A friend on Instagram recently asked some questions about how I go about building a LEGO MOC (that’s ‘My Own Creation’, by the way). Do I design it first and then buy the bricks? How do I and other builders create such detailed scenes? I thought the questions deserved a blog post.
First, a quick back story. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and had a boatload of LEGO as a kid – mostly Castle and Pirates sets. When I turned into a sullen teenager later, I decided I didn’t need toys anymore and sold them all at a yard sale. Heartbreaking, right? The things I could do with all those old bricks …. But that’s in the past.
Most recently I started building again about three years ago, when I came across the Series 14 Collectible Minifigs in my local drug store. I started an Instagram account called @Tiny_Suicide_Squad featuring my modest collection of minifigs, and that was all it took for the bug to bite me again. That account is gone now (though you can still see the pics here on my website), but I have a new account on Instagram to showcase my work – @LegoGuacamole.
Now let’s look at some of the basic questions and problems that confront someone just starting out as a builder of LEGO MOCs.
I Don’t Have Enough Parts!
I can sympathize. So can the pros. The fact is, you’ll never have enough parts, or the right parts, or that specific part in the color you need. The better you get at building, the bigger challenges you’ll want to take on (sometimes literally bigger). You need bricks to do that. There are lots of ways to get more bricks, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
For now, rest assured you have enough parts to start building and photographing cool LEGO scenes. I told the whole story of the Tiny Suicide Squad with a handful of minifigs, the Double-Decker Couch official set (70818), a Jenga set, and a Scrabble set. Having a small collection can be a positive constraint – because you’re limited in what you can do, it forces your creativity to kick things up a notch. Think of it like haiku – you only have 17 syllables to create an image, so every syllable you choose needs to pull its own weight.
Yeah, But Really. Where Do I Get More Parts?
Okay, you need more parts. So do I. There’s a few options, and they all have pros and cons:
- Buy official sets. I would recommend this only if you’re really excited about a specific set or theme. For example, I knew I had to have the Ship in a Bottle (21313) and the Pop-Up Book (21315) as soon as I saw them. And I’ve bought a fair number of Brickheadz and Mighty Micros because I think they’re cute. But official sets are expensive, and if you only want the bricks to build your own things with, this isn’t an efficient way to do it.
- A LEGO Store Pick-A-Brick Wall. This may be a shocker, but I’ve never been to a LEGO store. I think the closest one to me is across Lake Washington (no thanks). But if you need a large quantity of bricks (think buckets of them), the PAB Wall is a great bet. You can also do PAB online through the official LEGO website. But remember LEGO sells their product at their retail price; it’s bound to be more expensive than buying from a third party.
- Yard Sales/Craigslist/Facebook Marketplace. These local neighborhood resources are a great way to get bricks super cheap – the downside is they may be chewed, chipped, dirty, smell like cigarette smoke or cat pee … you name it. Buyer beware.
- BrickLink and BrickOwl – these are online marketplaces where people can buy and sell bricks, both used and new. You can make wishlists and use automated tools to help you find the best prices for the bricks you want. Keep in mind that stores will vary in their selection, quality, pricing, and speed. Keep careful notes of which stores you like best and least. And beware of those shipping costs! Paying $3.00 to ship $1.00 worth of bricks is not a great use of money. It’s more cost effective to make fewer and larger purchases.
- www.Brixinit.com – a monthly subscription service. They mail you bricks every month along with challenges, building techniques, and often a focus on a specific part. A great way to add to your collection and your knowledge pretty cheap.
Okay, I Have Enough Parts (For Now). What Should I Build?
Good question. What do you like? What are your hobbies and interests? I like fairy tales, Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy stuff in general, spooky stuff, superheroes, cartoons, 80’s video games, fencing, going to the ballet, dinosaurs, cool beer bottle labels, the list goes on …. That’s a lot of material to choose from. As you develop your interests into a building style, it becomes easier to stock up on the right parts, too. I like D&D, which means I have a lot of medium stone gray and dark stone gray bricks to make the walls of menacing monster lairs and a lot of fantasy-themed minifigures.
There are a lot of approaches to building style, but you can almost divide LEGO MOC’s into two categories: ideas that came out of someone’s head, and ideas that reproduce something that already exists. I mostly build the former, like my ‘Guacamole Tsunami’:
But sometimes I try to reproduce what I see around me, like the artwork on a fancy bottle of beer:
I find them both equally challenging, but in different ways. And you can mix and match the styles, too. Here’s my interpretation of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man scene in the first Ghostbusters movie:
This scene mostly came out of my head, but it was inspired and shaped by something I’ve seen. This one also mixes micro-scale and minifig-scale, which we’ll talk about in a moment.
I Know What I Want to Build. How Do I Build It?
If you follow LEGO builders on Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, Patreon, or other websites, you may be overwhelmed with how awesome some of the builds are and wonder how you can ever build that well.
While there are a lot of resources available that teach the techniques used by the professionals, one of the best ways to learn is to just dive in and try to figure it out. I save images of my favorite builds by other people and often try to reproduce their techniques. Instagram’s ‘save’ function and Pinterest are great tools for collecting pictures of other peoples’ work to inspire you. Just make sure to give credit to the source if you reuse someone’s ideas.
If you’re looking for more in-depth training, here are some resources I use:
And a few of my favorites on Instagram:
- @ElementalLego – micro Star Wars.
- @Jeff_Works – Gorgeous micro cities.
- @LouieBaton – renditions of beer bottle labels.
- @GrantMasters – lots of micro scale, extremely clean and artistic style.
- @TipsAndBricks – reviews and instructions for advanced techniques.
- @JasonAllemann – master builder, one of the designers of the Pop-Up Book.
- @FrostBricks – master builder, works a lot in minifig scale.
And a couple recent book purchases that I adore:
- LEGO Micro Cites by Jeff Friesen (IG: @Jeff_Works) – $17 on Amazon
- The LEGO Architecture Idea Book by Alice Finch (IG: @BippityBricks) – also $17 on Amazon
I’ve Got all These Great Techniques. Which Ones Should I Use?
You don’t need to limit yourself, but maybe pick two or three to start with. Let’s use my ‘Guacamole Tsunami’ as an example. This MOC is actually pretty simple and uses a small range of common bricks. I use three techniques in this build:
- Microscale (for the coastal village). In the LEGO world, minifigures set the scale for most builds, but microscale is smaller. That blue 1×1 headlight brick with a black cheese slope on top of it becomes a three-bedroom house for people so tiny you can barely see them.
- Sideways building (the way the tsunami is oriented in relation to the cliffs the village is built on). This is accomplished with SNOT (Studs Not On Top) bricks. There are a million ways to incorporate sideways building into your MOCs, and most of the resources I mentioned will teach you how.
- Brick Bending (the tsunami itself). With the right combination of small bricks and plates, you can make awesome curves. There is even an artist named Jeff Sanders (IG: @BrickBending) who specializes in just that.
‘Guacamole Tsunami’ is one of my more popular MOCs, and I think it looks pretty cool – but it wasn’t that hard to make and didn’t require any special bricks or advanced techniques. An even simpler build was my ‘It’s Snowing Cheese’ – part of the same ‘Odd Weather’ series that ‘Guacamole Tsunami’ belongs to. This involves microbuilding and sideways building – and that’s it! Nothing advanced.
How Do I Stay Organized?
This is super important, especially as your collection grows. I strongly recommend you read Tom Alphin’s LEGO Storage Guide – you can get read it on his website here: http://brickarchitect.com/guide/. I personally use Akro Mils 24-Drawer and 64-Drawer cabinets for my parts and 2” x 3” zipper bags for my minifigs, but there are a lot of options. Remember that most of your money is going to be in the minifigs, so keeping them clean and free of scratches is a wise way to protect your investment.
How Do I Get Recognized for My Work?
Post it! Show it off! Instagram has a great LEGO community, as does Flickr. There are conventions you can go to, groups you can join. Just reach out to the community and you’ll find friends. On Instagram, look for the hub accounts like @Warlord_Lego, @Brick.Artists, @LegoQuickReview, @BrickCentral, @The.Brickgeek, and more. These accounts repost the best of LEGO photography and typically have large followings. If you get featured by them, that puts your work in front of a lot of people. Most of the hubs have their own hashtags you can add to your posts so they’ll notice you. Remember that anyone reposting your work should @mention you in their repost – otherwise it’s basically stealing.
Get building! Remember that it developing your own personal style is the most important thing. Learning fancy techniques can certainly help you get there, but all the research in the world is no substitute for grabbing a handful of bricks and seeing how you can make them fit together. Even the pros started with Duplo. 😉