Legos, legos, LEGOS!

Legos were a major part of my childhood. My brothers and I got a fair number of lego sets, growing up, and I loved it. I loved playing legos. I loved building things with them. I would create castles and have the brave soldiers defend themselves against hordes of bad-guys. I would create spaceships and run through the house as my ship would zoom through space, dodging enemy fire and asteroids. I built a dragon that (I thought) was on a massive scale. I built a grey-and-black version of the Sea Duck, a plane from the Disney show Tale-Spin. I made a castle tower that was 33 inches high (yes, I measured it)!

I played legos with my siblings and with friends. We had epic battles, heroic quests, and death-defying stunts. It was awesome.

Awe. Some.

Except the part about loosing pieces. It’s a sad but important part of the lego life–a given set only has a certain lifetime before the missing pieces make it impossible to rebuild the original set. Being someone that really hangs on to things (much more so than any reasonable man should), I really struggled with that. My earliest set that I can remember was the “Black Falcon’s Fortress.” Oh, how I loved that set! Pretty much from the moment that the remains of that set went into the general bin of legos, I idolized the time when the castle was complete! Whenever I played with castle legos (and I got a lot of much cooler castle sets over the years), I would typically imagine that the lego guys I was playing with were secretly Black Falcon men, waiting for their opportunity to return to their former glory and rebuild their castle!

But even as a kid, I did have to say, the Black Monarchs castle in particular was pretty. darn. awesome.

So, when I got married and Mom was de-junking her house, I was more than delighted to take the bin of legos with me. My kids are getting into the age where they can really enjoy legos as well, and in the last year or so especially, we’ve had a lot of fun.

Recently, some of my brothers were talking about the good old days, and how awesome those lego sets were. I realized just how much of a treasure I had gotten by getting that lego bin–my brothers had enjoyed those legos as much as I had; and that got me thinking…

So I did a little digging, and what I found got me pretty excited. So I did some more digging and research, and that got me even more excited.

You can probably guess where this is going. It’s about to get pretty nerdtastic…

I found the site, which you can use to keep an inventory of sets that you own. Every set lego made (so far as I know) is listed on that site. I was able to pick out the sets that I remembered, and even guess a few based on the old lego pieces we had in the bin (Having organized the legos fully into screw containers at least twice–yes, just like the dad in the Lego Movie; stop laughing–I was relatively familiar with what odd lego pieces I had).

The other cool thing about brickset was that it also had the parts inventory for each set. So I could print out the parts list for any given set, and then separate those pieces out.

Now the other trick was getting the missing pieces, which there were bound to be a decent number (we’re talking decades of collecting, folks; back to some of the earliest sets). For that I quickly found what has become one of my most favorite sites ever–

It’s ugly.

It’s got tons of controls, knobs and doo-dads.

And it is universally regarded as the best place for buying used legos. Thousands of sellers are connected to that site, and the site’s dozens of gizmos and text fields and buttons give you some really cool ways to search, build wish lists, and match up what you’re looking for with the seller that most closely matches what you’re looking for. For used legos, it is Google, E-bay, and Amazon combined.

The last couple sites I ended up making good use of are for getting instructions to any set I wanted, and also, a lego Q&A site where I got some good info on gluing some pieces together (Apparently one of my kids jumped on a raised base plate somewhere along the line…).

Given that, I decided I would go on with my dastardly plan. I was  going to rebuild and re-gift some of my brothers’ sets back to them. And in doing so I could quite easily fulfill my childhood dream and rebuild some of my own sets as well!

Of course it started out relatively small, and grew to be much bigger than I had realized. But I had so. much. fun. putting all those old sets together. Of course it was extremely nostalgic, but there was almost a sense of awe as I built sets that were older than I was. OK, that sounded a little too cheesy, and perhaps just a little freaky. But it was really, really cool.

I was absolutely fascinated to see how as the sets progressed through the years there was a clear evolution of how sets are built–what elements go into a castle/spaceship and the ratio of “model” vs “toy” in each set.


The King’s Castle really is very impressive. It’s rather forbidding and austere.


The Black Falcon’s fortress was one of my earliest sets.


The shield and colors are still my favorite


But this guy is pretty darn cool, too.


The Black Monarch’s Castle was my personal favorite.


I really like how they did the corner towers



The Forestmen’s River Fortress was a really fun set. I loved how the dungeon was in the river…


And the Eldorado fortress had cannons that would really shoot legos! Not too mention the awesome cutlases.


The Fire-breathing fortress came with the first lego dragon, and the knight’s cape and helmet were sooo cool! Even the horse has some really cool head-gear.


I was surprised at how differently the Galaxy Explorer was built and designed.


But the cargo bay (with a ramp) was a pretty neat idea.


And I remember how much we loved the jetpacks!


My childhood spaceship was the Renegade


Like the Galaxy Explorer, it had a cargo hold and a small car to fit inside it.


The Dragster’s rear wheels have a differential


And we loved playing with the “Giant” lego guy that came with the Arctic Helicopter.


“Benny’s Sapceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP” is probably the coolest space ship ever.


Three awesome spaceships.




Lots and lots of really cool legos. These sets won’t last long, but they will continue to be the best toy ever for a lot of years.


The Ballad of the Model Steam Engine

When my brother and I were teenagers, we had a train layout in our room. My brother got a beautiful old-timer 4-4-0 steam locomotive as a gift. To this day, the only other 4-4-0’s I’ve seen that are nicer are the really really expensive brass models (and I’ve looked). There may have been some jealousy, but I’m not admitting to anything.

The problem with these kinds of models is that the engine (locomotive) is too small to hold a motor. Instead, the motor is placed in the tender and a rod connects the engine in the tender with the worm-gear (and wheels) in the engine.

And of course, that rod became lost. But not before the company that made that engine went out of business (probably from making such nice models and selling them too cheaply). The engine was put away back in it’s box until a replacement rod could be found. Eventually all the trains were boxed back up until about 5 or 6 years ago when my Dad and I got working on another layout. Then we found that beautiful train, and remembered the missing rod.

One day four years ago, we were at a train show and one of the shops there had bins with spare parts for sale. In those parts we found two different connecting rods! We bought both of them, anticipating that one of them should fit my brother’s train.

However, before we had even left the show that day, we lost the bag with those parts in them. We spent at least an hour retracing our steps through the busy show, asking the seller if someone had found it, peeking under tables. It was simply nowhere. The engine would have to wait.

Just a few days ago my dad called me to tell me he had found the bag! I was shocked. Where was it? My dad had put it in a hidden pocket in his jacket, and then forgotten about it, including the fact that the jacket had a hidden pocket. The bag was found when Mom insisted he wash his jacket and clean out the pockets. That bag had sat in there for four years and dad used it everywhere, including working out in the yard.

I got the two rods out and tried them on the train. One had ends that were too large. The other had ends that were the right size, but the rod was too long. I thought this was going to be an extremely anti-climactic end, but Dad insisted that we could still make it work.

We took the long rod and cut it. Then we dug through Dad’s spare brass parts (he’s a kit-basher) and found some brass tubing that was almost exactly the right size. With some experimentation, we discovered what the right length should be, cut the rod to length, and used the brass tubing and some glue to assemble it together.

Old-timer 4-4-0

Old-timer 4-4-0

And this beautiful train runs again!

New Train For Christmas

A couple years ago, we bought a “Toy Story Train” Duplo set online for our 2 year old boy for Christmas. When it arrived, it turned out that it was a lego set, not a duplo set. Oh well. We’d just keep it in the closet for a few years until he was old enough to play with legos, then give it to him then. Well, he’s not quite old enough, losing interest in trains and Toy Story, and the kids found the set in the closet some time ago. So while we were all sick during this Christmas break, we pulled it out and put it together (we=Mom and I, although the kids had a lot of fun playing with the characters).


It was actually really nice to build something with legos again–been a long time since I’ve done that.

Best Warranty Ever

OK, so last year I  bought a nice train at a train show. It was a gently used Bachmann Spectrum 2-8-0. It was a really nice train for about a week… and then I dropped it.


I smashed the front of it, broke some of the side gear, etc. I managed to glue most of it together, and got it running decently. But then it would break again. The  glue wouldn’t stick (and I tried a few different kinds). I struggled with it for several months before learning that Bachmann has a really good warranty.

I looked into it. They have a really good warranty. I sent my train in along with $25. They replaced the train. No questions, no receipts needed. It didn’t matter that I bought it second-hand. It was awesome!


How often do you have a good experience with any kind of warranty?

Playing With Mud

So after a few more weeks of work, we have a little less than half of the layout with an initial plaster shell. Once the paper shell has been primed with an oil primer, then we took a very thin mixture of plaster, dipped paper towels in it, and laid that over the paper shell.

A paper towel dipped in plaster is rather like working with a fish skin (as my dad put it). In addition, we have been playing with putting some dye in the plaster. Lesson number one on that venture was that the dark brown dye turns rather purple… and that when the plaster fully dries, the color gets a lot lighter.

Old Hobby Renewed

When I was a teenager I got into model trains. My dad loves model trains as well, so he helped my build a layout that took up half of my room. Then I grew up, got married, and fell in love with computers.

Well, my Dad and I recently got back into model trains! I had kind-of started it up again (put up a fairly simple oval track in my room). Then at Christmas time we both got model trains, and that was the end. We spent the vast majority of the holidays clearing out dad’s storage room and putting up a new train table (my teenage one has long since been destroyed).

Here is the result:

Dad is still working on tweaks to make it run better–it’s amazing how easy it is to get bumps and dips in the track, or to get it uneven. For example, the bottom-right corner (in the picture) leaned rather severely to the outside, so that we were rather concerned that a train going to fast would tip right off the table….

(Oh… yeah, that is Thomas on the track… We got that for the grand-kids and were showing it to them when these pictures were taken).

In addition to track, I’ve been working on the trains and cars. The train I got at Christmas was actually a very old kit that I got on E-Bay. It is a model of The General (made by Mantua, FYI), which was the train that Union spies commandeered in the Great Locomotive Chase during the Civil War.

As you can see, it’s a fairly classy train. I still have a ways to go. It does run, but not as well as it could–the motor is actually in the tender, and a rubber tube connects the motor in the tender with the gears and wheels in the engine. The rubber was too stiff, so I replaced it with a piece of silicon tubing, but there are some more tweaks to be made.. I want to get that done before I add the headlight, bell, whistle, and handrails. I’ll also need to touch up the gold trim, as I was too impatient to get it put together to let it dry thoroughly…

Here is what it looked like when I got it:

And my awesome Old-Timer freight set (particularly the Hershey’s box car)…

The other train that I am exceptionally proud of is The Challenger, which I got as a birthday present as a teenager. We got that up and running as well:

Fortunately, this one wasn’t a kit…

CHOCOLATE! (not quite moderation in all things…)

Last year both my dad and I were unemployed, so we were unable to do our supposed-to-be annual chocolate dipping party. This is not a fondue party as much as it is making truffles and stuff like that (although a little fondue-style dipping is not unusual…).

So this year since we are both gainfully employed again, it may be understandable if we got a little carried away…

Lots of chocolate!

So here’s the breakdown:

  • The big bag is actually not for the party. We use enough cocoa powder that we find it better to buy in bulk (5o lbs–that’s the kind of bulk that even Costco hasn’t thought of). We will split it between us and other family members; it lasts a couple years or so…
  • The blocks are fairly decent quality dipping chocolate. Each block there is 10 lbs. We have 1 white (Peter’s Original), 4 milk (3 Merckens Marquis and 1 Guittard Signature), and 3 dark (2 Guittard French Vanilla and 1 Merckens Yucatan). The Guittard French Vanilla is a really striking chocolate…

Just as an FYI, I’ve recently learned that white chocolate often is not really chocolate… It’s a bunch of various flavorings. A good white chocolate (honestly I debate the existence of such a thing, but for the sake of argument…) is made from cocoa butter. Myself, I prefer a good semi-sweet chocolate (55-65% cocoa).

In all fairness, we are planning to do two parties this year: one for friends, and one for family, but maybe that’s just another sign of getting carried away… When I do the invites, I also invite people to bring something to dip. One of the oddest things I saw brought (with a fair bit of excitement, I might add) were twizzlers… I wasn’t brave enough to try the result, but they apparently enjoyed them quite a bit.

I’m especially looking forward to the following:

  • Dark chocolate haystacks (chocolate and toasted coconut)
  • Dark chocolate mint truffles
  • Dark chocolate-dipped graham crackers

Oooohhh, I’m a happy boy…

So, what chocolate dipped item/truffle would you enjoy the most?