Monday, September 2, 2013

Ironman Costume Part 2: Making the Hard Parts

A while back I posted about making a Mark 3 Ironman helmet using my 3D printer named "Jarvis."  I'm very pleased with the finished piece, but being me I couldn't be satisfied to stop there.

Since I still had some amazingly detailed digital models for the rest of the suit, I decided it was time to go ahead and build it. 

Here's a "during" shot from that last post:

Of course, there's been an awful lot of progress since then:

If you'd like to see more progress pics as well as a description of the process involved in making the rest of the armor, read on...

Jarvis is an amazing machine.  The pieces he builds are a bit on the brittle side, they come out nice and smooth and ready to mold after just a bit of cleanup and prep work.  Unfortunately, most of the Ironman parts are too big to fit into Jarvis' build envelope.  I suppose I could've just gone ahead and break the models into smaller pieces, but the printing material would've cost more than I could ever afford for a hobby project like this.

This is a job for Lopez the Robot Whittler.

Lopez is actually a Craftsman Carvewright woodworking machine.  Most people don't tend to notice him sitting in the corner of the workshop or, if they do, they assume he's a simple planer.  If you've been following my blog for any length of time, you'll recognize him as the low-end, 3-axis, commercially available CNC machine that he is.  As of this writing, you can get your own on Amazon for about $1,600.  Seriously, click here if you want one.

As originally designed, the craftsman Carvewright is intended to carve out relief panels for custom cabinetry or the like.  Ever since the very first project I used him for, I've been forcing Lopez to work above and beyond his design specs.  This project is no different.

Since you've got to start somehwere, I decided that the first piece I was going to make was the toe of the boot.  Using the STL Importer upgrade for the Carvewright's proprietary designer software, I sliced the somewhat complex model of the toe into pieces that could be cut on a 3-axis machine.  Then I uploaded the design into Lopez, fed him a piece of 3/4" MDF (because it's cheap and readily available) and a couple hours later he'd made this:
Toe Parts Cut Out

Once I'd popped the parts out, the next step was to reassemble the slices:
CNC'ed Ironman Right Toe 3

CNC'ed Ironman Right Toe 1

The gloss that you're looking at is a coating of epoxy that I decided would be the fastest way to seal up the very porous surface of the MDF.  It also made the surface very tough and difficult to sand and smooth in later stages.  Sadly, I didn't think to quit using it until way too far into this build.  Instead I wasted quite a bit of time and money building up an epoxy skin only to go back and grind through it again, loading up countless sheets of sandpaper along the way.

I suppose these things happen.

As the build progressed and I got smarter, I settled for sealing the MDF with a much more sanding-friendly series of primer coats.  Here's the rest of the boot:
Boot Heel Primed

For no reason at all, I decided that the next piece to build would be the pelvis section.  Probably just so I could make "iron jockstrap" jokes.  Who knows.  In any case, here's the first half of the pelvis section all whittled out:
Pelvis Cut Out

Carving a piece this large took somewhere around twelve to fourteen hours of run time for Lopez.  I should point out that this is much longer than this machine really seems designed to be continuously operated.  Over the course of this project, I can't even begin to count the number of times the machine broke down.  It turns out Lopez doesn't respond very well to vibration and dust.  This is odd because, being a woodworking tool, he basically does nothing but vibrate and make dust.

Anyway, having learned my lesson (finally), this time I decided to go ahead and spray the parts with primer before I'd even removed it from the waste portion of the MDF:
Pelvis Cut Out Spraypainted

Once the second half was carved, I went ahead and assembled half of it and did a quick test fit:
Iron Diaper Test Fit

Then assembled the whole thing:
Iron Pelvis Assembled

Hooray for Iron Crotch:
Iron Codpiece

If you've spent an unhealthy amount of time staring at studying Ironman's hips (Yes I have.  Don't judge me) you'll notice that there were still some small parts to add to the sides.  So after digging up the files, I had Lopez whittle those out for me too:
Pelvis Additions

I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, "I guess it looks okay, but I don't remember Ironman having that many seams in his pelvic region."  You're thinking right too.  Now it's time for the bodyshop phase.

Using filler primer, Bondo, and spot putty, I went over every inch of each piece.  Filling, sanding, filling, sanding, priming, sanding, filling, sanding, comparing it to screen shots from the film, and repeating.  Here's a shot of the iron diaper somewhere in the middle of the process:
IM Pelvis

After more refinement, here it is in a coat of primer:
Iron Diaper Front

Once I was happy that I'd smoothed everything out, I gave it a couple of gloss coats of my standard prototype color:
Iron Crotch

As always, at this point the color doesn't matter.  Only the shape.  No I am not making a pink suit of Ironman armor (even though that would be kinda cool).

While it may seem that I was exceedingly fixated on Ironman's groin, I can assure you that this was not the case.  While I was doing the handwork on this piece, I'd actually developed a pretty decent workflow for the entire project.  So while I was gluing together the pelvis, Lopez was whittling out the chest parts:
IM Chest Carve 1 to 5 of 6
The chest ended up being six separate carves.  Each one of them took Lopez between ten and fifteen hours.  Still, sculpting the whole thing by hand would've taken me quite a bit longer.  Even when you factor in the time I spent re-assembling all of the slices:
IM Chest Assembly 4

And test fitting:
Smaller Chest Assembled Test Fit

And smoothing, filling, sanding, priming, etc:
 Fairing the Back

I should point out that while Lopez the Whittler was carving out the large parts, I still had Jarvis the 3D printer cranking out all of the smaller pieces as well.  These include all of the control flaps for the back:
3D Printed Flaps on CNC'ed Torso

I also had Jarvis grow the shoulder parts:
first printed shoulder part
Though they made a lot more sense after I'd cleaned off all of the support material:
first printed shoulder part

Among the countless little widgets and whatnots, I also had Jarvis grow the flaps that fit in and near the ankles:
Ironman Heel Flaps Fitting

Along the way, my workshop suddenly started to be overwhelmed with Ironman parts:
Ironman Bench Clutter

I tried to come up with creative places to store them, but they were very much in the way:
Parts Seated

Still, somewhere along the way I had enough pieces polished up that I was finally ready to start making molds.  For no reason in particular, I started with the abdomen plate.  Here it is mounted to a board with a series of registration pegs glued around it an a mold wall set up outside of them:
Ironman Progress009

Once all that was set up, it was time to start making the silicone rubber jacket mold.  Here's my friend Jason pouring on the first batch of silicone:
Ironman Progress010

Once the jacket was built up, it looked like so:
Ironman Belly Mold

After the rubber had cured, the registration keys were picked out, leaving holes that the resin could fill during the building of the mothermold:
Ironman Ab Plate Mothermold

Once the mothermold was set up, the next step was to remove the prototype and lay up a copy inside the mold.  For a quick rough-draft version of the suit, I did my initial castings in urethane resin reinforced with fiberglass mat:
moldmaking progress

Here's the first copy out of the mold:

While some of the details vary, the rest of the parts were molded in much the same manner:
Pouring Print Coat on Chest

Iron Pelvis Print Coat

Back Mold Parts

Since my workshop is essentially a hundred-year-old barn, every once in a while I'd have to deal with some suicidal insect ending his life in freshly-poured goo:
Suicide Moth

But on the whole, things went well while I made a lot of molds.  How many?  I haven't counted yeat.  But when every horizontal surface in the workshop was covered in Ironman molds, I brought in more horizontal surfaces and covered them too:
Ironman Moldmaking in Progress

Most of the pieces were very simple one-sided molds, but the parts for the arms and legs were a tiny bit more complicated to mold.  For example, here are the shins once the first coat of rubber was poured on:
Shins Print Coat

Here they are once the jacket mold was completely built up:
Shin Mold Thickening

The tricky part was the mothermold.  The thighs and arm parts had mothermolds that were made in two halves while the shins used three-part mothermolds:
Shin Molds Nearly Complete

Someone will inevitably ask, but I still have no idea how much silicone I used in the course of this project.

While the molding and casting was underway, I still had Lopez carving out even more parts, such as the iron buttplates:
Buttplate Prototypes Assembled

Witness a quarter of an iron moon:
Iron Butt Cheek

After a few months of sanding, filling, sanding, priming, sanding, priming, sanding, painting, molding, casting, trimming, re-working, and casting, and trimming, I finally had my friend Trevor (aka "the walking mannequin," aka my stunt double) come over and try on some of the parts:
Test Fitting 4

For some reason, this step really made me feel great about this project:
Test Fitting 3

By now I'm very nearly done with this costume and there's a lot more to it, but I'm trying to break it up into smaller, more easily digested articles.  Next I'll be writing about the making of the soft parts.  Eventually I'll write up the electronics, making the boots practical, painting and weathering, and strapping the whole thing together.

So if you're interested in seeing me wearing an iron corset, stay tuned...


  1. This looks great Thor!

    I noticed on the picture of the helmet castings above there is some text I can't quite make out... It looks like "SPAY _______ RECASTERS"

    Have you had problems with people recasting your work?

    I'm hoping that I'll soon be able to start molding and casting my own work soon, but to be honest I'm a little afraid of my own work being stolen. How do you deal with that kind of stuff? I'd love to read about that sometime!

    1. The text reads "Spay or neuter recasters"

      In the event that someone does decide to recast one of your replicas, there's really not much you can do about it.

      That said, some years ago I needed some cash and I sold a couple of copies of my Halo helmet on eBay. A woman named Beatriz Alvarez de Lucas bought a kit from me, poured a mold, pulled some copies, and started selling recasts on eBay. Another Halo costumer spotted the copies and let me know about it. So I started discussion threads on a few of the forums asking folks to chime in. Here's one of my favorites:

      In the end, the prop replica communities sent her some large number of emails and at some point her ebay account was shut down. Still, it was enough to stop me from selling things on eBay.

    2. "Aren't you a little short for an Avenger?"

      Top notch work.

    3. I know your work from the 405th, its the reason I follow your blog now!

      Good to know. I suppose you are established enough that you can get by on commissioned projects, but you probably only sell to certain people as well. I watch you and Mr. Bradley very closely, you guys are a huge inspiration to me!

      Thanks for sharing what you do- the molding tutorial was very, very useful!

    4. A little short for an Avenger? I'm only about an inch shorter than this guy:

      Plus, the way I'm building the boots will give me an extra four inches of height. Not to worry.

  2. In regards to the suicide bugs, do you think a bug zapper would help? Or is it not that much of an issue?

    1. It's not that big of a deal. When the material cures I pluck out the tragically ended insect, wipe off what's left of his wings and legs, and then I just have to remember to be sure to build up more rubber in that area if he's caused a thin spot.

  3. As a bit of an amateur prop-maker myself, I've got a question.

    With the huge quantity of parts going into the suit, are you hand sanding each piece? Or are there better/faster ways to get the sanding done quickly?


    1. Hand sanding, yes.

      Any kind of machine is going to buy you a lot more time filling and re-sanding along the way.

  4. Hi,

    Are you willing to share the files for both the objet & milling machine? I'd be interested in doing this as a project as I have access to similar equipment.


  5. Hello,
    is what you sell iron man costume?