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I make toys for kids who don't want to grow up. I'm on the lookout for new projects. If you're interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

February UFO Sightings in the Workshop

Once again, as time goes flying by, I find myself looking around the shop and pondering the huge drifting piles of things I've been working on in between more serious projects.  It turns out I have the attention span of a chipmunk when it comes to these kinds of hobby projects and I seem to be building a collection of started things just a bit faster than I've been building my collection of finished things.

With that in mind, here's just a handful of the UnFinished Objects scattered around the shop lately.

First off, I got a bit excited during a slow day a while ago and decided to break out a handful of helmets that are in progress lately:Backburner Projects Dusted Off

The Sabine Wren helmet, Primaris Space Marine, and Samus Aran are all cast from my molds.  The Havoc Trooper is 3D printed from files made by Marko Makaj.  The rest are kits I've picked up from other makers recently.  These kinds of things are good for me to keep on hand whenever I get frustrated and need a thing I can finish in a hurry and feel accomplished.

On an unrelated note, I decided to make a replica of Jarnbjorn, the axe which Thor wielded before he got his hammer, Mjolnir:
Handle Bands Progress
The head was printed from a file I got at Do3D.com.  The handle is a scratch build I've been tinkering with whenever I find a few extra minutes and happen to have whatever tool I need in my hand.

For the past however many months, I've had my Cobra Commander helmet mold sitting on the bench where I do my fiberglass layup.  So whenever I mix up a bit too much material, I end up with another helmet blank.  Once they get trimmed a bit and painted dark blue, the Cobra Commander helmets become Cobra infantry trooper helmets.  At some point I should probably quit:
Cobra Trooper Helmet Lineup

I have a steady stream "someday" projects lined up.  So whenever the once in a while happens and there's a few days where my fleet of 3D printers isn't doing anything important, I have them constantly cranking out parts so I won't end up waiting on the printers when I have time to tinker on fun stuff.

One such frivolous project is the Halo rocket launcher prop that I don't need at all, but I've been wanting for ten years.  At this point almost all of the parts have been printed, so it's nearing the prep and paint and make it look cool stage.  In the meantime, it's huge:
Barrels Assembled

Speaking of huge, sometime last year I started making parts for Paz Vizla, the heavy infantry Mandalorian.  One of the more interesting parts was his heavy blaster.  Here's most of the printed parts all lined up together:
Heavy Blaster Prototype WIP

While I've already molded and cast most of the pieces and parts, I haven't quite made time to make a mold for the main body.  That changed last week when I finally got around to turning some scrap MDF into a cradle for it:
Mold cradle begins

At the rate I'm going, I'll be casting parts sometime next week:
Blaster Body Moldmaking

As usual, there's tons of other works in progress scattered around the workshop, I'm about to wrap up a couple of builds all at once, so stay tuned for more interesting articles coming soon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

My Creative Process

A few years back someone named Marcus Romer posted the following tweet:

Each and every time I find myself in the middle of a project that's careening toward a deadline and getting  frustrating, I hit step 4 and remind myself of this particular tweet.  It haunts me.

But I've found that, just like the seven stages of grief, this generalized process isn't quite the hard and fast catchall rule that folks might think it is.  The various stages can affect different people in different ways or not at all.  In my case, it tends to mutate into a few different versions...

Version One:

This is the most common variant for me.  It starts with a prospective client (usually someone I've never heard of before) saying something like, "I'd like to hire you to build this insanely elaborate, beautiful, wearable piece of artwork.  Money is no object, I must have it."

This version of the process usually goes like so:

1. This will be awesome.

2. This will be tricky.

3. This will involve a tremendous amount of time and materials to do it right.

4. After noodling it over at great length, collecting as much reference as I can and generally getting really excited about step one, I tell the client, "it's going to cost $price." Then we get very quickly to the next step.

5. The end.

That's how my creative process usually goes.

Version Two:

This is the version that starts with a repeat customer or frequent collaborator hiring me for a project.  We have worked together in the past and know what to expect from one another.  This version proceeds thusly:

1. This is awesome.

2. This timeline is pretty tight, but I've done more with less, so I can pull it off.

3. The client has just remembered five details that will seriously limit the ways I can make this happen.  I'm feeling pretty good about step 1, so I agree with all of it.

4. This will be tricky, but I've got a handle on it.

5. Due to a change in location/availability/priorities/global pandemics, this needs to be finished much earlier.  In this revisited iteration of step 2, I'm still feeling pretty cocky, so it's no problem.

6. This budget is starting to get tight, so it's time to start making compromises to meet the deadline.  This usually means removing "value added" features and extras that the client didn't specify, but I was really looking forward to showing off.

7. This is shit.  I never should've taken on this project.  I don't know what I was ever thinking.

8. I am shit.

9. There's a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  I hate everything about this project, but at least it's so awful that I don't have to worry about this client ever coming back to me for anything else, so I can crawl in a hole and disappear when it's all wrapped up.

10. This is as done as it's going to be.  The whole thing needs to ship tomorrow.  My mom, girlfriend, and/or shop staff tell me it looks amazing, but they don't count.

11. It's crated and shipped.  My fate is in the hands of a freight company now.

12. This might be okay.  Maybe it'll be crushed in shipping, insurance will pay for it, and the failure won't be my fault.

13. The client has received it and seems happy, but they're probably just being polite.

14. Days, weeks, months, or years later, unexpectedly, I see something and say, "wow, somebody really hit that build out of the park.  I wish I'd have done that well when I built it."

15. Looking closer, "hey wait," says I, "this is the one I built."

16. This is awesome.

Version 3:

This is the version that usually applies to my passion projects and hobby builds:

1. This is awesome and I can knock this out in a couple of weeks after hours when I wrap up my paying projects for the day.

2. This is fun.  I love having a goofy project that's just for me.

3. Someone just saw a snapshot of the work in progress online and asked if they could buy one of these from me.

4. I guess I don't mind making a second one.  At least that will offset the cost of materials involved.

5. Word has gotten around in some fan club, facebook group, online forum, or knitting circle and people know that I can make this thing.  So I guess I'm doing a few more.

6. This is no longer fun, but at least it's paying the bills for a minute.

7. Once I get the first fifteen of these things knocked out, I'll make one for me.

8. Remember that thing I started last year for fun?  One of these days I should dust off my copy and finish it.

9. Oh hey, this would be good to bring to event X.  

10. Event X is in two weeks?  Time to rush this thing to the finish line.

11. This is good enough for the event.  I'll make a better copy when I have time.  

12. An amateur photographer snaps a photo of this thing at Event X that ends up going viral online.

13. A bunch of people on the internet exclaim, "this is awesome!" while a similar number of other internet people remind me that they would've totally done a better job if they deigned to waste their time on such frivolous things and I might as well just hurry up and kill myself.

14. That was fun.

Version 4:

This is the one that usually starts with an unknown person contacting me from some dark corner of the internet and asking for special treatment.  Something like, "can I get it at a discounted price?" or "I know you wrote that you'd only paint it red, but I really want it to be green."  I usually know exactly how this is going to end before it begins, but once in a very rare while I cave and relive the following:

1. This is awesome.

2. This is proceeding on schedule.

3. The client is asking questions that make it clear they didn't actually read my last email.

4. The reply to my new, shorter explanation of what I'm doing makes it clear that they didn't read that either.

5. The client suggests postponing the project because of whatever reason they claim, but in reality it's because they've just realized they can't actually afford it.

6. After months of putting me off, the client is suddenly in a huge rush and must have this thing way too soon for me to get it done without a massive overhaul of my shop, schedule, staff, etc.  I assume they just got their tax return or birthday money or something.

7. This has shipped out with time to spare for the new, rushed deadline.

8. This tracking information shows that the client signed for the delivery, but I haven't heard anything from them.

9. Buyer's remorse sets in when the client's wife finds out he bought a painstakingly fabricated custom costume that's worth more than the family car and threatens divorce.

10. Buyer breaks out a microscope and finds a nitpicky detail error on the bottom of one of the boots and tries to use it to justify a complete refund while still keeping the finished product.

11. I bend over backwards and do everything I possibly can to replace the problem part, all while reminding the client that I am not Wal-Mart.  This is custom work made to their exact size and color specifications that I can't re-sell to someone else.  All sales are final.

12. I vow to never agree to special deals or price breaks ever again.

13. A photo of the finished piece pops up in my Facebook memories feed a year later.

14. This is awesome.

Version 5: 

This one usually starts with me seeing a character in a movie or video game and thinking, "my girlfriend has the exact right physique for that character, so I should build it."  Then it goes like so:

1. This is awesome.

2. This is tricky.

3. She doesn't seem particularly thrilled, so I'll be building it on my own, but she says she'll wear it to the next convention.

4. Some shiny new thing has caught my attention and I'm going to put this project in a box and shelf it for a minute until I can focus on it again.

5. It's been how many months since I started that?  I guess I should take another look at it.

6. I don't know what I was thinking with the build plan I had in mind.  Time to re-think the whole thing and start over.

7. This is the 187th time Dr. Girlfriend has made a snide remark about how I'm never going to finish this particular thing.

8. This is coming together nicely and I think it's going to look pretty damned good.

9. It's all strapped together and she's having a great time showing it off at the event.  

10. I wish I'd come up with something for me to wear.

11. A photo of my girlfriend has 1,800 upvotes on a subreddit for fans of the thing I built.

12. This is awesome.

Version 6: 

1. This is awesome.

2. This is tricky, so I'm going to sideline it and tinker with something else while I noodle over the next step.

3. (Roughly 5 years later) What the hell was this for?  Glue it to the wall as another reminder of abandoned projects past.

There are countless other variations, but these are pretty much the way things shake out for me most of the time.  So it goes for a masochistic stress addict with a terminal case of Obsessive Creative Disorder.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Second Sister Costume from Jedi: Fallen Order Part 3: Finishing and Lighting the Hard Parts

If you're just tuning in, this is the third entry about building this  costume:
In-Game screenshot

This is the Second Sister from the video game Jedi: Fallen Order.  An Imperial Inquisitor on a mission to hunt down the remaining Jedi sometime between Order 66 and the beginning of A New Hope, I've been stalled out playing the game because I'm a terrible gamer and can't fight my way past her.  So I only play for a few minutes a week when I feel like getting beaten and abused by a woman dressed in black and knee-high boots.

But that's an issue for another time...

In my first article about this build I wrote about making the helmet from the in-game models.  In the second article, I covered the making of the bracers, shoulder armor, belt buckle, and rank bars.  At that point though, they still didn't quite look right for some reason.  Here's my assistant Rachel trying them on:
Awkward Test Fitting
Still much to do.

I didn't end up writing in much detail about the actual trimming and prep work.  Mostly because it's not very interesting, but also because I tend to forget to take pictures during the process.  Largely because I look like this:
Noisy Dusty Room

In any case, the helmet looked like so when it came out of the mold:
First cast is successful.

The first step in getting it wearable is to set myself up with one of these cutoff wheels on the rotary tool:
Cutoff Wheel

I used that to very carefully cut out the eye slit and hack off most of the excess flashing around the bottom of the helmet.  With the inside edges trimmed, I could fit the jaw back into place again:
Helmet Trimming

Fine tuning the edges was done with a medium grit (probably 120, but I don't pay attention) sanding drum.  Like this one:

Sanding Drum
That little guy managed to do most of the work shaping the rough edges into something smooth-ish.  But for really fine work in the tight corners, it was time to enlist Mr. Mixing Stick:
Mr. Popsicle, Sanding Assistant

Mr. Mixing Stick fits in where the sanding drum can't and makes everything better along the way:
Mr Popsicle Sanding

Because the neck hole is too small for most adult human heads to fit through, the jaw needs to remain detachable.  Since the wearer would be wearing gloves and possibly have a hard time trying to hook up latches or velcro or whatnot, I decided this was a great job for magnets.  To install them, I started by drilling 1/4" holes at the back of the jaw on either side:
Drilling Magnet Holes in Jaw

Then I dripped in a couple of drops of CA glue:
Glue in Magnet Holes

Finally, I inserted some neodymium magnets into each hole:
Inserting magnets

Lastly, I trimmed off any excess glue to leave the bare surface of the magnets exposed:
Trimming excess glue

I also added three magnets to the front of the jaw where it would meet the snout of the helmet:
Jaw with Magnets Installed

Matching magnets were then installed on either side of the helmet where the jaw meets the ear flaps:
Matching Magnets in Helmet Skirt

They were also installed in the snout as well:
Matching Magnets in Snout

All told, I used seven pairs of magnets to hold everything together.  This made for a pretty secure connection that could be pulled apart by hand but wouldn't fall off in the course of walking around or shaking her head.

Lighting the Visor

In the game the eye slit has a soft red glow to it.  Getting something to be see-through as well as illuminated can be a bit of a challenge.  This usually involves cheating by hiding eye holes somewhere else and letting the wearer see out of the helmet through trickery and deception.  Given the close fit and lack of details to hide eye holes in, I had to work out a way to see out through the lighted slit instead.  

I started by cutting out a piece of 1/4" acrylic sheet and heating it up until I could bend it into place inside the helmet.  Then I used a hacksaw blade to scratch a quick and dirty crosshatching pattern into the inner surface:
Helmet Visor Cut and Etched

Then I soldered up an LED array that was glued into place to edge-light the sheet:
Helmet Lighting Soldering

When it was powered up, the scratched lines picked up the light pretty well:
Helmet Lighting Test Illuminated

As you might expect, this is a lot of light inside the helmet and makes visibility hard for the wearer:
Helmet Lighting Test Installed

To make sure she wouldn't be blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night...


To make sure she would be able to see out, I added a layer of green tinted acrylic (which filters out red light) and installed it inside the helmet between the red lights and the wearer's face:
Helmet Lighting Test Green Filter

Here's an initial test fitting with the lights in place:

My assistant Rachel spent a few minutes walking around the shop and managed to avoid knocking into anything (or at least no more than she'd usually stumble into) so it seemed like it would work out:
Walkaround Visibility Test

I was mostly happy with it:20200507_171746

The main disappointment was that the rough scratches from the hacksaw blade made for an uneven light distribution and blurry spots in the wearer's vision.  To make up for this, I hit up my friend Jesse at Puzzlebox Props for some time on his laser cutter.  He made me some much nicer clear acrylic pieces with this very uniform crosshatching pattern etched into the surface:Lighted 2nd Sister Visor Cut

To get these pieces to fit into the helmet, they were placed in a toaster oven for a few minutes until they were warm enough to flop into place in the helmet:

Cooking Acrylic 1

It's important to pay attention during the heating process.  Cooking them for just a bit too long will cause acrylic pieces to bubble up and become completely useless.  So you have to watch it pretty close and check from time to time to see if it's flexible enough to force into place.  It's not a very interesting show:
Cooking Acrylic 2

But as soon as it gets warm enough to form, I lay it in place inside the helmet and it's left to cool:
Acrylic Place to Cool

That's what it looks like when it's formed in time.  If it's overcooked, it turns into this hot mess:
Overcooked Visor Acrylic

Once the parts were formed other refinement was to notch the bottom edge with a sanding drum so it would fit a bit better where the cheekbone area was inside the helmet:

Inner Visor Notched

With all of the forming and trimming done, it was time to round up the necessary tools for the lighting:

Lighting Workstation 1

The wire strippers are one of the handiest things I've bought for my limited electronics work.  Next to them is a pair of wire cutters for speedy cutting of wires and nipping off the ends of the LED leads.  Needle-nosed pliers turn out to be useful for undoing the occasional screwup in the assembly phase.  The soldering iron is for soldering the connections together and the hot glue gun lets me do a quick and dirty version of covering any exposed elements and potting the wiring so I don't have to worry about something getting bumped and causing a short later.

Before soldering any LEDs into place, I made it a point to mock up a breadboard circuit first.  I also have a handy LED tester that lets me check each of the LEDs before I inadvertently wire in a burnt-out one that missed the trash can:Lighting Workstation 2

With a couple of bags of LEDs, spools of hook-up wire, and a stack of battery boxes at the ready, it was time to get started.  Here's what the breadboard mockup circuit looked like:Visor light circuit breadboarded

What you're looking at is sixteen LEDs wired up in eight parallel sets of pairs in series.  If you're the kind of nerd that needs a circuit diagram instead, it looks like so:

Stretched out for clarity, the soldered version looks like so:

Lights Wired

With the lighted circuit all wired up and tested, the LED were glued into the notches on the acrylic visor with a few drops of CA glue:

Visor lights wired

Someone out there is going to ask why I don't have any resistors in the circuit to protect the LEDs.  I'd like to say that I did all the math and it turns out that with the voltage drop across each diode the serial pairs are able to handle the current without any problem.  The real truth of it is that after my initial breadboard test with all sixteen LEDs in parallel just made sixteen neat little popping noises and corresponding puffs of smoke, I just kept trying different layouts until I was able to get the whole thing as bright as possible without letting any of the magic electron smoke out of the wires.  This version of the LED array stayed lit for seven straight hours without dimming or burning out any LEDS, so I'm confident it'll work just fine.

To install them in the helmet, I needed an option that would make them removable later in case anything ever goes wrong with the wiring. So I started by gluing in a series of T-nuts so I could just bolt them in: 

Light Mounting T-Nuts 

Later I refined the plan to use four T-nuts instead of three. Once they were glue in, I used Magic Sculpt epoxy putty to reinforce their attachment points:

Light mounting inserts 

With the lighted visor and interior green tinted layer in place, it looked like so:

Visor lights mounted 

The remaining light leaking in around the edges was blocked out with judicious application of gaffer's tape after everything was painted: Lights Taped Off

But I'm jumping ahead...

Lighting the Forearms

For the little lights in the bracers, I had an even simpler approach. Since space was at a premium, I couldn't put in very big batteries. After an exhaustive research and development process, I determined that the optimal circuit would use two CR2032 button cell batteries and a single high-intensity LED. Actually, that's not true. In reality, I had a bunch of these handy two-cell battery holders wired up with built-in switches on hand and it was really easy to attach a single LED and glue it to the end of a piece of red-tinted acrylic to make the light I needed:

Bracer Lights

Once the painting was done, they'd fit nicely into the square hole on the bracers.  Gaffer's tape contains any light leaks on the inside and a patch of velcro would keep the battery pack from rattling around.

The end result looked like so:

Lighted Set 2

Again, I'm jumping ahead.

Painting and Final Details

When it comes to prop and costume making, the biggest problem I have is that I almost never make just one of anything.  This same thing held true here.  The helmets were trimmed and prepped and primed and given several coats of satin black:Helmet Painting Progress

Same goes for the shoulders:Shoulders painted

The bracers too:
Bracers painted

With the painting finished, the final touch was to add a bit of metal screen door mesh to the holes in the cheek vents:
Cheek Mesh Installed 2

Cheek Mesh Installed 1

So with all that said and done, here's the Lady Shawnon trying on the parts all finished and waiting on the soft parts of the costume to be sewn up:
Fitting progress

So now it's just a matter of getting the soft parts and the lightsaber sorted out.

Stay tuned...

NOTE: Some of you more astute readers may have noticed that in the first photo my assistant Rachel has no tattoos and in the lighting test photos my assistant Rachel is thoroughly festooned with them.  These are two different women.  Both are named Rachel.  It's only occasionally cause for confusion.