Transparent Stickers In LEGO® Sets: An evolving improvement.

In which one sore point amongst LEGO Fans (Stickers) will result in talking about a sore point for Star Wars Fans (The Last Jedi).  I then proceed to subject some recent stickers to physical abuse and science. My final conclusions catch me by surprise and may well influence my opinions for years to come.  Now read on….

I have been thinking about the stickers provided with some LEGO Sets recently.  And not in a bad way. This has surprised me.  For a number of years I have found myself becoming anxious at the prospect of placing a stickers on a set, defacing a perfectly good LEGO Brick, as well as making a sticker non usable: this is almost counter to the notion of the LEGO System, where you can take a collection of elements, and reuse them, time and again, confident that they will always function as they have been intended, and integrate with elements of the past and future.

I have recently found myself excited at the prospect of using some stickers that have been produced: particularly some of those supplied with the Arctic Scout truck (60194) and the Stygimoloch Breakout  (75927), amongst others.

I would like to apologise if I triggered an angry, anxious or otherwise negative emotional response with that previous statement. In our minds we all have some strong opinions one way or another as far as the Use of Stickers in LEGO Sets is concerned. LEGO Bricks have been adorned with decorations, printed or stickers, for the better part of 50 years.  I still have Minifigures from nearly forty years ago still sporting their original adhesive labels, as well as elements featuring stickers from the 70’s: including these flags. Admittedly, the years have not been kind, but do stickers today last as long?

 

Sometimes, bricks are decorated with stickers, when perhaps a brick built solution would be more… elegant. And sometimes, we now find a brick built solution being sought, when previously details might have been depicted with stickers. Compare the design of the 2016 Speed Champions Ford Mustang, with the design of this year’s Mustang Fastback. Previously we had stickers for the tail lights, and this year we have a brick built solution. We also have added detail in the headlights and front grille, with only the addition of the Mustang logo being required to give the vehicle proper form.

But I am not going to review the Mustang Fastback on this occaision.

There is no doubt, however, that decorating LEGO Bricks can help fill in details that cannot be readily brick built, and add a degree of realism , and transforming a set from being a bland grey box and transform it into something a little more interesting..

Added Realism [Really Rapid Review 75176 Resistance Transport Pod]

IMG_2797

Let’s risk upsetting people further.  I recently put together the Star Wars: The Last Jedi set 75176 Resistance Transport Pod. I shall not dedicate more than a paragraph to it. I enjoyed it that much. The truth is, I bought it for the Minifigures (Finn, Rose and BB8), as well as the transparent yellow windscreen. There were some interesting aspects of the build including the line of the arched 1×6 brick fitting the curve under the windscreen. I also appreciated the mechanism used to rotate the gun on the starboard side of the pod. However, once it was complete, it looked barren and uninteresting: Virtually all of the decoration on the vehicle was created through the use of stickers. In fact they are used to add detail to eight out of 12  larger exposed elements.  Without the stickers, we have a real case of the Big Boring Blank Grey Wall Syndrome. I felt really disappointed when I finished building it – it was really plain. I felt almost as disappointed by the set as many Star Wars fans seemed to when discussing the film of The Last Jedi.  The Minifigures redeem this set: printed faces, torsos and legs, as well as some thermal detonator printed tiles, and help to bring my score up to two point five out of five (2.5/5) Arbitrary Praise Units. I suspect that with stickers applied for appearance, and if I was a die-hard LEGO Star Wars fan, I suspect my score might be a little higher.

IMG_2976
This sticker sheet is printed on transparent clear plastic.  What I do not understand is why it was necessary print the color of the element that the sticker is to be placed on, on the sticker itself.  This feels a little redundant, and restricts the use of the sticker sheet.

Now, I did not apply the stickers in this set.  Looking at them, however, I came to realise that the stickers were printed onto a transparent plastic medium.  I maintained a level of bewilderment as I realised that these stickers featured the colour of the elements that they were to stuck on to, with the exception of the canopy’s stickers. Surely only the lines, and stripes of other colours should need to printed on the stickers? Having this colour printed on leaves you obliged to attach the stickers onto elements of different colours.I appreciate the details provided, but the sheet could have been so much more versatile.

And then I started thinking about the role that decorating elements are playing in sets today.

There is no doubt that stickers are a source of frustration for LEGO fans today: If I am to spend more than one one metric truckload of cash on a deluxe collector’s set (such as the new Hogwarts Castle), I would rather not spend my time dealing with over seventy stickers, each providing another opportunity to place a decorative element on a psychologically disconcerting angle.

But apart from the issues associated with application, do they offer more advantages than disadvantages? Would life be better if every element that needed decoration came as a printed element? I used to have some definite answers to this.  Mainly brought on by examining the stickers that have been placed on some of the sets we obtained around the time I emerged from my dark ages: Time has not treated some of these stickers well. I am particularly thinking of a couple of sets from the late noughties: 2008’s Spongbob Square pant’s Rocket Ride and 2009’s 10196 Grand Carousel.  Both of these sets have been displayed indoors, with limited exposure to direct sunlight.  I was certainly disappointed to see the stickers start to crack lift and peel after a few years.  Touching them was certainly not a consideration: this resulted in them crumbling to dust in an instant. I have seen this happen with other stickers applied in our collection, from around this time including  4210 Coast Guard Platform, 7739 Coast Guard Patrol Boat and Tower (both 2008) and 7637 Farm (2009).

Now there appears to have been a change in the materials used in sticker sheets since then. For reasons best known to myself, the sticker sheet from the Grand Carousel was still lying around the house. (I originally applied all of the stickers except for the round ‘starbursts’ which attach to the centre of the plates).  The ‘paper’ outline after the most of the stickers have been attached is able to be readily torn.  Other sticker sheets I have since that time – 2009-2010 –  are not able to be easily torn.  Stretchable possibly, but not torn.

One thing that has become obvious in these ‘ripping’ tests, is that there are two types of material typically used for sticker sheets in recent years: a white polymer sheet, and a transparent polymer sheet.  The latter appears to be found mainly in sets where it is necessary to apply stickers to transparent elements – windows, windscreens and information screens (railway timetables or large screen computer monitors), while the other seems to be found in the majority of other sets where all stickers are to be placed on an opaque tile or brick.

So, are these stickers weak and flimsy and subject to rapid decay? Or are they now stronger, and more robust than my past poor experiences might suggest? Perhaps we should put it to the test. I might even change my opinion.

Time to Review My Biases and Revisit the Robustness of Modern Stickers [Science Follows]

Aim

So, after ten years, has anything been done to improve the quality and durability of stickers?  I set out to investigate this by applying a simple test, often used to rejuvenate elements that have come from a significant period of time in storage. Washing them on a delicate cycle in the washing machine (in a delicates bag).  A supplemental test, keeping warmed to 70ºC in an over fo 6 hours was also performed.

Materials

IMG_2793I don’t care much for using stickers that do little but put the number of the set I am building on the side of a vehicle, so I happen to have a few of these floating around from some recent sets, specifically 60159 Jungle Half Track (2017) and 60194 Arctic Scout Truck(2018).  I found 4 medium stone grey 1×6 bricks, cleaned them with methylated spirits.

Methods

I applied the stickers to the side of these bricks, using the tapered end of a brick separator to position them. As the aim of this experiment is to test durability rather than improve placement techniques, I ensured that the sticker was entirely on the surface, rather than over the edge, but perfect square/centred alignment was not a priority for me.

I placed two of the four labelled bricks into a delicates bag, along with a hand full of 2×2 bricks, and placed them in a front loading washing machine: (Miele ) and ran it on a delicates cycle, using cold power as the detergent.  The cycle ran for an hour.  On completion, I removed the bricks and compared them with the control bricks ( which had not been washed.)IMG_2802.jpg

After washing, these bricks, and a control medium stone grey brick were placed in the oven, too simulate the effects of drying out with time. They were removed after 6 hours, and photographed with a macro lens, aiming to maximise the contrast.  Analysis was qualitative only: comparing the final state of the stickers with the controls.

 

Results

IMG_2799There are some obvious differences between the two stickers after the  initial application:

  • The 60159 sticker is directional: there is a definite left and right sticker. The 60194 labels are identical – making correct placement easier.
  • The stickers from 60159 has an opaque background, and is specifically designed for bright yellowish orange bricks. In fact the non square placement is pretty obvious when I placed it on a different coloured brick. That said, regardless of the colour brick I placed it on, all detail would be preserved. Those from 60194 are transparent: it is not instantly obvious that I have not placed them on element of the intended colour (bright orange).  However, detail on the sticker would have been lost if I placed it on a white or black brick.
  • The sticker for 60159 is designed to be placed on the side of a brick, and as such is slightly wider than that of 60194, which was designed initially to be placed on the flat surface of a tile. It is able to readily fit onto the side of a brick.  However, the 60159 sticker is too wide to fit on top of a 1×6 tile.

After removal from the washing machine, there was no discernible difference between the stickers subjected to the cleaning process, and those left in the atmosphere.  Some small air bubbles persisted under the stickers, but the stickers remained firmly attached.

We should not be surprised that the labels were intact after the washing machine: some are also intended to be placed on the hull of boats (which may or may not float in water), so a degree of water fastness is essential.

I subjected the elements to a further five and three quarter hours in an oven at 70-80ºC (158=176ºF). The initial six hour bake was reduced to 5.75 hours, as it was time to start preparing dinner for the family.  The goal was to see if heating might produce some changes not seen with the washing machine test.

After the time in the oven, I looked at both the transparent, control and baked; as well as the opaque stickers, control and baked.  There appeared to be little difference in the state of the transparent stickers after a prolonged, slow bake.  The opaque sticker developed a noticeably greater number of wrinkles compared to both the transparent sticker, and the control. The transparent stickers were not entirely immune, however. There were larger bubbles present after baking, than the transparent control.

IMG_2991
Upper bricks: control. Lower bricks: washed on a delicate cycle, followed by almost six hours slow bake in the oven at 70ºC
IMG_2985
As you can see, after  almost 6 hours in a low oven, the opaque label has started to stretch and bubble, to a greater extent than the transparent sticker.
Discussion

The LEGO Group recommend cleaning bricks by hand washing, in water up to 40ºC, with a little detergent.  However, frequent discussions on the topic of cleaning bulk purchases in various forums suggest that a either placing elements in a delicates bag, in a washing machine OR  dishwasher should provide a reasonable level of cleanliness.  Discussions with staff at LEGOLAND  Discovery Centre in Melbourne, prior to its opening, revealed that the parts used for daily play are cleaned daily in an industrial dishwasher. Not such a bad idea if there are going to be over 500 children playing, jumping, chewing and potentially urinating on the bricks.  Further techniques might also be used to rejuvenate elements that have become yellowed with time. This is outside the scope of our discussion today.

I have received anecdotal reports of other stickers from sets flaking after a three or four years of being subjected to the ambient heat of the television and associated entertainment system.  My older sets with flaking stickers were stored in a room that would occasionally heat up to the mid 30’s in summer, before all LEGO was moved to another, cooler room.  The oven based experiment was to see if any changes could be induced in the stickers over a short period of time: either the adhesive or the sticker itself.  Changes appeared to be visible, compared to the control, but these changes APPEAR to be greater in the opaque stickers. Household necessity meant that I was not able to keep the LEGO Bricks with stickers in the oven for more than a few hours.

I did not heat the oven above 100ºC, to avoid physical changes in the ABS: The glass transition temperature of ABS, the plastic used in LEGO Bricks is 105ºC.  This is the temperature at which ABS is likely to deform.  When ABS is heated to the mid 200’s, it melts.  The injection moulding in the LEGO factories is performed at between 240º and 290ºC. (At higher temperatures – approx 400ºC- ABS will potentially break down, or catch fire.  Some of the substances given off by combustion of ABS are toxic, including carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide). The goal here was to observe changes in the stickers, or the adhesive.

So, we have established that recently applied LEGO Polymer based stickers, transparent or opaque, remain intact after a delicates cycle in a domestic washing machine, on delicate cycle. We cannot extrapolate this to include older stickers, or alternative material.

These stickers remain intact after almost six hours in a low oven (approximately 70-80ºC).  There was, however, noticeable wrinkling of the opaque sticker, with bubbles forming beneath the sticker.  This sticker was significantly different (on visual inspection, n-1) to both the transparent sticker that had been baked, as well as the control, which had not been subjected to anything resembling unreasonable treatment.

This suggests to me that the transparent stickers are more stable under these conditions – six hour low bake, after a cycle in the washing machine – than the opaque stickers, of a similar vintage (approximately 12 months difference in production). This may or may not accurately reflect early changes in stickers that have been applied, and displayed in a room with variable temperatures.

I Might Not Know About Art, But I know What I like.

The stickers do appear, if placed properly, to be up to the battle of daily use, so long as they are not subjected to extreme temperatures for prolonged times. So the question remains, do printed elements offer significant advantages applying an adhesive sticker?

The case for Printed Elements

  • (Virtually) Always in the right place
  • Can extend from one side of an element to the other.
  • Durable

The Case Against Printed Elements

  • Piece is indelibly marked and can’t be used without the markings
  • Print will be subject to wear over the years – particularly if played with
  • No option not to use it.
  • Each part with a print is a different element to the part without a print ( or with a reverse version of the same print).  There are sometimes limits on the number of ‘unique’ elements used in set or product lines: Senior LEGO Designer Marcos Bessa describes it in the setting of Brickheadz in an interview with New Elementary Essentially each new element – printed or recolour – takes up part of the range’s allowance( referred to as frames).  Normally, some of these might be taken up with Minifigure prints.
  • Each printed element occupies a bin in the warehouse – so if an element is underused, it becomes an ongoing problem in inventory management.

The Case for Applying Stickers

  • Optional use – you do not need to used the element in its decorated form
  • Can be used on a different shaped/colored brick in MOCs
  • transparent labels can be placed onto parts of any colour, to leave them especially well enhanced.
  • Stickers of certain dimensions can be used on a tile, or on the side of a brick, rather than being limited to a given side of an element.
  • Multiple new elements just using up one ‘frame’ in the set.

And Why Stickers Might Not Be the Best Alternative.

  • the sheet might become be folded or damaged in transportation (especially in smaller sets).
  • May not be robust in play
  • Some stickers do flake and deteriorate with time.
  • Stickers do not run from edge to edge, but are a millimetre or two short of the total length of the brick.
  • They require a lot of concentration to ensure they are attached squarely.
  • Can be scrubbed off the brick, if necessary…

On balance, it would appear that stickers have just as much to offer as printed elements, but with perhaps a little more versatility.

From 60194, you can see that transparent stickers designed to be placed on tiles can work well on elements of a colour other than that original intended to be used by the set designers.  I particularly like the computer keyboard used, designed to be applied to a 1×4 orange tile.  If I had another, I would love to apply the same sticker to a grey or black tile, for use in other laboratory environments.

IMG_2796The Resistance Transport Pod reviewed offers the advantage of transparent backing material for stickers, but all details are completely printed on.  If the colour of the element intended for the sticker to be applied to had not been printed on these parts (predominantly grey) they could have been applied to alternative coloured elements, with out any problem, in future projects.  Was this an overlooked opportunity, or a request from Disney to ensure as realistic set as possible?

The materials used for producing stickers for LEGO sets are now quite robust, but repeated heating and cooling over a period of time might lead to a their deterioration, particularly if they are printed on the opaque plasticised stock.

I have noticed in recent years, that the graphic designer working on a major set is as likely to make an appearance on the designer video as the model designer themselves, and I think that is reasonable given their contribution to the final look and feel of the final product. I first saw this with with the UCS Snowspeeder, and more recently with the new Hogwarts Castle. However, fans are always willing to express negative opinions about the presence of stickers in a major set, that is already costing a premium.  We need assurances that well applied stickers will pass the test of time, and ultimately result in an element with the sticker applied being as functional, and aesthetic as a printed element.

I am starting to believe that many of the stickers that we are presented with are a pretty reasonable alternative to printed elements, especially at the level of LEGO Set production.  The questions that remain with stickers relate to their difficulty in applying in a straight and centred fashion, and the issue of long term durability, although investigations carried out here today certainly show that the transparent plastic stickers currently in production are probably the most robust option that we have at present.  At least in the short term.

I will admit that I maintain a preference for printed elements, especially where alignment of the design is an important aspect of the design. When I was looking to prepare a custom minifigure, 1×8 brick or shield printed element…I went with printed elements rather than stickers.

However, after recent experiences with stickers on transparent stock, such as those provided in 60194, I am not as opposed to stickers as I once was. Given their overall performance, I think a case could be made to produce all stickers on this medium. It provides a versatile sticker able to be used on bricks of any color, and appears to have a greater durability when applied to LEGO Bricks than the opaque alternative. However, I do need to learn to place the labels more accurately.

I acknowledge that my quick and simple testing has some limits as far as simulating long term display of poorly applied stickers and I suspect the LEGO Group have some more definitive data on the performance of the materials used for sticker sheets over the years.

Do you have strong feelings one way or another with regards to Stickers or Printing as a way to decorate elements that are not minifigures?  Do you save stickers for an alternative use in your own MOCs? Do you believe that stickers are intrinsically bad, and feel that every set should only include printed elements? Why not leave your comments below, and share this post with your friends.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps I occasionally write the sort of thing you are interested in reading: why not follow the Rambling Brick on Facebook, or WordPress, and hear about every post as it arrives.

Until Next Time,

Play Well!

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s