Saber For the Dark Side
The 3rd variation was used for the melee combat scene with Ben Kenobi. For combat scenes, a rod wrapped in reflective tape was attached to the lightsaber hilts. The problem with the Heiland flash was that they couldn't reliably get the rod stuck in the flash tube. They decided to modify a Graflex 3-cell flash (also used as the basis of Luke Skywalker's lightsaber) instead. For this article, I chose to use a Heiland 3-cell flash as the basis for the saber because the Graflex version would have required considerable machining.
You will need the following materials to complete this project:
- Heiland 3-cell or Synchronar flash with black reflector shroud
This is the main component of the lightsaber. It can be found at camera shows and some photo dealers. This used to be a fairly common item, but lately they've become more difficult to find. You can find dealers that deal in large-format equipment in Shutterbug magazine. If you're patient, a Heiland can be had for $35, but if you're not, be prepared to pay $75-$150 for it. Unfortunately, most dealers know that Heiland (and Graflex) flashes were used to make lightsabers, so be prepared for a long wait if you decide to hold out for a bargain. When you buy a flash, be sure the flash comes with the black shroud (which is used to connect the reflector to the flash). There were two variations of the shroud. The one you want is approximately 2-3/4" long from the tip of the head to the base. The one you don't want is about 1-1/2" long. Also, if you want to use the stock Heiland clamp, you'll want to be sure the flash comes with the clamp as well.
- Heiland flash clamp
- materials to scratchbuild your own clamp
The clamp was used to affix the flash to the side of a press camera. In this case, it will be used to hold the calculator "bubble" display or circuit board and is affixed to the center of the flash. I've seen replicas built using the stock Heiland clamp, but this clamp is about 3/4" shorter than what was used in the movies. The problem is that if you decide to use the calculator bubble piece, you'll find that only 3 or so bubbles fit into the clamp, which doesn't look right. I've chosen to scratchbuild my own clamp. If you have access to a drill press and some basic tools, this shouldn't be too difficult. If you don't, you can either use the Heiland flash clamp, or buy a machined clamp that others have made. Be prepared to pay $40 for a machined clamp if you can't build your own. You can buy one from EDC Studios at http://members.aol.com/edcarmory.
- black vinyl cloth
This is wrapped around the flash clamp (whether custom made or stock). The clamp part is left exposed, with only the band that wraps around the flash being covered.
- calculator display bubble a 1970s LED calculator
- connector edge from a computer card that fits into a 44-connector bus.
The display piece out of a 70s LED calculator was used in the first Star Wars movie. It is simply a 1/2"x 2" piece of plastic with 8-11 bubbles on them. These magnified the numbers of the older LED calculators so they could be read. This piece was used as the "activator switch" and was slid into the clamp that was affixed to the center of the flash. You can often find LED calculators at resale shops and flea markets. Unfortunately, will need to destroy the calculator to get the plastic bubble piece out. If you can, find a cheap Texas Instruments model, as these bubbles are easier to work with than some others. Stay away from HP calculators. The bubble display has raised edges on the top and back of the display piece making it too thick to slide into the clamp without heavy modification. You should be able to get an appropriate calculator for around $5-10.
- 1 or 2 tubes of plumber's epoxy putty for the 6 hand grips
The original lightsabers (both Luke's and Darth Vader's) used windshield wipers from a British vehicle for the 6 handle grips affixed around the bottom of the flash. In "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi", the windshield wipers were replaced with cast grips. The correct windshield wipers are difficult, if not impossible to come by, so I chose to use plumber's epoxy putty to cast my own grips. In the first movie, the windshield wipers tended to fall off of the flash because the handle is rounded, but the backs of the wipers were flat. For the later movies, the wipers were replaced by grips cast in resin. The backs of the grips were rounded so they would stick to the flash handle more securely. The kind of putty you need to use comes in clear plastic tubes with caps on both ends. The putty comes in a roll, with two colors. The center is one color and the outside is a different color. You mash the putty until the putty turns one uniform color. This stuff starts to cure in 5 minutes and is rock hard within 15-20 minutes. Oatey's is a popular brand, but there are several others that will work just as well. The putty will cost you about $8 for enough to do 6 grips. You can find plumbers putty at most hardware stores and home improvement centers such as HQ, Home Depot, or Builder's Square.
If you really must have rubber grips, EDC Studios makes a set of extruded rubber grips that can be used for handle grips. These will cost you about $20 for a set of 6.
- a roll of double-sided tape
This is used to affix the vinyl cloth to the flash clamp and to affix the handle grips to the flash. 3M VHB (very high bond) is the best tape to use, but it costs $50 a roll and can only be purchased through industrial catalogs. The standard double-sided tape found at the local hardware store will work as long as you've shaped the back of the handle grips to fit the flash. The tape will cost you about $2-3, which will be enough for plenty of grips.
- 2 sheets of basswood (3/16" thick and 3/32" thick) for mold
If you choose to make your own grips, you will need to build a mold from basswood. This can be found at most hobby and craft stores in a large display box which contains assorted thicknesses of wood. Be sure you get basswood and not balsa. Balsa will work, but the mold will not hold up to more than 3 castings. If you mess up a casting and need to do more, your mold will be done before you are. Basswood will hold up for several castings as long as you wax the mold. In addition to basswood, you will need a solid, smooth piece of plywood. I found a 12" circular piece at the hardware store for about $7. The basswood cost me about $4.
- D-ring used for hanging pictures for hanging the saber from your belt
The D-ring you need can be found at a hardware store. You need one designed to be bolted to a picture frame. They usually come in packs of 2-4 and shouldn't cost more than $2.
If you decide to scratchbuild a flash clamp, you'll need:
- 1/4" zinc-plated steel bar
You will find this in the industrial section of your local hardware store. Often, there will be a display of several lengths and thicknesses of metal bars, rods, and u-channels. The one I used is 1 foot in length. You will need to cut two 2" lengths from it with a hacksaw. One of the lengths will have a 8/32" hole drilled through the center of it. The other will be tapped with a 6/32" tap so that it can accept a machine screw. The bar will cost about $1.50. If you don't want to hacksaw it yourself, you might be able to con the person at the hardware store to do it for you.
- package of thin K&S aluminum sheet (.02 or thinner)
Hobby shops and some hardware stores stock K&S aluminum sheet. Look for a display stand with lots of small metal rods, squares, and sheets. Make sure you get sheet that is thin enough to bend easily by hand. It will be cut using metal snips and then bent in several places, gradually acquiring the shape of a Graflex-style clamp. Be sure you don't get a sheet that is too thick. If it's too thick, you will have a terrible time bending it unless you have tools specifically designed for folding metal. This will cost about $3-4, which will give you enough to make about 4 clamps, should you need them.
- 6/32" x 1/2" phillips machine screw
This will be used to affix the clamp to the flash. You can get them in packages of 5-10 for about $1.
- 1 foot length of PVC pipe, about 1/4" around
This will be used to round the back of the cast grips so that they conform to the shape of the flash.
- 400 grip wet/dry sand paper and flat black paint
Building the lightsaber
Now that you've acquired the materials you need to build the lightsaber, we'll get started.
Preparing the Flash
First we'll prepare the flash tube. Assuming your flash came with the reflector, you'll need to remove it from the black shroud. The reflector is attached by two rods held in place by thumb screws. Remove the screws and the reflector will slide out of the shroud. Set it aside...you never know if you ever want to use the lightsaber as a flash again. None of the modifications, by the way, disable the flash. It can easily be used as a flash again should the mood strike you.
Take the center clamp off if your flash came with one. It is held in place with a single Phillips screw. It's easiest to take off the end cap and slide it off the bottom. Some flashes come with multiple brackets. You will want to remove them and stick with the single black clamp that comes with the flash. They are usually affixed with one small screw each.
Unless you managed to get a pristine flash, you'll probably have to clean up the flash a bit. Many of these tubes have stickers and foil tape on them. You'll want to remove the tape and clean up the sticky spots using metal polish.
If your shroud is flaking paint, you may want to give it a coat of flat black paint. If it's in pretty good shape, you can leave it as it is. A little chip here and there give it a nice weathered look anyway.
You will notice that there are 3 sets of slots towards the top of the flash. These are where the synch cords are plugged in. They may be labeled, or even covered, with stickers...again, remove these before you start working on the flash. Also note that the slots may be tan or brown instead of black. If you want, you can remove the inside guts of the flash and paint it black, which is the cleanest way to do it. To remove the guts, you should first take off the shroud, which is held in place by the top thumb screw. Then you need to take out the screw at the top of the flash on the plastic piece with the red button. The plastic piece with the button will lift off and the inside piece will slide out of the tube. You may need to unscrew the bottom cap and push the inside piece through the top with a long screwdriver. This piece can be painted and put back in and reaffixed to the flash again. If you plan on using this flash again for it's original purpose, I'd recommend against doing this.
Making the Belt Ring
Next, you need to take the D-ring assembly and use a flathead screwdriver to bend open the strip of metal that holds the D-ring in place. Take a pair of metal snips and cut off one side of the metal strip up to where it encircles the D-ring. Bend it back again so that the D-ring is encircled again by the partial metal strip. Now, use the snips again to trim the other strip down to about 3/4" in length (see the illustration below). Now, put the shroud back on and put the screw through the hole in the D-ring assembly so that the D-ring points towards the top of the flash. Screw the shroud back down on the flash.
Making the clamp
Next, if you plan on using the Heiland clamp that came with your flash as the center activator switch, you should put it back on the flash (assuming you took it off when you cleaned up the flash). Make sure that the clamp is about at the center of the flash.
If you don't want to use the stock clamp, you can build your own. If you don't have access to a drill press and a good bench vise, you will probably not want to try this. If you don't like the Heiland clamp, you can either try scavenging a Graflex clamp (good luck) or buy a fabricated clamp from EDC Studios. If, after all that, you decided to stick it out with me, read on.
To make the band of the clamp, you'll need to bend the aluminum strip so that it resembles a Graflex clamp. First, take the sheet of aluminum out and measure off a 2" wide x 6-5/8" long strip. Use a good pair of metal snips to cut the strip to size. Next, you will mark 4 lines across the end of the strip using the measurements illustrated below. The one closest to the end of the strip is 1/8". The next one is also 1/8". The last two measurements are 1/4". Do this for both ends. These lines mark where you will be bending the aluminum. Each bend will be 90 degrees. When you've done each side, bend the aluminum strip around your flash and make it so that the final 1/4" bends on each side of the strip mate. See the following illustrations for how the aluminum strip will look once all of the bends have been done.
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