Basic LEGO Techniques

Whether you are building a simple wall using LEGO bricks or a complex sculpture, it is worth paying attention to a few basic techniques that can go a long way towards ensuring that your model holds together well and is as sturdy as possible. These techniques encapsulate the best practices for laying out the bricks in our model and are mostly carried over from masonry (which also happens to use bricks, albeit those of a different kind).

Throughout history (going back thousands of years), people have used the art of masonry to build all kinds of magnificent structures, large and small. The materials used to make bricks may have changed significantly over the years, but the brick bond patterns used for arranging bricks in walls and other structures haven’t. What can we learn from these patterns and how applicable are they to LEGO builds ?

One thing to note is that masonry walls usually have mortar in the joints between bricks. However, in the case of LEGO models, there is no connection whatsoever in the vertical joints between bricks placed abutting each other. In fact, the only thing holding a LEGO model together is the clutch power between each layer and the layers immediately above and below it. This means that the brick bonding patterns used for masonry walls are not just relevant to LEGO builds, but they form the very basis for the techniques we will be covering in this chapter.

Yes, it is always possible to glue the pieces in our LEGO model together but that would defeat one of the main advantages of LEGO as a creative medium (the fact that we can take our creations apart and rebuild them any number of times). The use of glue is generally frowned upon in the AFOL community. The only exceptions being the large LEGO models we see installed in public places. These typically have their pieces glued together for logistical and safety reasons.

Overlapping bricks for a stronger structure

The simplest masonry bond pattern is the stacked bond created by stacking bricks lengthwise with their joints aligned vertically (see Figure X). This creates a pattern that is aesthetically pleasing but is weak from a structural point of view. This is because each vertical stack of bricks stands as its own unit that is not tied into the other stacks.

The bond pattern that we most commonly associate with brick walls is the running/staggered bond (see Figure X). Here each row of bricks placed lengthwise is offset by half a brick length relative to the row above and below it. The resulting overlap between the bricks in the different rows interlocks all the bricks together into a single structural unit and creates a much sturdier wall.

If you have a bunch of 2×4 bricks lying around, you can try to create a wall by simply stacking them with no overlap and test with a flick of your finger how sturdy it is. You will find that this wall is nowhere as stable as one built as a fully interlocked structure (with the bricks in every other layer offset by 2 studs).

The staggered bond pattern lends itself naturally to 90 degree corners in walls (or L-junctions) as shown in Figure X. However, the pattern needs to be adjusted a bit for T-junctions in walls. To be able to interlock the perpendicular wall segment with our main wall without disrupting the overall pattern, we need to mix in some shorter bricks (2×3 bricks used in the example shown in Figure X) on every other layer at the junction. 

If you take a closer look at the walls of the house we built in Chapter 2, you will see that we have placed the 2×4 (and some smaller) bricks such that a vertical alignment of the joints in consecutive layers is avoided wherever possible. However, we cannot have a continuous staggered bond pattern because our walls are interrupted by the openings needed for the windows and the door. In fact, a vertical alignment of bricks cannot be avoided on either side of these openings. We need to arrange the layer of bricks immediately above these openings in such a way that the windows and door are locked in place (see Figure X).

Alternating the orientation of bricks

Now, suppose we need to build the same kind of wall as before (that is 2 studs thick) but we only have 1×2 and 1×4 bricks at our disposal. If we place our 1×4 bricks lengthwise, we will need two rows of them, one placed behind the other. The same principle as before applies even when we have one row behind the other. The row in the back needs to be offset horizontally by 2 studs relative to the row in the front so we don’t have the joints lining up between the two rows. Now, before we place another layer of bricks lengthwise, we need a way to bind the two rows together and this is achieved by placing 1×2 bricks crosswise (perpendicular to the previous row).

This technique of alternating the orientation of bricks between odd and even layers is based on the English bond in masonry. With regular bricks, we can also offset the row placed crosswise horizontally by half a brick width so the vertical joints do not line up anywhere but this is not possible when we are using LEGO 1×2 bricks. As you can see from Figure X the vertical joints do line up in few places on the face of the wall but they are offset horizontally compared to where the vertical joints line up on the back of the wall, and this creates a fully interlocked structure. This technique of alternating the orientation of bricks between odd and even layers is very useful in LEGO builds not just for thick walls but also for hollow sculptures (as we will see in Chapter 9).

Now let us pick up where we left off in Chapter 2 with the 1:230 model of the Empire State Building. We had determined that the largest section of the model needs to be 30×22 studs wide with each floor being 2 bricks tall. The middle portion of the wider side also needs to be indented. Clearly the scale used here is too small to use the dedicated window pieces for the windows. We will instead use regular 1×2 bricks in a transparent brown color to represent the windows. We will also use tan colored bricks for the wall itself.

We will need the walls to be 2 studs thick in order to be able to build a fully interlocked structure. Each floor will be made up of two layers of bricks. One layer will have the window pieces placed crosswise (and that way the windows can be transparent all the way through allowing us to add lighting to our model if needed). This can be alternated with a layer with two rows of bricks placed lengthwise. Offsetting the joints between the inner and outer rows in this layer allows us to create an interlocked structure.

If you build each floor this way and stack a few floors you will see that something doesn’t look quite right. In the actual Empire State Building, the windows appear to be in unbroken vertical lines and this effect is created by using grey accents below each window that blend in with the windows when viewed from a distance. An easy way to represent these accents would be to use bricks of a different color, say dark bluish grey, but this means that we cannot have tan bricks placed lengthwise on the façade on the building to strap all the window pieces together.

Thankfully we have two rows of bricks placed lengthwise and so even if we cannot avoid having the joints line up vertically on the façade of the building (for aesthetic reasons) we still have bricks placed lengthwise in the back row that can strap everything together. We will use dark bluish grey bricks for the window accents. Unfortunately we will still end up with a few places where the joints between bricks in the inner row line up with those in the outer row. One way to work around this and still create a fully interlocked structure is to create two variants of the floor design. In one of the variants (used for say the even numbered floors) the inner row of bricks is offset by one stud horizontally compared to the other variant (used for the odd numbered floors).

Creating sloping roofs using regular bricks

We have seen some techniques for building walls that rise vertically but how about the sloping roof of the house we first saw in Chapter 2 – what is the best way to create this roof using LEGO bricks ?

Back in the earliest days of LEGO when the system consisted of just regular bricks and none of the specialized pieces that are available today, the only way to create a sloping roof was to stack bricks with a setback or offset of 1 stud on each successive layer. In fact, many of the LEGO sets released during this period featured stepped roofs (see Figure X).

Creating stepped roofs in this manner is only possible when we use bricks that are 2 studs deep (so that the pieces that make up each layer of the roof can be attached to the inner row of studs on the layer below it). Figure X shows how the same method can be extended to all 4 sides to create a simple pyramid (that tapers from a base that is 16 studs wide to an apex that is 2 studs wide).

While the stepped roofs worked just fine, they were not very realistic or elegant (especially with the exposed studs). If the shape of the pieces used for the stepped roof could be altered so that they would create a continuous slope when stacked, we would be able to better represent the incline of the roof. This is exactly the idea behind roof bricks.

Creating sloping roofs using slope pieces

The roof bricks that LEGO released in 1959 were among the earliest pieces that were designed for a specific purpose. The 2×4 roof brick is like a regular 2×4 brick but with one row of studs removed and replaced with a slope. The slope falls a vertical distance of one stud over a horizontal distance also equal to one stud, for an effective angle of 45 degrees. But a LEGO brick as you recall is a little taller than 1 stud (3 plates vs. 2.5 plates) and this leaves us with a half plate lip at the bottom of the slope.

LEGO has since added other types of roof bricks to their catalog and these can be used to create roofs sloped at various different angles. However, the 45 degree roof bricks continue to be ones most commonly used for building roofs in LEGO models of houses and we will use them to build the roof of the house we first saw in Chapter 2.

Let us start by building just a plain roof without the dormers. We can stack 2×4 roof bricks in the same way that we stack regular bricks in a wall. Every other layer still needs to be offset by 2 studs to create an interlocked structure. We can fill the gaps at the ends with shorter 2×2 roof bricks. When we get to the top of the roof where the two sloped sides meet, we will need to use special apex pieces that have slopes on 2 sides.

To add the dormers, we will need to create holes in the roof where the dormers are located. The dormers can be built using regular bricks and window pieces (the same as what was used for the windows on the lower floors) and topped off with roof bricks. For the inside corners where the dormer roofs meet the main roof, we will need to use special variants of roof pieces that are designed for inside corners (see Figure X).

Let us also see how the pyramid we built earlier looks when we replace the regular bricks looks with roof bricks (Figure X). In this case, we need to use special roof bricks with slopes on 2 adjacent sides in the corners as well as an apex brick with slopes on all 4 sides at the top.

The LEGO catalog includes a full complement of 45 degree roof pieces that can be used not just for the body of the roof but also the apex, inside and outside corners. Here is a full list (see Figure X) of all the 45 degree slope pieces. Figure X shows a simple roof that uses the full assortment of 45 degree roof pieces that can be found in the LEGO catalog.

LEGO roof pieces have since found applications in more than just roofs and are now classified more generally as slopes. The only holdover from the earlier days when these pieces were primarily used for roofs is the texture that LEGO continues to apply to the sloped portion of these pieces.

LEGO slope pieces are broadly classified into families with names indicating the rough angle of the slopes achieved using the pieces. If you browse the LEGO part catalog on Bricklink you will see 45, 33, 18, 65 and 75 slopes. The 45, 33 and 18 slopes are each one brick high with the sloped portion occupying 1, 2 and 3 stud widths respectively. The slope portion is 1 stud wide in the 65 and 75 slopes but these pieces are 2 and 3 bricks high respectively. All LEGO slopes have the half plate high lip at the bottom and the reason is more likely to be some limitation in the injection molding process used to manufacture LEGO bricks.

The LEGO catalog (see Appendix X) includes a few other types of slope pieces including inverted slopes (which are sloped on the bottom alongside the anti-studs), curved slopes and even a few inverted curved slopes.

“Illegal” Techniques

This is a term you may have come across that suggests that some techniques used for building LEGO models may run afoul of some unwritten law governing the use of LEGO pieces. Well, no such law exists and the use of “illegal” here simply indicates that these techniques use LEGO bricks in ways that were not intended by the manufacturer.

While some of these techniques may be quite harmless (like wedging a plate or tile vertically in the gap between studs on a brick or plate – this is a technique that even official LEGO sets have used in the past), others can put undue strain on the pieces involved and damage them in the longer term.