My subject for this “fascinating life” article definitely redefines the word “fascinating”! A true master of multimedia creation and pillar of the global Steampunk scene, Thomas Dean Willeford, talks history, a love of science, and the life of an artist…
Thomas is, quite frankly, one of the most multi-talented people I’ve ever met. He’s a published author, gifted graphic artist, a star of the “Steampunk’d” TV show, a skilled engineer, with degrees in Physics, History and Art, plus a list of other skills so long it’s likely to make the best of us feel like lazy underachievers. On top of that, he’s a genuinely lovely bloke AND handsome…yep, I resent him a little bit now too 😉
I remember the first time I saw him: he was at Whitby Goth Weekend wearing one of his fantastic hydraulic arm pieces, laughing, tossing his spectacular mane of long blonde hair, saying something outrageous but charming, while being snapped by a group of photographers. The following day, I was shopping in the alternative market at the event and stumbled upon a beautifully embossed leather corset. I had to meet the maker and compliment the stunning work- it turned out to be Thomas! We’ve kept in touch over the years (he even featured in my PhD thesis- more on this another time), and I’ve been delighted to see his star rise even higher, and deservedly so.
Reclining in a brown leather wingback chair, sipping a pint of cider in a 19th Century Islington gin palace, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect location to speak with him about his career and inspirations. Read on to find out more about this Steampunk polymath (with a teaser at the end- oooh!)
What is your job title?
God of Thunder! But on my tax return, I have to write “Multimedia Artist”, so I guess that’s my official job title…
Haha! Well, I’m happy to refer to you as “Thor” in this conversation! How would you describe what you do in layman’s terms?
I’m a maker. I make things from a range of materials like leather, metals, and wood. I make bespoke clothing and large set pieces (like my Steampunk robot suit) through my Brute Force Studios business, and I have a retail site on Etsy for things like pins, corsets, accessories, and costume pieces for the public. I largely take custom orders and I work with my clients to create something unique. Steampunk is a big influence for me, so my pieces are largely within this aesthetic and inspired by history and science.
I’m also the author of two books on creating Steampunk objects, Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, and The Steampunk Adventurer’s Guide. I have also starred as a judge on the TV show Steampunk’d, which have both added whole new elements to my job over the past few years. I spend a lot of time in my workshop at home in Pennsylvania but I’m also on the road a lot, attending events like San Diego Comic-Con and Steampunk conventions all over the world, plus in the studio for TV work.
|Steampunk you say?- what’s that?!|
|Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a 19th Century vision of an imagined future, where technology has developed but devices are made from traditional materials like brass and are powered by steam. Since the term was coined in the late 1980s, Steampunk has developed as a genre of literature, gaming, music, with an associated clothing style, and a thriving global community. The curious mixture of fantasy, history, and science makes this so fascinating, as does the value placed on making extravagant wearable objects to create a sepia-tinted world with a futuristic twist.|
How did you end up at this point in your life?
My planet sent a rocket ship that crash-landed in New Jersey, ha! In reality, it was a bit more complicated than that… I was born in New Jersey and grew up in Delaware. I’ve always made stuff since I was a kid, inspired by my family. My Dad was a carpenter and my grandparents introduced me to the sciences, particularly my grandfather who was a chemist. My brother and I learned things like wood carving and sewing from the age of six or seven, so I started building practical skills early.
I went to college and ended up taking various degrees in Physics, History, and Art. I was passionate and curious about a lot of things, so this felt very natural to me. In the meantime, I worked a whole bunch of random jobs, brace for it: I was a cabinet maker, personal trainer, bodyguard (I used to be into powerlifting!), blacksmith, roofer, motorcycle mechanic… actually, it might be easier to list jobs I’ve never done! I’ve never been a server in a restaurant or bar… that’s all I can think of right now, ha!
it took two years of working two jobs at the same time…
I really started doing something that looks more like what I’m doing now when I was with my ex-wife. She was a talented belly dancer and I made her fabric corsets to wear at dance events. People started asking her who made them and through these referrals, I had a business started. It took two years of working two jobs at the same time, but when I reached the point that I could make more than in my day job, I was able to quit and make this my full-time career. It’s fair to say things have developed and expanded now!
We can’t go further without talking about Steampunk! How did you discover this scene and what appealed to you about it?
I basically had a little steam engine next to my bed- I was a baby Steampunk before it even existed...
Well, my childhood in Delaware has a lot to do with this. I’d spend a lot of time in my grandparent’s big Victorian house, plus my Grandfather was a Chemist at DuPont, so there were already the history and science influences all around me. I even had a nightlight with a steam-powered generator, so I basically had a little steam engine next to my bed- I was a baby Steampunk before it even existed, ha!
As I got older, I was interested in Victorian fiction, but there was no real outlet for this in my social circles in the 1980s, so I was mainly just into the Goth scene. Then, in the late 80s and early 90s a couple of influential role-playing games were released: Space 1889, which was set in the 1870s but they’d discovered a way to travel through space and had colonies on Mars, and the recognisably Steampunk, Castle Falkenstein, which included elements of horror in a “Wild West” setting (the US Victorian era basically).
I remember literally stopping traffic in this outfit…
I was really inspired by these worlds, so I collected books and other source materials. Eventually, while also making corsetry, I started out in the Steampunk scene by creating a persona: Lord Archibald Featherstone, and I made an officer’s outfit with a mechanical arm and eyepiece to bring this to life. This was the first of it’s kind and I remember literally stopping traffic in this outfit! The style started to take off, the Steampunk scene grew, and I produced for this market.
How did the TV show come about?
I actually auditioned for the show at first! Then it got awkward as several of the other contestants were actually using my book as a reference guide… A week later, I was invited to be a judge.
This was a great opportunity to work with heroes of the scene that I look up to, so I really enjoyed it. I was given the “Hollywood treatment” with a trailer and everything, but I was also hands-on in helping them set up the workshop before filming and of course, judging. When it aired on The Game Show Network, we’d have viewing parties and an affectionate drinking game when anyone questions: “is the project cohesive”, haha! The whole thing was a great experience!
Please describe a typical day in your job
My typical day has a routine based in my home, Grimmlore Manor (yes, this was the most pretentious name I could think of!):
7am: get up
7-8am: write something hideous on the internet for people to get angry at ;-p, make coffee, pet my cats (I have 8 rescue cats, plus other animals to caretake)
8-9am: clean up the kitchen and any other housework
9-10am: I do work-related chores (emails, checking orders, those kinds of things)
10-12pm: I’ll be working in the workshop
12.30-3pm: more work in the shop
3pm: snack break (likely, more cat petting)
More work until 7pm, then after work, I’ll eat and watch some TV to turn off.
This is for a typical working week, but if I’m writing a book, it’ll be 12-14 hours a day of writing at my computer for several months. Much of my schedule is also travelling and working at conventions and events (speaking on panels, exhibiting my work), so a lot of time spent in the van on road trips, plus any TV work involves a lot of hours on set.
What do you love about your job?
I love being in the making zone. I love to make pieces that actually work and I get the most from it when the physics starts working! I think of it as the “Tony Stark’ effect, where I feel like a real inventor. A great example is my robot bodysuit which actually turns and moves.
I also love travelling. I go to conventions all over the world and meet interesting people, which is very cool! Money also helps. I’m not being “corporate” here, but the truth is, no money, no art!
What are the biggest challenges?
The paperwork! Generally being self-employed is quite hard work and admin-heavy (that’s why the schedule is necessary). Also, sometimes customers don’t really know what they want so it can be tough, plus being creative on demand is also a challenge sometimes… It’s all worth it when a client is happy though- I still get shocked and so pleased when they like what I’ve made!
A deep question here: to what do you attribute your success?
I don’t understand not understanding something- I have to break things into component parts…
I see myself as a collector of skills, which has really helped me in this career. I collect skills like other people collect Beanie Babies! It gives me the ability to approach a problem from many different angles.
In fact, I don’t understand not understanding something- I have to break things into component parts. I’m also confident enough that I’m happy to ask other people when I don’t know what I’m doing- it’s important to know how to do research.
Overall, I believe it’s about luck and not hard work though. Hard work gives you more pulls on the wheel to get lucky, but it’s not enough just on its own. Very philosophical, eh!
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
Definitely the books. I’m hideously dyslexic, so for me to have written books is amazing! They are something that lasts for decades, and I really appreciate that someone wants to know my point of view and learn from my knowledge. What’s more, they have sold well, not just to my parents!!
There was also a very touching moment at an event when a sick kid with the Make A Wish Foundation had seen me on TV with my hammer and wanted to meet “Thor”. I gave him my hammer and said: “you can hold it because you’re worthy”. He was delighted and his mother and I were pretty emotional. It’s a fantastic privilege to be able to do these things.
Are there any frequent misconceptions about your job and how would you clarify these?
That there’s lots of money in it, haha! I’m good with resources and I’m also lucky to have some really generous fans who are kind enough to gift me things. I was given several thousand dollars to go to Australia for example, and people send me donations for projects such as my beloved Vespa that I’ve been restoring. The life of an artist is far from a playboy lifestyle though!
Any advice to others wanting to follow this career?
Read technical manuals and how-to books like novels…
Read technical manuals and how-to books like novels…
Please don’t, haha! Seriously though, I’d say: be kind. It’s very easy to be unkind, and hold secrets about how to make things. I have some company secrets, sure, but I will tell people the sources where they can learn themselves (for example: here’s the wood I use, my patterns are my own property, but you can make your own pattern by doing this…).
I’d also say collect skills. Watch things on YouTube and do them. Collect a couple of skills you don’t like. Read technical manuals and how-to books like novels. Don’t be afraid to ask people questions- even if they say f*ck off, then just ask someone else!
What’s next for you in your career?
Yes, definitely that, but less immediately….
There is the possibility of a new TV show, but that’s top secret at the moment- keep your eye on my social media over the next few months!!
Oooh! On that tantalizing note, we’re finished and I’m getting in the cider for the God of Thunder… It was fantastic to speak with Thomas about his truly fascinating life as a maker and creative tour de force. I’m excited to see what his steam-powered future will hold!
To find out more about Thomas and his work: