Making Slothfurnace Lightsaber Clamp Cards: An Interview with creator Bradley W. Lewis
Nothing completes the look of an Original Trilogy style lightsaber quite like a clamp card. Slothfurnace is one of the most popular clamp card makers around.
Although most Slothfurnace cards are painstakingly modeled after lightsaber clamp cards shown in the movies, the striking IMP Celebration 2017 SE instead takes design inspiration from Imperial corridor patterning.
SaberSourcing interviewed Slothfurnace creator Bradley W. Lewis about his lightsaber clamp card business.
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How did you become interested in constructing lightsabers and lightsaber clamp cards?
I’ve always loved Star Wars, since I was six years old. When I was a kid, lightsabers would be broomhandles and electrical tape. I tried making better ones from metal, but never had the tooling or training.
Around the time Master Replicas started producing screen accurate lightsaber collectibles, I really wanted one, but couldn’t justify the cost. I had a lathe in my garage, and started fitting bits together and trying to machine different things.
When I started seeing the Master Replicas sabers, I decided I could probably just make them myself. I started teaching myself how to machine things, in an attempt to improve my skills. Right about the time I got the job at BioWare as a VFX artist, I was in the middle of my first reveal chamber ANH Luke saber. I was tasked to create the saber assembly sequence the player sees on Tython when the first saber is granted in-game. I asked the powers that be what the inside of a lightsaber looked like. They responded with “make up something.” So I modeled in game what I was building in the garage. That got approved by Lucasfilm, and went into the game. The joy of contributing to Star Wars Canon in some small way has carried my love of creating sabers for the almost ten years since, till now.
What’s the story behind the name ‘Slothfurnace’?
It’s an old game project codename I came up with one day while working at Timegate Studios in Houston. We were sitting around in a group thinking about new projects to pitch to management, and someone looked at me and said, “Brad, what is your project name?” I turned to him and out of the blue started saying very slowly, … “Sloth… ff.. furnace..” as it came to me. “It’s where I burn lazy.” Right there on the spot, I knew I had something interesting, but it wasn’t till years later that I associated it with building lightsabers and props.
When I had built my first Obi FX saber, around 2008 or 2009, my friend Shay told me that if I’d put my lightsaber build photos up on a website, it might be popular. I had to think of a site name that wasn’t taken, and nobody had registered slothfurnace.com, so I snagged it, and started putting up build photos for different things I’d built. My friend submitted it to Slashdot, and it crashed my server with the traffic. I upgraded the hosting plan, and on I went posting build photos.
Can you describe your creative approach behind designing a new clamp card?
When I am doing a screen-accurate card, I try to gather as much photo reference for the actual part I can. I think about how it was made and if my manufacturer can get close to the original prop.
If I am doing a non-canon card such as the IMP-SWC 2017 card, I try and reference strong design elements present in the movies, that would translate well into the small form factor of the clamp card.
With both approaches, I have few things to work with such as the PCB substrate, the copper layer, the soldermask layer and the silkscreen layer. I attempt to create good art using those layers and thinking about the production methods needed to finalize the card so that it turns out high quality, and with a good aesthetic.
In addition to running Slothfurnace, you also do artwork for BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). How do you compare designing objects within SWTOR to real life objects like lightsabers and clamp cards?
I approach both aspects the same way, and sometimes the lines between both blur a bit. I try and design assets for SWTOR using the same approach the prop artists back in the 70s would have taken. Kit bashing, repurposing relatable objects in an out-of-context manner, and always weathering assets with a history.
As everything Star Wars should have a “lived in, functional” look. When I design a new weapon for SWTOR, often I will build it first in my garage out of real-world hardware and vintage components from the same era the prop department would have worked with. This usually yields an authentic “Star Wars” item, that I then model in 3D for the game. I’ve done this with the Derelict lightsaber, Mischief and Anarchy blasters, and the Entropy lightsaber as well as the latest Black Mamba saber, co-designed with Erik Hertzberg of Orbital Machining. If I build a new weapon or vehicle without making it first in real life, I refer to an extensive library of photo reference, and strive to recreate weathering, wear and history that happens to real world materials and visual effects that I apply to my models in 3D.
Aside from Slothfurnace IMP Celebration 2017 SE, most of your clamp cards are inspired by movie hilts. Any plans to develop more non-canon designs?
Yes, I enjoy the process of creating new things that are still “in universe” and I have one or two designs I need to get back to.
What clamp card installation tips would you give someone who wants to add a Slothfurnace clamp card on their lightsaber hilt?
Don’t worry about ruining it if you’re cutting or sanding it! They are not rare at all. The only time I have discontinued a card is when I’ve found that I can improve the design. Also, don’t be afraid of contacting me for custom work. I’ve had people ask me if I could do a complete solder job, or vintage age the card to match a certain color, or finish. I never mind people asking, and if I can do it, I try to. I want everyone to have their dream part if I can manage to make it.
How do you differentiate Slothfurnace clamp cards from lightsaber clamp cards made by other companies?
I think it comes down to quality in design and production. Personally, I try extremely hard to match screen accuracy as much as possible. I throw out a lot of cards that don’t measure up to my quality standards, as I want each card I send out to be the best possible card I can produce. If I wouldn’t think it’s worth putting on one of my sabers, I wouldn’t want someone else to have to use it either. I have a lot of respect for Roy at Wannawanga, and realize he offers the more transparent TFA cards, for example, that I can’t. There’s a few card designs I am not set up to produce, so I am glad there are other options for that one than me.
Which clamp card design is your favorite and why?
I’d say the Return of the Jedi V2. I’ve had prop friends of mine who have held the original prop from ROTJ and they’ve said my replica is as dead on accurate as it can be. I’ve never seen the actual prop in person, so it’s been nice to get those reports.
Slothfurnace.com states that whenever possible, the lightsaber clamp cards are “manufactured the same way the vintage PCBs were made”. How does the ‘old’ PCB manufacturing process compare to more modern methods?
I’ve had people tell me my cards are much like the circuit boards made in the mid-70s. Much of that is due to the manufacturing methods and materials selected, and much of it is the attempt to replicate the circuit board traces and styles and patterns used in that era. I’ve looked at a lot of old circuit boards and it’s interesting that as time goes on, there are design changes that evolve over time. Nailing a mid-70s look just takes study and diligence.
What’s your favorite lightsaber from Star Wars Canon or Legends and why?
My favorite saber would probably be the Obi saber from A New Hope. That saber was the ultimate kit bash and “rob the parts bin” conglomeration. And it turned out uniquely beautiful.
What’s next for you?
Next up, I’d like to enter the Vader’s Vault competition coming up, if I think I can pull off a big build in six months while balancing a full time job and raising my two girls. We’ll see.
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