"I guess somewhere deep down I always wanted to be a toymaker," Murphy tells me across the island in his kitchen. Except for the rack of lightsabers by the couch and the detailed blueprints and sample materials sitting on the counter, it feels like any suburban home in America. "Even though I originally wanted to build cars, those are just big toys. More dangerous. More money." His eyes shift mischievously, and he laughs. "This is something that’s much more unique."
Unique doesn’t even begin to cover it. For the past 10 years, Murphy’s made his living building LED-powered lightsabers, and the internal chassis that make them tick. The forums on his website, FX Sabers, are part of a thriving custom lightsaber scene, where designers, engineers, "sabersmiths," and DIY tinkerers all collaborate in the name of building the ultimate Star Wars movie prop.
For Murphy it started in 2005, when he was hit with back-to-back medical injuries and found himself unable to work, couch-ridden for more than a year. "One of the things I could do was get online," he tells me. At the time, the internet was still obsessed with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and a company called Master Replicas had set a new standard for collectible sabers with primitive light-up blades and sound. "My son had found some pictures of the Master Replica things online, in this little dinky discussion forum where people were talking about stuff."
That "dinky discussion forum" was FX Sabers, and as Murphy and son bonded over lightsabers, he joined a community that was initially focused on helping owners repair and upgrade the licensed collectables. He quickly took on a more active role, eventually taking over the site entirely — that’s when he started going by "Master Yoda" — just as the community’s ambitions were beginning to grow.
At the time, hardcore fans had already been taking matters into their own hands for years. Connecting through sites like The Replica Prop Forum, people would break down precisely how movie props were built so they could recreate screen-accurate items for everything from Star Trek to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The same thing was happening with lightsabers, with some pioneering individuals going so far as to sell their own inspired-by designs or build replicas that were even more accurate than the licensed products. Murphy’s personal obsession, however, was the original Luke Skywalker saber, referred to in the community as The Graflex.
It’s important to remember that when George Lucas made Star Wars back in the ‘70s, it was a fairly low-budget film, and everything from the X-wings to the blasters were made from cannibalized model kits and other found parts. One of the items that the production had the hardest time nailing down were the lightsabers, until set decorator Roger Christian came across a box of camera flashes from the 1930s and ‘40s. The company that made them? Graflex.
The flash’s odd combination of metal swoops, curves, and clips instantly called to mind the retro-future aesthetic the film was going for. Christian stuck a strip of bubbles pilfered from an old Texas Instruments calculator into the flash’s clamp, added a D-ring at the bottom, and topped it off with some grips. That was the original lightsaber.
'Star Wars' fans have become notorious in the camera-collecting world
By the early 2000s, Star Wars disciples were tracking down old Graflex flashes to such a degree that they’d become notorious in the camera-collecting community, but those mostly ended up as bladeless hilts that would just sit on a shelf and look pretty. Murphy, however, was interested in taking the electronics from the latest toys and putting them inside the vintage flash for a replica that could be used for dueling or cosplay. Creating a screen-accurate vintage lightsaber complete with light-up blade and interactive effects demanded an internal system custom-designed for the 70-year-old antiques.
"It was something that was born out of my previous radio control car experience, where you need to have a chassis that can house your electronics," he says. "One night, about 3 o’clock in the morning, I was coming up with what I wanted to put in the hilt, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa was on The History Channel. And I said, ‘Well that’s what I need to do. I need to take all of my flattened [RC car chassis] ideas, and turn them into a cylindrical [system].’" The resulting combination of aluminum poles and plastic discs provided a rigid structure that protected and cushioned the electronics in the sabers — but most importantly for Murphy’s own contributions to the hobby, it would provide room for what is known as a crystal chamber.
I’m not going to lie: I’ve followed Star Wars since I was a kid, and when I first heard about crystal chambers they seemed a step too far even for me. According to official lore, lightsabers are powered by Force-infused crystals, and while they never appear in the movies there is a reference book known as the Star Wars Visual Dictionary that features a lightsaber cross-section. That design — complete with crystal chamber — is truly compelling, and feels ripped right from the fabric of the films. Using it as a general inspiration, Murphy created a vintage Graflex Luke lightsaber with removable blade and sound, that also featured a glowing crystal chamber. It was crude, assembled with a modified light-up tire valve stem, but it was a turning point in the community. It sold on eBay for $3,900, a huge bump over the roughly $800 worth of parts it was made from.
"It was the functional look of having something that tied the mystical aspect into the technological aspect," Alan Johnson, one-half of the husband and wife team behind lightsaber manufacturer Vader’s Vault, tells me over the phone. "People want to see that; they want to pull back the veil and see the mystical aspects to the technology. And when you see his early crystal chambers, they gave people that spark."
Chambers have gone on to become one of the ways that artists and designers in the hobby distinguish themselves creatively, and it’s often the difference between high-end custom sabers — costing thousands of dollars — and cheaper "stunt" sabers that are meant to be bashed around. Today you can find anything from a 3D-printed chamber to intricate, hand-machined options, available in practically every style of lightsaber you can imagine. But over the years Murphy’s Graflex chamber has become his hallmark, evolving from that relatively primitive first design into its sophisticated modern incarnation that uses quartz crystals that have been drilled underwater so they can be lit up with a series of fiber optics. The work is stunning, in total aesthetic harmony with both the reference illustrations and the original trilogy itself. "Mike’s the progenitor of this whole thing," Johnson says. "Since then, a lot of people have done a lot more elaborate and detail-oriented crystal chambers, but his is still the classic. If you want to buy what it looks like in the Visual Dictionary, Mike Murphy’s Yoda Graflex is the way to go."
But meeting the needs of hardcore fans requires more than just design and lights. A lightsaber has to actually feel like it’s a working device pulled from that world, reacting to swings, movement, and clashes with aural and visual feedback that’s so familiar it’s burned into our collective cultural consciousness. At the same time Murphy’s designs were evolving, an engineer in France named Emmanuel Fléty was iterating on a motion-sensing sound and lighting system to solve that exact problem, setting a new standard for the custom lightsaber world.
"A lightsaber spun on stage is very close to musical expression."
Fléty, who goes by the pseudonym of Erv Plecter (online handles are still very much a thing in the community), works at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in Paris. Early in his career he became focused on creating low-latency, gesture-based musical interfaces for live performances, and when he got interested in making replica lightsabers his background was the perfect fit. "A lightsaber spun on stage is very close to musical expression, and you would expect it to react in real time just as if you were playing an instrument," he tells me over Skype. "There’s motion, there’s interaction, there’s latency. Obviously sound is a very big part of the lightsaber."
The soundboard is the heart of a modern custom lightsaber, powering the LEDs that illuminate the polycarbonate blade, tracking motion so it vrooms or clashes appropriately, and flashing the blade brighter when it hits another saber in combat. What first started as Fléty making a small batch of boards for the community has evolved into a mini-business, with a full line-up of Plecter Labs boards available ranging from $50 to $160 — even while he still builds the bulk of them in his basement (he recently added a production partner for US distribution). Using a lightsaber with one of his products is responsive and realistic, particularly compared to what’s available from Hasbro today. The lightsaber sound can change depending on the type of swing or angle of attack, the LED-powered blades can turn any color of the rainbow, and systems equipped with a microSD slot let users change sounds and tune everything from the sensitivity of the gyroscopic sensors to the flicker of the blade.
With so many options and manufacturers, the learning curve is steep, and it’s up to the forum communities to protect those new to the hobby. Companies like Plecter Labs, Vader’s Vault, and the UK-based JQ Sabers have earned sanctioned homes in the FX Sabers forums, a model that’s spread to other online saber communities like Imperial Royal Arms. There, a recent run based on Luke Skywalker’s Return of the Jedi lightsaber took community collaboration even further with a cross-continental team-up that saw Michigan-based manufacturer Solo’s Hold joining forces with a French chassis designer and a variety of other manufacturers and installers throughout the US.
But despite the richness of the community, these are still manufacturers used to servicing a niche fanbase, and they’ve found themselves crushed under the weight of the new Star Wars renaissance. Vader’s Vault sold between 200-300 sabers in 2014, Alan Johnson tells me; that number jumped to 1,200 last year during the build-up to The Force Awakens. In 2016, the company hit 1,000 orders in the first two months alone. It’s a similar story across the hobby: Plecter Labs boards sell out in hours, while modular parts manufacturer The Custom Saber Shop is backordered on a vast majority of its stock. Meanwhile, renewed interest in the Skywalker saber specifically has caused vintage flash prices — which used to top out in the $150 range — to go through the roof. "Today a vintage Graflex flash on eBay will retail anywhere from $200 to $300 for something that’s really rusted and not something that I can convert, up to $1,000 for something that’s in pristine condition," Murphy stresses. "That’s just the flash itself." For completed, high-end sabers, there’s seemingly no limit at all, with Murphy’s most recent saber selling on eBay for over $15,000.
Murphy's latest lightsaber design sold for over $15,000
It may seem like Lucasfilm and Disney are leaving money on the table by not filling this crazy demand themselves — and to be sure, almost everyone in the custom-saber scene takes careful steps to make sure they don’t run afoul of any corporate interference. Their websites all point out that they are not affiliated with Lucasfilm in any way, shape, or form, and even someone like Murphy — who is simply modifying a physical item that was made 80 years ago instead of replicating an original design — is careful to refer to his creations as "FX sabers" or "illuminated sabers." But perhaps it’s just a case of Lucasfilm understanding that these hand-made items serve a market that a mass-produced product never could, because while the studio didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story, it has certainly relied on the custom saber community when it's suited its needs.
Johnson says Disney Imagineering and Lucasfilm have reached out to him and other sabersmiths to pick their brains in the past — The Force Awakens actually used LED sabers on set, instead of the primitive metal rods in most previous films — and products from Vader’s Vault and budget manufacturer Ultra Sabers have shown up in official videos for Disneyland attractions. Foodles Productions Ltd., the production entity used to disguise The Force Awakens shoot, even turned to the fan prop-building world for sourcing parts. Several Graflex flashes were purchased (presumably for the rebuilt Skywalker saber that appears in the film), as well as the brand of antique flash gun that served as the basis for Darth Vader’s lightsaber. (According to sources, the production was also interested in some of the vintage parts used to cobble together Obi-Wan Kenobi’s weapon from the original Star Wars — Ewan McGregor fans hungry for a spin-off, make of that what you will.)
'The Force Awakens' bought lightsaber parts straight from the fans
There’s beautiful symmetry to the idea that a film wanting to to return to the old-school way of doing things — like building props out of 80-year-old found parts — turned to the fans that never abandoned those principles to make it happen. For someone like Michael Murphy, The Force Awakens was a call to action. "I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve gotta go to work!’" he laughs. With demand for vintage items now so high, multiple manufacturers in the custom-saber world are creating new Graflex flash replicas, so he’s turning his attention toward chassis kits that will allow fans, and other sabersmiths, to build their own Graflex lightsabers. Because while an auctioned saber may go for thousands of dollars, that path is inherently limited — not just due to the market size for something so expensive, but for the sheer amount of time it takes to create them in the first place. A DIY chassis kit, on the other hand, hearkens back to the RC cars that inspired Murphy as a young man, and provides a canvas for young builders to express themselves, instead. Or perhaps it’s something even more personal. As Murphy describes a customer that built a lightsaber with their child, I can’t help but think back to the events that originally brought him to the hobby in the first place: a bonding moment between a father and a son.
"People believe in The Force. People believe in Star Wars," he tells me. "I’m serving those fans, and it’s a noble service to be in. And hopefully we will be here as long as Star Wars. Until this becomes a galaxy a long time ago, far, far away."