June 20, 2014

Peter Pan's Dagger

While this year has been very busy between building our new vacuum former, refurbishing the Dalek, and looking for a house, I had a commission come up for Peter Pan’s dagger from the Disney classic. Seeing how David has made some really awesome bladed props the last few years, I thought it would be a fun reason to try one myself.


The first step was to sketch out a template for the dagger. Most prop builders I know nowadays use Illustrator for this step, but I still like to use graph paper and a pencil. Using several screen caps and a kitchen knife for size reference, I made a full size sketch of the dagger in 2 views. The drawing was then scanned and sent to the client so she could verify if scale would work for her. Once I received approval it was time to start cutting.



The build started with two pieces of ¼” MDF glued together to form a ½” piece, which would be my blade thickness. The pattern I created was printed full size and traced onto the wood, then cut out using a scroll saw. The centerline was then transferred to both sides of the blank.


I stated shaping the blade by adding the curve as seen looking at the side of the blade. Reference lines were drawn on the sides then the blank was shaped with a belt sander and the mid line replaced. Using a dremmel with a sanding drum, I carefully shaped the blade to provide a knife edge. Once it was rough shaped with the dremmel I cleaned it up with my palm sander.



For the handle and guard I added two more layers of MDF to the handle, and then shaped it using a combination of belt sander, palm sander, and dremmel. One I reached a shape I was happy with, I added bondo to the guard to create the taper that goes to the edge. The dagger was then puttied, primed, and sanded until it had a smooth surface finish.




Originally I intended to paint the dagger using Rustoleum Metallic paint from Home Depot (the stuff with the trigger on the can). I painted the blade first, let it cure for a day, then masked it off and painted the handle. When I removed the masking, I found that the paint was still soft and the masking left texture in the paint. After 3 days the paint was not getting better, and I ended up sanding the entire thing back down to wood. After this nightmare, I used automotive paint from O’Reily’s for the handle and Rub’N Buff for the blade. The knife was then weathered with acrylic paint.


Although it wasn’t requested, I opted to make a matching holster for the dagger since it allowed me to use our new vacuum former. I started my making a buck for each half of the holster with the same outline. The buck for the back half has a raised surface so I could mount snaps as attachment points for a belt loop. I then pulled a sheet of styrene over both bucks, then leaving the first layer of plastic on pulled a second sheet. This gave two sets where one shell can fit into the other. To minimize any appearance of seems I decided to use the set where the back shell slides into the front shell.




Three layers of felt were glued into each half using Goop, then the two halves were glued together with super glue. The seam was blended with bondo. I went through a lot of back and forth on how to finish the holster. In the cartoon, the holster is the same color as the belt, but other than that there is not much detail on if it is leather or a hard shell. Initially I thought about covering it with faux leather, but that may not have matched the client’s existing belt. I then considered making it look like wood, but again found myself wondering what wood, light or dark, would match the existing costume. I eventually decided to play it safe and make it the same color as the handle. That way, it looks like one complete set regardless of the belt. As with the handle, the holster was weathered to give it an aged, antique appearance. Once this was done I took the project over to David’s for a photoshoot.






Our normal shipping method for finished props is to enclose them in a wood box lined with foam padding or pink foam board to increase the chance it will make it to its destination in one piece. On this project I wanted to try something a little different to improve presentation of the prop. Taking a trip to Hobby Lobby I found a wood box that was the perfect size for the dagger. I finished the box with stain and polyurethane then lined the inside with green foam and stretch velvet (same stuff I use on the fabric mau5 heads). The result was a storage box almost as impressive as the items stored within it.




It was a fun little build and now we can add “Disney Classics” to the ever growing list of source material we built from. I also learned a few things I hope to implement with an upcoming project I’d like to build from the web series RWBY or Loki if I ever get around to it.

While things are a bit hectic with the move and Dalek upgrades I was able to finish one more prop this year. Be on the lookout for Marshall Lee’s axe guitar build write up coming soon!

More build pictures here!

April 10, 2014

ProtoForm Build: Our New Industrial Vacuum Former


During our first collaborative project, the Halo ODST, we found ourselves in need of a vacuum former for the visors of the helmet. Back then we had no experience with the process, and didn’t see too much need for one as most of the projects we were considering were based on fiberglass. After doing some research we found Volpin’s build where he made a machine using a toaster oven and a shop vac. Seeing how simple the design was we “borrowed” it and built our first vacuum former for about $150.


In the 4 years we’ve had it, we discovered how useful it really is. We pulled a lot of plastic in the machine, and a lot of projects such as Daft Punk or the Apollo moon suit would have been impossible without it. While the old girl still works, some of the newer projects we are looking at will require us to have a larger pull area and more powerful vacuum. Thus, it was finally time to invest in a new machine.

Researching what others have done in the past, we found two options for 2x2 machines that most hobby builders seem to use; the ProtoForm and the Thurston James. Both machines use nichrome heating elements to heat the plastic and dump tanks that hold vacuum to pull the plastic. The key difference is the ProtoForm is designed to use 220 VAC (like your oven or other large appliances) while the Thurston James is based on 110 VAC (like everything else in your house). Both run the same amount of amperage through each heating element, but the ProtoForm has twice as many elements than the Thurston James. While the Thurston James plans are cheaper and the build is a little simpler, the amount of amperage it draws from the outlet would push the very limit of the breaker, which could cause a fire hazard. The ProtoForm was well in the range of other large appliances and is designed with its own breaker box, so we decided to go that route.

Initially, David and I were going to modify the design to be built from wood since neither of us have experience with welding. However, our friend Daniel of Smeeon Fabrications had just bought a new chop saw that he wanted to use and has welding experience, so we all started to work together to build the machine to print based on the purchased plans. David and I started by building up the rolling chassis while Dan welded together the steel frame that forms the main support of the machine. A few parts, such as the lift arm brackets, were machined by one of my co-workers who makes aerospace quality components. The lift arm is designed to stay up on its own when in the full vertical position.

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Once welding was complete, we built the wooden boxes that cover the operational components. The bottom box is made of pine and MDF while the oven box is oak to better withstand any heat from the oven and prevent warping. With the machine all built up, it was time to take it all apart so it could be painted. We used high temp grill paint for the steel components and “2Story Light Blue” for all the wood components.

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The forming surface, or platen, consists of a steel wire mesh secured between two aluminum sheets and sealed with caulk. For this part, David produced a vector file from the drawings in the plans, which Dan then used to cut the two sheets of aluminum, with holes, on the CNC over at MindGear Labs. The top sheet was bent over the MDF base and the assembly was sealed with 100% silicone.

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The vacuum system consists of a small Harbor Freight vacuum pump and two air compressor tanks which give a combined volume of 16 gallons. This is about the lower limit recommended in the plans, but we have seen people get away with a single 11 gallon tank so this set up should be good for the foreseeable future. The tanks are connected via reinforced tubing to a 1” valve that is then connected to the platen. Before the plastic is heated, the tanks are evacuated using the vacuum pump. When it is time to pull the plastic, the valve is opened, lowering the pressure between the plastic and the platen causing the plastic to take the shape of the buck.


The heating elements are built from kits offered by build-stuff.com. They are a little pricy, but everything you need is included and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Each of the four heating elements is supported by drop ceiling struts on top of an aluminum stud.


Since we are required to move our machine around the shop for storage, we added a power cord to connect to the shops 220 voltage. While the three prong connection works fine, eventually we will reconfigure it to use a four prong connector with a dedicated grounding wire.

Finally, we added some plaques to the machine. The shop that the vacuum former is currently housed in has its share of curious minds, so some necessary hazard, safety, and operational information needed to be displayed. The plaques were simply laser cut acrylic with vinyl decals applied, with second layer of clear acrylic on top for protection.

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For the first pull, Daniel brought in some plaster castings and sheets of styrene. We were hoping to have better details than were possible with our previous machine, but the results we achieved were incredible. We were even able to imprint texture from a quarter onto the plastic! Here is a video of our first two pulls. The results speak for themselves.

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This is was large group effort; the machine was build one night a week over the course of three months. We want to give a big thank you to our friends Daniel and Jason for helping make this possible. With their help we now have a professional quality tool that will allow us to make some really cool stuff in the future.


More Build Pictures!

Build-Stuff.com where you can purchase the plans and the heating kit.

February 6, 2014

Apollo A7L Moon Suit Part 2: Examining the Real Space Suits!

Some of you may remember a scene in Star Trek: First Contact where Captain Picard has an emotional moment when he touches the Phoenix, a space craft he had visited many times in a museum but was always behind glass. When Data ask if tactile contact alters perception of an object, Picard explains, “Oh yes! For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.”

I recently had a very similar experience.

As we live in Huntsville we are in a historically significant location related to the Space Race as the rockets that carried men to the moon were developed here. Many artifacts from this period are on located at the U.S Space and Rocket Center, including one of the 3 Saturn V rockets left in the world. I’ve visited the museum several times and have taken many pictures of the moon suits they have on display, but I could never get closer than a few feet as they are in display cases. Earlier this year, I decided to go for broke and asked the museum if I could examine one of the A7L moon suits they have up close to take measurements and pictures so I could build a more accurate suit. A few calls with the curator, a research application, and several emails later, I received approval for a day in the archives where several suits and other artifacts are being preserved! Armed with calipers, rules, a note book, and a good camera I went to the museum to physically touch a piece of history!


Since the suits are priceless artifacts, before I could examine them I had to remove any sharp objects that could damage them and wear a pair of white cotton gloves to prevent any skin oils from tarnishing the materials. The suits themselves along with other artifacts are kept in a temperature and humidity controlled room, affectionetly called the morgue. I could literally spend years checking out everything in there, but my focus on this trip was to learn as much as I could about the A7L pressure suit. We started by pulling out an A7L pressure garment (the inner part of the suit) out from the shelves so I could document the connectors and seals.


The first thing I noticed was the suits today are incredibly stiff. The natural rubber they were made with dried out over the last 40 plus years, making them very hard and brittle. Touching rubber areas made a crunching sound, and it was impossible to bend any of the joints or open the suit to look inside as I had hoped. I started of measuring the connectors and found while I made the size of the base correct, the pivot portion has a different, and more streamline shape. Using calipers I took detailed measurements and will be working on new sculpts for my next build.

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Moving up to the neck ring, I found I was very close with my original dimensions. I finally discovered how the rig itself attaches to the suit; the bottom half of the ring has a channel on it that a rubber gasket molded into the rubber bladder of the suit itself fits in and is secured with a metal ring, allowing it to easily be removed. I also found that the suit has an inner liner that snaps into place on the bladder just below the neck ring. The hoses you see in the pictures run from the oxygen inlets to the helmet so the “fresh air” can move around the bubble helmet. My suits will likely always use magnets, but the real helmet is secured using spring loaded pins.

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The various cables you see were used in conjunction with the bellows to keep the suit at constant volume. Without the bellows, the astronaut would not be able to move as the pressure would keep the suit in an expanded position. Without the cables and pullies, the bellows would want to expand out like an accordion. The set up for the shoulder was very interesting to see and I took a few circumference measurements to determine how thick the arms should be. It’s about 17 inches round at the bicep. The shoulders also have a stiff support ring where to see the black and white stitches, and a pivot barring so you can turn your arm. The big shoulders are the key detail I really want to fix with my next build.

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Next was time to examine the micro-meteoroid garment. Originally, we thought there were several sitting in a few boxes (without the pressure suit) but we found they were either from an earlier version of the A7L or perhaps even from an early suit altogether. To the best of my knowledge, they would have dated back to Apollo 8 where Lovell was the Command Module Pilot and Fred Haise was the back up for the Lunar Module Pilot. There was still useful information to be found, plus the name on the garment peaked my interest. I took some measurements of the patches and flag. I’ve known for a while that the fabric is Teflon, but when you see it up-close you realize that it is a very thick woven material, much thicker and stiffer than the Tyvek or nylon many costume suits are made from.

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At the time of this writing, my intent for my next moon suit build is a better replica of Jim Lovell’s Apollo 13 A7L. The archives had at least two A7LB suits (Apollo 15-17era) in beautiful condition, and if my intentions change or the opportunity comes up I would love to go back and examine them, but for now we stuck with the A7L. The suit they had was mostly complete but had turned yellow over time. The size tag had no name, indicating it was likely a training or development suit not assigned to a specific mission. For comparison, the size listed for the astronaut was their names as the crewman suits were tailored to each astronaut. The chest was bunched up, but I was able to get measurements of the pockets, helmet adjustment straps, and access flaps.

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With the suits examined it was time to check out a few of the other pieces. Since the gloves were made of rubber, many did not survive the test of time. Luckily, they had a lunar glove in fairly good condition. One of the key measurements I see a lot of discussion about is how wide the locking ring is. I am happy to tell you that after measuring it myself, the inner diameter is approximately 3.125inchs. It was also interesting to see an adjustment strap on the back of the hand. While my replica uses ironing board fabric. The real grey fabric you see here is a finely woven mesh that was about $2000 per yard!

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Finally, it was time to examine a helmet. Up to this point you may have noticed I have not mentioned anything about “trying on” parts of the suit. While there are strict rules that state the suits cannot be worn, the condition of the rubber makes it physically impossible. But I am not going to lie, it took every bit of will power I have to not put this helmet on.


The real helmet consist of two parts. First, the astronaut puts on the bubble helmet, which is the part that looks like a fish bowl. He wears this alone during launch and inter-vehicular activities. When he goes outside the ship, an over-helmet is attached to the bubble helmet that has the flip up visors. The model I examined was likely an early training model and only had 2 visors inside. I was a little surprised how easy they moved, especially since you would want them to stay up when retracted. I was able to get measurements of the curve and width of similar, uninstalled visors so I can improve the bucks for the next helmet attempt.

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When everything was said and done, I spend about 5 hours examining hardware. Since I had a better camera than my personal one I stuck around and took pictures of the regular display items. While not everyone can handle a moon suit like I did, there are plenty of artifacts on display and it is a great place to learn about our country’s voyage to the moon.

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A REAL moon rock!

We would like to send a big thank you to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for allowing us this unique opportunity. We learned just as much, if not more from this trip as we did from the past year researching test books and technical manuals. We are looking forward to bringing our moon suit to the center during the annual Yuri’s Night this April to celebrate manned spaceflight. As for when we’ll be starting the new moon suit, Dave and I are currently working on some new tools and a new mystery project, but we’re looking forward to starting the new build in the near future. Stay tuned!

U.S. Space and Rocket Center Home to Space Camp!
More photos taken at the Space and Rocket Center