Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
Before I started studying computer science, I've got my 'maturity diploma' (the secondary school exit exam) in Engineering – computer-aided design. Since I was a kid, besides visual effects, I always loved creating movie props and stuff like that, so when I first started learning how to use a metal lathe machine in high school, I yearned to get my hands on one, just so I could create something for myself. Not the usual boring school stuff, but something fun - a lightsaber, naturally. After ten years of waiting, I finally gained access to a lathe... so here we are.
I always loved Luke's lightsaber (originally Anakin's) from episode 4 and 5, but one does not have to be an expert to figure out that to DIY something like that is nearly impossible, if you want to have all the details. I have that lightsaber in my collection now, I know my limits, so I bought a replica of the Empire Strikes Back version. The next lightsaber that came to mind was Obi-Wan's from episode 4, and Luke's from episode 6. Obi-Wan's is a little tricky, though, since it was assembled from real parts... but if I'm not mistaken, Luke's was actually created using a lathe. A perfect choice for the first lightsaber, I think.
Just like with most of my projects, I started by sketching. This is the phase in which I decide on how many parts I want to divide the lightsaber into, and how it would all come together. Once I have the idea of how I'd go about creating it, I usually create a CAD 3D model, so I can see if there could be any problems with my design, and I get to see how the final piece could look.
I wanted to create a lightsaber before, so I already had most of the material I needed. I've decided to go with aluminium, which is perfect for projects like this. I didn't get very far the first day. I haven't used a lathe for more than six years, so I've decided to take it slow. Once I get to know this particular lathe, I'll be much faster, no doubt.
Today was a little bit more productive. I had the handle turned from before, so I continued with the handgrip - the ribbed part of the lightsaber. For the sake of precision, I've decided to mark all the grooves first. This way I'll know that I'm removing the material at the right distance from the face of the workpiece. I did my research, and it seems that the grooves on the original prop are not evenly distributed, and the angles are not symmetric. I don't like it very much, as it looks like someone made a mistake in measurements while turning the piece. I've decided to keep my grooves symmetric and with the same offset. After that, I moved on to work on the 'neck' part. The workpiece was a solid piece of aluminium, so I had to drill it first. I did this because I need to run a threaded rod through it. The rod will hold the whole lightsaber together. Once that was finished, I started working on the emitter (the 'head' of the lightsaber). I skipped one part, because it's made out of copper, and I still don't have the material. Anyway, the emitter is the last part of the saber, so it needs to have a thread inside of it. I didn't have much time left, so I didn't finish this part today.
Time to finish the emitter. It's not a very complicated shape to turn, so there were no problems. I also started working on its counterpart - the pommel. Turning it on a lathe is not difficult either. BUT, there's some milling involved in making this piece, and I don't have a milling machine... that's what I call a problem. Fortunately, you can do a little bit of milling on a lathe, too. On top of that, the lathe I'm using has a removable tool post, which you can replace with another chuck to hold your workpiece. But I still can't work on it, because I had to order a shaped end mill, and I'm still waiting for it to arrive. By the way, I'm sorry if my terminology doesn't make any sense, I studied this in Czech language, and it's difficult to translate technical terminology. Anyway, apart from milling, the pommel is finished. I managed to screw the 'neck' part up while polishing it on a lathe, so I had to do it again. Not a large setback. After that, I spray-painted the neck and the handgrip black. Once the paint dried, I cleaned the areas that are not supposed to be black. Finally, I put it all together to see if the threaded rod mechanism would hold everything together.
Today I started working on the control box. It's the first time I used the lathe as a milling machine, so the progress is kinda slow. I also found a tool that'll help me to create the 'arc' on one side of the box. It's not a correct tool for this type of work, but what the hell. As you can see, I didn't get very far with THIS lightsaber today - that's because I'm working on two lightsabers at once. I've decided to create Obi-Wan's as well, and there is (or will be) a thread about how I made it as well. Anyway, that's all for Luke's saber today.
Today's all about the control box. I spent some time sanding the inner arc down, so now it sits perfectly on the handle. Once I got this out of the way, I milled the top of the box to the correct height. Then I drilled and milled a hole in the center of the box, so I can attach it to the handle using a screw. Before I can screw the box to the handle, I had to drill a hole in the handle first, and cut a thread for the screw. I keep using the lathe for drilling, because the hole is always in the center of the workpiece. Since everything fits together nicely, it's time to work on the details of the control box. I looked at a lot of images of the original prop, replicas and home-made replicas, and I've decided to go with my own design. It resembles the original prop as much as possible, but it's not the same. I did this mostly because of the main limitation that I have - I don't have access to a proper mill, so I had to work out an alternative that would be possible for me to create. Anyway, I started by adding a PVC plate to the top of the box. The plate is held in place by two screws. After that, I needed to create a 'rail' that would hold the signature copper plate on top of the control box in place. I took a copper sheet metal, cut the basic rectangular shape I needed and started bending it using a rubber hammer. The bends turned out looking much better than I expected. Once I drilled holes for the screws that hold the PCV piece, I could assemble it all together.
I wasn't in the shop today, so I just spray-painted the copper plate to get the black stripes. I finally found a small shop with electrical supplies, where I could buy red and green triangular LEDs. Since I cannot mill the inside of the control box, I won't be doing any type of electrical work, the LEDs will be there just for decoration, they won't actually glow. The shop also had little M2 screws, which were also difficult to find.
I realised that my design of the control box had one flaw - I had to unscrew the PVC plate (and the copper rail) every time I needed to remove the box from the handle. That's a lot of unnecessary work, so I've decided to drill another hole in the center of the PVC plate and the copper rail to gain access to the main screw. Once I got this out of the way, I started working on the final details. I added the small plate that will hold the LEDs, and a (fake) button I machined from aluminium and spray-painted it black. The plate is crewed to the box, but for the rest (LEDs and the button) I used glue.
Yes! The mill for the pommel finally arrived. It took some time to get the angles right, because I had to rotate the work piece by hand, but I think the result looks precise enough.
Today I received another package I've been waiting for. I wanted to create the D-ring from scratch as well, so I ordered some aluminium wire. The thing is, they don't sell these in short lengths, so I had to order 26 metres. At least I'll have some spare material, haha. I milled small holes into the pommel and attached the ring to it. I don't actually like it very much, the aluminium is too light, so I might redo this part in the future with a different material. I'm just waiting for a copper rod now, then I'll be able to finish the whole lightsaber.
Copper rod finally arrived! (Along with brass rods, which I'll be using for Obi-Wan's lightsaber). Getting my hands on these materials proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated. I've been waiting far too long for this. Anyway, I turned the last piece today. It fits together nicely with the rest of the parts. As a final touch, I've decided to give the end of the threaded rod more interesting shape. This way it's not that obvious that it's a threaded rod that's holding the lightsaber together. I will still probably tinker with a few things, but the lightsaber is more or less finished.
Here's the final result and how I put it together. I'm quite pleased with the prop considering that I didn't use a lathe for more than six years, this is certainly not my last lightsaber.
Looking back, I think I've come a long way in building replicas... for comparison, here's the lightsaber in comparison with a lightsaber I built when I was about 12 years old: