You never know how your passion projects and life’s ambitions will intersect.
A few years ago, Steve Schwartzentruber found himself an empty nester with a lot more free time. An avid Star Wars fan and lifelong model builder, Steve regularly attended Toronto’s Fan Expo where he was in awe of the life-sized model robots known as Astromechs.
More specifically, ‘Astromech’ is a term used by the Star Wars franchise to describe the robots or droids that serve as mechanics on starships. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is a droid named R2D2.
“Every year, I would see the R2 Builders Club there and was always astonished at astromechs and people’s’ reactions to them. Being in the presence of a well-built astromech indeed feels like being in the presence of a movie or rock star,” says Steve.
Fan Expo Opens Door to Opportunity to Build Droid
While attending a R2 Builders Club panel discussion, an audience member’s question would give Steve an idea he hadn’t dreamed of.
“Almost facetiously, somebody asked, ‘So what do you guys do with these when you are done? Sit in your basements with them?’” says Steve. “The man on stage just kind of smiled and replied, ‘No, we take them to Children’s Hospitals, and raise funds for Make-A-Wish.’”
Instantly, Steve was hooked on the idea of building a droid of his own – as it offered the perfect opportunity for him to occupy his free time with a hobby that would enable him to give back to the community.
“Not only would it be a way for me to volunteer for a worthy cause, it would also allow me to culminate two life long hobbies into one grand project. That was how I viewed R2, like a big model, with some electronics added in,” he adds.
Joining the R2 Builders Club and Building an Astromech to Spec
“Joining the club was easy enough, the R2 Builders Club have a website, astromech.net, filled with a community of builders who all help each other to reach this goal, including people from all walks of life from many different countries,” he says.
One of the first things a newcomer learns about building astromechs is that it takes a lot of research. You really have to choose what exactly you want your droid to do. There is simply no droid in the the world that can do the things done on screen.
However, any “club built” R2 unit is actually made from blueprints drafted from screen-used droids, and builders do as much as possible to re-create the droid to exacting specifications.
“Aside from the fact that R2D2 is not autonomous, all the little gadgets you see him deploy onscreen are physically impossible to put inside one droid that does it all. Every droid is unique in itself, as choices are made according to builder preference. So when I sat down to really decide what I wanted mine to do, I tried to keep in mind that he was for mostly hospital visits. An entertainment droid was what I wanted. Something that could not only just look good, but could provide as much entertainment as possible,” says Steve.
Onboard Music and Cinema Enables R2-E6 to Project Media and Spread Joy
“Being an avid music lover, I decided to make my R2 as sort of a portable jukebox,” says Steve about his droid’s sound capabilities. “His sound system is built from a car stereo and four speakers. He has his own iPod, so he can play whatever music I see fit. “
“He’s also capable of showing movies, he’s got a projector located behind his front holoprojector. I kept this in mind when naming him as well. Most people just call all the droids R2-D2, however we all give our droids their own designations. R2-E6 is an entertainment droid in his sixth generation.
R2-E6 Took Two Years to Build – Here’s a Video of His First ‘Steps’
“Building R2-E6 was both challenging and rewarding,” says Steve. “There were some days when I thought it would never get finished. Although he is never truly finished, I got to the point where I considered him presentable after two years and two weeks.”
Although Astromechs can be built from a variety of materials, including a combination of wood, fiberglass, and styrene, Steve discovered that he had another, more versatile option, aluminum.
“To attain the level of functionality that I wanted him to have, I soon learned that aluminum was the best material. I wanted him to not only look like a droid, but to BE a droid. Certainly when you are up close, or comparing one beside another, the aluminum makes all the difference.
See R2-E6’s build and ‘first steps’ on Steve’s Youtube Channel.
R2-E6 Brightens Children’s Hospitals with Support of Lucasfilm and Disney
“Without a doubt my favorite experience with him stems from any hospital visit,” says Steve.
Lucasfilm and now Disney are extremely supportive in these ventures and fan groups like the 501st, and the Rebel Legion, work closely with companies. This not only provides builders and enthusiasts with a stamp of approval to create droids and embark on philanthropic missions, but also ensures that copyright laws are not broken. For instance, all of the members’ activities are charity-based and not-for-profit, ensuring that no one is reaping personal gain from copyright protected designs and characters, while also allowing the clubs to exist.
Other Perks of Putting Passion to Work
As part of his club membership, Steve says that he not only gets to enjoy charity work, but also other perks from working with the Star Wars franchise. This includes access to screen-used droids for the production of the members’ own blueprints, as well as access to the sound files that make up the R2D2 personality. There are a few opportunities as well to attend movie premieres, and special events that only fan club members have access to.
Although the creation of R2-E6 was time-consuming and labor intensive, Steve believes that he is still only at the beginning of his droid creating adventure.
“He has only been finished for a year, but in that year has provided so much joy to not only others, but to myself as well. I look forward to what the future has in store for the both of us.”