How does it get out of your head and into your hand?

Allan stands at his workbench contemplating a problem

How does it get out of your head and into your hand?

Technical ProcessAllan stands at his workbench contemplating a problem

One of the sentences I hear people say to me a lot is, “you know what you should make…[insert idea here]”. I used to groan when I would hear this, but not anymore. I had a really good think about why people are saying it to me and realised that it comes from a genuine desire to contribute. People are always excited when they say it, they want to participate and this is really cool. Of course, I can’t make everything that is suggested and there are several reasons for this. The obvious reason is time, or money, both are in short supply. This would be less of a problem if I were making it as a personal project. A less obvious issue is that this is my job. When I make something the finished item needs to meet certain criteria. Do I like making this new thing? Does it fit my portfolio of work? Is there a market for the item? Can I repeat the process reliably and it is this reliable, repeatable process that is more often than not the sticking point.

So, if the new idea does meet the criteria for development, how does it get out of my head and into my hand? The process goes a little bit like this.

  • New idea that I think is cool and amazing and I want so badly it burns.
  • Research, pictures, materials, sizing, colours, shapes, is this new and original, are others doing it, sketching, more research, talking to others about it and more research.
  • Prototyping, or as I like to call it, making all the mistakes.
  • Settling on the final design and process.
  • New thing, get in my hand.

New ideas come in thick and fast. This is great, mostly. The mostly part is that I have a development list as long as my arm and have to choose between them. Loki staff or Captain America helmet? Death Star globe or Batman bookcase? So I write them all down on my job board where they stare me in the face while I am in the workshop. They are in the back of my mind while I work on my current jobs. Eventually I pick one and off we go.

Research and choosing a new project overlap as I decide if something meets my criteria. When it becomes clear that I can make it and develop a reliable repeatable process, I begin my research in earnest. Let’s look at Mjolnir as an example. I knew I wanted one, badly, but which one did I want, a movie replica, something from the comics or perhaps a hybrid? I am a huge fan of comic book Thor so I decided on my own version of Mjolnir.

I have an underlying premise for all of the things I make. I want them to look great but feel better. I want them to come alive when held. I want them to evoke the child who traced Thor from comic books when he was a child. I want this hammer to feel like it was made for a God. With this in mind, I create some initial sketches for shape and size, all the while bearing in mind the types of materials I might use and the processes I might employ to manufacture the item. Thor’s hammer needed to be steel, it needed weight and it must be engineered to last. I wanted leather that would wear as it was handled and picked up over time. A surface finish that was interesting, after all, Mjolnir was forged in the heart of a dying star. For the prototype I chose mild steel. A laser cut box pattern that would be folded, welded and then phosphor coated to give it a deep grey uniform colour, much like in the comics. It was to have a leather wrapped, mild steel haft with stainless steel pommel, (the bit on the end of the handle) and a polished stainless steel collet at the base of the haft. In honour of the new Thor being a lady, the “Whosoever should hold this hammer…” quote, would say “SHE”, not “he”.

The first prototype was terrible. The welding was OK, the leather was too thin and wore very quickly, the phosphor coating was a dead grey, uniform and uninteresting, a block of dullness. It felt nice in the hand and was a nice shape but it wasn’t “right.”

So , I went back to the drawing board. Let’s try stainless steel, let’s try a few more surface finishes, what about heat treating at different temperatures? What would happen if I put it in a furnace at 450degrees celcius overnight? Grinding, polishing, oil quenching, a new pommel , different leather and what about that weight?

I finally settled on a boxier shape, I felt like it had more presence. The weight stayed about the same and could be made heavier if needed. Heat treated stainless steel using a blow torch gave me the ability to add variety to the finish, making each hammer unique. The pommel and collet were both engineered in place using stainless steel fasteners and I added a leather wrist strap. It was done, almost. It needed one more thing. I wanted to emulate the scrollwork on the hammer but I wanted something original. I commissioned an artist friend of mine to create a representation of Yggdrasil, the world tree, from Norse mythology. WOW, she did an amazing job and it is a feature of the hammer everyone loves. Nine life flowers representing the nine realms set amongst the branches of the world tree. BAM, we had arrived and it was glorious. This process took a little over three months. Three months where I hardly worked on other projects and had spent a whole bunch of time and money developing an idea I hoped people would like and want to buy. I had made several hammers that would never see the light of day, spent all my spare cash but as I hefted it in my hand for the first time, I knew it was worth it.

That is not where it stops though. The first of anything is not a reliable repeatable process. Each of these hammers is handmade and takes time. The first took three months, the next has to take a lot less time or I can’t make this and earn my pennies. The second third and fourth also took time as I got my processes down, learned from my mistakes and worked out a few kinks here and there. I am happy to say that those kinks have been worked out and I can offer Mjolnir in considerably less than 3 months if asked to make one. I love making them, the process is pretty smooth now. I know what I am doing and know the pitfalls. I know what can go wrong and how to fix it when it does. It might be time to develop something new, Loki staff anyone?

Next time; Ideas for projects new and never formed


Allan, AKA “The TARDIS Guy”

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