Introduction: 3D Lego Family Portraits

About: I love the design and ambition of vintage technology, and the usability and potential of new - my passion is bringing the two together.

We made these gifts using box frames, printed backdrops and Lego tape, each of the seven featuring different family members represented by minifigures, matched to their individual features as closely and inoffensively as possible! We personalised the frames further with Lego accessories, and lit up the scenes by adding LEDs to the frame, powered by coin cell batteries.

Step 1: The Prototype

It's a tradition on my side of the family that the adults make presents for each other at Christmas rather than buying gifts. It works out really well but last year we struggled, being overwhelmed trying to recreate fancy things we'd seen on Pinterest. We were determined to make more of an effort this time around!

Back in the summer we visited the Lego shop and really enjoyed the "make your own minifigure" section - it inspired us to make a minifigure of "Uncle Rich" to say thanks for putting us up in London. We then thought it would be cool to frame the figure in a box frame, building a basic boat with a few bricks and adding a background photo, as he's a keen sailor.

When Christmas approached we thought "Hey why not do these for the whole family, only bigger?" - it was such a good idea we just had to do it - though it was trickier than it sounds!

Step 2: Preparing the Frames

I'd spied the bigger box frames while buying the first one, and popped in to buy 8 straightaway (We only needed to make 7 pictures but I was sure I'd break one in the process). The first job was to work out how much space we were dealing with. The original frame was 2 Lego studs deep - great but not deep enough for a figure to do much more than stand still with arms down.

The new frames proved to be the same, they had a wooden liner that meant the depth of the "box" was still only 2 studs, though the frame itself was deeper. I knew we'd need the full depth so stripped out all of the wood liner and removed all of the bendy metal tab things that usually hold the back in place.

Doing this gave us a full 3 studs to work with, conveniently still leaving about 1mm for the back panel to fit on the very rear of the frame. How to hold the back on was next - we wanted the family to be able to switch backdrops or re-pose the figures (especially as most would be sent by post). I found some picture frame "turns" on ebay, then got some matching brass screws at out local "four candles" hardware shop. With the turns screwed into the very rear of the frame they were in just the right place to hold the back panel in its new position. Lastly I drilled a hole in the top of each frame, to allow an LED to poke through. LEDs you say?

Step 3: Lighting Up

We wanted the frames to show off all of the Lego detail, so decided to add in some extra illumination in the form of a bright white LED, powered by a coin cell. To cut down on soldering we ordered some CR2032 battery holders from ebay - and I'm certain I ordered the single-cell version. When they arrived the battery holders had space for two cells, which we didn't really want, but did include a tiny on/off switch, which was a bonus!

After some testing I found that the holders would work just as well with a single battery, which was a relief as by now time was running short for ordering replacements. The extra battery space also came in really useful, I was able to use it to hold the LED in place, making the assembly much easier. Each holder needed some trimming and fiddling but once I'd got one working and set up a little production line all of the units were completed in no time. The holders also had convenient screw-holes, so they were easily secured to the frames with the same brass screws I used earlier for the turns.

Step 4: Backdrops

Next we had to decide on backdrops! We wanted them to go well with the figures in the foreground but also to have meaning to the specific family members. After some experiments we mostly went with places linked to the individuals, for example we used Edinburgh for one couple as that's where they were married, others were related to where they live or what they enjoy. Some were changed at the last minute as well!

The images were all cropped square and resized, then printed onto matt photo paper and pasted onto the back panels of the frame. This was a fun part of the build, and it's pretty easy to swap the backgrounds over if someone feels like a change.

Step 5: Lining the Frames

Now that the structure of the frame was sorted it was time to move to more fun things - what was going inside. We needed a way to line the frame to keep the back and glass in place, and also to allow us to set up the family characters in a scene. We first planned to line the box frames with thin Lego plates, but pretty soon realised that we didn't have nearly enough bricks to achieve this, 7 frames is a lot!

The solution came from a trip to the toy shop - Lego-compatible tape! This is great stuff, pliable studs on adhesive tape that has the consistency of pencil erasers. It was even on special offer, so we bought a couple of reels, sticking to blue for consistency. It was really straightforward to line the frames with the tape, though cutting it down the middle to get a single-stud row was a bit tricky. We lined 3 sides of each frame with the tape, sticking to "proper" Lego for the side that would hold the figures.

Step 6: Family Figures

Having deliberately done the hard parts first it was now time to have some fun - making minifigures and scenes of the whole family. The first step was to provide the children with a double bedsheet and empty every Lego box we own onto it, setting up a "scavenger hunt" for heads, bodies, legs, hair and accessories, which were put in separate takeaway cartons.

With all of the raw materials located we then set up a handy ice cube tray with one person's name next to each hole, so that we could keep their parts together. We were determined to only use figures and accessories that we had "in stock" and the kids were happy to donate them to the project. Honestly. We did have one big obstacle though, and that was the heads - many of the family wear glasses and we just didn't have enough, so we ordered a few extras from ebay.

Hair was another tricky one but we managed to find appropriate styles for most of the family figures - grey hair was the hardest, for these we just gave a normal brown "do" a distinguished dusting of spray primer.

Step 7: Assembly

With all the figures put together and accessories gathered we just needed a big push to get them all assembled - with last posting dates looming! We set up a test rig on a Lego base, making sure that each of the scenes would fit within the width of the frame and the absolute three stud depth limit.

This was the most fun part of the build, carefully putting the scenes together with the Soma FM Christmas Lounge playing in the background. Four of the frames had to be posted "up North" so many of their figures and parts were superglued in place, to avoid them arriving in "kit form". I guess we'll have to wait until Christmas to find out if that worked!

Step 8: Seven Gifts A-Glowing

It was really satisfying to get the frames built, wrapped up and posted in time, as I type we're relaxing and looking forward to catching up with the family over the next few days. Boxing Day will find us visiting relatives in Cambridge, and the Lego boxes are never far away whenever we're there - I think their frames may well have some "customisations" by the end of the day!

The whole family had great fun making these and all played their part turning a great idea into something fun. Most of all though it felt great to make the gifts personal, to try and capture the individual characters as far as possible using the bricks we had. We spent a lot of time thinking about the family while planning and building, and that's a big part of what Christmas is all about for us.

Homemade Gifts Contest 2017

Participated in the
Homemade Gifts Contest 2017