Shawn Thorsson of Petaluma has turned his lifelong fascination with science fiction into a bona fide career, creating realistic helmets, armor and accessories for motion picture studios, video game conventions and serious collectors willing to pay the price for a custom-made piece of sculpture.
“I’m someone with skills and tools who spends a couple of weeks turning expensive materials into a piece of custom artwork,” said Thorsson, 39. “There’s a significant amount of know-how to get that right.”
If you have to ask how much these intricate and realistic costumes cost, then you probably can’t afford one. A custom helmet may only set you back a few thousand, but the price of a full character who can fly may soar into six figures.
“Some collectors are thrilled that someone can do it, and others say, ‘Money is no object, just do it,’” he said. “Then I give them an estimate ... Usually, I stop hearing from them at that point.”
As the founder and CEO of Thorsson & Associates, he works mostly in a former chicken coop at his parents’ home in west Petaluma, creating wearable body armor, weapons and accessories made from leather, plastic, wood, fiberglass and Eurathane resin, among other materials.
His main equipment is a sheetrock knife, but he has also mastered the art of the 3-D printer; the CarveWright CNC, a 3-D carving and cutting system; and Pepakura Designer Shareware, a Japanese paper sculpting program.
Paint-splattered, dusty and lined with silicon molds and prototype helmets, this mad genius’ workshop measures just 30 feet by 50 feet, but within its four walls, Thorsson has turned out a veritable army of futuristic creatures, from the T-60 Power Armor character inspired by “Fallout 4” video game to the ED-209 robot from the movie “RoboCop.”
An lifelong tinkerer, Thorsson made his own toys while growing up in Petaluma and built model kits in high school. After graduating from the New York Maritime College with a degree in Naval Architecture and engineering, he spent six years in active duty in the Navy, then transferred into the reserve and sailed with the Merchant Marines.
Along the way, he kept making projects in his garage. By 2008, his hobby had gotten so serious that he no longer had the time to go back to sea.
In October 2012, Thorsson appeared on the cover of Make: magazine, standing in front of one of his Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines. Over the years, he has also become a star attraction at the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo.
Last year, he shared his expertise with the world by writing a how-to book, “Make: Props and Costume Armor,” published by Maker Media of San Francisco. The soft-back book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. In his spare time, Thorsson also writes a blog called “When my Brain Leaks, the Drops Drip Here,” Protagonist4hire.blogspot.com.
“I make toys for kids who don’t want to grow up,” he wrote in an introduction to his blog. “If you’re interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.”
We caught up with the crafty Thorsson in his workshop one misty morning in January.
Q. You got your start in 2004 by making stormtrooper costumes for Halloween. Are you a fan?
Cookbooks by John Ash
“American Game Cooking” by John Ash and Sid Goldstein (1991): It concentrates on farm-raised game birds and meats likely found in grocery stores — wild boar, buffalo, duck, goose, quail and venison, with generic wine pairings. Running Press published a second edition in 1993.
“From the Earth to the Table” by John Ash and Sid Goldstein (1995): This cookbook summarized Ash’s philosophy and the cooking style inspired by his long-time association with the now-defunct Fetzer Vineyard’s Valley Oaks Food and Wine Center. It won 1996 IACP awards for Best American Cookbook and Julia Child Cookbook of the Year. First Chronicle Books published a revised edition in 2007.
“John Ash Cooking One-on-One” by John Ash with Amy Mintzer (2004): Ash reduced his cooking instruction to some simple principals — flavor-boosters, basic cooking techniques and main ingredients. It won a 2005 James Beard Award.
“Culinary Birds” by John Ash with James O. Fraioli (2013): This book features more than 170 ways to enjoy poultry. It won a 2014 James Beard Award.
“Cooking Wild” by John Ash and James O. Fraioli (2016, Running Press): This cookbook circles back to Ash’s first tome while enlarging the scope of wild foods to include vegetables and fruits, grains and seafood.