Home > LEGO > Book review: “The LEGO Engineer” by Jeff Friesen

Book review: “The LEGO Engineer” by Jeff Friesen

Affiliate link: https://amzn.to/3BN1S8o

Non-affiliate link: https://nostarch.com/lego-engineer

Disclaimer: I received a free pre-release review copy from No Starch Press.

I highly enjoyed The LEGO Engineer, by Jeff Friesen. The book consists of high level categories of engineering (Bridges and Tunnels, Trains and Beyond, Things That Float, Flying Machines, Amazing Buildings, Space Travel), with various examples of each category. These examples have detailed explanations of the mechanics behind them, as well as instructions for a LEGO model thereof. 

A large part of engineering is dealing with tradeoffs; there is rarely one perfect design, and this book does a great job of explaining the pros and cons of each design. For instance, with bridges the author gives the example that cantilever bridges can carry heavier loads with wide spans, but they’re complex to build and more expensive than simpler designs.

Each example flows logically from one to the next; generally the design that’s introduced builds upon or improves on the one that was just shown. For instance, the steam train is followed by diesel-electric (hybrid that seems virtually strictly superior to steam), which is followed by Shinkansen train (much lighter than diesel-electric because they get their electricity from overhead lines rather than heavy engines, allowing them to be more efficient). The examples also include dates of introduction or service, which gives a nice historical overview of the developments.

Each engineering example comes with a micro-scale (not precisely defined in this text, but in such a scale the typical minifigure would appear like a giant) model, parts list, and instructions. The parts list includes the exact piece numbers so that you can order them from a site like bricklink.com. The introduction to the book points out that if you don’t have the exact pieces, you can often make substitutions as long as the dimensions are the same (e.g. if you need a 2×1 piece, it doesn’t matter if you use the standard 2×1 or one with a brick texture); in cases where this isn’t true or it’s likely you’d get confused, the author helpfully calls out a warning. For instance, in the Cruise Ship, there is a non-standard jumper plate that would not behave the same way as the more common model; the two plates look identical from above and differ only in the bottom.

Image of LEGO cruise ship model, with a non-standard jumper piece

Here’s a screenshot of Bricklink.com illustrating the difference:

Screenshot from bricklink.com of the bottoms of 4 different jumper plates

The models are generally of high quality and aesthetically pleasing. There are some clever parts uses, such as a feather to represent smoke:

Image of a LEGO steam train model with a feather used as smoke

Or a small technic gear element to represent the cutting head of a tunnel boring machine:

Image of LEGO model of a tunnel boring machine where the front of the machine uses a small technic gear for the teeth.

From just these two examples you can see the high-quality photos (or renders, I can’t really tell). The tunnel boring machine is a good example of micro-scale – whereas a typical LEGO car would be at least 4 studs wide, here a car is reduced to 1 stud wide and 2 long. When done successfully, it provides the ability to cover huge areas in small models.

Not every model works for me, particularly the Titanic model. Here is the finished product:

LEGO model of the Titanic

And a diagram of the Titanic from the previous page:

Full scale diagram of the Titanic

The distinctive elements are all present (4 smoke stacks, 2 antennae, color scheme), but in my opinion it is not a very good likeness. I believe the problem is in the proportions of the model. This model appears to be about 16 studs long and 2.5 studs wide, for a length/width ratio of 6.4. The real Titanic was proportionally much longer – approximately 882 feet by 92 feet, or length/width ratio of 9.6. 

Contrast this example with the International Space Station, which is much smaller in real life, yet much bigger as a LEGO model. This extra space allows the author to achieve a much more convincing likeness:

LEGO model of International Space Station

There are many helpful (non-LEGO) illustrations throughout the book; I found them consistently high quality. Here’s an example of how a submarine ballast tanks work in order to allow the ship to dive and later surface:

Illustration of submarine ballast tanks

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book to me were the examples of engineering challenges that were solved in unexpected ways, or cross-pollination across disciplines. For example, the Shinkansen train was initially shaped like a bullet, which caused problems exiting tunnels. Eiji Nakatsu developed a new nose shape inspired by the bill of the kingfisher bird; the text indicates this solved the tunnel problem and reduced air resistance substantially. Another example is that the hovercraft was invented by a radio engineer.

Overall, I think this book is a good purchase for anyone who is interested both in LEGO and engineering. The positives (logical sequencing, interesting engineering explanations with diagrams, by and large aesthetically pleasing LEGO models with detailed instructions) far outweigh the minor complaints I have (a few models which suffer from scale issues or otherwise don’t look convincingly like the thing they are trying to portray).

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