SHIPrites Vol 3: The Childhood Spaceship Dream

The Manifesto is proud to present the third installment of a month-long series by friend of the blog and creator of SHIPtember, Simon Liu.


Welcome to volume 3 of SHIPrites, the SHIPtember Sunday spectacular. The Last two weeks I went on and on about the Journey.

This week we talk about the obvious: SHIPs.

SHIPtember is frankly the most obvious theme month and it was a just a matter of time before someone took the usual theme month concept and said, let’s focus on the thing most builders aspire to create in all of Sci-Fi/Space-dom.

But why is a SHIP so special? Let’s start with the definition of a SHIP.  Despite what some claim, SHIP stands for: Seriously Huge Investment in Parts. And I can prove it. I asked some OG spacers for help and we actually found this original LUGNET post concerning the coining of the phrase. In 2002, James Brown first proposed SHIP acronym: Seriously Huge Interstellar Plastic, and it was the great Jon Palmer who was first to christen the phrase:  Seriously Huge Investment in Parts. And ever since then it’s been some what of a communal aspiration to create a SHIP.

A great builder, Mark Kelso once said: “You’re not a man (or woman) until you’ve built a SHIP.” And judging from his latest, he is da MAN.


But what makes SHIPS so special to Space builders? We have said it’s a rite of passage. Heck, this whole series is dedicated to the idea of building this milestone, in a month none the less!

If you look at all the other themes there isn’t really a comparison. Sure in castle you build.. well a castle. And trains you build… trains. That’s like saying space builds space.

No other group seems to be so obsessed with defined categories of builds. There are some strict limitations in say train – to build on the LEGO based train chassis but that’s because it’s effectively defined by LEGO. In town, in recent years there’s a pretty big shift to build on the Cafe Corner ‘modular’ standard – but do town builders aspire to build their ‘dream modular’?

Maybe there is, and please let me know, as I’m a primarily sci-fi or space builder. I like to think that I’m a well-rounded builder and know all the various facets of the community, but really I don’t, I’m heavily biased towards the groups that I tend to build in, and even going to the ‘big three’ conventions in the United States, that’s still a drop in the proverbial bucket of LEGO builders out there.

It’s kinda interesting if you think about it, sci-fi and space themes are all about exploring the new and different, strange new world and civilizations and such. Where anything can happen. And Space builders are encouraged to build weird and funky designs of the impossibilities.

Yet the Space/Sci-fi theme tends to have the most constrained rules to build the most unconstrained imaginative builds. Look at the plethora of Sci-fi theme months:







That’s 1/2 the year right there! And yet each one of these so-called open construction months have a very specific requirement and/or aesthetic.

I’m not actually sure why this is the case, or why that Sci-Fi has a disproportionate number of yearly theme months. There are definitely some others out there, but these are the established ones that almost run themselves. I believe the first true theme month would be Novvember, started by the late, great NNENN:


With this first theme month he created the standard which we have all seemed to have prescribed to, define an objective – in his case a specific type of starfighter – two forward prongs, two rear fins and a big ass vertical stabilizer.And there it was, magic. Everyone bought into this seemingly simple criteria and built a slew of some of the best styled starfighters in LEGO form.  And others started repeating the pattern, creating a simple set of criteria and letting the imagination run wild. But again, mainly in space.

I look at the Classic Castle Contest – which has been running longer than all these theme months and their approach is slightly different, the categories usually state ‘what’ to build but not ‘how’ to build it. For instance build a ‘battering ram’ not ‘build a battering ram with 4 wheels and a skull head’ – when placed in context of the castle theme, these rigid design criteria seem totally draconian!

Yet in the sci-fi months – this is what happens time and again, and builders thrive on it, flexing and building around the rigid constraints! I don’t get it – Someone please explain!

Though the most hallowed design criteria of all sci-fi/spacers is the SHIP – the 100 stud long golden yardstick. How did this happen? The LUGNET thread isn’t exactly specific how the 100 stud marked was chosen, though it’s probably safe to surmise that it’s simply a nice round number. But it’s interesting that this number is extremely arbitrary to most builders, many SHIPtember vets don’t really aim for 100, just aim to be MORE than 100. I think this relates directly to the fundamental childhood dream of building a big spaceship. And it is just that, a spaceship, it’s not defined by 100 studs when we were younger. SHIPtember facilitates a bit of that dream – and there have been some builders that used the theme-month as their first time to finally build that bucket list item, not just spacers, but all sorts of builders.

But I think we’re missing a critical element that defines a SHIP.  I don’t know about you constant reader, but when I was a kid, and was dreaming about building a big spaceship it had an interior. Note that for all the restrictions in theme months SHIPtember is pretty lax in terms of design criteria, interiors are encouraged but not mandatory. And that’s MY mistake and shame to bare. SHIPtember has almost come to redefine what SHIPs are, and it was an unfortunate choice that interiors or minifig-scale wasn’t more of a defining design criteria for SHIPtember. But if you ask enough of those same OG space builders – it WAS.

In an effort to accommodate builders with various collection sizes and styles, this one design criteria was purposefully de-prioritized. Andrew Lee eloquently pointed out how I basically screwed over the definition of SHIP. Over the years definitions do change as do building styles and capabilities,  a decade ago  a SHIP used to be such a huge deal to get to the 100 studs mark, now with LUGbulk, Bricklink, PAB walls, 100 studs is actually pretty easy for most people. But with a full interior ?  …

Even 4 years later, and after some deep thought over this article I still debate that off the cuff decision. It was a pretty fundamental design criteria from the ‘childhood’ spaceship dream. But if we had added that to SHIPtember, would it have made the challenge too difficult?  We’ve talked in the past about how SHIPtember is only as hard as you want to make it, but if minifig scale with interior was such a requirement, would that make it simply too hard?

The reasons I think SHIPtember is so popular is that it’s fun. It’s probably only the only ‘collaborative’ theme month and people latched on and worked towards building in this month. For the most part most people are able to accomplish what they set off to do. Those more ‘advanced’ builders choose to build harder builds, with more advanced techniques, or even stupidly brick intensive designs. But would this still be what it is today if we had made it much harder to start off with?

At the same time there’s been a huge resurgence in giant SHIP building these last few years. At BrickCon 2015, one of the higher SHIP nexuses in the United States, we counted I believe 15 SHIPs on display, 12 of which were built just the month before in SHIPtember. We may have gained a new era in SHIPs by burying one of the key designs of the old era.

So I now sit here staring at my hull pieces and I ask myself, and in turn you constant reader, what’s does a SHIP mean to you?




22 thoughts on “SHIPrites Vol 3: The Childhood Spaceship Dream

  1. It’s so true that for many of us, the SHIP is the culmination of our childhood dreams realized. I remember Giddens saying once that it was always his dream as kid to have a fleet of ships that shared the same look and were part of a unified design family.

    While I’ve yet to tackle the SHIP, as a kid my thing was bases. The basic design and many of the play function elements of my Ice Base Gamma have literally been purifying in the cask for 35 years. I do have reams of drawings for SHIPs, but never have taken the plunge as I usually start getting dreaded ‘builders creep’ before I even snap a single brick. I really take my hat off to builders like the many here who can take the build-with-abandon philosophy of a polybag sized table scrap and graft it on to large, complex project like a SHIP.

    Great series of articles, Simon. It’s awesome to read about the switchbacks, deadfalls and unclear paths that builders travel on their road to producing a final product.


    1. Yes great point, There was always a BASE to go along with my SHIP in my childhood builds. Though I think from me, I had a bit of a space-town which was a base, but never did have that EPIC SHIP I’ve always wanted. I wouldn’t call it ‘Build-with-abndon’ philosophy – more ‘strategic stupidity’ 😛

      And thanks Gil! And great to see you on here.
      PS there’s a Hedgehog mecha with your daughter’s name on it next time you come out to a show 😉


      1. Bribes work! Have to check when the next meeting is. 🙂

        I was thinking about the micro / fig scale for SHIPs, and I recall the first time really seeing an example of how microscale could be taken from the 8-bit, squint-and-you-can-sorta-see-a-ship-shape to full blown high res glory. Of course, I’m talking about Old Skool Kung-Fu Master Priest, Paul Baulch and his revolutionary, Lance of Athena:

        Man, when that thing dropped on, the poles of the Earth swapped. The size, detail, incorporation of of the hangar bay… nobody (in the West anyway) had seen something like that before. It felt that after the Athena, the whole scale had entered a brave and awesome new world.


  2. The idea spawns from the Galaxy Explorer. Yup, it’s that simple. Think about it, look at that ship. Cool design, hitting on all notes in looking like the Shuttle, and minifig scale.

    But look again.

    Two figs sit in that cockpit, there are NO chairs and NO headroom. They cannot stand up or the top glass won’t close. How do they move around? Stretch their legs? Where do they eat and piss? Why can’t they get into the cargo hold with the rover without having to land first? At least there’s some head room there. Where are the fuel tanks or the power plant?

    Logic is the mind killer here. And it resides in the name. GALAXY EXPLORER. How the hell do you explore the galaxy in this cramped vessel? Seriously?! Those tiny engines cannot possibly (granted, we have already suspended our disbelief to some extent) propel this thing across the entire width of this corner of the universe. And those little bastards sure wouldn’t be smiling all the time!

    How do you fix this as a builder? BIGGER. For starters. Okay, you’ve got an idea for size but now you’ve got to make it make sense. Cockpit with more controls (and chairs); you’ve got a bigger ship, need to control every aspect now including flight operations, navigation, communication, etc. Crew accommodations including more crew members to run a bigger ship means a section dedicated to their well being; that means a galley, head, relaxation area/lounge of some sort, storage for food, medical, etc. Now you’ve got to run the ship to shorten the galactic distances and/or time; engineering must explain propulsion, gravity (somehow), atmospheric control systems, water and waste, etc. And then, WHY are you exploring? Or are you? What is the purpose of the ship? War? Transport? Cargo? Medical? Criminal? Now you’ve introduced a whole level of history/story/narrative/character that will need some bit of an explanation OUTSIDE the actual SHIP. A delicious rabbit hole to descend into if I may add. 😉

    THESE are what define “minifig scale” and “full interior.” And it is because of that damn smiling, ubiquitous, little bastard that these things NEED to be big. We all are empathetic to him and want our SHIP to be how we would want it. With headroom first of all. Who wants to explore the galaxy in a Yugo when you can do it in an Escalade? Then you need style.

    The SHIP is the true rite of a Spacer only because EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US has that shared itch to scratch. Lego started this by screwing with our perspectives in order to keep costs down and piece counts low. Now we’re hippies with money and access to any piece we want and in quantity. Bring it! We should be seeing more of these by anyone that dares call themselves a Spacer.

    Nice one, Simon!


    1. Maybe you should be writing the articles !

      That is a pretty great hypothesis that makes a lot of sense.
      And you’re right all the LEGO sets of old I always imagined them as shuttles for a much bigger uber SHIP. Which I still don’t have enough parts to properly build … yet.

      now that’s the dream, something that could fit a fleet of ice defenders or galaxy explorers


  3. Ditching the “full interior” requirement opens up the possibilities for more creative exteriors. Advanced shaping techniques don’t often lend themselves to clean inside surfaces and nice rooms. A strong skeleton likely occupies the same space that the interior would…either the interior detailing needs to be compromised to fit around the skeleton and inside the superstructure, or the exterior suffers.

    Even at SHIP sizes, interiors are compressed and compromised. The materials, eg, a 1x brick wall, are so large relative to the minifigs themselves, that you can’t fit everything in. On top of that, the exterior needs to be designed to make the interior accessible… in effect you’re designing a play-set instead of a piece of concept art or a movie model.


    1. Excellent point – SHIPs are simply way more dense and complex than they used to be, and that cost is interior space. And it’s interesting to see the seismic shift towards hyper detailed complex SHIP builds which are visually stunning. Though part of the kid in me does wish there was more surprises in the inside.

      I think we as a group might have partially realized this, and this year’s theme (besides curves!) seems to be hangars – I’ve seen LOTS of hangars, a little glimpse of the inside section, but not enough the same extensive trade off that would have been required if we had interiors again….


  4. I don’t think you damaged SHIPtember in any way by not demanding an interior. People either take that challenge or they don’t. Back when I built the Ghoul, the prevailing trend was definitely to have an interior, it was considered the hard road, to use your vernacular. I distinctly remember being reactionary to that Idea and none of my SHIPs had interiors. While interiors can certainly look cool and be super fun in person, they do require design compromises that don’t always make for an attractive final product, so I agree with Bram’s description. Most of them end up being long hallways with small rooms along the way.

    I’m with Gil, I was more into bases than ships as a kid, even though it wasn’t Lego. One of my favorite toys was an army-man playset with a mountain and a giant artillery piece and all kinds of vehicles. When I think of SHIPs it’s usually all about the exterior.

    Another good article, I kind of wish this one was the first in the series, but that’s the downside of the unscripted, stream of consciousness style that you’ve adopted to fit the blog. I dig it, this is exactly the kind of insight I was hoping for. I’m looking forward to next week’s installment, much more than my won SHIPtember updates.


    1. I meant more damaging the concept of SHIP. though SHIPtember and SHIPs are seemingly intertwined now. My first SHIP, the Hudson I remember the debate and the remarks about it not having full interior, it was actually minifig scale, and I easily brushed them off since I had a whole NXT unit, and couple of motors driving various mechanical motions, so there was no room – plus the thing was massive. I think like 175 long and 60 wide or something stupid. Mostly to cater to fitting these motorized mechanisms.

      It was such a beast I think I’ve been personally skittish about building another of that size….

      Yeah talking about SHIPs was always on the radar for an issue, but the journey seemed to be a good opener as it reminded people of some of the things I thought would be important. Starting with this would have been the vanilla start 😛


  5. Great article once more, Simon.
    To me, part of the fun of SHIPtember is indeed that it isn’t just a design challenge, the ‘in a month’ part is also actually important to the whole thing. You don’t really “need” a month to build a drone or a vic viper, but you kinda do for a SHIP (of course depending on how much you’re willing to challenge yourself).
    Other theme months more or less go by without me noticing what everyone is posting or if something is specifically for that month. I kinda hope theme months won’t stay here for another few years, they’re becoming slightly dull. They started off fun because they were ‘new’ and exciting, now they’re starting to feel more like bureaucracy and a mandatory chore, rather than a fun challenge. SHIPtember still has that feeling of excitement for me, but for how long…
    Anyway, enough doom and gloom.
    I have to admit that I’ve personally never made a SHIP with a proper interior (one ship had minifigs in it, but nothing else, one was a frame with unfinished exterior, one was full of technic and pneumatics, the other was so thin, it was basically just the frame). It’s still more or less on my to do list. Though other stuff I still want to SHIPpify includes an ultra swooshable ship with a handle and triggers for (pneumatic) functions, and a super modular ship in the lines of ‘the Gothica’, so it may not be the first on the list. (A combination would be madness, but who knows).
    The nights spent building on my first SHIPtember SHIP are still a fond memory.
    Thank you for putting all that in motion.


    1. Thanks Huib!

      Ha I still remember your first SHIP – also extremely fond memories – I think when I first started seeing in pre-SHIPtember that second year that I realized, wow, we’re on to something. And I think you really lead the way and really reset the expectations of everyone going in.

      First year everyone had a month’s notice and no one knew what to expect. But second year, everyone saw you building and realized that SHIPing is serious business and people really had to step it up since you were the race leader setting the pace. I don’t think the second year would have been as strong without your amazing build.

      I do agree with you on the months, I still build for them but it serves more as a ‘okay take a break from XYZ and pump out a whatever theme it was’. It’s still kind a fun, but more of a ‘hey it’s first of the month I should build something’ instead of ‘OMG it’s 3 weeks to SHIPtember, what am I doing?!?!?’


  6. Great article Simon! For me, the first SHIPtember came along exactly at the right time. I had come out of my dark ages in mid-2012 with buying and building just the official sets, and was just starting to get into MOCs in 2013.

    It was really the microscale ships from the likes of Pierre, Stijn, and Soren that were really inspiring to me. It’s by far my favorite scale and the logical choice for building a ship with a crew that numbers into the hundreds or thousands.

    That being said, I do completely agree that the fleshed out interior of a minifig scale build is the more difficult road and the one that calls back to childhood the most, but as an adult, I would rather build a beautiful display piece than a play set.

    Looking forward to the next article!


    1. Ryan, don’t ever change, you’re one of the best and in good company with Pierre, Stjin and Soren. It’d be a loss to not get your amazing micro SHIPs. I’m so very glad you found SHIPtember when you did, lest we miss years of your awesome builds!

      And to a certain extent a minifig SHIP can only be so big…. to build some of the creations you have in minifig scale would be size of a house…

      Though let me ask you this…. are there such thing as micro scale interiors? 😀


      1. You might be on to something! Hanger bay interiors is the obvious answer, but I could see an interior view of the reactors/propulsion system or computer core or something like that being an awesome microscale interior! I’ll have to think about this more for next year! 😀


  7. I don’t know about anyone else, but I sometimes feel like the number of monthly sci-fi challenges is getting out of hand… Mainly because I find some of their names so grating (Dronurary and Marchikoma are the worst offenders).


    1. I think the cheesiness in the names is kind of endearing. But yes I agree, at one point I had jokingly planned to fill out every month with a theme, but after SHIPtember I’m like – yeah, we have way more than enough to keep idle hands busy, and then some.


  8. I suppose one of the plus sides of recurring theme months is that they provide a yardstick for improvement when you compare your previous years’ entries with your latest one. That said, I think theme months/contests shouldn’t be annual deals and instead rotate every 2-3 years like the small starfighter contest or the speeder bike contest did so things don’t get so stale, or worse, lead to stylistic circle-jerks. There are plenty of other possible themes to explore than just those six that we have right now. I for one would like to see a resurgence of the real-world starfighter contest since that came and went before I felt confident enough to tackle it, plus I’d like to see what other people come up with now that we have newer techniques and a wider palette Or maybe more themes based on specific artists or universes (“Foss-cember,” anyone?).

    Regarding why there are so many theme months for sci-fi compared to castle or town, I think it’s because sci-fi is such a vast realm. With castle and town you’re already constrained to a certain time period and technology, and even the more fantastical designs in the former are still fairly restricted to the same old LotR/D&D lore. But the possibilities in sci-fi are, well, astronomical. And sometimes overwhelming. We don’t have real-world equivalents as fundamental, unshakable foundations for our designs like castle and town have (recent scientific discoveries and extrapolations notwithstanding), so we often need something specific as a starting point. This is where community challenges and theme months come in. They give us something to work from and are also exposure to new sub-genres and aesthetics of sci-fi for the uninitiated. I would have never known what Maschinen Krieger was without the Lego space community and now it’s one of the biggest influences on my work along with Star Wars.

    And speaking of Star Wars, my childhood years were spent playing out dogfights with alphabet ships instead of swooshing around giant battle cruisers, so that may be why I primarily build starfighters and don’t have the same SHIP aspirations that most spacers seem to have. I wasn’t a Star Trek kid so I never got exposed to the idea of large crews that operate the various functions in the interior. Andrew is a major 80s toy nostalgia guy and that shows in his builds, so it doesn’t surprise me that he thinks Simon “ruined” the SHIP criteria. I’m with Bram and Ryan in that I enjoy SHIPs more as display pieces than as nostalgic playsets, particularly the works of Pierre and “LEGOLIZEITMAN” (whose real name I can’t seem to find anywhere and I don’t feel like playing to the end credits of Krater to find out). I do enjoy stand-alone interior displays though, such as this lovely number by Tayasuune:


    1. Excellent point … I think you nailed it on the head of space vs town/castle/other themes.

      Though as an extension of theme months getting stale by stylistic repetition I would also add that there are some that just come to completely dominate a month that it actually becomes not fun. I’m talking to you Mr. Trotta. He’s effectively ruined NoVVember for me. Ever since he showed up and dropping mad VV’s I can’t even get close to his level of competence. I never really treat these months as serious contests and I don’t need to be in the running for ‘best XYZ’ but man, I want to be at least be seen able to be even allowed on the race track. Last two years I tried NoVVember and my results were so pathetic compared to his I just didn’t even finish….

      And between Gil and yourself, I think you’ve made a really great point that I didn’t really think of, I just assumed most kids wanted the super big SHIP – cause I did. But you’re right, those that play with bases and starfighters would naturally gravitate towards those builds. My preoccupation with Space Marines and Dropships probably stems from the love of Aliens (and sneaking downstairs to watch it that one night!).

      And this is getting a bit into the next article (maybe), but I’m curious how many people, in this current spacer community – also prefers the new era ‘display piece’ SHIPs vs the ‘Playset’ SHIPs of old?


      1. There’s also a third type of SHIP going by that measurement, of which I can only name a few: the giant minifig-scale starfighter/GARC. F@bz did one a while back and it seems there’s a new kid on the block this year ( You could probably include a lot of Vince Toulouse’s work in this category as well, though his style is more dieselpunk. I’d suggest a section dedicated to unconventional SHIPs if it fits logically into the next volume. Alysa’s Astra Luminara and Chris Perron’s Astral Voyager come to mind. I also recall the term “SHIP” being applied to seafaring vessels once upon a time, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately.

        I can see how Nick Trotta would irritate you considering he’s a master of the widely-imitated starfighter design philosophy laid out by the likes of nnenn and Fredo. Then the Mayos come out of the woodwork and replicate his style perfectly (goddamn them). That clean, colorful style rightfully reminds me of early space shooter sprite work, and the 3D realization of that is something Lego is particularly good for. It’s also not something you see much in other sci-fi mediums these days. Games seemed to stop caring about bright colors and unique shapes once graphics got to the point where you could tell ships apart without them.


  9. Interesting article Simon! I have yet to tackle building a SHIP, but when I do, it will likely be micro scale. Like Christopher, I grew up watching Star Wars and playing with Star Wars LEGO (the first piece of Star Trek media I ever watched was the J.J. Abrams movie in 2009), so when I think of a “ship”, I don’t think of “starship” like the Enterprise, I think of “capital ship” like a Star Destroyer.

    I’m also more of a build to display kind of guy, so if I’m going to make a Seriously Huge Investment in Parts (and money! SHIPM?) it needs to be something that seems massive and epic! To build something at minifigure scale seems much more daunting, not to mention complicated, (making it structurally sound, figuring out an interior that makes sense, designing interior access that your adult clown hands can fit into, etc.), and I’m already having a hard enough time getting off my butt to try and make one!


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