The Hippo


Dec 6, 2019








Tom Doucet and Mike Velcheck. Kelly Sennott photo.

Star Wars superfans
How to make your own R2-D2

By Kelly Sennott

In a galaxy not so far away — this galaxy, in fact — there exists a group of Star Wars fans so devoted, they’ve created a club exclusively for R2-D2 builders, with more than 7,000 active members worldwide.

A handful are right here in New Hampshire, and one, Tom Doucet, made an appearance at a Chunky’s premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with his R2-D2 in tow last month.
“It’s all steel and aluminium. The fans loved it. Everybody loved it,” Doucet said during an interview at the space where he now does his work,  MakeIt Labs in Nashua, while wheeling out the robot from underneath a white cloth via a remote-controlled device.
R2-D2 shook, spun and made the magical noises characteristic of the Star Wars sidekick. When you press the side buttons, a variety of Star Wars tunes play, as do a couple movie quotes. (“R2-D2, where are you?!”).
“[The music] seems to be one of the crowd-pleasers,” Doucet said. “This guy has seen a lot of miles.”
Doucet made the robot with Mike Velcheck back in 2010. The pair are grown-up Star Wars fanatics. Velcheck said he first saw the film as a 7-year-old in Nashua, when movie tickets were $1.50. Doucet became a die-hard when he watched it in the rearview mirror of his mother’s car — she’d smuggled him into the drive-in because she wanted to see the other flick playing that day, The Gumball Rally.
The men found each other on the R2-D2 Builders Club website. Velcheck’s background is in electrical engineering, and Doucet’s is in mechanical design. Together, they figured they’d be the ideal robot builder, and so they constructed the iconic character by combining their mismatched collection of robot parts.
The result was Round 1 of what will be at least two robot projects. Their next will be the “Cadillac” version, with all the bells and whistles. It will be made from plastic instead of metal, ensuring the new bot will be lighter weight and easier to work with, not to mention easier to manufacture in the lab with access to the group’s 3D printer. A collection of newly cut design parts lay on Doucet’s work desk, ready for assembly. 
“The version we made was just enough to get people’s attention,” Doucet said. “It’s clunky, it’s got problems, but it’s our hunk of junk. … But we’ll have better technology, more time and more resources to work with.”
They’ve taken the robot across the country to gatherings and conventions, meeting other club members in the process.
“The nice thing about having [so many] builders in the club is that people try and fail at a lot of things. So there’s a lot of knowledge going around, and if you’re willing to dig, you can find the dos and don’ts of almost anything — how to paint it, how to get the spin lines out of the dome, how to best attach it so that, when you gotta take a leg off, you’re not gutting the whole thing to do it,” Velcheck said. 
It’s also more affordable; for example, one member will mass-produce something and sell it to others. 
Doucet said the Star Wars fandom is getting bigger and bigger every day, and so is the builders group, with people bringing in “every shred of information they can find.” Lucasfilm Ltd. and Disney paid a nod to the organization when, in the latest flick, there was a brief appearance of R2-KT, a bot inspired by a Star Wars mega-fan named Katie Johnson, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004. Her dad Albin Johnson (founder of the 501st Legion, the Star Wars fan club) led the way in making the pink bot that would watch over the girl as she slept, and many other members of the R2-D2 Builders Club pitched in.
The latest excitement in the group is trying to get the information required to build the newest robot character in the film, BB-8, an orange and white droid that moves on a sphere. Velcheck said he thinks numbers in the club go up during movie years or between big conventions.
“This is a very iconic, recognizable thing. Everybody on the face of the planet knows what this is. I think that’s probably why they’re geared to building something like that,” Velcheck said. “We have seen the trend that, when these movies or conventions come out, there’s a wave of new builders that, all of a sudden, get on board with it.”
Doucet said he he likes building for the hobby of it; whenever he’s not doing R2 stuff, he’s hanging out at MakeIt Labs, reveling in the group’s other creations.
“I’m happy just as long as I’m building something,” Doucet said. 

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