The first Death Star is the real Phantom Menace. I always wanted to have one in my collection but would I dare build one? Approaching the project left me feeling like I was sitting in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon being drawn in by the tractor beam. The job of painting it and then drilling thousands of window holes felt impossible but the task proved to be quite the opposite. In the end, it only took me three weeks to build it.
I decided to follow ILM’s example and use two plexiglass half domes. Finding domes that were good enough proved to be the most difficult aspect of this project. I wanted my model to be approximately 60cm in diameter. As I started searching for the domes I soon realized that the price and availability of such items would be as devastating to my wallet as a blast from the Death Star super laser itself. I settled for two 40cm domes that were originally sold as fish-eye display shelves. The roundness was perfect. The key to the perfect roundness is that the domes were blow-molded inside a negative mold. If they were vacuum-formed outside a positive mold the thickness would vary due to the stretching of the material during its heating and forming, which would lead to difficulties in aligning the domes along the equator.
I started working without any planning at all (afraid the plans might be stolen by rebel spies, I suppose.) The first thing I had to do was to matte the outside of the domes. This would provide a better surface for the paint. I used sanding paper of 240 quality, which is pretty fine.
I then found the equator by marking the height of the domes polar center equal to its radius. I took away a few millimeters to leave room for the equatorial trench. I drilled a series of small holes to form a thin slice where I could insert the blade of a thin metal saw with fine teeth. Beware! Plexiglass is brittle and will easily crack under too much stress. It melted and jammed the saw all the time, and I had to be very careful when getting it loose. The process of hand-cutting the domes took about three hours and left me with a hundred blisters in the palm of my hand.
With the domes trimmed to the right size, I used a wide, flat file to even out the edges. I had to find a good reference picture so I could measure the exact position and size of the super laser dish. I found a good one of Dennis Muren taking a reading in front of a bluescreen.
I marked one of the domes and cut it out with a 3mm thick drill bit. The good thing is that at high speed the drill bit will melt the plexiglass, almost milling its way through the material. Be careful not to work it too close to the circle marked on the dome. This method is effective but hard to control. Leave a few millimeters for the file and sanding paper.
I decided to mount the model from underneath. I bought two aluminum tubes that fit telescopically. The thinnest of the tubes was made to go all the way to the top of the model so that the upper dome could rest on the upper end of the tube. The thickest tube was cut shorter and glued to the lower end of the thin tube. This way the bottom dome rests on the upper edge of the thicker tube.
To re-enforce the mounts, I turned two pieces of PVC on my lathe. One was glued to the bottom dome where the rod entered the model. The other at the top as an alignment for the upper end of the rod. I then milled three plexiglass rings: two rings to fit inside the domes along the equatorial separation line and the third to form the actual spacing between the domes – the trench itself.
I used an acrylic glue called Acrifix 108 to bond the rings to the domes. I then glued a thin acrylic strip to the inside of the lower ring to serve as an alignment along the equator. The strip also prevents stray light from escaping along the trench.
The time had come to test the internal lighting of the model. I had bought a socket, a light bulb and an electric cable with a dimmer. The cable was thread through the tube and through a hole in its side above the bottom mount of the model. I assembled the model parts and plugged it in. I was amazed by how much light there was.
The super laser was vacuum-formed from styrene. I made the plug from epoxy putty. The laser is built in layers, so I formed two 1mm and one 0.5mm sheets. These were cut into different diameters and sandwiched. I scribed the fine lines inside the laser with the back of an X-acto blade and added some small pieces of 0.5mm styrene to simulate the raised surface elements. The laser was bonded to the plexiglass with epoxy glue. I enforced the seam with epoxy putty. The domes were then sprayed with automotive primer. The primer was sanded smooth with 240 sanding paper.
I had to give the model a coat of black to seal the surface against emitting unwanted light. I had to be careful to avoid too much paint buildup or the edges around the equator would be rounded. There are some very thin raised surface sections at the polar regions of the Death Star. Plastic would be too thick, so I decided to build them up with primer. I masked out the parts that needed to be raised and sprayed a coat of primer over it. It was a joyful moment when I removed the masking and found that the results were successful.
The domes were given a coat of Tamyia paint: a very light imperial blue that I mixed myself. I now faced the rather daunting task of masking out all the surface sections of my battle station. I made a tracing tool that allowed me to draw straight lines from the poles to the equator. This tool was filled with plaster at the base to make it steady.
I carefully drew the lines with a soft pencil so as not to scratch the paint. I used Tamyia masking tape to mask out the sections that were to be given a darker coat. I laid long strips of tape out on a sheet of styrene and then used a steel ruler to cut extremely thin strips. These strips were then applied to the model. The good thing is that when you remove the tape after the model is painted, the pencil markings come off with it.
I sprayed the open areas with a darker version of the surface color. Some areas were sprayed lighter than the rest to give the feeling of variation. I also sprayed some sections in a slightly more earth-colored tone. Once again the unmasking became a moment of awe and satisfaction. The model looked great.
I had to drill thousands of window holes to make the Death Star operational. I used a 0.3mm drill bit and a small electric drill. It was awfully tempting to switch to a bigger tool. The only thing that kept me sane through this process was a frequent test mount to see the effect. I had a boost of inspiration every time I turned on the light.
The finished model exceeded my expectations. I felt like Grand Moff Henning with the power to destroy any planet I cared to select.