Interview with Kyle Miller – Part 3

Welcome back for the conclusion to our interview with artisan Kyle Miller.

In Part 1, we discussed Kyle’s experience, growth, and popular style.

In Part 2, we asked Kyle about working in his shop.

Now we’ll find out what Kyle has planned for the coming year.

AA: In this age of instant global electronic access, does your geographic location have any affect on your work?

KM: There are definitely some pros and cons. I live on Vancouver Island (not where Vancouver BC is located) in a tiny town of about 15,000. Really the biggest pro is that I can source a lot of my material locally. A lot of tonewoods and high quality domestic hardwoods can be found within a very short distance, and I have several friends who fell trees on their property and then mill up the lumber for cheap. Not being centrally located though, and living on an island, makes it a little tricky to get to shows. I’m limited to anything in the Pacific Northwest basically as far as “in person” attendance goes. However, the internet is a wonderful thing. Almost entirely, my business has been done online. I’ve shipped all over the world, from Japan, China, and Taiwan, to Germany, Australia, Norway, and even Mexico. I’ve been meaning to put a map on the wall and stick pushpins in for every place I’ve sold to. I’ll get around to it one day…

AA: What can you share with us about your goals, projects, and events for the coming year?

KM: Well I’ve got a commission that I’m working on right now; unfortunately I can’t really talk about it. It’s for a client that I’ve been working with exclusively for the last few months, and it’s definitely the most important piece I’ve made to date. I’ve got a few personal things I’d like to get done as well, including finishing off a second guitar/rifle combination and another guitar amp. I’m trying not to take on too much at the moment to be honest, as it’s difficult to get things done in the winter. It’s freezing cold, there is frequently snow on the ground, daylight is extreme Ely limited and energy levels are definitely lower. I’m hoping to take a short break after this commission finishes up. I’m getting married in May and possibly moving around the same time, so, lots to do!

AA: Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. That’s going to be your biggest project of the year! What kinds of challenges are you anticipating this coming year, and in general, as the interest in steampunk increases and the other artists join in to meet the demand as well as add their own interpretation?

KM: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Steampunk has crossed into the mainstream at this point, or the mainstream is at least pretty consistently aware of it. This level of activity is always met with one of two responses. Some people, especially early adopters, will jump ship for something else citing that Steampunk is no longer what they wanted it to be, etc. Others will embrace the acceptance and the community will become even more widespread and inclusive. That model pretty much applies to all subcultures as they are adopted by the mainstream. For artists, it’s kind of the same dilemma, while more opportunity to have their work garner attention is a good thing, once things become so highly visible you run the risk of those with a larger resource base being able to run you out of business. Ultimately though, there is a place for everything. Should it ever get to the point where you can buy Steampunk goggles and chest harnesses and rayguns at Hot Topic, there will still be people willing to pay the independent artist for the higher quality version that lasts longer. At least, I hope so. There is always a balance.

AA: As an artist and an entrepreneur, what suggestions do you have for others who might want to try their hand at such creative work?

KM: Well, I think when you first get started it’s important to focus on improving your skills rather than making money or having a perfect end result. Prop building and costume design, like anything else, takes practice. Nobody is ever perfect at something right away. If you want to sell work right away, you have to be willing to swallow your pride. There is a financial hit that most artists take in order to get their work out there. If selling something for less, means it actually sells and you get your name out there and get a testimonial, well that’s a lot better than not selling at all. Everyone wants to pay themselves a fair wage, but this isn’t always possible.

You also really have to be able to accept criticism, and it’s not always constructive. You can’t have a thin skin, otherwise you’ll never get anywhere and you’ll never improve. Its also important to realize, that if you are comparing yourself to other artists or their work, you really have to understand that most of the time those people put in a lot of effort to get where they are. They suffered setbacks, they encountered obstacles, it’s not easy. Just because it may take you a few times to figure something out, that’s ok. Ultimately, practice, practice, and more practice is the best path to success. That being said, if you cut off a finger every time you try and use a saw, maybe you should stick to painting.

AA: When you aren’t in the workshop, what other interests fill your time?

KM: Well I’m in school part-time, working towards finishing my BA. The plan is to move on to graduate studies after, but nothing is set in stone yet. I had been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for awhile but that’s sort of been put on the backburner while I get some projects finished. I spend a lot of time at home studying and hanging out with my fiancée. We also go for coffee a lot. I’ve got four pets as well (two dogs, two cats) and they can be quite a lot of work but they’re all very sweet.

AA: Sounds like you have plenty of things to keep you busy, it’s a wonder that you have any free time at all. What influence do those non-steampunk and non-workshop interests have on your creative work?

KM: Well, Alysia is a great sounding board for advice. She knows me very well, of course, so she is quite adept at being able to look at things from a perspective she knows I haven’t look at them from. Very helpful actually. Other than that, there isn’t too much in the way of intentional crossover that I’m aware of. I have a tendency to compartmentalize and keep things separate.

AA: If you weren’t building these awesomely creative pieces, what would you be doing instead?

KM: More school. Haha! The only reason I’m not in school full time actually is because I’ve been busy in the shop. If I had less to do in the shop, I’d be in school more, if I had more to do in the shop I’d be in school less. I think so anyways.

AA: This has been so great to chat with you! Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

KM: Well, I’d like to say thanks for interviewing me, of course! I hope my answers gave some insight and such! If anyone is interested in commission work or just wants to drop a friendly email please don’t hesitate to contact me. I may be taking one or two more jobs before shutting down for the spring. I’ll be up and running again at the end of May. Thanks so much, Kevin!

Thanks for your time with us, Kyle, and for sharing the behind-the-scenes information on your creative process. Best of luck with your projects and your wedding!

To see Kyle’s previous work, find items currently available, and discuss commissioned work, visit Kyle’s website,

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Kyle Miller – Part 2

Welcome back for Part 2 of our interview with artisan Kyle Miller.

In Part 1, we discussed Kyle’s experience, growth, and popular style.

This time, we ask Kyle about working in his shop

AA: Welcome back, Kyle. Taking a Norm Abram moment, let’s talk about shop safety, or maybe we should call it “When Tools Attack”. There was an incident in late 2010 which put a slight damper on your construction schedule with the fractured elbow you mentioned last time – what happened, how are you recovered from that now, and what advice on general safety do you have for our readers?

KM: Best piece of advice? SLOW DOWN. Oh, and never work with power tools if your mind is in other places. Sometimes that’s easier said than done of course. I’m usually extremely careful in my shop. Always wear your safety glasses and never wear long sleeves or gloves!

What happened to me actually was a pretty freak accident. I had removed a clamp that I had been using to mount an oscillating spindle sander to a bench in my shop and when I was using the sander later (I forgot to replace the clamp) it vibrated off the edge of the bench. Now, had the piece I been working on been a section of a circle, a simple open curve, I would’ve been fine. However, I was sanding the inside of a closed circle. So, suffice to say when I lost control of the piece it basically became a part of the machine and came at my elbow at about 1600 RPM. Ouch.

AA: Yikes! That’s quite a shop lesson to learn. You recently created a walnut-maple laminated walking stick based on the design of a clock’s minute hand. Not only was the design very creative but the precision work you’ve done is impressive. What were the creative design steps and just how do you get three pieces of wood to match up so well?

KM:  Well, I knew that I wanted to make a cane; I guess that was the first step. I felt like I would be kind of limited if I tried to make a “standard” cane, I don’t have a lathe or wood bending setup and I’d essentially I’d be making a custom top only. I wasn’t really satisfied with that, so I started thinking of alternative approaches. The clock hand design was just sort of an epiphany really. I wouldn’t need to do any lathe work, it didn’t have any long sections that are perfectly rounded, and the visual effect would be quite striking and the flat surfaces would make it easy to do multiple shapings with the router. Win, win, win.

Once I had the clock hand in mind, it was just a matter of making up a template (I think I used pine, I still have it and will probably use it for a future cane) and then making a three-piece blank. I decided it would be nice to do a three piece laminate rather than just cut the cane out of 2” walnut stock. Custom three piece laminates are something I have a fair amount of experience with, as I have always made my guitar necks using my own three piece laminates. The only difference is that with the cane I made the laminate in layers rather than on edge, so when I cut the cane shape it would leave a maple pinstripe running through the center of the cane. Walnut and maple have very similar densities (they’re both about +/-40lbs/ft3) so they match well together in a laminate. The colors are also very complimentary and are a common pairing in fine furniture.

AA: The walnut and maple combination is quite striking and works to great effect in that cane. What is your technique for finishing and sealing wood surfaces? The surface seems very smooth and the colors look so rich.

KM: It’s all about the tung oil. Tung oil is my favorite finish, hands down. It takes some practice getting used to, but I’m pretty comfortable with it now and have my own sort of rituals and practices for getting a nice finish. I sand everything up to about 400 grit before I actually do any finishing. Tung oil is very readily absorbed, so it takes a couple pretty generous coats before the wood will stop drawing it in. After the first couple of coats, I start to do wetsanding and continue up to somewhere between 400-800 grit depending on the project. Although sometimes for later stages I’ll use 0000 gauge steel wool. I’ll usually do up to 10 coats of tung oil, more so for guitars, less so for props. Building up a “depth” of finish is key to a good looking end product. And that takes a lot of time, and coats. I think this is something that is often overlooked. A lot of artists tend to opt for a more “distressed” look as well. Perhaps this lends to the perception of my work being very smooth and clean. I figure just because its steampunk, or antiqued, it had to be new sometime, right? That’s what I aim for.

AA: That’s a lot of work in every piece but it certainly makes a difference. What tools are in your workshop? Are you using the basics or are there some specialized tools as well?

KM: My shop is actually specifically setup for instrument and prop building. I work in a very small, hyper-efficient setup that is 120sq/ft only! I prefer not to work with table saws and in my shop it is more versatile and efficient to have a good bandsaw. The entire shop is based around the bandsaw actually, which sits in the exact center of the room. Its a 6ft tall 14” King Industrial that I picked up new about six months ago. Beautiful machine. I keep it running with a silicone coated 3/4” blade. I use it primarily for rough cutting and re-sawing. I also have a 13” planer, a 6 1/8” jointer, a benchtop drill press, a router table (with router), a benchtop Delta 9” bandsaw that I use for metal work and detailed cutting, an oscillating spindle sander, a combination oscillating spindle sander/belt sander, a plunge router, a trim/laminate router and the most amazing 18V Milwaukee cordless drill (the M18). Seriously, you could build a house with that thing. It eats the battery hard but I use it for EVERYTHING. Of course I also have a variety of clamps, jigs, attachments, drill bits, chisels, router bits, etc.

AA: At least everyone will know what replacement items to get you for your birthday! What advice and suggestions do you have about the tools that other steampunks might want to add to their collection?

KM: First piece of advice, and arguably the most important, is that you should be educated on the proper use of your equipment. It’s extremely unsafe for the average person to go out and buy a planer or jointer and just “have at it”. You can really get seriously hurt when using power tools, so, if you’ve never used something before please have someone show you the proper techniques.

Secondly, unless you have a lot of disposable income, make efficient choices. Be willing to spend the money on things you will use the most, but don’t go crazy on stuff that has a limited application. For instance, it’s usually wise to shell out for a good compact 18W cordless drill or bandsaw because you can use it for so many things. There is a lot you can do with just a bandsaw, a cordless drill, and a spindle sander. Hell, I built a guitar using only those three tools.

AA: How interested are your neighbors in what you do? Do they think your work is interesting or do they think you are “interesting”?

KM: I live in a pretty small town, and most of the people in my neighborhood are older and basically keep to themselves. I’m sure they see me carting big planks of walnut into the house all the time, but I think that’s about the end of it. We’re all friendly. I try not to make noise too late.

AA: What do you see as the difference between people who are up-front about the work they sell as significant modifications to an existing product like the NERF Maverick, compared to others who apparently just make outright copies of other peoples work, apply a different color scheme, and pass the work off as their own original creation?

KM: I don’t mind if people are painting up Mavericks and selling them, or painting up welding goggles and selling them, that is totally their prerogative. I’m not impressed by the work though, and if all you do is paint NERF guns I’m probably not going to “like” your fanpage on Facebook. I think it’s totally fine to do that sort of work though, and a lot of people do. It is what it is. It would have to be one hell of a paint job though to make me go “Oh, that’s really cool and original”.

As far as the “copies” go, I know who we’re talking about. There is an “artist” out there, I believe located in England, who is producing resin casts that are blatant rip-offs of other legitimate artists work. It is immediately apparent that this person has slightly modified works by WetaWorkshop and other artists, and then cast resin molds. The weapons are then duplicated and painted and sold on the cheap. The “artist” is unrepentant about this. A lot of people worked long and hard to make these props, and this jag just comes along and steals from them. Terrible. WetaWorkshop specifically is a huge inspiration for me, and they are one of the leaders in the prop making industry. It’s hugely insulting to trivialize their work by making cheap forgeries. Granted, their work is expensive, but it is expensive for a reason. Their works are the sum total of years of experience in model making and design, countless hours and painstaking builds. Sure, not everyone can afford it, but that doesn’t make it ok to rip them off. It is especially not ok to profit from it. The only silver lining here is that the products being shilled by this “artist” are of inferior quality, especially when held up to the originals.

We’ll take a break here in our talk with Kyle Miller.

Join us again for the conclusion in Part 3 where we ask Kyle about his upcoming projects.

Until, then, you can see Kyle’s work on his website,

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 1

Part 3


Published in: on January 23, 2011 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Kyle Miller – Part 1

This week, we are talking with Kyle Miller, an artist of memorable and celebrated artwork. I first met Kyle at the Victoria Steam Expo 2010 convention in Victoria, BC, where he had an amazing display of items ranging from a guitar amplifier to his iconic steampunk wings. We had a chance recently to chat about his work and what’s coming up this next year.

Airship Ambassador: Hi Kyle, thanks for joining us for this interview. You have constructed some amazingly creative works with an outstanding grade of quality woodwork. How did you gain that level of skill and experience?

Kyle Miller: No problem, thanks for having me! I really like interviews to be honest.

I’m actually educated as a cabinetmaker and furniture designer, and I’ve been apprenticing as a luthier (builder of stringed instruments) under the instruction of a good friend of mine (shout out to Veronica Merryfield!). Having the experience of formal instruction in building methods, design and layout, material selection (specifically exotic woods) and finishing techniques has been integral for me. I think the latter is actually what really stands out in my work though, as I finish all of my prop work and projects like I would finish a custom guitar or piece of fine furniture. Time consuming, but worth it. It makes a difference!

AA: Your choice of exotic hardwoods is definitely one thing that stands out for me in your work and it makes a lasting impact. What was your first steampunk project and what was the motivation behind it?

KM: My first real steampunk project, once I had my shop up and running, was actually my lap steel electric guitar, “The Artful Dodger”. Before I had my shop together, I was pretty limited to stuff I could make on the coffee table; extremely limited space and basically no tools.

AA: Generally, your work is functional art, not just today’s technology in yesteryear’s casing, but also non-tech items with a steampunk aesthetic. What factors guide you in your design and construction process?

KM: Well, I’ve always been a fan of kinetic sculpture. Anything that moves, changes, alters itself. Especially when those changes are brought on by a self-activated trigger like pulling down on a lever or rope. Designs obviously vary from project to project, so that process varies depending on complexity. It could be a very different approach than something that was comparably simple. Almost all of my work starts with a series of sketches. I think of a couple possibilities for a given work, and sketch them out as reference points for directions that I could take. Beyond these initial sketches though, I actually formally plan very little. My shop is filled with the equivalent of notes on restaurant napkins and scribbles in pocket sketchbooks.

Since I primarily work with wood, that actually dictates a lot in the way of construction. Wood is an extremely versatile material, but it has its pros and cons like anything else. One of the first issues that I have to address is wood choice. This is consistent with every project. All woods are different and depending on the desired weight of a project (or part of a project), I may have to choose one specific wood over another. Detail and durability are also factors here as certain woods will perform better in certain circumstances.

AA: Looking back over your projects, how has your work changed over time?

KM: I think as a woodworker I continue to progress. Every time I have to problem solve, every time I log more time finishing, every time I build something I learn new techniques. I like to challenge myself, so I think my work reflects an increasing complexity and a higher quality finished product as time goes on. I’ve also refined my personal style. More and more my work is becoming identifiable as work that was specifically done by me. Which is cool.

AA: Your work does have a signature look and feel, and I think it is becoming quite recognizable. What has been your most challenging project so far and what obstacles did you have to overcome?

KM: While none of the work on this particular project was overly technical, in the middle of October I was requested to build a series of works for a photo shoot, basically at the last minute. The sheer volume of work I had to do, with no time to plan, and less time to build it in, was extremely challenging. Plus I had to work the last few days with a fractured elbow. Whoops!

AA: Ouch!  High volumes and quick deadlines sound like a recipe for a stressful time! What have been your observations of how steampunk artwork has changed from your first project to today’s exhibits at various art museums and galleries?

KM: I think the “basic” end of the Steampunk art scene has grown quite considerably, with the popularity of DIY sites like Instructables and eHow offering a ton of tutorials for aspiring builders to get started with small things like goggles and rayguns and such. As far as builders that are working on more elaborate pieces, definitely there is growth there as well, more so now than there was before. Although I think ultimately the artwork hasn’t changed that much but the visibility of it has. More artists are latching on to the term “steampunk” to promote their work, and the Steampunk community itself actively pursues and labels work as well. So, I think definitely more an issue of visibility. This aesthetic has been around for awhile.

AA: You were approached at one point last year to show some of your work in a major event. How did that work out?

KM: It’s actually come up multiple times that I’ve been invited to an event and couldn’t attend. New Steampunk events are popping up every day it seems! Sometimes it’s an issue of distance and travel costs, other times it’s a scheduling conflict. Since I only work as an artist part-time, most of my work is commission, and therefore my non-commission output is relatively low, so it’s difficult for me to actually build up enough work to show. If it’s not a commission it goes on the shop, and then it tends to sell pretty quick, haha!

AA: It’s nice to see that you and your work is in demand, and perhaps you’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities more in the coming year. In comparison and contrast with today’s mass-produced ‘everything’, what do you think is the appeal of the items you create?

KM: Well, I primarily try to make stuff that I always wanted to have myself, but couldn’t find anywhere. From custom guitar amps and scratch built guitars, to back mounted articulated wings and Fallout Props. A lot of these projects started from the fact that I simply couldn’t find them anywhere else. I think that other people recognize this as well, and if they’re looking for the same things I was looking for they will inevitably end up finding my work. There are also very few traditional woodworkers that specifically work in the steampunk aesthetic as well, and the finished look and qualities of wood are definitely a selling feature for some people.

AA: When you first started selling your artwork, what was the market like? Who were the buyers and what objects generated the most purchasing interest?

KM: When I was just tinkering around on the coffee table, I was primarily making goggles and little things like that. At the time, Etsy was still very new, and I did most of my selling on eBay. I remember when you would search on eBay for “steampunk goggles” and you’d only get about 40 results, most of which belonged to me, another artist, and a wholesaler that had tagged some motorcycle goggles with the term. Now if you do that same search you get almost 1500. This is not to say the originality or quality has improved though. But there is definitely nice work out there too.

AA: That’s very true that quantity doesn’t always mean quality. How have you seen steampunk, the community and the artwork change as interest has increased the last few years?

KM: Well the community is definitely a lot more organized. Social networking really helped the community to find itself, and there are some core hubs that have arisen such as Brass Goggles. I think a lot of the top end artwork was always there, and the artists were always doing the work, it’s just more visible. This is of course evidenced by the Steampunk aesthetic being around for quite some time. Like I said earlier, I think it’s more an issue of visibility, promotion, and tagging. Definitely people are gunning for Steampunk a little more now than they were before though. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a lot of mass produced stuff turning up online. Budget friendly works like painted goggles and NERF guns, etc.  There will always be a desire for those works as young people become interested in the scene and want to put together an outfit inexpensively.

AA: Who are some other steampunk builders, creators and artisans whose work you find interesting?

KM: Well Richard Nagy (Datamancer) does wonderful work of course. I’m also constantly inspired by the work of master model maker and automata designer Thomas Kuntz.

AA: I’ve seen Thomas’ work on YouTube, and it’s quite amazing in theme, design and execution. Have you had opportunity to talk with other artists to trade ideas or construction tips and techniques?

KM: Actually this has happened very little. I think it is a result of my medium choice though. I do have a luthier friend of mine that has been very helpful, however, as she is familiar with all aspects of woodworking.

We’ll take a break here in our talk with Kyle Miller.

Join us again in Part 2 where we ask Kyle about working in his shop.

Until, then, you can see Kyle’s work on his website,


Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

Part 3


Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 9:39 am  Comments (1)  
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