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A Love Of 'Star Wars' Leads Kansas City Makers To Build Their Own R2-D2s

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
(left to right) Chris Leffel and Kevin Schwarz stand with the life-sized droids they've built: an R2-R9 and an R2-D2.

“Makers” is a series that shares stories of why people are compelled to create something with their own hands. 

  • Names: Kansas City R2 Builders Club, Mike Gruhala, Chris Leffel, Kelly Luck, and Kevin Schwarz
  • Makes: BB-8, R2-D2s, and R2-R9
  • Location: across the Kansas City metropolitan area 
  • Background: Gruhala, architect; Leffel, train engineer; Luck, system developer; and Schwarz, software developer
  • Build time: 1 year - 2.5 years 
  • Materials: 3-D printing, aluminum, fiberglass, plastic, resin, styrene and wood
  • Cost: depends on materials; roughly $1,500 - $30,000

On the impulse to build a life-sized R2-D2

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Four of the members of the Kansas City R2 Builders Club: (left to right) Kevin Schwarz, Chris Leffel, Kelly Luck, and Mike Gruhala.

Chris Leffel: "I actually work for BNSF Railway, I'm a railroad engineer. I've always been a fan of Star Wars ... Robotics was always my thing, electronics. So I wanted to expand on that, and R2 was the one."

Mike Gruhala: "I've always enjoyed building and drawing, even as a kid. And I was always a fan of Star Wars. And then, after I was working as an architect, I kind of needed a hobby. So I went back to looking at something that I could build that would be a little different than what I work on, you know, from 8 to 5."

Kevin Schwarz: "So I have a couple of friends in the five-oh-first [501st Legion]. And so they build costumes and go to charity events and do things that are Star Wars-related. One of my friends, he had a stormtrooper costume, but he decided that he wanted to build C-3PO. And R2 has always been my favorite character. And I was like, 'You're building 3PO, I have to build R2 (laughs).'"

Kelly Luck: "I'm a computer programmer. I've always been interested in model building and special effects. I was helping some friends of mine who were starting a sci-fi convention. And the local R-2 builders club [was there] ... and I saw that, and I was like, 'Oh, I wish I could do that.' So when Episode VII [The Force Awakens] was announced, I decided, ok, I'm going to start working on one a year before it's released and see if I can get it done in that time. And I managed to do it, and I've been building robots ever since." 

Schwarz: "A lot of people ask us if we sell our droids. We're actually not allowed to. We're part of a club ... you're not making a profit on it, because R2-D2 is a licensed character. We build it for fun."

On the challenges of building, from time to materials to costs 


Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A view inside Mike Gruhala's R2-D2. Watching a 'Making of Star Wars' documentary set him on the path of building his own droid.

Leffel: "We always tell people: Do not buy a thing, do not do anything until you've done your research. Once they've done that, then it all varies on how much it's actually going to cost because there are several materials that we use now, between resin, 3-D printing, plastic, aluminum, steel."

Schwarz: "I started my droid basically right out of college, so I was going on the cheap route. So most of my droid is made out of plastic, and I did a lot of it myself. I used a razor blade and a straight edge. And that's what my main tool [was] to build my droid. The tools can be very simple as well." 

Leffel: "Depending on your material, depends on your costs. Whereas you can spend anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 on a built starting one, you can spend up to $30,000 making one."

On finishing projects, starting new ones, and never being finished

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kelly Luck shows a work-in-progress, a BB-8, a droid that appeared in the 2015 film 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

Schwarz: "I had a budget, but this is a project that basically never ends, so I'm constantly improving, constantly changing what I'm putting on, or taking off." 

Gruhala: "I think a lot of us here have our droids "finished," we're just kind of tinkering with them now. It's like anything, you build it and then instead of just sitting there ... you maybe upgrade some stuff. But there are some people in our group here in Kansas City that are still building."

Luck: "Well, I'm working on my current project, which is a BB-8. And I'm trying to have at least the internal support carriage for the driving mechanism set up so that I can actually have it on display and explain how all the moving parts work in time for the Maker Faire."

Maker Faire Kansas City, Saturday and Sunday, June 24 - 25, Union Station Kansas City, 30 W. Pershing Road, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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