Tag Archives: Brickmania

Brickmania M4 Sherman tank custom LEGO kit [Review]

This is my second review focusing on a custom Brickmania LEGO kit that’s similar to a LEGO model I designed myself — well, sort of, in this case. Read on…

The M4 Sherman is one of the most iconic and recognizable tanks of all time, with nearly 50,000 produced between 1942 and 1955. Because of its long production run, the tank served through most of the U.S. involvement in World War II and on through the Korean War.

M4 Sherman tank variantsThe Sherman is an incredibly well-documented vehicle, and popular enough with plastic modelers that there’s a wealth of reference pictures available online and in books, from historical photos to detailed schematics and high-res close-ups of surviving tanks in museums. With so many production variants (animated GIF illustrating three of the most common ones on the right) and tank crews’ penchant for customizing their vehicles in the field, it’s also a great choice as inspiration for a LEGO model — you can definitely put your own spin on it.

After I’d tried my hand with LEGO World War II models with a couple of small Jeeps and a simple Higgins Boat for my Omaha Beach diorama, I knew I had to tackle a bigger vehicle, and I quickly settled on the M4A3 Sherman, which I included in my diorama depicting the liberation of Cherbourg.

Here’s my M4A3 (76)W Sherman variant on the right with Dan Siskind’s Brickmania M4 Sherman that I’ll be reviewing on the left.

M4 Sherman comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (1)

It feels a little odd reviewing these two models as a comparison for two reasons. First, they’re very different variants. Dan’s M4 reflects earlier (initial M4 or M4A1), much more rounded hull design with a 75mm gun while mine is the mid/late-war M4A3 with an angular hull and the much-larger 76mm gun (with its correspondingly longer turret).

Side note: Remember how I said just how well-documented Shermans are? Prepare for this review to get occasionally technical about tank details. Bogies will be mentioned.

Second, I have to confess that I based many aspects of my M4A3 on Dan’s own M4A2. Or rather, I tried to reverse-engineer things like the front section and the suspension from his pictures (which I can’t find online today). You can definitely see the influence in details like the angled flags above the treads on the front. Given a bit of “shared DNA,” there is of course a lot more similarity between my M4A3(76)W and Dan’s current Brickmania M4A3(76)W kit. But back to the actual review…

Theoretically, both of these models are the same scale — Dan says he targets 1/35th, and that’s the same scale I used, based on schematics in World War II AFV Plans: American Armored Fighting Vehicles. But this next comparison photo shows how much larger mine is:

M4 Sherman comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (2)

The problem with LEGO tanks is that they’re just plain huge — an issue I touched on in my review of the Brickmania WC54 ambulance: “The more ‘room’ you have to work with, the more details and functionality you can build into the model.” (Speaking of ridiculously huge, I hate the road wheels on my tank and will definitely be replacing them with smaller ones if/when I revisit my design.)

My point about tank scale is best illustrated by this historic photo from Belgium in 1944, with soldiers conveniently walking alongside for scale:

Yanks of 60th Infantry Regiment advance into a Belgian town under the protection of a heavy tank.

The soldiers standing next to the Sherman show that the top of the tank treads come no higher than mid-chest, and the deck of the tank where the turret sits is just above the tallest soldier’s helmet. Granting that the minifig is horrible for scale, but assuming that height is an acceptable measure of dimension, it’s clear that just about every LEGO tank is far, far too tall. And thanks to the minifig’s impossibly wide hips, a LEGO Sherman’s width is also affected, if you want to include space for both a driver and a machine-gunner. Here’s Dan’s photo of his M4 Sherman, with three crewmen (not included in the set):

Affordable Sherman Project01

On my tank, the tread/suspension section is taller than a minifig. Dan has managed to shave at least two plates’ worth of height off the most-common LEGO Sherman designs, but at the expense of several details most other LEGO versions include, like the larger front drive sprocket compared to the smaller rear idler, and even the bogies (hey I warned you!).

Which brings me to the price for Dan’s kit. I won’t go into the price-for-value issue again in this post (read my WC54 post for that), but the kit I’m reviewing is $165 for 505 pieces. For $350, Dan also sells his M4A3(76)W Sherman as a “premium kit” built from 796 pieces that includes a 4-minifig crew.

The difference — both between Dan’s two Shermans and between his $165 version and my own — is a matter of scale versus detail. I think this more-basic Brickmania Sherman gets the scale closer to “right,” but by sacrificing many of the details in my version and Dan’s own M4A3. It’s not just an issue of price; I think it’s essentially the same tradeoff between scale and detail that Dan and I made in the opposite direction with our two rather different ambulance designs.

The scale-vs-detail point that I’ve belabored now in two separate posts isn’t a criticism in either direction — neither “Proper scale should always win over detail” nor “Certain details must never be left out.” And I won’t include a handy comparison table this time. I do want to point out several aspects of Dan’s “basic” M4 Sherman that I really like — all differences from mine.

  • The front section uses rounded bricks rather than straight slopes, similar to the even-more-rounded front that I first saw on Rumrunner’s M4A1 a couple years ago, but with much simpler parts (another good compromise).
  • The two front hatches close seamlessly.
  • Even with the hatches open, the turret can still rotate 360 degrees.
  • The road wheels are a logical, proper size that allow the tank to roll on its treads. (Mine are far too huge and don’t line up properly with the treads.)
  • The main gun raises and lowers (“fully posable” as Dan puts it). I think this is my favorite functional detail, and a design I’ll borrow should I revisit my tank again.

Even without some key details — like the bogies (and again!) — I really like the overall design, and this feels like a Sherman you could probably build a couple more of once you have your first copy, thanks to Dan’s instructions. Other than the bogies (last time, I promise), my biggest critique is the too-narrow treads — a single set of Technic chain links for each tread. Most Sherman designs use either LEGO’s wider tank treads or two parallel chains of Technic links. The single-chain treads work on smaller tanks (I’ll review one of them shortly), but as part of the overall shape, I can be convinced that it’s an acceptable compromise.

And for me, that’s ultimately why this is a positive review — that the design looks great at a lower price by leaving off a few details — and why I can heartily recommend the “plain” Brickmania M4 Sherman. It’s a fun little tank — and little is good when it comes to tanks. More importantly, it holds plenty of opportunity to make it your own with extra details and “field customizations” like hedge-cutters, applique armor, and equipment built from your own LEGO collection.

With enough M4 Shermans at your disposal, successful invasion of a Pacific island becomes a possibility:

Peleliu Beach, September 15, 1944

Brickmania sent The Brothers Brick a copy of this set for review. There is no guarantee of coverage or a positive review by providing items to review. It helps when you have a good product, like Dan Siskind does with his Brickmania custom LEGO kits. We’ll have a couple more reviews next week.

Brickmania WC54 Ambulance custom LEGO kit [Review]

Dan Siskind of Brickmania and I recently decided that it might be interesting to review a few of his custom LEGO kits from the perspective of someone who’s designed their own version of the same iconic vehicles available in his store. Prepare for a series of reviews with a bit more personal focus than your average LEGO set review…

The Dodge WC54 was an ambulance used by the US Army throughout World War II, and for a few years afterward. You can see them lined up on the beach at Normandy and it features prominently in the TV show M*A*S*H. It’s a wonderful vehicle, with rounded corners and a beautiful purpose — bringing safety and hope in the midst of the horror and chaos of war. My late grandfather trained as a medic during World War II, and I can imagine that if he had been deployed to the invasion of Japan (thankfully, he wasn’t) he would have served in a Dodge WC54.

All of that is why I had to build one myself. After a couple iterations and some great feedback from Tim, I was pretty pleased with the results. It’s small, but it’s one of the models I’m proudest of, so I thought I’d first try the Brickmania WC54 Ambulance custom kit for my first comparative review.

My WC54 is on the left, and Dan’s is on the right:

WC54 Ambulance comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (1)

Dan sells two versions of his WC54 design — a standard version with just the vehicle for $80 and a “bonus pack” version for $125 (which Dan was kind enough to send us). The bonus pack version includes a Citizen Brick US Army Ranger, printed BrickArms medic helmet to turn the ranger into a medic, a “Brickmania Medical Corps” T-shirt, and the whole thing comes in an olive drab medic satchel. The complete package is actually kind of awesome, even to this jaded, cynical reviewer.

The model itself includes 253 LEGO pieces. So, let’s just get this out of the way in our first review: $80 for 253 parts? These sets aren’t for someone building their collection of LEGO parts. I asked Dan about the prices of his custom LEGO kits, and he reminded me that he has to source his individual LEGO parts on the secondary market just like everyone else. Dan sells his custom kits in limited runs of fifty to a hundred (rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands of units that the LEGO Group moves), and his price has to account for the time he spends designing and redesigning the sets in a way that enables him to find enough parts in quantity to create a batch of custom kits. As someone who built a substantial portion of his World War II LEGO models from Bricklink orders, I can attest to the challenge of trying to assemble all the parts I need for a particular model from various BrickLink stores, much less attempting to source enough for dozens of the same model. No, custom Brickmania kits are not cheap, but I really do think you’re getting value for the money. Let’s move on…

The two main differences between my ambulance and Dan’s are in the overall size and the functionality. The Brickmania WC54 is one stud longer and two plates taller:

WC54 Ambulance comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (2)

There is, of course, a natural interdependence between a larger scale and more functionality — the more “room” you have to work with, the more details and functionality you can build into the model. Here’s a table that compares the details and functionality between the two models:

Andrew’s WC54 Dan’s WC54
  • Opening cab doors
  • Opening cab doors
  • Windshield wipers
  • Indented spare tire
  • Steering wheel
  • Cab fits a minifig driver
  • Rear fits a minifig on a stretcher
  • Opening rear doors
  • Removable roof for interior access

Because of the complicated SNOT and panel-style window on my cab, I have to remove a minifig’s arms and legs to put a driver in the cab. The half-stud offset transition from the six-wide rear to the five-wide cab means there’s no room in the back for much of anything. Plus, the rear doors don’t open, and ripping the roof off usually brings a bunch of other bricks with it.

WC54 Ambulance comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (3) WC54 Ambulance comparison - Dunechaser vs. Brickmania (4)

I could go on.

In other words, Dan gains all that extra functionality and detail at very little “cost” (one stud longer and two plates taller) in terms of the model’s slightly over-sized scale. Dan says the same is true of his Jeep:

I have also given up trying to make a decent 1/35 scale Jeep. I did one that small for a couple of months and couldn’t stand all the compromises to playability in order to make it that small. My newer jeeps are over-sized but way sturdier, cheaper and more fun to play with!

Dan’s version is also a lot sturdier than mine. Our front grilles are virtually identical — contrary to popular belief, there is indeed a finite number of ways you can achieve a particular design with the limited palette of available LEGO elements. But I built my three/five-wide engine block with its seven-wide fenders in a way that only left a single stud for the grille to attach to. Dan’s has a solid three-stud connection across the whole front of the engine block.

Despite all the odd-width construction and a few non-traditional building techniques (like tires inside of other tires to achieve a more-realistic look), Dan’s WC54 is an AFOL-designed model I’d be comfortable handing over to an eight-year-old to zoom around the living room floor. I can’t say the same of all the LEGO models I’ve handled — and a few I’ve accidentally broken — at LEGO conventions and club meetings.

You’ll notice in the pictures (both mine and the product pictures on Brickmania.com) that Dan’s WC54 has quite a few stickers. Well, they’re not actually stickers. Dan says he’s trying out something new with the WC54 — custom static-cling decals. I think it’s actually a brilliant idea: The decals go on easily and have continued to stick nicely even as I handle the model over and over during this review. Most interestingly, they come off when I want them to without leaving any gluey residue. But the decals feel a little like a work in progress. There are some spots on the larger gray decal (the one on top of the cab) that look like they didn’t print quite right. When I asked Dan about it, he said:

The static cling decals in the ambulance are a one-of-a-kind experiment to see how we like them. They’re printed on one of the laser printers in our office and not professionally made. Our customers are by and large our product testers too, so feedback like yours is what determines if we’re going to further pursue an idea or not. If clings are something we’re going to do for future kits, we’ll plan ahead to have them done in a professional shop where nicer result should be expected.

My vote is that these do definitely work — all the benefits of stickers without the mess. I only had one sticker that wasn’t quite perfect, so I’m looking forward to what Dan and his team can achieve with professional printing.

My other minor complaint is that the crosses on the side of the Brickmania WC54 aren’t brick-built. To be fair, they’re more perfectly square than mine and have a nice, thin white border around the cross that you can’t achieve nearly as well with just bricks. I asked Dan why he chose not to brick-build the crosses, and he said that the original prototype did include crosses entirely constructed from LEGO. But by using the decals he was already including, he was able to reduce the cost of the kit by several dollars, with 3 LEGO parts per cross rather than 14. Fair enough — not really a consideration for the lone LEGO model built from the bricks in one’s own collection.

Minor nit-picking aside, the Brickmania WC54 is a wonderful model built as much to play with as it is to include in your next World War II diorama or collaborative display. The slight compromise on scale has enabled Dan to achieve a level of sturdiness, functionality, and detail lacking in mine.

At $80 for the basic kit, you get a gorgeous little ambulance that might teach you a thing or two about odd-width vehicle building techniques. For another $45, the “bonus pack” version (at $125) also includes a lot of fun value. I think the “Brickmania Medical Corps” T-shirt is my new favorite LEGO-themed shirt, and the presentation with the medic satchel is priceless — the perfect gift for the LEGO military builder or World War II history buff in your life.

Look for more reviews of custom Brickmania LEGO kits in the coming days.

World War Brick 2013 in Minneapolis, MN – June 28-30 [News]

World War Brick is a LEGO fan event organized by Brickmania that brings together builders who display LEGO models inspired by historical and military themes. The second annual event will take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota at Brickmania Toyworks.

World War Brick banner

Discount pre-registration for weekend passes (the private convention) ended yesterday, but you can use a special coupon code for TBB readers when you register and get $10 off: TBBWWB

As with most LEGO fan conventions, you can also see the models on display during public exhibition times, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Head on over to WorldWarBrick.com for complete details

The Brothers Brick LEGO holiday gift guide 2012

What do you get the LEGO fan who probably buys themselves all the LEGO he or she could ever need? Here at The Brothers Brick (TBB), our LEGO holiday gift guide has everything a LEGO fan is going to love — everything but official LEGO sets!

LEGO Books

Regular readers will certainly have noticed that publishers have been furiously releasing stacks of new LEGO books lately. We haven’t been able to review all of them here (we’ll get to them, time permitting), but we definitely recommend each of these books.

The Big Unofficial Lego Builder’s Book: Build Your Own City
Authors: Oliver Albrecht & Joachim Klang.
Price: $29.99
Review: Read Tim’s review here on TBB.

The Brick Bible: The New Testament: A New Spin on the Story of Jesus
Author: Brendan Powell Smith.
Price: $19.95
Review: Read Bruce’s review over on GodBricks.

The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide
Author: Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć
Price: $29.95
Review: Read Josh’s review here on TBB.

The Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guide (2nd Edition)
Author: Allan Bedford
Price: $24.95
Review: Forthcoming here on TBB…

The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 1: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More!
Author: Megan Rothrock
Price: $24.95
Review: Read Tim’s review here on TBB.

Moleskine LEGO Notebook
Price: $16.95 (small) to $21.95 (large)
Review: Read Andrew’s review here on TBB.

And if you didn’t pick them up at the time, don’t miss two of my personal favorite LEGO books.

The Cult of LEGO
Authors: John Baichtal & Joe Meno
Price: $39.95
Review: Read Andrew’s review here on TBB.

LEGO: A Love Story
Author: Jonathan Bender
Price: $24.95
Review: Read Andrew’s review here on TBB.

Read the full LEGO gift guide after the jump!

Brickmania World War II Battle Pack out now [News]

Dan Siskind of Brickmania has just released a three-pack of WW2 vehicles, with custom minifigs and accessories. The set includes a German SdKfz 124 Wespe self-propelled artillery, American M8 Greyhound armored car, and British Universal Carrier (better known as the “Bren gun carrier”).

2010 Battle Pack Cover

At $300, the set of three vehicles certainly isn’t cheap, but spending the time — and bricks — to get it right as Dan does for his custom sets isn’t something you can do for only a few bucks. (I built most of my recent American World War II military vehicles from outside my existing collection, so I know it can get expensive just to assemble the necessary parts from half a dozen BrickLink orders.)

I bought a couple of sets last year to see whether they were worth recommending to readers of The Brothers Brick, and I can say unequivocally that they are.

BrickMania M4A3 Sherman Tank custom kit now available for pre-order [News]

Dan Siskind of BrickMania has just announced that his next custom kit is available for pre-order — the M4A3(76)W VVSS Sherman Tank.

LEGO M4A3(76)W VVSS Sherman Tank

I’d never bought any custom LEGO kits from somebody else, but I bought two of Dan’s kits a few months ago.

LEGO Red Baron triplaneI couldn’t have been more pleased. They’re well-designed, interesting to build (well, except maybe the tank treads, heh heh), and a lot of fun to see how another LEGO builder solves interior structure problems you’d never see in a photo.

Though the printed instructions for the two kits I ordered were $10 more expensive, I found them harder to read than the electronic version on a CD.

If you’re reading this, you probably have a computer, so I recommend taking the cheaper, more legible route.

You can pre-order your own Sherman from BrickMania.com.

BrickMania releases custom Panzer IV Ausf. G. LEGO tank kit [News]

LEGO Blacksmith ShopThe most frequent question we get from LEGO builders is How do I get blogged? But for all of you out there who read The Brothers Brick to see what we builders do, one of your most common questions is “Where can I buy that?” The answer is usually “You can’t.”

Daniel Siskind of BrickMania was one of the first LEGO fans to create and sell custom LEGO sets of his own design, way back in 1999 or 2000. After a five-year hiatus, Dan recently began producing new custom kits.

The Panzer IV Ausf. G. tank kit from World War II comes in Afrikakorps tan, with a unique BrickArms prototype MG42 machine gun.

LEGO Panzer tank

Dan’s Panzer tank kit includes 690 pieces and sells for $99.95 with instructions on CD.

M3 Grant Medium Tank by Dan Siskind

Daniel Siskind (Brickmania) recently posted this awesome M3 Grant Medium Tank from World War II, in British 7th Armored Division (“Desert Rats”) markings:

The handlebars on the wheels are a nice touch, and notice the tan Brodie helmet prototypes from BrickArms on the side.

By the way, this should come as good news for all of you out there who ask if the items we feature here on The Brothers Brick are for sale (they generally aren’t) or if we can send you instructions (we can’t), Dan has a wide range of custom LEGO kits for sale, along with instructions for many of his LEGO designs.