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October 29, 2013 > Building a machine takes time

Building a machine takes time

By Nicole Ellis

H.G. Wells wrote about one. Marty McFly rode in one. And Armand Stephens built one. Stephens, of Fremont, finished crafting his hand-made wooden time machine back in June. Spending over 700 hours sketching, practicing, and creating, his hard work resulted in a large industrial time machine that now resides in his backyard. ÒThere is no such thing as a time machine, but this gives you some kind of a feeling that you could hook a wire to it, stand here, and flap your arms,Ó he joked.

Stephens, now retired, once worked as a local woodshop teacher. His 35-year career started at Washington High, continued on to a continuation school, and ended at Walters Junior High. Teaching helped perfect his woodworking skills, but StephensÕs childhood on the farm was the inspiration behind the abstract sculpture. He grew up on a farm just outside of Bakersfield. ÒMy dad was a sharecrop farmer, so a lot of these things you see here are related to farm machinery,Ó Stephens explained. ÒAs a kid I got use to working on this kind of equipment with my dad: tractors, hay mowers, and those kind of things.Ó

Stephens had been thinking about building a sculpture, but it wasnÕt until last November that he decided to bite the bullet. ÒI started with sketches,Ó he shared. ÒI just had a sketch book and started sketching out a lot of the stuff.Ó The second step in creating the machine was trial and error. Stephens found old particle board and junk wood to practice on. He cut the desired pieces out of the scrap wood and then tested them to see if his measurements and concept were correct. ÒNot everything worked out,Ó Stephens admitted. ÒI had to throw some stuff away, but by building and experimenting with the prototype first, then when I built the real thing everything seemed to work.Ó

The real thing isnÕt made out of junk wood. Stephens traveled to Berkley to buy costly wood, like cherry and walnut. ÒSome of the wood is so expensive that they sell it to you by the pound. You think youÕre dealing with a drug dealer or something,Ó he joked. He opted out of painting the time machine. Instead, Stephens showcased the beauty of natural colors in the wood. Aside from glue, a few hidden nails, and a concealed electric motor under the base, the entire sculpture is carved from wood.

Stephens used old mechanical concepts when it came down to designing the machinery. ÒThese gears, sprockets, and chains, like this (points to a gear toward the back of the machine) is called a planetary gear, and it was designed by the guy who invented the steam engine back in 1775,Ó he explained. ÒSo itÕs not new technology. Everything here is really old technology, but it works.Ó

Stephens spent seven months building the time machine in his garage. He didnÕt use industrial tools or heavy-duty equipment. His in-home shop consists of Òjust home owners stuff.Ó The garage is where he experienced difficulties and successesÑ like the chain. ÒThe most challenging parts were the chain links,Ó Stephens described. ÒThereÕs hundreds of pieces and the spacing of the holes have to be ever, ever so accurate or it wonÕt work, so I think that was probably the most exciting thing to do, to get one of them together that actually worked. That was kind of like getting over the hump. I thought, I got a chain that works, I got it made now.Ó

The machineÕs design wasnÕt completely thought through beforehand. ÒWe had friends over here and one of them was my college roommate and he said, ÔWow, you must have really drawn out the blueprints and you mustÕve known where everything was going to go,ÕÓ Stephens shared. ÒAnd I said, ÔNo, no thatÕs not how it was. Everything sort of grew.ÕÓ He knew he wanted certain elements, like chains and gears, but not knowing every detail prior to building allowed him to tap into his creative sideÑ like the machineÕs Òface.Ó Stephens gave his sculpture an abstract-looking face. Complete with eyes, ears, a smile, a nose, a set of nostrils, and a tie. The wooden face looks like something Van Gough wouldÕve dreamt of.

As of now, the time machine sits in StephensÕs backyard, but he hope to find a new home for it soon. ÒI knew that when I started it,Ó he said. ÒOur house is so small that I would have no space for it here. IÕm not planning on adding on to it, but if I canÕt find a home for it I may take it apart and display the parts inside the garage, on the wall or something.Ó Stephens fears that the machine will self-disintegrate if itÕs left outside like it is now.

Once the sculpture finds a new home, Stephens doesnÕt plan on starting a new one. ÒI donÕt want to make any more sculptures,Ó he admitted. ÒIÕve done one, IÕm satisfied. It was a great process. I have no regrets.Ó Although Stephens is a man of projects, he doesnÕt see himself diving into a new one anytime soon. ÒIÕve done a lot of one-time things,Ó he explained. ÒI restored a 1935 Dodge pickup truck. Got it out of a junk yard and restored it and Mary and I have completely remodeled this house. WeÕre done,Ó Stephens laughed.

The process of creating the time machine was just as rewarding as the finished product. Having hurdles and overcoming them made the end result that much more worthwhile. ÒThatÕs one of the lessons I used to try and teach my students, not to get discouraged,Ó Stephens shared. ÒEverything isnÕt going to work out in life. ItÕs how you deal with it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get going again.Ó

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