One of the biggest impacts Star Wars has had on the world, is its influence in the arts community. Some of the greatest works of art in the fan community has come in the form of customized figures, which enables fans to own and create characters that have never been produced, or build more screen accurate costumes or versions of characters that haven’t been released.
Stephen Ward is a Texas-based customizer who caught our attention with some absolutely stunning Boba Fett figures. While the Boba Fett 6-inch is one of the highest praised figures from the new Black Series line, Ward has not only created more screen accurate versions of the bounty hunter – but has pumped out a small squadron of armor variants – ranging from the Holiday Special, to Droids and Boba Fett’s Prototype Armor.
We got the chance to talk to Ward about his custom work, how he got into the hobby and what projects he has planned in the future.
How long have you been a Star Wars collector? Do you have any specific collecting focus?
My Star Wars story started early. I started collecting Star Wars toys as a little kid; it was 1989 and I was 5 years old. One of my first childhood memories was at KB Toys and my mom buying a Han in Carbonite from the Power of the Force line. I wasn’t really into Star Wars yet, but as I understand it, the last figures KB had were on steep discount sale for 50 cents or so – even in 1989, that was pretty cheap. It was a few more years until I got really into the movies and subsequently going to antique malls and flea markets with my mom, picking up vintage figures. My favorite character was – of course – Boba Fett.
It was the POTF2 line’s introduction which had me super stoked upon its release and I bought up everything I could get my hands on with lawn mowing money. Once I got to high school I was ‘too cool’ for Star Wars toys and everything I owned went into boxes and I didn’t get back into collecting until after I got out of the Army years later.
As an adult, I collect vintage figures loose and on-card. Occasionally I have to pick up a modern Boba Fett item like the Black Series figure or the new Saga Legends figure.
When did you learn about customizing figures? What prompted you to first try your hand at it?
Customizing figures was a natural extension of my ‘original’ hobby, which is sculpting and painting historical/military miniatures. As a kid I loved painting the figures which came with plane and tank models – more than I enjoyed the scale models themselves. That grew into converting existing figures and eventually sculpting my own, mostly in 1:32 scale, with each figure only being about as tall as my pinky finger. I’m a literature and art nerd so I’ve done pieces of Hemingway (my favorite writer) and stuff like a piece based on old German woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger. I’ve done quite a few pieces about the Iraq War in recent years as well since that’s within my wheelhouse, having served there in combat over 10 years ago.
What was the first character you ever customized? How did the project turn out and what important lessons did you learn from the experience?
The first Star Wars figure I ever customized was the new Black Series 6” Boba Fett; I wanted to improve the stock Hasbro paint apps. I was pretty happy with how it turned out actually. The biggest lesson I learned? Probably that a lot more hours went into a 6-inch figure than I ever would have expected.
What goes into customizing a figure? What’s a basic way to customize a figure, compared to more advance methods? What are the tools of the trade?
Customizing a figure is as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Keep in mind that I jumped into doing custom stuff without any real experience with action figures specifically. All my experience was starting from a wire armature and using putty and some stock parts to build miniature figures. Much of my work with customs has been modifications of the existing figures with some putty, a couple coats of primer and then acrylic paints made for the gaming and miniature hobbies. Swapping and heavily modifying parts from different figures as well as the scratch building of accessories for a figure are definitely more complex applications.
Tools for customs are fairly simple – a good Xacto knife, files, putty, some handmade lathed brass rods for sculpting, and steel wool & polishing pads are essential to making the figure into its final form. Brite Touch automotive primer, Vallejo and Reaper acrylic paints, and some good Winsor &Newton Miniature Series 7 brushes are what I use to prime and paint each figure. Good brushes are absolutely essential; Series 7 brushes aren’t cheap but they are the best brushes for any artist working in miniature. All the talent and the best supplies can’t save a figure painted using a cheap brush which won’t hold a sharp point.
When Hasbro announced its 6-inch line, did you immediately begin thinking about opportunities to customize? Is customizing this scale of figure more or less challenging than the smaller scale figures?
To be honest, I didn’t really think about customizing any of the 6-inch stuff at all. I had thought previously about reworking some of the existing 3.75-inch stuff and repainting it the way I would paint a scratch built figure, with highlights, shadows, mid-tones, all placed to replicate light and shadow in scale.
Larger scale means you can load the figure up with tons of small details – but some of the stuff like base coating sections of a figure with a specific color feel much more like a chore because of the size.
Your custom Boba Fett is astounding. What inspired you to start this project, how did you go about planning what you needed to complete the figure?
I’ve been humbled by the feedback I’ve received from these custom figures. Like I said earlier, I never really had any intentions of working on the 6-inch Black Series. But I have always been a huge Boba Fett fan, and the paint apps on the Hasbro figure were pretty lacking in my opinion. I received two of the Black Series figures around the holidays so one I kept in the box for the collection, and one became fodder for a more accurate version.
I scoured the best reference for Boba on the Internet – thedentedhelmet.com – for tons of pictures of the original costume to get small details right, especially the helmet. Using hundreds of pictures from the times the ‘hero’ helmet from Empire was on tour and displayed (plus HD screen grabs, production shots, and behind-the-scenes stills) I was able to get a great library of reference.
I tried to make the colors match better, make every scratch and scrape and paint chip accurate, and bring the Hasbro figure to a new level. Obviously some small modifications were made such as replacing the rangefinder stalk, shortening the cape, and replacing the Wookie braids were done to add some more accuracy and depth to the figure itself.
Did you have any trouble locating 6-inch Boba Fetts for these projects, since some fans have reported trouble finding the figure? What type of costs goes into the average custom project?
As far as projects for other folks go, the Fetts themselves have been provided but I have had to get a few on my own from third party sources in order to complete some orders for figures. Personally, I can’t easily find extra figures at retail for MY own projects I wanna do, so I feel the pain of the fans who are unsuccessfully hunting them down. I’m like you guys, and have to resort to sourcing them from the secondary market sometimes, too.
How long did you work on the customized versions of Boba Fett? How did you go about customizing these figures and which was more challenging?
Planning, planning, planning is key. If you are gonna customize anything, research and reference pictures are the most important part of the process. I could have winged it with my Empire figure, but I took the time to gather hundreds of pictures first because it makes all the difference when you have the right stuff to compare the work in progress to.
The most challenging version, believe it or not, is the Super Trooper. Filling the helmet dent and the dings in the armor of the stock figure are a bit more difficult than they originally seemed on the first one I made. The whole kicker is that it’s gotta look seamless in the transition between the original plastic of the figure and the epoxy putty used to fill it in. Lots of careful sanding and polishing was needed to make it happen – and I’ll admit that the first attempt at wasn’t 100 percent successful.
How did you approach customizing the accessories for these figures? Also, what goes into the added step of customizing packaging for these projects?
Accessories aren’t much different than the figure itself. They may require some primer and paint to bring them up to par. The Super Trooper version I did first actually had a simple scratch built laser pistol; it was made from Evergreen styrene rod and tube plus good ol’ superglue.
I haven’t really done much custom packaging. That’s a whole other realm that folks with the talent for need to do. I did see some really great work on a Super Trooper custom which included a white with black accents box for it. Awesome stuff.
Do you have any plans to customize other versions of Boba Fett or other Mandalorians?
So far I’ve done quite a few versions of Boba: Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Droids, the Holiday Special, and of course the prototype Super Trooper.
I have a few others that are in the works soon- the pre-production version 2 (based on the version painted by the talented Sandy Dhuyvetter and subsequently photographed for the original Kenner figure cardback), a version based on the Mythos statue by Sideshow Collectibles, and a Jodo Kast, of course.
I’m about to start a vintage 3.75-inch Luke as well for my friend Shane, which will be painted in the same style as my miniature work – with light and shade to make the face and hands seem more alive than just an old figure with wide eyes and generic flesh tone paint.
I always thought that most of the Star Wars figures were pretty damn good sculpts beneath their simple paintwork, and that one could improve the classic sculpts with serious paintwork if they tried. The 3.75-inch stuff is more my speed since it’s smaller and more comfortable to paint and I’m looking forward to many more projects in this scale.
That’s what’s so great about the hobby and about custom work with Star Wars figures, there’s more subject matter than any one person could have time for which leaves the possibilities wide open.
Do you have any other comments about customizing in general? Also, have you considered doing commission work?
There’s some cool work being done in the customs hobby today, a lot of creative artists turning some decent figures into really neat original work. Man, as far as my stuff goes, I’m just a guy from Texas doing what I love to do. I am enjoying working on Star Wars stuff as much as miniature stuff I’ve done, and probably a bit more so. Star Wars has been a constant since I was a kid and it’s taken on a deeper meaning now that I have two daughters, one who is 8 and one who is about 9 months. My oldest has a lot of my childhood POTF2 stuff still on the card displayed proudly, and my little one likes to use old beater vintage figures as playthings. Seeing it all as a parent makes me love Star Wars that much more.
As far as commission work, every single figure I have done with the exception of my initial Empire version has been a commission thus far actually. I am always open to more commission work, and not just Boba Fett stuff (although he’s a lot of fun), so if there’s something anyone has in mind feel free to drop me a line.
Thanks for taking the time to talk and showcase the work. I owe a lot to good friends in the collecting hobby, Frank, Jav, Shane, for being good friends in general and for encouraging the work I’m doing. It’s grown into something all its own now which keeps me constantly busy and continues to become much bigger than just one single figure I made for myself.