The Æther Reactor is (almost) FINISHED!


It’s been two years!

And finally… almost there. So close I can SMELL it. All that’s left to do is buff the copper a bit more with some #000 Steel Wool, let the copper patina a bit more, hit it lightly one more time with steel wool to give it some highlights here and there, and then coat the entire thing with some clear satin lacquer. Also I need to come up with some panel labels on the front. At the moment I’m leaning towards dry-transfer type.. we’ll see how that turns out.

I decided on a final name for this piece; the Model 42 Aether Condenser. Mostly because everyone asks if it’s a still of some sort, and I guess it kind of stuck with me. I added the copper coil and the ball in the base section to reinforce the still concept, also because the base was kind of boring.. it definitely needed something. The Aether part? Well, this is steampunk, or steam grunge.. the Aether is all around us.. so it only seemed fitting. 42 is of course a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide as well as X-Files.. I just can’t help myself, I’m a geek.

The wooden control box contains the power transformer that drives the UV LED’s and the switches that control both those and the Edison radio bulb in the top can. I used vintage-style chicken-head knobs on the rotary switches, and I used some cool vintage jeweled bezel-lamp assemblies for the indicators. I replaced the 7V incandescent lamp assemblies in them with LED’s so as to not have to worry about the bulbs burning out. You can see in the photo down there the mess of wires that run this thing.. I hope it doesn’t blow up! Just kidding.. kind of.

I can’t relate how happy I am that this piece is almost done, it’s been a long arduous journey to get it to this point, mostly because I didn’t know where I was going with it, but I can say that I’m quite pleased with the outcome, I never expected to be happy with this one.

The next piece I have planned is going to incorporate a tube amplifier, speakers, and some video.. I’m super excited to get started on that one, and will post some of my preliminary ideas real soon. Stay tuned!


It’s starting to Take Shape (Finally)


This piece is finally starting to come together. A funny thing happened when I was working on it a few weeks ago. I had turned the thing over to work on the bottom side of it to figure out how I wanted to go about building the stand, and when I happened to step back and look at it, it hit me: HOLY CRAP, it’s UPSIDE DOWN!

Well, yes, it was upside down, but what I mean was that it looked BETTER that way! All of the things that bothered me about it suddenly didn’t bother me any more, the lights went on and the gears started turning.. all of a sudden I knew that this piece might actually be pretty cool. It was a great relief, because I had begin to dread this… this… monstrosity. It had become my albatross. Well the bird it sank like lead into the sea… and I was free!

I built the little wooden control box where I would hide the transformer, added a cool old brass gauge that I’d bought off ebay, built the stand, and got all of the lights in and wired up, and now it’s just down to the little details.. it needs some more cleaning and some polishing, I have to build the front instrument panel and wire the switches and lights, add some more details to the stand, put some adjustable footies on it, and well.. almost two years from when I began.. I will be DONE with it!

More photos to come soon!



How to build a can out of copper!

A couple of years ago when I was sitting around in my shed one fine saturday sipping a vodka tonic and trying to avoid yard work, my mind happened to wander to thoughts of building steampunk sculptures with copper.

I’d bought a sheet of 20 guage copper the month before on a lark, but it had just been taking up space behind the bookshelf in my office. Without any real idea what I was going to ultimately achieve, I started out to build something that in my mind would look like an old boiler. What I’d really like to have done was get my hands on some 4″ copper pipe and use that, but seeing that copper pipe that size runs about a hundred dollars a foot or more, I was feeling MacGyver-ish. So I just jumped in with both feet. Fast forward to today and I’m sitting here sipping a vodka tonic and writing about making things out of copper. Weird. Or not. Anyways, here it is.

These photos are actually from the second one that I built just recently because as most things go, I never thought to take photos of the process the first time. More truthfully perhaps, I was afraid to have any photographic evidence of events if things went terribly wrong and I had to explain how I burned the shed down. But I didn’t burn the shed down, and haven’t seriously burned myself in the last couple years of playing with fire and metal, so I’m beginning to feel a bit more confident.

I’ve since moved from that house, trading a house with a big yard and a shed in orlando for a small apartment with a tiny back porch in Key West. A fair trade I think. Unfortunately I have less room to build things, but hey.. necessity is the mother of invention, and between the benches out back, and the kitchen counter (which, mercifully is made of granite and thus pretty impervious to heat) I make do.

So here we go..

First thing to do is figure out how big you want it, I wanted mine 5″ tall and about 4″ in diameter. Now, you can whip out your trusty calculator on your iPhone and figure that the circumference of a 4″ circle is 12.56″, or if you are lazy like me, you improvise. I just happen to have a chunk of stainless steel round bar stock that I use for a little anvil that is just about exactly 4″ in diameter, so not wanting to hurt my brain with math, I wrapped a wire around it and marked it with a sharpie. Straighten the wire back out.. and voila! Circumference.

Take your fineline sharpie and measure out a rectangle on your sheet of copper that is 5″x12.75″. The length has to be longer than the actual circumference by about a quarter inch or so, to give you some overlap for the solder joint. Always better to be a little too big than too small, you can always trim it if you have to.

Now cut it out with some nice sharp tin snips. Once you do this, take a ball-peen hammer and an anvil (or nice flat heavy piece of metal) and flatten out all of the edges that got all curled up when you cut it. Once you do that, you begin forming the sheet into a tube around a length of 3.5″ or 4″ Sch. 40 PVC pipe. It is important that the ends overlap and stay there by themselves, so keep working it until it holds it’s shape without springing open. If you hold it together with vice grips and solder it, the metal will hold it’s ‘spring’ and you run the risk of it opening up later when you attach other stuff to it and it heats up again.

I like to get it close while rolling it on the outside of the PVC pipe, then insert it inside the pipe and press the metal to the inside of the surface. When you pull it out, it will spring open a bit, and most likely with a minimal amount of fussing, adhere to the correct shape. This is all very scientific, and I find that vodka helps with the frustration.

Photo #1 shows the basic ‘tube’. I used a piece of 3.5″ PVC pipe (The thick kind – SCH 40) that I used to roll the copper sheet around. Now, this is kind of a pain in the arse, and I know there are cool rolling machines out there that do exactly this with less work, but I don’t have one, so I used the pipe. I actually wanted my metal tube to be the size of my little 4″ anvil, so I worked it until the copper slid right over the stainless piece and held it’s shape nicely.

Once you’ve got your tube formed, you can get out your brazing torch and go to town soldering up the seam. I do use vice grips when I solder this seam to make sure things stay put, but like I said.. try to not have alot of spring in there, it will come back and bite you in the butt later.

Once you have the tube part finished, all you need to do is lay it on end on your sheet of copperand trace around it with a fine point sharpie. Trim the circle out with a pair of snips and voila!… end cap! The edges probably won’t be perfectly flat, so you’ll want to hammer the edges as flat as you can to get it to meet up aling the entire edge. What I do is sit the cap on something a bit smaller than it, then put the tube on top of that, and weght the thing down with something with sufficient weight to hold the tube to the flat cap. Flux the seam, and solder away.. repeat this for the other side and you’re done! I typically put a small hole in the last cap to let air escape as you heat it up so you don’t have issues with the final solder bead.

I wanted to have 3 ‘portholes’ on this piece, so marked off where I wanted them and used a 2″ hole saw to cut the holes in the can, I also needed to get inside to affix a light, so I cut a 3″ hole in the bottom plate with a hole saw as well (Photo 4). I then built 3 2″ diameter by 1″ tall tubes using the same technique as the original can, and inserted them into the holes on the body, then soldered them in (Photo 5). This is when I’m glad I didn’t have any spring in the big tube, because one of the portholes goes right through the seam on the big can, it would have popped right open when I heated it up again..

The top of the can has a bit of a distributor cap look to it (Photo 6), it’s simply some 1/2″ caps soldered upside down on the top cap. I cut some 3/4″ lengths of dowel and inserted them into the caps. I drilled through the center of the dowels and through the top of the can, the pulled the dowels out and enlarged the holes in the can with a file so my brass bolts wouldn’t touch the metal. The 1/4-20 brass bolts are insulated from the can on the inside by nylon washers. I attached the wire grommets to the bolts, and that’s it.. done! When it’s all wired up the 9V feed from the transformer will be distributed by the grommets on the top of the can to the LED’s in the top part of the sculpture. The sculpture itself will serve as the ground for the lights, saving me having to use two sets of wires.

Well there it is for what its worth.. go out and solder some stuff!


Code Name: Nexxus


Here’s one of the pieces I’ve been struggling with lately. I say lately, but in reality this one was born almost a year ago, and due to not really knowing what I wanted to do with it once I had built the first iteration, it’s been sitting around collecting dust until recently. I’ve been calling it Nexxus, but I’ll probably wind up naming it something less annoying when it’s finished (that is if I don’t wind up dropping it in the ocean in disgust).

The computer rendering on the left is actually the second draft of my idea; originally I had just modeled the top piece to see how the angles would work and to get measurements for the lengths of the pipes and such. I added that model to another model I’d been working on thinking it’d be like some sort of odd radio device or something. Looking back now, I have to wonder what I was thinking.. it looks soo… I don’t know.. WRONG.

The photo on the right up there is the first iteration of the actual piece. Sorry for the crap photo, I took that one with my old iPhone with the scratched up lens. I hit that point in the construction and decided I hated it. But, considering that it took me quite a while to cut and braze all those pieces, I didn’t want to give up on it, so I did what any artist would be likely to do.. I threw it in a corner and worked on some other pieces.. for a year.

Eventually after staring at the thing in revulsion for a year, I began wondering where I had gone wrong, and trying to think of ways to salvage the thing. I pulled off the stand and the 6 long protruding pieces, and added some more angled pipe and such to try to bring it all in closer so it didn’t look so wonky. Once again after doing all this I was flummoxed.. I still didn’t like it. The little red copper wires in the photos up there are strung through the pipes so I could fish the LED wires through all the pipe bends to a transformer somewhere in the base.

By now I had decided that what I wanted out of it wasn’t a table top piece, but a floor standing ‘torchere’ lamp of sorts. I envisioned it being about 6 feet tall with this piece sitting at the top. The six tubes pointing to the globe in the middle will house UV led’s to light up the globe and give it a nice odd purple glow. But what I didn’t know was how to transition from the parts of the sculpture I liked to a base. Back to the drawing board…

I decided to steal some design elements from my Oculus piece and add a copper boiler looking piece under the globe. Only this one would have 3 glass lenses instead of one. I added a sort of distributor cap look to the top of the boiler piece where thick 6 gauge copper wires will attach between there and each of the 6 ends up above and carry the 9V current to the LED’s inside the tubes. Those are 1/2″ copper pipe caps brazed upside down on the top, with a piece of poplar dowel inserted into each one. The 1/4-20 brass screws go through into the inside where they are insulated from the copper by nylon washers. Inside the boiler will be a small Edison-style ‘radio’ lightbulb I found online. It has a long filiment running vertically up and down inside, and looks like an old vacuum tube when it’s on, giving off a soft amber glow.

So What Now?

I’ve ordered the UV led’s, and will wire them up in the tubes, adding the end pieces and copper connecting wires to the boiler, then I’ll move onto working out the base itself, wiring up the lamp inside the boiler piece, and soldering some lenses to the portholes. Stay posted!

I’ll go over the construction of the boiler piece in the next post, it deserves it’s own space.


Building the The Dream


This piece just exploded out of my head one evening while I was working on ‘Oculus‘ in my shed. It was a while back, but I’m pretty sure there were copious amounts of vodka involved, because it always seems the drink brings out the true dark side of my inner artist.

I had reached a point working on Oculus that I just didn’t know what I wanted from it. It was pissing me off. I thought it was stupid. I was having trouble with the solder joints. It just wasn’t going right, and I was terribly vexed. So I sat down on the drum throne I used as a stool in my shed, and feeling utterly dejected, I did what any self-respecting artist does when blocked.. I drank.

I was just staring off into the cluttered corners of my shed and fuming, when I spied a plastic skull that I’d used as a halloween prop for many years. I had a little flash… skulls and steampunk go hand and hand, right? What if..

Well, a couple hours (and a great many drinks) later, I had the basic sculpture knocked out. I don’t know where this thing came from, but it spoke to me as I was putting it together. It told me that it had been enslaved by corporate greed and was being forced to produce work long after it’s death. A single solder tear hung from it’s cold staring electronic eye, which beheld only a sea of cubicles. A window cut into its head, however, revealed a dream of the beach, and of freedom and happiness.

I’m sure the whole corporate greed angle came from my resentment from spending 20 years in the corporate world when I should have been out building art, only to receive a big fat layoff in the end for my loyalty. They say inspiration rises from adversity, and well.. I had been feeling pretty adverse. I’m not bitter though. Really.

I look at my time in service of the corporate machine as a school of life experience. Some people are made for it, some aren’t. I never did fit in, but I made a lot of really great friends and learned a lot about life, so it wasn’t all bad. It did however leave me with a big hole in my soul, and a pretty bad taste in my mouth for the way people act when money is involved. These feelings are part of why I’m so drawn to steampunk art, it’s the leftover, used up detritus of society… yesterday’s gold.. useless to the people who have moved on to the bigger, better deal, but magical to those of us just a little off-kilter. I find that I relate to it.. I feel like a bit of used-up detritus myself sometimes.

This piece sat for months as it looks in the first photo up there – untouched. Quite a few months after that fateful night in the shed, my better half Christina and I decided to condense our 10-year plan of living in the Caribbean to a 5 year plan. We were both out of work, and burned out with corporate society. We sold just about everything we had, rented out the house in Orlando and moved to Key West to spend a few years learning to sail, and acclimating before escaping the world on a sailboat.

This of course threw a huge wrench into my work-shop situation. We were now living in a one bedroom apartment, with no yard. Not having a lawn and yard to maintain is fantastic, but I really miss my workshop. I was worried that I’d lose my inspiration to work on my pieces, let alone have space to work on them. Well that fear was unfounded, as I find myself even more inspired now. I built a small bench out on the back porch, and do a lot of my work on the kitchen counter. Hey, it’s granite.. not like I’m gonna hurt it much… You’ll notice in the background of a lot of these photos the mess that Christina has to put up with in the house. Someday soon, I hope to reach a point where I can rent out a small garage somewhere, but for now.. the kitchen is the place.

One day it just hit me.. I had to finish this thing. Off I went to Home Depot, which is a lovely 20 minute bike ride from our apartment. There’s an Ace hardware that’s much closer, but Ace.. sorry buddy.. you’re prices are a little out of line.. especially for someone with no job. I have to admit though, if you’re ever in Key West, hit the Strunk Ace Hardware on Eaton St.. it’s heavenly.. that is if you’re feeling rich.

The eye piece is simply some fittings with a lens soldered in the front. I wrapped the edges of the glass with copper foil used in stained glass construction, and soldered that sucker in. An image of a cubicle farm is on a slide inside the barrel. You have to move back and forth while looking into it to focus on the the image, but that’s kinda cool.. it makes it feel a bit more interactive.

I mounted another transparency of a photo I took at the beach on the backside of a thick lens that I’d mounted to the bottom of a 2″ copper tube. I soldered a bunch of tiny brass pipes inside the tube, and attached a flange on the far end that I then hammered to match the contour of the skull. The solder joint on this and most of the pieces of this piece is pretty sloppy, but that’s intentional, I wanted it to look rough.

The slides are backlit by a few white LEDs.. nothing too fancy.

I added a few 6 gauge copper wires to the outside, two attaching to the skull with a couple of really cool copper connectors, and another which spirals around the back pipe, and attaches to the base with the same connectors.

I soldered a nice drip on the base right under the eye, so it looked as if the skull was crying.

The skull itself I wiped down with a red mahogany wood stain, then took a very small brush and painted the small cracks and drips onto it with the same stain. It took a week or so to stop being sticky, but it’s a much more realistic grunge color than I could have gotten with opaque paint.

So that’s about it.. it’s done..

I call this one The Dream, and it only took about 8 months…. hopefully all my sculptures won’t take this long, or it’s going to be forever before I can build up a decent body of work. My friend Jeff is visiting this weekend from Orlando, and I’m sending this back with him so he can photograph it for me. I’ll post the photos when he sends them to me.

I’m much happier with this piece than with my first piece – oculus. It’s still not quite right in a few places, but if I can get just a little better with each piece I make, I think I’ll be hitting all eight cylinders in no time.

Once again I feel as if I’ve given birth, and I’m happy to be done with it.. although I don’t think I’ll be quite so happy to let this one go as I was my first piece. I’m going to miss this one…