How one Iowa man turned his Star Wars dreams into reality
Words by Courtney Fishman
Video by Tanner Jones
Photos by Hayleigh Syens
“It’s better with the smoke machine,” Troy Powers says proudly. The room, now a foggy haze, becomes a brightly colored spectacle of sky blue and then green.
His eyes light up with a flick of a switch, as if he’s successfully performed a magic trick. But he’s not practicing magic tricks. There’s no abracadabra, no hocus-pocus. Still, what he’s created is just that–magical.
The light show speeds out of a high-powered metal laser—referred to by some as a lightsaber. But Powers isn’t, simply put, “one of those textbook definition ‘Star Wars Geeks.’” He’s never been to a convention. Instead, Powers is a maker when he’s not working his day job in computer security–using craftsmanship to turn fiction into fact. And he’s always been that way.
“I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t try to make things,” says the 26-year-old Jefferson, Iowa, native. “I grew up just building all sorts of things–anything I could imagine. I was the kid who, after watching a movie, would try to figure out how to make the main device that the character had because I wanted to have a superpower.”
One of those items was a lightsaber. From crayon sketches to cardboard toilet paper roll prototypes, Powers set his mind on creating the fully functional Jedi weapon of choice. Powers has never had any formal training. Instead, he stayed up at night with college-level books about lasers, reading them over and over and over until the challenging words started to make sense. By age 11, he did it–wiring his own electric laser and winning first place in his county fair. But beyond the ribbon, he kept his talent behind a closed garage door, not sharing it with the world until five years ago.
“For the longest time I didn’t tell anyone about what I was making, and the only ones who knew about it were my friends and family,” he says.
It took three years into his relationship with then-girlfriend, now wife Jennifer Powers, to learn about her husband’s passion.
“We just came to this bottom,” she says. “He had been working at KFC and I said, ‘This isn’t really what you want to be doing forever. What would you prefer to be doing?’ And that just started the whole discussion. He told me about it and how he missed working in electronics, and he just started drawing again and building.”
The conversation led to the couple’s move from Wisconsin to Ames, Iowa, so Powers could pursue a college degree. Ultimately, after starting at Des Moines Area Community College, Powers decided school wasn’t for him.
“It was like something was lacking and it always seemed to be school,” Powers says. “I didn’t complete college for engineering, but I’m still following my passion and achieving my dreams.”
Still, his family–both his parents and his children–remain the biggest support system for his craft. At a young age, his mom and dad took interest in his hover car drawings and continually encouraged him to keep up with his interest. They bought electronic kits to build upon his (already beyond-his-years) knowledge and instilled a strong work ethic in Powers that endures today.
“My stepdad always told me, ‘Something worth doing is worth doing right,’” Powers says. “He always put a lot of time and effort into the things he made, so that they turned out good. I learned a lot of skills from him, he inspired me to do electronics.”
That same work ethic has filtered down to Powers’ two daughters, ages 6 and 3, who mimic their dad’s behavior, eager to build their own cardboard lightsabers. Others are intrigued by his practice, too. A frequent guest at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines, Powers, once shy about his work, is now eager to share the process with others.
It starts with an idea, he says. Then it takes a day or two to turn it into a more concrete concept–the color, the shape, all brought to life with 10 to 15 lightsaber sketches.
“Then I draw out each individual piece that I’d have to make, so I can get an idea of how it’d work as a machine. I take all the pieces and tape them up on the wall and I start making the pieces until they’re perfect and fit together,” Powers says. “Once I get all the individual pieces made, then I take it inside and start working on the electronics and try to make them fit inside these little housings. Once that’s done, it’s all just the little tweaks and the little details to get them to look unique.”
Powers follows this self-taught process quite a bit, estimating that he owns approximately 12 functional lightsabers. The lasers, which have the ability to burn through objects, are equivalent to about 2,000 laser pointers pointed at the same spot. Costing $200 to $300 apiece, they take 20 hours on average to make.
Each laser is what Powers calls “exceedingly unique.” It’s a principle that holds true to the Star Wars series’ roots, with each Jedi and Sith owning their own personalized lightsaber. But in January, Powers received a request from the Science Center that was even a challenge for him to undertake.
“They called me and asked if I could cook a piece of bacon with a lightsaber,” he says. “So, I built a HERF gun, a high-energy radiofrequency gun. It basically shoots and I brought that to the Science Center and cooked bacon.”
Only in Iowa.