Thursday, November 17, 2016

Jedi Academy: DIY Lightsabers

Jedi Academy is this school year's theme for the Religious Exploration classes at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY. I was one of two instructors for the lightsaber practice unit. For these classes, we needed padded lightsabers for the padawans to spar with. Fortunately, building these weapons was easy and inexpensive (only about $4-$5 per lightsaber*), so I have decided to share the process here. 

These instructions are based on a design by Frank Sewell and adapted by UU educator Jessica Gray for the Jedi Academy curriculum. 

Colored lightsabers for our Jedi Master instructors. 

You will need the following supplies:
  • PVC ratcheting cutter.
  • Lengths of 1/2" PVC. (These need to be Schedule 40 PVC so that they can take impacts without breaking.)
  • Lengths of 3/4" PVC. (Do not need to be Schedule 40.)
  • 3/4" PVC couplings. 
  • 3/4" and 1/2" end caps.
  • 1/2" to 3/4" bushing. (This part allows you to join pipe of different gauges. The inside needs to fit over the end of a 1/2" pipe, while the outside needs to fit into a 3/4" coupling.)
  • Sandpaper or sandpaper block. (Relatively fine grit is best.)
  • PVC cement.
  • Pipe insulation. (Insulation sized for 3/4" metal pipe will fit 1/2" PVC pipe.)
  • Metallic duct tape. 
  • Other colors of duct tape for decorating the handles.


PVC cut into blades (top) and handles (bottom), plus bushings (in tray), couplings, and end caps.


Cut the 3/4" PVC into 6"-8" lengths for the handles. 6" is long enough for children, but adults may want a longer handle. (We were able to get twenty 6" handles out of a 10-foot length of pipe, though the last two were more like 5.5" because the pipe wasn't exactly 120" long.)

Cut the 1/2" PVC to the desired blade length. The blade + handle should be no longer than the user's hip-to-floor distance or the weapon will be too long to control easily. Our padawans ranged from kindergarten to middle school age, so we needed a variety of lengths: 30" blades for the oldest kids and the instructors, down to about 18" for the youngest kids.

Handle (left) and blade (right) subassemblies.

Lightly sand the last 1" band at one end of the 3/4" PVC handle. Cement that end into the 3/4" coupling, making sure that the PVC is pushed all the way into the socket. Put a 3/4" end cap on the other end of the handle; this joint isn't structural, so doesn't need to be glued.

Lightly sand the 1" band at the end of the 1/2" PVC blade, and cement that end into the 1/2" side of the bushing. Put a 1/2" end cap on the other end. This makes the tip safer by covering the sharp end of the PVC.

Assembled lightsabers.

Give the cement some time to dry, then cement the bushing on the blade into the 3/4" coupling on the handle.

Applying pipe insulation (tight) and metallic tape (left).

Cut the pipe insulation long enough to cover the blade, and wrap it around the blade. There will be about 1/4" inch or so of the bushing still showing on the handle, which you may want to cover as well. (Filling that small gap will make taping the blade easier, when we get to that step.)

The pipe insulation has a slit along its length that you will need to hold together while you cover it with tape in the next step. Wrapping a few pieces of duct tape around the blade will help, particularly around the end cap and bushing, which are slightly larger in diameter. (It doesn't what matter what color this tape is, as you'll be covering it up.)

You will probably end up with a few leftover pieces of insulation that are too short to cover a blade. If you want to conserve your supplies, you can combine some scraps to make up the full length. Be sure to tape the join well, so that there is no gap between sections of padding. (I only really recommend doing this if you come up a couple inches short and need to fill in a small gap near the hilt. It's safer to have a solid piece throughout the area where the impacts will be.) 

Cut a small disk of insulation to place directly over the end cap. In a thrusting attack, all of the force of the blow is concentrated into the tiny tip of the blade, so extra padding here will make the practice weapon much safer.

Cover the insulation with metallic duct tape. Apply the tape lengthwise down the blade, wrapping over the end and down the other side. Attach the ends of the tape to the coupling on the handle to hold the insulation firmly in place. (You will cover these ends in the next step.) Apply a second piece that crosses the tip of the blade at right angles to the first piece of tape. These four strips of 2" tape should be wide enough to cover the full circumference of the insulation. (If you end up with gaps, cover them with more tape.)

We used plain silver duct tape for the practice blades, except for the two that the Jedi Masters (instructors) would use. If you're making the lightsaber for a padawan to keep, or for part of a costume, then you can choose any other appropriate colors for the blade (blue or green, possibly purple; for Jedi Academy, we avoided red, the color of Sith blades). 

Wrapped handles, with and without accents.

Wrap a different color of duct tape around the handle, from the bottom of the blade down to the pommel. You can do this lengthwise, or in rings, or try wrapping it in a spiral like some real-world hilt grips. (We tried some of each, and settled on a few lengthwise pieces plus a band around each end of the hilt as being the easiest and most time-effective.) You can cover the whole end cap. or leave the top of the cap bare, as you prefer.

Decorate the hilt as you desire. We put a band of contrasting color around each end of the handle to emphasize that this is the only safe place to hold the lightsaber.

Then you're done! May the Force be with you.

(Many thanks to UUCL's R.E. director, Stacey Stone, for recruiting me to teach in Jedi Academy and helping to build the lightsabers.)

Completed lightsabers.

* Here's a quick breakdown of the costs, buying enough supplies from Loew's for 20 lightsabers:
  • Ratcheting cutter: $12.98.
  • 1/2" PVC pipe: $2.35 per 10-foot length. Depending on what length you cut them, you can get 3 or 4 blades from each pipe. We bought 8, and used 6.
  • 3/4" PVC pipe: $2.61 for one 10-foot length (enough for 20 handles).
  • 3/4" x 1/2" bushing: $0.48 each (we bought 20).
  • 3/4" coupling: $2.10 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • 3/4" cap: $3.61 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • 1/2" cap: $2.62 per bag of 10 (two bags).
  • Foam pipe insulation (3/4" bore): $1.18 per 6-foot length. You can get 2 or 3 blade covers out of each piece. We bought 10 and used 8.
  • Sandpaper: $3.97.
  • PVC cement (8 oz.): $5.58.
  • Duct tape in two colors: $8.98 each. (Additional colors are optional, and can be more expensive.)
That totals $99.04, which comes to about $5 per lightsaber. If you adjust for the fact that the cutter tool is a one-time investment, and some of the supplies (cement, sandpaper) should last for multiple projects, it's more like $4 per sword.

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