This month, prop maker David Goldberg shares with us his build of a studio-scale replica of the Death Star laser tower from Star Wars. Previously, David covered sourcing his reference, creating a 3D model, and the core structure fabrication. Today is all about the finer details!
The original models built for the Star Wars films were detailed with hundreds of little parts taken from plastic model kits. These parts were often referred to as nernies or greeblies. This was the first time this approach to adding detail for film models had been used to such a great extent and it was one of the defining characteristics of the realistic "used hardware" look of the film. There are photographs of the ILM model shop back in the day showing entire walls stacked high with hundreds of model kit boxes. Models kits of all types and scales were used for "donor parts" but it seems there was a fondness for models of military subjects, especially tanks and other vehicles.
A great deal of time and effort has been spent by members of the Replica Prop Forum (The RPF), Studio Scale Modelers (SSM) and other online sites analyzing photos of the original models and tracking down precisely which parts from which kits were used for the added details. Some of these model kits are still in production and many more are available on EBay, although sometimes at extremely high cost! Other than purchasing the Mig 21 kit to use for the barrels, I decided I didn't want to spend what could amount to many hundreds of dollars purchasing all of the necessary donor kits, some of which are quite rare. Instead I decided to replicate many of the parts with 3D printing, laser cutting and scratch building. In the end, several 'authentic' parts were donated for use on this project by some of the very kind members of the RPF.
Before applying detail parts some additional layers of plating were needed. Styrene sheet, cut by hand, was used for this plating on the original models but I wanted the benefits of precision and speed that could be achieved using a laser cutter, and styrene doesn't laser cut cleanly, the edges tend to melt a little. Instead I laser cut the plating panels out of a material called Polybak, a cardboard sheeting which has been impregnated with resin to make it water resistant. Polyback is often used to back cabinet panels in moist locations and as a backer for thin wood veneering. It laser cuts beautifully and takes paint well.
I laser cut a series of panels to go on the top of the tower as well as a bunch of randomly sized rectangular panels that I could stick on the casework wherever desired. Before cutting, I applied double-faced adhesive tape to the back of the Polyback sheet so that to attach the parts all I would have to do was peel off the backing paper and stick the parts down. In additional to the plating, several custom parts were laser cut, some with partial surface etching to represent bolt heads and other details.