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BOOK REVIEW: THE LEGO TRAINS BOOK by Holger Matthes

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Book Review

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(Review by Thorsten Benter)

Almost a year has passed since initial publication of this book. There are a number of on-line reviews available – this one on EB seems to come in a bit late. Well, I don’t think so, in contrast. This book is a comprehensive how-to-build-a-train resource rather than a compilation of what is out there. And this sets the book aside from so many others. It will be up-to-date as long as The LEGO Company produces bricks and sets. Plus, with the arrival of the Powered Up system, more space becomes available inside the train body as compared to comparable PF functionality: The dedicated receiver becomes obsolete and no line of sight is required for communication creating some additional space – space for sophisticated building techniques! This books tells you everything you need to know about the historical LEGO train theme development at TLG, about scales and widths, about pivot points, microstriping, SNOTing and offsetting, and so much more with relevance to train building! 

(Note: A PDF copy of this review with higher resolution pictures will be shortly available at Holger’s website) 

 

Summary:

  • A must-have for every LEGO train fan, for people entertaining the idea of getting into LEGO trains, and for people who still don’t know that they will become train fans after reading the book
  • Superb photography of LEGO models, outstanding renders of CAD models

  • In-depth analysis and assessment of the different LEGO train eras

  • Demonstration and teaching of advanced building and design skills

  • My personal LEGO book score: 10/10

 

About the book:

Author: Holger Matthes

Published: Oct. 2017 by No Starch Press Inc., San Francisco, CA, USA.

Hardcover, 135 pages + 90(+) pages reserved for 4 full building instructions (ICE train, gondola car, Swiss Crocodile, and a vintage passenger coach), 150+ most relevant and educational figures (excluding the beautiful chapter openers or page breakers as well as the set building instructions), 20+ tables including bulleted lists.

ISBN: 1-59327-819-5

Price: € 14 (Kindle edition, Amazon); € 23 (Print edition, Amazon) both as of 9-2018. $ 19 (ebook only), $ 25 (ebook and print edition, nostarch.com) both as of 9-2018.

 

The present English edition published by No Starch Press is based on the initial German edition “LEGO Eisenbahn – Konzepte und Techniken für realistische Modelle”, which was originally published by dpunkt Verlag Heidelberg, ISBN: 978-3-86490-355-7.

The initial German edition of the book based on Holger’s manuscript composed in 2015/16 caught the attention of foreign publishers: It began with the present English edition in 2017. It then took a bit longer until the Chinese publisher “Posts & Telecom Press” (who has already published a bunch of LEGO books written by fans) very recently released the Chinese version: http://www.ptpress.com.cn/shopping/buy?bookId=0ed0cd68-ca59-41fc-9bf9-193b06089996 (ISBN: 978-7-115-48419-2):

germancover400.jpg  englishcover400.jpg chinesecover400.jpg

 

After publication in 2017, No Starch Press’ English version became the reference for further translations. In summer 2018, the Spanish (“LEGO TRENES”; LEGO TRENES https://www.amazon.es/TRENES-Libros-Singulares-Holger-Matthes/dp/8441540179) and the Italian (“TRENI LEGO”; https://www.amazon.it/Treni-Lego-colori-Holger-Matthes/dp/8868956411) editions became available. And the Russian version is on its way (sorry, Holger couldn’t tell me any further information about its availability):

spanishcover400.jpg  italiancover400.jpg  russiancover400.jpg

(Note that the Russian cover on the right is purely made up by me – Google translator says the Cyrillic headline reads “in preparation” – but who knows …:tongue:)

 

About the author

Holger Matthes is a hobbyist who has been building with LEGO since 2000. He was involved in the creation of various official LEGO projects such as the Hobby Train set #10183 and frequently presents his models and gives workshops at LEGO exhibitions worldwide [copied from Amazon website].

 

Table of content of the book (short version)

  • Part 1: Overview and history

    • Introduction

    • A history of LEGO trains

  • Part 2: Building your own train models (My own creations – MOCs)

    • Basic principles

    • Designing your own models

    • Case studies in design

  • Part 3: Building instructions

holger.jpg

 

A note on the included building instructions

Appended to the body of the book, you’ll find four high quality and carefully composed instructions in addition to two free online instructions:

  1. Inter-City Express (ICE; driving and trailer cars, PF motorization, windshield designs)

  2. Gondola car

  3. Swiss electric Be 6/6 “Crocodile”

  4. Vintage passenger car

  5. Steam Engine BR 10 (as bonus online available at http://holgermatthes.de/bricks/en/br10.php)

  6. Steam Engine BR 80 (as bonus online available at http://holgermatthes.de/bricks/en/br80.php)

There is further information available online. Holger directs you to https://www.nostarch.com/legotrains; but most of the very valuable stuff is actually hosted on his website. I highly recommend to visit his site: http://www.holgermatthes.de/bricks/en/index.php. You will find a wealth of background information, tips&tricks, how-to, and much more.

 

The Book

Let’s face it: Almost one year after initial publication, Holger still sets the stage with this book for LEGO train fans. It will be tough to get it much further; not on 135 pages (not counting the instructions pages), not with regard to the topics covered, not with regard to the width of the audience addressed. This book provides diverse perspectives on the art of building LEGO trains, coaches, and rolling stock – and is at the same time always determined, focused, and addresses most relevant “issues”. Train builders repeatedly face tough challenges: A train is not a building, which simply resides in all its beauty; rather trains are work horses – either hauling heavy cargo loads or endless passenger coaches, or switching rolling stock for hours and hours in a train show – or on your personal layout. At the same time, a LEGO train is “beautiful” and “esthetic” in the recognition of a train fan - as a building is for City fans. However, to be able to render real trains into LEGO models, regardless on the scale used, requires some serious knowledge about the myriads of LEGO bricks available, about advanced building techniques, and even electrical wiring skills. There simply isn’t much space in a LEGO train. Space as in “Space … is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” [Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1979]. It is usually >extremely< packed inside a LEGO train model, particularly when electrifying it. Shaping the outer appearance with advanced building methods such as SNOT or angled and carefully secured pieces usually eats up all the space inside the hull. And lastly: Trains need to be sturdy. They not only haul heavy loads – they also have to run endless distances on track – in the best case on long stretches of straight track and smooth curves, here and there a bit bumpy – in the worst case negotiating endless and sharply bent curves and switch points in complex rail yards.

This is exactly what Holger addresses in his book: How to achieve a sturdy, reliable, and at the same time esthetic and beautiful train.

And we should just get it straight from the very beginning: Stickers are frequently recognized as the “icing on the cake”. And this is certainly true. BUT: Believe it or not, you can also legally “build” tiny lines, sloped coloring, narrowly split windows and much more when using advanced building techniques! And that sets aside this book from so many postings, building instructions, and other resources: Holger shows us how to accomplish “brick-built stickering” by using the endless variety of bricks and plates to build streamlined and nicely accentuated and smooth surfaces – rather than using the bulky, essentially non-LEGO-philosophy-but-by-TLG-released ICE #55768 nose with stickers attached all over it …

There is so much more in the book. This is what I am trying to highlight in the following. Holger’s book is a must for us all: Beginners, advanced builders, as well as Train Tech gurus! And those who believe that they already are.

One more thing to add: Photography and CAD image rendering. Or: A picture is worth a thousand words. Holger says: “The biggest thank you goes out to my old friend and master photographer Andy Bahler, without whose pictures this book would have been useless. His commitment, night after night, was above and beyond expectation …” The pictures are spectacular – you will notice right away.

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Organization of the book

There are three parts in this book, although there is no such explicit assignment in the table of contents. Holger tells us on page 2 though:

The first part of the book gives an overview of LEGO trains over the different eras, covers some history, and answers questions about how to combine old LEGO trains from the attic with today’s kits. The second part of the book is about building your own LEGO train models, also known as My Own Creations (MOCs). Using my many years of experience building LEGO models, I’ll show you how to create proper train models, covering both the possibilities and the limitations. Finally, the book ends with step-by-step building instructions for several models.

Usually, the table of content is a good starting point for the organization analysis. However, this book is extremely focused and self-contained in each of the chapters of the three parts. This is very helpful (and also very different from other books), as the LEGO universe, including train worlds, is as diverse as it possibly gets. The number of pieces alone currently available through TLC’s official channels such as LEGO sets, PaB, and LEGO stores – or even more so – through the uncountable BrickLink stores around the globe is truly mind-boggling. Well, it is not only the sheer number, but more so the endless combinations possible – and what you achieve with such. Chances are: One gets rapidly lost and a little frustrated. Exactly this is NOT happening when “reading” this book.

OK. We do it differently – as it seems appropriate for a “different” book: We walk through, as the very nice and focused organization of the book simply allows that.

 

Part 1

INTRODUCTION
Decades ago, the toy designers at LEGO likely never imagined how durable their work would be. Today, parents can dust off their childhood LEGO trains and play together with their children who have just received their first brand-new LEGO train set. And fans of all ages can revive older sets and parts to create entirely new models.

In order to prevent such an almost natural “disorientation” or lost in parts and ways to connect them, in part one the book begins with a review of on-line resources. Information-, instruction-, and brick-availability-wise. Holger lists only the most relevant internet locations. Start here and progress further on your own. It makes your building life so much easier. As with every printed book, online references may become outdated at some point in time. Holger names thus only most reliable web portals, which will most probably exist for a long time.

 

A HISTORY OF LEGO TRAINS
Let’s explore the evolution of the LEGO train systems from the earliest set to the present.

 

 history.jpg

Next, there is a historical review of which type of train system was available at what time defining an era. This is rather significant. First of all, this approach results in a theme classification rather than a temporal evolution of sets: The blue, grey, 9V, RC, and PF era. As the pieces from different areas are naturally largely interchangeable (otherwise it would not be LEGO!), you may mix them as you see fit. Nevertheless, each era has a certain typical appearance – if you want to capture that, you need to know what was going on during that particular era. As an example, people in love with the grey (12 V) era often capture the look and feel of that time – for example studs everywhere, not many curved bricks/diverse slopes (as they were not available at that time) – rather limited colors schemes, black, red, and yellow ... The reader learns what has been produced when and in what color scheme. There is also ample of information on the technical features of each era – it appears as if the author is deeply involved and well connected in the LEGO train community – all the way up to participate in the design of selected sets. Holger shares his knowledge with the reader – always in a concise and focused way. It is pointed out that Holger is not even attempting to compile a complete list of sets available within the different eras – in contrast, he is summarizing the unique era characteristics and features. He focuses on power sources, tracks (including switches and crossings), and other elements (wheels, baseplates, in addition to unique features, such as trucks, couplings and buffers). The grey (12 V) era sections stands out of course, as this was the most diverse and most creative train theme ever (IMHO, of course!). Here you will find an – again unique – compilation of “remote-controlled accessories”, “windows and doors”, “light bricks”, “weighted bricks” …

What I personally find extremely useful – and it must have been a considerable effort – is i) a summary table, listing the most important features of each era, and ii) Holger’s evaluation of these features he headlines as “Seen from today’s perspective”.

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Even long-time and experienced train enthusiasts will surely find valuable information in this chapter!

 

Part 2

BASIC PRINCIPLES
Let’s dive into the world of LEGO elements and explore the endless ways to connect them.

Now that one knows the individual features of the different eras, Holger opens part two of the book with a compilation of relevant LEGO pieces for train building. It is really surprising how many there are! I have built trains myself – seeing all the various elements nicely grouped and organized makes it so much easier to get an overview of individual pieces, select the ones you may want to try out – and compare them to other options. This section is extremely helpful when you start off with a new model – or when you want to overhaul an already existing train. 

pieces.jpg

In the following section, Holger introduces typical train specific building techniques (although you can use many of them throughout the entire LEGO universe!). And is not surprising that there are eleven dedicated pages on SNOTing and fractional-plate offsetting in all three dimensions. These are the most crucial techniques when shaping the look of a train. SNOT (studs not on top) is a powerful technique and has become very popular among train fans. Originally rather restricted to a few elements, which allowed to “reverse” the building order, the LEGO Company has released a broad variety of SNOT elements over time. These are of course also shown in the preceding chapter on relevant LEGO train pieces. I’d say that this chapter is extremely important for beginners and of great interest to experts as there are various approaches shown side-by-side. At least for me this chapter is highly inspiring. The same is true for plate offsetting, i.e., building with only one half stud or even less displacement off the stud grid. First, the look of a train becomes much smoother even when not using curved bricks; secondly, this technique allows you to literally “build” colored surfaces with fine structures and even thin stripes (called microstriping). Without using stickers that is … Ever used minifig guns to create pantographs? Or ice skates as door handles? No? Well – Holger shows you!       

clips.jpg        snot.jpg

 

guns.jpg   ice_skates.jpg 

 

 

DESIGNING YOUR OWN MODELS
You might be wondering if you’re ready to begin making your own models. Which train should you build? Maybe you should start with the commuter train that takes you to work every day, or a freight train? And who hasn’t dreamed of a beautiful steam engine in LEGO?

Now we are getting down to business. The following two chapters of part 2 are not about “building a train” – they are about “how to do it right”. We are talking about scaling and modeling rather than “pushing along”. Before Holger goes into details though, he points out the importance of thoroughly choosing a scale. This is an extremely important decision to be made when attempting to model a real-world train. How much detailing is required? How much abstraction is allowed? Citing Holger again (page 73): “Building a recognizable model isn’t about scaling every part exactly, although proportion matters. Intentionally omitting some details or exaggerating others is usually necessary. Scale modeling with LEGO is a bit like drawing a caricature: the end result may not be an exact likeness, but it is recognizable and undeniable.

We learn about model scales (1, L, O, HO …), alternative approaches (scaling by wheel size) as well as choosing a model width (6-, 7-, 8-stud-wide). Don’t mix these up – almost any scale may be used for any track width! There are so many diverse examples here on EB. Holger narrows the scope of widths covered in his book to 6 - 8 stud wide (see cover page of the book), as these are the widths most builders choose – in addition to the official 6-wide LEGO models. He discusses the advantages and downsides of each of these widths in detail. A very important aspect when designing and building a LEGO train – regardless of the model scale – is the official LEGO track geometry. Maximum distances of fixed axles, alleviation of this rather restricted distance using articulated single trucks (a theme repeatedly discussed here on EB), sliding middle axles in three axle trucks – you will find all the answers in this book.

 

 

 ownmodels1.jpg

3_axle.jpg

When it comes to attaching cars to each other – even more design aspects have to be considered, which are all discussed: Pivot points vs car distance, additional pivot points to reduce car distance, the effect of pivot points on design issues, to name a few.

pivot_point.jpg

 

And then: Steam engine design: 7 full pages! As far as I am concerned, steam engines are the most challenging models to render in LEGO. To say it with Anthony Sava’s words: “I'd buy a set with a steam engine in it, but I have little interest in buying a box on wheels.” (EB Forum, April 2nd 2018). Holger shows us all the challenges and caveats. The remaining sections in this chapter are: Power and Control, discussing mostly the implementation of PF elements, Modeling Details, and Track Design and Layout. Again, extremely valuable information and guides are given.

 

 

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One comment on third party suppliers: At the time of writing this book, both SBrick controllers (as a replacement for PF receivers, featuring wireless Bluetooth connectivity) as well as ME Models (as a supplier of wider radii curves) were actively present on the market. As of now (i.e., August 2018) though, the new LEGO Powered Up system introduced lately makes SBricks for trains almost obsolete – and Me Models have gone out of business some time ago. There are a good number of very good 3rd party alternatives for additional track pieces – large curve radii, complex switch point geometries to name only a few. They come as superb injection molded pieces which are almost indistinguishable from original LEGO track, as well as 3D printed varieties. I believe that a book of the format Holger has chosen simply does have to deal in-depth with such developments as they are much more volatile than almost any LEGO product. Taking aside the LEGO RC interim solution of course. But again, Holger gives a full account of why RC happened at all and why its lifetime was even shorter than that of many 3rd party small businesses. I really enjoyed this section very much.

Regarding very recent developments by TLG naturally not covered in the book (the original German manuscript was written in 2015/16): The introduction of the Powered Up system leaves much more space within a train engine so that all the building tips and tricks provided in Holger’s book become even more intriguing! It appears as we can even more freely combine advanced power/remote control options with the present advanced building instructions. Which makes this book even more valuable!

 

CASE STUDIES IN DESIGN
Armed with the tools and knowledge about LEGO modeling covered in the previous chapters, we’ll now take a closer look at the actual design process using some of my own builds as a guide.

This chapter needs to be explored – interpreted – by yourself. This is – as far as I am concerned – the heart of the book. Here you will learn how to begin designing a model. I find this part the most difficult: How to begin – looking at the all the bricks, plates, slopes, clips, there are so many of them … so we should take this to our heart:

“Designing a model is a creative and personal process: there’s no right or wrong way to build a successful model. The guidelines in this section are meant to get you started. You’ll certainly develop your own strategies along the way.”

Along with:

  • Decide on a scale and choose the width: 6-, 7-, or 8-wide?

  • Decide how the train will be powered and what type of track it’ll run on.

  • Choose a target audience: should it be a realistic, recognizable model, or are play functions more important?

case1.jpg

You will notice: This is about >you<! Nevertheless, you will also learn a lot in this chapter. Holger has chosen a regional express train (Bombardier double deck train), a powerful electric locomotive (Siemens Vectron engine), and a (well, Holger is German after all …) steam engine (BR 10) as case studies. This is a very clever selection – as the techniques he shows apply to almost every engine I am aware of – including American diesels as well as American steamers … or all the various European trains, Emanuele (EB member LT12V) is currently presenting here on EB …

case1b.jpg

case2.jpg

 

 

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And finally …

Part 3

BUILDING INSTRUCTIONS!
Get inspired with these step-by-step instructions for building an Inter-City Express, a simple gondola, a Swiss Electric Locomotive Be 6/8 “Crocodile,” a vintage passenger car, and a steam engine.

From page 136 to 227 you will find first class, high(est)-quality building instructions for the above referenced models.

There is nothing more to add.

building1.jpg

building2.jpg

 

building3.jpg 

 

building4.jpg

 

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As said: This book is a must …

Play Well!

 

@Jim Thank you very much Jim for giving me the opportunity of writing this review for EB - it was a great pleasure. And for sending me this wonderful book!

@HoMa Thank you Holger for writing this book. And for all the additional information you gave me when writing this review and for your comments!  

 

Thanks for reading,

Thorsten

 

 

 

Edited by Toastie
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A wonderful review. I not only own the book, I've read it multiple times so it begins to show using marks. It's full of valuable hints, tips and tricks. A very important book for LEGO train enthusiasts.

And Holger is a very nice and helpful guy, you can learn a lot from him if you have the opportunity for a chat. I've met him at Völklingen in 2016 and saw his MOCs several time at different LEGO exhibitions, particular @ Sankt Augustin (Germany) at the "Absolut Steinchen" event. Perhaps he is the ignition spark to become an active participant to LEGO events ...

Edited by Giottist

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It is a nice book indeed! I also have it, German language original version.

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An excellent book, very instructive and inspirational. And an equally good review, thank you for putting so much time in this thorough review.

On 8/27/2018 at 3:12 PM, Toastie said:
  • A must-have for every LEGO train fan, for people entertaining the idea of getting into LEGO trains, and for people who still don’t know that they will become train fans after reading the book

Definitely a must have for the train fans, but I would argue that the Basic Principles section would be an enlightening read for any FOL even if they are not particularly interested in trains.

 

On 8/27/2018 at 3:12 PM, Toastie said:

LEGO Powered Up system introduced lately makes SBricks for trains almost obsolete

Premature to say. SBrick still has its advantages over PUP, but that debate doesn't belong here. Though I would love it if Holger added a section to his web page on "recent developments" that discuss advances since the book was written, including: PUP, new 3rd parties to the table, etc.. Something that might eventually make it in to the second edition (grin).

 

 

 

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Wow, thanks for this - I didn't know about this book at all.  Already added to my Amazon shopping cart.

 

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Dear all,

thank you very much for your comments.

On ‎8‎/‎27‎/‎2018 at 9:38 PM, Giottist said:

… Holger is a very nice and helpful guy, you can learn a lot from him if you have the opportunity for a chat.

Yes, I always believe in people rather than things or accomplishments. If I remember correctly, it took Holger 2 min to reply, when I inquired for some additional information regarding his book. It is the "way" people respond. You can readily feel: This is passion - not selling a book. The book is more of an expression of that passion. The same happened by the way when getting in touch with Ben Beneke - I had trouble in getting his BR 23 engine powered. The same happened with Emanuele (LT12V) - when I was asking very carefully for an LDRAW mpd file for his BR 01 - he simply sent it and shared valuable knowledge. Just like that. This is what this EB community is about. I consider these people as master train builders. Which naturally results in deep respect. And when asking them - stupid - questions (my BR 23 was hopping around and Ben told me very carefully that 180 degrees angle between the two driving rods won't work - I did not feel stupid. I felt grateful) you simply get answers. Answers you learn from.

Holger is such person.

       

On ‎8‎/‎28‎/‎2018 at 10:09 PM, JopieK said:

It is a nice book indeed! I also have it, German language original version.

Man, today I just had a long conversation with a very nice guy from ASML in Veldhoven … we settled on English over the past years, but the more you get in touch and trust each other, things change. He called me today and said: "Hey Thorsten, Sander hier, wie geht's? Wie war der Urlaub?" I feel bad not to speak any Dutch - but in turn so many very nice people from Holland (I call very good and one best friend) speak fluently German. The original version of the book IS very nice as it naturally transports Holger's notion even more so. And I believe you do speak German fluently as well???

    

On ‎8‎/‎31‎/‎2018 at 4:51 AM, zephyr1934 said:

Definitely a must have for the train fans, but I would argue that the Basic Principles section would be an enlightening read for any FOL even if they are not particularly interested in trains. 

Entirely agreed on!!!

On ‎8‎/‎31‎/‎2018 at 4:51 AM, zephyr1934 said:

Premature to say. SBrick still has its advantages over PUP, but that debate doesn't belong here. … Something that might eventually make it in to the second edition (grin). 

Also agreed - on the other hand, PU has so much potential … there are so many activities. TLG has not really revealed the secrets - tear downs here - hacks and discussions there - a full suite of software for laptop based control already available … yes SBrick has still advantages. We will see … I bet Holger will cover that in the second edition.

Best regards
Thorsten   

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Just got this book, after having it in my Amazon basket for a few months.

 

I just have to say it is great, not only for LEGO trains fans, but for LEGO fans in general. Most Lego books just spend a considerable number of pages on trivialities and then procede to a few building instructions. This book not only have an extensive chapter covering the history of LEGO trains sets (including pros and cons of each era) but an awesome second part of explaining building technics, from where you can build anything.

 

 

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I think Holger Matthes belongs to the gotha of lego train builders and I also believe it's an honor for us all to have such a detailed and passionate review from a caring and generous EB member as @Toastie is.

It is nice to find that the book is available in several languages: this means great enthusiasm by the fans of each nation! :excited:

I like how the book start with an overview of the history of lego trains because re-reading about the time we were young helps to make us dream and moreover as Thorsten say: the book is always determined, focused and addressed to the most relevant issues.

This book can be a great source of inspiration for every AFOL! :classic:

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