We see Steampunk props all the time and wonder where the maker found all their pieces. In fact, for some people it's almost like a game to examine each prop and see if they can name all of the original parts.
However, for a newcomer (or a novice at prop-making), it may be really hard to tell what parts are used where. It may surprise you to learn exactly how many of those parts aren't amazing antique, one-of-a-kind things, but are actually stocked in large quantities at your local hardware store.
So, what I'm going to do now is show you some of the most commonly used parts from your local hardware store in their whole, unaltered state.
All of these hardware pictures below were taken at my local ACE Hardware store. If you have an ACE Hardware nearby, I recommend visiting them. While they don't have quite as large a selection as a big box store like Home Depot (or Home Despot, as some call it), they do tend to have more interesting, specialized parts.
They also have a helpful staff who's happy to speak to you at great length about the parts they carry. I've spent many an hour talking to an old ACE employee about what part to use where, or how best to connect two parts. Even when they have no idea what project I'm working on, they still have great advice.
That said, let's take a trip through the hardware store! It can be intimidating to set foot in a store with so much stuff, so I'll try to narrow it down for you. Whenever possible, I'll include a picture of a prop that uses the particular piece of hardware I'm showcasing.
One thing you can get at the hardware store that I'm leaving out of this article is wood. You can get wood at the hardware store, but they don't have a very good wood selection at my ACE Hardware, so I tend to go to a big box store for that. Besides, you don't need a picture of wood. You know what wood looks like. It comes in big sheets or big planks, and it looks wood-y. And smells wood-y. Mmmm, wood.
What you may not know is what most people make the barrels of their guns with. Here it is: PVC (plastic) pipes and copper pipes.
And this gun below uses a copper pipe as a barrel, in conjunction with a number of interesting, non-hardware-store parts.
Looks great, right? Of course, it's all the extra bits that make it cool, but without that barrel, it wouldn't be as shiny.
How many times have we seen these guys used? Plenty, I'll tell you. They look kind of gear-like, so people love to glue or sew them to things. Really, you probably shouldn't use these as gears. They're not gears, and everyone probably knows that.
Try not to do it, if you can, though it may suffice in certain instances. Also, pay no attention to the hex nuts right above them.
You see these guys all the time, too. I mean, let's face it: they look pretty darn cool. Dealing with flexible copper tubing is rough, because they're so easy to kink. These, however, are flexible, tough, and darn near impossible to kink.
You can see them used on this bracer:
Cool, right? They're a little too industrial to be really Steampunk, but they still fit right in on a cool prop.
Isn't this the most ridiculous thing? You wouldn't think that these would be at all useful, but I've actually seen some cool-looking props that incorporate these:
Not these specific ones, but similar. I couldn't find any photos of props that used them, but keep an eye out in the future, and maybe you'll bump into one.
While these pipes may not be as versatile as a plain PVC pipe, they have the benefit of having some added features that may help your creative vision, such as ridges, expanded openings, and threads.
Feel free to expand the picture to see some more detail. There's all kinds of neat stuff available in plastic pipes.
This very thin metal comes wrapped in tubes. Usually it's used for roofing or other exterior house-related things, but it's so easy to work with that it makes for great Steampunk armor plating.
Really, there are better metals to use for armor, but this has the benefit of being obscenely cheap. As you can see, at the ACE Hardware I went to, it was available for about a dollar a foot.
Resters are things that you screw onto your system of water pipes in order to quiet pipes that "bang". They provide a pressure sink, essentially, to reduce sudden changes in pressure. While I can't necessarily condone supporting a company called "Sioux Chief" for somewhat obvious racism reasons, resters are pretty cool-looking brass bits.
They could easily be reservoirs of steam, or just cool bits of some other variety. The reason you don't often see them incorporated into props is that they're rather expensive, but every now and then I'll see one around.
Copper fittings will fit your copper pipes and allow you to connect them at various angles. I think the applications for these are pretty obvious.
You see these everywhere. Copper pipes and fittings are almost staple Steampunk materials. You can see short copper pipes and fittings in this rifle below:
Copper fittings on their own, without pipes, can even be a viable look depending on what you're using them for. These guys are cheap, and really useful.
Like the copper fittings above, these are exactly the same, but for PVC pipes. Since they're plastic, they tend to be a lot thicker than the copper fittings, and thus are used less. However, they're often less expensive, so it's a balance you'll need to strike for yourself.
However, a properly-painted PVC pipe can be indistinguishable from metal. Don't ignore the plastic pipes!
Clever Steampunks may be very familiar with the below section: car accessories.
While many of the car accessories are useless, some of them can provide complicated functionality in a cheap, easy package. For example, there are plenty of gauges to be found, along with a ridiculous number of odd-looking light-up things. If you don't know how to wire LEDs but still want to include lights in your prop, cars have flexible lighting strips, LED spotlights, and all kinds of things. Don't ignore the car section!
Let's say that you don't have the tools to do any serious woodworking but still want some wooden parts. Well, wooden dowels are a great place to start. The list of things you can do with a round wooden rod is nearly endless.
Really, I couldn't even begin to speculate. Wooden arrows, clubs, pins, flagpoles, handles... The list just doesn't end.
Now this is where the real armor is at. And by "real", I mean "decorative". You can get copper, brass, and galvanized steel. Sometimes they'll even come in cool patterns.
You don't need a knowledge of welding or metalworking to use these, all you really need is a good, strong pair of metal snips from the hardware store. With a little bit of know-how, you can turn the above metal into the below armor:
Slick, right? It helps if you have a bench grinder, though.
These are so amazingly useful that I don't even know what to tell you. You probably see these everywhere and don't even know it. They have useful flat bars, hollow tubes, thin rods, and even square tubes. Below is only a small portion of their huge display.
I've personally used these a bunch of times, and the brass tubes you see above are what people use to make small Gatling guns like this one:
All they do is drill some holes in a round piece of brass they cut from one of the above brass sheets, then put some brass tubes in it. The end!
These tubes are hard to work with, as I said earlier, because when you bend them too far, they can kink up. There are tricks to bending them properly, but that will be for another article, I think.
The benefit to this tubing is that it's stiff, and won't flop around. Also, it's made of metal, so it makes your prop look more authentic.
These things are awesome, and I love to use them. Admittedly, I don't see them on too many other things, but I think they're just the bee's knees. You can use them to screw all kinds of things together, and they make it look cool, too.
Usually they're used for clamping hoses onto things like dryers, but you can also use them for things like this:
My own humble contribution to Steampunk guns!
These bad boys are pretty common in Steampunk props, because they're pretty much the most Steampunk thing in your entire hardware store.
You would normally use them to connect tubes or pipes filled with gas or liquid, often under pressure. Once you start looking, you'll see these guys everywhere, too, such as on this awesome bracer:
The above bracer uses another part that I'll get to later, so don't forget about it!
You know, I'm not sure that I've ever seen a thermocouple used in a Steampunk prop, and that's a damned shame. They're pretty darn cool! Granted, they're a little on the expensive side, but can't you just see the potential oozing out of them?
Well, I can, at least. Maybe I'll use one in my next prop.
Heating elements are used to heat things up, like water in your hot water heater. If your hot water heater is electric, and not gas. But they look to me like lightning generators, or something.
And hey, won't you look at that! Here are some lightning guns that I helped build!
I think they look pretty cool, but your mileage may vary.
Thermometers may not be as cool as pressure gauges, but if you're using heat to generate steam, you probably want to keep track of how hot your power source is!
Gauges are super Steampunk, and it's easy to forget about the humble thermometer!
I love the word "knob", don't you? Right, well, anyway, knobs are great for adding a little extra something to your prop. They can easily change the shape of something plain, making it a little bit more interesting.
Alternately, you can find knobs like these that will make it look like something on your prop is adjustable. It's always cool to have knobs and dials that can turn... It's an extra little visceral thrill.
These are replacement handles for mops, brooms, shovels, etc. If you don't want to have to sand down a big raw piece of wood, you can always just get one of these handles. You can use them for staffs (staves?), spears, and who knows what else.
They're finished, so you can't stain them, but if you don't know how to stain and finish wood, this is a pretty good option for you. They even come threaded at the top, in case you want to just screw something on there.
Plastic tubing is really only for using if you need it to work. That is, if you want purely decorative tubes, you have plenty of other options, but if you want to carry, say, alcohol from one container to another, well, plastic tubing is the way to go. Just don't leave it sitting in the tubes unless you know the plastic is graded to handle alcohol.
Water is fine, too, but who wants to carry water?
Yeah, I don't know what to call these other than doodads, but there's a good chance that your hardware store carries a variety of pre-carved wood pieces that you can incorporate into your props. You can stain them or paint them, and either way they end up looking cool.
Mushroom buttons are things you put over screw holes when you've countersunk a screw in something. It makes it look nice and professional. Give it a try, sometime!
Wooden pieces also come in highly-decorated bits like is featured in this Nerf Maverick mod below:
The flowery-looking bit at the bottom of the gun? Yeah, that's a wood piece straight from the hardware store.
Hooks are frequently used as decoration or trigger guards, and if you take a stroll through the hook and hanger section of your hardware store, you'll start to notice them around pretty often.
This particular guy up above is pretty cool, and, hey, what's that on your gun down there?
Man, that gun sure has me hooked! Har har, I kill me.
Actually, that gun does have me hooked. Look at this picture of it, and marvel at the SHARKVOLVER (a name I just made up):
I need to find this guy and have him Mako some more props. Surprisingly, I'm actually out of good shark puns. If you have any, you should post them in the comments.
Sprayers come in brass, and they look pretty cool, don't they? It's like a cool, ready-made brass thing for you to use!
Remember how I told you to bear a certain bracer in mind, because it would be coming back? Well, here it is! See anything that looks similar to the picture above?
That's right, the curvy brass bit that runs along the side is almost certainly a bent sprayer.
These guys are pipes that you use for lamps. That is, they connect the lighty bit with the base-y bit. They also happen to be pretty cool-looking, and are already threaded in case you want to screw things onto the ends!
They might make life a little easier for the less-crafty amongst you.
And last but not least is the humble screw. While both the wood screw and the machine screw existed in the Victorian era, if you're interested in historical accuracy, you should refrain from using Phillips-head screws, as those weren't invented until the 1930's.
Additionally, while the square and hexagon screws had been invented, they didn't see much use until the 20th century as a result of the difficult in manufacturing them. So to be safe, you should probably use flat-head screws.
That said, square-head screws (also known as Robertson screws) are pretty much the best invention ever, and I love them with a burning, fiery passion. Seriously, if you've never used a screw with a square hole on the top, you really need to. It will change your life!
Ace Hardware Store photo by dave__mcmt