Building big LEGO models in the 1990s

Today there is a wealth of reference material for aspiring LEGO builders, but back in the late 1990s that wasn’t the case…

High school was an interesting time for me as a LEGO maniac in the late 1990s. The brick had been my one and only passion throughout childhood (aside from a brief sabbatical the year Jurassic Park came out to collect those toys). However, I was not too old to play with them. I had dabbled in a bit of building during the years previous, especially in middle school, but it was over the course of my ninth-grade year that I decided to become a builder.

I began by liquidating the collection. I took apart all my 180 or so sets, and sorted the components into a system I had developed over years of rebuilding after younger siblings smashed everything. It is amazing to look back at how different the world was then for an aspiring builder. 1999 was still the early days of the internet in many respects; the online AFOL community was in its utter infancy and certainly not accessible to someone like me. Simply put, reference material or sources for techniques were few and far between. LEGO books were also far less prolific at that time – almost rare. I had one of the only examples that existed, an early DK offering titled The Ultimate LEGO Book, which showcased the LEGOLAND parks and work by the LEGO Master Builders. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

This column first appeared in Blocks magazine issue 51. If you take out a subscription to Blocks, the LEGO magazine for fans, you’ll get a free digital subscription that includes every single issue we’ve every published thrown in. Find out more here.

In retrospect, using the work of LEGO Master Builders as my target for the inaugural big build was probably not the most confidence-boosting choice. One of the pages in my book depicted a sailing ship with a brickbuilt hull. She was beautiful and as I loved the Pirates theme it seemed only natural to start with a large, minifigure-scale tall ship. Truth be told, the end result was far from the disaster it could have been. While the graceful curves of the prow were lost amidst my fumbling technique, which ended up looking more like an aircraft carrier, I nonetheless managed to eke out a passable ship that I felt very proud of. With removable decks and standing at over three feet in length, it was the ship of my dreams from my early childhood; I would have given anything to have had it to play with.

Struggling with the hull showed me some of my limitations but did not dissuade me from seafaring vessels. Another page in the book showcased the Suzette, a freighter built for display in the LEGOLAND California park. Her hull was a much simpler shape and had multiple colours. In retrospect it was the perfect source material, as almost everything you needed to understand about how to build it could be garnered from the single photo available. That is reflected in how well I was able to translate the inspiration into my finished product, which was a major step up in terms of quality from my last attempt.

Each of these projects consumed months of time. By my senior year I was ready for the last, and largest, project of my teenage years. Indeed, it would remain my biggest build until starting to work for Blocks and doing some of the larger builds like NINJAGO City. Folks from my generation may remember the The Suzette from my LEGO book.

Homeworld computer game series, which featured a variety of spaceships. Over the course of nine months I constructed a massive spacecraft, over five feet in length, based on one of the game’s capital ships. It took almost every brick I had and was a mess of patterns and colours, but to this day I am still amazed my younger self could pull it off with how little I had to go by. The crowning achievement was the enormous front cockpit that could open to deploy ships, both via a huge door on its side and an opening hatch on its ceiling. Crude though she may be, the sheer size still makes me smile.

Thankfully, the circumstances are much different today. Builders have an almost unimaginable amount of source material thanks to the amazing community of LEGO fans online and in person, via LUGs and other enthusiast groups.

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