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

December 19, 2013

Blog Updates, December 2013

In addition to a few new posts recently, we've gone through the other pages and made updates throughout. You'll find a totally new Projects page, additional past and present entries on our Appearances page, and a few additions to our Links page. Click on through and see what all we've been up to lately!

December 10, 2013

True Master Sword


As of this blog entry, the most recent Zelda game to come out is The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS. I have not played it yet, so my would-be opinion of the game does not factor into this at all. My all-time favorite Zelda game is Skyward Sword, and for quite a variety of reasons. I won’t go into them, but it definitely includes my favorite rendition of the Master Sword to date. It’s been on my “want to build” list, but there were just other, more readily-buildable, or more time-sensitive builds I needed to work on. Earlier this year, I was commissioned to build it (that is, what is referred to as the “True Master Sword” in the game), so now I had a need to build it, and I couldn’t be happier!

Anyways, the build isn’t really too much different from my previous Zelda sword builds, except for a few added techniques to achieve certain components. So a lot of this write-up will just highlight certain aspects of it as it’s really nothing new or anything terribly complicated.

To begin, I drew up some templates. Fortunately, there are lots of great references out there for this, which made drawing my templates easy. Keeping with my desire to make all my Zelda swords in-scale with each other, I landed on a final length of 40.5” long. At first, I thought that would be way too long, so I made a secondary template which had a blade that was 2” shorter. The visual loss was not significant enough to really matter, but in the end, it just didn’t feel right. Besides, it IS a long sword, after all. So I went with the original measurement of 40.5” long.



Speaking of my templates, and in case you were wondering, I print all my templates out on regular 8.5” by 11” cardstock. I could very well have them printed at Kinkos or something, but being able to piece it together on the spot makes scaling go a little quicker for me. On most builds, I may go through three or four templates before I decide it’s the right size (that is, if I don’t have anything else to base the measurements on). So in order to get parts to line up correctly, I draw a mess of thinner lines over the template so I can line them up in the light and then tape them together. A little messy, but it works just fine.



With my templates drawn and cut, I decided what needed to be made out of MDF and what didn’t, and then transferred my templates accordingly. Prior to cutting the templates out in the 1/4” MDF, I ran the MDF down a table saw to draw a central groove down what would become the interior of the blade, into which I would later insert a threaded rod for support later on in the build. Once the interior groove was cut, I decided 1/2” was just barely too thin, so I thickened it up with a layer of 2mm sintra sandwiched between each 1/4" sheet of MDF. I glued the stack together, and then cut it out on a scroll saw, after which I carved in the blade’s edges with my dremel and my power sander.






The cross guard proved a little tricky to carve, and there were multiple passes over it to get it just right. But in the end, the shape was actually just carved in with my dremel and an Xacto blade, and then sanded smooth. The wings would have to be added separately, so in order to get them perfectly symmetrical, I sculpted one (again, carved some MDF with my dremel and Xacto blade), made a mold, and cast two copies out of Smooth Cast 300 resin. While it’s a smaller component instead of the full cross guard, it’s the same exact thing I did on the previous Zelda swords to attain perfectly mirrored sides on an otherwise difficult to sculpt component. On a side note: A little trick I picked up from either Jarman Props, Zprops, or Punished Props (I can’t remember which!) is that if you’re working with MDF, coat your carved piece in super glue and let it soak in and dry. It really doesn’t take long, and when you sand it, you get a very hard, very smooth surface with nice, sharp edges. It’s such a neat trick that I used it throughout the build, and I encourage everyone out there following along to try it. You’ll be glad you did! Anyways, once the rest of the cross guard was sculpted, I measured out where the wings would sit according to my templates, and notched out the main cross guard. Then I inserted the wing castings and secured them in place with super glue and Apoxy Sculpt.







The cross guard wasn’t finished at that point, however, as I still needed to sculpt the jewel. However, before I did that, I needed to have the grip in place. To make the grip, I glued some scrap wood together (with a central groove in each piece of wood, in a similar manner to the blade) and chucked it up on the lathe. Using my template, it really didn’t take too terrible long to turn the grip. While it was on the lathe, I puttied it up and used the lathe to sand it perfectly smooth.




The grip wasn’t ready to install, though, as I still had a substantial amount of sculpting work to do on it. In order to get the grip’s weave feature sculpted, I taped out the wrap pattern on the grip (which was no small feat!), marked it with Sharpie, and removed the tape. Then I sculpted the grip weave on using Apoxy Sculpt. On a side note, I discovered that Skyward Sword’s concept artist intended for the green weave to be a grass-like material, and that really intrigued me. I had to add that feature to the sword. So while I was sculpting the pattern, I carved in several grooves along the bands of Apoxy Sculpt to give it somewhat of a grass-like texture. Separately, I added the pommel by using Apoxy Sculpt as well. Are you seeing a trend here? Apoxy Sculpt is kick ass.




After what felt like working on the handle for weeks and weeks and weeks (which realistically wasn’t the case), I was able to finally attach it to the rest of the sword. Here’s where that threaded rod comes in. gluing the rod into the blade first, I was able to easily line everything up and glue the grip in place. I ended up notching out the cone section of the grip so that it would fit snugly into place along the bottom side of the cross guard. Doing so made it so there was zero guess work in aligning the grip to the rest of the sword. With the grip in place, I could finally finish off the cross guard by adding the jewel. Again, to attain symmetry, I sculpted one jewel, molded it, and cast two copies.






When the final sculpt was cleaned up, it was ready for molding. It actually had a similar molding process to Pipit’s Sword, wherein I used MDF to help with the mold seam and reduce the amount of clay work I had to do. It was pretty standard two-part mold work. My rubber of choice was my go-to Rebound 25, and it took one entire “gallon kit” and most of a “trial kit” of the stuff to get it molded. Like the Goddess White Sword, I had to cut in several vent sprues to allow the resin to fill undercut areas. And like the other Zelda sword molds, the rubber parts in this mold would get clamped between two sheets of MDF during the casting process. In the last photo below, you'll notice that it's sitting in a trash can. The trash can is there in case there are any leaks or overflows during the casting process, so that the spilled resin is retained in the can and not all over my floor.









I wanted to try something I picked up from another prop builder, Matt Munson, since I had a lot of sharp edges I needed to capture. It’s not an uncommon trick, though, I just had never done it before, and with all the little shapes and nooks and crannies on this thing, I didn’t want to take any chances with bubbles. Before casting resin into the mold, I brushed in a coat of talc (in the form of baby powder). The talc works itself into all the hard-to-reach areas, and through capillary action, pulls the resin into those areas. This produces a super crisp casting, reducing bubbles that would normally appear in the castings to nearly zero.




I had some trouble casting this thing. I burned through a couple of castings that kept deforming in bizarre ways. Most resins shrink ever so slightly, and that’s normal. However, on larger items such as this, it can really cause adverse effects, especially if there is something impeding the shrinkage. Initially I had the same metal curtain rod cast into these as I did the Goddess White Sword. However, with the amount of resin the blade caused the weak metal to bend while it shrank, which caused the blades to curve. To fix that, I swapped out the cheapy metal curtain rod for a 3/8” steel threaded rod. The threading provides a mechanical connection to the resin, and the stronger steel prevents any flexing that the resin’s shrinkage would normally cause. The trade off, though, is that the steel rod is much heavier than the curtain rods, so the sword has some weight to it. It’s appropriate weight for being a sword, but it’s a little heavier than one would expect out of something that is made of plastic.

I also switched to a different resin for this sword. My go-to resin is Smooth Cast 300 for it's ease of use and it's quick curing time. It makes casting small things and slush casting helmets really quick and easy. However, it kicks a little too fast for something like this where I need a lot of working time, so I switched to Smooth Cast 305. It's the same exact resin, except that it has an added chemical to it that slows the curing process down, giving you more working time. The downside to it is that it seems degassing it would be beneficial, as there were quite a few air bubbles throughout that needed to be dealt with.

Anyways, after cleaning up the “steel rod” casting, I took to painting it. It wasn’t ever explicitly requested by the customer, but I made an assumption and chose to paint it up like the in-game version instead of the water-colory production artwork. This significantly reduced my painting time, as I was quickly approaching my due date. The blade got some Krylon spray can silver prior to any other paint work. Typically I don’t like using it, but if you let it dry for at least a full day, it doesn’t really retain finger prints. Then, I used my airbrush to apply custom-mixed acrylic paints to the grip. I did several passes over it in slight variations of the color to give it a neat shimmery look in different lighting. Next, I painted the grip weave by hand, and then further accented it with more airbrush work. After the grip was done, I misted some light blue at the base of the blade, fading it out half way up the blade. The jewels were painted in a metallic gold paint for the bulk of the jewels’ surfaces, and then they were coated in gold leaf Rub N Buff. The very slight brush texture from the paint caused the Rub N Buff to buff off in a slightly uneven manner, which gave it this neat, subtle “aged” look to it. To finish everything off, I gave it a couple coats of Spar Urethane clear coat.







This truly was a joy to build, and even though I only had the completed sword in my possession for a few days, the payoff was very rewarding.





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