This review must start with a disclosure. The lovely, kind people at the No Starch Press sent us a copy of this book for free. The weighty package from the USA, dropped through the letterbox of TLCB towers and caused great excitement. So much so, that all of the 32⅞ Elves in the office were given a Smartie each to celebrate. This was followed by a short, sharp blast from Mr. Airhorn, just to show them that we weren’t going soft. So a big “Thank you” from The Lego Car Blog and some well fed Elves too.
For this particular reviewer, Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć’s first edition was published at exactly the right moment. I had emerged from my Lego “Dark Ages” and was enjoying building again. As kid I’d enjoyed building both space and Technic models but now beams had no studs on them and apparently they were called “liftarms”. Connections were all via pins and axles and specially shaped pieces that were undreamed of in my teenage years. These new parts and techniques opened the doors to building things that were either too bulky or too structurally weak in days gone by. The opportunities were immense but also bewildering.
The light in the wilderness was the first edition of “The Unofficial Lego Technic Builder’s Guide”. My copy is bent, dog-eared, coffee stained, tear stained and much cherished. The second edition is bigger, at just over 400 pages but still small enough to keep handy on your bedside table or read in the bath. If you don’t own a copy of the first edition and have any interest in Technic building, the new book is a must buy. It is presented in a clear visual style, well written and has a good index. At around $35/£25 the book is great value too. But if you already own the first edition, is it worth buying the new version? Let’s take a look inside.
The second edition uses the same style as the first. The pages are packed with information but are easy to read, with text and illustrations placed well. The font is the same, comfortable to read font as the first edition. The author is a graphic designer by profession and it shows through in this product. This is a very technical book but it doesn’t have the feel of a school science textbook. Although most of the illustrations are the same as in the original book, many have been changed for subtle upgrades that are visually clearer. There are also many brand new illustrations.
The second edition is 70 pages longer than the first. One of the ways that these are accounted for is in additions to the early chapters that cover the parts range of Lego Technic. It’s amazing to step back and reflect on quite how many new Technic pieces have been created by Lego since the book’s first edition just three years ago. There are also additions to the definitions of technical terms and “Tricks with Bricks”. Chapter 5 is a brand new chapter on wheels. It starts with defining what a wheel is, in Lego terms and finishes by covering the up-to-date topic of using RC car tyres on large Technic cars. As you carry on leafing through the book you spot more upgrades. There is a tabular version of Sariel’s famous online gear calculator. The “Pneumatics” chapter includes the V2 version of Lego’s system and like the “Pulleys”, “Building Strong” & “Motors” chapters, the pneumatic “Devices” chapter has been slightly upgraded too.
The one big disappointment for me in this book is that the chapters on “Levers & Linkages” and “Custom Mechanical Solutions” are unchanged. These were one of the most inspiring chapters in the first edition, making me want to revisit my old engineering text books and try building some of the mechanisms in there. It would have been good to have seen some extra ideas here. These sorts of things are extremely useful for landing gears or feed mechanisms or kinetic sculptures. Overall the book is very focused on Lego vehicles, which is what you’d expect coming from a famous builder of Lego vehicles of all types. Lego Technic forums tend to be focused on vehicles too, so this book is spot on with its content for the market. However, it would have been nice to have had a bit more about the creativity, engineering and Lego techniques which go into things such as Great Ball Contraptions or kinetic sculptures. Then again, Lego produces model vehicle sets, the market is about cars & lorries and things that swoosh along are more fun than a static model. Oh, and we’re car blog, so we’d best not go on about this for too long…
Another new chapter is an overview of the Lego Radio Control (RC) motor system. As Sariel says, this has been discontinued for over a decade but it remains popular with builders who want to make fast cars with range that is longer and less susceptible to sunlight than Lego’s IR system. The motors are getting to be rare and expensive, so if you’re about to invest in one from Bricklink, this chapter will explain exactly what you want (and don’t want) to buy, how to use it and how not to break it.
A perennial problem for Lego car modellers is that Technic rims don’t allow wheels that steer to pivot in the correct place, along the centreline of the tyre. This leads to bodywork needing out of scale wheel arches, so that they don’t foul the wheels or an extremely reduced range of lock. We learnt this in the first edition of Sariel’s book. In the second edition, there’s a very neat solution to the problem called “virtual pivots”, complete with instructions for two example builds. These systems will be attractive to newbies and veterans alike.
The book continues with the example instructions for various steering and suspension setups and gearboxes. A very handy illustration is a neat summary of which parts from the 2 or new 3 position transmission ring systems work together. There are also instructions for how to use the new transmission rings in an RC gearbox. Planetary gears are also now covered. Despite being regularly used in real life applications, these are hard to make with Lego, owing to the lack of variety and often bulk of annular gear pieces. It’s good to see some ideas here about a neglected area of Lego design. Perhaps Lego might eventually make some annular pieces that will allow compact reduction boxes, with big ratios and low friction.
One solution to this problem would be to 3-D print your own gears. The third new chapter covers the rapidly developing world of custom printed parts. There are examples of what is currently available (including a very neat Go-Pro to Technic connector), plus a discussion of the pros and cons of 3-D printed parts.
The last chapters on modelling remain unchanged. This includes the illustrations. However it’s always good to stop and reflect that good quality Lego design and building remains good quality and stands the test of time. Sariel’s Kenworth Road Train from over four years ago still looks excellent.
If you’ve any interest in Technic building you need to own a copy of this book. Perhaps you’re a Technic ninja, who can recite offsets and ratios by heart. You probably own the first edition and so there’s less in the new book for you. The new chapters are useful summaries but you’d probably want to hunt down the detail on the internet before building or buying things. However, the book is a nice object to own and reasonably priced. You could have your old copy in your attic Lego room and keep the second edition downstairs, by the fireside, in your study. It will be available in e-book format soon too, so you can carry it around in your tablet, laptop or smartphone wherever you go. Speaking from personal experience, the paperback first edition also serves well as a camera stand for photographing MOCs, a multi-mug coffee cup mat and as an Elf swatter during the occasional office riot.
On the other hand you might be new to Technic, have bought a big set and are wondering what next to build with all of those pieces? Don’t bother with all of that hassle of downloading PDF instructions for the “B” model, buy this book. The book will save you hours of puzzlement and pain, with its example building instructions and inspire you to play with solving harder technical challenges. You’ll want to start experimenting (playing) and building your own creations: it’s what Lego is for. To quote Sariel’s Afterword, “…the only limit to what you can build is your own imagination.” and this book is a great way to fuel it.
“The Unofficial Lego Technic Builder’s Guide” Second Edition by Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć is available from the No Starch Press at this link.