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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.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Building a New Display Booth Part 1: Flats

Back in 2011, I set up my display at the Bay Area Maker Faire for the first time.  Starting from scratch in a bit of a rush, we made this nifty little setup:

Blank booth

Twenty feet wide with display racks on either side and a small, private changing room in the middle, it proved to be all sorts of useful.  Still, I quickly outgrew it.

Over the years, this humble bit of wall with a tiny little changing room was expanded, rebuilt, repainted, redesigned, repurposed, and reworked to become some 50-plus linear feet of walls with two separate dressing rooms, display racks, pedestals, and storage areas for personal gear and whatnot.

After eight years of assembling, disassembling, packing, storing, neglecting, and meaning to improve the display booth, I finally decided it was time to scrap the whole deal and start over.  So the parts were broken up and hauled away and I was ready to make a new booth.

Then the Bay Area Maker Faire stopped being a thing and the COVID pandemic began and I haven't had much of a need for it.

Fast forward to now.  After a two-year hiatus, LUMACON will be returning on last day of April.  LUMACON is a kid-centric comic convention put on by the local librarians.  In the past I've had a limited display setup there to show off some of my various builds and sell copies of my book while some of my crew hangs out in costumes I've built. In order to comply with current restrictions for large gatherings in the current pandemic environment, the event is being held outdoors.  With no walls to hang my display on, it's time to make a new booth.

When I made the original booth, I had a vague idea of what I needed to do, but no kind of background or experience in building these sorts of things.  Since then, I've done some set construction work on TV series and movies and learned a few things.  Chief among the things I learned: I was an idiot.

Taking those lessons to heart, I decided that instead of rebuilding the same clunky, overweight, rickety junk I built before, I'd build this new booth just like a movie set. 

Movie sets can look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

But the backside of them generally look kinda like this:

These lightweight but surprisingly versatile wall panels are called "flats."

There are a variety of different ways flats can be built, depending on what they'll be used for.  "Broadway" or "theater" flats are thinner, and lighter.  Often covered with fabric and easily carried by one person to rearrange the set on stage in a hurry between scenes.  "Hollywood," "TV," or "studio" flats are thicker, a little heavier, and sturdier.  Since I'll be re-using these flats multiple times, I'm going to build Hollywood flats.

Hollywood flats can be made in various thicknesses to suit a particular design, but are most often made of 1-by-3 pine boards.  The boards are laid out on edge on the shop floor or a workbench, the ends are glued together and stapled or screwed. Once assembled, the flat can be covered with 1⁄4-inch or 1⁄8-inch plywood, which is glued on and stapled. The vertical "studs" or "stiles" are set on 2-foot centers and the horizontal "toggles" are also placed on 2-foot centers.

For each flat you need the following materials:

1 sheet 1/4" or 1/8" plywood (or Masonite if you're into that)

5 and a half 8' lengths of 1x3

A couple handfuls of 1-5/8" screws

A couple handfuls of 1" screws

wood glue

NOTE: ideally, I'd have used wide crown construction staples instead of 1-5/8" screws and narrow crown staples instead of 1" screws, but I don't own the staplers for either of them and wasn't going to spend $400 to own them for this one project.  You'll also notice in the following photos that we used 1x4 framing instead of 1x3s.   This is because the first store we went to was out of 1x3 and I was eager to get started.

ALSO NOTE: If you're one of those folks reading from every other country in the world, I won't be providing metric conversions.  All y'all have your own kinds of standard dimension lumber and I don't know what it looks like.  You're on your own there.

Step 1: Measure and cut your framing lumber:CHOPSAW IS YOUR FRIEND

The framing lumber is the 1x3s (or in these pics 1x4s) that will be attached to the backside of the flats.  For each flat, you'll need the following cuts:

2 pieces 48" long (the "top plate," and matching "bottom plate.")

3 pieces 94.5" long (the "studs" that are eight feet long, minus the combined thickness of the top and bottom plates)

6 pieces 22-7/8" long (the toggles, four feet long, minus the combined thickness of the three studs, split in half)

Once you've made your cuts, it's a good idea to clamp all of the like pieces together and pre-mark for centers.  Here you can see me measuring all of the studs so I can mark the center locations for the toggles:

The speed square is painted pink to piss people off

The centers of the top and bottom plates were also marked.  This will ensure uniformity when the assembly is done and saves you time later.

Step 2: Set up a clear work area:
Lovely, isn't she?
Disregard the background clutter.  This room has yet to be properly built out.

Step 3: Set up three studs on edge and attach the bottom plate:

Hollywood Flat Building029

For each of the joints in this project, we'll start with a bead of glue:
A little dab'll do ya!

Then, because we're using really thin, cheap lumber, we'll pre-drill each screw hole:Drill, baby, drill!

You'll notice in the pic above that the Lady Shawnon is holding the wood so that the top edges are flush.  If we were working on a perfectly flat surface and had reliably straight/square lumber, we could count on it to line itself up pretty well, but given that the boards we bought were pretty janky, we had to settle for making the front face straight where it would be attached to the skin.

Finally, the boards were screwed together:

You know how I like it!

Each joint would get two screws in this manner.

With the bottom plate attached, it's time to 
attach the top plate.  Now the assembly looks like so:
Just like the other end, but on this end.

Step 4: Attach toggles on one side.  These are installed on two-foot centers with screws through the studs into the toggles:

Hollywood Flat Building004

These are easy because you can drill and screw them through the outer stud and the inner stud:

Hollywood Flat Building010

Step 5: Attach toggles on the other side.  These area bit trickier.  On the outside stud, you can still screw through into the toggles like we did for the first half:

Hollywood Flat Building035

But the inside stud is blocked by the toggle on the other side.  To work around this, I 
toenail through the stud into the toggle to attach it:
Hollywood Flat Building037

Hollywood Flat Building036

Hollywood Flat Building038

Then, just like that, all six toggles are glued and screwed in place:
Them's there's the toggles.

Step 6: Attach the skin.

We start by applying glue onto the surface of the frame:Hollywood Flat Building039

NOTE: as you can see Doctor Girlfriend doing here, you want to put the glue on the center stud and the toggles first, then the outside edges last.  That way you don't have to lean your carcass across the sticky parts and make a mess of yourself.

Hollywood Flat Building020

Once the glue is applied, you can screw down the skin:

Hollywood Flat Building024

Despite what your mom says, there's a right way to screw.  Start by making sure the skin is flush on one corner and put a screw there first:

Hollywood Flat Building025

Then screw down the long side, straightening the stud to keep it flush as you go:

Hollywood Flat Building023

Once the long side is screwed down, screw down bottom edge.  Working from the first corner you screwed down, you'll be pushing and pulling the bottom plate up or down as needed to make sure the edge of the skin is flush with the framing. 

Once that's done, continue screwing down the skin, working from bottom corner upward and outward to make the whole thing flatten out as you go.  At this point, things might look a bit off.

The first corner and first two edges were nice and flush when we started:

Hollywood Flat Building025

But because the sheet isn't exactly 48" x 96" (and if we did it right, our framing was exactly 48" x 96") the edges of the plywood will overhang a bit:

Hollywood Flat Building026

Hollywood Flat Building027

Step 7: This tiny excess gets trimmed off with a router using a panel trim bit like this one:Edge Trim Router Bit

Is dusty work:
Hollywood Flat Building041

The end result is a nice, flat panel 48"x96" and ready to be painted, dressed, and made into something awesome.  

Assembled Hollywood Flats

To make it easier to get a nice finish, the screw holes are filled and sanded:
Hollywood Flats Spot Putty and Sanded

Then they all get a couple of good coats of primer:
Hollywood Flats in Primer

Finally, paint:
Basic Black Hollywood Flats

We went for basic black for starters.  All told we made 5 of them.  

Next I'll have to build something to keep them from falling over:Backside of Hollywood Flats

Stay tuned for more on this somewhat useful new project...

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Revisiting an Old Project: Mjolnir MkVI Armor from HALO 3

 A while back I was asked by a local HALO fan named Bill if I could still make another suit of the HALO 3 armor that my crew and I made way back in the day.  You can read about that project here: LINK.

I was a bit leery about saying yes.  Some of those molds were over ten years old and they'd been buried in storage for so long I hadn't laid eyes on most of them in probably five years.  But I decided to give it a go anyway.  First, I'd have to dig them out of storage:

Storage container nightmare

My storage bin is a fascinating and terrifying place.  It's a 20-foot shipping container where I put things I'll get back to, knowing they may well never be seen again.  When I've wrapped a big project, the molds get placed there until I have need of them again.  When I run out of space, I spelunk my way into the deepest, darkest corner, farthest from the entrance, and get rid of the older molds that I haven't seen or needed in the most years.  Then I re-Tetris the stack to hopefully shoehorn a few more pieces into the container before I force the doors closed.  I'm way overdue for another such container, but that's a problem for a different day.

Getting out the HALO armor molds meant digging through sedimentary layers of past projects like a propmaking archaeologist.  Years of accumulation made pulling out the full set of molds into most of a days work for me and my assistant Rachel.  Still, we got them.

A quick survey of resulting pile made it clear that I'd at least be able to get one good pull from most of the old molds.  Since this was basically my first project on this scale, the molds showed a clear progression in quality as my skill level developed.  Most of them had been made using plurple AM128 silicone, the likes of which I haven't used in at least eight years. 
Old Mold

The lighter blue and yellowish areas show where the mold has aged and dried out over the years.

A few that had fallen apart in use were replaced years ago using pink Mold Max 30, my current go-to.  Even fewer were made with blue silicone from TAP plastics which I haven't bought since seemingly forever.  Missing from the stack was the mold for the lower leg.  I'm pretty sure I've long since thrown it away for fear that I might be tempted to coax another casting out of the clearly useless mold and buy myself days worth of prep and cleanup work.  Better to just make a new mold.

To make a new lower leg mold, I pulled out my old blue suit (Private Leonard Church from the popular web series, Red vs. Blue).  Having not come out of the box in years, it was also in pretty rough shape.  I'll have to get back to rebuilding it later when I have some luxury time.  Still, I pulled out both of the lower leg parts.  Since they're interchangeable, I picked the nicer one of the pair, and set it up for remolding.

The first order of business was to grind off any flaws and sand through the old, funky paint job:Shin Remake Begins

Then there was a bit of filler work to straighten out a couple of areas:
Lower Leg Armor Redux

After a bit of sanding and a couple of coats of primer, it was given a coat of glossy pink paint and one of the Rachels mounted it for molding:
Mounting Shin for Molding

Since we've been on a roll with matrix molding lately, we decided to use the same method to mold this piece.  Here's the clay bulk built up before the registration keys were added:

And the final matrix once the keys were built up and the parting wall was in place:
Halo Shin Matrix Complete

I've been writing up the matrix molding process a lot, so I won't bore you with the details here, but the fiberglass mothermold layup was so clean and professional, I couldn't resist the urge to share this pic: Halo Shin Mothermold Complete

In any case, in no time at all, we'd poured the silicone, demolded and trashed the master, and started rotocasting shins in time with all of the other parts.  Here's the first pair out of the mold:
Raw Cast shin pulls

After a bit of trimming and sanding, they were ready for primer and paint:
Shins Ready to Prime

Given the huge nightmare of digging out all of the molds, I figured I might as well make two sets of parts instead of just one. It seems like every time I get excited about a project like this, I fall into the same trap.  I tell myself that once the molds are made, making two is only slightly more work than making one.  It's not quite true, but I have yet to really learn my lesson.  This is why I have boxes and boxes of unfinished sets of armor laying around.

I also decided to make the larger parts out of fiberglass this time around instead of rotocasting them in urethane like we did with the original suits all those years ago.  The result is lighter, stronger, and all-around better.  Normally I run into problems trying to lay up fiberglass parts in tin cure silicone molds.  It turns out that tin cure silicone can inhibit the cure of polyester resins.  It also turns out that older molds are less likely to have this issue as the oils dry out of them.  Given how old most of these molds were, I figured it was worth a shot.  In pretty short order, parts started stacking up:

Parts in Progress

Untrimmed White Fiberglass Armor

In fact, I may have gotten a bit carried away.  At some point I realized I wasn't keeping track and ended up pulling a third set of fiberglass thigh armor out of the molds:

I also made a couple of extra helmets:Rough Trimmed MkVI Helmets

I did most of the rough trimming of the edges myself in the CNC room (where most of the noisy/dusty work is supposed to be done) but had to share some of the fine tuning and smooth sanding with my workshop assistants.  Here's another one of the Rachels with a huge pile of itchy and scratchy laid out on a bench:
Armor Pile in Progress

The back piece was molded with the shoulder sections separate, so assembling it into one solid piece required a bit more fiberglass work.  I started by taping all of the pieces together in proper alignment with the chest in order to be sure everything would fit together properly later:
Rough Trimmed Black Fiberglass Armor

With everything taped and clamped in place, the seams between the shoulder blocks and the backplate were layered over with more fiberglass to make them one solid piece:
MkVI Chest Assemblies|
After that, it was just a matter of smoothing out the surface flaws:


Once all of the parts were smoothed out, we moved on to primer and paint.  The base color initially started out as Rustoleum Sail Blue:Shins Awaiting Re-Trimming

After a bit more consideration, we decided instead on the slightly darker, greayer Rustoleum Royal Blue.  After a couple of coats of glossy blue paint, it was time to mess them up.  First all of the parts were given a healthy dose of silver drybrushing to make the edges look scratched and worn.  Then the black details were picked out in flat black to make them look like some kind of plastic composite before everything was given a healthy blackwash.

Here's a shot of the drybrushed shin (left) next to the blackwashed shin (right):Lower Legs before and after weathering

Here's both lower legs all scuffed and dirtied up:
Lower Legs Weathered

And the front of the iron space diaper:
Codpiece Weathered

In no time at all, the loose pile of parts was starting to look like a thing:
Parts Nearly Complete

Since I was already taking forever to get the suit built, I decided I might as well put in the extra time to add all of the marker lights all over the suit.  The wiring was simple enough, just an LED (or four in the case of the knee lights) soldered to a 2-cell battery holder sized for CR2032 button cell batteries:

Simple LED assembly

If you're looking to replicate this assembly, you can get the batter holders here: LINK, the LEDs here: LINK, and the batteries here: LINK.

The LEDs were then glued in place inside the armor, angled to optimize the light cast through the light holes, then bedded in clear resin to diffuse the visible light on the outside.  The final effect was just about right:

Marker Light Install

We also wired up cooling fans to help prevent the visor from fogging up and LED headlights in the helmet:

Since I never seem to be able to pour the clear resin into the light holes without getting at least a tiny bit onto the paint, Rachel had to go back and touch up the paint around the edges of most of the lights.

Then the whole thing got a healthy coat of "Dead Flat" clear coat, also from Rustoleum.
Clear matte coat

Clear matte coat

Once the clear had dried, I was ready to strap everything together and call it finished.  Here's Bill, aka "William-043" all suited up in the shop for the first time:Finished Blue Spartan

At 6'4" barefoot, the lifts built into the boots and the padding in the top of the helmet combine to make him look absolutely gigantic in the armor:
Finished Blue Spartan

It helps that I'm a little short for a stormtrooper.

In the end, he's as happy with the finished armor as I am:
Finished Blue Spartan

In fact, he has been taking it out regularly for photoshoots at various locations all over Northern California:
William-043 at Ease

William-043 and Cortana Closeup

William-043 dual wield magnums

William-043 riverbed



Now that I've made a dozen or twenty of these suits, I can say without reservation that his is the best-looking kit I've made from these molds.  It makes me really want to go back through my own suits (I still have Washington, Tex, and Church tucked away in storage) and tune them up again.

Then again, I still have another set of parts tucked away for a whole new build:
Agent Maine Begins...  Again.

Stay tuned while I fail to talk myself out of building just one more character from Red vs. Blue...