The lightsaber is undoubtedly the most iconic item to come out of the Star Wars franchise. This, of course, means they are a beloved and sought-after item for the franchise’s millions of fans worldwide. For several years, the concept of customized and even duel-capable lightsabers has been a reality, and created a solid community of saber lovers. I got a chance to chat with Rob Petkau, the owner of the premiere custom lightsaber provider, Genesis Custom Sabers.
N: You started off doing a lot of tutorial videos for the Custom Saber Shop forums and being quite active with the community, but when did you decide to venture off on your own as a business?
RP: In 1998 or 1999, when I got on the internet, I would look up pictures of the [lightsaber] props from Star Wars and head down to the hardware store to see if I could find parts that looked like Luke’s lightsaber from Return of the Jedi. I also found other people that were very like-minded, and inserted myself into the community. I mostly just built them as a hobby for the longest time. I would build two and sell the one I liked less to pay for parts. It happened incrementally after that, really.
I had a day job, like anyone else, and I had a self-funding hobby on the side. I got married in 2004, and after my wife and I had our first child we wanted to get a really nice stroller. I mean it was like $700 or so. So, I decided to build a lightsaber to sell specifically to pay for the stroller. It was at this point that I realized I could make a little bit of money doing this. It had gone beyond just paying off my parts, and even resulted in some “walking around” money. I always tell people it wasn’t until 2010 when I started doing it full time and “went pro.” I haven’t looked back since.
N: You do designs of your own, as well as commissions, but some of the most interesting work is your Extended Universe designs. What would you say is your favorite EU build?
RP: Wow, that is hard to say because they’re like my children. The Darth Bane curved design was my first foray into an Extended Universe creation. It was the first time I tried to capture something that wasn’t just my own imagination, but someone else’s. That one was a long process, but I am very happy with the result and have gotten a lot of positive feedback on it.
“I don’t want to be Ford, I want to be Ferrari.”
N: Do you have plans to try and expand Genesis Custom Sabers beyond being just you in the garage, or can you not give up that control?
RP: You have hit directly on my biggest conundrum of art and business. There are guys I have talked to who have taken a passion and turned it into a business, only to end up hating it because now became a job. I have tried to learn from them and do mine differently. I’m doing what I love, and I want to keep it that way. Lightsaber dueling is becoming such a big thing these days. There are saber groups and dueling groups I am in contact with in the States, Japan, and South East Asia. I want to be able to supply my stuff to them, but I don’t want to sell my soul to the Devil to get there. Would I expand? Sure, but I don’t see myself getting a retail space and hiring staff to just churn out sabers. I don’t want to be Ford, I want to be Ferrari.
N: You are quite beloved in the saber community. What is your approach to the competitive nature that comes from being a professional saber builder?
RP: Many will refer to saber companies as competitor, but I don’t see them as competitors; I see them as colleagues. There are a lot of people I have had the good fortune to meet and with outside of the forums, and it all builds to the relationships that I hold dear. I treasure the reputation that I have. I want others to be successful, even if their product is cheaper than mine or better than mine. I always want them to succeed. The relationship and the reputation for my business are the two things that are very important to me and I treat them as such.
“I also won’t go out of my way to pitch myself to [Lucasfilm]… If my stuff gets noticed that is great, but if not I still love my life exactly how it is.”
RP: The Ascend stunt saber was a design I built maybe four years ago that got a lot of positive feedback, and I morphed it into a production saber. I wanted to give the option for someone to get a $200 stunt saber and upgrade it. The stunt saber market is so competitive, though, and I started to realize a lot of people were coming to me specifically for a sound-equipped model of saber. So, a couple of years after the Ascend, I released my second production saber line called the Badaxx, which is a curved saber, and I just released my third model called the Vector in November. I decided to forget competing with the low-end $200 sabers, and instead offer a mid-range saber for about $500. I also decided I will no longer sell a saber without a sound card in it. The profit margin was too low for me to stay competitive with stunt sabers and create products I was proud of at the same time.
N: How many people have asked for a saber with a crossguard on it since the first Force Awakens trailer premiered?
RP: [Laughs] There have been a number of people, but I try my best to be honest with people. I try not to be too brutal, but commissions take a lot of my time and energy. I will only take on ones I really like and I do not like that saber. I’m sure people can find one that is really cool, but it will most likely not be from me. I still reserve final judgment on the saber for when I see the movie, though.
“I want others to be successful, even if their product is cheaper than mine or better than mine.”
N: When do you plan to petition Lucasfilm to be their saber builder?
RP: [Laughs] I’m not actively petitioning anyone. I remember when the R2 builders in the UK got picked up to work on R2 in the new movies, and I remember thinking “LET ME BUILD LIGHTSABERS FOR YOU!” [Laughs] I also won’t go out of my way to pitch myself to them. If my stuff gets noticed that is great, but if not I still love my life exactly how it is. I would love to make props for the movie, or games, or whatever, though.
N: Anything about upcoming builds you’d like to tease?
RP: I have my Vector saber that I just released in November, which is the first saber I have seen with a fully removable core. That just allows for it to be built a little more securely without hanging wires and such to worry about. I also have a new version of my Corran Horn saber I want to release in early 2016 that should be really cool. All I can say is the prototype I built works, and if it can be reproduced through machining to do what I want it to do, it’s going to be something really special.
“The relationship and the reputation for my business are the two things that are very important to me and I treat them as such.”
All images belong to Rob Petkau and Genesis Custom Saber