Welcome to Third Angle, in this episode we meet a creator crafting Star Wars-inspired custom sabers
May the Force be With You
In the second episode of The Third Angle Podcast, we met a creator crafting Star Wars-inspired custom sabers. Whether it’s Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, James Bond’s X-ray glasses or Marty McFly’s hoverboard from Back to the Future, gadgets and tech from film and TV are a great source of inspiration and enjoyment for many of us. One item that’s long piqued the interests of curious minds is the iconic lightsaber from Star Wars. It’s been so inspirational to Rob Petkau, in fact, that he now spends his time designing and building custom sabers for fans all around the world. Rob is the founder of Genesis Custom Sabers. We met with him to find out about the creative process behind these blades – and how Onshape has changed his business.
Art You Can Fight With
If you were to say to me 30 years ago, “You’ll be making lightsabers out of your own home shop for a living,” I couldn’t even envision that, let alone explain how unrealistic that is. I work from my secret base, or my man cave, as some would call it. It’s actually a garage, but on the inside, it’s decorated with all kinds of props and set-related things. My vision was to make a workspace that was inspiring, that made me feel like I was in a science fiction universe. So in my studio I have my workstation, computer, a lot of memorabilia, some Star Wars art, and a display case with a whole bunch of lightsaber hilts – as well as a pile of boxes that I ship lightsabers in. They have a cool little catchphrase on it: “Art you can fight with.”
The Evolution of a Business
The company Genesis Custom Sabers started out as a hobby. Back then I called it Genesis Custom Lightsabers, but when I turned pro, I didn’t want to get sued so I nixed the lightsabers. We generally call these things “illuminated sabers”. It’s been 25 years since I first started dabbling with lightsabers as a hobby, and at that time there wasn’t very much information available. What we used to do at that time was build junk sabers. We’d go to a hardware store and find things that looked like the parts of the sabers used in the films, and we tried to construct them. Then one thing led to another. We started putting LEDs and blades in, as well as functional components, so we needed to learn electronics skills and machining skills. An online community developed, then over the years some of those hobbies turned into businesses. And so, since 2010-2011, I’ve been doing this full time.
From Improvised Toys to Precision Engineering
I wish I’d kept some of the first sabers that I worked on. If I was to describe them, imagine a piece of plumbing tube with a couple of holes drilled in it. Inside, if you stick your thumb through one of those holes, there’s a flashlight, and you can flick it on. I used a little plastic tube that’s commonly used inside golf bags to keep your golf clubs separate. If you can find a transparent one, well, that’s the blade, and that’s what catches the light, and you can run out in the dark and fight with your friends. In fact, I was a part of a youth group back in Sydney Pentecostal Church way back in the day. And we used to build these things with the kids, and we would go out into the field behind the church in the middle of the night and we’d have these massive lightsaber fights. That was a lot of fun, but they were horrible. They didn’t even look like a decent toy, let alone something respectable. Now, we’ve got precision-machined aluminum, CNC-machined aluminum.
All the parts are designed now. I do a lot of CAD design with the Onshape programming, so I can make things perfectly custom fit to look and feel the way I want: the size, the weight, powder coating, anodizing. I do a lot of artificial ageing and weathering and battle damage, like you would do for a genuine movie prop, and the blades are polycarbonate. They’re technically bulletproof plastic. I don’t recommend anyone try to stop a bullet with a lightsaber, but they’ve come a long way. Someone in the know, in the hobby, we call them “glorified flashlights”, which is really a great way to describe the effects. Sometimes people who ship these things internationally will call them a flashlight on the shipping bill for customs purposes, because what in the world are these things? How do you describe that to a customs officer?
Feel the Force
The sabers are machined aluminum – generally aluminum, sometimes there are other metals – with internals that include a high-powered LED or a control capability to run pixel LEDs up the blade. There’s usually a central computer of some kind, we call it a sound card, that controls the sounds and the lighting effects, and some kind of power source – a battery, usually a lithium-ion rechargeable battery. There are buttons and switches and indicators and a lot of other cosmetic things, but those are the key components of what goes into one of these custom sabers. With the single high-brightness LED, I know some guys online that have purchased from me that carry theirs around on rounds as a night watchman or security guard; they can pull it off their belt and flick it on like a bright blue or green flashlight, and they’ve actually used it like that. I mean, who doesn’t want to walk around in the middle of night with a lightsaber on your belt? Come on!
From Shelf Queens to Battle Scenes
There are several types of lightsabers that I do. There’s what’s called the “Shelf Queen”, which is basically like a model you would put on a shelf, have a little label on it, and nobody gets to touch it, and it looks nice. Then there’s the full-on combat saber. My friend Jimmy runs a dueling group in Calgary, he works with live steel swords, and he’s won competitions in sword combat. They have full armor and gear, and they use lightsabers with heavier blades. They go full on, they’ve got helmets and gear, and they score points. They hit each other hard. He’s always coming in here because he’s broken something – he is the worst at destroying things that are not supposed to be breakable, and he takes pride in that. He just calls me up and he says, “I broke another one. I’m so proud of myself.” And he brings me a pack of Guinness and I fix his lightsaber. He’s a great guy.
The Cosplay Boom
The huge middle ground between the Shelf Queens and the battle-ready sabers is the cosplay industry, which has sprung up over the last 20 years. People spend thousands of dollars on these elaborate costumes – and not only replica costumes from films or games or pop culture, but hybrid costumes, or they cast themselves as a Jedi or a Sith and they want something unique. And so, often, my customers will come to me because I don’t make replica hilts. I make something that’s a little bit more personalized, a little bit more unique. They want something that they can flick on at a hospital charity and fight with somebody or play with some kids, but also looks good hanging on their costume.
Creativity and Inspiration
I get asked all the time what my favorite saber is, and I have a hard time answering. I tell people it’s because they’re like my children. There are sabers I like for different reasons. I have what I would have called years ago my personal saber, which was part of this whole journey. If I was a Jedi, what would my lightsaber look like? And that’s a lot of what resonates, I think, between me and my customer base. I have that saber that I developed, but I haven’t touched it in years. It’s old technology. Since then, I’ve played around with other ideas. Now, I’ve got a couple that I really like. One of my production series sabers is called the Ascent, and I’ve got a variation of it that uses an etching pattern that I derived from some of the artwork on a video game called Skyrim, which has nothing to do with Jedi. But it’s just beautiful kind of Norse-reminiscent artwork that evolved. I always really loved Norse artwork. I’ve got some etching on that. And so that one really resonates with me.
I’ve got another favorite that I designed back in 2009 which was an interpretation of a character saber from novels that I read. Drew Karpyshyn wrote Star Wars novels about a character named Darth Bane. I created a saber because he didn’t have a really great reference. If you looked it up, there weren’t any good images, so I thought, “I’m going to create one.” And the fans have been great, they’ve really resonated with my image. And to this point, if you look up Darth Bane’s lightsaber, you’ll probably see pictures of my design. That one has been so well-received by fans that it has a special place in my heart, because when your work is appreciated you can’t help but really relish that.
The Power of the Dark Side
I’ve been building sounds – we call them “sound fonts” – for the sabers for over a decade now. There isn’t as much nuance to the ones I made 10 years ago, even though I’ve gone back and added to them. The newer ones have more nuance. There’s one called Rogue which I really liked, which I made long before the movie Rogue One, that I envisioned as a kind of rogue Jedi. It was my attempt at making a sound font that would be me if I was a Jedi. I’ve also done a newer one called Ashes. I always felt with the dark side sound font that I never was able to really achieve that visceral feel that I was looking for, until this one. It’s some Easter egg sounds with my voice, reading the Sith code backwards. I made it sound like some hypnotic, dark, ghostly language. I made it with this saber in mind. I’d learned a couple of different techniques, and I’d played a video game where the sounds were really striking. I tried to recreate some of that effect, and I feel like I nailed it.
Making Designs Interactive
With my high-end sabers, the user can take apart a couple of components – in this case, it’s two screws – and then you slide the bone segment back, and every lightsaber has got a crystal inside, it’s part of the lore. And the crystal reacts. With one lightsaber, it’s red, because the blade color is red, but if I alter the color, change the blade color, the crystal responds, and changes color to match whatever the blade color is. So a lot of the higher-end, more expensive sabers are ones that they can operate as a “Shelf Queen”, so we can take it apart, and they feel more real because they can see the crystal, and they can respond to the visuals of the inside of the saber, because they’ve all read the stories of Jedi creating their lightsabers and crafting them and working on these internal parts. They want to be able to see and interact with that.
The Power of Imagination
A couple of years ago, something clicked. I really resonate with the word “imagination”. Imagination is one of the most profound human qualities. It affects everything. Every great achievement in human history has started as a work of imagination. All art is a work of imagination, the ability to communicate and identify with nature, which I love, has elements of imagination. When imagination becomes stretched or challenged, that’s a good thing. There’s opportunity there. Creativity. I step back and I look at our current Western culture, and I just feel like maybe as it’s a post-industrial era, we value action, we value results. We put in our time, we put imagination in a box, and it often doesn’t affect our day-to-day. I read up this term recently, “quiet quitting” – the idea of just deciding to phone it in. “Okay, I’m not going to put in any more than I need to. This is my day job.” There’s no imagination there, there’s no life there. I just kind of see it everywhere now.
Our expert says… Why Onshape Works for Genesis Custom Sabers
To create truly custom blades, a lot of Rob’s design work is now done using Onshape, PTC’s cloud-based, computer-aided design and product data management platform. One of the advantages of using Onshape is you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on buying a software license, you don’t need to buy a special workstation, and you don’t need to use a Windows computer, and you don’t need to worry about a special graphics card. You can take whatever computer you are using – whether that’s a MacBook, a Chromebook, or an iPad – and get started. We deliver the professional-grade CAD capabilities, a new generation of data management, and it’s built right into any web browser that you could use. So that makes it perfect for Rob and his colleagues.
When Creativity Meets Capability
Rob’s work shows off some of the aspects of complexity that you can do with Onshape that professionals need. Now, it’s not as complex as other products we have, so there’s different aspects of complexity. In Rob’s case, he’s putting a lot of detail in and these parts are very intricate. So, when he designs a lightsaber, he wants to express that artistic design. This, along with the craftsmanship and detail of how they’re manufactured, is what makes his sabers stand out. Rob’s trying to create a feeling that his saber, which is an assembly of intricate parts, can almost give the user a feeling of transporting to somewhere else through its craftsmanship, its detail, its realism. And that is because of the complexity that Rob’s able to model in Onshape, both at the single-part level and at the assembly level.
Thanks to Jon, and to Rob for giving us a glimpse into the work of Genesis Custom Sabers.
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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Location recording by Jess Schmidt. And music by Rowan Bishop.