Working with the Festool cordless drill

The machiner

Passion meets creativity: an interview with Sami Ylikahri, who is building stages and scenery.

Since 1988 Sami Ylikahri´s company "Silver Zombie" has been successfully building stages and scenery for numerous famous Finnish TV shows and movies. The ingredients for his success are strong nerves, creativity and of course good, reliable power tools. We met Sami in his workshop in the Finnish Capital Helsinki and accompanied him while he was building scenery for a brand-new show.

What differs your work as a scenery builder from the work of a traditional wood worker?

The biggest difference is that most things are not built just once. Over 99 percent of projects are dismantled and about 30 percent are later rebuilt at least once. In set work structures are also much larger in scale. As a result we have to put more thought into assembling: weight, production in workshop, setup, dismantling, packing, transportation and storage. Work also doesn’t happen 8 to 4 but pretty much any time of day.

Which was your most challenging project so far and why?

So far, the biggest challenge was a movie set project in Lapland, Northern Finland in 2010 that lasted for over 3 months. We were commissioned to build 16 fantasy houses. We had 16 carpenters and 3 painters working in Helsinki, who made half-finished elements that were then transported on a truck to the middle of the forest. On location we had 20 carpenters and 8 painters working full time. We were working outside in winter and temperatures were always somewhere between minus 10 and minus 35 degrees Celsius. When it gets to minus 20 compressor tools, battery powered tools and lifts stopped working properly. Electrical tools stopped functioning at minus 30 degrees, and at that point we would have to resort to more traditional methods like hammers and nails. When temperatures reached minus 35 the nails began to crack. Then we were forced to have a day off (laughing).
Stage construction with the Festool power tools

How did you proceed?

Painting in the freezing cold was also a challenge, as the basic temperature for using most paint is a minimum of plus 5 degrees. In order to get the job done we built “tents” around the houses one by one and heated them up to minus 10 degrees. The group spirit on the project was something completely unique and the end result the most visually rewarding outcome that I have ever been involved in. Unfortunately after the scenery was finished the financers pulled out of the project and the movie was never filmed.
The workshop with the Festool dust extractor
Woodworking with the Festool cordless drill
Working in the own joinery workshop

Scenery building is often combined with time pressure and deadlines. How do you cope with that?

I think some people have a natural skill to function under pressure and the ability to even enjoy so called crisis situations. In my work it is not possible to be late with schedules because it causes an immediate chain reaction. If, for example, filming has been scheduled for a certain day and the set is not finished it will result in financial catastrophe. There are sometimes more than 100 people working on a project and potentially hundreds of live audience members. One can calculate the costs of rescheduling lost time on something like that.
Project planning and construction

How does the Festool system help you to cope with that?

The usability and reliability of Festool tools are completely in a league of their own. When time is money and working conditions challenging, it is wonderful to work with top quality tools that never let you down. It’s also not just about usability but also the joy of using them. It is worth noting what kind of an image they create for the client. It is professional and reassuring to setup one’s work station at a location or studio with everything in order. The Systainer work particularly well for this.

Which tools from Festool do you use most and why?

My favorite is the CXS battery powered drill. It fits in the hand well and if needed I can take it with me in my laptop bag without its box. The TSC 55 battery saw is also one of my favorites. It is very handy and has very accurate adjustments. This means I can cut something right on top of concrete or parquet flooring if no better option is available.
Organisation with the Festool systainer range

What kind of wood do you love most and why?

Normally Finnish people prefer light coloured wood with very subtle texture. I prefer darker and more rustic wood. Their feel speaks to me and tells its own story.
Different kinds of wood

If you could swap your job for one day – which one would you choose?

I consider myself to live pretty much a dream life when it comes to work. I get to design and realise projects fairly freely. The biggest challenge at the moment is balancing the length of my workdays with the daily rhythm of children and family. I prefer to work in the evenings and at night without distractions. I find it much more efficient and creative, since I have small children this is not often possible. I wouldn’t really want to change my work to anything and it is very difficult to specify a certain profession, it would most likely have something to do with teaching skills to children.

When and why did you start working as a scenery builder?

In 1996 I was by chance asked to help build the set for a film. I noticed that the bohemian ways of the industry and the mentality of the people were a good fit with my personality.

Why is your business called “Silver Zombie”?

Both Silver and Zombie were nicknames that my friends called me by when I was younger. Combining the two sounded good to me. The company’s name is thanks to my friends (laughs).

First sketches of the stage construction
The stage construction

Where do you find new inspiration?

When I travel I photograph a lot of buildings as well as structures, details, striking textures and colour tones that I see in nature. Whenever I read newspapers or magazines I always cut out or photograph things that I find interesting.
The stage construction

Which role does creativity play?

There are two kinds of creativity: artistic and technical. The visual side of things is very important to me and I want things to be pleasing to the eye. I love to test different materials and products to see how they work together. I also have a compulsive desire for engineerlike problem solving. These aspects together with a wide knowledge of materials and technical skills make it easier to understand correlations and limitations and to also see what is economically and logistically feasible.

How do you find new materials? And how do you choose them?

Suppliers actively offer new materials and samples for TV-shows because for them they act as good references. I also regularly visit exhibitions seeing new things. Word of mouth also works well in the industry. When I find a new interesting material, I first take a photo and video of it with my phone, which quickly tells me if it has potential or not. If I feel like it could work I do a second round of tests with a better camera and lighting. As a rule of thumb I bring in 10 percent of something new into a project, which means the risk is controlled. Then if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t ruin the whole project or can still be altered/changed in time.

Last question: What do you like most about Finland?

The cleanness and diversity of nature. The honesty and directness of Finnish people.
Stage construction
Different kinds of wood
Woodworking at the workshop
Working with the Festool cordless drill
The Silver Zombie workshop
Working with the Festool cordless drill and systainer