Faux + Lego = Legaux. Lego knockoffs were hard to come by back in the day, but you can get them anywhere now. These are from Dollar Tree, and the advantage over Lego is that I can buy all the green and red I need to make Christmas ornaments without blowing a whole paycheck on sets full of pieces I don’t want. And they’re cheap enough to give away as presents… which is exactly what I did! Click the pic and check out what I came up with. I’ve even included tips to help you build your own if you’d like. Ho ho ho!
Before we slide down this particular chimney, let me clarify that everything I bought in this article was purchased shortly before Dollar Tree switched to the current $1.25 per item pricing. So when I say something cost a buck, it cost a buck. Those were the good old days. Also, every design here is my own, not taken, inspired, nor derived from any sets or builds I’ve seen before. I don’t say this to boast, I’m telling you this because I firmly believe that with a little patience, a little trust in yourself, and a willingness to experiment, ANYONE can design cool Lego builds. ANYONE. And cheap knock off brands like these give you the freedom to experiment without investing an unreasonable amount into small plastic blocks. Lego makes high quality toys, literally some of the most well engineered toys on the planet. But they can be prohibitively expensive. Experiment with the inexpensive stuff first. Get a feel for what you like. Then, later, if you’re into it, move up to the expensive, name brand sets. There’s no shame in getting your feet wet on the cheap. In fact, considering the price of Lego sets, it’s a really smart move.
The Legaux I found at Dollar Tree on this Christmas shopping trip fell into two categories: Make-It Blocks and Best Lock. Make-It Blocks seem to be of higher quality but come with fewer pieces per dollar. Best Lock offers a wider variety of pieces and more of them for the money, but are noticeably more… Chinese. I’m sure that sounds racist. Hell, maybe it is. I can’t verify what is or isn’t lurking in my subconscious. I can tell you that isn’t meant to be racist. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences with Chinese people. It’s not the people I have a problem with. It’s Chinese manufacturing. Specifically Chinese manufacturing standards and quality control. And my problem with them is that they do not appear to exist.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Legaux minifigures SUCK. Across the board, they are almost universally terrible. I’m not sure what it is that makes every Chinese knockoff manufacturer decide to mess with the minifigure formula, but I have yet to see any really good ones. From loose joints to, as we see here, hands that will not even fit into the arms, fake minifigs usually blow. And the Best Lock minis are no exception.
I bought multiple Best Lock harvesters for parts, so I can verify that the lack of limbs below the farmer’s waist was not just a one-off mistake. They didn’t bother to give him legs. Which is fine, because the fireman’s legs are just ridiculous looking. Almost as ridiculous looking as the faces. Why both a farmer and the fireman would have the face of the bad guy pilot in every ’80s fighter jet/helicopter show is beyond me. Unless they’re flying a harvester to kill Stringfellow Hawke or maneuvering a fire truck on Blue Thunder’s six, these particular minifigs don’t need cold smugness and aviator sunglasses.
You can see the level of Chinese crapsmanship present in these blocks; they don’t even fit together properly when you assemble them according to their own instructions. What you can’t see is how oily these things feel. I actually got a tissue to wipe my fingers on because handling them felt like I was playing with Legos after eating KFC. I couldn’t see anything on the tissue, so maybe it’s just the texture of the plastic, but I swear it felt like my fingers were greasy.
Since I’m reviewing them, we may as well go ahead and make this a Works With Lego article. So how about it? Are these Best Lock sets something that Works With Lego? HELL NO. The quality control on these blocks are so bad they aren’t even compatible with themselves. I assembled the fire truck as directed and the blocks are so poorly fitted together that the long plates bent. The upward arch you see at both ends of the plate above – the one with the Greenbrier stamp on it – is not a trick of the camera; the blocks below it actually bent the plastic. And although the green plastic of the harvester had fewer quality problems than the red, it wasn’t without it’s flaws. The harvester was oily as hell and lacked the clutch of Legos. They just don’t hold together. Even if they didn’t feel like they were covered in goose grease, I still wouldn’t mix these with my Legos. They’re just too low quality.
But, as you can see, there may be enough interesting parts here we can do something with.
In addition to bags of red and green Make-It Blocks, I picked up a lot of these little “scenery” bags. Each bag makes a pretty decent tree, but the real treasure in these is the greenery. It will do nicely for Christmas garland and holly leaves.
I didn’t know what I was going to use these door knob hangers for when I got them, but I knew I wasn’t going to use them as door knob hangers. That gold and red cloth covered circle just begged to be used in a Christmas craft, so I grabbed a couple. It never would have occurred to me that I’d eventually use them with Legaux. After arming myself with these, plus a few random bags of potentially useful Legaux building fodder, I headed home. It was time to start building Christmas!
I didn’t take pics of the square Legaux plates and bags of pastels. I didn’t intend to use them as Christmas decorations. But when I got home I realized I had been shortsighted. These were, in fact, the perfect materials with which to craft cheap Legaux gift tags. Using a single blue plate, a couple of bags of electric blue, gold ties salvaged from some long forgotten Christmas packaging, and a little creative Lego geometry, I was able to give Micah and a few other kids nametags they could tear apart and build into other things. Not bad for roughly $3 each.
See those “holly berries” on the greenery? We’ll talk about those later.
I started off small with the ornaments, just messing around with a stack of 2×2 green plates I pulled from the sets. You can do a hell of a lot with Lego/Legaux once you learn to ignore the inherent 90° grid geometry. For example, as you can see above, if you connect one plate to a plate beneath it by only one stud, there is enough room to pivot the pieces so you can achieve 72° angles, making it possible to to create a build with pentaradial symmetry. If I had taken a better picture you would be able to see that the center of this little wreath ornament is a perfect decagram (ten-pointed star). Just decorate it with a few transparent 1×1 slopes (call them “cheese slopes” around your Lego loving friends and watch them geek out that you know the term), add a bit of greenery with some holly berries, and we’re in business. This little wreath is ready for the tree!
For my next ornament, I wanted to go old school. I’m talking about those funky abstract 1950s and ’60s Christmas decorations with no discernable familiar shapes. The ones my grandparents had on their tree that familiarity made normal when I was a child, but which I realized later in life were wonderfully bizarre. I started with a white 4×4 plate and just let my imagination guide me. My grandparents had these weird ornaments festooned with random greenery and shiny fronds of tinsel cascading out like descending fireworks. I didn’t try to emulate the tinsel, but the greenery felt like a good way to go.
See that “holly berry” on the greenery? We’ll talk about that later.
As you can see, I didn’t bother with making this look like anything but Christmas. It’s not supposed to be anything. It’s just an interesting geometric shape designed to add a splash of festive color to a tree. I’m quite fond of it, actually. It looks weird and old and inexplicable, much like my grandparents’ ornaments.
Pleased with the funky mid century aesthetic of my abstract ornament, I grabbed another 4×4 white plate and started building. I wasn’t sure where it was going, not precisely, but I knew I wanted the same red, white, and plant life green palette. This wouldn’t be an abstract form, though. I wanted an ugly 1960s snowflake.
A lot of those old ornaments had little sprays of tinsel erupting from them like tassels. While the little green bush piece in the center of my snowflake doesn’t sparkle like those little clusters of space age Mylar, it does emulate their shape. Here you can see that I once again took advantage of the angular freedom I could get from using a single stud as an attachment point. It took some adjusting and experimentation, but by making the vertical branches one stud longer than the others, I was able to come up with an approximation of hexaradial symmetry. It won’t pass an inspection by geometer, but when seen hanging from a Christmas tree amid other ornaments, it actually looks pretty great, if I do say so myself.
I really like the way this turned out, but building this thing was a PAIN IN THE ASS. My mom has always loved Christmas candle decorations, and she passed that love on to me. I knew I wanted to use these white pieces to make a candle, and I wanted to use a 2×2 yellow square as the flame. I was also pigheadedly determined that I would only use the Dollar Tree Legaux pieces I had bought that day for these ornaments. I wanted these ornaments to be something anyone could build with what they found on Dollar Tree’s shelves. What I didn’t realize is that rotating the 2×2 square by 45° would create a spacing issue that took me HOURS to resolve.
Using the ring from the door knob hanger was no problem at all. As you can see above, I just used four “headlight” elements in facing pairs, with a 1×2 red plate on the front of each pair to create the necessary space for the ring to pass through the candle. The ring is held firmly in place and does not move much unless handled roughly. That was the easy part.
You can see how many layers of plates I had to stack in order to finagle these pieces so that the yellow “flame” would be an appropriate distance from the top of the candle. Unfortunately, you can’t see in this photo exactly how I achieved this. I would love to tell you, but I can’t remember. I can tell you that it was needlessly complicated. I should have just swallowed my pride and used my actual Lego supply. Utilizing more complex Lego elements would have meant that I could have done the same job in five minutes with only one or two additional pieces. It would have been a far more elegant design. But I was dug in, and stubbornness won this particular battle. I gifted this ornament to my mom, so I don’t have it on hand to reverse engineer my solution. Nor would I want to. I’m very pleased that I was able to manage this particular feat of geometric legerdemain with the pieces on hand, but I wouldn’t want to have to rebuild this thing. I’m not sure my brain could take it.
Speaking of complicated, the weird connections I used for this wreath were so strange that I took pictures with my phone so I could keep track of how I had built each section. Even then, I had to rebuild this thing three times because I kept forgetting which stud went where. In the end, though, I was rewarded with a surprisingly sturdy wreath. The 2×2 plates hold the greenery below them in place, and those greenery pieces rotated just enough that I was able to use the 1×2 plates to connect to the stud on one of the “leaves.” Technically this wasn’t necessary, but it served to prevent the 2×4 plates from swinging, and basically made the wreath less likely to lose its shape with handling.
Here’s the underside, for those interested in how I pieced these together. This is a shockingly strong design. I don’t throw my Legaux creations, but if I had to use any one model I’ve ever built as a weapon, I would definitely choose this one. Thrown ninja star style, I think this thing would hold together well enough to cause some serious pain. I wouldn’t want to get hit with it.
In 1978, Lego introduced the Technic line, which allowed for more complex mechanical builds made stronger by using locking pins instead of friction clutch on studs to hold models together. You can click the pic above to read more about this, but hidden within the new Technic design was a deceptively complex feature: the 3.18mm connection. Elements with hollow studs like the ones above were redesigned to accommodate 3.18mm bars, minifigures with 3.18mm clips for hands were introduced, pins on the undersides of Lego plates were altered to 3.18mm diameter, and Technic pins were designed with hollow centers to hold bars that were, you guessed it, 3.18mm in diameter. Across the board, Lego elements were redesigned to incorporate the 3.18mm connection, and suddenly any Lego piece with a hollow stud was Technic compatible. The 3.18mm connection added a level of complexity to Lego elements and designs that changed the way Lego pieces are used to this day.
See those “holly berries” on the greenery? We’re gonna talk about those right now.
So what does all this have to do with my ornaments? Well, you see those clusters of flowers? Those are designed to be twisted off that central injection mold sprue to be used as four individual flowers. But what I never knew, and what I didn’t discover until I was building this very wreath, is that the central knob on one side of that injection mold sprue has a diameter of 3.18mm. I just tried it on a whim and was fucking floored to find that one side actually fits. This means that any hollow stud – like every single stud on those greenery pieces, for example – can hold that central sprue, making it a useable Lego element. When I think of how many of those pieces I have thrown away over the years… well, let me just say I’m trying really hard not to think about it.
In any case. that central 3.18mm knob allows us to use the flower clusters as a single piece, which can be mounted centrally and rotated in ways that allow us to have flowers where we otherwise would not be able to. I should have trimmed up the sprue left on those “holly berries” to give them a neater appearance, but they serve nicely to add little splashes of color where other elements are either unavailable or too large to be useful. Just a little tip to keep in mind when building your own ornaments.
And, at last we come to the idea that inspired all of these builds in the first place. I LOVE Christmas trains. And I love Lego trains. So when I saw the small black wheels of the fire engine and the rounded body of the harvester, I knew instantly that I was going to build a steam locomotive.
I said earlier that none of these builds were based on anyone else’s designs, and that was true. But in the spirit of transparency, there IS an aspect of this steam engine that is not original. Using a hinge with one side mounted upside down in order to make a connection point for a smokestack is an idea that I got from a miniature Lego train model years ago. And that reliable 3.18mm design came in handy once again, as the 3.18mm pin on the bottom of that hinge plate provided a connection point for the hollow stud on the top of the cone. I don’t know what the oddly shaped black pieces from the roof of the fire engine are, but they look vaguely mechanical, and I found that placing them at an angle between the wheels gave the piece a more authentic appearance. I don’t know what they’re supposed to be. I know nothing about steam engines or railroad mechanics. I just know that they make this train more trainy than it trained without them.
Yeah, the cowcatcher isn’t perfect. There was simply no way to get that shape from the pieces I had available… at least no way that I’ve come up with yet. But here’s something else I’ve learned over the years: if you make your model pleasing enough to the eye, your audience’s minds will fill in the gaps and smooth over the imperfections in your builds. This locomotive looks enough like a locomotive that the fact that the cowcatcher is just a bunch of cheese slopes doesn’t really matter. There’s enough locomotive in this build that the audience will see my intent rather than the literal shape. And that really is the magic of Lego. No build is EVER going to be perfect. It can’t be. You can’t faithfully recreate real life things out of standardized building blocks and rigid geometric shapes. It’s impossible. But in the end, that’s okay, because it’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to be fun, and creative, and interpretive. If your audience sees your intention, they will see your creation. They will see your process. They will see how you think. They will, in the end, see you. And as cheesy and trite as that sounds, I’ve found that it really is true.
You don’t need to be an artist to design great Lego ornaments. Imagining, building, tearing apart, and rebuilding better will MAKE you an artist. And there’s no better time than Christmas to see what you’ve got and share it with the ones you love. There’s going to be a little bit of you, a little bit of your perception and perspective, in every Lego creation you design, because no one else is ever going to think or see the world exactly like you. And where building with Lego is concerned, that is a wonderful, magnificent advantage that every single one of us has. So go get some bricks. Have a little fun. It’s Christmastime. And there’s no better time than that to enjoy some new toys.