The Life Modular, with Sean Edmison

Modular terrain is certainly not a new concept in our shared hobby, but it’s always interesting to see it done well.  Although I couldn’t pin down the origin of the technique to a specific date or single builder, the Classic Castle City Standard from 2003 was certainly one of the first attempts to codify a standard.  A group of enterprising builders (Medinets, Sava, Hoffman etc.) started with an easy to replicate modular castle wall system and later expanded to terrain, water and buildings.  You may also be familiar with the MILS system or Base8 or any number of offerings by individual builders like Magnus Lauglo who have experimented with the concept over the years.  The core technique inspired by the official line of 1980’s castle sets like the beloved 6040 Blacksmith Shop, and involved wall segments with a common design that could be connected via Technic pins and recombined with other sets or original builds.  It’s probably also worth mentioning the influence of 2002’s Moonbase project which used a similar methodology for building large collaborative displays at conventions.

Fast-forward 14 years and people are still refining the familiar modular terrain concept, with all the updated parts, colors and techniques that you would expect.  The big knock on previous iterations was that the final product often seemed generic or low resolution, sacrificing detail for sheer coverage.  The photos I’m about to show you clearly demonstrate that in the last decade things have progressed to a point where that criticism is no longer necessarily valid.  Builder and frequent convention-goer Sean Edmison says he was inspired by a discussion on Classic Castle Forums to “reimagine” the standard and I think he did a fine job adding value with both the appearance and the structure.  These models are actually about four years old, but I’d say they still classify as new-school building and if they popped up in your Flickrstream tomorrow they likely wouldn’t seem out-of-place or anachronistic.  You may remember Mr. Edmison from such memorable models as Peloponnesian War and Rivendell, or Seattle’s BrickCon where he often collaborates with fellow castle-heads.



One of Sean’s innovations that I appreciate from my own struggles with the modular lifestyle is the use of short axles instead of Technic pins to connect the modules.  Once you get too many of the standard pins involved in the process it can become very difficult to separate the modules without a good deal of force, damaged pins and flying ABS shrapnel.  It can also be equally as difficult to connect large modules especially if your surface is less than perfectly flat (like your average folding plastic convention table).  Once you fill an entire baseplate with brick and/or plate, it has a tendency to bow or warp in a decidedly unfriendly manner that is the enemy of uniformity and smooth transitions between sections.  When Mike and I took Isla Guadalupe to Texas a few years ago, we had to abandon the notion of actually connecting the modules together because they just wouldn’t line up like they did at home where my table was decidedly flatter.

I’m not sure if Sean came up with this tweak on his own or if he was inspired by another builder, but after playing with it briefly I find it to be a big improvement.  Even though the technique does require double the number of bricks to make it work, those 1×2 bricks with the + shaped void don’t seem to be terribly expensive if you’re not picky about the color and most builders I know have more axles than they will ever be able to use in a single model.  Sean also uses more connection points than you typically see with modular terrain and I suspect cutting down on the total number would save parts/money without compromising stability.

Sean also developed what he calls a “Tank-rutted” road that looks great, especially the visible tracks under the puddle of water.  I’ve never seen this specific type of decorative approach to a modular system and it should get the often-maligned military builders excited about the collaborative possibilities.  Even if you’re not planning on assembling a 64 square foot diorama of the battle of Kursk with a dozen of your closest homies, this kind of modularity comes in handy when breaking down and packing any sized diorama for travel to a convention or LUG meeting.

21 thoughts on “The Life Modular, with Sean Edmison

  1. Keith, this is a pretty clinical tone for you. Have you been binge watching This Old House again? The whole modular argument is interesting. Efficiency, re-use, ease of collaboration… lots of compelling arguments. At the same time, I always tell myself that this next dio will be modular, so I can disassemble, transport, and reassemble faster at the fest… and then wind up building a single module that size of the table… which I then transport in tact to the fest. In other words, I suck at modular thinking/building.

    I see persistent trouble though, integrating, even within a modular context. Different builders are going to produce different feels or looks within their tiny pizza slices of the larger effort, so even after the physical interphase is established, more detail is needed. Stuff like water color, plant type… and what not. Its always going to create friction between builders, OR visual disconnects on the final combined project.

    I like the whole concept of modular really. I just don’t think it addresses as many of the challenges of a truly integrated collab as people often think. It’s a gripe of my own that goes back to moon base.

    Seans modular “terrain biscuits” look excellent though. Make no mistake there!



    1. Clinical, yes, that’s a good way to describe it, Bob Villa sytle. I just posted an article that has a separate tone entirely to balance out the low-key nature of this one. Nice Keith / Jackassy Keith? The stats tell me that the constant readers greatly prefer Jackassy Keith, but I’m also keeping in mind your behind the scenes advice to be vigilant against excessive negativity. My tone seems to be a switch instead of a rheostat for now, and I’m sure it will evolve in a positive direction as this second iteration of the blog goes forward. Also, If I’m Bob Villa, that makes you Norm.

      Modular building is super challenging in my limited experience. As you well know, I’ve tried uniformly sized modules and irregular shapes and there are issues with both. It’s definitley NOT a case of one size fits all, each project has unique demands for a modular approach.

      I think the key to this style being used to it’s maximum value is on-sight corrections and embellishments after the modules are connected. You’re right that a visual disconnect can creep in very quickly between different builders but a talented coordinator can smooth out a lot of rough edges on site with some plates and plants. I still think it’s a far cry better than the early examples of modular terrain. It all depends on the rules you establish for the collaboration and how well they are communicated to the contributors. The issue is much more noticeable with Moonbase where individuality is encouraged, with something like modular terrain I think the nature of it leads people towards a unified esthetic.

      What happens when “terrain biscuit” don’t bounce back? You go hungry…bow,bow, bow.


      1. “smooth out a lot of rough edges on site with some plates and plants. ”

        Yeah, but when I envision the execution of this effective and simple fix… I start to see finicky, defensive, participants. “no no… its perfect… stop! What are you doing?”

        Modularity is about integration. That’s at the core of it. (OK, logistics may be the core of modularity if your trying to transport a massive build). Mostly, modularity is about integrating the efforts of many builders. Many smaller builds become one large build on site. For most efforts, that is the WHY of it.

        And the PHYSICASL integration is pretty easy. It’s mechanical. Unambiguous. Design and publish the specifications. Everybody who wants in, need only adopt these SPECs and their module will in fact “fit” into the communal construct.

        But the VISUAL integration is both easy, and fraught with danger. Blending with plate and plant. Easy. Gallon bag of each… applied like Bondo or Spackle to the places where the eye is caught by incongruity. If one builder is the “Spackler” for the project, then the application will be consistent. If the RIGHT guy is the Spackler, then the application will be consistent AND will help to create a unifying esthetic. But you can see already the danger. WHO is the spackler. And how far will they be able to spackle before we hear the dread cry: “Wait! Stop! What are you doing? My module is perfect! Get those plants out of there… its supposed to be a desert module!” Or even better… “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do my section”

        When looking at the combined effort, as a whole, incongruity is the enemy. Visual congruity is the difference between a collab that looks like a quilting class project, and a collab that looks like a Persian rug. Most of us fixate at the individual builder level. If MY module “fits” than its done. We don’t perceive the visual nature of the “whole” we have created. In the end, it’s not even about this technique or that technique being better. It’s about tying it all together visually… and that means artistically… and that is very subjective… and that leads to achy breaky hearts. Feelings of unfairness, or imposition, or show boating, or being relegated to the margins… this visual integration quickly turns into interpersonal integration… and THAT is the hard part.

        As for tone, jackassy will take the ratings every time. No doubt about that. And I think jackassery is a powerful draw on this site. It’s also a useful tool in teaching tolerance. A growing segment of the population seems to be polarizing between two groups. One group runs through Wall Mart in their PJs, waving a box cutter at people and drinking beverages off the shelf. Yelling crazy shit at anybody who will listen, and hoping, someday, to make it onto a reality TV show. The other group doesn’t even go into the store. They wait for mama to finish the shopping, nibble apple slices from McDonalds, watch Barney re-runs on the SUVs TV screen, and wait like a coiled spring to break their glassy eyed silence to blurt out: “What you just said offends me! You should apologize!” Both species represent demonic imbalance.

        The ancient and noble art of Jackassery, passed down to us from the time of the Three Stooges, teaches us to balance the opposing furies in our every day life. The balance between the virtues of Humor, and Malice. Tolerance and Panzyhood. Celebration and Exploitation. The balance and tension between Bon Ami and Being a Dick.

        “when the furies are out of balance… – As they are in Lo Pan, who is cursed, then the people turn into demons and live forever. Repulsive and evil, existing only to plague the living.”


      2. I didn’t mean to imply that spackling it all together was a simple matter, to be sure it takes some skill and ability to work with a spectrum of personalities. I just think that when you’re talking about terrain it’s less likely to be an issue as opposed to Moonbase which encourages everyone to be as special of a snowflake as possible so long as it has a matching corridor attachment point. I think the spackling can be less intrusive and builders would be more likely to go along with it with the goal of having the entire project look cohesive. With Moonbase, that was never the goal, it was more of a Christmas Tree approach where every new modular ornament sought to outshine the previous one. Certainly the more experience the Spackler has with project management and communication skills the better.

        As for Jackassery, I’ll take that as a yes!


  2. That’s some quality modular terrain that you’ve highlighted there. I think that axle technique is a nice alternative vs. using pins… However, I have wonder why use either technique for this style of terrain? I think it’s a paradigm that should be broken altogether.

    Why not just tack the modular seams together using a couple of plates (or even tiles)? Those sections will be locked tight from separating. Maybe the claim is pins/axles gives you a faster disassembly, but c’mon. Lining them up in the first place is a major pain (as you already highlighted).. plates are nothing that a brick separator can’t make quick work out of. Especially with the terrain examples above, plates would be easy to both blend in and to do.

    The situations I can think of where pin/axle techniques would be preferred would be:
    – putting together modular sections that are much taller, like building to building, or
    – putting a bunch of mini modular section together (16×16 or less), or
    – putting some really boring surfaces together with no raised contours, like water…
    – or someone is a really anal collab contributor, and they want to ensure that they get their exact parts back after a Con…

    Beyond that, what am I missing?… people just using a one-size-fits-all solution?


    1. Well, I’m not too experienced here but I think it’s lining up the plates vertically. If you don’t have completely flat surfaces it might be difficult to line up the plates perfectly. Also, and though this depends on the creation itself, but a plate would act almost as a hinge, depending on how many stacked plates/bricks high it is from the baseplate. This would be exacerbated by the above mentioned uneven problem, which would make the creation impossible to keep together. But apart from that yeah I guess it’s just a time thing.


      1. Plates will actually be easier to line up for assembly than pins. Often you have to line-up the pins blind, due to the short connection distance and obstructed view in taller sections. Usually by the time you’ll get one pin finally into a technic hole, the other pins aren’t going into theirs… it’s a major PITA. I think it really deepens on how large each modular section is, and the distance between pins.

        From my experience with the large City modular, the pin connection is the one that acts like a hinge too (try it out-try both connections, and then pick one section up by the edge). I’ve used both this year in my displays, and the plate down was a better when I could use it. The other consideration is if you might need to move sections around (a consideration for any free-style collabs), it would be easier to pop off plates and lift out a middle section, than to have to disassemble every modular section from around the edges.

        The one KEY ADVANTAGE of the axle, is that you have a longer connection engagement distance, and makes it easier to line up to the technical hole. If I do ever need to use a non-plate connection, that would be my #1 choice now after seeing it.

        To your other question, the 1×2 brick with integrated pin are definitely better than the technic pins, but probably still less optimal than the axles.


      2. You’re absolutely right, it can be maddening trying to get the plates to line up correctly and it mostly comes down to the uneven surface of the tables. Sometimes you just end up connecting big sections in sort of super-modules but not everything.


    2. Ted, I think people continue to use it because it has been pretty successful for at least a decade with Moonbase, Castle and Town layouts and it’s roots in the official product line probably help keep it around too. It’s not perfect by any means but it has been pretty reliable for collaborations over time.

      I agree that the seams should be locked together and frequently are, but it’s also nice to be able to secure the modules. Maybe it’s overkill, it depends each situation and on how much the modules weigh, if they are substantial enough to weather the dreaded ‘table bump’ as the more portly of our tribe try to squeeze between the gaps between tables, or the thronging press of humanity on public days. You’re absolutely right though, on-site blending is the key to success when it’s time to assemble on-site.

      I don’t think you’re missing anything, you made good points for and against. The last one about uptight collaborators wanting their exact parts back rang especially true. But I think people will always be attracted to the notion of modularity and it’s easier to keep hammering on a proven standard than create a new one.


  3. This is actually very interesting. I didn’t really know people paid attention to this as an actual technique or method, I just kinda figured it was planning ahead or something. I’m actually currently working on a huge creation of my own (9 baseplates) which incorporates this kind of technique. Mind you, it isn’t easy designing the thing in and remembering to keep the baseplates unconnected. It’s just too easy to put a brick or a plate that spans both a couple of baseplates. The techniques definitely look interesting, and I’ll make an effort to include that.

    I am curious though, you mentioned the technic axle problem, can’t this be circumvented by using the 1×2 brick with attached pins ( ) locked down into the build, which connects to your standard 1×2 brick with pin holes on the adjacent plate? In terms of pulling that apart, I feel like that would be a much simpler task and would keep the build’s rigidity a little better. I’ve never tried this before, so any insight before I screw it up with the big build would be nice……


    1. Well, I was concerned this post might have been a bit of a snooze-o-rama so I’m glad you found some value in it. Modular standards have been a source of inspiration and interest for as long as I remember, for a while it seemed like there was a modular standard for just about every major theme. Good luck with your 9 baseplate extravaganza, is it traveling to a convention or show? You’ll have to write down your thoughts on the process when it’s all said and done.

      The 1×2 brick with pin that you link to has the same problem as using Technic pins and bricks, it’s often too hard to force together on site, and too difficult to separate. The axles are not as strong and seem a little more flexible, but again, my experience with that tweak to the method is extremely limited. I think that a modular approach is an interesting one, but each attempt must be tailor-made to the specifics of each project.


      1. I don’t have any plans for a public showing, as of yet. I’m not a part of any major lug or anything like that so it’s really just a “why not?” project as of now.

        Well, that’s good to know. I’ll try and incorporate the axles into the final design of my build. Axles are interesting, in the world of tank building, people use axles for torsion bars. Torsion bars effectively twist the axle (think of anchoring one side of the axle in a brick with an x cutout, attaching a lift arm to the other side of the axle, and pushing the liftarm). Builders such as Sariel. claim that the axles survive such abuse on tanks that weight over 5kg with little wear and tear, but I’m honestly too scared to subject them to that much force.


      2. “why not?” indeed, that can be a fun way to start a project, I’m very interested to see how it all plays out, it sounds ambitious. Let us know how the axles work out!


  4. The goddamned Earth is curved?!?! What idiot thought that shit up? Dude! What works in Prescott, AZ does NOT work in Chicago, IL. NOR does it work in Seattle, WA. Pins suck balls, plain and simple. Trying to get any collab coming together and make all the shit just pin happily is a PURE impossibility. Not only that, but in case anyone wasn’t looking, Lego sucks. Oh, and by the way, it’s fucking plastic! Plastic sucks. If we wanted all this creativity to be more stable and predictable, we’d weld the bitch out of steel. The idea that you can just show up with your portion, plop it on a wonky piece of shit Costco table, and mate it up with your mate’s build is way beyond any type of pipe dream; it’s total insanity. The axles are a great solution, certainly better than the half axle/pins too because those little shits have zero give at all. In VLUG’s Around the World in 80 Days collab, I built the substructure on top of the tables then reinforced those with 2x4s (real 2x4s you non-carpentry geeks!) At least the substructure was flat enough to mate up each section, but it still wasn’t perfect. Our Goonies build at Brickcon used the pins and were a bitch even though they were only a single baseplate wide. And at the top (26 or so bricks tall if I remember right), there was a weird inconsistency with the height of the bricks to mate up with a plate or tile. Lego is like taking a Stanley tape measure and something from a do-it-yerselfer hardware store with a name condensate like Master Mechanix and stretching them out a good twenty feet. I guarantee that they won’t be the same measurement. Lego is terribly inconsistent even though they claim that their throwout is .0004″.


    1. ” The idea that you can just show up with your portion, plop it on a wonky piece of shit Costco table, and mate it up with your mate’s build is way beyond any type of pipe dream; it’s total insanity.”

      This might be a bit of hyperbola. I mean, that’s pretty much what the moon base guys do right? All those single base plate modules, with elevated walkways and technique pin holes at the exact 3D coordinate? I’m not a big fan of the Moon Base esthetic, but it IS a working example of the “total insanity” you describe no?


      1. Yeah, I think the system has lasted all these years for a reason, it does work, although I do remember quite a few moonbase layouts where the participants abandoned the pins when they ran into the problems we’ve been discussing here.

        There is just something cool about the notion of clicking together those modules, whether it is actually necessary or not.


    2. Preach it brother rowntRee! With examples from the field, I dig it. Even though I don’t always dig the final product, those collaborations you mentioned have always impressed me in terms of scale, number of moving parts, and complexity. Butcher paper not included. Butcher paper is the new frontier.


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