That’s no Moon! How my son and I built our own ‘Death Star,’ and had a ton of fun doing it

The “Death Star” Imperial battle station my son Jack and I built over the holidays. It’s refashioned from an old fire house play set and includes bristling cannons and LED lights. (Tony Lystra)

In 1982, the best toy you could get for Christmas was Kenner’s Death Star play set. It was big, rising seemingly to your waist, and included three floors upon which you could reenact some of the coolest scenes from the very first Star Wars move, “A New Hope,” which was released in 1977.

Kenner released the Death Star play set in 1978. It cost $19.99. Today you can find the original online for $600.

You could swing Luke and Leia across a gaping cavern to escape from a Storm Trooper ambush. You could plummet Han, Chewie and the rest into the trash compactor, where they took refuge from a blaze of Imperial blaster fire. And you could fire a cannon against oncoming X-Wings or pit Obi Wan Kenobi against Darth Vader in a fated light saber duel.

But the great thing about the Death Star was that you could do anything with it.

I remember a cousin and I reimagining the battle station as a skyscraper, the centerpiece of a sprawling space-port city, which we built for our Star Wars figures out of oddly shaped styrofoam packing materials, plastic bowls and cardboard boxes.

Like its menacing tractor beam, the Death Star pulled you into the world of Star Wars. It helped bring to life all the things your little grade-schooler mind dreamed during the morning walk to school — fighting your way through a throng of Imperial troops or spiraling the Millennium Falcon through a swarm of TIE Fighters. (These fantasies were best accompanied by a hummed soundtrack of the “Imperial March.”)

Darth Vader, Obi-Wan and R2-D2 illuminated by our LED lights. That giant gun in the background used to be a bunk bed. (Tony Lystra Photo)

The Death Star cost $20 in those days, which is just more than $60 in today’s dollars, and you were darn lucky if you found its sizable box wrapped and tucked behind your Christmas tree.

It was the kind of box that was so big it was obvious what was in it. That meant parents brought the Death Star out for a big, surprise reveal. It was just that good.

They don’t make the Death Star anymore. (I found an original for $600 on Ebay. An empty Death Star box can sell for $75.)

In fact, despite Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars films, they still don’t make anything like it. (Lego’s $460 Death Star kit is certainly cool, but you can’t play with it like you can the old one.) Maybe it’s because kids these days are foregoing action figures for Pokemon cards and console games like the Star Wars shooter Battlefront.

I’m not one to dis the next generation — the kids are alright. Despite all these screens, and in many cases because of them, our little guys are going to be just fine. But I do think there’s something to be said for getting lost in play, gone to the boring real world and off on some snowy planet or cavernous space station.

Jack rigs the LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

This Christmas, my 8-year-old son, Jack, and I decided to find a way to get lost on our own. We set out to build our own Death Star — or whatever we want it to be depending on our whim: a Rebel hideout or Imperial outpost. We went all out. And we are, in fact, having a riot. The wise men may have had their Christmas Star. This Christmas we have a… Death Star.

Jack and I started with an old, wooden fire station play set my wife and I got for his fifth birthday. (We thought we were the best parents ever at the time — he played with it… once.) Then Jack and I headed to Home Depot and roamed the aisles, snatching up a bunch of PVC piping, plumbing joints and electrical parts. We have no idea what this stuff is for in real life, but it’s perfect for bringing our Star Wars world to life.

We started with this fire house play set.

We spray-painted it all in the grays and blacks of the Empire. Then Jack began arranging the pieces to create gun turrets, computers and control stations, vents and machinery.

We’re drawing our inspiration from the Star Wars films (Jack and I agree “Rogue One” should be considered a Christmas movie) but we’re letting our own imaginations carry us away, too. The old fire house’s bunk bed and some PVC pipe became a brutally powerful cannon. Another gun, at the battle station’s pinnacle, became the Death Star’s planet-killing laser. It’s powered by what used to be the firehouse’s pole, now a Kyber-crystal-fueled green beam that flashes through a tunnel each time the Death Star fires. (I’ve always thought the two guys who work in that tunnel have the worst job in the Empire.) 

The coup de gras: I ordered a few packages of small LED lights, and we’ve been splicing them together with nine-volt battery connectors.

I have very little idea what I’m doing when it comes to electricity, but I was reassured by an Amazon review from a teacher who said she used these lights and battery packs during her sixth-graders’ science experiments. If those kids made it, I figured Jack and I would survive, too.

An Imperial walker pilot holding one of our simple LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

Now in my 40s, I’m suddenly faced with the possibility of building the Death Star I always wanted as a kid. That means our project has been an exercise in letting go, getting out of the way and letting the kid have at it, even if he messes up a little. After some trepidation, Jack quickly took to wiring our lights together. He stuck with it even after he got a little zap. (“Red to red, black to black, kiddo.”) And he’s particularly adept at drilling the little holes for the lights throughout our Imperial battle station.

This is Jack’s show now. He decided to paint the copious glue gun remnants on the main cannon green. He called it “leaking” Kyber fuel. Darth Vader and his Imperial officers would never stand for such sloppiness, I thought to myself. (And, yes, I’m poking a great deal of fun at myself here.) The results of Jack’s ideas look great.

We drew plenty of inspiration for our “Death Star” from the movies.

There are no limits to the realism and detail you can bring to a project like this. Prefabricated Death Star wall panels are available from a website called the Galactic Trading Post; a “starter set” of nine panels costs a seizure-inducing $110. Tutorials on how to add the perfect blaster scorch burns to your Star Wars models abound.

We aren’t model builders, Jack and I.

In fact, we’ve never taken on anything like this before. Yet, we keep coming up with cool ideas for what we can do.

We’re both infatuated with the textures of our Death Star, an obsession we’ve been cultivating for years as we’ve watched the movies and read books at bedtime.

When I was a kid, the Star Wars movies weren’t just great stories — they were canvases where my imagination played. I obsessed over seemingly every detail — the little gray boxes, bumps, exhaust ports and lights on, say, a Star Destroyer.

What, I wondered, are those things for, exactly? What do they do?

Since Jack was little, we’ve been curling up together at bedtime and reading about Star Wars space ships in Jack’s beautifully illustrated books, which show each part of an X-Wing Fighter or, yes, the Death Star. (A favorite is DK’s Star Wars: Complete Vehicles.) A few years ago, Jack assigned himself the job of spotting the “hyper drive” on each page and learned to read those words early.

Jack glue-guns electrical parts to fashion the “Death Star’s” equipment and machinery. (Tony Lystra Photo)

I admit it’s hard to tell who’s the bigger kid here. And all of this begs a question parents everywhere have to ask themselves: “Am I pushing my childhood stuff off on my kid?”

My family has put up with a fair amount of Dad’s Star Wars geekery. During a recent car ride, I passed the time by sharing the intricacies of the “Han Shot First” movement. (He did!) My wife nodded along patiently; the kids reached for their headphones. Our two oldest, Sydney, 16, and Cole, 14, have declared themselves too cool for all of this and have launched a rebellion of their own, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

Jack’s passions these days are Fortnite, Pokemon and Call of Duty, and there’s little question he sees the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, the First Order and the Resistance as a chance to bond with his dad. But there’s a place in his own heart for Star Wars, too.

On a recent night when I had trouble drifting off and Jack had abandoned his own bed and crawled in between us, I quietly fired up Rogue One on my phone and plugged in some headphones. Sometimes it’s nice to fall asleep to the TV you know best and love most. (My wife calls this “warm milk” TV.)

It wasn’t long before Jack quietly popped up over my back, groggy but quickly coming to at 2 a.m., and startled me with one word: “Cool!” I had to switch it off so he’d go back to sleep.

Saturday night, as we were wiring in our Death Star’s lights, Jack declared, “This thing is a masterpiece!” Later, he called out, “This is so rad!”

He was still gushing when I tucked him into his bed, well past his bed time and with glue and paint stuck to his fingers.

“All of this from our imaginations!” he said.

When I’m older and grayer and look back, that probably won’t make the top five of my proudest parenting moments, but it’s got to be up there, right?