Steampunk follies

This is a style not usually associated with children’s toys or models, but my young testers were interested in my initial attempts so I have tried creating some construction toys in the genre, in 3mm laser-cut plywood.

Steampunk is sometimes described as retrofuturistic, a sub-genre of science fiction. It roots are in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, Bruce Willis and others, mixed with the gothic and scientific romance of Mary Shelly (Frankenstein), Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) as well as more recent authors such as Michael Moorcock.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – A BBC illustration

Visually, the American steam locomotives and steamboats had an impact on some TV designers in the 1960s, and the artist Remedios Varo produced work that examined machinery and artefacts. But literary influences defined the genre in the west, while in Japan the manga comics were creating steampunk imagery from the 1940s onward, long before the term steampunk began to be used.

Manga comic, June 1940

The steam engine itself provides many of the most popular images, heavy iron, riveted plating, brass pipework, dials, valves, levers and obscure machinery. This is often combined, anachronistically with the imagery of the airship, a device which was thought to be the future of air transport at the beginning of the 20th Century. The games industry has created many of the most familiar images, with a wide range of styles in games such as Rise of Legends, Final Fantasy VI, The Chaos Engine et al.

Final Fantasy VI

No one ever powered a flying machine with a steam engine and it seems unlikely that anyone ever will, but it can be fun to imagine doing so. There are very few steampunk aeroplane drawings or models which look as if they might fly, those that do tend to be ‘diesel punk’ which allows for similar solidity and style but with far more apparent power.

There are some interesting steampunk helicopter designs on the web but as with the aeroplane designs many tend to use the gas bag or the jet engine to overcome the obvious visual discrepancies with apparent weight. Adding weapons is popular but is still more visual weight and it’s not something I would do.

Design for a model steampunk ‘copter – Chris Miller 2020

Plywood is not the most obvious material to use when trying to use the steampunk style, but the designer in me wants to rise to the challenge. I try to avoid the most cliched elements in my own steampunk designs – not always successfully – and to combine easy of assembly with good play value and hopefully something to attract children of all ages. I can’t get much cutting done at present due to the Corvid 19 lockdown but hopefully this will ease soon. My web site – Miller Toys and Models – will have new models as soon as possible.

Modeling with foamboard

I love using foamboard, cheap of course but it’s main attraction for me is the speed at which I can work – I am an impatient person, at times.

One of the laser-cut plywood construction models I make is a helicopter and as a flat pack it fits on a 30cm square.  But this is too big for letter boxes and the rest of my model/toys fit on three or four A5 sheets.  So a bit of remodeling is called for.

I started with a new blade in the Stanley knife but the tip was quickly blunted on the cutting board.  I was using 5mm foamboard but the actual model is 3mm ply so some of the dimensions are a little off.  Luckily foamboard is very forgiving and can be trimmed easily or just squeezed into the space.  The small pieces are not really needed to prove the changes but it is nice to see the thing as it will look.  Now to get to work in Inkscape, a free vector drawing app, and make the changes to the .svg file.  Once that is done I will print out the revised file on thick card, cut out the pieces and check for fit,  then, if all  seems good send the file to Cut & Burn in Exmouth and get the prototype in a day or two, hopefully without any mistakes on my part.