Highlights from AMA with Tom Alphin

I’ve highlighted the top 10 questions you asked about my book, LEGO Storage, and so much more…

It’s been comforting to see that so many people are finding peace during the COVID-19 pandemic by sorting and building LEGO. With so many folks stuck at home, I decided to host an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Sunday, April 5th!

While I expected questions about my book The LEGO Architect, The LEGO Storage Guide, and LEGO Brick Labels, the vast majority of the questions were about me, and about LEGO in general. (There were a whopping 550 comments, and I answered more than 100 of your questions!)

Top-10 Questions & Answers

Killasadra:What is the best LEGO build you have ever done and how long did it take?

Tom Alphin: My favorite official LEGO set was #10188 Death Star, because it features most of the iconic scenes from my favorite Star Wars movie. (A New Hope > Empire Strikes Back)

The most satisfying model I designed was probably the commissioned model of the Really Useful Products factory, because I was able to build it live over four days and teach people about LEGO while building it. (There’s a great video of the project you can watch on Vimeo.)

manwatchingfire: How many bananas does your collection weigh?

Tom Alphin: Based on a very rough back-of-napkin estimate…

  1. a banana weighs about 3.7 ounces, so let’s just say 4 bananas per pound.
  2. I have 15 large drawers, and a fairly typical drawer weighed 15.6 pounds. (15 × ~15lbs = 225lbs)
  3. I suspect the total collection is 2½ times that, due to built models, smaller parts stored in other cabinets, etc… (225 × 2.5 = 562.5lbs)
  4. Since there are about 4 bananas per pound, (562.5 × 4 = 2250 bananas.)

My guess is that this is a slight overestimate, but either way, I can feed a lot of monkeys.

April 8, 2020: On closer look, I only have 6 large drawers, and 6 ½-sized small drawers. Revised estimate: 9 × 15lbs = 135 lbs; 135 × 2.5 = 337.5 lbs; 337.5 × 4 = 1350 bananas.

Babe_Vigoda: My kid has about 2 dozen 400+ piece sets combined into various tubs. How much human misery would be involved in sorting through these? Do we sort by set, color, or type?

Tom Alphin: The Struggle is real! Unless you need to sell the sets, I strongly recommend that you leave them unsorted (or sort them only a little), and focus on encouraging your kids to keep building custom creations!

These kinds of questions are why I wrote The LEGO Storage Guide. (Based on the size of your collection, the following chapter is probably going to help you most: CHAPTER 4: LEGO Storage for Medium Collections.)

Biggeasy: How do you feel about the LEGO Masters show and the quality of the builds showcased therein?

Tom Alphin: Naturally, some of the builders are more talented than others, but I’ve been extremely impressed by many of the models they built.

I do wish the judges showed more respect for smaller, more intricate builds… (For example: “Beneath the Surface” model by Christian & Aaron in Episode 3 was fantastic, but not well received by the judges.)

blindref: Have you figured out new building techniques to make your models work, or do you combine existing techniques when designing?

Tom Alphin: I am constantly learning new building techniques from other builders, and by considering new ways to combine the many different LEGO elements. New Elementary is great blog which focuses on this topic.

Figuring out new techniques can also happen in my head… For example, I just saw this puzzle (by Ryan Howerter) while taking the baby for a walk yesterday… I “solved” the puzzle in my head while finishing the walk, and confirmed my solution using real bricks when I got home.

miyagi-sama: What’s the deal with those “forbidden LEGO building techniques”?

Tom Alphin: There are a number of LEGO building techniques which “work” and are common within the LEGO Fan Community, but are not allowed in official LEGO sets for a variety of reasons. (strain on the plastic LEGO bricks, too difficult to remove the part later, etc…)

The following is the best overview of “illegal” building techniques that I’ve found: Stressing the Elements, by Jamie Berard

Frothingdogsc**k: Do you judge when people say “legos” ?

Tom Alphin: Only if they’re an established member of the AFOL community and should know better.

We’re hard enough on ourselves… Why judge others for things that don’t matter?

dhenr332: How old were you when you decided that making things with LEGO would be come a career?

Tom Alphin: It actually hasn’t happened! LEGO remains a vibrant hobby business (or “side hustle” in the current vernacular).

My day job is as a Software Engineer at Microsoft. (Specifically, I’m a Program Manager on the Windows team focused on using storytelling techniques to deliver better features for our customers, and make our team more effective.)

neuronexmachina: Your guides are focused on LEGO, but how would they be the same/different for a toddler’s Duplo collection?

Tom Alphin: As the parent of a 1 1/2 year old, this question is extremely relevant to me, too! The obvious difference is scale – Duplo bricks are twice as big as equivalent LEGO bricks in all three dimensions (2^3 = 8 times larger by volume.)

That said, the bigger impact in building serious architectural models using Duplo are the more nuanced differences between the two systems:

  • There are just two Duplo plates per brick, whereas there are three LEGO plates per brick.
  • There are vastly fewer parts in Duplo… (Most notably, there are no SNOT pieces so everything must be stacked vertically.)
  • Duplo focuses on bright colors, which make less sense for architectural models.

For these reasons, trying to build architectural models with Duplo is more like building pixel art, and less about integrating advanced building techniques. (I tend to ignore the color of the bricks, since I don’t have that much Duplo.)

Good Luck, future architects!

The0nionLordsButler: Have you ever stepped on a LEGO brick? If so, how did it feel?

Tom Alphin: I like to build small, detailed models, so most of my collection is tiny parts like a 1×1 plate which is not all that painful to step on.

(I have never stepped on a 2×4 brick, but I’ve heard it’s especially bad if it’s sitting on carpet just right so one of the corners is pointing up.)

You can see the whole conversation at reddit.com/r/IAmA.

1 Response

  1. Avatar Brickteller says:

    I have a quibble with the statement that Duplo has no SNOT pieces. It ain’t easy but hinges, fire hydrants, and fire extinguishers all offer sideways building possibilities.

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