When is a LEGO® Train Not A LEGO® Train Anymore?

Crossing The Purity Line.

If you you’ve been following the LEGO Train Fan Club Facebook group recently you probably have seen the ongoing discussion on Mike Moon’s 3D printed car bodies for LEGO trains. If you haven’t, take a read through here.

Mike’s original post presented his 3D printed trolley car body designed to fit on a LEGO brick built train base. It has since ignited a discussion about what is and is not a LEGO train, and what techniques are acceptable to the community and what ones are a step too far.

Brick Model Railroader’s own ball bearing equipped wheel sets, are certainly not pure LEGO. But are they acceptable in the LEGO train hobby?

You see, Mike’s printed car body is not a genuine LEGO product. Sure, that’s nothing some of us have not dealt with before. Many of us train builders use 3rd party parts (Big Ben Bricks), and have even used 3D printed parts ( Trained Bricks). But Mike’s car body is more than just an unofficial part. It deviates widely from the traditional look of LEGO. It’s a single piece body more akin to a traditional model railroad body shell than a LEGO like form. Other than where it interfaces with Mike’s brick built base, it shares no design similarities to the LEGO system. There are no studs in familiar places, no LEGO system connections of any sort, and no adherence to a LEGO aesthetic. It is in a way no different than taking the body shell from a LIONEL F7 Diesel, gluing a few bricks to the bottom and putting that on a brick built base.

Mike Moon’s controversial trolley car body for LEGO.

Now it can be easy to say that Mike’s model is not LEGO. It’s crossed the line and as such has no place in the FB group, or in the LEGO train community. But the greater question that this has opened up is where is that line. The one you cross that makes your model not a LEGO model anymore. And should there even be a line? After all, LEGO is all about creativity and exploring ones imagination.

So what makes a LEGO model? Is it strict adherence to using only genuine, unmolested brick? Are 3rd party parts like Big Ben Brick’s steam drivers ok? What about 3D printed parts like those from Benn Coffman’s Trained Bricks? And if these things are allowed, what else? Many of us have modified track to create pieces not offered by LEGO. Is this ok since LEGO has never made that piece? Are custom decals ok? LEGO has never made an ESSO decal set for a RR tank car after all. Traveling further down the rabbit hole, we get to things like electronics. Several companies now offer custom lighting options for use in LEGO models. Several more are offering custom control and battery options. Are these ok? If one uses these parts, is it still a LEGO train model? And what about painting parts?

You see, when you open up that Pandora’s Box of LEGO purity, of whether something is “LEGO” or not, it’s very hard to argue that many of us haven’t crossed that line some where. But what is that line. When is a model no Longer a LEGO model. And when we define that line, are we in danger of alienating others, or maybe ourselves?

I am certainly not a strict purist in my own building. I willfully modify track to make pieces never offered by LEGO. I’ve used just about every 3rd party train part, lighting, and electronics out there. I have  designed and made my own 3D printed parts. I have even committed the sin of painting parts. What makes what I do different from what Mike Moon has done? We’ve both crossed the genuine LEGO parts only line by a wide distance. And yet for me I see a difference. I see what I do as an expansion of the LEGO idea and spirit. But Mike’s model to me feels foreign. I look at it and I don’t see a LEGO model. Let me explain.

A passenger car model I’ve been working on. The bottom halve is made up of bricks I painted to match LEGO Metallic Silver.

I may not be 100% LEGO pure, but my models are still, at their heart, are in what I consider the spirit of LEGO. They’re still built with as many genuine LEGO parts as I can use. With all the 3rd party parts I use, and the 3D parts I design, everything fits together according to the LEGO system. They still work within the LEGO system. When I modify track, it’s because there is no pure LEGO alternative to the switch geometry I need. And I try my best to make those mods work like a genuine part from LEGO should, and blend in seamlessly with the stock LEGO parts around it. I don’t want to break the illusion that my layout is all genuine LEGO track. Custom lights are there to accent the model, and custom motor control to overcome the short comings of the stock LEGO parts. And when I paint a part, I only paint when I have no choice, because the part is not available in the color I need. And I paint the whole part, every single side, inside and out. I perform a complete color change so that if I disassemble the model years from now, that part is still reusable in the next model. The function of the part is retained in full.  If I’ve done my work well, you shouldn’t even be able to tell what is LEGO in my model and what isn’t. At least I hope. My models still carry that LEGO aesthetic. Look close enough and you will see all the little pieces that form the roof, all the tiny parts making up the truck frames. There is still that look there, familiar to any one who has ever opened a LEGO set. When you look at my models, you see only LEGO. And if I’ve practiced my craft well, you never question that.

Mike Moon’s model does not fit my view of a  what a LEGO model should be. There are no studs anywhere, and no familiar LEGO connections of any kind. There is no familiar brick shapes defining the body. The windows don’t look like LEGO windows. The door frames are too thin and delicate to be LEGO. There is no LEGO System geometry to the design. There are only two parts, the roof and the main body. When you look close, there are no familiar little lines defining where each individual piece sits in the model. Sure Mike uses LEGO motors, and a brick built base for the car body. But those are largely hidden, or disappear into the background. What you you notice is that body. It looks nothing like something LEGO would produce. It is for all appearances a body shell you might see on any scale model train. There is nothing that defines the body as LEGO, other than Mike had glued some bricks to it, to attach it to the brick base. For me the illusion of LEGO is lost. It doesn’t look like the LEGO I know.

There is LEGO inside. But does the outside shell disqualify the model as not LEGO?

Does this mean Mike’s model is bad, or that he shouldn’t do it? No, it’s his model and his choice how he wants to create it. But is it LEGO? Does it have a place in our hobby? If it isn’t, is it because it’s not an official part, or because it does not fit my veiw on what LEGO should look like. It is here that the lines become even more blurry.

In the early years of LEGO sets, the line between brick built models, and non brick models did not exist.

If one examines construction toy history, you will find LEGO sets that contained parts very different to what we have today. 1:87th scale cars, and single purpose accessories like gasoline pumps, signs, and lamp posts, with no familiar connection points to interface with standard bricks. Yet these are genuine LEGO parts, sold in official LEGO System building brick sets. But they more closely resemble Mike Moons trolley body than the bricks we know today. Does that make these old parts not LEGO? Of course not. But does that mean that what Mike is making has a place in todays hobby?

These are tough questions. And in the course of writing this article, I’ve questioned my own standards on what defines a true LEGO train model. You see, if you discount Mike’s model as not LEGO anymore, you could very easily make the same argument for my own creations. Even though the two look very different, my own work could be considered not LEGO, just as much as Mike’s. If you look at history you can argue that LEGO themselves have done exactly what Mike is doing now, making non brick like parts to use with the LEGO System. But what weight should that carry? Could the definition of what makes a true LEGO model have evolved over time to what we generally accept today? Thus invalidating Mike’s trolley. Or is Mike’s model the next step in the evolution of LEGO modeling? Is it simply pushing that line further back, and redefining yet again our view on what is and isn’t LEGO?

There has been a healthy discussion on this in the post made by Mike Moon. I would like that to continue. I, and many others, feel that this is an important problem for our hobby to confront. If we want to grow, we need to define what our goals are, and what our hobby should look like. I invite you to voice your opinion in our Facebook post for this article and the comments section bellow.

Facebook Post can be found here.

5 thoughts on “When is a LEGO® Train Not A LEGO® Train Anymore?”

  1. Dear Cale, thank you for starting this important topic.

    When I began with serious LEGO model design I’ver read a lot of LEGO purism – and concluded very soon that LEGO itself is not a purist at all. They don’t hesitate to give an existing part a new colour or print matching stickers at least. See HTF parts for instance.

    With this in mind I decided, the shape of the whole construction must be realized with LEGO parts to keep aesthtics and style. The first look must show: Here comes a real LEGO construction. Basta.

    Within these limits a lot is allowed: Painting is not a problem for me if used moderate since LEGO itself introduced new colours from time to time just when needed: OK, we can feel free to do the same LEGO allows itself. I for myself paint only whole parts but do not draw any pattern on original parts.

    3rd party parts are also ok if they don’t change the LEGO character. An extrem but positive example are the 3D printed rods made by Trained Bricks. Of course they do not match to any existing original part, but they are unobstrusive enough not to destroy the LEGO look, but this is the limit. Unremarkable 3D prints are definetely not the problem when you need deep knowledge about parts to recognize you have to do with 3D prints and not original parts, i.e. LEGO technic parts.

    Functional custom parts like Sbrick controllers, the BMR ball bearing bricks or lighting solutions are undisputed for me because they are inside the MOC and not visible. I for myself use Arduino electronics, own wiring and so on without thinking a second about it. Just the functionality is superior to original LEGO stuff. Drilling holes into bricks or plates to put wires through it ist not the problem if invisible in the completed model.

    Rails with different radii are undistiguishable from original rails if you are not deeply familiar with the originals. Their style is so similar beside the different radius …

    But using heavy 3D printing or just glueing non LEGO chassis on LEGO bases are a no go for me because that are not LEGO MOCs for me. They look different by the first look.

    Let the first impression decide if is LEGO or not.

    Helpful criterion?

  2. I fail to see any appeal. It’s appears to be too large for mini-fig scale so it’s going to look over-sized next to a Modular. It’s certainly not going to be any cheaper then a Lionel set-up. From a commercial stand-point, who would be interested in it? In my opinion, it does cross the line and now is no longer a Lego MOC. Your Toro lawn mower is still a Toro despite the fact the it has a Briggs and Stratton engine. Mike did do a heck of a good job with the 3d printing though. All those nice curves!

  3. Interesting arguments all around. Personally, if we are talking brick model railroading my inclination is that anything goes, it is in the eye of the beholder. It is no different than in traditional model railroading, some people like the PRR dome cars (that never existed in real life) or the Coka-Cola train (also never existed) others will get every rivet perfect on an HO brass steamer. It is a spectrum. Returning to lego, I’ve seen lego chassis with real steam boilers on top, utterly fascinating. I love to see great builds that are pure lego, they leave me in awe. My inner lego purist thinks just about any brick introduced since the mid-1980’s should be viewed with skepticism, and the cheese brick itself should be outlawed. But I still sleep at night with the knowledge that my cheese brick heavy boiler sitting atop custom wheels and rods is parked on a wide radius curve in my lego room.

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