Doc Who : The Sonic Screw Driver
By Ron Daniels Jr.
Let me start out by saying that I don't work in any part of the Hollywood entertainment industry. I'm just an average Joe, well an average Ron, and I work for a major communication company currently as a contractor. My only real qualifications when it comes to movie props are that I've been an avid collector and sci-fi fan for over two decades, and when I want something I drive myself mad figuring out how to get it. My favorite prop from all of science fiction doesn't involve a lot of flash and bang, doesn't need a battery, and doesn't even need all that much paint. Any fan of the BBC's "Doctor Who" will know what the following two words mean: Sonic Screwdriver. I've wanted my own Sonic Screwdriver since the show first came to the states in 1980. I was 10 when I watched the first airing of the Tom Baker story "The Sun Makers." Well, I had to have that and the scarf, but the scarf was an easier catch, because I had friends that had the pattern and a mother that knew knitting.
I first bought a toy of the Sonic Screwdriver in 1986 but it was too large (+50% scale) and made of cheap plastic. It didn't do the trick. A couple of years later in 1988, a friend who was good with a wood lathe (and also a DW fan) offered to make me one. I felt closer to my goal but silver paint on wood still failed to satisfy my jones for this prop. By this time I had a good sized collection of Star Trek props (many of them work from Mr. Coyle's bench). By the mid-nineties and I still felt my collection wasn't complete because of a need for this prop. In 1995 I made the first step toward my goal, though, when I bought a lightsaber replica from Parks Sabers out of Texas.
While ordering my second lightsaber, Mr. Parks and I entered an easy rapport talking about props and collecting, and I mentioned to him that I had always wanted a metal rep of the Sonic Screwdriver from Doctor Who. He told me to send him a few pictures or design drawings and a description of what it was supposed to do, and he'd tell me if he could do it or not and give me a price quote. Inside of a week he said that if he could get in contact with a friend that lathed solid aluminum versions of the Sonic Screwdriver, he would try and put my designs of a 'working' version together for me. We discussed price and agreed. Then the wait began.
The design I had sent him was based on the sturdiest of the designs of the Sonic Screwdriver. There have been a multitude of revisions and appearance changes to the prop from the time of its first appearance in the series in the late sixties to it's death scene in the early eighties. Length, width, color and minor changes in shape occurred not only from one actor portraying the Doctor to the next but also from one story line to the next. Since the main character is a technological tinkerer it would make sense that there would be such a variation. The version I settled on was the prop built for use by Jon Pertwee's Doctor for the story "Frontier in Space." I did my research mainly by pouring through various Doctor Who source books for pictures and descriptions. Peter Haining has produced many works on the subject, as well as BBC books and FASA's old role-playing game. I also purchased videotapes that contained close-ups of the prop in question. The two videos I used the most to estimate measurements and function was the aforementioned story, "Frontier in Space," and the documentary, "More than 30 Years in the Tardis." I found a close-up shot of seven or eight seconds of Pertwee holding the prop out and only covering the very bottom with his fingers. The very extended grip allowed me a complete view of all but the bottom few inches of prop detail. I then examined the short segment on the sonic screwdriver in "More than " In it there is a replay of the final shot of the Sonic Screwdriver before it is destroyed in the story, "The Awakening." No one is holding the Sonic Screwdriver, due to the explosive charge used to destroy the prop, and it is similar in appearance to Pertwee's version. I had the last few inches confirmed in appearance. I estimated measurements and set to work on the hard part.
The next step proved to be some cranial work but not as bad as I thought (please pardon the pun). The Sonic Screwdriver is essentially a ratchet shaped wand with a grip end, a series of control bands that double as a trigger, and an emitter end. The hard part was figuring out how to reverse engineer the visual results into the mechanics that would be used in my prop replica. The central section, you see, slides down into the grip, but the emitter head does not move. In other words, the over all length of the prop does not change.
It didn't take much figuring before I realized I had to use a central shaft and spring arrangement. It's a simple aluminum tube that has the top and bottom of the prop fitted and then held in place with Allen set screws. The prop design is layered: a central shaft holds the emitter assembly on at the top and a flat stopper plate on the bottom. The next layer is the control sleeve and spring. I call it a sleeve, because it fits over the central shaft snugly. The sleeve is where Mr. Parks' wizardry on a metal lathe is most evident. He had to machine in the appearance of the control rings and the thumb grip ring, and his work is flawless. On the bottom of the shaft is a spring which allows the sleeve to return to place when not pulled down to appear 'in use.' Finally the outermost layer is the grip. Once again a little lathe work by Mr. Parks to give the appearance of an access cap on the bottom and another Allen screw to hold that in place.
After waiting over a month I received a call from Mr. Parks. He held the finished product in his hands and was going to send it to me the next morning. I've listened to him criticize his work due to a serious streak of perfectionism but even he sounded more than happy with about the end result of this project. I had to wait almost a week before a package arrived in the mail with my name on it and a Texas return address. I clawed open the box like a thing possessed and looked upon a perfect replica of a British Television Prop from many years ago. With spring loaded action and an anodized emitter head, I was a child of 10 once more pretending to be a 750-year-old Time Lord. The prop is still the prize of my collection among the phasers, the tricorders, the communicators, the lightsabers, the agonizer
I should guess the moral of the story here is that anyone with enough passion can design simple movie props. Please also note that my Sonic Screwdriver was made for me for my use. I have no intention of selling it, and because I'm not the artisan, cannot make any more. The only profit I sought in the construction of this prop replica is my own personal fulfillment of owning one.
As you'll see in the following images of my prop and the "real thing" from the show, all it takes is drive, contemplation, and asking real nicely someone more qualified to do the stuff you can't do. If you are a fan of the Doctor's Sonic Screwdriver or just want to add more trivial knowledge of the prop to your head then I recommend the following web sites:
The only people I know of that sell an aluminum lathed sonic screwdriver rep that is accurate. The listing is half way down the page and about $50. If you want a metal sonic screwdriver or want to try to replicate what I've done this is a good place to start.
This is Mr. Parks' own site where he sells custom Sabers. He's a very amiable man and his prices are great. I'm not sure if he'll still do custom work like he did in my case but it doesn't hurt to ask.
This is a site by high school student Brian Uiga dedicated almost entirely to the Sonic Screwdriver. Brian has a talent for making his own props, but he doesn't sell them because he only makes them for his own amusement. You can also find additional images of my prop replica on his page.
This is THE site for all information on all things to do with Doctor Who. Shaun Lyon's diligence in bringing all the events of Doctor Whos world to its fans is commendable beyond words. We're all waiting and hoping for the return of the series.
This is the web site of Chris Sutor, a talented digital artist with a taste for Doctor Who. The artist's rendering of the Sonic Screwdriver Prop was cheated by Chris included below.
For those of you who are wondering: I have my own web site at http://www.superlink.net/~edgelord.
Lastly; here are the images of my prop replica and some of the versions of the prop used on the show Doctor Who show over the years. My prop was built shortly after the Fox/BBC Doctor Who movie (1996) and the images of the prop I've provided from the show itself date from the '70's, '80's and one shot from the telefilm.
You can plainly see the lathe work that went into the prop as well as the securing screws. In the rightmost image you can see the prop 'in use' where the sleeve is pulled down by thumb and forefinger. The spring inside the grip forces the sleeve back into place when released.
These are shots of the actual prop from BBC's Doctor Who: