Next step beyond Lego?
December 4, 2015 7:51 AM   Subscribe

My son has mostly outgrown Lego but still loves building things from instructions. Challenging things. What are some building kits I could get for him?

He's 13, in eighth grade. Loves math and engineering stuff. Loves building things.

He likes:
Architecture (he designs cities in City Skylines)
Putting together Ikea furniture. Seriously, when he was five he started helping me put together some Pax closet organizers and I eventually left him alone to complete the job.

He's not really into:
Robotics (he has Minestorms already)
Lego Tecnic Sets
Messy things like glue. He has texture issues.

I'd like to get him some sort of kit where he could build something complex. Think Erector Set but more... real. If I could afford to get him a 3D printer kit I would, but I can't. But something along those lines. A complex kit that would take him several hours (or days) to build from instructions using basic tools.

This should be something physical, not virtual. Something mechanical.

Parts should be ready made. Nothing that he'd have to cut or saw. Nothing that could be easily screwed up.

Not Arduino. I asked him about that and he really wasn't into it. It's ok if the kit has some electronics but it shouldn't be just an electronics kit.

Not Minestorms or Lego Technic. No more K*Nex. No more ball machine structures. Not a robot. He has a bike already.

Ideally, he would build something that he could then use or display for a long time, or take it apart and build it again.

Target price maybe $100? I could go higher for the right thing.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (38 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Meccano?
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 7:54 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hammer, nails, hand-saw, and spend the rest of your budget on eight foot doug fir 2x4 lumber. Even better if you have a yard with trees...
posted by Doc_Sock at 7:55 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about a clock kit, like this one? Similarly, there are kits to make miniature engines (look for Stirling Engine kits). Both good ways to get involved in some complicated mechanical linkages.
posted by cubby at 7:59 AM on December 4, 2015

A hundred bucks won't get you very far, but does he have any interest in model trains? The actual insert-tab-A-into-slot-B assembly processes generally aren't very hard, but developing a layout could hit the same notes as Cities Skyline or Minecraft. The amount of programming/robotics (in the form of automating the train scheduling) could be as simple or as complex as he wants. And it's basically infinitely expandable.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:03 AM on December 4, 2015

Metal Earth models? A few simple tools and I understand some can be quite time intensive.
I also think of paper cutting and/or origami as physical/mechanical creative activities that seem to work well with the tactile issues you expressed.
posted by meinvt at 8:06 AM on December 4, 2015

How about something Rubegoldbergian? Here is a kit from American Science & Surplus (they have tons of other cool stuff he might like) or this Chaos Tower that my son played with at a Maker Fair and loved.

If there is a Maker Space near you they often have classes and access to 3D printers. There is a directory here.
posted by Requiax at 8:28 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

A shame about he does not like glue and cutting, because at his age (maybe just a bit younger) I was exposed to Sim City, and because I did not have a computer, made tiny cities out of cardstock. Buildings around 2 inch high, etc.

But if he likes LEGO and architecture, why not Architecture Studio (or as I call it "Lego Siza Vieira") ? It's a fair bit over budget, but it's probably one of the best kits LEGO released recently.
posted by lmfsilva at 8:30 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Model airplane or quadcopter. Or rocket.

He could build a boat. Rowboat, canoe, kayak or similar.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:40 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sewing, crocheting, and knitting are all really fun ways to create by following instructions. And are challenging in that cloth is not fixed and solid like a square piece of wood. This really satisfies my urge to create things lately and I loved Lego as a child.
posted by jillithd at 8:43 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Zoid or Gundam model kits have lots of parts, don't (typically) need glue, have ikea-esque instructions and can take hours or days to complete depending on complexity.
posted by Orca at 8:49 AM on December 4, 2015

You might try the Wintercroft 3-d masks. They need to be glued but you can use spray adhesive (paper to cardboard) and then double-sided tape. They are less than $10 US so if they don't work out, nothing really lost. Oh, I just saw he doesn't like cutting. I'm slightly less inclined to suggest these then.

But that reminded me that these masks hit my IKEA-furniture-construction, Lego, and origami fondness so...origami! Not so much basic stuff but the crazy spheres (latter is YT) that are constructed of many individual pieces.

Also seconding crocheting and sewing.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:00 AM on December 4, 2015

Maybe your son might want to know about JK Brickworks, a site with some pretty advanced ideas for the use of lego. I would guess that some of the projects on there might require over $100 in lego, but maybe could be possible with what you already have. A nice gift could include a print out of some of the available instructions and an offer to help acquire the needed parts.
posted by cubby at 9:18 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

My similar-to-yours kid (right down to not liking that glue stuff) has enjoyed Leonardo da Vinci models. He's done the self-supporting bridge, the ornithopter, and the flying machine one with the wings that flap. Very interesting mechanics!

He liked the idea of origami but didn't get into it when we got supplies. Likewise papercraft, which seemed really cool but frustrated him because of the fiddly cutting and the gluing...all the gluing.

He has also enjoyed kinetic Lego builds. We got him this Pegasus automaton model for Christmas last year and he enjoyed building it. I love the stuff that the guy at JK Brickworks does. He doesn't sell kits but he does provide instructions. This is still Lego, but it feels like something new after all those static builds.

I love the guy at Woodentimes, who sells clock kits. His wooden kits are quite expensive, but I plan to get the paper-and-cardboard one at some point. has many cool building kits.

Hemingway Kits are in the UK, but they do great models of internal and external combustion engines. I like to go admire them from time to time.

MiniSteam does steam engine models.

Garrett's Bridges provides both blueprints and full kits for popsicle stick bridges. Does include gluing, alas.

If he's at all interested, my son and I watched this course, Understanding the World's Greatest Structures, from Great Courses year before last. It's not building, but my kid was fascinated by it and said "it changed the way he saw the world." So I'm throwing it in there just for fun and because I can't say enough good about it.
posted by not that girl at 9:20 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm curious what you mean by "beyond Lego" since they get to a pretty insane level of difficulty. Is it that kits like the Death Star are just too expensive for you (which is reasonable), or does he think of it as childish now, or something else?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:08 AM on December 4, 2015

Response by poster: I'm curious what you mean by "beyond Lego" since they get to a pretty insane level of difficulty. Is it that kits like the Death Star are just too expensive for you (which is reasonable), or does he think of it as childish now, or something else?

He has a large collection but hardly uses them any more. He's approaching what I believe Lego fans refer to as "The Dark Years", those years when one feels one is too old for them but before re-discovering them as an adult.

Mostly I don't think I want to spend $100+ on something that he'll spend two hours building and then not touch again, which is how it's gone with the last few sets. He would be THRILLED with the Death Star but... no, out of budget.

Hammer, nails, hand-saw, and spend the rest of your budget on eight foot doug fir 2x4 lumber.

This is already something he has access to.

I would prefer whatever he gets does not require adult supervision. He likes to do these things alone.

does he have any interest in model trains?

Sadly, not as much as he had a year ago. We started a layout in the basement a while back. It's an on-going project that is currently in hiatus. We work on it from time to time and are actually attending a train show this weekend for some inspiration.

I would be perfectly delighted if he'd take up sewing but I can guaranty that would be a non-starter with him.

He has been exposed to origami but it didn't take. One of his best friends is an origami master.

Those clock kids and the da Vinci models are very much what I have in mind, though I think I'm looking for something even larger.

Think less toy and more model or structure. Hard rather than soft. Metal and wood rather than paper and cloth. Gears and pulleys.

Really Lego Tecnic is the perfect thing but he's never really been into it too much.
posted by bondcliff at 10:20 AM on December 4, 2015

I'm going to suggest that you introduce him to 3D modeling with something like Google Sketchup, which is free.
posted by patheral at 10:22 AM on December 4, 2015

This may be too difficult, but there's a paper cutting/folding/gluing book that makes a clock. If you do buy it, buy two copies, because mistakes will be made.
posted by gregr at 10:35 AM on December 4, 2015

I'd go with Papercraft, as paper modeling of this nature seems to be called, as well.

It kinda violates this requirement of yours: Parts should be ready made. Nothing that he'd have to cut or saw. Nothing that could be easily screwed up.

...but here, screwing up is not only easy, it's really cheap! And screwing up is, I hate to say it, a character building experience. He's 13, so assuming he has typical dexterity, he can handle scissors and tape.

Second idea: Paracord. It's not knitting, but it's knotting. Standard (550-pound) Paracord is cheapest in bulk (50-100 feet at least, per color), comes in a million colors (I suggest getting something basic while he learns the ropes (heh) and then going into color-mixing for effect. There are a dozen good books, a hundred good videos, and more on paracord knotting. You and everyone you know will end up with paracord bracelets while he figures it out. If he reddits (and I'm not saying he should or shouldn't), then /r/paracord is a great place for leads.

Useful add-ons include a paracord jig (which acts as one or more additional hands while he's knotting) and a paracord needle. Fairly essential would be needlenose pliers, preferably the kind with the angled/bent ends, but maybe let him pick.

One catch: paracord is multistrand nylon with a nylon jacket, so the prescribed method for preventing a cut end from unraveling is to melt it all together. It's fairly critical to have access to a lighter at least while he's cutting or knotting, or a parent with the lighter (as appropriate for this kid). You can always take away something valuable as ransom for the lighter, if you need to keep it in your own possession in general.

Paracord is not really a gateway to other fibercrafts like knit, sewing, macrame (maybe the closest cousin), crochet, or tatting. Paracord people are also closely linked to clever outdoorsiness, which includes everything from low-tech camping (not my thing, but respectable) to paranoid post-SHTF survivalists (walking that paranoia line). Don't let his reading scare him; help him keep it real.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:14 AM on December 4, 2015

I haven't done one but I think a working model steam engine, sterling engine, or traction engine. IIRC American Science and Surplus sells kits so you wouldn't have to do the tough metal work.
posted by drezdn at 11:26 AM on December 4, 2015

This doesn't fit all your parameters but it is a boat:
posted by bdc34 at 11:29 AM on December 4, 2015

This may sound insane, but I enjoy the challenge of putting together IKEA furniture. At 13, maybe he could hire himself out to the neighbors to put together their IKEA purchases.
posted by AugustWest at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Guitar kits might be worth checking out. For $100, you won't get a great one, but for the most part, there won't be any gluing and it's probably possible for an 8th grader to finish it on there own. If you go with a strat kit and get a wired pickguard, there wouldn't even need to be any electronics work.
posted by drezdn at 11:34 AM on December 4, 2015

Here's a $100 guitar kit.
posted by drezdn at 11:34 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can he hire himself out as an Ikea builder? In my neighborhood (which is not far from yours, I think) our local listservs pop up with messages from the occasional kid looking for extra work. Also, check out Parts and Crafts, or something similar. Finally, maybe a few visits to MIT's very cool model railroad club would reanimate his interest in the trains.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:34 AM on December 4, 2015

Would one of these Vex sets work? They're more robust then technic and more mechanical than Erector sets. Some are geared towards robotics fans, but this one isn't.

Otherwise, maybe a nice radio control car from a hobby shop where you have to put it together?
posted by drezdn at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2015

I highly recommend the Gakken kits they sell at the make store (and on amazon) - they're mostly not in english, but that (for me at least) adds to the fun of figuring out the puzzle of how to put the thing together.
posted by soplerfo at 12:30 PM on December 4, 2015

The woodcraft equivalent of JKBrickworks is the genius behind Woodgears. Here you can find a number of very interesting things to do with wood that I imagine might appeal to a 13 year old with IKEA furniture assembly sensibilities. These are not kits to purchase but are instead plans and video tutorials for all kinds of amazing machines both practical and whimsical -- so the "gift" here might be to purchase shop time at a local woodshop or to provide some critical tool that you don't already have. I know this doesn't fit your criteria for ready-made parts, but perhaps there is something here that is engaging enough to encourage him to experiment.

I see a few suggestions here that are in a similar vein, encouraging a move beyond kits and pre-made building toys. You know your kid best, so maybe that's not the way to go, but it is one way to combat the problem of quickly assembling a model/kit and then never touching it again and replace it with a more general "what can I do with the objects and tools at hand" maker mentality.
posted by cubby at 12:52 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about you find an interesting looking project on an Ikea hack website and then he uses his budget to source the parts. Either from actual items or from the odds and ends section.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:53 PM on December 4, 2015

Mecanno is the obvious choice here - metal, fiddly (but not too fiddly) construction, loads of expansion possibilities.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:02 PM on December 4, 2015

Skeleton Model Kits by Bonelab (no glue required!)
posted by jillithd at 2:18 PM on December 4, 2015

There's some kits on ThinkGeek that he might enjoy, and they change out stuff somewhat frequently. Right now, there's a laser-cut wooden kit for a mechanical clock that looks AMAZING and seems like it would be a pretty good-sized undertaking. Over 100 pieces to sand and assemble, but the pieces are already cut and ready to go.

I don't know how serious you are about wishing you could buy a 3D printer, but if you think he'd be into designing things to have created, you might want to take a look at Ponoko or Shapeways. They're both essentially fabrication as a service, with Ponoko primarily doing laser-cutting and Shapeways doing 3D printing. You might be able to get him the appropriate software and a gift certificate to one of those services to bring some creations to life.
posted by duien at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not totally different (and in some ways simpler) than Lego, but I got some Nanoblocks as a gift a couple years ago and spent a surprisingly long, enjoyable time assembling them. Their Deluxe Space Shuttle has a ton of tiny little pieces and is currently on a nice sale at Amazon.
posted by Mr Stickfigure at 4:25 AM on December 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

IKEA assembly service. Only half joking.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:33 AM on December 5, 2015

Fascinations offers little model kits made of stamped metal. The pieces are quite small and intricate and I found them absolutely engrossing. Examples:
Mars rover
stag beetle
Chrysler Building
posted by intermod at 12:11 PM on December 5, 2015

One of my kids got one of those stamped- metal building kits last year, and it was too hard for them.

Truth be told, it was even too finicky for me, and I am no slouch at fixing little things. For example, some little tabs had to be bent one way and when done wrong couldn't be fixed -- stuff like that. There was….some swearing, I will confess.

But I am also interested in this topic, so thanks for all the answers!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:44 PM on December 5, 2015

Response by poster: Yeah, he got a couple of those metal kits a couple years ago and I think he broke the very first piece he attempted to attach. That was the end of that. He probably has better dexterity now but I think he's still a little put off by them.

Thanks everybody. I'll take a look at some of these suggestions.

BTW, this is for a gift so "Ikea assembly service", which a good idea, won't be under the tree this year.
posted by bondcliff at 7:07 AM on December 7, 2015

Nanoblocks are neat but some of their sets are quite difficult. I got a Tokyo Sky Tree set as a gift and gave up in frustration half-way through. Maybe if I go back with some tweezers or something but I don't have the patience for that and so in the box it stays.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2015

It might not be right for you, but I have always wanted one of these.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:04 PM on December 10, 2015

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