Sunday, May 29, 2016

Collecting Lightsabers

I've been terrible about posting blogs in 2016. I haven't been taking many meaningful photos and have otherwise been preoccupied.
But seeing as how the last post was all about opening the lightsaber kit I ordered in July 2015, I feel like maybe an update is a worthwhile way to get back to my blog, which is now nearly 8 years old.

Quick background: When I was little and watched Star Wars for the first time, (not that I even remember) I latched on and never really let go. My childhood was filled with VHS tapes and later DVDs, and theater viewing upon theater viewing whenever the opportunity presented itself.

I do remember being 10 years old and getting to experience "the trilogy" in theaters for the first time with the 1997 Special Edition releases. All criticism of the content changes aside, that was truly a magical time for me, as up until that point I had only seen this galaxy on a standard TV with massive letterboxing and typical VHS resolution.

Around that same time I started collecting Star Wars 3.5" action figures, which grew into a consuming hobby for years. I have memories of vast sections of the toy store with all kinds of figures, and finding those extra rare ones at various flea markets when on vacation visiting my grandparents.

Around the time of the prequel trilogy, a neat gimmick started coming with each figure; a small base with embedded chip that could activate some quotes or sound effects when placed on a reader. This was great because at Christmastime I could hold my wrapped presents over the reader to find out what character was hiding behind the colorful paper (until my parents then hid my presents to prevent me from spoiling the surprise).
my screen-accurate Obi Wan Kenobi lightsaber from Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace

What I find especially interesting is that in spite of this Star Wars madness (I saw Episode I at least 7 times in theaters in 1999) I never actually owned a toy lightsaber. I played with them at other people's houses, but never actually had one of my own. So when I learned about a company called Saberforge a couple of years ago and saw that they made a replica of one of my favorite lightsabers (Luke Skywalker's from Return of the Jedi) I impulsively bought one. 4 months later I had my prize, a heavy, metal hilt that had a blindingly bright green LED setup and 37" long blade. I promptly broke the switch and had to repair it myself, which helped bridge me into the world of FX sabers.
My Saberforge lightsaber, Luke Skywalker's from Star Wars Episode VI : Return of the Jedi

The community of so-called sabersmiths is a world unto itself; they meticulously research and design lightsabers that match every detail of the screen-used props. They spend countless hours tracking down the original parts used, or re-creating them from scratch. All of this leads to the inevitable next phase, the electronics.

Some people are not satisfied to just have a screen-accurate hilt sitting on a shelf, and want more. And so several people in this community have developed specialized electronics that can be installed to control the LEDs, and add sound, making the hilts come to life. And so I set out to convert my first lightsaber with sound. It required replacing every component and some precision soldering that I wasn't exactly great at. As it sits on my shelf today, it works, but not nearly as well as I'd like it to, and will continue to be representative of "my first attempt".

When I opened my "Graflex 2.0" kit in December, I knew that I'd want to do an electronics installation, but I wasn't sure how exactly that would manifest. I didn't want to rush it, and so the research began. From December until March 2016 I collected the parts that would eventually come together, and it brought me into yet another part of the lightsaber community I thought was outside of my reach and ability: crystal chambers.

Within the lore of Star Wars, outside of the movies, is the way a lightsaber technically works. Using a special crystal and a power source, a lightsaber is a beam of superhot plasma contained by an electromagnetic field. For a few years now, some sabersmiths have been developing their own custom chambers with CNC lathes or 3D printing to hold a crystal that would look like the internal components of a "real" lightsaber, if one were to actually exist and require a crystal in order to function. Fortunately for me, many people were excited about the same kit I had ordered, and one community member, Rick Ryo, designed a crystal chamber and internal chassis that could be 3D printed. Using the Shapeways website, I started ordering my parts. For the sound itself, I would go with the Naigon Spark Color 2 board, which would let my lightsaber have adjustable color, sound, and special effect sounds (like blocking blaster shots). I took progress pictures along the way with my iPhone, but they really don't serve to demonstrate what the final result is, which is the only reason why I'd bother writing this much to begin with. To really get a sense of what this undertaking looks like, I had to actually try and capture what I see when I pick up my completed lightsaber, so here it is:
Skywalker family lightsaber as seen in Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens
I spent a lot of time working on the details for this lightsaber, including replacing a good number of the parts that came with the kit originally. The gold circuit board and belt clip parts, for example, were developed by Roy Gilsing in the Netherlands. The blade plug that helps create that beautiful ring of light at the emitter came from KR Sabers in London. Various parts came from sellers around the USA too. From an outward perspective, this lightsaber looks like everything I'd want it to be; and yet, it's pièce de résistance is when I unscrew the lower half: A delicate internal chassis system with a quartz crystal that lights up and flashes when the saber is turned on.
It has been very fun and incredibly satisfying to put these lightsabers together, and I feel like I've fulfilled a childhood dream. It's also been a great introduction into the world of prop collecting, and while my scope has been thus-far limited to Star Wars, I love the idea of owning pieces of movies and TV shows that have provided so much entertainment to me throughout the years.

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