Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, Movie Props

In early September I started work on a Halloween costume: We have baby twins, a boy and a girl, and during the pregnancy (before deciding their real names) I took to calling them “Luke and Leia”. So, my plan for Halloween was to dress as their father, Darth Vader.
In the end, unfortunately, I didn’t get the costume done in time. Still, I’ve had a great time with the project. Star Wars is a beloved classic, an elaborate, fully-realized fantasy. If you take it a small piece at a time, a lot of it is deceptively simple: Wooden plaques with coin slots and rocker switches, metal boxes with lights and knobs and pieces of hose… But in the context of the movie, these props become real.
As a scale modeler, hobbyist, and perfectionist I am used to working at my own pace, and building things to stand up to pretty close scrutiny. Movie prop makers, on the other hand, have to deal with tight deadlines, but often with more relaxed standards as well. With a two-month schedule for this project, I had to adapt my work to something a bit closer to the prop-maker’s style: work faster, not sweat the small stuff, and avoid going back to rework things I’d already done. And still I didn’t finish in time… But it’s been a fun project.

Light Saber

When I first decided I wanted to be Darth Vader for Halloween, I imagined something much simpler (and lower-budget) than what I ultimately achieved. I thought perhaps I could spend $100 or so on an off-the-rack costume that would be… not great… Decent, perhaps? And I could give it a better helmet if necessary, rebuild or rewire features like the chest box or belt boxes if it wasn’t quite up to snuff, etc. This general philosophy is reflected in my decisions regarding the light saber.
My first thought for the light saber was that, for a Halloween costume, a toy light saber would probably be good enough. I might make some improvements to the hilt, hide some seams and give it a better paint job, but mostly leave well enough alone. I very well could have gone that route if not for one problem: the lightsaber I got was too short. As a result I decided to replace the blade tube with a new polycarbonate tube, and light it with “Neopixel” LEDs. Building light sabers is a very well-explored problem, and as with everything else on this project I had the benefit of other people’s hard work to help me along. Even so, I had a lot of difficulty diffusing the light from those LEDs. Too little diffusion results in visible “hotspots” when looking directly at a LED through the polycarbonate tube. Experienced saber builders have materials that solve this problem, but the only one of these I got was packing foam, and it just didn’t do the trick. I have had some success diffusing the light with styrene tube: when I get back to this project in the future I will try to see if the styrene tube lets enough light through, or if I should get a better difusion material.
My sequence of choices with regard to the saber has left me with a combination that’s not really ideal: I am committed to finishing the Neopixel blade, and that should be great when it’s done: but meanwhile this is mounted to a toy saber hilt that really doesn’t look great. I deemed the toy hilt good enough for Halloween, but now that the time crunch is over I should probably look into alternatives.

Chest Box

One of the first pieces of the project I began work on was the chest box: a square panel with blinking lights and switches that sits in the middle of Vader’s chest. I have heard that the original chest boxes were wooden, and some of the tutorials provide relatively easy approaches for creating the box shape in wood. I chose to work directly with styrene instead because it is more familiar to me. This probably wasn’t a great choice, I wound up spending a lot of time just creating the basic “wooden plaque” shape. However, my philosophy on this project is to avoid second-guessing such decisions.

Belt Boxes

For the rectangular boxes mounted on Vader’s belt there was less need to scratch build things: most of the parts were available commercially, and just had to be sourced, and assembled.

Belt Buckle

For the belt buckle, I used a laser cutter to cut the parts. For the most part this made the process of creating the part much faster, and produced a better-quality part. In retrospect, it would have been much better to cut other parts, like the rocker switch parts, using the laser as well. However there had been two unknowns that had dissuaded me from doing so: First, the laser I use is about an hour’s drive away. I didn’t want to spend two hours driving to use a machine, when I could spend the time at home making the parts myself. Second, I hadn’t cut styrene on the laser before, and I wasn’t sure it would work. As it was, using the laser to cut this thick styrene plate caused the material to melt, creating a “V”-shaped groove in the material rather than a clean cut. This meant more cleanup would be needed to get clean, perpendicular edges. However, even with the added difficulty of cleanup, the improved precision and cutting speed of the laser could have saved me a lot of time in those early stages of the project.


Through the first month or so of the project I made good headway on all the decorative pieces for the chest and belt. However, I was anxious to get some piece of the costume done. Moreover, I was becoming concerned because some parts of the costume hadn’t even been started yet.
I ultimately didn’t get very far with the armor. I built chest armor with the shoulder pauldrons from EVA foam, based on the “Vadermaker” plans found on Sith Training Temple. However I had trouble getting the parts to sit right on me, and I’d initially scaled them too large as well. I’ve since got them to the point where they sit pretty well on me, and I’ve made some alterations to try to improve the look, but ultimately I may just start the armor parts over again from the beginning.


Possibly the most intimidating part of the project for me was the cape. I feel at home working with styrene and electronics. When it comes to sewing, I don’t feel lost or clueless, I’ve done sewing projects before… But I am nevertheless a bit out of my element. There was a bit of intimidation factor as well: after spending so much on fabric I was a bit afraid to cut it. I lost two days on this project just trying to motivate myself to bite the bullet and start cutting fabric and sewing.
Initially I bought a different set of fabrics for the cape, trying to keep costs down but retain the proper weight of the cape. Later I discovered that the fabrics I’d bought were actually too small to make the cape anyway, so I returned them and found another fabric store, which had much better prices on materials that were much closer to what I actually needed.

As it became clear I wasn’t going to finish everything in time, I tried some last-ditch efforts to get the thing at least decently wearable… The chest box was the main obstacle, as I still haven’t mounted the metal rods to the rest of the box. Ultimately I had to face facts, the costume’s just not done yet. But it’s been a lot of fun, and I’ll have a great costume when I’m done.

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