Avacs Lab Interview

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How did you get started in customizing?

Technically, I guess it started when I was a kid, I would do simple part swaps with the extra figures I had. A lot of my friends grew out of the hobby before I did, so I acquired a bunch of extra stuff to experiment with. I never ended up with what I really liked the most on those dump offs, vehicles and their drivers. Vehicles and the drivers of GI Joe, particularly Cobra, were by far my favorites as a child. My two favorite vehicle types were boats and tanks. The love of these later played a big role in my adult life as an artist and customizer. While obtaining my bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture and printmaking, I combined the two mediums to make large conceptual installations with boat narratives, including blueprints, and functioning wooden sailboats. After graduation, I was employed as an artist working in a couple of local bronze casting foundries as a caster and welder. Eventually, I applied my carpentry skills from boat building in school and created Cobra Custom Carpentry, a business that specialized in finish woodwork and home remodeling. The skills I gained eventually led me back to sculpture and provided me the tools and necessary experience I now apply while building my customs and dios today.

Sometime in 1999, I got back into collecting GI Joe again. I attended the convention in 2001 which led me to the on line Joe forums. Ultimately, the experience of seeing all the customs and meeting fellow custom enthusiasts influenced me to pursue design and development of my own toys. In late 2005, I started tinkering with extra Joe and Cobra tanks I wanted to restore. I ended up repainting them in different color schemes, added extra gear, more guns and on a whim, a plow on the front. It turned out entirely different than I had planned to do when I began the project. I still work that way and try to have an open mind as my projects evolve, sometimes, creating something entirely new. In 2007, when the 25th line was introduced, the modern figure design reinvigorated my passion for making custom figures. The new line also provided re-designed vintage style vehicles that were more accessible. Vehicle design and vehicle drivers became my main focus. I began to chop things up, blend in other lines, apply carpentry, and metal elements into the pieces and that's how Avac's Lab was born.


The first time the community saw your under construction Terrordrome was at the 2009 convention. How did that come about?

The idea was influenced by the world I worked in, construction and remodeling. Building custom Cobra construction vehicles, I wanted to give them a world in which to exist. It just so happens that Joe Con was in Kansas City that year and being just blocks away, I went large, like 9 foot wide, 7 foot tall, and 13 foot long large for the diorama contest. The size of course, disqualified me, but at least they let me show it, and The Rise Of Cobra Island made its debut.

I can't dismiss another source of inspiration, the unfinished Death Star in Return of the Jedi. There's an infrastructure that goes into war before battles are fought and I thought it would be neat to show the engineer side of it. As a kid, I enjoyed setting up the figures and forts more than the actual play. A lot of the time, it would take my friends and I all day to set up, which usually left little time for us to actually battle one another.


Was the Terrordrome project the inspiration for creating all of the multiple purposes for the HISS (bulldozer, dump truck, tow truck etc.) or did the desire to create those come from somewhere else?

The vehicles came first, but when I got the idea to do the diorama, I just started making multiples of them. I work with a lot of different vehicles now but for some reason the HISS keeps drawing me back. The tank is a very versatile vehicle. It just seems to have the right things in the right place design-wise that keeps offering me new pursuits. I envision that when Cobra decommissions old HISS tanks, they don't retire them completely. The tanks are re-purposed for different tasks as newer HISS tanks are introduced into the ranks.

Set the scene for us, what is the environment like when you customize?

Well, I do this full time, that and "Daddy Day Care", so I am customizing my toys and I suppose, my child too. I actually utilize most of my entire house for my work, much to my wife's chagrin, which makes for a large environment to describe. I use the outdoors a lot too, my backyard and screened-in porch are used for spraying and anything that generates dust or vapors, including dremeling and light wood work. My backyard is where I work on my diorama's. In the case of the Terrordrome, I set up a 10 foot wide by 20 foot long collapsible tent with sides to keep it out the elements. I use my kitchen table or living room for masking or scratch-building when necessary.

My casting area and carpentry shop is downstairs where it is surrounded by my vintage and modern collection. I call this the "Lab". The other side of the lab is where my main work desk is. This is where I put together and combine parts for vehicles and painting figures. That area is surrounded by hand tools, organized part bins and more of my collection. The ceiling is aloft with a lot of my toy planes and helicopters now. I think I have at least 30 of them "flying" now. I also have a small photo niche for when I can't photograph my customs outside. When I do photos outside, it's usually in parks or by streams in the area. I like to listen to NPR on my radio head set, BBC or live streaming news sites on my laptop. None of this of course, interrupts the broadcast of Sesame Street for my daughter Mazzy. When I do music, I tune into Pandora radio and let it blast throughout the house, this serves us both. Lastly, my trusty lab cat T-Bone is usually by my side until it gets too noisy.


Who are some of your favorite customizers out there right now?

There's a lot a ground breaking artists out there for sure, it's fantastic. I hate to leave anyone out, but to name a few of my favorites are Kevin Watts, Ratfink, MSWI, TTT, Krexx, Wry1, and Werecat 666.


You're one of a few customizers out there who takes on commissions for vehicles. How has that experience been for you?

I have gotten many commissions from young and adult collectors; however, most of the vehicles and figures I sell are not commissioned, they are the base products I offer. I am always willing to add minor details or change the color, simple things like that. I'll be honest with you though, being an artist can be frustrating enough and doing GI Joe vehicles doesn't lighten the burden. A lot of people don't carry an emotional attachment to vehicles like they do with figures. They take up space and they're more expensive to purchase making it a harder sell. There are a lot of raw materials that go into them like metal, hardwood, styrene, fasteners, and custom stickers, whatever it takes to make it a durable and production quality looking toy. I like to add a lot of play features to my vehicles, so long term functionality is important to me. I like to be able to make most of my products to be disassembled if necessary, so magnets, hinges, and specialized fasteners play a big part in the assembly. Most of my vehicles originate from at least 3 different sources. The Hellraisers I build come from nine. I also use a lot of vintage parts in my work, but I also do a lot of casting now, so finding the smaller parts I need is easier and brings down the price for the client. All of this is very time consuming and costly, but so worth it in the long run.


What has been your proudest achievement as a customizer?

I would have to say the excitement and fascination my work gives kids. The thrill they get viewing the dios and vehicles I sell and display at conventions is awesome. For kids, it's hard to go wrong with a tanks and bulldozer's. It's fun to watch their eyes light up, it takes me back to when I was their age. Naturally, commentary and encouragement by certain people from a certain toy company I've gotten is always encouraging too.


What is the one question you get asked the most by other Joe fans?

I often get asked how long it takes to make each vehicle. I usually can't tell them how long it takes to make one, but I can tell them how long it takes to make three to five. Once I finish a design, and I determine whether it's feasible to do an edition of them, I start making more at once before the first one gets painted. I basically turn off most of my creative mind and turn into a mindless printing press replicating multiples.

Can you give us any hints as to what you have in store for 2013?

Absolutely, I have a lot vehicles and figures that have been sitting on the back burner. There will be Joe vehicles including a large vehicle that plays a big part in the 1987 animated GI Joe movie, 6 wheels and the undead, and a new set of Pac Rats. For Cobra, "Breaking Bad" at sea, Transformers cross-overs, and a troop carrier. I will be also making many more head sculpts and accessories that are available to purchase on my online Ecrater store. I am also looking forward to working with The Coil again on set 4 for Coil Con.


You win the lottery and finally get to build an actual island, what one vehicle and one figure do you take with you?

I guess if I won the lottery and I could build an Island I would bring everything I own, :). But if I had to bring just one of each and they were life-sized and real, I would have to go with the Cobra Hydrofoil and Scalpel, I still love my boats. No matter how cool your own island is, a guy needs to leave once in a while. And Scalpel?, I tend to be accident prone, so I would need a "doctor" close at all times.

Additional customs

In addition to the custom figures below, you can also check out the Avac's Lab Blog and his YouTube videos as well as his ecrater store.

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