Saturday, October 15, 2011

Armor Up, How to Plan, Buy and Build Your 501st Armor

I’m Phil Grubenhoff, my legion ID is SL-9172, gravedigger1964 on the legion, forum and detachment boards and I was volunteered to take point on this panel. Helping me is Nick Bishop from Australia.
This panel is Armor Up, How to Plan, Buy and Build your 501st ARMOR

The first  thing you need to decide is what character you want to portray.
The most popular costume in the 501st is the Storm trooper.
The younger generations though like the clone troopers.
It’s always good to have an officer around to watch your back plate.  They sometimes fall off.
Biker scout is a good choice for comfort and maneuverability.
If black is your favorite color maybe you'd like to stay on target as a Tie fighter pilot.
If you’re a fan of the Fetts, bounty hunter might be your calling.
Denison's of the empire is for Sand people or jawas.
Or maybe the dark side of the force is strong in you and Sith Lord is your destiny.
The 501st even has a category for characters from the expanded universe of Star Wars Novels, comics or video games.

This is the list of 501st approved costumes.  As You can see there are a lot of possibilities.  When you add in the Expanded Universe, the choices are nearly infinite.
Some things to consider are:
Comfort, some costumes are more comfortable and easier to move around in than others.   Do you want to be able to sit or kneel?
Popularity, Some characters are more popular than others.  Vader and Boba Fett get the rock star treatment.  But the 501st limits name characters to one per troop.   Those events are first to volunteer or sometimes by lottery
Cost, some costumes are just more expensive than others.
Degree of Complexity, Some costumes take a lot more time and talent to do right.

Do your homework:  Research, research, research.
Here’s where your journey should start.  At www.501st .com.  The 501st doesn’t require anything but a movie accurate costume.  But to get there, you’re going to need a computer and access to the internet.
Go to the home page and under the sub category costuming, click on the detachments.

That will take you to this screen where you can pick the detachment that covers the costume or costumes you may be considering.  You can go to the detachment of your choice and lurk around a while to see if it really is what you want.  You can sign up for any detachment board that will allow you to post questions.  You don’t have to be a 501st member to join a detachment.  There’s a detachment panel immediately following this one if you want more detail.

One of the things that will be most helpful to you is the CRL or costume Reference Library.  Back at the 501st home page under Costuming is a link to the CRLs. 
Disclaimer, not all the CRLs are complete.

The CRLs will have a list of components required to meet the minimum standards of the costume you are attempting.

Some other references to use are the movies and TV show.  These should be considered the gospel although there are differences between the movies.  For example in A New Hope, Vader’s inner robe goes over his chest armor while in the other movies the armor goes over the robe.  Pick one movie and stick to it.  Do not pick and choose elements from different movies.  You want to match how a character appeared on the screen at any one time.
There are many good reference books like the visual dictionaries and various Lucas film archive references.  But these should be treated as secondary.  Verify any pictures match the movie.  There’s a picture of Vader’s belt in the visual dictionary and one of the control boxes is on upside down.

So now you know what you need.  How are you going to get it.
Unfortunately most of the officially licensed products are NOT accurate or good enough to meet Legion Standards.  Movie quality Costumes are not mass produced so ones that are sacrifice quality for quantity. 
ebay can be hit or miss.  Be cautious.  Before bidding, go back and ask someone on the detachment forum if the item is acceptable.
The BEST situation is to buy from somebody who is already in the legion or has a good reputation within the legion.  The legion is pretty tight knit so if a vendor doesn’t deliver a quality product you’ll hear about it in the detachment boards.

We have a gentleman who does vacforming and he’s going to explain the process.
This is Nick Bishop from Austarlia.  Everybody give Nick big Texas Howdy.

Thanks Nick.
I’m going to talk about fiberglass fabrication now.  But before I get into that my lawyer says I have to give you a safety briefing.
Ware safety glasses while you do any of the steps we are about to discuss.  The chemicals and dust that are inherent in this process can irritate your eyes and possibly cause blindness.
Where Laytex or nytrol gloves to protect your hands from chemicals.
Use A breathing mask with filters.  Not just a dust mask but a painters mask with air filtration.  The resin you’ll work with gives off some really strong  vapors.
And work in a well ventilated area so those vapors don’t build up.  I do all my stuff in the garage with the outside doors open and my wife still complains about the smell inside the house. 

Now that I’ve got you scared  let me say that you can make some incredible things with fiberglass.  Fiberglass is a composite material which means we are going to be combining materials to make some really neat shapes that are strong and light.
Now one of my goals is always to keep things inexpensive so I’m going to be mentioning prices as we fly through these.  The point I want to make is that if you know a few tricks, you can do this relatively inexpensively.
The first thing you need is fiber glass cloth and resin.  I usually get mine from the car department at Wal-Mart.  Cloth is about $5 a pack and Resin is about $12 a can.  You can also get it at hardware and car part stores but it tends to be a little more expensive.  The resin comes with a little tube of catalyst. 
A roll of craft foam from Michaels craft store.  About $8.  Cheaper if use a coupon from the Sunday ad. 
5 minute two part epoxy.  $12 from Hobby Lobby. Cheaper if you use a coupon from there Sunday ad.

Micro balloon.  This is a little more out of the ordinary but it is really useful.  Micro balloon is actually microscopic spheres of glass that is used as filler agent.  You mix this with resin.  Two parts by volume of micro balloon with one part resin will make a lightweight paste that is great for filling gaps.  It’s like a lightweight, sticky bondo.  Later you’ll see how I use it to fill the edges of my parts.  I get micro balloon from an online vendor called aircraft spruce.  They are called 3M glass bubbles on this website.  With shipping it’s about $20 for a pound but a pound has the same volume as two pounds of flour.  Although micro balloon is not toxic, you want to minimize breathing it so where your dust mask when working with micro balloon.
Cellophane Packing tape.  I’ll explain why in a minute.
Carnuba Wax is used as a resin tool release agent.  About $10 for a can that will last forever.
Spot putty is used to fill any pin holes.
Dremel is pretty much a necessity unless you have a lot of time to spare.
An oscillating tool .  Harbor Freight sells these for $60 but with a coupon I’ve seen them as low as $17.  These are really useful for cutting fiberglass or plastic.  Dremel and Craftsman sell a similar tool but it’s more expensive.
And Sandpaper.  If you don’t know what sandpaper is you’re in the wrong  panel.

Now that we have are materials we need to talk about tooling.  You need something to lay the fiberglass up on.  The simplest tooling is a flat surface. I like to use clear plastic sheets like you would use to cover a poster.  You can get a 2 foot by 3 foot sheet at hobby lobby for about $6.  Less with a coupon.
You put the plastic on a flat surface like a table.  Sand it with 220 grit sandpaper until the plastic is cloudy and wax it with the carnuba wax.  Sanding the plastic gives the wax something to stick to and the wax keeps the resin from sticking to the plastic.  Don’t buff the wax, you want to leave it cloudy.  Another simple way to do flat parts is on wax paper although the results will not be as smooth at the plastic.
You can get really mice results by using two pieces of plastic and sandwich the fiberglass between them.
(Show off swords)
If any of you do model rockets, this method makes great rocket fins.
A little more complicated is curved tooling.  In this photo I’m laying up a mando belly plate using an igloo cooler, covered with wax paper.  You can use anything with the contour you need as long as it is not susceptible to heat because the resin gets hot while it cures.  Just cover it with wax paper or cellophane packing tape.  The resin won’t stick to the packing tape or the wax paper.

Finally we have more complex tooling with compound contour.  Compound contour has curvature in more than one direction.   These are made from pine boards, glued together and sanded.  Then they’re coated with a thick layer or resin, sanded and waxed.  Raw resin won’t bond to cured resin.  It will stick but with the wax as a removal agent, the finished part will not fuse to the tool.  Slip a putty knife under the edge to break the seal and it will pop right off.
With complex contours tooling you need to consider the drapability of the fiberglass cloth.  This cloth will follow some compound contour smoothly but it has it’s limits.  You may need to make some cuts in the glass, called darts, to get the glass to lay flat.  When I made my vader armor I had to make the shoulders separate since the glass wouldn’t go around the shoulders.

Now that you’ve got your material and tooling ready it’s time to mix the resin.  Put on your safety glasses, gloves and breath mask.  According to the directions, you are supposed to mix 12 drops of catalyst to each ounce of resin.  The catalyst starts an exothermic reaction in the resin that makes it cure.  As it cures it transitions from a liquid with the viscosity similar to syrup to jelly to finally a solid.  Exothermic means it’s a chemical reaction that gives off  heat.  I bring this up because if you get too much catalyst in your mix it can get hot enough to burn you.  So avoid getting it on your skin.  If you get some curing resin on your skin, you can wipe it off with rag dampened with acetone.

Also, don’t mix large amounts of resin all at once.  Larger amounts give off more heat, faster.  And it may end up curing before you have it all applied.

The other thing to consider is how hot is the area in which you are working and the temperature of your resin.  At 70 degrees F. 12 drops per ounce will give you about 12 minutes of working life.  If it’s 90 degrees F. with 12 drops, you may have about 9 minutes.  So you can reduce the number of drops of catalyst to increase your working life.  If it’s 40 degrees though, 12 drops of catalyst will give you 15 minutes or longer of working life, but it won’t fully cure for hours.  You can speed this up by heating the partially cured part with a heat gun or a hair drier.  You don’t want to burn it so keep the gun moving.  Don’t let it dwell at any one spot for too long.  Don’t vary the amount of catalyst more than 25%.

Now you have to be ready to work fast.  Wipe some raw resin on your tool.  Silicone basting brushes work well for this.  And after the resin cures you can pull it right off the bristles.  Nothing sticks to silicon.  Sometimes I use silicon mixing bowls for mixing resin.  When its cured, it just peels out.
Lay your glass down and add some more resin until the glass is saturated.  You’ll be able to tell when its good because it will turn almost clear.  Work from the center out to the edges to keep the glass as smooth as possible.
Can anyone guess what were making in this picture?

Now we want to add some thickness to our parts.  You could do it several layers of fiberglass but that gets heavy and costs more.  We want something cheap to give us some thickness.  This is what the craft foam is for.  Cut your foam to the desired shape.  After the first layer of glass is cured you can bond a layer of craft foam to it with two part five minute epoxy. Mix the epoxy per its instructions and be prepared to work fast. Get the foam in place and then press it down in the center and work out to the edges.  Sort of like kneading cookie dough.  Just keep pressing it down until the epoxy cures. 

Then apply some resin to the top of the foam and lay up two more sheets of glass.  The resin will soak into the foam and fuse the glass to the foam.  No need to use epoxy here.

When its cured, pop it off the tool and trim it with a dremel or oscillating tool.

We’re not quite done because the foam is soft on the edges of the parts.  So put a wire brush attachment on your dremel and wire brush the edges to remove the foam.  The wire brush will obliterate the foam and as long as you keep moving and don’t dwell on any area to long, the fiberglass will hold up to the punishment.
Now to fill the edge.  Mix about an once of resin with the appropriate catalyst.  Then add about two parts by volume of micro balloon to the mix.  It should have a consistency like tooth paste.  Use a little spatula or wood craft stick to trowel the mixture into the open edge.

Let that cure then sand the edges square. The micro balloon makes the resin sand really nice.  Ware your dust mask because you don’t want to breath the glass dust.
Then you can fill any spots or pinholes with glazing putty and when that’s dry, sand, prime and finally paint your armor.

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