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Book Review: “Steampunk LEGO”

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Steampunk LEGO

by Guy Himber

Published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/steampunk

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from its publisher, No Starch Press.

The central conceit of the book is that it is the journal of the Queen’s Chronicler of Technology, who “…ventures around the world and reports on exciting developments in the Sciences and their potential for civilian and military applications” (p. viii). This provides an excuse for the book to jump between many different themes of models.

I am not an enormous steampunk fan, but I do like the art style and admire the craft and artistry that goes into these LEGO creations. I was afraid that the models would all be drab brown and grey, with some copper tubes and gears shoved on almost as an afterthought, but I was pleasantly surprised. There is a huge variety in the models, both in the subject matter (the book ranges from trains and tanks, to bicycles, to robots, to mechanical animals, and even to space ships) and building technique.

While many of the models do stick to the standard color palette of grey, brown and copper, there are some great splashes of color throughout. For instance, Machine No. 1 by Vincent Gachod on p.44 is a beautiful green and grey steam powered automobile; Kaptain Kazoodle and the Travelling Circus of Doom by Nathan Proudlove (p. 61) is a strange insect like train with brown and teal and stark white. A robotic butler (p. 72) has a nice splash of purple.

The section on the Seven Seas, featuring many ships and submarines, illustrates how different builders approach their subject matter. The contrast between Ruben Ras’ studs-out submarine (“Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I”) built using the Lowell Sphere technique on p. 123 and the completely hidden stud technique using tiles and barrels (“O’Neill’s Mini Submarine” by Rod Gillies) on p. 124 is striking.

Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I

O’Neill’s Mini Submarine by Rod Gillies

Many of the models in this book are references to something else, or recreations of something famous in the steampunk style. For instance, the submarine I just mentioned, “Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I” is actually an allusion to a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), as I discovered when trying to search for a picture of the model. Other examples are much more obvious, such as J. Abba’s Luxury Air Barge, by Amado C. Pinlac (p. 142), which is a clear recreation of Jabba the Hutt’s ship in Return of the Jedi, or Baron Von Batten’s Train by Lazlo Kissimon (p. 7), which is a take on the Batmobile from the Batman universe.

preferred when these little references and nods were sprinkled throughout the book; when we get to the section on space, virtually every model is a recreation of a Star Wars vehicle (i.e. the Letter-Wing Fighter by Larry Lars, p. 180 is a recreation of the Y-Wing) or some other popular sci-fi show (Steam Viper, p. 183 looks to me like a take on the Vipers from Battlestar Galactica). That section felt a little weak to me as a result.

The other low point for me is the section entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities”. The fictional journalist details finding an ark containing “a wonderful collection of photographs depicting a great many items both mysterious and fabulous, but no description or mention of how the strange cabinet had functioned or what arcane magicks had powered it and its thirst for artifacts.” (p. 103). That whole section is full of various artifacts throughout history, such as a joystick, a child’s wagon, a microscope, and a micro-scale Hogwart’s castle. I felt that there was little rhyme or reason to this section, and that it did not fit at all with the theme of the rest of the book.

Other than these minor complaints, there is a lot to like. The section on robots and automatons is wonderful. Many of these models break far out of the staid grey/brown/copper color scheme. For instance, Sir Biggles by Théo Bonner (p. 72) is a model of a robot butler which uses inverted tires wrapped around parts of the model to form striking contrast with the metal colors underneath. The Queen’s Hammer by Hammerstein NWC (p. 73) is a great mech with brilliant red and gold pieces and a bright green face plate. Steam rises from the boiler on its back, as it does in many of the models. A cannon forms the weapon on one arm, where a laser rifle would normally be expected from such a model.

In addition to the great models, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the author’s prose. I’ve complained about lackluster story and writing in such other LEGO books as LEGO Space: Building the Future, so I was happy to see the quality in this one.

I heartily recommend this book to LEGO fans, even those without a passion for steampunk.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , ,

Book Review: Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec, published by No Starch Press.
Cover

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book to review from O’Reilly.

I have a deep and abiding love for all things LEGO. Growing up, I assembled a few Technic sets but never really tried to make any creations on my own with that system. I received a great set last Christmas, the well-loved 8421 crane model.

Crane Model

I enjoyed the process of assembling it tremendously, as it had great small details like working doors on the cab and a brilliant modular design. I was eager to review this book because Technic interests me but I know so little about it.

Bottom line up front – this is one of the best, most informative books I have read. It exceeded my expectations in its breadth and depth of topics covered and its effective use of illustrations. It is divided into five sections – basics, mechanics, motors, advanced mechanics, and modeling.

I did not expect such a thorough explanation of all the physic and mechanical engineering principles that are necessary to make working models. The first Basics section covers such concepts as speed, torque, power, friction, traction, and backlash. The author proceeds to cover more specific concepts related to vehicles, such as drive trains, front wheel versus rear wheel drive, turning radius, and center of gravity. I was familiar with some of these terms but not others (for instance, “Backlash describes the gaps between mating components, such as two gears”).

Only after exhaustively covering these basic mechanical principles does the author tackle Technic specific elements, such as pins, axle holes, units of measure in the LEGO system, important ratios (for instance, 3 plates = 1 brick in height), and the difference between beams and bricks (studless vs studfull). This section was very interesting to me as it gives precise names to pieces that are hard to describe otherwise.

The second section of the book covers mechanics, with an in depth looks at gears, chains and pulleys, levers and linkages, pneumatics, and reinforcing models to avoid being pulled apart by the stresses of the system. Almost all of these concepts were new to me, with the exception of gear ratios. The author introduces real world mechanical devices/techniques (such as the Chebyshev linkage), describes what they are used for (converting rotational motion into a straight line), and includes a fully realized Technic version of each system. Some of the systems are laid out in multiple steps, while others have just a single image of the completed structure. Still images allow you to get a sense of how the systems work, but the author also includes links to videos of some of the systems, which are much easier for me to understand.

Chebyshev

Chebyshev linkage figure

The third section of the book is an exhaustive look at all of the LEGO motors and their stats (torque + speed), as well as examples of what each is particularly well suited for (or not, as he has clear disdain for some of the models).

Advanced mechanics covers steering, suspensions, tracked vehicles, transmissions, and the use of adders and subtractors. I found this section particularly interesting because I’ve never bothered to take the time to understand how a real world car works. After reading through the explanations and mentally visualizing how the gears would turn in each example, I have a much better understanding of what happens when gears shift in a car, or how suspensions help to keep vehicles in contact with the ground (not just to provide a smoother ride and act as shock absorbers, which I erroneously thought).

The book concludes with a section on creating models, and the tradeoffs involved with using Technic to mimic real life objects. There is a natural trade off between form vs function, and the author encourages prospective builders to decide which one they’re willing to sacrifice before beginning to build. He discusses how to use blueprints to determine at which scale the model should be built, based on the fact that certain Technic elements are only available in a small range of sizes. For instance, if you’re modeling a car, you are limited by the size of the wheels – you could not build a 1/4 scale model, for instance, with off the shelf Technic components.

Conclusion

As I said up front, this book blew me away with the amount of technical details it presented in a clear, easy to comprehend format. I found the figures in the book absolutely crucial to my understanding; I estimate that there are at least 200 such figures. Some are photographs (usually of his finished creations), but most are high quality 3D renders. The author makes consistent use of color throughout a section, and details what the color scheme means (for instance, a red axle might always be the one that is connected to the motor, while a green one is on the output side of the equation). My one nitpick is that it’s very hard to make out some of the figures on a monochrome display (i.e. the Kindle), but I was able to consult the beautiful PDF version if I needed clarification.

This could have been a dry textbook, but instead it’s fun and eminently readable. The author’s quirky sense of humor manifests itself in some of the photographs, in which a hamster appears, ostensibly for scale. I’m inspired to try my hand at building my own Technic creations, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay this book.