The Origin of My Model-Making Toolboxes

Adam explains how he designed his unique metal toolboxes and why they suit his building style.

(Buy Adam’s Modelmaking Toolbox poster in our online store.)

Back when I was a professional model-maker at Industrial Light & Magic, my specialty was hard-edged construction—spaceships, miniature sets, and architectural stuff. These objects were sometimes just 12 inches across yet needed enough detail to fill a movie screen. One, for example, was the background I made of the Tipoca City building for the Obi-Wan-Jango Fett fight in episode two of Star Wars.

This work required a fine eye for detail—and tons of tools. By the time I moved to MythBusters in 2003, I had well over 300 items in my model-making kit. Of course, I love tools. I also love arranging them, to the point where I came up with a name for my organizing metric: first-order retrievability. It’s a function of two particular parts of my personality.

One: I like to work fast. I despise not having the right tool or, worse, knowing I have it but not being able to find it. It’s a pointless delay that wrecks my pace—and mood.

Two: I’m obsessed with the form of a toolbox. The idea of a portable kit that has everything you might need ignites something inside me. It’s like Batman’s utility belt.

The setup you see here started out as two old doctor’s bags. I like the image of the traveling doctor, and I love antiques. But 50-year-old leather was no match for 50 pounds of tools. The bags failed soon after I started working at ILM.

I wanted to make an impression at my new job, so I spent an entire weekend remaking the bags out of aluminum. My supervisor suggested scissor lifts to keep them even with me when I was seated. He might have been joking, but I added them.

The finished boxes housed everything I needed, but I repeatedly rebuilt the insides until finally no tool had to be moved out of the way to get to another. That’s first-order retrievability. While I was enjoying the heaven that was the ILM model shop, it allowed me to be as fast, creative, and efficient as I wanted to be.

(This post originally ran on Wired.com in September 2012)

Editor’s Note: This awesome thread on The Replica Prop Forum documents one maker’s quest to recreate Adam’s toolbox. Adam drops by to offer more photos and some tips.

Comments (4)

4 thoughts on “The Origin of My Model-Making Toolboxes

  1. The overall look and design of these boxes looks like something straight from the mad scientist stereotype, or at least my stereotype. I would like to know some of the tools that are in the box or at least the ones that you find yourself using most often.

  2. I can just imagine Adam walking into M5 with one of the bags in his hands, his face a mask of seriousness.

    Then he gives the bag a quick snap-jerk and the scissor-lifts fall from the bottom of the bag in their concealed space, like a magician setting up shop on the street corner.

    Adam then turns to Jamie, bag resting comfortably at waist height next to him on it’s own, and says “Let’s get to work”

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