Andy Bell got his first set of Legos for Christmas when he was nine years old. His passion for the hobby extended far beyond his childhood, though – and he now shares that passion with his own children.
Bell said one thing that is unique about Legos is that no matter when they were made, the design virtually stays the same.
“They all interconnect over time,” Bell said. “All of the parts I had as a kid are still very usable. They integrate well with the newer stuff.”
Over the years, Bell’s favorite childhood toys have morphed into a competitive hobby. For the past four years he has attended the BrickFair convention in Birmingham, a gathering of Lego aficionados, or what Bell calls “AFOLs,” otherwise known as adult fans of Lego. Each year at the convention, participants enter Lego boats into a race held at the hotel swimming pool. Bell said entering a boat in the race is gradually becoming more popular, with 14 boats racing this year while the first year only had four competitors.
Bell said he owns an estimated 300,000 individual lego pieces – and his organization method is far from simple. Bell has his Lego sets boxed up and labeled, while parts for building are in their own bags sorted by part type and are in individual bins.
“Every person who comes down to the basement of my house says ‘I have never seen this many legos before.’” Bell said. “It’s a lot like walking down the aisles of a toy store.”
Building with Legos is something Bell said he has done for most of his life and now has shared that passion with his children. Bell and his wife Jamie have five children: Blake, Gus, Vanessa, Benjamin and Heidi.
Bell said while he enjoys the assembly aspect, motorizing his creations is often times a challenge. “Lego doesn’t have a propeller that’s specifically designed for moving water or air,” Bell said. “They have some that look good but none that work very efficiently. So the challenge is coming up with a strategy to make what you have work.”
Bell said there’s a delicate balance between making something that will win a race and making something that will actually float. “We’re kind of pushing the boundaries of what these pieces were made to do,” Bell said. “It’s a process of experimentation. A motor might work fine in the air, but once you add the friction of the water, the motor might not be strong enough.”
Bell said his boats are sometimes a combination of his own designs and ideas he finds in the online Lego community.
“Essentially you’re going to take a motor and try to increase or decrease the propeller speed by gearing,” Bell said. “But also because it’s a boat – and you want to keep it dry – you have to keep the electrical parts inside. A lot of times that means building up and out, and then down into the water. It’s not just ‘I’ll just attach a motor to the back to this thing,’ you have to figure out how to get from point A to point B.”
Bell has already begun building prototypes for next year’s boat. He said it takes an estimated 15-20 hours from start to finish and several attempts before finding a design that is worthy of competition.
Bell can occasionally be seen around town, sometimes at the Lee County Courthouse fountain, testing his boat for next year’s convention.