by David Meyer
If you've ever been in a Sharper Image, you've probably seen the slick prop reproductions of Luke Skywalker's and Darth Vader's lightsabers put out by ICONS. And, if you are like me, you probably didn't want to shell out $300 or more for them. When I found out that many Star Wars props were built using found objects, I had to try to find the parts and make my own.
When Star Wars first hit the theaters in the summer of 1977, one of the things that stunned the audience was the incredible special effects -- effects like no one had ever seen at that time. What made this even more amazing was the low budget that George Lucas was given to film his blockbuster. Given the budget he had, he didn't have the luxury of having props machined from scratch. Indeed, his clever staff was able to find commonplace items and turn them into convincing weapons and tools from a galaxy far, far way.
This article focuses on one such weapon - Darth Vader's lightsaber. It is intended to be a "how-to" piece, describing the steps to creating a convincing replica of the preferred weapon of Lord Vader. Throughout the article, I list places where you can find some of the pieces necessary to complete this project. Note that I have no affiliation of the places I mention in this article. I note them for your convenience.
You may have seen "officially licensed" prop replica lightsabers in The Sharper Image or other stores. While those sabers are very nice reproductions, they are machined rather than built from found objects. Completing this project will yield a more "authentic", and thus more satisfying, replica than the machined reproductions put out by ICONS.
Background on the Lightsaber
In the first Star Wars movie, Darth Vader's lightsaber had at least 3 variations. There were props that hung from the belt of Darth Vader as well as props used for the combat scene with Ben Kenobi.
The 2 variations seen hanging from Lord Vader's belt were based upon Heiland Synchronar and Heiland 3-cell flash tubes. These flashes were used in 1940's press cameras. If you look in movies with press photographers of that period, you will likely see a Heiland or a Graflex flash clamped to one or both sides of their cameras.
Both flashes hold 3 D-cells and look almost exactly alike. The main difference is that the rectangular slots on the side of the Synchronar have rounded corners and the slots on the Heiland 3-cell have sharp corners. Another difference is in the head of the flash. In the 3-cell, there is a spring that juts out, whereas the Synchronar has a black spring-loaded plastic piece with a small hex nut holding it in place.
(Head of Heiland 3-cell flash. Note the spring in the head of the flash.)
One other variation is the screw-on end cap. One flash has an octagonal end cap while the other one has a knurled end cap. Since I've seen Heiland flashes (Synchronars and 3-cells) with both styles of end caps, I don't consider one more "authentic" than the other. Either flash can be used to build a Darth Vader lightsaber and still be considered authentic. If you've seen the ICONS replica, you'll see that they use the Synchronar-style head and the knurled end cap. If you've seen the pictures in The Star Wars Chronicles, you'll see pictures of a Synchronar with the knurled end cap as well.
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