TAIPEI: Frustrated by the lack of quality lightsabers in toy shops, Makoto Tsai did what any self-respecting hardcore Star Wars fan would do — he studied engineering at college and then spent years perfecting a replica.
The 36-year-old is part of a small group of artisans around the world who have forged successful careers hand-crafting remarkably realistic models of the movie saga’s famous energy swords.
As fans gather globally on May 4th for what has become the unofficial Star Wars Day — this year mourning the death of towering Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew — many will be clutching one of Tsai’s lightsabers, made in his workshop near Taipei.
In the past decade he has shipped around 1,000 blades to some 40 countries as diverse as the United States, France and Cuba to Peru, Iceland and Tunisia. Prices start at $255 and around 80 percent of his orders come from abroad.
Local and ethnic Chinese fans are offered a half price discount, providing that they pass a written test “to prove they have enough passion for Star Wars.”
“I hand-make every piece of work so it’s very intimate to me. I only want those who really like it to own it,” he told AFP at his memorabilia filled workshop.
Star Wars may be a multi-billion dollar Hollywood franchise but fans have long complained that the official lightsabers on the market are flimsy and disappointing versions of the whizzing, crackling, swords seen in the films.
As a result a whole cottage industry has sprung up of replica manufacturers filling a gap that more established companies have uncharacteristically failed to fill.
Advances in battery, LED and computing technology have helped these artisans create increasingly sophisticated replicas, many of them choosing to avoid overt branding from the films to reduce their exposure on copyright issues.
Bright tubes of light and motion-linked audio cards similar to the film’s sound effects are now standard.
Among fans of the custom saber scene, California-based Michael Murphy is known as “Yoda.” His online shop and forum FXSabers.com is the go to place for those trading tips on where to buy and how to build the best lightsabers.
“As far as people doing installations like myself and Makoto, I’d say it’s grown from the original group of 25 back in the early years to well over 100 people out there in forums and on Facebook offering services for sabers in one way or another,” he told AFP.
The original lightsaber wielded by Luke Skywalker in the first 1977 instalment — a remarkably budget production compared to its lavish follow-ups — was little more than the handle of an old Graflex camera flash.
Those retro flashes have now become notoriously hard to source thanks to Star Wars fans. The most expensive fan-built lightsaber replicas which feature original Graflex handles have sold for as much as $15,000 on eBay.
Tsai first fell for Star Wars as a teenager and his quest for a realistic lightsaber prompted him to study electro-optical engineering and then work in that industry until he became a full-time lightsaber maker over a decade ago.
Tsai said he constantly researches to make his lightsabers “brighter, more durable and easier to manoeuver” so they can be used in fencing, which he has been promoting in Taiwan with regular duels.
The business also supports fan and charity gatherings he organizes free-of-charge.
“I spend two-thirds of my time organizing events. My mission is to promote Star Wars in Taiwan as hard as I can to draw out more fans,” he added.
One of Tsai’s proudest moments was an outing to Taiwan’s presidential office on last year’s Star Wars Day.
Darth Vader, Chewbacca and a motley crew of intergalactic characters chanted “May the force be with you” alongside Vice President Chen Chien-jen, while toy gun-toting stormtroopers joined military police to stand guard outside the landmark in downtown Taipei.
This year fans will gather near the renowned Taipei 101 skyscraper to mark the day, he said.
With plenty more Star Wars films planned by the Disney-owned franchise in the years ahead, Tsai is confident he’ll have new generations of fans flocking to buy his sabres.
“I am very optimistic that there will be more and more die-hard fans and we can definitely keep the momentum for at least another decade,” he said.
College student Kuo Shun-hao, 20, became a fan two years ago after watching the seventh instalment “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — the JJ Abrams reboot that brought fresh critical acclaim to the franchise and a new windfall for Disney.
Kuo now regularly fences with his lightsabers.
“I like sparring and talking about Star War movies with other fans,” he said, adding: “I am making new friends as there are often new people coming to our fencing gatherings.”