By: Seth Kenlon | Opensource.com.

My childhood consisted of about 20% Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and 80% Legos, with a pretty strong crossover of the two. I wasn’t allowed to actually play D&D for a variety of reasons, but through some mental acrobatics worthy of a level 15 rogue, I determined that building AD&D characters didn’t count as playing, and recreating Dragonlance in Lego form was a pretty good approximation of the game.

For that reason, one of my favorite genres of Legos was the castles, and I spent hours upon hours devising gauntlet-like dungeons for my mini figurines. In order to keep track of my creations, and because I saw friends mapping dungeons at school, I mapped out my Lego creations on graph paper. I also tried to track how my creations were constructed, and using graph paper seemed a logical choice for a medium that was mostly based on rectangular bricks, but the lack of understanding of isometric illustration ultimately confounded me.

Now that I’m older, my love of Legos hasn’t diminished, and while I’m not overproud of any of my own creations (or “MOC,” in the lingo of Internet brick builders), I have lately felt I owe it to myself to learn how to document what I build. Because my freehand illustration skills have never been very good, I decided to use technology to solve the problem.

CAD for Legos

I have several years working in a virtualized 3D space (even longer in actual 3D space, for what that’s worth). I’m comfortable with 3D applications, but all of the ones I’ve used have been specific to motion graphics and film production. They are, like film itself, generally just for show. How you build something is less important than whether the thing looks good. If you have to “cheat” what’s physically possible to ensure that something looks cool, that’s OK, because the thing you’re building only exists in a virtual space.

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) is different. CAD software replaced old-style drafting, in which specifications are created to demonstrate how something may be built, once or 100 times, in the real world. There’s an expectation of precision and realism.

Because Lego fans are legion, there is a prolific community of builders creating Lego models using CAD. The advantages are obvious—you can document what pieces you need and what steps you must take to build a model. This isn’t a replacement for real Lego bricks unless you love CAD more than you do Legos, but it’s a great augmentation to your hobby.

To build a virtual Lego model, you need two components:

  • virtual Lego bricks
  • a CAD application

There are a few ways to satisfy each requirement, but I’ve found I prefer the open source, modular approach.

Virtual Lego bricks

You can get nearly every Lego piece ever created from the open source LDraw project. LDraw is an open standard for Lego CAD, which includes consistent measurements and relative dimensions, and a simple language for how bricks are oriented. As a part of LDraw’s work in defining bricks, the community also provides 3D models of each brick. That means you can download thousands of brick definitions in a relatively small download (42 MB or so).

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