Introduction to the LEGO System

LEGO is a system of interlocking plastic bricks that was developed as a toy for children. While it has indeed been a popular children’s toy for generations, LEGO has also transcended its origins and become a medium of choice for adults who can use these plastic bricks to explore their artistic skills and creativity or simply unwind from their daily routine. Today AFOLs (or Adult Fans Of LEGO) make up a vibrant and growing community of LEGO enthusiasts from around the world. AFOLs share their ideas and creations online on social media as well as in LEGO conventions. These LEGO conventions feature elaborate displays of MOCs (or My Own Creations – a term used to describe models designed and built by LEGO fans) and can draw thousands of visitors.

To understand the allure of LEGO bricks, it helps to start with the basics. The first LEGO element that was invented (and patented back in 1958 by Godtfred Kirk Christiansen) is the 2×4 brick. The numbers 2 and 4 here indicate that it has 2 rows with 4 studs each. Studs are the cylindrical bumps that you see on the top of LEGO bricks. They connect to anti-studs (or receptacles for studs) on the bottom of other LEGO bricks allowing bricks to stay together when they are stacked. This simple interlocking mechanism is what makes LEGO work and enables all kinds of wonderful things to be built using LEGO.

In the years since the invention of these plastic bricks, LEGO has grown to become the biggest toy company in the world and here are a few factors that have contributed to their success.

a. Backward Compatibility

Take one peek inside a LEGO store (an online store if there isn’t a brick-and-mortar one near you) and you know that these are not your grandfather’s building blocks. The sheer number and variety of sets that are currently available can be mind-boggling. And yet, one amazing thing is that the LEGO pieces being made today can fit together just fine with your grandfather’s building blocks (if your grandfather happened to play with LEGO). Even with all the changes LEGO has gone through as a company over the years, one thing they haven’t changed is the size of the brick itself. The LEGO bricks being made today are fully compatible with the bricks made during the earliest days of LEGO.

This compatibility is assured by the very tight tolerances that are enforced during the injection molding process that is used to turn ABS (a type of hard plastic) into LEGO bricks. What this means is that LEGO bricks are manufactured with a high degree of precision (the maximum allowable deviation in measurements is typically around 0.01 mm which is thinner than a strand of hair). This way, LEGO bricks are guaranteed to fit together perfectly no matter when they were made and in which factory.

b. Clutch Power

If you look at the underside of a 2×4 brick you will see that it has 3 round hollow tubes that are evenly spaced. The inventor of LEGO bricks Godtfred Kirk Christiansen discovered that these tubes gave LEGO bricks much higher clutch power and stability when they are joined together. Clutch power is simply the grip that holds one LEGO piece to another. It has to be just enough to allow LEGO bricks to stay together without falling apart, but not so much that it makes it difficult to take the bricks apart (especially for children). Godtfred discovered that with the tubes added, the studs get wedged in between the tubes and the sides of the brick making them stick together with just the right amount of clutch power.

LEGO pieces can usually be joined together and taken apart any number of times without a significant loss of clutch power. This clutch power is also what makes it possible to use LEGO bricks to build massive skyscrapers and other structures, with sizes that are only limited by your imagination (and other practical considerations like cost, portability, etc).

c. Endless Possibilities

The concept of interlocking bricks may be simple, but it also opens up a world of endless possibilities. Two 2×4 bricks can be joined together in 24 different ways and that number goes up exponentially as you add more bricks (with 915 million different combinations that are possible with just six 2×4 bricks). Imagine all the possibilities with the 4000 or so different types of LEGO elements that have been produced in 60+ different colors !

Official LEGO sets come with all the LEGO pieces you need to build the model shown on the box along with step-by-step instructions for doing just that. In the earliest days of LEGO, all the instructions needed to build a set could sometimes fit on a single sheet of paper. But over the years LEGO sets have grown to become incredibly complex with some requiring 1000 or more separate steps and the instructions coming in sizable booklets or books (sometimes there is more than just one). 

These official sets can be chock-full of new and interesting building techniques (after all, LEGO has some of the best and the brightest builders out there, working as designers) but there is no reason to limit your LEGO journey to just these sets. In fact, you can take inspiration from the official LEGO sets and use them as a jumping-off point for your own exploration of everything that is possible with LEGO. This book is intended to serve as a road map for that exploration. In this chapter, we will familiarize ourselves with the basic LEGO elements and terminology before moving on to various building techniques that will be covered in the chapters that follow. These techniques will come in handy when you are ready to take the next step towards designing and building your own LEGO creation.

Basic elements

We may have used the term bricks to refer to LEGO elements in general, but a brick is also a specific type of element. It is the most common element and the basic building block of the LEGO system.

Bricks come in various sizes. The 1×1 brick with just one stud is the smallest brick that is available. Bricks are normally available with 1 or 2 rows of studs and an even number (1×3 and 2×3 bricks being the exception) of studs per row typically going up to 16. All the bigger bricks are essentially multiples of a 1×1 brick (for instance a 2×4 brick has the same size as two rows of four 1×1 bricks placed next to each other).

Plates are the thinner counterparts of bricks. The smallest plate that is available is a 1×1 plate that has the same footprint as a 1×1 brick but it is only a third a tall (and so you need a stack of three 1×1 plates to match the height of a 1×1 brick).

Baseplates are special plates that come in sizes as big as 48×48. They are thinner than regular plates and don’t have anti-studs on their bottom. They are generally used as the base or the foundation of LEGO builds (though lately LEGO seems to be phasing them out at least in their official sets in favor of regular plates).

Tiles are essentially plates with no studs. They can be used to cover up exposed studs for a smooth finished look. They also come in sizes 1×1 and up. But what do these sizes mean if tiles have no studs ? In addition to being the name of the cylindrical bump on the top of a LEGO brick, a stud also doubles as a unit of measurement in LEGO terminology.

In fact, there are quite a few different units that have been used to measure the dimensions of LEGO elements. You may come across LEGO measurements being expressed in terms of LU (LEGO Unit) or LDU (LDraw Unit), not to forget centimeters (metric units work better than US customary units like inches). While these units may be useful when you are using a CAD tool to design your own custom LEGO element, I have found that as a builder, you can get away with simpler units that are far more intuitive – namely studs and plates.

A stud is basically the width of a 1×1 brick which also happens to be the stud pitch (or the distance center to center between two adjacent bumps on a LEGO brick or plate). In metric units, a stud is equivalent to 0.8 cm but that is just a nominal measurement (the actual width of a 1×1 brick is more like 0.78 cm to allow some clearance between bricks when they are placed abutting each other).

If you look closely at a 1×1 brick, you will see that it is not a perfect cube (even if you disregard the stud). It is slightly taller than it is wide. The height of a brick is 0.96 cm which is not a whole number of studs. This can create a few challenges as you will see in the later chapters. A plate as we have seen is only a third as tall as a brick (or 0.32 cm). Using a plate as a unit of measurement, a 1×1 brick is 3 plates tall and 0.8/0.32 = 2.5 plates wide. This 3/2.5 or 6/5 ratio of height to width of a LEGO brick is something that will come into play often in the later chapters – especially when we start delving into sideways building or SNOT.

In addition to bricks, plates (and baseplates) and tiles, the only other basic LEGO element (if you can call it that) that deserves a mention here is the brick separator. It is an antidote to the legendary clutch power of LEGO elements. You may see this plastic tool included in some of the bigger LEGO sets. It helps you take apart LEGO pieces that are joined together, quickly and without much effort.