Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Totally Swooshable

I recently found myself quite appalled with myself. I came across a LEGO fan site called Swooshable, which has been around for years and is utterly superb, yet I wasn't aware of it. How did I miss this for so long? In case you're as deprived as I was, I'm writing about it today and the site's creator, Linus Bohman, has kindly answered some questions.

I 'discovered' it at last via Ryan Howarter, who makes many fine LEGO colour reference materials including the Brick Colorstream project which consists of images of LEGO pieces in every known colour. Ryan's images had just been utilised by Swooshable to create a cool little tool called Colorschemer, which allows you to quickly see two or more of Ryan's images together to gauge what the colour combinations look like before you go ahead and build. When you try this out for yourself, be sure to check out the 'Search for color' function; it's really interesting to search for terms like 'Earth' and 'Brick' to see the way TLG group colours and of course it's really useful for things like quickly locating the matching TLG/BL names for a colour. To use the Search function, click the eyedropper to select a new colour and open the dropdown menu that says 'Show solid colors' by default. Search is located at the bottom of this list.

That's just one of the super-neat applications featured in the LEGO Building section on Swooshable. My favourite section is the Building School, which is packed with useful tips, references and tutorials all designed to "make you a better builder". Linus has even built a database of SNOT techniques which you can search by the desired angle or to fit an available space.

I could go on describing all the cool stuff on this site but frankly it's more fun to just work your way through the entire menu. It's also beautifully designed and has a wicked sense of humour; for example who needs fellow AFOLs to critique your builds, now that we have the Instacrit app?

Linus Bohman is a very nice chap and is hereby awarded the undying respect of New Elementary for not just creating all this fantastic stuff but also for having a tattoo of his favourite LEGO part on his arm. He has answered some questions about it (Swooshable, not the tattoo) and his ever-evolving future plans.

When and why did you start the site?
It began around 2009-2010, I think. At first I had no real plan. It started with me joining a web agency as a junior project manager. Being around lots of technically inclined folks made me want to experiment with building stuff, and so I quickly hacked together a small app called the Fadmasher. It placed two fads from the LEGO community next to each other and asked hey, what happens if you combine these two fads? The Brothers Brick picked up on it and it almost became a fad in itself, with several wacky builds coming out of it.

I kept learning tech stuff I wanted to try out. Back then I considered each thing on my site to be an application on its own without any interconnections between them, which enabled me to freely experiment with stuff and improve my technical skills. That’s how it went for a few years - once I got interested in crawling RSS, so I built a LEGO RSS reader. Another time I wanted to figure out Amazon, so I built something with that. AFOL Tim Gould played with minifig scale and built an app for visualizing it, but gave me the source code and let me improve on it. And so on, and so on.

The most successful two projects were pretty big undertakings: the Building School and what I called World. The Building School wanted to be the central place for people to get building techniques and just generally become better builders. World was an attempt by me and a few others to place LEGO related locations like events, stores and LEGOLANDs on a map so you could find stuff near you. These two projects were all updated manually and tough to maintain, but they trudged along for a while.

It all stopped when I entered a Grey Age, so for a few years the site just ticked on without any updates from me. Then, one day when I looked at the statistics I saw that the site was still being used and that made me feel bad about neglecting it. So in September 2014 I laid out a plan, began rebuilding all of it according to that plan and launched an early version of Swooshable version 2 in January 2015. The goal there was to remove things that weren’t used and ensure the things that remained on the site are decent enough. I’m just done with that phase and have entered the second: figuring out next steps and testing them. Lots of ideas there, and so far it has resulted in the official building instructions index and Colorschemer as well as major improvements to the SNOT search engine and Building School. More is coming!

These days I focus on scratching itches that I have instead of toying around with technology. The result should be a resource that is a lot more useful.

Tell us about the instructions index?
As I was parting out a few sets to sell, I wanted to refer people to the instructions. My first stop was Brickset - Huw is awesome, and I figured he had indexed a bunch of sites that hosted the instructions. I had, after all, seen a few links to Peeron and lego.com. But when I dug a little deeper I noticed it wasn’t something people had actually fixed, and I figured - hey! I can help here. So I began identifying resources that maintain lists of LEGO instructions. The largest is from TLG, and that one was already covered by Brickset. Huw shared the export of that list and I programmatically scanned it, checked if each instruction was still online and then saved it to my database. After that I went through the biggest sites in order to check for instructions - building a separate scraper script for each of them. At the moment I check for instructions from:
Many instructions on these sites overlap, but some are unique to a few sites. If you need instructions, particularly for an old set, this lets you find it without checking a bunch of different resources. I share the data with Brickset, so what I have is shown there. So you can use swooshable.com or brickset.com to find your instructions, I don't mind. You're still benefitting from this work, which was my goal!

Is there still a need for your LUGs and events info now that the LEGO Ambassador Network (LAN) lists that information?
I would actually prefer it if the LAN site became the go-to point for these things. It would be greatly beneficial to both TLG and the AFOL community, since we'd have a central gathering point when it comes to talking amongst each other and with TLG. This has the potential to be incredibly valuable, and is something I really root for. I still keep my location, LUG and event list around because currently LAN has a few flaws:
  • The data is not easily shared
  • The events are not easy to find based on geography (i.e. they're not on a map)
  • I still think LAN needs to show that it intends to stick around (don't do a LEGOfan.org on us)
  • They miss a few locations that I think should be available (most notably LEGO brand stores, LEGOLANDs and certain events)
LAN was officially launched around the same time as I relaunched Swooshable, so for now I keep the importers around mostly to help with these things. Here's how I see it: if LAN continues to mature and stays around, I will eventually shut down this part of Swooshable. If it doesn't, I will dedicate a considerable amount of time and effort to make Swooshable fill this role better.

What are your plans for the forswooshable future?
Right now I’m focusing on creating the original vision of the Building School: the go-to place for techniques, tutorials and tools. The index we have is a good start, but we need more. The short term plan is roughly as follows:
  1. Build a good list of all pieces available. Rebrickable, Brickset and BrickLink has this mostly covered, but I need better cross-referencing. Is the piece available in LDD? How about LDraw? What is TLG's piece number and how does it compare to BrickLink's? I need to handle this data to create really useful technique libraries. I’ve built a solid foundation with the help of Brickset's parts export script. On top of that I’ve deconstructed LDD - I now have an index of all pieces currently available there, complete with materials, colors, element and design IDs and decorations. I've also indexed all of LDraw's pieces and data. Now I need to add Bricklink and Rebrickable to see how I can compile this information the best way. I intend to add Mecabricks too, for good reference. This is a pretty big and time consuming task, but I’m finally getting it together.
  2. This lets me create an index that shows if a piece is available on different virtual platforms, along with the usual piece data.
  3. Then I want to expand on all the techniques currently indexed and build something similar to the SNOT search engine for joints, LEGO typography, circles, offsetting and more. Complete with good piece references of course!
  4. This will in turn permit me to do an update of Didier Enjary’s old but legendary and still-essential techniques guide. It's a great document for the community, but we deserve an update, methinks.
Then maybe we can do something that’ll let people log in and post their own techniques directly, or something. Or turn the LUG/location index into something even better. We’ll see how people like these things. Feedback is always appreciated.

The issue with a project like this is that there is always things to do. I have around 300 to-dos of varying complexity and value, so it can be hard to prioritise sometimes. But I'm confident and excited about this direction!

Thanks for that Linus!

You can hear (and see) more from Linus in his Beyond the Brick interview including which LEGO parts he got tattooed on his arm...


  1. MIght want to let him know the contact form is throwing errors on submit.

    1. Thanks, he is aware. He is still getting the emails nevertheless.

    2. Thanks for letting me know Tom!

  2. I suppose this is off-topic, but I've discovered a new piece coming next year, thanks to Brickset.


    It is basically (as far as I can tell) a 1x1 four-sided pyramid final. It seems most closely comparable to a cheese slope; I believe it's two plates high. I have no clue if it comes in any color besides trans-neon orange (yet). At any rate, it looks like great news for Ice Planet builders.

    Come to think of it, I guess I could be considered on topic in a way, as the subject of this post is a website which categorizes parts. Which reminds me -- thanks for sharing; I'm going to check that site out.

    1. It's going to be used heavily in the Nexo Knights sets, and so far we've seen it in Silver Metallic and Warm Gold as well. Nexo Knights seems to be bringing a lot of interesting parts—the 2x3 pentagonal shield plates also look like great detail elements and are being used in next year's modular building as floor tiles.

    2. Perhaps you're on this already, but it looks as if there is another totally new piece for 2016: what I call the "1x2 plate with ball on end", seen clearly in some small Ninjago fire dragon set (http://brickset.com/sets/30422-1/%7B-%7D).
      Also, it looks as if we'll see the "Apollo stud" in trans-orange in "Fire Starter Set" (http://brickset.com/sets/60106-1/Fire-Starter-Set). It looks to be a wonderful year for builders!

    3. Thanks! - haven't had a chance to look through the 2016 images yet. Interesting they are going for trans apollo studs given that it's 'illegal' to put a trans rod into a trans hollow stud. But I'm sure they considered that already!