Non-Denominational Holiday Gift Guide: LEGO for Grown-ups

I’m going to take it as given that if you’re interested in LEGO and you’re reading a blog mostly composed of swears, nerd-news, and left-wing propaganda, then you probably already *have* a big bin (or eight) of LEGO kicking around. So, I’m not advising you purchase *any* specific LEGO sets. (Also, the current generation of LEGO sets raise my hackles: They’re too conspicuously branded, too solution-via-force oriented, have too many specialized bricks, and are skewed too old for my kid; if he wants to play with guns, he can come shooting with us. Since he’s afraid of the racket of *real* guns, he shouldn’t be playing with fake guns. QED)
You’ve got plenty of bricks, poindexters; it’s time to meditate on new and interesting things to do with them.

This book comes at the top of my list because it is *gorgeous.* This is a big, thick, heavy coffee-table book full of great photos and short articles on every corner of the sprawling, weird LEGO universe (from official corporate history to rogue postmodern art projects). It’s a hardback with glossy, heavy paper stock and interesting internal layout–it’s an art book, perfect for the brainiac LEGO lover serving you nog or spinning your dreidel. As an added bonus, those lil articles aren’t all historical trivia or fluff: the authors, John Baichtal and Joe Meno, tackle the issue of LEGO ethnicity head-on (i.e., the fact that the LEGOverse seems to have roughly two gals and four black guys in residence, and the dark skinned folks are either whirling lightsabers or kicking balls), as well as the persistent problem LEGO has in connecting with girls, despite the fact that *from the start* the toy was aimed at being non-gender-specific. Baichtal/Meno also hit some of my favorite LEGO art projects (including Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp sets, which are a big part of what brought LEGO back into my forebrain in college), and introduced me to some really lovely new stuff. If you’re looking for a horizon-broadening nostalgia trip gift, this is your go-to LEGO book.

BADASS LEGO GUNS is exactly what it sounds like: build instructions for five incredibly badass working guns (!!!). Martin Hüdepohl’s book perfectly blends the nostalgia of spending an afternoon working through one of those wordless LEGO schematics with the specifically adult thrill of building something that can *really hurt* whoever is standing at the wrong end of its barrel. The designs themselves are really great: intricate, showcasing advanced building techniques (often called “SNOT,” that’s “studs-not-on-top,” builds in the adult-fans-of-LEGO–or “AFoL”–community), with really innovative firing mechanism and ammo designs. But, be warned: Unless you have an absolute crap-ton of Technic bricks, you probably aren’t going to be able to build the more impressively complex models (like the WARBEAST pictured on the cover). I have a big bin of mixed LEGO (mostly from the 1980s), and was able to squeeze out the first gun (a nifty lil rubber-band shooter called the PARABELLA) with only a few substitutions. Also, the more advanced guns call for modding some bricks (sanding them down, glueing several together into permanent sub-structures, etc.) At least in the edition I’ve got, a few pages were misprinted (including some of the parts lists, which was especially annoying to discover mid-build). These have since been corrected, and the new pages are posted in the publisher’s website.

If BADASS LEGO GUNS has you primed to rediscover your LEGO itch, then you really, really wanna check out THE UNOFFICIAL LEGO BUILDER’S GUIDE. At 300+ pages, this book is an *exhaustive* treatment of all of the structural and design possibilities (both practical and theoretical) offered by the LEGO System. There are a few specific projects buried in this tome, but they aren’t in traditional wordless LEGO “build instruction” format; these are chatty narrative walk-thrus, discussing design decisions and options, and really laying out the underlying mental framework that an adult LEGO builder applies to a project (in contrast to that free-range improvisational building that kids do with LEGO). The book, as a whole, is wordy and a good read, in addition to being a great reference resource. I know that sounds kinda silly–a LEGO reference book–but if you’re grown-up and getting into LEGO, you pretty quickly find yourself with questions like “OK, what they hell is the accepted nomenclature for that two-stud-hole skinny-slopey brick with the sorta scratchy textured angle part?” (Answer: As pg. 257 teaches us, this is a “2×1 45 degree slope brick”; it’s part #3040 and was first introduced in 1979.)

If you’re of voting age and just now making the big jump back into LEGO, you’re going stumble into the incredibly geeky LEGO-CAD software underground sooner or later. Yes, that’s computer-aided design software specifically for designing LEGO projects, and even producing your own LEGO-style build instructions. The entry-level on this is LEGO’s own LEGO Digital Designer software. This is free (!), dead-simple to use, can automatically generated rudimentary build instructions, and will even connect with the LEGO website and order all the bricks you need for your custom design (no shock there). Bonus: It makes a satisfying *click* sound when you connect bricks. But it’s also frustratingly limited software, and it won’t be long before you’re hankering for something more, something *way too much more*. Welcome to the brain-bendingly confusing world of LDraw!
On the up-side, you can do *anything* with the suites of free software this community has developed: Make photorealistic LEGO tableaux! Make spot-on LEGO-style build instructions! Make strictly physically impossible LEGO ships! Make up your own LEGO bricks and use them in models! Make LEGO minifigs do it in deeply disturbing Bible-themed porno shoots of your own devising! But this software is a far cry from the stupid-easy software LEGO has on their website; most of these programs are built on full-bore vector-based CAD software (e.g., the most popular LEGO ray-tracing software is actually built off of the 3D rendering software used by rocket scientists). Some of the software (like Bricksmith for Mac OS, which I *love*) is GUI and user-friendly and very approachable. Most of it is crazy opaque, with documentation that is equally obtuse and often simply incorrect. You need a good guide, and VIRTUAL LEGO FOR WINDOWS is it. The writing is crisp and clear, the book well organized, and authors Tim Courtney, Ahui Herrera, and Steve Bliss walk you through all of the software you need to build projects, render them, and produce great images and build instructions. You can really do *stunning* work with this powerful software, and Courtney/Herrera/Bliss totally bring that into reach for LEGO-CAD newbies. I’m a Mac-user, and still found this book *really* useful. Some of the software isn’t great on Mac but most of the actual nuts-and-bolts info translates. E.g., they favor MLCad as their LEGO editor, while I think Bricksmith is *much* slicker for Mac users. Similarly, they go into great depth with POV-ray, which doesn’t load on modern Mac OSes at all. But, MegaPOV (which they only treat lightly) works fine on Macs, and most of the details carry over, since MegaPOV is basically just a wrapper for running POV-ray. (Aside: I’ll be writing up a brief “Virtual LEGO on Mac” post over at the Snip, Burn, Solder Blog soonishly, which should help connect the dots for Mac users working with this book).
(DISCLOSURE: These titles are all from my publisher, No Starch Press, who sent me review copies of a mess of LEGO books; these are the stand-outs from the crop, in my humble. I was not otherwise compensated–except for that I got a mess of free books/ebooks.)