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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?

I’m a fan like anybody else my age, but I only make “Star Wars” costumes as a hobby. I’ve done a few costumes for the 501st Legion of stormtroopers, which does charity events or official appearances on behalf of Lucasfilm.

These days, a lot more people are getting excited about science fiction, and “Star Wars” is not the only thing out there.

Q. Have you ever been to Rancho Obi-Wan, the museum of “Star Wars” memorabilia in Petaluma?

A friend invited me to come on a three-hour tour there. It sounded painful, but I could have stayed for another three hours. The museum itself is a converted chicken barn, about five minutes from here.

Q. Do you have any serious competition?

Anovos is licensed for studio-quality costumes for “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Ghostbusters” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Sideshow Collectibles also does some, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s not being made by anybody else. I’m doing a lot of custom work for studios.

Q. Who are your other clients?

A Last year, I built weapons to hunt the giant monster from the video game “Evolve,” for a convention. I was able to get the models from them, and I fabricated everything digitally. It took me 22 days to make four guns. One was 5 feet long.

This year, I have a new project for a video game studio to promote a new character.

Q. What are your hours like?

The work is erratic. I keep really insane hours, because I do it for work and for a hobby. Typically, I am here from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then I go home and fall asleep at the computer.

Q. Are you making a decent living?

I’m doing reasonably well. My success is due to my own relentless self-promotion. I get by, pay my bills and travel frequently. I know I’d be making more money working on a ship, but I’d still be spending it on this.

Q. How did the book come about?

I got an e-mail from Roger Stewart of Make: magazine about a book on how to make costumes and props. I offered to write the whole thing. I told him, “You won’t find anyone who is better than me in all of these things, and with a sense of humor.” If I can make it funny, I will. I wanted it to be entertaining. The handful of reviews have said it’s actually funny on its way to being informative.

Q. Do you worry about giving your secrets away?

When I made the stormtrooper suit, there was one website and people didn’t tell anyone else how they made things. That attitude has gone out of style. I know how to cook a hamburger, but for some reason, there’s still a McDonald’s. People aren’t going to take food off my plate.

With the book, you’ve got an idea, space, free time and the cash. Cool. You can make some presentable stuff. But, if a film producer came up and said, we need this in a week, I can do that with my tools and shortcuts. Plus, once the person sees what’s involved, they may just hire me to do it.

Q. Do you ever need a set of extra hands?

I have a deep bench of folks I can call in to help out. One does laser cutting through wood and metal, and the other does photo etching. Sometimes I invite someone over to work, and they can use my tools, and I’ll keep the mold.

Q. Are there any problems that people have when they wear the costumes at an event?

The lenses in a helmet will often fog up. The 501st Legion will come up with creative ways to deal with that, like spray coating it like a dive mask, or using a little electric fan inside the helmet.

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

I volunteer with the local Sea Scout ship. They meet here every Wednesday night, and we get out one weekend a month and cruise to Angel Island or other places.

Q. What would you do if you didn’t make costumes?

It would be easier to do something for a steady paycheck. I could sell everything and get a job as a bank teller, catch up on all the TV shows and wait to die. But I can’t do the sitting-still thing.

Q. How do you get in the creative zone?

Back in my childhood, I’d wake up on Saturday morning and ask, “What am I going to do today?” I was bored, and I had to solve the problem. Now kids are so overbooked with school and sports or Facebook, or they are saving the world in a video game. There’s no real down time.

For me, boredom does a lot of favors as a creative power. It’s helpful to have blank spaces so that you’re forced to fill in the narrative yourself.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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