This week we are talking with Thomas Willeford, author of Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos: A Maker’s Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts and the upcoming Steampunk Adventurer’s Guide and Cosplaying Lantern City.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Thomas, thanks joining us for this interview. You’ve been quite busy lately on the convention circuit.
Thomas Willeford: Yes, it’s been absolutely mental! We just got back from SDCC, and are working on Bruce Boxleitner’s Lantern City and finishing up the edits on my next book!
AA: Before we get into your writing, Brute Force Studios, and assorted projects, let’s start at the beginning with how you started learning the various skills to create the amazing items you produce? My education with power tools started as a youngster with my dad and weekend projects around the house. What was your path at the beginning which led you to using a laser cutter today?
TW: In the beginning I started with carpentry and construction. My father was exceptional with any tool; when I said I wanted to be an artist, he forced me to go to work with him instead stating “I didn’t ask you.” Little did I know, all those tools would be what I’d use in my art. When you’re young, you think art in drawing, and sculpting involves clay….or, in my case, Play-Dough.
AA: What were some of your earliest projects?
TW: Some gaming models for Space 1889, and a mechanical arm so ugly the public will never see it. It could only be dismantled and killed with fire.
Photo © 2010 – 2013 Babette Daniels
AA: With degrees in physics, history and art, you’ve certainly rounded out the major curriculums. Most people are lucky to get one topical degree. What led you to each one and how do they influence and inform your work?
TW: I was an amazingly nerdy kid, so physics seemed like the way to go in high school. After attaining the degree, however, I realized there were no hot girls in physics, and the ones that were had been hunted to extinction. So I decided to go for a history of technology degree. Then I realized after getting the history degree that there are no jobs in history. This is very important in your 20s. I’m much older now, and I know exactly where all the hot girls and jobs are! Thus comes the art degree….But with this completely weird education, the only thing I am qualified for is being a professional steampunk and mad genius.
AA: What first captured your attention about steampunk?
TW: I hate to sound cliché, but I was doing it for a long time, then suddenly in the 90s found out there was a name for it. I think its draw (at least to me) is how imaginative it is.
AA: What was your first steampunk project?
TW: A mechanical arm that we try not to speak about amongst polite company.
AA: People are possibly most familiar with your work from the armature piece you created for the 3.4 episode of Castle, which Nathan Fillion wore as he learns more about the steampunk culture in that episode. What can you share with us about how that opportunity came about, and what went into designing and building that piece?
TW: We were sitting at our booth at SDCC, when we were approached out of the blue by Raleigh Studios. They said they’d been looking all over the con for someone they felt could make the caliber work they desired, and we were it! They stated it was a shame we didn’t live in LA, as they thought our work would be perfect for the Castle episode. We informed them that we would be in LA the following week; their response was to hand us a business card with a name and address written on the back, with the implicit instructions not to be late. We showed up, and they bought everything; what they couldn’t buy, they rented!
AA: While that armature may be the most viewed item you’ve created, your work has also been on display at the University of Oxford, Penn State, and the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, among others. What were some of those other pieces and what kind of events were they displayed in? Aside from the arm, which item has garnered the most attention?
TW: The most attention, besides the arm, was the clockwork tarantula. It was a stop motion animation model with 50 points of articulation. It was purchased by the Cosmopoliton Hotel in Las Vegas for their Steampunk art collection. The other thing that received a good deal of attention was the ornothoptic backpack, which featured a set of WW1-style aviation wings inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci, with a wingspan of approximately 6 ft. One piece of mine that got great notoriety for the wrong reasons was a monocle that was designed for the Oxford Steampunk exhibit (the first museum exhibit of specifically steampunk art in the world) that ended up being stolen from the event. I ranted online and thought nothing of it, and it got attention from as far away as Japan asking if I got the piece back. It was never returned, however.
AA: How have you and your work grown and changed over time?
TW: I’ve hopefully gotten better than that ugly arm I made for the first piece! Honestly, I’ve gotten more serious about it. At first, it was just for me and my art, and perhaps the 5 other people in the world who cared about steampunk. Now, with all these new kids on the block, I need to up my game every time I make something.
AA: All of these fantastic items come out of your shop, Brute Force Studios. How did that entrepreneurial adventure begin?
TW: My ex-wife and I were looking for a way to get out of our day jobs. We figured that since we already made costumes for ourselves, perhaps we should look into creating costumes for others and conventions. Once the money started coming in, that was it. Within 2 years, our day jobs were costing us money.
AA: Owning and running a business is all combinations of dreams and nightmares, especially when you have employees, interns, and hopefully, clients. What is one of your favorite memories so far in the history of Brute Force, and perhaps one of a more challenging time?
TW: One of my favourite memories was working with 3 of the people from Face Off on a steampunk Frankenstein monster (I got to be the monster!) for Adobe and their Photoshop World Expo. We became Team Monster, and it was one of the most fun weekends I’ve ever had. http://youtu.be/dzoqvw-1XCY
AA: For those readers who might be encouraged to start their own business, what advice and wisdom would you pass along to them?
TW: Don’t! It’s mine! ALL MINE!!!! Actually, it’s a lot of hard work. For the first two years I worked my day job 9-5, then worked every evening til 9 at night, and every weekend. For two years. Talent will only get you so far; hard work will get you further. There are people who say I got very lucky, and maybe I have been. However, luck only opens the door. You still have to fight your way through, because you’re probably not the only one that door is opening for.
Time for the interview intermission!
Check back next time for the conclusion of our chat with Thomas.
Until then, keep up with him on his website.