My participation in last month’s Bricks by the Bay was a fantastic first-convention experience for both this blog and I. Perhaps the most rewarding part was meeting some of the talented AFOLs whose work I’d become familiar with as a fan over the years. One such encounters was with the folks of Brick Command—Brett & John—whose table was right next to mine in the vendor hall. After several great conversations about how Brick Command came to be, how their products developed over time, and the ins-and-outs of mass producing such beautiful ABS goodies, I realized that I had to make sure that we could repeat those conversations in the form of an interview for the site. Have you ever wondered how those great custom accessory houses conceive of their products? Well I have. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my nosy nature…an insightful conversation with Brett Warden, the AFOL at the helm of this fantastic powerhouse. For a closer look at the images below, simply click their thumbnails to zoom.
Can you recall when you decided that you wanted to get knee-deep into producing custom parts for sale? I mean, some people start with customizing their figures, but the majority of us never make that leap to actually say, “I’m gonna mass produce my ideas and sell some really cool accessories.” So how did you get to that point?
I started attending shows first, then engraving on LEGO. [I began] doing badges both at shows and at home. I opened Gravebrickers on Bricklink and, for a while, I engraved some really cool tile stuff and images. One of my faves was a stormtrooper helmet with rabbit ears. It was someone’s image they had on there and I made it for them on a 8×16 flat tile. [I eventually] did a few small events badges, then did some custom engraving for Will of BrickArms and a number of other AFOLs. It just seemed a natural progression to start to produce [custom parts]. I love making things!
How did you start to figure out the process of manufacturing these things? I mean dealing with molds and all the different aspects of accessory production requires a whole lot of researching and learning. How did you you begin to figure it all out?
I had a basic a understanding of plastic injection molding from working at Plaxicon and Vaupell, both plastic injection molding companies for bottles and wing parts respectively. That combined with using software for engraving helped with a fundamental understanding. After acquiring a machine and SolidWorks software I was also able to draw upon the talents of good friends: Thanks to SEVEN and my brother at digitalreality-inc.com who were involved in similar things, as well as to Windy, my lady, who does all the stuff that doesn’t get noticed.
I believe you started out with the “Modified Wing Sword” and the “Shuriken”. Both of these are inspired by different worlds—the Star Trek universe and feudal Japan respectively—which is great because it allows for all sorts of fun play. How did you end up with those as your first products?
Well…actually, my first product design was the Wolverine claw and my stands.
Oh really? I think I totally missed the claws. How come they’re not available anymore?
I felt that [they] were too frail and dangerous for small children, but they fit the curvature of the hand quite well and I liked them. About that same time period LEGO came out with the claw. Visually, I still like my version better.
Yeah, the LEGO Prince of Persia claws are cool for what TLG usually does, but could be so much better. I’d love to check out yours. So what about the stand, then?
The stand… It wasn’t my first released [product], although it was my first manufactured product. Because of a flaw that caused them to eventually split minifig legs, I didn’t release them. So the stand was then modified, run, and rereleased. I still have 9,998 useless stands that I’m trying to figure out something to do with. The released version of stands are quit nice however, and do not split the legs!
That’s good news. That’s interesting…I’ve never thought about all the troubleshooting involved in making custom accessories. More on that later, but I’m curious how you decide if an item is a good idea to produce or if you should keep looking for something else to make?
The world’s greatest resources: FOL’s, Friends, and Family!
Right. Of course. Well then, what’s the design or brainstorm process generally like? Where do you start?
I start by looking at things that are fun to look at: upcoming releases of LEGO, new movies, games, etc. [I also get] ideas from my nephew, John Langsmith, who you met at the show, and niece Chelsie Hoyt…a blackbelt at 14!
Bear with me if I get pushy, but I’d love to get a sense of your product development process. Do you sketch much?
Ha. How about digitally? Do you start on the computer?
Makes sense. I guess it’s not always a cookie cutter process. I’ve seen many customizers start sculpting in clay to create molds? Do you do this kind of thing?
No not my kind of mess…or talent!
Have you ever fooled around with modifying existing accessories?
Yes! Feel the Darkside! Not often anymore though, but perhaps I’ll offer engraving again in the near future.
Hmm…that could be very interesting. In terms of coming up with ideas for custom accessories, do you ever accept ideas from fans?
Yes, I did a panel once and the fans have some awesome ideas! I just can’t afford to manufacture all the parts I have designed. I have over 60 designed parts but little capital at this time, which makes things go sooooooo…slow…. Feels bad too cause I want to make things people love.
Ugh. Boo to lack of capital. Curious if you have any opinion on why certain products do better than others?
From what I’ve seen thus far, I’m somewhat lead to believe [it has a lot to do with] name recognition. Cuz, oh my god, I love Amazing Armory stuff, but BrickArms and Brickforge probably annihilate them in terms of sales. That’s not to say that BrickArms and Brickforge don’t have nice stuff…I love their stuff too! I’ve spent a short amount of time with, and like, both Will and Kyle.
Yeah, I’ve gotta admit that I’ve spent way too much of my own “capital” on all three of those custom houses’ products. Your stuff is definitely pretty phenomenal as well. For example, I love the chrome shuriken / stars. You’ve mentioned that they’re your most popular product. Why do you think that is? The ball bearing sort of attachment on the shuriken and wand is a completely original and brilliant idea for custom accessories. How did that come about?
The ball joint is infinitelyq posqeable and everyone loves chrome! John and I came up with the ball joint. We were inspired by the idea of playability, i.e. playing with items and saying, “How can I make this better?” The ball joint is used alot in Bionicle. Some of the uses I’ve seen from Bionicle MOCs are amazing and probably, subconsciously, helped bring that idea about.
Wow. Never thought of the Bionicle connection. So how hard is it to find that perfect fit with the ball joint…so that it’s just tight enough to be held without falling out but not too tight that it ruins a minifig’s hand?
Not too tough. A good pair of calipers made a difference!
Makes sense…”the right tools for the right job”, and all that. Getting back to the troubleshooting we touched on earlier, I assume when you’re dealing with fabrication that there’s a lot of issues that could come up along the way. Could you give us a sense of the sort of problem solving it takes to make these accessories perfect?
There’s a lot of measuring, trial and error on the CNC (computer numerical control) machine, and tweaking of prototypes. You have to go into it knowing that it is not going to be perfect the first time and you’re probably going to see in your mind’s eye things that will make it better along the way.
Let’s get back to design a bit. It seems that in the custom accessory game (or custom minifig game for that matter), the customizer has a crucial design decision to make: Should I try to stick to LEGO’s pre-established look and feel which tends to be a little on the simple leave-it-up-to-the-imagination side of things—little detail, pretty simple geometry, somewhat “blocky”—or should I try to create a new design direction that LEGO won’t do—more detail, more realism, complex shapes, etc.? The Ugly Duckling had a great interview with Hazel Tam from Amazing Armory where he talks about consciously not making things in the “LEGO-style”, hence the level of detail and complexity in the accessories they turn out. With Brick Command, it seems like it’s been more of a balance, where you’ve got things like the Buster Sword which has a simplified LEGO-like geometry to it, alongside the Wand, which is a little more complex and has some great detail. (I mean, after all, LEGO’s version of the magic wand is more like a big thick pole with no detail.) How do you find that balance?
Your questions are so thorough!
Yeah. Sorry. Ha.
Well, you will see more detail in my future items. I can tell you, with the Wing Sword, the orginal design looked fantastic and would probably sell even better than what I have now, but the tips and edges were so sharp that I feared for the well-being of children. I blunted them before [final] production. I did give away the only prototypes—5 grey and 5 chrome—all to different people. So a lot of the lack of detail is for the well-being of children. So the balance is sometimes actually me holding back.
Wow. Again, something that I’d never really thought about. (BTW, thanks for that prototype! It was definitely one of the best take-home items from Bricks by the Bay. I’ll be sure to keep it far away from my son-to-be.) So let’s broaden out a bit. What do you think of the state of the custom accessory scene?
It is awesome! There are so many people that are getting involved…imagination and application are unlimited. If you imagine it, you can probably apply it.
Which producers do you think have some stand out products?
All of them—Amazing Armory, BrickArms, Brickforge, Tiny Tactical—everybody seems to have something that I like a lot. And the kit guys rock too, like Siskind’s Brickmania, and Bricks & Boards. My personal taste keeps me coming back to Amazing Armory, but if I had to list 10 products that are my favorites, you’d see quite a variety of custom houses involved.
Anything you’ve seen lately and thought, “I wish I’d thought of that!”
I’m not the jealous type. I see something awesome and I say, “THAT’S AWESOME!” However, I would be likely to also say, “Hmmm…how would I have made that better?”
Have you noticed any positive and/or negative trends with custom accessories since the time you’ve been involved?
I guess I haven’t really thought of it.
How would you like to see this whole aspect of the LEGO hobby develop?
Just let it flow and let come what may.
Is there anything you’d like to see more or less of?
More MOCs at shows!
Alrighty. Can you give us any hint as to what may be coming out in the future?
I’m working on some armor that I am very excited about, but it is well out of my reach for the moment because of the type of molds that I need.
Are there any comic, movie, video game, etc. properties that you’d like to pay homage to by eventually making minifig scale accessories for?
If I answered this question I would giveaway the armor that I mentioned I’m making in the last question.
Ok…sometimes surprises are good. Are there any other aspects of the whole LEGO thing that you’re at all interested in trying some day?
If I wasn’t working a full time job to support my family and to make more parts I would be deeply involved in making technical MOCs that [incorporate unlimited combinations of] all LEGO systems and custom house items. The purists would not approve, but this is MY DREAM!