We set out on a search to discover the ultimate Skywalker saber.
Yoda shows me how to fight with a lightsaber in a suburb 30 miles outside of Sacramento, California.
Yoda is the online moniker for Michael Murphy, a 43-year-old artist who makes a living making high-end custom lightsabers, like the ones we’re using, but that doesn’t make the lesson any less intense.
My blue blade cuts through the air with an unmistakable thrum as I take a step forward. Our sabers clashing hot white, my strike is quickly parried.
He pivots, his blade twirling behind his back as he performs a 360-degree twist that reminds me of Ewan McGregor.
He swings his saber straight for my head, and I can’t help but think two things as I raise my saber to block: This is most likely how Daisy Ridley felt, and I want to get myself one of these.
Murphy tells me across his kitchen island, “I think somewhere deep down I have wanted to be a toymaker.”
Except for the lightsabers on the couch and the extensive blueprints and sample materials on the table, it looks like any other American suburban home.
“Those are just big toys, even though I originally wanted to create cars. More perilous. More capital is required.” He smiles and shifts his eyes mischievously. “This is something that’s a lot more one-of-a-kind.”
The word “special” doesn’t even come close to describing it. Murphy has made a living constructing LED-powered lightsabers and the internal chassis that keep them running for the past ten years.
According to the forums on his website, FX Sabers, designers, architects, “saber smiths,” and DIY tinkerers all cooperate in the name of making the ultimate Star Wars movie prop.
Murphy’s journey began in 2005, when he suffered back-to-back medical conditions, rendering him unable to function and stranding him on the couch for more than a year.
“Getting online was one of the things I could do,” he says. Master Replicas had set the benchmark for collectible sabers with simplistic light-up blades and sound at the time when the internet was already obsessed with the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
“Some pictures of the Master Replica items had been found online, in this little dinky discussion forum where people were talking about stuff,” my son explained.
FX Sabers was the “tiny chat forum.” As Murphy and his son bonded over lightsabers, he became a part of a group that was initially focused on helping owners fix and update their licensed collectibles.
He soon assumed a more active role, ultimately taking over the web entirely — at which point he adopted the moniker “Master Yoda” — just as the community’s aspirations were growing.
Hardcore fans had been taking matters into their own hands for years at the time. People will connect via forums like The Replica Prop Forum to dissect how movie props were made so they could recreate screen-accurate replicas for anything from Star Trek to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The same thing happened with lightsabers, with some early adopters also selling their inspired-by designs or building replicas that were even more accurate than the approved ones.
Murphy’s fascination, on the other hand, was the original Luke Skywalker saber, dubbed “The Graflex” by the community.
It’s important to note that Star Wars was a low-budget film when George Lucas made it in the 1970s, and everything from the X-wings to the blasters was made from cannibalized model kits and other found pieces.
The lightsabers were one of the most challenging things for the production to find before set decorator Roger Christian stumbled across a box of camera flashes from the 1930s and 1940s. What was the name of the company that made them? Graflex is a brand of Graflex.
The flash’s strange mix of metal swoops, curves, and clips immediately reminded me of the film’s retro-futuristic aesthetic.
Christian inserted a strip of bubbles from an old Texas Instruments calculator into the flash’s clamp, attached a D-ring at the rim, and finished it off with grips.
The first lightsaber looked like this. By the early 2000s, Star Wars fans had become infamous in the camera-collecting community for tracking down old Graflex flashes, but most of them ended up as bladeless hilts that would only sit on a shelf and look beautiful.
Murphy, on the other hand, was interested in incorporating the new toys’ electronics into a retro flash for a reproduction that could be used for dueling or cosplay.
An internal device custom-designed for the 70-year-old antiques was needed to create a screen-accurate vintage lightsaber complete with a light-up blade and interactive effects.
‘Well, that’s what I need to do,’ I said. All of my flattened [RC car chassis] concepts must be transformed into a cylindrical [system].'”
The resulting structure of aluminum poles and plastic discs provided a rigid structure that shielded and cushioned the electronics in the sabers, but more importantly, it provided space for what is known as a crystal chamber, which was Murphy’s own contribution to the hobby.
I won’t lie: I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was a child, and crystal chambers seemed like a step too far even for me when I first learned about them.
Lightsabers are powered by Force-infused crystals, according to official legend, and although they never appear in the movies, there is a reference book called the Star Wars Visual Dictionary that includes a cross-section of a lightsaber.
The style, complete with crystal chamber, is truly captivating, and it looks like it was plucked from the pages of the movies.
Murphy built a vintage Graflex Luke lightsaber with a removable blade and tone, as well as a glowing crystal chamber, using it as inspiration.
It was crudely put together with a modified light-up tire valve stem, but it marked a watershed moment in the city. It went for $3,900 on eBay, a significant increase from the $800 in parts it was made from.
Alan Johnson is one half of the husband and wife team that produced the lightsaber maker Vader’s Vault; tells me over the phone,
“It was the practical look of doing something that tied the magical element into the technical aspect.”
“People need to see that; they want to see the magical facets of technology by pulling back the curtain. And it’s simple to consider why when you see his early crystal chambers.”
Chambers have since evolved into one of the ways that hobby artists and designers differentiate themselves creatively, and they’re often the difference between high-end custom sabers that cost thousands of dollars and cheaper “stunt” sabers that are intended to be bashed around.
Today, you can get anything from a 3D-printed chamber to detailed, hand-machined choices in almost every type of lightsaber you can speak.
But Murphy’s Graflex chamber becomes his signature over the years, evolving from a simple first concept to a sophisticated new version that uses quartz crystals that have been drilled underwater and illuminated with a series of fiber optics.
The art is beautiful, and it is in perfect visual harmony with the reference illustrations as well as the original trilogy.
“Mike’s the one who started it all,” Johnson says. “Many people have since created even more intricate and detail-oriented crystal chambers, but his remains the classic.
However, meeting the demands of hardcore fans necessitates more than just aesthetics and lighting.
A lightsaber must sound like a working device plucked from that universe, responding to swings, movement, and clashes with aural and visual input so recognizable it’s burned into our collective cultural consciousness.
Emmanuel Fléty, a French engineer, was iterating on a motion-sensing sound and lighting device to solve the exact problem at the same period Murphy’s designs were emerging, setting a new standard for the custom lightsaber environment.
Fléty works at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in Paris under the username Erv Plecter (online handles are still very much a thing in the community).
Early in his tenure, he became interested in developing low-latency, gesture-based musical interfaces for live performances, and his experience was a great match when he became interested in making replica lightsabers.
“A lightsaber spun on stage is very similar to musical speech, and you would expect it to respond in real-time just like an instrument,” he says over Skype.
“Motion, contact, and latency are all present. Obviously, sound plays an important role in the lightsaber.”
The soundboard powers the LEDs that illuminate the polycarbonate sword tracks motion, so it vrooms or clashes accordingly and flashes the blade brighter when it collides with another saber in battle.
What began as Fléty building a small batch of boards for the group has grown into a mini-business, with a full line of Plecter Labs boards ranging in price from $50 to $160 — all while he continues to manufacture the majority of them in his house (he recently added a development mate for US distribution).
Using a lightsaber with one of his items is sensitive and practical, particularly when compared to Hasbro’s current offerings.
The sound of the lightsaber can change depending on the type of swing or angle of attack, the LED-powered blades can transform any color of the rainbow, and systems with a microSD slot allowing users to customize everything from the gyroscopic sensor sensitivity to the blade flicker.
The learning curve is steep with so many choices and suppliers, and it’s up to the forum groups to protect those new to the hobby.
Plecter Labs, Vader’s Vault, and the UK-based JQ Sabers have all found a home in the FX Sabers forums, a model that has spread to other online saber communities such as Imperial Royal Arms.
There, a recent run based on Luke Skywalker’s Return of the Jedi lightsaber went even further with a cross-continental partnership that saw Michigan-based manufacturer Solo’s Hold team up with a French chassis designer as well as a host of other manufacturers and installers around the US.
Despite the community’s richness, these are only manufacturers used to catering to a small fanbase, and they’ve been suffocated under the weight of the modern Star Wars revival.
According to Alan Johnson, Vader’s Vault sold 200-300 sabers in 2014, but that figure increased to 1,200 last year during the build-up to The Force Awakens.
In the first two months of 2016, the company received 1,000 orders. It’s a similar story around the hobby:
Plecter Labs boards sell out in minutes, while The Custom Saber Shop’s modular parts are back-ordered for the most part.
Meanwhile, revived interest in the Skywalker saber has driven up the price of vintage flash — which used to be in the $150 range — to new heights.
“Today, a vintage Graflex flash on eBay will cost anything from $200 to $300 for something that’s really rusted and can’t be converted, up to $1,000 for something in perfect condition,”
Murphy says. “That’s just the flash itself,” says the narrator. There seems to be no cap for finished, high-end sabers, with Murphy’s most recent saber selling on eBay for over $15,000.
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