Rob: You’re listening to the Personal Armament Podcast. This is Rob Robideau. We are proud members of the Gun Rights Radio Network. I have with me a special guest today, Fred the PhotonFanatic. Thanks for coming on the show here today.
Fred: Thanks for having me Rob.
Rob: Why don’t tell us just a little about your background to start out with. First of all, what you do and how you got into it?
Fred: What I do now is mostly a hobby but it’s also a kind of job too, full-time. I got into making flashlights through a sport called “orienteering.” Orienteering is a sport where you run around with a map and compass in your hand trying to find controls that are located in the woods. It’s a time-competitive event that led me to another sport called “regaining” which is a 24 hour orienteering event, which means that you have to run through the woods at night. That requires fairly good lighting.
When we were first starting to do that sport, there weren’t very many choices out there so I spent a lot of time looking at batteries and lighting possibilities. Most of which back then were halogen type of lights. But that eventually led me to planning high-brightness LEDs, lithium ion batteries, and before I knew it, I was buying and selling these components to other flashlight makers as well as for my own needs. After I’ve done that for about a year or two, I was fortunate to find an LED online that looked quite interesting. Never having LEDs before, I read up about it as much as I could and ended up buying it online and I’ve been delivering ever since then. I only know how to be a machinist.
Rob: It’s interesting how different people get into flashlights in different ways. The average person walking down the street that don’t carry flashlights don’t even think about it. But different circumstances get people interested in flashlights and most of the time it’s a need of some sort. Maybe they work in an environment where they need to use it on a regular basis; Maybe they’re in a sport like you, or maybe they’re out backpacking a lot. It’s interesting hearing to different sports to different things that bring to the flashlight enthusiast world essentially.
Fred: I agree and to be honest, this may sound a little strange coming from a flashlight maker. I don’t carry a flashlight with me unless I’m going to some event where I know that I would need it. I do keep one in the car so if there’s an emergency, i would have backup. but the rest of the time, most of my activities are done in the daylight and i don’t really need a flashlight on my body.
Rob: That is interesting to hear. The important thing is that you have it when you need it. Sounds like you have it in place for that.
Fred: Right. I do.
Rob: Let’s talk about what you’re getting into. It is not exactly what a first time buyer or first time purchaser is going to necessarily go after this sort of work that you’re doing. What led you to it and what kind of steps that enable you to progress to where you are now and your taste in flashlights?
Fred: A large part of my flashlight interest was shaped by what I saw on Candlepower forum. The custom makers were building lights way back then. Some of who are very smart electronic gurus as well as being able to design and produce flashlights. Some of them have gone the way of becoming mini producers, self-design light to a limited production run and don’t actually work on a machine anymore. For me, I really enjoy creating something with my own hands, my own design; and my taste in design tends to be too simplistic and I try to be not really artistic but I try to make something that’s simple but useful. what’s Very important to me is the way it actually fits my hand. If The light doesn’t feel fit in my hand, I’m not going to use it. I spend a lot of the time and attention to the little details of the flashlight that I produce.
Rob: It sounds like you’re trying to combine the form and function to create a light that works in both areas.
Fred: Yes. I like to have a light that’s functional but I am also quite concerned with how it looks and how it feels in your hand. If it’s not comfortable in my hand, I’m not going to use it. I think that a lot of people are feeling the same way. They want something that feels comfortable when they’re carrying it in their hand or in their bodies. In my mind, that eliminates my ever making, say a mag-size flashlight that is just in my repertoire. I make small handheld flashlights and I try to make them as nice-looking as I can.
Rob: When I think of a custom flashlight, I think of having exactly what you want because that is why you’re going with a custom flashlight because there’s something/nothing that’s out there that’s going to meet your needs or at least even just your style at that point, right?
Fred: The funny thing that with LED flashlights nowadays is that if you just say I want a light with 300, 500 or 600 lumens. Somebody already makes it so I find that people that are attracted to custom-made flashlights are a different buyer from people that are buying mass produced flashlights. They want something that stands out from the rest of the crowd. They want it done in a manner that they are involved in it, which is where you are coming from, and saying that I want it exactly as I want it. The funny thing is they are not concerned with the numbers of LEDs. It might be concerned whether it has got anodizing titanium or whether it is gold or silver. They have their preferences and they want to make sure that I would hear it and take care of it. It is one of the interesting things with me and my client is how much time I spent communicating with them. Going back and forth, I spend a lot of time listening to what they want and then I sit down and model the light. I send then drawings and renderings of what I think the light would look like and we go back and forth until it is as just as what they wanted. As I am making the light, I also spend considerable amount of time photographing the build process so that they understood the work and time that went into the light. Also gives them a history for their own records of the process of building the light. If they ever want to sell, it might help them sell it too. It is a personalized buying experience. Sort of like going to the old specialty shops where you could walk down into your neighborhood and buy something specific to your needs; and get personalized service from the owner of the store. That is hard to find in today’s world especially on the internet.
Rob: No doubt. When you have people coming to you about these custom flashlights, they want you to make something for them. Do most of these people realize all the decisions that they are going to have to make, all the options that are available to them?
Fred: No. It can get very confusing because majority of my customers do not know the difference between a light made by a single person using a manual lay versus something that they may have seen that which created the CNC LED. I cannot cut certain things on a flashlight that a CNC LED cannot. We have to go back and forth. We have to explain anything from how O-rings work to how a certain sized battery is going to lead to a certain sized light. Sometimes things that people have no clue as to how these pieces go together to make a useful flashlight.
Rob: It sounds like you enjoy that essentially education process with these people.
Fred: Yes and I must admit that I learned an awful lot from my customers too. I am constantly feeding myself, things that other people are doing. These customers I have seen, they come to me and want to know if I can do it. Often times, it is a long learning process for me. Going out and be able to replicate what other people who are making flashlights do. It is a learning experience for both parties.
Rob: You may think this is stupid but for myself, I would love to have custom flashlight at some point. However, when I think about custom flashlight, I think of one to have something that is exactly what I want. It is something that I almost do not want to mess up because it is something that you are going to have with you for a long time. At least you should if you are going to put all this effort and money into it. I am just wondering when people do this; do you have many people that start and get right into it? They want to get a custom flashlight right off but they do not know exactly what features or interface features or details they want on it. What they want as far as the style and look of the light.
Fred: I think many people come to me with an idea in terms of what they want. In terms of lumen output, roughly the size of the light and the size of the reflector. What people may not realize is how cramming all that into a small handheld flashlight is going to work with different things like thermal issues. How are you going to carry it? Things like do you want a split ring on it? You want it in a holster? Do you want a titanium clip on it? How are you going to be using it when you are actually using it? What kind of lighting situation will it be in? Sometimes people are asking for lights that are too bright with what are they going to use them for. Other people have no clue whatsoever. They just want a custom light. They have seen something that I have made that interest them, wise, and stylistically and they just want something that is going to look nice.
Rob: Let us go back to one thing that you just hit on that. I want to hear your opinion on it. The thermal issues with some of these small flashlights with all the energy that people are putting into these high powered LEDs. The form factors are getting smaller and smaller. You hear about thermal issues. It almost sounds like a dark science. Are there ways that you can calculate in advance and know exactly how much heat these things can handle? How does that work for you when you are creating brand new flashlights?
Fred: There are ways to do that with thermal imaging and thermal sensing devices that you can use. To be honest, the real simple way is through experience. If you take a high brightness LED when you drive it at the 2.8 amps and the flashlight gets too hot to hold then it is probably not the right combination. The other thing is many of the materials that I use are rather exotic in terms of what material I might be using to make a flashlight.
For instance, if somebody wants a very durable flashlight, I would suggest extremely titanium or stainless steel. Both are very durable but there not very good at wicking away the heat from the LED. You are going to have to compromise. You are going to have to say “Ok, I like the looks, I like the feel, I like the price, but it’s not going to last very long.” Always compromise.
I do not really think that everybody needs to have a really very, very bright flashlight. Most of what we use the flashlight for is within anywhere from 5 feet to about 50 feet. It is where we are going to be focusing and looking because beyond that they typed in specialized search light type of thing. Something with a much focused beam. Firefighters, police officers, they might have something that needs a special beam and brightness to get through certain atmospheric conditions. However, the average flashlight user does not fit in that category.
Rob: You had to remind all the time that for a while we substituted candles or torches. We can do with these with lower lumen lights but it does not matter. Everyone still wants to go for those higher lumen counts. Eventually they are going to try to get something higher.
Fred: Yes and that is, fine. I see nothing wrong with that. However, unless it is a company specializing in thermal control, willing to make larger-sized lights and is very well heat-sinked, I would not expect to find that from your custom light build.
Rob: Many enthusiasts follow a progression. When they first get into the lights, they are amazed at what is possible and just going to see how far they can take it. However, after they get to that point maybe they have clogged it some of the higher lumen count, very bright flashlights. They kind of settle back down to find something a little bit more practical and trim it down to find out what meets their needs. People are coming to you for a custom light have probably gone through that progression and have a better idea of what is actually necessary for them and what they are looking at. That compromises not really too difficult for you to put on them or at least not something that catches them by surprise.
Fred: I agree with you one hundred percent. The people who have been, generally speaking, have been in the flashlight-buying mode perhaps for two to five years or longer. It has gotten to the stage were as with all collectors, eventually you get rid of the jones. Can you keep the jones? They have been able to perhaps thanks to their financial abilities. They were able to narrow it down to a handful of great lights. They are good-looking or well made. Combination suits their needs. They are not going out and buying everything that comes down the road. As you said, they have been all over the game in terms of buying high brightness keychain lights and everything in between. After a while, they just have their own style and that is what they will settle on.
Rob: Alright. Let us talk about some of the works that you have not done. People should head to your website, that is PhotoFanatic.com and see some of these beautiful lights up there. I am sure that is not all of the works that you have done right?
Fred: No. Unfortunately I have a number of lights I should be updating my website to show some lights that I’ve made recently that hasn’t gotten up there. Unfortunately, I just do not have time to both build the lights and update the website. There are some good examples there of stuff that I have done. It is only a base that we are looking at.
Rob: Even with your limited time that you are able to do with both of them. You are still going to put out some amazing threads on the Candlepower forum with some of the background behind your lights and I have to say it is some pretty amazing stuff and I love seeing behind the scenes. I am sure many other people do also.
Fred: The work in progress rather is very popular and they are also good for me because they are sort of a history of how I actually did something. Sometimes I forget. I go back and read my own thread. People like to see how we do things and I think it is good for the general readers on Candlepower forum or somebody who is really interested in buying a custom light to see what work goes into it and what their options are. They may see something there that they had not thought of and all of a sudden, “You can do that? That is great. Let’s do that on my light too.”
Rob: It is not just a publicity thing. It is almost like a journal for you also.
Fred: It is. I really enjoy taking photographs of lights and how they are built. I probably should get into making some videos on how some of my lights are produced but I just have not gotten into that. It is a fascinating thing and it is a great hobby. It is one that I have encouraged other people to try to enter, and there are more custom light builders popping up. However, it is not an easy hobby to get into and to do well. It takes a long time, at least it took me a long time to learn how to machine. It is a dangerous operation and it is very fascinating. Your mistakes are heartbreaking when they happen. However, the work in progress is rather a good way to get people excited about doing that.
Rob: Steep learning curve is a lot of what separates artists from all the other people that want to try to get into it. When you see amazing artwork, they have great craftsmanship that is done well. You can say “A lot of it looks simple but it is because of all the time that went to it. All the practice that came beforehand and you’re absolutely right in that respect.”
Fred: Yes. I agree completely.
Rob: I want to talk to you about some of the trends that you have seen Let us start out with size, which I am sure, is one of the decision factors that you start with your customers. What kind of sizes do you see most of your lights that people are wanting these days?
Fred: In terms of physical size and dimensional size, anything from a one inch light which would be a keychain light, up to about 6 or 7 inches is about somewhere in the range that I end up making custom lights in. The diameters might be as small as 5 or 7 inches up to about an inch and a quarter, maybe an inch and a half. Most of them are near 3-quarter inch diameter and about 4-5 inches long. That fits nicely in the palm within the hand and almost can be invisible when you are holding it.
Rob: The most common batteries that you see are what? 0, 1, 2, 3s, something in that range?
Fred: The RCR-123s and now the 18650. It is a great size flashlight I think. Combinations near that. The 18350 is becoming a popular size. What is interesting in double A is always an exceptionally popular size because of the ready availability of double A batteries around the world and whether you can get primary rechargeable. They are cheap; there are many good recharging kits out there. I try to make lights that use rechargeable batteries as much as possible.
Rob: Very interesting. We talked about the size, what about interfaces? Where do you see people moving with this or how have you seen it change as you progressed through different lights and different customers?
Fred: There has been a proliferation of multi-mode drivers or LED flashlights. Originally, it started off with things like just somebody putting a resistor and a tail cap to create a two-level light. Using inefficient resistor basically. It went into fire modes with multiple memories, strobes, and S.O.S. Phone home to Mars. All sorts of modes, which people became enthused about. Then after you try to use them, you learn that they are a pain in the ass.
Rob: You learn again, what you need and what you actually want in your life.
Fred: Right. For most people, I would say that what we are coming down now are the three mode flashlights. A low, medium, and a high. Even just a high and a low but I get to find the good nature of somebody just putting put a nice constant current driver that would just produce a high and a low reasonable level or user resettable levels. That is where I think if I had that type of a driver, I would probably be using that all the time. In the meantime, the three level drivers without strobe, S.O.S signals is I think the most popular choice that people as me for now.
Rob: When you are talking about an entirely custom light, do people have certain levels that they are specifically looking for that they want to make sure that they have in their interfaces? Can you come up with custom interfaces? How does that work if somebody has a specific request for certain low-light levels that they want to have or certain types of modes?
Fred: I tell them if they find me the driver, I will put it in their light for them. I am not an electrical engineer. I do not manufacture drivers. I am very limited in that regard. Some of the other custom builders may be able to make you a driver or indoor customize one. I just do not have the expertise. I tell everybody that upfront so they know it.
If you look around, you can find what you want. If the customer finds it, we can buy it, and it goes into their light. It is usually just a nice low-low, fairly decent medium so you can use the light without draining the batteries and then a nice bright for when you need the wild factor. You just want to show everybody you got a bright light. You shine it in their eye and you are done.
Rob: You are right. That is what those high Moser mostly use for.
Fred: I think so but…
Rob: We talked about the size and the different interfaces. When you send people off to find the different interface or tell them what you are able to do, does that usually result in them coming to a compromise or are they normally able to find out there driver in some way that is exactly what they want?
Fred: The only compromise that my customers seem to have to me is the thermal issue. They may come and say “Oh I see, the XML can put out 500 or 600 lumens and I want one of those in a handheld flashlight and I want it in titanium and I want it in…” “We have to go over this a lot. You can’t do that because you’re going to kill the other LED.” That is where they have to compromise.
However, in terms of actually finding a driver that give something what they want, that is usually easy nowadays. There are a lot of enters out there. There did not use to be but there are now many places to buy drivers from. There is some interesting stuff coming out of places like Russia. There is a guy over there that is doing something fantastic. Drivers, LEDs, custom lights. He sold some stuff to other people so I can take his boards, interface, and use it on my lights too. There is no shortage of drivers and LED.
Rob: It sounds like people can get what they want. Going to the thermal issues that you mentioned again. Getting these high-powered modes because you are not really changing the LED necessarily but at least what you are allowing it to do. Do you see how much time does it take at a high-level normally to get one of these small lights very hot? Is this something that you could put in there to show people for the wow factor so long as they are not leaving it on for several minutes?
Fred: You can certainly throw some of these high-brightness LEDs with high preference to small handheld flashlight and turn it on for anywhere from 30 seconds to couple of minutes and not kill the LED. It is not a smart thing to do and I would not do it because the higher issue is quite important.
Rob: How long does this normally take for it to heat up to that point where it is actually dangerous?
Fred: Depends on the driver. It could be anywhere from 2 minutes to 10 minutes. Some of those could be hot enough to actually be dangerous because you are putting up too much of a stress on the batteries or just because the temperature alone is getting excessively hot.
I do not know if you saw the news today. Target, which is one of our large discount stores in the United States here, is recalling thousands of LED flashlights, which were manufactured in China. The reason was that they were overheating. Some of them were high brightness LEDs were put into plastic cases. Plastic is terrible thermal conductor. The manufacturer or customer wanted bright. They made them and disaster happened.
Rob: That is terrible and a very stupid move when you talk about a mass-produced light, something that is going to end up in a big box store like that. My question is, obviously, there are some aspects of it that could be dangerous if this thing is turning on in your pocket accidentally and it would access as high mode. It could be something that could heat up, burn you, or become uncomfortable or if people are planning to leave these things on for a long time or if there is a chance that it could be left on and are messed up. However, for most people that are looking at these custom lights, these are people that have been around for a little while and know how to use the light. Do you see some of the people that at least want the option there?
Fred: Yes. Right. There are plenty of people that would make or modify a light for them. There is a whole another group of people who do modifications. Somebody came to me and said “I want 600 lumens in a four inch piece of metal.” I would say “Well great. Why don’t you go talk to XYZ and he’ll make one for you.” I will not make a light like that. It is too dangerous; there is too much liability on my part. I am willing to push the envelope a little bit but there comes a point that you just have to say no. I am not the only one that says no by the way. McGizmo who is a very popular builder is probably one of the first to have come out and said “Look, these are titanium flashlights that we’ve got here and I’m not going to put something in here that doesn’t fit well with the material.” I gave Don a lot of credit for doing that. I tried to emulate that to some extent. A lot of it is just common sense. How often do you need a light that’s just going to wow somebody versus needing a light that’s going to be something that you can use, something which if you leave it lying around the house, your kid picks it up, starts playing with it, leaves it on somewhere could potentially lead to a problem.
Rob: Are most people really going to notice the difference between 300, 400, or even sometimes 500 lumens? Is it really worth it?
Rob: We have talked about the gutsy internals, drivers, some of the aspects with that. However, your specialty is more the artistry on the outside of the light or actually making the case itself. What kind of trends or areas do you see yourself heading or things you enjoy when you are making these lights lately? Some of the decorations, patterns, etc.?
Fred: I have certainly gone off on what I have been using for materials. I have been exploring stainless steel Damascus, Malcolmgani, and my next area that which is very similar but quite different result would be something with carbon Damascus, which is a Damascus that you can heat color. If you get the right type of Damascus from a builder then you can have some very interesting patterns on it. Most Damascus lights are somewhat somewhat boring because the way they make these bars is they layer 2-3 different layers of steels together. To get a round shape, they actually just twist the bar. We cut down, twist, and end up with the round bars. It is the square bar that is twisted and then cut into a round. However, the patterns are all the same and it is somewhat boring.
I have a fellow now that making a carbon Damascus bar for me. I was doing some testing on that the other day and I am very excited by it because it can be heat colored to a fantastic blue purplish color. There is some bright silvery metal between the different types of carbon steel. You end up with a very brilliant pattern. It is very exciting. I lie awake at night dreaming of this flashlight that I am working on because it is so different from anything else that is out there right now. Some people have done it with pens. They use the caps on the end of the pens with Damascus but I do not think anybody has made a really nice-looking carbon Damascus flashlight. There was one many years ago that Mr. Bolt on CP up made but it was like a three pound flashlight. At that time, he really did not stress the fact that it was a carbon Damascus and that means that if it gets wet it rusts so that created a few problems down the road.
Rob: This carbon Damascus, what makes it special is the fact that it is able to actually be used to color?
Fred: Yes. I can actually color it through a process of heat treating/heat tollering as it’s called. You can do it in a furnace or do something called nitro-blowing which there are a couple different methods of doing that. One’s using just a molten salt bath. Then there’s another one that uses a hot solution. A lot of this stuff comes from other makers of things like knives and guns. A lot of what I have been learning recently comes from the realm of knife-making and gun-making. These people have been working with metals for centuries so there’s a lot to be learned on how they do things and what their materials are. I’ve also experienced things like sterling silver. I’ve made a couple lights out of sterling silver. I would do it out of gold if they weren’t so damn expensive.
There are people that want something new and exciting. The thing about titanium that I’ve found interesting was the fact that you could anodize it many different colors on it so that was fun. Malcolmgani can be its 3 different colors of metals to start with but there’s many different ways of finishing it. You can flame color it, you can etch it with materials that darken it, you can flame heat it. You just have to experiment. Much of what I come up with is sometimes an accident.
Rob: You talk about dreaming about this stuff at night. How much time did you spend on your own, not at the request of the customer, just playing with your lace trying to figure out what is possible and what you can do?
Fred: I hate to say this and my customers are probably going to be pissed off but I experiment on their lights. I don’t’ have time. I have to crank out some lights and I do it because nobody has asked me for a carbon Damascus throughout. Somebody has asked me for it but this is an area I’ve explored on my own. You got your hands full Rob.
Rob: You were mentioning the patterns in some of these Damascus and how it’s different for lights. There are different patterns in knife-making. It sounds like you cannot necessarily get with lights. Is that just because how the stock is made originally?
Fred: Yes. Right. If you look at like a Damascus knife, the patterns are very clearly delineated because they take these, what they call mosaic Damascus. Its little layers of silver. Its nickel silver I believe and some sort of silver steel but they just fill in the spaces between these patterns with powdered steel. They heat it up and it becomes solid. They will fold that over and create other interesting follow-on patterns from a simple pattern that they start with. However, they’re always ending up with flat stock. The patterns come through the flat stock the best. If you then try to make that into a round bar, they can’t twist it very well n=because it tends to separate which is the nature of the bars. According to the eyes that are making this stuff in the forges, some of them are able to put a couple of pieces together. That’s what I gotten in my hands is a piece of round bar that looks to be just two pieces wielded together in the forge and then turned into a round shape. The pattern is almost in four parts that seems where they’re two pieces that come together and then the other side is 1800 opposite that which have most of the pattern that you would see on the knife blade will show on the inside of the flashlight. It’s not going to be identical to a knife blade in terms of its appearance but it’s very fascinating. They’re just gorgeous.
Rob: With the knife blade they can pick what angle is going to show off the pattern the best and cut it so the majority of the knife is angled in that way. Sure, there are curves and grinds in a knife but for the most part, it’s going to exhibit a certain one single angle through that cut.
Fred: The real beauty of the Damascus maker is how he makes the pattern and how he is able to through the process of folding it in that deformation come out with a pattern that he can repeat and then offer a variety of these patterns to the knife makers. When I get a bar though from one of these makers, I can sometimes do something similar to what the knife-makers do in the way I decide to put in my bruise, flutes or scallops or whatever I put on the outside of the light. Sometimes enhance the waviness of the pattern and make it stand out a little bit more.
Rob: By digging in deeper, you can make the pattern look a little bit different you mean?
Fred: A little bit different. I’m not changing it much but I can make it look a little more interesting sometimes, not always. This piece that I’m working on now, this one material, one couple bars that I have of it is just so gorgeous that I’m making as simple light as possible I can. It’s just going to be a twisty light so it’d be easier to turn on and off in the hand but it’s as gorgeous as it is. Just a round piece of stock would look tremendous also without anything cutting into it.
Rob: I live hearing you talk about these different materials and your passion for what you’re able to work with and what you’re able to create.
Fred: Thank you. Its fun and I always have something. I’m trying to push myself into learning new things. One of the things I’m working on and I don’t know if it will come for wish in or not but I hope it will. I’m sure you’ve seen something called Geo Shapes, which is done on watches; watch faces, watch packs, pens. It’s a pattern of engraving. It uses repeatable patterns that you go around or radiate from the center of like a watch face. I’d actually had a, what they call a straight line engine turning machine that I bought a couple years ago. I’m just getting to the stage of putting it together. I cleaned it up and I hope to somebody be able to put some Geo Shape on a flashlight which should be another new thing to learn.
Rob: Those patterns are amazingly complex. I’d love to see what you could come up with that.
Fred: That’s mostly due to the pattern bars that they use and I put them together and they are incredibly complex looking. Although the actual making of them isn’t that hard to do.
Rob: Don’t give away all your secrets here. You want everyone to think they’re still really difficult.
Fred: that’s true.
Rob: I’m going to put you on the spot here. If you didn’t have to worry about money, if you didn’t have to worry about what it costs, just dealing with the materials on hand. What you can do to yourself, drivers, etc? Tell me about what would be your ultimate flashlight.
Fred: I don’t really have an ultimate flashlight because things change and you run into new materials. I supposed I could sit here and tell you I’d build a nice five inch long gold flashlight but that’s useless. It’s too soft, it would be gorgeous, it would be expensive, it would be prestigious to own but it’s not reusable. To me, my ultimate light would be one… When you look at it, you’re going to want it and the price be damned. You’ll just want to have that flashlight in your hand because it whether looks or feels so great or preferably both. When you turn it on, you’ll be quite happy with the way it produces light etc. You’ll go away a happy customer. That to me is the ultimate light. I keep trying to do that. I’d say I’ve probably produced 4-5 lights that come out that way. I wanted to keep them. I didn’t want to sell them after I have made them but that’s rare. You just don’t get that good.
Rob: I’ll let you slip out of that. I won’t hold you to any of the details of it. Let me move on to a harder question then. How do you come up with that sort of light? Does this just happen by accident or because obviously it’s not accident when you look at the time that you spent working/perfecting your craft. but does this happen? Just when you happen upon a combination of techniques or how do, you end up with a light like that? Can you even quantify or plan it in advance?
Fred: For instance, I think this carbon Damascus light that I’m working on. I’m trying to plan that in advance but I think that the important thing for somebody who’s wants to be… I’m not an artist. I’ve never had any fine arts training. I’ve never taken any classes like that. I have my own thing that I’ve liked over the years. But what drives my flashlight design is my interest in what other people do and how other people do their designs. You learn from others.
I’ve made lights after Rennie Mackintosh. A very simple light that I made called the Mackintosh Killer. It was just a light that just the way the lines went on the light were very nice-looking because of Mackintosh. I did some Mondrian flashlights where I tried to replicate some of the squares and coloring that he used in his paintings. I think you just have to be inquisitive and curious about designs. The same thing is true about materials and techniques. I hate to say this but the laid is somewhat a rather limiting machine to use to make a manual flashlight. It would be much better if I could afford a CNC and it was a wizard that modeling in 3D but I don’t have it so I work with what I have. I do spend a lot of time looking at tools that are out there and trying to think what can I do with this tool that would be different from the way it was meant to be used. I’m fortunate the LED that I have can do some milling work so I can turn the light perpendicular to the spindle of the axis of my LED. I can put cuts in that a lot of people would need two machines to do. I can do it with my one machine. I don’t sleep well at night because sometimes I’m thinking so much about a particular design or how I can improve a design or how to use the tool in the way that I happen to use the tool.
Rob: It’s interesting. I guess maybe I should be asking the people that you’re making the lights for because every person is going to be different in the way that they look at the lights. Your job is not necessarily to put together lights that you are happy with. But things that stun and amaze other people, your customers.
Fred: A lot of times, my customers are the ones that come up with something I would not have thought of on my own. They might have seen little bits and pieces of lights that either I’ve made or other people have made and they want them combined together. I just never thought of that combination. The same thing can be true of a material and a way to finish it. I’ve tapped a lot into the light making community recently for some ideas on metals, finishes, and materials. It’s good to look outside of your own little sphere on concern basically.
Rob: Can you tell me about in your estimation, I don’t expect you’d have the numbers thing beside you and maybe you do. How many flashlights do you think you’ve personally made?
Fred: Probably well under 200.
Rob: That’s still quite a few flashlights.
Fred: It is a few flashlights because it takes a long time to make one.
Rob: We’re not talking about mass-produced stuff where you design it on, sell your work, and send it off to China to be produced or even CNC. You’re talking about something that you’re making by hand. I just want to remind people when you see all these beautiful work, remember that. I’m sure you see at the bottom of your webpage here. I see this lovely quote by Samuel McCord that “Try as hard as we made for perfection, the net result of our labor is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility and being able to fail in so many different ways and I know that you have no illusions about creating only perfect work but I bring up the amount of your work” and all that just to say to people that are out there. A lot of what you’re able to produce does come from practice and learning through your work right?
Fred: Yes. Learning through my mistakes.
Rob: I was trying to put it nicely.
Fred: That’s quite alright. It’s up there actually, because as soon as I saw that, I said “This guy knows how I learned.” I’ve been a hands-on; learn by doing type of guy when it comes to learning how to machine flashlight bodies. I love it, it’s very frustrating at times, but when you get it right and you turn on a light, people go gaga over. You just feel like its all well-worth in time.
There haven’t been in terms of lights that I wished I had kept no more than 4 or 5 or half a dozen at most. In the meantime, a lot of the lights have been either quite nice and I’m quite happy with then but there’s almost always some mistake in every light that I make so I live with it.
Rob: You’re willing to admit it.
Fred: You have to admit it. When I say mistake, I mean it could be something of like one of my dimples is off at tenth of a millimeter. You’re going to spend a long time finding it but it’s still there. Nobody’s perfect, not when you’re doing something by hand. That’s the other thing I will mention is that a lot of what I do is not done on the blades per say. It’s done in hands finishing right afterwards. I’m not one of these people that likes to see the machining marks left by my tools on the flashlight. I like those gone. I like a nice, smooth surface. That means it’s got to be sanded down, buffed, polished, and anodized. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into a flashlight that is not done on the blade. It takes hours to do.
I’m making some stainless steel Damascus light right now and there’s etching involved, heat treating to harden them. They come back and you still have to clean them up. I spent hours today just polishing these little flutes that I had on the bottom of the light by hand with five different grades of sandpaper wrapped around a little towel. As I’m doing it, I’m saying to myself “Fred, do not ever design another light with these flutes.” That’s the stuff that people don’t see and then they wonder why the flashlight cost as much as they do.
I like to sell my lights for profit or at least a decent wage. It’s not a decent wage I can assure you but it feels like it is when I sell a light for $700 to $1000. I know that’s a lot of money for a lot of people. I’d want to make sure that if I were spending that kind of money that I’m getting my money’s worth of it too. I hope my customers are.
Rob: How many hours do you think you spend on an average project? I’m sure that everyone varies. How much would you estimate?
Fred: From the time, somebody contacts me and I do all the modeling, solid work, back and forth, actual machining, and finishing. It’s probably close to 15 to 20 hours per flashlight.
Rob: It’s a lot of time. The finishing and all the other stuff that goes into it also.
Fred: Right and the materials, tools, and some of these materials will chew up your tools in a split second. You can’t believe how expensive tooling can be sometimes. People don’t see that because it’s not in their…
Rob: They’re not in the industry. They don’t know what goes into it.
Fred: I like to do work in progress thing because it shows people what you’re actually using and how you do it and they can envision that something might go wrong or doesn’t work out when I’m making these things. The time is something you like to get paid for but I really just want to make a nice-looking light and have it a customer be happy. Over half of the lights that I’ve sold, I’m not making any more than about $5 an hour. It’s a labor of love, not for money really.
Rob: Thank you so much for taking the time here to come on the show and talk about what I can obviously see is your passion and I appreciate it.
Fred: Thank you Rob. Enjoy. Take care.
Rob: head on over to PhotonFanatic.com and check out some of these beautiful lights. Is there anywhere/anything else you want to send people to?
Fred: Candlepower forum is where I have a sub thread there where I do post my work in progress and I also do some posting on custom knives and guns website but that’s about it. I think Candlepower forum is probably the best place to go to see what I’m working on.
Rob: Sounds good and thank you so much.