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Off-the-clock: A Lego hobby becomes a way of life

Manager of Denver Water’s print shop brings his organizational skills, finds joy in building intricate, challenging sets.

Editor's note: Enjoy this story as you get ready to celebrate International Lego Day on Jan. 28. 

During a tough time when Joshua Schwartz was looking for new things to do, one thing that wasn’t on his list was building Lego sets. 

“Honestly, as an adult, I saw Lego building as a complete waste of time,” Schwartz said. “My goal was to branch out and be more of an extrovert, and my perception was that sitting home alone building these sets didn’t seem like a good idea.”

But he swung by a local Lego store after an old friend kept telling him that Lego would be really good for him. And he quickly realized that Lego building is a hobby for all ages

Joshua Schwartz, who manages Denver Water’s print shop, started building Lego sets as a way to try new things. His co-workers, friends and family delight in the sets he builds. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

On that first Lego store visit, Schwartz explained to a store worker that he’d never done a Lego and had no idea where to start. The employee listened and handed him a set that immediately sparked his interest. 

A Batmobile. 

“I love cars, so for me that was the perfect build to start with,” Schwartz said. “It wasn’t too big and it combined the different design styles and types of Lego builds, including basic bricks, gears and technical elements, so it was a great introduction."

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“When I did that first build, I realized I was intrigued enough to want to build more,” Schwartz said. “There are so many options and they’re so different to build, so it’s really interesting.”

That Batmobile, built in 2005, launched Schwartz’s new hobby. Over the years, he’s built hundreds of Lego creations. 

One of the things Schwartz likes most about building with Lego bricks is the intricate, real-life details in some of the sets, like in this roller coaster with a ticket booth and electronic cars that can move on the track. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

This includes some of the largest and most challenging sets ever produced by Lego, including two different designs of the iconic — and massive — Star Wars Millenium Falcon as well as a replica of the Titanic that measures more than 4 feet long. 

He’s built the small, bright-colored, plastic bricks into replicas of luxury sports cars, Cinderella’s iconic Disney World castle, replications of classic, world-renowned art, a roller coaster with electronic controls and a “workable” Lego piano. 

For years, Schwartz had wanted to build a large AT-AT from Star Wars, since all the previous versions were small. While it wasn’t his favorite build, one of the features he liked was that this set was built to scale from the Lego mini figures and can fit 40 Stormtroopers inside it. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

He finds parallels between his hobby and his work running Denver Water’s print shop, which Schwartz has done since 2008. 

“When I have a lot of orders in the print shop, figuring out how to get my work done takes organizational skills to think of each part, and determine which machine can handle that part,” Schwartz said. 

Being organized is a critical part of Lego building, as anyone who’s seen all the different pieces and parts can attest.

“If you ask three different Lego builders how they build their sets, you’ll probably get three different answers, depending on how they approach it,” Schwartz said. 

The Titanic Lego set is one of the largest sets released to date, with over 9,000 pieces. It’s almost 4 feet, 6 inches long, shown here by Schwartz. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

Lego sets come with an instructional book and bags of pieces. The bags are numbered to show the order the pieces go together. Schwartz said most people build going bag by bag, while others open the bags and sort the bricks into pieces. 

“When I started doing Lego back in 2005, the bags weren’t numbered,” Schwartz said. “It really taught me how to organize the different pieces and learn the parts to get a sense for the build.” 

Take a Lego-styled Journey of Water.

Schwartz sorts Lego pieces by type into containers typically used for storing nails and screws, which also helps ensure pieces won’t get lost. He typically works on a build for an hour or so at a time, stretching out the time it takes to finish each project. 

“I think building Lego sets helps with concentration and organization,” Schwartz said. “As I’m getting older, it’s probably good for my brain to keep doing it.”

These Lego Technic cars replicate luxury sportscars, which Schwartz said were great to build because they were technical and full of intricate, realistic parts tucked inside the car’s shell. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

Of the many builds Schwartz has done over the years, and the ones that stand out for him, are the sets he built from Lego’s Technic line — a line of cars, trucks and construction equipment the company itself admits are “devilishly complex mechanisms inside absurdly complex builds.”

“I really liked building the bigger Lego Technic cars, which were the Porsche, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Ferrari,” Schwartz said. “I think it took two years for these cars to go from design to the store shelves, because Lego worked with the people who built the real cars so they could make the sets realistic.” 

Another small and challenging build was the Lego piano. 

“It wasn’t overly difficult, but I had to be really careful with it to get all the gears in the right place,” Schwartz said. “It’s the only build I’ve ever done with instructions that made you test it while you’re building.” 

Schwartz likes to display the sets he builds, so he’s selective about choosing his next project. Sometimes, simplicity wins out over complexity.

“The Lego helmets aren’t hard to build and are fairly small — less than 800 pieces per set,” Schwartz said. “I grew up with these iconic images, like the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader from Star Wars, so they’re just really cool to me.”

Some of Schwartz’s favorite builds are these Lego helmets, featuring iconic Star Wars characters as well as Marvel’s Iron Man. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

Schwartz’s favorite element of his hobby is the intricate realism the more complex Lego sets offer.

“I think the Lego designers take a lot of time in designing pieces and I really like the accuracy of it,” he said.

What does he do with all his sets? 

Schwartz’s wife, Audra, is fascinated by the builds, and they love to display the finished projects in their house. 

“I got really into the sets with plants and trees, which look like artwork, so those are fun to display,” Schwartz said. “The piano is also on display in our living room permanently, largely because it’s fun to show it to people.” 

Schwartz said that he’s slowed down a bit on building Lego sets because the sets are more expensive now, and he’s also starting to run out of display space. 

“I don’t want to take some of the builds apart and box them up, just so I have space for another build.”

The Lego piano was one of the trickiest builds Schwartz has done, largely because he had to test each gear to make sure the “keys” played before continuing. There’s an app that plays music with it, which makes it look and sound like a real piano. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

However, some of his Lego sets have come apart, unintentionally and somewhat spectacularly, like that very first one, the Batmobile. 

“I accidentally dropped the first one, the Batmobile, down the stairs,” Schwartz said. “I wasn’t sure what to do, but my wife decided to rebuild it for me.” 

Two other planes were accidentally destroyed — a model of a Boeing 747 and the Lego replica of the Wright Brothers Airplane. 

But the worst incident happened when Schwartz broke his own rules: He brought a Lego to work.

“Denver Water moved into our new Administration Building in 2019, and the new print shop is in the lower level of the building under the cafeteria. Since we are in the basement, we called the shop the Bat Cave,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz in the Denver Water Bat Cave … er, print shop. Photo credit: Denver Water.

With a huge banner announcing the name of the print shop, Schwartz decided to bring in one of the Batmobile sets he’d built, as it seemed fitting to have a Batmobile in the Bat Cave.

Schwartz’s colleagues at Denver Water loved the print-shop-turned-Bat-Cave’s new, unofficial mascot. The miniature version of Batman’s iconic ride became the starting point of many conversations when employees came to the print shop to pick up or drop off items. 

Then, over the Christmas holidays in 2022, a stretch that included a brutal cold snap that shut down highways, froze water pipes across the metro area and included Denver’s second-coldest day ever recorded, a water leak occurred in the cafeteria above Schwartz’s work area. Schwartz learned about it in a phone call from a co-worker.

“The leak was over my desk and the ceiling tiles fell on my desk. There was water everywhere,” Schwartz said. “They asked me if I wanted to see pictures. I told them no.”

Schwartz was surprised that the Batmobile, which he brought to work and became the unofficial print shop mascot, didn’t completely shatter when ceiling tiles landed on it. While pieces and parts fell off, it was in better shape than he expected. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

The majority of the damage occurred on the side of his desk where the Batmobile lived. The Lego set was essentially trashed.

“I also lost a lot of paperwork and pictures but my work computer and monitor were fine,” Schwartz said. “When employees heard about the damage, the thing they cared most about was the Batmobile.”

They wanted to know if Schwartz could salvage the shop’s Batmobile. 

“That model had wings on the car, which were totally destroyed, but about 80% of the model actually stayed intact,” Schwartz said. “It was filthy from the ceiling insulation, dust and water mixed together.”

So, using the patience, attention to detail and organizational skills he has devoted to his job and his hobby, Schwartz separated the pieces, gently cleaning them by hand and carefully protecting the car’s decorative stickers before setting each piece aside to dry. 

He’s rebuilding the Batmobile, slowly but surely. 

“I’ve never had to separate pieces of a build I’ve already done, and it’s been much more time consuming,” Schwartz said. “I keep working on it though, because people still ask me about the Lego Batmobile. It’s a part of our print shop.”

Lego released a portrait line, inspired by the portraits of the Beatles from their famous White Album. The Lego portraits, including one partially shown of Iron Man, were some of Schwartz’s favorite projects. Photo credit: Joshua Schwartz.

Schwartz’s Lego building skills have come a long way from the day he first stepped foot in a Lego store. And he delights by the enthusiasm and connections he’s created by sharing his hobby with others. 

“I have to laugh because I’m a grown man doing Lego sets,” Schwartz said. “I was really hesitant to share this hobby, but then I realized that people got so excited about seeing the finished builds and always wanted to know what I was going to build next.”

“I’ll take a break for a while but will then go back to building. It’s fun.”