Friday, 18 October 2013

My Journey Into LEGO - Part 4

Here’s Part 4 of the story of my LEGO obsession, specifically looking at different ways I went about obtaining minifigures when I first started my collection.

Previous parts can be read HERE, HERE and HERE.

Minifigure Update

       So, my minfig addiction continues!

      As far as the ‘Collectible’ minifig series goes, at one point I was all like: yeah I’ll just get the ones I want, definitely not all of them… But there comes a tipping point where you find you actually have a majority of them… aaaaand then completist inside you just goes ah well - I’m almost there, I gotta catch ‘em all!

      So as of now I have all of Series 3-11 as well as the Team GB collection (a special set released last year to commemorate the London 2012 Olympics). I also have a few of Series 1 and most of Series 2. I promise I’ll put up some photos of them all when they are all set up and displayed nicely, so in the meantime check out the above photo (click to enlarge) from someone else’s collection I saw at a recent local Lego show in Wakefield, held by a group of Yorkshire based AFOLs (Adult fans of Lego) called Brickshire.

       Also from that show, are these from the Team GB collection, on a custom built podium.

      In regards to others minifigs (ie: not the collectible series), I like collecting the licensed ones. So at first it was just Star Wars and some Marvel and DC Superheroes, but now the net has been cast a little further afield to include Lord of the Rings and TMNT. I’m not a huge fan of Harry Potter, The Hobbit or Pirates of the Caribbean but there’s always one or two minifigs in those themes that I want. Oh yeah… and there’s also Indiana Jones, Speed Racer, Toy Story and The Lone Ranger… see how it just kind of balloons?

Ways of Obtaining Minifigs

      So that's a lot of ‘wants’ – but what’s the best way to go about obtaining these? Buying all the huge (and often pricey) sets just to get at a few exclusive minifigures is not viable for most people (unless you've got money to burn). Sets also get ‘retired’ (ie: Lego stop making and selling them) anything between a few months to 2 years after they first come out - making these older sets (and of course the exclusive minifigs contained within them) extremely sought after.

      Collectible Series minifigures in their foil packets are affordable when they are in stock (£2 each), but even these get retired fairly quickly. As of writing, the Lego shop only sells Series 11s (the current series), as officially there is only supposed to be one series on sale at a time. However in a few toy shops you can often find some Series 10s and, if you are lucky, some Series 9s left over. I’ve scouted extensively around the city centre of where I live (honing my thus far flawless touch-identification method on the Lego packets that I’ve found) and have never come across any earlier than Series 9.
      And even if you do find any of these series in store they are mostly just likely to be common ones as the ‘rares’ have already been felt out and scalped.

      Hence the flourishing trade of LEGO minifigs on eBay.

Buying Minifigs on eBay

      Looking for that one certain minifigure to complete your collection? It will most likely be sold somewhere on eBay. It’s recommended to search thoroughly though in order to get the best price. As a general rule, the older the Series the more expensive they are. Series 10 minifigs can vary between £2-£5 depending on rarity, whilst Series 3 (for example) can vary between £4-£15 depending on rarity. Usually the most expensive collectible minifg (not including Mr.Gold of course) is the Series1 Zombie which is usually sold for between £25-£30! Not a bad investment for someone who bought a blind bag with him in it back in 2010 for £2.

Buying single minifigs from eBay:

- You can get the exact one you want – often new in bag or sealed.

 - It can be pricey (especially if its rare).

      Do I have the Series 1 Zombie? Yes I do, but I didn't pay a ridiculous amount for him. An alternative way of obtaining minifigs on eBay is by buying job lots from people selling off their collection, keeping the minifigs you want and then reselling the rest. If you buy in bulk and then sell off individually you can get your money back – sometimes even make a profit. I’m sure there are even people who make a living doing this.

      As for me personally, I have done this one or two times. The most recent one I bought was a lot of about 30 figs for around £55 – kept about 10 of them: a few Series 1s (including the aforementioned Zombie), Series 2s, some Star Wars and a few others) and then sorted and re-sold the rest as individual items on eBay. In the end I made my money back on the initial purchase, which effectively meant I got the minifigs that I kept for free (which probably would have cost an estimated £50+ if I had bought them individually from eBay). Granted they were used rather than new but they were in excellent condition (you need to make sure you read the descriptions carefully and examine the photos to verify their condition before you consider buying a job lot).

      So buying and reselling can be worth it sometimes but I wouldn't do it as a regular thing. Trawling through all the search results for “Lego Job lot” and squinting at blurry photos to try and spot rare minifigs can be time consuming. Then there is all the sorting, photographing and relisting that is required when reselling the minifgs you don't want (which is usually the majority of the lot). Some minifigs you buy may be have parts missing, assembled in the wrong way or even damaged and these need to be noted (and/or rectified if able) before you resell. Sometimes they need to be cleaned (a quick soak in warm water and soap usually does the trick – Lego is quite waterproof and resilient for the most part) as ‘played with’ LEGO can be a bit greasy and have fingerprints on them. So it can be a lot of work involved. Oh and dont forget, if you are 'trading' on eBay you need to declare it on your tax return. ;)

      And that’s all assuming you win the item if it’s an auction. I’m sure that there are people that buy and resell LEGO regularly and so bidding can often be competitive (especially if its quite clear that there are rare minifigs included in the job lot). That's why you should cast your net a bit wider and search for “Lego joblot” instead of “Lego minifigures collection” or something similar as you also need to take advantage of lots that are incorrectly or vaguely  titled or take advantage of lots being sold that don't realise some of the minifigs in them are very rare.

Buying, sorting and reselling joblots on eBay:

- You can get minifigs for free or even make a profit when reselling.
- You can get a good deal when people just want to sell off a bunch of LEGO quickly.

- Requires an upfront cash investment.
- Takes some work to sort, possibly clean and correctly list all the LEGO for individual reselling.
- A lot of ‘played with’ condition LEGO may not be fit for reselling – sometimes you never know the exact condition until it arrives.
- Requires a good knowledge of minifigs and prices.

      When you spot a job lot with quite a few minifigs you want, this may be a worthwhile venture but as your collection grows this gets more unlikely. Unless you are a regular LEGO reseller this isn’t the best option (an exception being if you are looking to obtain multiple of the same minifigure for ‘army building’ etc… – something which I can neither afford or am particularly interested in.

      ‘Buy it now’ prices for minifigs on eBay are high – because it's the go-to place for most casual minifig collectors. But is there anywhere else you can buy minifigs? Of course, there are other independent websites where you can buy LEGO minifigs directly (no NOT the official LEGO shop – they would never do that), but these stores such as The Minifigure Store and Firestar Toys are often ridiculously overpriced and as such I’m not going to link them here – google them yourself if you are curious.

      No, actually there is a much better source: Bricklink!

LEGO Trader Sites – Bricklink and Brick Owl

      Bricklink is a site that nearly all AFOLs use – it's the world’s largest collection of LEGO traders online, sharing a unified cataloguing system for almost every LEGO piece ever sold. As such you can search for any minifig (new or used), part of a minifig, accessory, brick or even complete set and Bricklink will list all the registered sellers that stock it and the price that they sell it for.

      The most useful feature for me on Bricklink, is the ‘wanted list’. You search in the catalogue for whatever specific minifig (or lego piece) that you want, add it to your wanted list and then whenever you are browsing a shop, just hit a button and any items on your wanted list that the shop has in stock will come up.
      The great thing is, there are shops here from all over the world! You can take advantage of LEGO being cheaper in places such as the US as long as you are willing to buy the optimum amount (enough to justify the minimum postage cost but not too much so the shipping cost isn’t too high). If you fancy something a bit closer to home, there are over 500 sellers registered in the UK alone! From people just wanting to sell off their collection to fulltime LEGO resellers, you can find all sorts of new, used, rare and retired LEGO at competitive prices.

      If you want the best choice and the best prices checking out Bricklink is a must. I’ve bought plenty of minigfigs there myself as well as various bricks for my pixel art projects (which you will get to see in a future post). Bricklink is quite possibly the best resource for obtaining LEGO bar none and its well worth registering in order to buy stuff if you are a serious about collecting.

      It’s not all roses however. The website itself is starting to age a bit and its navigation and design are rather archaic compared to most online shops these days. It may take a while to learn how to use it all properly (which is probably why pricey yet easier to navigate sites like The Minifigure Store still get business from collectors when first starting out).

      Shops can also be wildly inconsistent in terms of dispatch times and invoicing. For most shops the buying process requires you to select items for checkout, commit to buy, wait for them to calculate postage and additional costs and then send you an invoice, then you send them the payment, then they dispatch. Some places get this done in a few days – others sometimes weeks. And of course if you are ordering from America there is the lengthy delivery time as well (for standard postage).

      So if you are serious about collecting minifigs and like to seek out the best prices bricklink is a must but does require some patience.

- Guaranteed to find the best price as there are literally thousands of shops.
- Shared database means you can search quickly and efficiently, with a nice use of the ‘wanted list’ feature.

- Clunky, old and ugly interface.
- Shop process, dispatch and delivery times can be wildly inconsistent.

      There is also Brick Owl, a newer prettier site similar to Bricklink but I haven’t bought using it yet so cant comment all that much on it. I have found it to not be as extensive as Bricklink in terms of choice of sellers and in general the prices aren’t as good. It’s still worth checking out though.

Minifigure Swap Sites

      I’ve used two of these in the past: Swap Minifigure Series and Project Swapfig - both are free to join.
      How it works: You enter the minifigs you have available to swap, the ones you want and then when you search a list comes up of other matched users you can swap with. It’s all done on a basis of trust so there is an element of dealing with the unknown but I’ve swapped a fair few times and have never really encountered any problems.

      It’s good if there are a lot of minifigs you want and have a few at hand that you want to get rid of as this will yield you plenty of matches. Unfortunately for me I don't get many matched swaps anymore as my ‘wanted list’ entirely consists of rare Series 1 and Series 2 minifgs.

- No money involved – just straight up swapping.
- Good for getting rid of spares.
- You can match with people all over the world and also do ‘weighted’ swaps (eg: 3 common minifigs for 1 rare) as not all minifigures are created equal.

- It’s all based on trust and communication – you need to agree with the other person on the swap, method of postage, postage time etc…
- Only really caters for Collectible Minifigure Series at the moment – no one really swaps minifigures from sets.
- The more minifigs you have in your collection (and therefore the less you need to find) the less useful these sites become in terms of being able to find decent matches.

Minifigs from Keychain or Magnet Removal

      When I first started to collect licensed themed minifigs, one of the cheapest ways to obtain them was through a bit of DIY.
      LEGO almost never sell single minifigures from licensed themes (Star Wars, Superheroes etc…) which means you usually can only get them through buying sets or by ordering through Bricklink or eBay – both which can prove expensive, especially if the minifigure you want is a rare one. The exception to this is LEGO selling single minifigures attached to keychains or magnets. They are, for all intents and purposes, regular minifigs that happen to be attached by the head to a metal loop (for keychains) or by glue to the legs or a rod through the back (for magnets).

      After a bit of initial research I found that there were ways of ‘freeing’ these minifigs from their shackles and a few sites I came across outlined some of these methods. In particular, thebrickblogger was a valuable resource.

      Lets start with keychains.

      There are a few ways to do this – and I’ll outline all the ways that I have tried myself.

      1) The ‘snip it off’ method. Like it suggests, basically just get some sharp pliers and snip off the chain at the closest point to the head. It’s a fairly simple procedure but isn’t the best. Firstly, you’ll see a tiny bit of metal sticking out of the minifigures head. It’s hard to get it perfectly cut without leaving any protrusion or sharp edge. Secondly, the cut is hard to do if the chain isn’t easily accessible on the headpiece – a classic example being Batman’s ears, which I had difficulty getting the pliers in between. Not the best technique.

      2) The ‘brute force’ method. Again, like the name suggest in just involves you holding the chain in one hand, the minifig in the other and pulling really hard. Other variations involve using piers, using a candle to heat the chain whilst doing it, using a paperclip and so on – but I’ve never managed to do this cleanly. It’s too easy to damage your minifig like this in my opinion, and the process can be further complicated by the chain snapping instead of the pin coming out. Not recommended.

      3) The soldering iron method. By far the easiest and cleanest method that I’ve tried.  You can buy a soldering iron for fairly cheap in hardware or craft stores (I got mine for about £6) and they are simply to use. Plug it in, wait for a few minutes for the iron to heat up and then you can go to work. Similar to the candle mentioned in the previous method (which I find didn’t work), the idea is to heat the chain whilst pulling on the minifig. This isn’t to melt the plastic, rather it’s to melt the glue that holds the pin in place inside the minifig.
       After a bit of trial and error, the best way I found was to shut the loop end of the keychain in a drawer (lean against it if necessary to stop it popping out), and pull on the minifig so the chain is taught. If you have access to a vice it's the same thing. Then apply the tip of the soldering iron to the small loop that is just above the minifigs head. As you make contact for about 5 seconds, start to gently (but firmly) pull the minifig away from the drawer. The metal heats up very quickly so even after just a few seconds you will start to feel the pin slide out of the minifig - smooth like butter. It’s important that you don't heat for too long or else the plastic of the minifg may start to melt on the inside. Also careful to never touch any part of the minifig itself with the iron – even a split second touch will leave a mark (as I have learnt).

      Of all the methods I think that using a soldering iron to liberate keychain minifigs is the easiest and cleanest way. The pin usually comes out very quickly and with the minimum of damage providing you stay level when you pull it out. Leave the keychain part for a few minutes afterwards, as it will still likely be hot.

      With all these methods however, you will end up with a hole in the head/hat/helmet of the minifig. If that bothers you, you can easily swap it out for another piece. Some I have left as just shelf ‘display’ LEGO to accompany my models but others, such as for The Hulk, I ordered a replacement hair piece form Bricklink at a fairly cheap price (fun fact, kids: The Hulk’s hair piece is the same as Harry Potter’s!)
      Others, such as R2-D2 and Spider-Man, because they have a stud on the top of the head, the hole is a lot less noticeable. It comes down to personal preference I guess.

      Another source for obtaining minifigs via DIY is from magnets. These typically come in a pack of three (where the legs are glues to a block) or as a single figure (attached to a round magnet via a thick rod in their back). You can read about the methods of removal HERE (it involves using hot water and a knife) but I’ve found that it’s hard to achieve this as cleanly and consistently as the soldering iron on keychain method.
      After a couple of goes of this, I’ve ended up with minifigures with weakened legs, with glue residue, scratches and large unsightly holes in their back. All in all, keychains are better to liberate as the method is simpler, plus they are often cheaper to buy anyway.

      One final note on keychain/magnet figs however is that sometimes the minifigure you get is not the latest version of that figure. For example, Boba Fett, Tatooine Luke, Classic Leia Slave Leia, C3PO available on keychains are not the latest versions. This is also the same for the block magnet versions (that usually come in packs of three). The round magnets however, are usually the more detailed latest version of the figs – but these are more expensive (£5 each) - and they come with accessories as well, whereas the keychains don't.

- Cheap way to acquire minifigs – especially for rarer ones.
- Keychains and Magnets are available in official LEGO stores – often at a affordable price.

- Requires some careful DIY – things can go wrong resulting in damaged minifigs.
- The minifig you end up with isn’t perfect – it will have a hole in the head, non-removable legs, hole in the back or some glue residue.
- Sometimes the minifigs you get from keychain and block magnets are from older versions of that minifigure (especially for Star Wars).
- Keychain minifigs don't come with weapons/accessories.
- Even keychain and magnets get retired fairly quickly!

      So to sum up, I did used to resort to DIY techniques when first starting to collect minifigs but as the results can be less that perfect it’s recommended that you use Bricklink or similar to get your brand new and perfect condition minifigs for a pound or two more. The only exception to this is for very specific minifgs (such as the little Hulk) that is really expensive to buy normally (about £15 minimum as it was a limited edition polybag) but only £2.99 as a keychain (plus 0.30p or so more if you want to buy replacement a hair piece).

      If you do decide to DIY, the soldering iron method is definitely the quickest and cleanest.


      There are one or two other ways for obtaining minifigs (promo polybags for £50+ spends at the LEGO shop, newspaper promos, minifigs that come with LEGO books, minifigs that come as pre-order bonuses from ceratin LEGO videogames), but I think I’ve rambled on far too long about all this for now.
      I’ve tried many different avenues and all this was a bit of learning curve for me, but I feel I know a lot about prices and availability now so it’s all been a good lesson. In conclusion, I would say one thing: learn to use Bricklink!

      If you are looking to expand your LEGO minifig collection in the most cost efficient way (and don't mind waiting for your post to arrive) Bricklink is by far the best avenue.

      I'll leave you with a photo of my Collectible minifigs Series 5-8 housed in a custom frame.

      Join me in Part 5, where I look at my LEGO pixel art projects, custom jobs, and the MOC community.

     Or if you missed my previous LEGO posts, catch up on them by clicking here:

Part 1 - Starting out

Part 2 - Gateway sets and Intro to Collectible Minifigs

Part 3 - How to identify Collectible Minifigs

18th Oct 2013

1 comment:

  1. A confession, of sorts... I've just bought my first Minifig... Thranduil in armour, with Fierce Face and sword... couldn't resist him...