite Halloween collectible? Tell us about it in the comments and add it to the hobbyDB database if it’s not already there!

A Brief History of Lego Colors

RyanA Guest Blog Post by Ryan Howerter
I am a graphic designer and AFOL from Fort Collins who has been doing more collecting and cataloguing of rare LEGO parts than building, lately. I’m fascinated by the rich and at times confusing history of the LEGO brand.

[In this brief history of Lego colors, I use the BrickLink names of colors, since they are the names most commonly used by AFOLs. TLG’s IDs follow in parentheses, since they are much more precise. Colors not recognized by BrickLink are in quotes.]

If you had to guess, how many colors would you say LEGO® bricks originally came in? Most people recall just the basics: Red, White, Blue, Yellow, maybe Black and Green. Maybe you’re thinking of the Town Plan sets from the early 60’s, which also had Trans-Clear. The palette started nice and simple, only to continually grow over the years, right?

Not quite. When The LEGO® Group (TLG) started producing plastic bricks in 1949, they did have the basic colors, but also a wide variety of color variations and unusual hues. These earliest bricks don’t look like today’s bricks—they were (usually) made of Cellulose Acetate (CA), lacked connecting tubes, and didn’t even originally have the LEGO® logo anywhere—but they will still connect to modern bricks, if you can find them in good enough condition. In these early years, TLG was feeling out what worked and what didn’t, meaning odd plastics and inconsistent colors.

Lego

We don’t have a complete history of these early bricks due to box contents being switched around over the years and molds moving from one factory to another. Toy stores sold individual bricks at the counter, sometimes in rare (not-in-sets) colors. TLG employees would even sweep up the factory floor, and use the dropped pellets to make rainbow marbled bricks, which sold for pennies. (These “defects” today can sell for $40 each!) We do know that by 1955, the slotted brick color palette had been standardized to mainly Red (21 Bright Red), White (1 White), Blue (23 Bright Blue), Yellow (24 Bright Yellow), Green (28 Dark Green), and Trans-Clear (40 Transparent). Black (26 Black) didn’t reappear until 1960.

In 1954/5, the slots were removed from bricks, and the Town Plan theme was introduced. For the most part, bricks from these sets only came in Red, White, and Clear, though there were baseplates in Light Gray (2 Grey), and Blue/Yellow/Green bricks in a handful of rarer parts packs.

In 1958, the tubes that help LEGO® bricks connect were invented, and the first “modern” bricks were produced. This was the development that differentiated LEGO® bricks from the many other building toy makers in Europe—particularly from Kiddicraft, which directly inspired the original hollow slotted LEGO® bricks. At this point, TLG was able to patent their basic 2×4 brick design. Beginning in 1963, TLG finally switched to Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) for their bricks, which is the same material they use today (plus or minus some additives). ABS is harder than CA, held its color better, and didn’t warp or shrink over time.

In 1963, TLG introduced Modulex, a smaller version of LEGO bricks intended for professional use by architects and workspace planners. Modulex could easily take up its own article, but I mention it here because many of the original muted Modulex colors were used (much later) for regular LEGO® parts, using the same color IDs. The second wave of Modulex colors, starting in 1983, consisted entirely of proper LEGO® brick colors. (The third and fourth sets of Modulex, in 1993 and 1998, did not match LEGO® colors at all—by that point, Modulex had branched off as its own company.)

The LEGO palette didn’t change much until nearly 1980 (save for some transparent colors), when the Fabuland theme necessitated more earthy flesh tones. “Fabuland Red” (13 Red Orange), Brown (25 Earth Orange), Tan (5 Brick Yellow), Flesh (18 Nougat), Fabuland Brown (4 Brick Red), “Fabuland Green” (14 Pastel Green), Fabuland Orange (19 Light Brown), and Earth Orange (12 Light Orange Brown) all arrived in this era. Most of these were previously Modulex colors.

Beginning in the late 1990s, TLG’s color palette expanded rapidly, thanks at first to bright themes such as Belville and Scala. It grew much worse in the early 2000s, when it was common for a new color to be used only in one part in one obscure Duplo set. The need to maintain this large amount of resources, combined with several desperate themes that didn’t fit the LEGO® brand*, nearly drove TLG to bankruptcy.

TLG’s first attempt to “fix” the palette came around 2003. After a series of focus groups, TLG determined that children overwhelmingly preferred brighter, more vibrant colors. They replaced many colors with new versions—most notably the grays, which caused an uproar in the AFOL community among those who had built up a lifetime’s collection of the old colors. Light Gray (2 Grey) became Light Bluish Gray (194 Medium Stone Grey), Dark Gray (27 Dark Grey) became Dark Bluish Gray (199 Dark Stone Grey), and Brown (25 Earth Orange) became Reddish Brown (192 Reddish Brown). At least 10 other colors changed as well, but they were seldom-used and went largely unnoticed.

­In the late 2000s, TLG began mixing their own ABS colors from raw granulate (instead of outsourcing their color mixing to Bayer and receiving pre-colored ABS pellets). Though this gave them more control over their own product, it took a while to stabilize the color quality, and for several years, brittle or milky parts were a frequent annoyance. For the most part, this is no longer the case. Dark Red (154 Dark Red), one of the worst offenders, has even been renamed to 154 New Dark Red, to signify the improvement in consistency. 131 Silver became 315 Silver Metallic, and 148 Metallic Dark Grey became 316 Titanium Metallic, for ostensibly the same reason.

Pictured below: Bricks lit from above on the left, and the same bricks lit from below on the right to show opacity issues.

Since the 2003 color change, TLG has minimized their palette to a carefully-selected few colors. The Friends theme in 2012 introduced several new pastel colors, but they were all unique, without any glaring redundancies. TLG has since focused on using these colors in a wide variety of bricks, plates, and other useful parts, making them much more useful.

Since then, the only colors introduced have been existing colors with metallic additives, which are likely much easier to add to the palette and cheaper to maintain than a brand new color formulation.

Even if there aren’t many new colors, there seems to be an unending supply of old colors to find. Recently it was discovered that the hair from 1974 Homemaker sets and 1969 granulated trees each used a unique shade of brown (we still don’t know the TLG IDs—if there ever were any). If we assume that TLG doesn’t leave gaps in their color numbering system, then we still are missing nearly all colors between 50 and 99. Discounting the numbers for CMYK ink colors, the highest number we know of is 339 (Transparent Fluorescent Green with Glitter). My own color chart only has around 200 colors—time to search for more!

Bionicle

*See Galidor and Jack Stone. Bionicle actually sold extremely well, and has been credited as the theme that saved LEGO.

 

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