“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
These blue words appear on the screen and you immediately know what’s about to happen. The orchestra blasts and the yellow text crawls up across a field of stars.
Love it or not, it’s impossible to deny the massive cultural impact of Star Wars. And if you’re reading this, I’m going to guess you’re like us at this office and love it. All of us here have grabbed sticks, tubes, or other such things and pretended they were lightsabers, wishing that we could be Jedi or Sith. As such, it is only appropriate that we celebrate May the 4th. Particularly, we love the creativity and ingenuity of the many prop makers and cosplayers. These talented and dedicated people go that extra step, building what they see on the silver screen in their own shops.
Not so long ago in a galaxy really, really close….
Part of what is so wonderful about building your own Star Wars replicas is that it fits the history. To elaborate, that DIY aesthetic fits with the vision of the original films. Watch any documentary about the early days, and you’ll notice a theme. “We had a tiny budget, so we got really creative with making our props.”
Anakin’s lightsaber that Obi-Wan gives to Luke on Tattooine? The flash fixture tube of a 1940s Graflex camera with buttons from a calculator and plastic tracks from a display cabinet glued on it. Darth Vader’s lightsaber used the flash fixture from a British 3-cell MPP Microflash camera.
Han Solo’s iconic DL-44 Blaster pistol? A surplus C96 Mauser “Broomhandle” pistol with a scope, parts from a remote control model airplane, and parts from a real airplane stuck on it. The E-11 blaster carbines carried by Stormtroopers were surplus WWII Stirling submachine guns with extra bits attached.
The list goes on. Amusingly though, modern fan-built replicas are often nicer than what they actually filmed the original movies with!
What to use?
The most popular options for making props largely depends on what you are trying to make. But, the three most popular materials are aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, and copper.
Aluminum is most commonly used for weapons and components on costumes. Even a quick internet search will show that most lightsabers which aren’t plastic are aluminum. There are a lot of reasons for this popularity. Aluminum is inexpensive, shiny, light, polishes well, resists corrosion, and is easy to machine. 6061 aluminum tubes are extremely popular to use as bodies of lightsabers for these reasons. They look good, aren’t heavy, and you can work them without needing a machine shop. Also, they won’t Force choke your wallet to death.
Stainless steel is less popular than aluminum but really makes an appearance in higher end props. Firstly, as steel, it’s durable and has high strength. It also polishes well and looks really good. Two aspects of stainless that are both strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation are its weight and machinability. Steel is heavy, and so this can really give your props a good feel, authenticity, and a sense of gravitas. It might also just make you tired lugging it around. Steel is also rugged and durable, which is great, but it also means that without the right tools, it’s a struggle to machine or work it. Lastly, stainless is more expensive than aluminum. With the right preparation, stainless steel makes an excellent choice for props, especially weapons and tools.
Plastics are the most popular material, but there’s a huge range of plastics so that’s kind of cheating. Plastics are also the hardest to define for that reason. The kind of plastic you’d use for vacuum forming a Stormtrooper chest plate is very different from the rigid material you’d use to make a lightsaber blade.
Plastics generally have two main benefits. They are easy to come by and extremely easy to work with. The range of cost also varies from “very cheap” to “I wonder if making a real lightsaber might be cheaper?”
However, good places to start looking are at acetal, acrylic, polycarbonate, and PVC. Those are some of the most popular plastics used in projects such as these. But, their strengths and weaknesses mean you’ll want to check before committing to a certain material. The polycarbonate, for example, is frequently used in lightsaber blades.
Also, if you are looking to paint, plastics present a bit of a challenge. Certain plastics just don’t hold paint well. Fun fact, the Stormtrooper armor in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were notoriously difficult to work with. The paint didn’t stick to that plastic and was constantly flaking off. Therefore, they just had to keep caking it on as it came off. Observant fans have been able to track individual bits and pieces of the armor across those films due to the unique ways in which the paint built up over vents and the like.
One of the more specialty metals that is still worth mentioning is copper. Copper and its alloys (bronze and brass) are more expensive, so they are less common. However, they have excellent mechanical characteristics. And most importantly for these projects, they have wonderful aesthetics. Copper can be used to accent pieces to give them age or more varieties or color. Or, you can be like this really impressive customer of ours and plate an entire lightsaber in copper and then etch and weather it.
Do your part!
Do you desire to make awesome Star Wars costumes and props while showing off your skill and doing great work for your community? If the answer is yes, we strongly urge you to check out the 501st Legion, Rebel Legion, and the Saber Guild. All three are fantastic organizations with exceptional costumes who also regularly volunteer for charity work for organizations such as the Make-A-Wish
Happy building, and May the 4th be with you!