01 September 2022

Space Tools Parts Fest: Thomas Jenkins

Posted by Thomas Jenkins

We're challenging our team of astro-engineers to create original LEGO® models using 'Space Tools' - the minifigure accessories found in Classic Space sets. 

Our parts festival continues this week as I examine two elements: 3838 Air Tanks and 3837 Shovel, both released in 1978, although it seems space shovels were only required for very large ships like 6929 Starfleet Voyager from 1981 and 6985 Cosmic Fleet Voyager from 1986.

Air Tanks (LEGO part 3838): Analysis and MOCs

The first part I chose to look at is not strictly a tool but 3838 Air Tanks has been a staple of the LEGO® Space theme from the beginning, and has continued to appear in sets ever since. Despite almost being synonymous with the LEGO astronaut, it actually first appeared a year earlier in a small collection of LEGO® Town sets in 1978, as an accessory for a fireman and a coastguard figure. But we’ll gloss over that… 

We’ll start with the most obvious connection first: the loop to mount the equipment on to the minifigure’s back. Needless to say, it's one stud wide to loop over a minifig's neck pin, but it’s also half a plate thick so it’ll slot into a grill tile or lever holder. 

Atop the tanks themselves is a thin edge which doesn’t appear to be in-system, but between the two cylindrical tanks is a little nub that make it a little thicker and allow us to connect a lever base or grill tile here too (these parts seem to best friends). These connections aren't particularly useful, but it's always nice to know that these things are in-system!

The most interesting part of the element to me is the underside of the tanks. Each cylinder has a hole for a bar, but you won’t be able to push the bar too far up, as the diameter decreases slightly about a plate-height of the way up the tube. Each tank, at 5.8mm, is a little over a stud in diameter, so the distance between the holes can make connections at times awkward - check the Dark Pink 'nipple tile' connection above - but there are all kinds of minifigure utensils with a bar that can be inserted into those holes. The best match is a candle element in each tank. They’ll happily sit side by side... providing extra oxygen for our space-faring minifigures, perhaps?  

As a child, those holes always lead me to believe that the Air Tank was actually a jet pack… and I may have been correct. Or perhaps the tablescrap above depicts an equipment malfunction. 

I found something a little interesting during my parts analysis: it seems that the Air Tanks received a redesign at some point. The older mould has perfectly round holes which are a little narrower and inserting a bar results in a tight fit. The newer version of the element has slightly hexagonal holes and can accept a bar without issue. My guess is that this compatibility wasn’t initially intended by the element designers and the mould was updated somewhere along the line to take advantage of this connection.

The Air Tank-to-Bar combo opens up some interesting building possibilities. I made a long strip using this technique, which birthed an idea for a MOC… 

Air Tanks is a wonderful part- not only does it recall memories of Classic Space, but it holds a decent amount of MOC potential too. I had a variety of colours at my disposal but using this technique with Red Air Tanks made me think of a bridge in an East-Asian garden. 

If the tranquil garden is not your thing, how about a trip to the pool? I really can’t get enough of this Air Tank pattern! 

The Air Tanks lined up together made me think of roof tiles. In Dark Orange, I think these would look great as the terracotta roof tiles of a Mediterranean villa, but with only Black at my disposal, they make a decent stand-in for Japanese kawara roof tiles. Thus, I built this small shrine. 

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to include a space-themed MOC using the Air Tanks, so here is a Classic Space-inspired micro spaceship to round things out. 

At this scale they work well as boosters on a starfighter. I took a lot of inspiration from Oscar Cederwall's (o0ger) mini builds for this one - and if you are intrigued by that transparent canopy, this article he wrote for New E a few years ago is very useful indeed! 

Shovel (LEGO part 3837): Analysis and MOCs

Mould variations have been a common theme in this series of articles, and the Equipment Shovel (3837) is no exception. 

The 3837 element ID is used to refer to the more common version of the element with a rounded bar-end but there exists another much more rare version of this part, having only appeared in one set: Collectible Minifigures Series 1 Zombie. This version of the part has a flat end to the bar. The element ID is 88431 and it was only ever available in Black. I prefer this redesign- it seems more useful with the flat ended bar fitting much more securely into an open stud. Also, the flat end is more consistent with other tools such as the pickaxe (3841) and broom (3836). The redesign seems justified, so I wonder why it was so short lived?

Onto its geometry and connections, and apparently I chose some really simple elements for my Space Tools contribution as there is little to report, and we will get to the MOCs quickly.

It’s a 3.18 mm bar with a blade at one end that is three plates wide and less than half a plate thick. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any compatible elements to attach to the thin blade.

They say to ‘call a spade a spade’ but of course, that doesn’t have to be the case with LEGO elements! The blade of the shovel has a wonderful shape to it - something I wanted to take advantage of in my MOCs. 

Much like the Air Tanks, the shovel looks great used in large quantities. Here, I lined up and layered a bunch of them to make another set of roof tiles. It was fun to revisit the 2x Slope Curved 4 x 5 x 1 2/3 in Dark Red (85834) from 76206 Iron Man figure (of which you can read my review here) to create the crab on the roof. 

Here's a little breakdown of the technique used to create the roof. 

I made sub-assemblies of 1x2 round plates which you can see in Tan. The Red plate is the attachment to the next sub-assembly. I inserted shovels into each hole and staggered each layer to create the roof tile effect.

This time the obligatory space-themed MOC is a Star Wars model. The shovels weren’t too difficult to incorporate here - I used 32 in total - to make the cylinder and cone cone shapes along the lengths of the engines. All that is left to do now is find a suitably silly name for the pilot. I think a first name of 'Doug' is a good start...

Closing Thoughts

A lot of the elements we’ve seen over the course of this series have had all kinds of interesting connection points and it seems I ended up looking at two relatively simple elements. Although simple, they are no less useful and they sparked a lot of creativity after taking a look at them. 

These elements really shine when used in larger number to create some interesting patterns and textures. I found the Shovel slightly less inspiring than the Air Tanks - maybe it’s the nostalgia factor, or the terrestrial nature of the shovels compared to the other-worldly quality of the Air Tanks that I found more inspiring.

Next week, the first of our two guest contributors joins the Space Tools Parts Fest: Dana Knudson (@Troublesbricking on Instagram). Our Medium Azure and Vibrant Coral patrons don't need to wait though - check Dana's work out now! And there's an extra bonus for Vibrant Coral patrons as Kev Levell reveals how he created his own moonscape for his Space Tools introductory article.

READ MORE: Last week Tim Goddard explored the loudhailer and space gun tools

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Massive thanks go to our 'Vibrant Coral' patrons: Antonio Serra, Beyond the Brick, Huw Millington, Big B Bricks, Dave Schefcik, David and Breda Fennell, Richard Selby, Gerald Lasser, Baixo LMmodels, Markus Rollbühler, Elspeth De Montes, Chuck Hagenbuch, Megan Lum, Andy Price, Jf, Daniel Church, Amy Hays and Wayne R. Tyler.

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  1. Excellent article! I enjoy seeing a small element like the shovel used en masse. Seeing your pod racer MOC makes me want to build one of my own...

    1. Thanks very much! Glad my MOC served as some inspiration. These simple elements work really well when used in bulk.

  2. Love the pool scene. The yellow Lilo is inspired!

  3. I dig Doug's dogfighter, dawg!

  4. Nice overview and MOCs! I didn't know about the airtank update before now. Nor had I realized that the Series 1 Zombie had a unique shovel mold—kind of wish that had ultimately replaced the older version.

    A similar roofing technique with the shovels is used for the awning of the grocery market in Ninjago City Docks: https://brickset.com/sets/70657-1/NINJAGO-City-Docks

    1. Oh! I didn't know that it appeared in that set... Or maybe I had and it was lying deep in my subconscious! Those sets never fail to impress.
      I too lament that the 'zombie shovel' was so short lived. I feel like there's a reason why...

  5. Oh man it was always SO frustrating as a kid that a bar wouldn't fit into the air tanks (same for the cone end parts of flexible hose 8.5L)!

    1. I can't lie, some of those airtanks in the bridge are the old mould. It was a bit of a tight fit in places

  6. On the newer molds of the shovel, you can actually fit the base of a 1 x 1 plate or brick into the base of the shovel blade and it snaps in quite snugly.

    1. Wow! That's good to know! I tried this connection, but I must have tested it with an older mould as I didn't get a good fit. Thanks!