Published Jul 25, 2019
Meet the Mild Mannered High School Teacher With a Secret Identity
...He's also a master Star Trek prop builder (and a huge fan).
By Robert Annis
Stepping into Gregg Nowling’s Indianapolis workshop is like slipping into every geek’s fantasy, an entire sci-fi convention squeezed into a 720-square foot room.
In one corner, a full-size Dalek stands watch outside the TARDIS. (Sadly, it’s not bigger on the inside.) A couple feet away stands a working recreation of the Last Starfighter arcade game (signed by several cast members) and a nearly screen-accurate interrogation droid from the original Star Wars. Pee-wee’s bike from his Big Adventure leans next to a wall. But it’s the chair that catches my eye.
I spent much of my childhood (OK, and my adult life as well) watching TOS, and this captain’s chair looks like it was transported from the bridge of the Enterprise to this workshop. The buttons and lights all look like they did on that 20-inch RCA television years ago.
Nowling, who teaches design and engineering at Purdue Polytechnic High School, says this is the third captain’s chair he’s created, but the first one he’s built around an authentic key component. He built his first two around the time the original chair went on auction, eventually selling for $265,000. The Profiles in History auction house gave detailed measurements of the chair in the selling description, and Nowling talked to the auction curator to fill in some of the remaining blanks.
Once completed, Nowling’s finished chair made its way onto the convention circuit, with more than 50 actors from the various TV shows and movies signing it. But when a main component of the original chair popped up online, Nowling knew he had to build a new version from scratch.
“The TOS set designers built the original around a leather Madison chair that was sold mainly to doctor’s offices,” Nowling, who is 46, says. Because no one expected the explosion in maker culture, particularly around Star Trek props, the chairs were simply thrown out when they reached the end of their useful lifespan. The remaining ones are now incredibly hard to find and pricey to boot; Nowling purchased this one for $1,500 from a friend online.
The project took between 20-30 hours to complete, but it would have been much longer if Nowling had to hand cut each of the pieces. Instead, he took the specs to a sign-builder friend who owns a CNC router (a computer controlled cutting machine). Because the massive machine is so precise with its cuts, Nowling says the savings in material costs alone almost makes up for the cash he paid his friend for help. After assembling the pieces and slapping on a coat of paint (battleship grey, in case you’re wondering), the finished replica is nearly identical to the original.
It’s no wonder Nowling has developed quite the reputation in the sci-fi and maker realms. His props have been used for multiple fan projects, including Star Trek: New Voyages and the fun Star Trek vs. Batman. (You can find it on YouTube.)
“The director, Chris Allen, is a friend,” Nowling says. “He reached out and asked if they could borrow my original Captain's Chair for their Trek bridge scenes. I think it was fun project that tied together the heart of the 60s really well. It was campy, but [weren’t] Batman and Star Trek also?
Nowling’s attention to detail came in handy when it came time to create a couple of lesser-known props, Spock's harp that appears in a few different episodes, and a wheel harp used only in the episode “The Way to Eden.” In what could be considered the first space jam, Deborah Downey portrayed the intergalactic hippie (creatively named Girl No. 1, according to IMDB) who played dueling harps with Mr. Spock. After leaving the entertainment world, Downey settled down in Indianapolis and became an accomplished painter. She and Nowling developed a friendship over the years, and in one of their conversations, she lamented that she wished she’d kept the prop. Nowling’s creative wheels immediately began turning.
Although Spock’s harp has been recreated before, to Nowling’s knowledge, no one ever built a version of the wheel harp. He watched the often maligned episode six or seven times for research, pausing the scene to study the instruments’ details and patterns. The harps’ strings were different colors, and Nowling wanted to make sure that he strung them in the correct order.
“It’s all part of what I love about making things – the research and attention to detail,” Nowling says.
After building the replicas, Nowling gave them to Downey at the annual Starbase Indy convention, alongside his wife who was cosplaying her character from the episode. “(Downey) was blown away,” Nowling said. “She wasn’t expecting to be given the harp, and she especially wasn’t expecting to see my wife in that costume.”
He went on to build two additional sets of replicas – one that he kept and another that’s now on display at the Star Trek Bridge tour in Ticonderoga, NY.
Currently, Nowling is working on a replica phaser rifle from the second pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” although it’s taking a little longer than anticipated.
“It's always been one of my favorite props for some reason,” Nowling says. “I think mainly because it's big and has a lot of shiny metal parts. I'm a big fan of the obscure stuff, and it’s not something that’s been replicated often.”
Originally, he’d 3D-printed many of the parts from files found online, but he instead of glazing, sanding, and painting all the plastic pieces to look like metal, a machinist friend is now recreating about half of them in aluminum.
While each project takes time, he’s long dreamed of building the TOS helm console. But that may have to wait. “It’d go really nice with the captain’s chair,” Nowling said. “I already have the Burke chairs to pair with the console; I just need to do it. The main reason I haven't built it yet is that I'm running out of space, and I'd have to set it up and have it properly displayed when I finish it. I have a list of 13 projects on my bench right now, so maybe after I get those all done.”
You can see photos of Nowling’s workshop and replica props on his Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/gregg.nowling/. Nowling also helps run a non-profit called Signing Away Hunger (https://www.facebook.com/SigningAwayHunger/), which auctions off autographs from stars like Star Trek Enterprise’s John Billingsley to raise money for hungry Indiana youths and families. So far they have raised more than $5,000, all of which has been donated to various inner-city school food pantries. This year the group is working with Trinity Haven, Central Indiana's first transitional housing facility for transgender teens who are at risk of being homeless.