Friday, August 10, 2012

The Basics (Part 2): Materials

Yesterday was my birthday! I'm 26 now! Whoo! FWEE!

Yes, I'm a brony. Haters gon' hate.

Okay, that's enough celebration for now. Time to get back to it.

To my mind, it seems that the best way to make an effective and comfortable suit of sci-fi armor like this would be to create a wire-type framework and then cover that with some sort of rigid, solid sheet covering. So, with that in mind, let us examine the various materials in these two categories, starting with the frame.

1. Wood

Wood is easy to get ahold of and, with the right tools, it's fairly easy to work with. In fact, I've seen a few Space Marine costumes (like this one and that one) done well with wooden frames.

The problem with wood is that it's tough to work with in small spaces (like I have) and they create a lot of waste in the form of dust and chips, which tends to get EVERYWHERE. Wood also has a tendency to be heavy, and cutting curves is tougher than giving a ferret a shave. So I'll pass.

2. Steel

Steel is durable, easy to find, comes in many lengths, sizes and shapes, and (as long as you have a good rotary tool) it can be pretty easy to cut, grind down edges and drill holes. It can also be either welded or riveted to keep it secured.

However, bending steel, even small, thin steel, requires everything from an acetylene torch to a hammer and anvil. These are tools found in a blacksmith's shop, not my home workspace. Steel is also very heavy and tiring, especially if it's going to be built into something that will be worn for long periods. Definitely not an ideal material.

3. Aluminum

Aluminum is fairly easy to find (yes, that's right; any well-stocked Lowes or Home Depot should have some, you just gotta look for it) and, like steel, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. With the right tool, it can be cut, drilled and riveted fairly easily, and it is also very light and malleable.

The biggest problem with aluminum is that it can't really be welded or brazed without really specialized equipment. Sure, you could get by with a propane torch and aluminum wire, but that's squirrely to control and the results can be messy unless you have some practice. Plus, making smooth curves with aluminum can be a pain.

4. Plastic

Ah, plastic. Light, durable, easy to work with with, and responds well to many adhesives, so you don't need to worry about rivets or other things like that. It makes smooth curves with very few tools, and can be made even more flexible by heating it with a hair dryer.

The only real problem that I find with plastic is that I can't find it anywhere. Oh, sure, I can find plastic electrical conduit and pi-shaped plastic channeling, but nowhere am I able to find flat, uniform strips, about 1/2 inch wide by 1/8 inch thick, which is what I really want. If anyone knows of a good place to find plastic strips like that, please leave a comment down below!

Well, that's about it for the frame. Now, onto the covering.

1. Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard seems to be the easiest to get ahold of, and the cheapest. (seriously, any restaurant, retail store, hardware store, grocery store, etc. has tons of cardboard, and they'd most likely be willing to let you take their excess off their hands for next to nothing.) It can be cut with scissors, glued with white glue, and painted very easily. In fact, I've seen at least one decent suit of armor made with cardboard:

The problem that I can see is fairly evident in the picture: it is darn near impossible to make curves in cardboard. As good a job as he did on that armor, it's very blocky and angular, which contradicts the traditional Space Marine's curved frame. Also, cardboard produces a lot of waste, and is so flimsy, it falls apart in a steady rainstorm. I'm not expecting to wander around much, but I'd still like to make something that can last a decent amount of time. Next.

2. P-U Foam

In this case, no, p-u does not mean that this foam smells funny. P-U Foam is a polyurethane foam used in cushions, play mats, car seats, and other soft and squishy applications. Depending on the type of foam you get (i.e., the type pictured above) you can actually heat it up with a heat gun from the hardware store and then shape the foam into curves and such. Once it cools, the foam will retain the shape that you sculpted it to. This means that, if you're patient enough with it, you can sculpt smooth, tight curves and some really elaborate stuff. These guys over at Backyard FX have a great tutorial on making sci-fi armor out of the stuff, as well as some other cool movie effects tutorials. Go ahead and check them out, but hurry back!

Anyway, like I was saying, this type of foam is very light, and responds well to various adhesives. This foam is not good for getting into tight spaces, it takes a lot of patience and practice to make anything good, and the finished product has a tendency to be kind of flimsy. I'll probably use this stuff to line the inside of the armor, but not on the outside.

3. Insulation Foam

This type of foam can be found in many larger hardware and construction stores. It comes in big sheets and in various thicknesses, and it also behaves much differently than the P-U Foam above. It is dense, rigid, and flaky. It can be cut easily and molded easily as well. Much of the Warhammer 40K terrain that you see at gaming clubs...

Like this... made from insulation foam.

The problem with this type of foam is that it is well suited for relatively flat applications. It doesn't take to a heat gun well, which means it can't be shaped; in order to make something like armor, sheets of foam need to be stacked, glued together and then carved. This can get expensive, and creates an insane amount of waste. Plus, insulation foam reacts negatively and violently to spray paint, which means that it needs to be sealed with urethane before it can be painted. Too much work for me.

4. Duct Tape

No. Just no.

Okay, yes, fine, it's smooth, and it covers well, but it just looks like everything was made of...well, duct tape. And I'm not making this to go to prom.


5. Heat Shrink Plastic

This type of plastic is mainly used to skin R/C Airplanes. One side is covered in a heat-reactive adhesive, which means that all you need to affix it to the frame is a hobby iron and a heat gun to shrink the plastic to a taut shape. It is extremely light and comes in many different colors and finishes, from clear, to metallic to glossy.

However, this type of covering is incredibly susceptible to damage and puncture, and is also rather expensive, especially to cover something as large as a suit of armor. We can do better.

6. Fiberglass

Although it can be a touch on the heavy side and a bit messy to work with, fiberglass can be shaped, molded, sanded and painted very easily. it is rigid and durable, and if it does happen to buckle, it can easily be repaired and repainted. It can also be easily found at auto body stores and larger hardware stores. All things considered, this would be my preferred covering choice.

So, that's it for the frame and the covering. Although, there is one other material that I kinda want to touch on...

1. Paper

Yes, you read that correctly. Paper.

Known as papercraft or pepakura, it is the art of folding large sheets of stiff paper into various shapes, kinda like large-scale origami. There are many armor diagrams out there, from Halo, to Mass Effect, to, yes, Space Marine and Imperial Guard, and it is very popular with some cosplayers. If you're patient enough and talented enough, you can make some very impressive things.

Add urethane resin, sand it smooth, and you have a very serviceable helmet.
But I don't like papercraft, for a couple of reasons. Number one, you need a specialized printer, like an architect's drafting printer, to print out the designs at a scale big enough to be wearable. And I don't have a drafting printer.

Besides, the best thing I can do with paper is...well...


So, there you have it. If anyone has any other ideas on materials, feel free to leave a comment down below!

Until next time, Brothers!

1 comment:

  1. I was just going to skim this article, but ended up reading it all, I loved it, and I can't wait for more posts. This sounds like the beginning of a fantastic suit of armour...