Portland TechShop and Me: 30 years in the making

Post date: Jun 30, 2009 2:36:10 AM

In the late 70s, when I was 8 years old, I had almost all of the Mego 8 inch Superhero action figures. Sure, they looked like dolls, but I knew better. Dolls were for girls, these were action figures! I enjoyed building things for my heroes: walls out of wooden blocks to crash through, cars made out of Tinker-Toys that always ended up in a horrific crash, and secret head-quarters made out of discarded Styrofoam boxes.

Mego Figures: Spiderman, Hulk, Mr. Spock

As I grew older, to show how grownup I was, I got rid of my childish action figures. As I grew older still, I realized I wasn't so grownup, and started collecting them again. Armed with an adult income and eBay I was able to repurchase the dolls (I mean action figures) of my youth and even find new ones I didn't know existed. Soon I ran out of things to buy: I had replaced the figures of my youth and the new discoveries were out of my price range. However, my collection still had missing heroes and villains, the ones that Mego never created in the first place. I learned about the hobby community of custom action figures, where people make new figures in the spirit of the ones created 30 years ago. Now the glaring omissions in my collection could be corrected. Doctor Doom could finally menace the Fantastic Four, the Flash could run along with his Super-friends, and Chekov and Sulu could pilot the enterprise.

I had amassed an impressive army of 8 inch action figures (not dolls) lining my shelves standing in straight rows. But there must be more to life than just standing around in straight rows getting dusty. I now wanted playsets and accessories for my figures. However both the toys from the 70s and the custom hobby scene had little to offer. I needed someway to make plastic tables and chairs for my figures. Note that these tables and chairs are heroic accessories and not doll house furniture.

Laser cutter at TechShop with on-looker

In this quest to make unique things for my figures I ran across the new Portland TechShop (www.portlandtechshop.com). The TechShop is sort of run like a heath club. You pay a monthly membership and get to use their equipment. The TechShop has an amazing device, called a laser cutter, that can precisely cut plastic to whatever shape you want. I signed up for a class on the laser cutter and became a member of the TechShop the next day. One of the first projects I worked on was a 3-D chess board and pieces from the original Star Trek show in 1:9 scale to match my 8 inch Star Trek figures. I dug up my old Star Fleet Technical Reference Manual which had a precise drawing of the chess board and started designing it for the laser cutter. After a few days with some trial and error, I had a design that worked. The combination of clear and opaque plastic with tiny chess pieces (the pawn is 1/4 inch) made for an impressive feat of engineering. I showed pictures of the finished chess board to other fans of Mego figures at the Mego Museum (www.megomuseum.com) on the internet. Some of the Mego fans were so impressed they wanted to purchase a set for their collection. One nice thing about making a design on the laser cutter, is that you can make more by pressing a button. Within a week, I had designed, tweaked, and sold my first project. It was so much fun, I opened a store called LaserMego (www.lasermego.com) to create and sell more accessories for the Mego action figures. Pretty soon, I had sold enough items to cover my membership at the TechShop and the material needed to make the products.

3-D Chess Set

Now I'm taking more classes to learn how to use the wood working tools and a CNC mill (a computer controlled cutting device). I hope in the future to be able to do vacuum-forming and 3-D printing. The proceedings from my store will hopefully allow me to continue making new and innovative stuff. The possibilities are endless. Thank-you Portland Tech Shop!

- Paul Wasson (www.lasermego.com)

Paul is a hardware engineer at Nvidia in Beaverton Oregon during the week and a plastic cutting maniac on weekends.