We’ve featured custom LEGO kits by Brickmania many times over the years, but Dan Siskind‘s small business has grown considerably since the last time we reviewed one of the company’s kits. Most notably, Dan himself is no longer the sole or even primary designer — great LEGO builders like Cody Osell now contribute many of the custom designs to the company’s products. While Dan is best known for tanks, Cody has designed most of Brickmania’s airplane models, including the F-4C Phantom II we’ll be reviewing today.
The packaging, instructions, and sticker sheet
Small-batch custom LEGO kits do not, of course, come in the same kind of mass-produced packaging as official LEGO kits. Most Brickmania kits come in folded cardboard boxes with the custom kit’s details printed on the front and back, and unnumbered bags with the parts.
This custom kit follows the standard Brickmania pattern, with unnumbered bags on top of the spiral-bound instruction booklet.
The instruction booklet is relatively thin for a model built from over a thousand pieces, but the pages are large and most steps add many more pieces than the handful of pieces you add on any given step in an official LEGO set.
Like “premium” LEGO sets from the LEGO Star Wars Ultimate Collectors Series, LEGO Ideas, or LEGO Architecture, the booklet includes details about the real-life source material, with a page dedicated to the history and service of the F-4 Phantom.
Brickmania prints their decal sheets in-house, with all of the markings to reflect the real-life aircraft accurately.
You apply all stickers at the end of the build process, so there’s a single spread with callouts indicating where to place the numbered stickers.
Because none of the bags are numbered, I placed all the parts in a large tray with compartments, which made finding the parts much easier than simply dumping them all out. But because the steps can use dozens of parts, creating the first two layers of the delta-wing took me a good half an hour. I also recommend working in a well-lit room, since the difference between olive green, dark tan, and dark gray can be surprisingly deceiving under poor lighting conditions (this is not an issue with Brickmania’s printed instructions, which are generally easier to follow than some LEGO sets). The wings are fairly straightforward, simply layering tiles in a camouflage pattern on top of white plates.
Despite the great strides that LEGO has made in hiring fan designers and improving the techniques demonstrated in official LEGO sets over the past 10 years, designers at LEGO headquarters in Billund are still restricted to “legal” techniques that allow the finished model to withstand vigorous play by the average 9-year-old. Custom kits from companies like Brickmania have no such restrictions, and this is reflected in the techniques used to construct the jet’s nose and fuselage.
Sub-assemblies with complex geometries slot into each other and attach to brackets, resulting in a smooth surface with gorgeous curves. Techniques you’d never see in an official LEGO set include the 2×8 section behind the jet intakes, which is only attached to the fuselage with two studs at the rear of the segment, while the front section simply “floats,” enabling a very subtle angle out toward the front.
The cockpit and nose are no less complex, with a two-wide section with studs facing out serving as the base for the sides. Looking at the interior without the sides attached, this would appear incredibly fragile, but once it’s sandwiched by the skin, it’s very sturdy.
Although the jet’s exterior markings are all added using stickers, Brickmania did produce two unique printed pieces for the backs of the ejector seats.
My slow start notwithstanding, I completed the Phantom in just a few hours, experiencing some mind-bending LEGO geometry and advanced techniques along the way. Official LEGO sets decades ago were sometimes criticized for applying stickers across multiple parts — we even have an entry in our LEGO glossary for STAMP calling the technique “dreaded.” Of course, this way of thinking assumes that you’re going to disassemble your LEGO set and build your own creations with the pieces. We doubt that if you’ve just spent several hundred dollars on a custom kit, you want to part it out again into your collection, and Brickmania seems to recognize this by applying stickers in a way that’s more similar to plastic models than LEGO sets.
Brickmania’s stickers are quite a bit more “forgiving” than LEGO’s sticker’s and decals, allowing you to correct mistakes in placement without damaging the stickers. Given this, it didn’t take us more time to apply all the stickers to the Phantom than we’d spend adding all the stickers to a $10 Speed Champions car. One downside of the sticker material is that this “give” can result in some stickers applied to curves (like the Gatling gun pod’s shark face on the underside) having a tendency to curl off if you don’t press the stickers on rather hard.
The finished model
The F-4 Phantom is easily my favorite jet fighter, and we’ve featured a number of stellar LEGO F-4 Phantom II models here on The Brothers Brick over the years. McDonnell Douglas produced over 5,000 Phantom II jets throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and some even remain in service today with militaries as varied as Japan and Iran. This Brickmania kit features the F-4C variant used by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, in disruptive “jungle” camouflage for its ground attack role.
The camo pattern in dark green, dark tan, and olive green looks gorgeous, with pops of color from the stickers, particularly around the cockpit.
The angled wingtips and tailplane of the Phantom II are one of its most distinctive design elements, with dihedral (angled up) wingtips and anhedral (angled down) tailplanes. 1×2 plates with rails hold the wingtips up, while the tailplanes are attached via click hinges.
The Brickmania Phantom also features a full loadout, with a huge variety of weaponry slung from the jet’s all-white underside, ranging from several kinds of missiles to a Gatling gun pod.
Military LEGO builders love to show off their loadouts, so here’s a photo of all the weapons carried by the aircraft.
The two-seat cockpit canopies open, revealing the pilot and radar intercept officer (RIO).
The instruction booklet has you build the crew into the cockpit, though you can certainly remove them and place them inside again without disassembling the cockpit.
The Phantom II was used by the US Navy and US Marine Corps as a carrier-based aircraft, in addition to its service with the Air Force, and the standardized jet features an arrester hook for aircraft carrier landings, even though this particular version is the USAF version.
Landing gear are important if you don’t want to display your Phantom on a stand (though there are Technic slots for an aircraft stand Brickmania sells separately), since all the weaponry hangs down, often attached by just one or two studs. The landing gear are attached via click hinges, so popping them up and down can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.
Overall, the kit feels like you’re building a fellow LEGO fan’s design, not an official LEGO kit. The finished design gets priority over complete stability and sturdiness — for example, LEGO would never attach click hinges for the landing gear without adding layers of additional plates over them to ensure they never pop off. Similarly, the two-stud attachment with the angled, floating side panels means you have to be careful about where you pick up the plane by its fuselage (though the panel is easy to replace if you accidentally pop it off).
The Brickmania kit includes two custom-printed crew members for the aircraft — a Wing Commander and Wing Vice Commander with unique heads and helmets. Brickmania prints their own minifigs in-house, using a technique that produces a slightly raised texture on some printed elements. I personally prefer pad-printed elements, since pad printing results in prints that lays “flat” like official LEGO designs. Nevertheless, the printing is very well executed and the designs themselves look both accurate and appropriate to the scale of the minifigs. One advantage of this technique is that the designs are applied to every angle, including the sides of the minifigs’ torsos and even the backs of their legs.
The helmet and breathing mask are both non-LEGO elements produced by Taiwanese custom accessory maker Minifig Cat. A visor piece fits into the helmet and can be flipped up with a small lever on the left side of the helmet, and the face mask fits over the minifig’s face under the helmet.
Conclusions & recommendation
We’ve addressed the cost of custom LEGO kits in past reviews, but it’s worth revisiting the topic again for new readers. The parts for custom kits are sourced by purchasing LEGO sets as well as pieces individually on the secondary market. At the same time, custom kits are produced in small batches generally numbering no more than a few hundred at a time, in contrast to the tens of thousands of copies that LEGO produces using elements from their own factories. As a result, official LEGO sets take advantage enormous economies of scale in the cost of design, printing, packaging, and other aspects of production beyond the basic expense of the plastic that “artisanal” or boutique kit makers can never achieve. It should be no surprise, then, that Brickmania’s F-4C Phantom II custom kit costs $625.00 for a set with 1,290 pieces and two custom-printed minifigs.
If you can get past the price, you’ll be able to experience a stellar build process that may teach even experienced hobbyists some new LEGO techniques, and you’ll end up with an utterly stunning model that would look fantastic on any desk or shelf. This is the kind of custom kit you buy for yourself with your annual bonus or that you buy for a loved one who’d never splurge on such a luxury.
And we can’t get over just how fantastic the Brickmania Phantom looks, from its all-white underside with detailed loadout to the camouflage pattern and curvy fuselage. If you want to build something wonderfully different that you’ll never see from LEGO themselves, we can’t recommend this custom kit highly enough.
Brickmania is a Premier Sponsor of The Brothers Brick and sent The Brothers Brick an early copy of this set for review. However, providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.