Sun City Steam Fest Part IV: The Crafters

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk
— Thomas A. Edison

By Oisin McGillion Hughes

“The easiest way to make a steampunk character is to figure out a profession for them,” Nick Ward explains. Ward, AKA Captain Arcko Bancroft, is a graphic designer by day and Steampunk “crafter” by night. “They’ve got to make a living somehow, whether they are a pirate or an engineer. Then you Steampunk that profession.” Ward is wearing brass plate armor, complete with pressure gauges and miniature smoke stacks on his back.

It’s Saturday afternoon, the second day of the Sun City Steam Fest, and Ward is standing on stage with Jessi Arntz, AKA Sonya Tyburn, the owner and creator of JA Fantasy Art. 

“A friend of mine is a seamstress,” Arntz explains, “and that is what she wanted to do for her character. Originally, her outfit was just the standard corset, bustle, skirt, boots, stuff like that. She wanted a belt with some stuff on it for her seamstress things. So I made her a holster/pouch sort of thing and she put scissors, some spools of thread, her needle set and a measuring tape in it.”

“Everybody starts somewhere,” Arntz tells the crowd. “If I showed you picture of my first outfit, you might laugh.” 

“It was cute,” says Ward. 

Today Arntz is wearing a full suit of armor and helmet made from what appears to be dinosaur leather. It’s no laughing matter. Together, Ward and Arntz call themselves Coyote’s Fortune and their enthusiasm for what they do is palpable. And the pair are always ready to share that enthusiasm with others.

“One of the things that steampunks pride themselves on is being able to spread the information,” Ward tells me, walking across Tricky Falls with his four-foot-tall alien-octopus-powered gun slung over his shoulder. “Everyone needs a weapon right? You can go to Goodwill or Savers and find yourself a Nerf gun a dollar. And if they don’t work, it doesn’t matter. I collected Nerf gun for a while and eventually I really need to get rid of an entire closet full of Nerf guns. So I took a saw and I started chopping pieces off and riveting every connection possible and sure enough it works. If you’re a masochist, you can decide to make something from scratch. This is Persephone,” he says, referring to the gun on his shoulder. “We found her on the shores of this wayward reality. She electrocuted a bison and was busy dragging it into the water. I picked her up and put her in this beautiful aether cabin here.” Ward taps the side of the gun. All of this is said tongue-in-cheek. 

Steampunk culture seems to encourage this kind of creativity, but always with a sense of humor. It may be serious fun for some, but fun is still the key word.

“I’ve had people come up to me and ask how do you differentiate between your character and what’s going on in real life,” Ward says, shaking his head. “You’re a real person.”

 In its way, Steampunk is a rebellion against our increasingly homogeneous corporate culture. No two goggles are the same, so to speak, and that’s how they like it. There’s a sense of community here, of individuals creating and sharing their passion.

“Its all about free information for us. Steampunks are willing to help people make their own unique creations.”

“For Steampunks, if someone won’t tell you how they made something,” Arntz adds, her helmet under her arm, “it’s not worth talking to them.”

“If you want to make yourself some leather armor, I would take time out of my day and help you find the materials and to learn the techniques that are necessary to do that. But,” he adds, smiling “if you didn’t want to buy all those the tools and supplies we could save you the time and make something for you. That’s how I look at it.”

Arntz and Ward take their places at the Coyote’s Fortune table in the middle of Tricky Falls. Shoppers lean down to look over the brass-painted animal skulls and leather gauntlets that line the table. 

“Steampunk prides itself on handcrafted goods,” Arntz says, as Ward helps her to unlace her shoulder armor. “It’s still a unique niche despite becoming more mainstream. There was a girl in here earlier wearing a pair of Steampunk Mickey Mouse ears. But then there are people who make it into a lifestyle who are still going to be into it when it’s not popular or mainstream anymore.” 

Arntz has been a costume designer and prop builder for six years, after building her first suit of Star Wars armor in 2009. Both Arntz and Ward credit Steampunk Abney Park and performance group Airship Isabella with their helping along their conversion to Steampunk. 

When a photographer friend asked Jessi Arntz to make some Steampunk clothing for a photoshoot, Arntz gave herself a crash course in leather-working. “I went to Hobby Lobby and bought a bag of scrap leather. I had no ideas what rivets were at the time, so I got a snap kit. My holster was held together with Gorilla Glue and snaps.” Arntz learned quickly and recommends the free 10am Saturday leather-working classes held at the Tandy Leather Factory on El Paso’s East Side.

“There are a couple of old gentlemen out there,” Ward chimes in, “with beards down to their waists. I don’t know why old leather-workers have giant beards; it speaks of sage-like qualities. And certainly these gentlemen are very knowledge in their skills. They work on scrap leather and they can teach you all the necessary know-how to make all the stuff that we’ve made.” 

“Nick’s armor is made from two types of plastic,” Arntz says, tapping Ward’s chest-plate. “You can go to Loews and buy sign making plastic. It’s very thin and easy to crack, but that’s what these thin layers are made of. Then underneath is quarter inch Sintra plastic.”

“Ah, plastic, near and dear to my heart,” Ward sighs. “There’s a place called Piedmont Plastic,” Ward says with obvious relish, “where you can get an 8 foot by 10 foot sheet of plastic for 30 dollars. You could make four sets of my armor with that.”

“There’s a Steampunk joke that Lowe's is not a hardware store,” Arntz says, “it’s a Steampunk clothing store.”

“The poor, helpful assistants there,” Ward laughs. “They’ll see you in the PVC aisle trying to connect brass pieces to PVC pipe and a sprinkler head. Because you have to look beyond what an item is. You can put together some really cool props for budget prices. You can even re-purpose things from around the house. Plastic containers and old toys, for example.”

A lot of creativity goes into creating things like goggles, the basic starter kit for the well-dressed Steampunk.

“Some people make them out of leather and brass piping, or Speedo swimming goggles. The goggles that we sell are level 5 welding goggles.”

“And they make fantastic sunglasses,” Ward adds.

“All of our pieces are blood, sweat and tears,” Ward says. 

“And that’s pretty literal,” Arntz nods. “If you’re working with power tools then, for the love of God, at least have someone in the house with you."

Dodging among the clouds, and evidently desirous of avoiding observation, we remarked an individual on a machine that seemed like a flying narwhal, or unicorn fish, the snout being furnished with a long and formidable spike resembling the creature’s horn
— -Percival Leigh, The Aerial Burglar (1844) (Often credited as the first work of Steampunk fiction)


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