Thursday, December 25, 2014

Lego Wait Chapel

Ten years ago, when my brother-in-law was about to marry his wife, I thought it would be a cool gift to present them a LEGO version of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University (that's where they met and where they were getting married). I had a friend take some photographs and after looking at them intently for a few days, I realized I didn't have the design/build chops, the quantity of LEGOs necessary, or the time to do it right. So I didn't. I mean, just look at it - it's a beautiful building and when LEGO builds something like this, they really do the original justice, so I wanted to do the same (click each photo to see a larger version).

Fast forward to now and we're approaching their 10th Anniversary. I thought I might explore the idea again, since some things have changed. First, LEGO now has a tool called the LEGO Digital Designer for your computer. Within LDD, you can build in a 3D modeling environment, using every brick style made by LEGO, just about anything you can imagine. LDD then will export a parts list and will create the instruction book necessary to build the model in real life from the ground up. Second, LEGO also now sells bulk bricks direct via their website. Not their entire back catalog, but a LOT of different bricks. Third, I had a little time to prepare (about 8 months til their Anniversary). Fourth, the internet allowed me to find photos from multiple angles so I can see what the Chapel looks like all around, including from space so I could see the roof color and shape.

I downloaded LDD and started building. Ugh. Version 1 looked awful. The windows along the chapel were oversized, as were the doors at the back of the building. The steeple and roof had two different greens. I think the worst part though was the space capsule-esque way that I built the steeple itself.

Version 1

But I learned how to use the tool and started to solve some of the tricky design features of the build. Not to get too much inside baseball on you, but I realized that I had spent a crazy amount of time working around an odd number of studs, having started in the front of the building on the columns. So I decided to build at a bigger scale and started over. I tried to get really detailed and, at the end, the Version 2 model looked pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.

Specifically, I thought the roof-line details, the angled corners, and even the scaling all seemed more true-to-life to me. I especially liked the ridge above the columns, the extra edging near the windows of the steeple and the details up the steeple as well. I was also pleased with finding the sand green color bricks for the roof.

[Note for LEGO enthusiasts: For those of you with personal knowledge of the building, yes, I realized near the end of this build (as I was exploring Google Earth to see the building from space), that the main body of the building is actually a wedge-shape. I decided that attempting to tackle THAT particular issue was beyond my building capacity. But, if you're personally interested in how to solve the issue, I suggest saving up and buying LEGO's Sydney Opera House. They solved the problem there.]

Version 2

Count the studs left to right to get an idea of scale (64 studs across x 96 deep is actually 1.68 x 2.52ft). But at that size, it was also a little under 2,000 pieces (1,918 to be exact). When I exported the parts list and started looking them up for costing purposes, I found that LEGO didn't sell many of them direct.

This was kinda' shocking, but the Internet came to the rescue in the form of - basically eBay for LEGO enthusiasts. Parting it out and getting pricing, I found I apparently used some pretty rare bricks. In fact, I even used some that you couldn't find at all (the ones the clock faces are touching simply are unavailable in that color). And that beautiful sand green color? It would prove to be the achilles heel of the build. The net total would be nearly $700 for the parts. No one would accuse me of being frugal, but that's a little expensive, even for me. 

Back to LDD for Version 3, a 1/2 scale of Version 2. It is just shy of 1,000 bricks (936) and I took special care to use many that LEGO still sold directly and if not, I verified availability via Bricklink. This meant a loss of the octagonal section of the steeple, and the angled connection of the portico to the main chapel area. But it still resembles the Chapel.

Total brick cost of about $150. Completely do-able. Apart from the design features I felt I could forego without damaging the integrity of the structure, I had to sacrifice in one area that I felt really impacted the visual accuracy of the real building. Specifically, two pieces that would've extended the steeple of the Chapel to a fine point. But nobody seemed to have them in the color I needed (and as I was matching reality here, I couldn't get too creative). I figured it would be ok.

Version 3 w/o Steeple Pieces

I went to work on "sourcing" the bricks via a combination of LEGO-direct and various BrickLink sellers. Over the course of the next few weeks, I received little LEGO care packages from all over the world. It was kinda' funny, but I enjoyed it.

Once I got all of the pieces, I did a trial run and put it together following the instructions the LDD tool provided. One of the things LDD doesn't do is check for actual structural integrity. In other words, you can build without care as to whether a wall will hold itself up and LDD won't stop you. I'm glad I did this test build, too. I found a few errors - one window on the back of the building was one stud off, hovering in space about three layers above anything that actually supported it. But nothing that required additional bricks (thank god). I corrected the errors in the LDD and then disassembled the model back to individual pieces. (The recipients are LEGO fans and seem to enjoy building together. My hope is that building it is going to be part of the fun for them.)

All the parts laid out for the trial build

Front View

Side View
Rear View - Yes, that IS a purple leather couch.  Aren't you glad you know someone as cool as me?

Did you notice the error I made again on Version 3? When I started scaling down, I did so from the back (so I would have the width correctly laid out). And I built almost the entire rear of the building before working up to the front/columns... where I realized that by downsizing the columns from 2-stud widths per column to 1-stud width per column, I had effectively created an odd number of studs from left-to-right in the front. This meant I had an odd stud problem again. But since I had already built the entire rear of the building by now, I figured I could handle it in true LEGO expert builder fashion - using off-set plates to get the steeple centered on the building properly.

Next up was getting the instructions printed - 253 steps equals 253 individual pages. Even double-sided that's 125+ pieces of paper and FedEx/Kinkos wanted $95 to print and bind the instructions. I found a more accessible printer and then took the 125+ pages to FE/Kinkos. They only charged me $6 to bind it.  Perfect.

In my mind, I'd always wanted the presentation to be as a traditional LEGO "set" - in a box that I covered with ModPodge'd print-outs to look like what you get directly from LEGO.  I started looking for a cardboard box of the size I needed (I just measured the bags of LEGO and the manual and knew I needed 400 cubic inches of space). Driving to AC Moore, then to Michaels - I found ModPodge, but no boxes.

Turns out, nobody makes readily available cardboard boxes of that size. In fact, to get 400cu inch boxes, you need to have them custom die-cut. The companies that do this kind of work want $2/box, which isn't bad. But you have to order in quantities of 50 or more. Ugh again.

OK, I thought, maybe I'd go old-school. Back in the 1960s, LEGO was released in wooden boxes with several different designs on the box. They didn't really have "sets" back then, just a bunch of bricks and some suggestions of what you can do with them. So back to the internet to find a 400cu inch wood box with a sliding lid (the kind used by LEGO).

Holy cow, was this turning into an adventure - NOBODY made boxes like this unless, again, I was doing something like a corporate gift and wanted 100s of them, laser etched, etc. I even went to a woodworking store in Raleigh and thought about buying wood and making the box myself. Even if I had the right tools (which I didn't), and the skill (which I don't), the wood itself would be more than $60. Adding the tools would be another $100+. The guy behind the counter at the store even snickered at me when I explained what I wanted to do and the level of skill that I possessed. I left the store feeling a little down. I don't like being unable to complete projects I start.

A few nights later, I had reason to be on Etsy. All of the sudden, I thought to search Etsy for wooden boxes. Sho' nuff. A guy in Missouri offered to make what I wanted, out of maple, finger jointed, sliding lid, etc, for $25. Plus $8 for shipping. Sold.

When it arrived, it was already gorgeous, but I knew I needed to stain it and seal it. I also needed to put the LEGO logo on the lid. So I downloaded a picture of one of the old LEGO logos of that era, cleaned it up in Photoshop and set it to Vistaprint to make 3x4" stickers.

The first batch of stickers came back damaged, and the image was also pixelated.

See the jagged edges?  These were visible on the sticker.

While waiting for Vistaprint to send me a second batch, I was staining the box a nice natural wood color and wondering if there wasn't a better way to do the logo, since there wasn't much I could do with the image file (I'm just not that good in Photoshop).

Having lunch with an artsy friend, she suggested I hand paint it.  I was horrified - there was no way I was going to do it freehand. She laughed (sensing a trend at the number of times I got laughed at for this project?) and told me to stencil it, which I also couldn't figure out how to do - until a few minutes later, I had a brainstorm and borrowed a digital projector. I set it up so that the projector threw the logo against the wall. I placed the box on a table in front of the wall, refocused the image down to the right size/position (I'd already marked the lid to center the sticker) and I traced the logo in pencil. I went the next day and bought red, yellow and black acrylic paints and that afternoon, I painted. It's not perfect, but it looks pretty good.

So now I need to seal it all. Using oil-based stain and acrylic paints, I needed a water-based polyurethane (oil-based poly would've wiped away the acrylic paint). Apparently, Lowe's doesn't sell much of that because they didn't have any. ACE, however, did. In a quart size (of course).

Would've been ok with me if they sold it in pints instead of quarts.  Anyone need any poly?

Back home, I'm out on the deck painting the polycrylic onto the box. Then waiting 2 hours. Then coating the other side of the box. Then waiting 2 hours. Then lightly sanding the whole thing with very fine sandpaper. Then doing it again. And again. And, for good measure, again. Looking great by now.

Stained, Painted, Sealed and ready for packaging.

I think I'm done! I put the lid near the box and let it set for another 24 hours to be sure it was dry. I then closed the lid on the box and walked away for a day or so. When I came back to the box to put the LEGO and manual inside, I found that the lid kinda' stuck. The polycrylic on the lid and in the channels for the sliding touch each other - creating a lot of friction.

Oh, and the poly seemed to be outgassing and smelled pretty strongly. Crap. I figure I'm going to probably have to sand the very thin section of the lid inside the channels and the channels themselves. But I don't know a lot about woodworking and went to a woodworking website to ask for advice. They suggested 600 grit sandpaper on the edge/channels and then waxing the edges/channels. As for the smell, they suggested leaving the box in front of moving air for a month.

Sandpaper was easy and wood wax (another quart size) was right across the same aisle at Lowes. But I was concerned about the wax. This didn't seem to be the right stuff. I was looking for paraffin wax, not floor wax. Nope, Lowe's doesn't sell that, either. Back to the woodworking website for more advice - and they sent me a link to a prior discussion on paraffin wax. People readily found it at Amazon for $6/lb.  Then someone noticed that Wal-Mart sells it for $3/lb. Heading to Wal-Mart the next day, I went to Customer Service to ask where to find the wax. The lady looked at me like I had 2 heads. She had to look it up first on their website and then cross-reference it to their inventory system by SKU (on another computer)to find out that it was in department 92 - grocery.

Anybody need 1lb of paraffin wax?  I'll make you a great deal!

Okayyyyy... not what I was expecting. But I wandered the grocery aisles for a few minutes until I found it and then it made sense, sitting amongst the other canning accessories. And yep, $3. Back at home, I do the sanding, and, wouldn't you know it, the lid works great and I don't even need the wax. I had the box sitting in front of a fan (the one I posted about on Facebook) for a few weeks non-stop. True to their advice, the smell dissipated after about a month in front of the fan.

My finishing touch was a brass plaque to go on the inside of the box, saying that it was from us. As with every other part of the build, I went to several websites and wasn't quite comfortable with the apparent cheapness of the offerings - most in the $5-15 range. Heading over to the mall, I stopped in at Things Remembered, as I've had several brass plaques made by them over the years. I fill out the order form and right before I hand over my credit card, the salesgirl tells me that it's $45! Uh, no. Back to the internet. Ordered and arrived a few days later - $12.50, including shipping, and it looks great.

Two months passed and Christmas is finally here. I put everything in the box, including a jump drive with the plans for the 2000 piece version, just in case they're bored with the smaller version. I wrapped it and set it aside.

Then I looked at the pictures I'd taken again and really wasn't satisfied with the top of the steeple. I wanted those extra two parts I couldn't find before so I went back to Bricklink. Wouldn't you know it? Someone sold them now. Order placed. 

They arrived two days before Christmas. I updated the design in LDD, but everything was already wrapped. So I handed the recipient the two extra pieces after they opened the gift and if they want updated instructions, I can give them those, too.

Version 3 with Full Steeple - As Gifted
At the end of the day, the time and effort spent (and getting laughed at by everyone who heard the story as the build progressed) was well worth it for the look of surprise and recognition across the recipient's face. I hope they enjoy assembling it as much as I enjoyed bringing it all together!