Tutorial – Armor with Eva Foam and Strech Vinyl

Today I want to show off a little technique I’ve been using for one of my commissions. The client has asked me to create a set of Megaman Starforce armor that is lightweight and flexible. I racked my brain a great deal on this, and had a lot of trial and error in developing this technique, but I feel I now have it to the point I can share the method.

Lots of folks in the costuming community make use of EVA foam (foamies, craft foam, yoga mats, ect. Proper name Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate foam) to make armor, props, jewelry and all sorts of bits for their costumes. I’ve seen everything from angel wings to N7 armor to LOTR armor made from the stuff. It’s economical, easy to cut, heat formable and very lightweight. However, I’ve found that it’s a real pain to paint, and the finish will never really be smooth enough to pass for high gloss plastic or metal (though careful weathering can help trick the eye in the case of metal).

The solution? Build the structures you need in EVA foam, and cover the foam in stretch pvc fabric!

Vinyl fabric is very durable, resists just about anything you throw at it (only second to wig fiber in chemical resistance in the costuming world) and comes in a decent variety of colors nowadays. I get mine from primarily spandex vendors, so the fabric itself is 2 or 4 way stretch spandex with a thin, flexible layer of pvc. There are even passable gold and silver pvc spandex fabrics available; I have used both, silver in Ed’s Automail, and Gold for a few recent comic commissions, both work fine for non-weathered metallics. I personally get my fabrics from Spandex World (free swatches!) but friends also swear by Spandex House. I should also note that this method will work with any stretch fabric coating on the foam, so don’t be afraid to try it with other types of spandex and knits.

So, without further ado, on to how this is done.

You’ll Need:

  • Foam! I prefer to use 3mm thickness craft foam in complimentary colors to the finished piece, but under an opaque covering it doesn’t matter what color foam you use.
  • Stretch Fabric. Stretch PVC, spandex, ect.
  • Contact Cement. I use Super Glue Brand Contact cement, it comes in a yellow and purple tube, but any contact cement that lists vinyl or rubber as an acceptable surface will work.
  • Cotton Swabs, lots of cotton swabs.
  • Fabric scissors.
  • Hobby blade or scissors for the EVA foam. I prefer using a hobby blade as it doesn’t crush the cut edge like scissors, which gives a better bonding edge to work with.

First, you’ll need to cut your EVA foam into the shapes you’ll need. In this tutorial, I am constructing the backpack for my client’s Megaman  costume. Once you have your foam pieces cut out, take the time to make sure they fit properly, as this is  the last time you’ll want to cut the base forms at all. They need to be exactly what you need before applying the fabric. Once you have your foam pieces, lay them out onto the back side of your fabric, with the foam piece’s back side facing you. Now, cut out your fabric with some extra to work with on the outside. I usually leave anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 an inch extra when I work with 3mm foam, for thicker foam, leave more fabric.

Next, cover your workspace with something you don’t care too much about. If you are working on a wooden table with varnish, cover it up! The contact cement’s fumes will melt varnish (trust me, I now have a bit on our dining table to resurface). Now, you’ll want a bit of scrap card or paper to put under your tube of contact cement (this stuff is messy coming out) and your cotton swabs to apply it with.I also recommend keeping a very clean workspace here, this stuff has the potential to get messy

Now, keeping your EVA foam from moving around on the fabric, start applying the contact cement, via cotton swab, to the cut edge of the EVA foam and on the fabric next to it. With a little practice, you can do the two at the same time. You’ll want to make sure the cement doesn’t get under the EVA foam and onto what will be the “face” of the piece, as the cement can make the vinyl warp and you’ll end up with ripples and wrinkles. I usually use one hand to hold the foam in place and one to apply the cement.

Now, the piece needs to have 3-5 minutes to set up. Contact cement will stick if you just put the two surfaces together immediately, but not very well. You leave the cement exposed to air until it becomes just tacky, then you can press the surfaces together and get a very tough bond. If you have a tight curve or sharp angle, now is the time to cut some slits in the fabric to allow proper give. I find you really only need them on inner curves and angles, but here are a few for demonstration purposes. Cut to within a hair of the foam edge.

Now, once notches are in where necessary, and the cement is tacky, you can fold the edge of the fabric up to touch the cut edge of the foam. The bond will be instant, so be careful as you go. I find the best way to do this is hold the foam down with one hand, and slide your finger underneath the fabric edge, pressing against the foam through the fabric. Try to not stretch the fabric as you do this as well, or the final piece may end up with wrinkles.

After you bond the edges, give them a few more minutes to fully set up before dealing with the excess fabric. Use a nice, sharp set of scissors for the best results. You’ll want to angle your scissors so that one blade is resting on top of the back of the foam, parallel. Trim off the excess fabric, getting as close to the foam as possible without shearing bits of it off.

Continue all around the piece, and nip off any folds of fabric from corners. You should end up with a very neat back edge:

Now flip over your piece, and check that the front is nice and smooth.

Shiny! And it can do this:

Bendy! This stuff can be bent, twisted and crushed to a reasonable degree and will return to its form easily while still staying shiny and smooth. Now, repeat this process for all of your pieces and assemble as you see fit. I personally like building an inner structure out of more foam to attach the pieces to. You -can- bond the surface of the vinyl to the eva foam backing of your pieces, but it is not as strong as bonding foam to backing fabric or foam to foam. To bond the foam to foam, you can use contact cement again, or, since it won’t show anyways, hot glue. I don’t prefer hot glue in places where it might seep out or warp materials, but in places no one will see anyways, well, it’s certainly quicker than the cement.

Here you can see the support structure I made for the backpack and all of the associated pieces I have skinned in vinyl. Admittedly, black EVA foam may not have been the best for a photo tutorial.

And here we have all of the pieces assembled together. Weighs about 3 ounces!

Hopefully this will be helpful to folks wanting an inexpensive and flexible option for high gloss armors. Please feel free to post any question in the comments section!

 

Product Review: Apoxie Sculpt

Got another product review! This week I’d like to talk about Apoxie Sculpt from Aves.

This is a two part sculpting epoxy putty. It has the consistency somewhere between sculpey and plastalina when mixed. The kit comes with two parts, in two colors to make it easier to see when they are mixed fully. To prep the putty for work, you simply knead together equal pieces of the two parts until it is one color. The work time on this particular variety is 2-3 hours, which is plenty of time to do most sculpting work, if you need longer, simply work in sections. The putty hardens in 24 hour and will have a smooth, satin like finish.

The putty is very fine grained, and will take details very well. The directions say to work with gloves, and I tried this on my first test sculpt, and it’s a slight annoyance when working with details and smoothing. I have seen other creators work apoxie bare-handed , but you didn’t hear me personally tell you to do it. Aves also sells a solvent to deal with any apoxie left on your tools and workspace, but I have not given it a try yet. The putty doesn’t stick to tools too badly and comes off easily enough while uncured.

Once cured, the sculpt will be very hard, at least as hard as the resins I work with. It also sticks to nearly anything when it cures, so make sure you have it on something you either want it to stick to or you don’t mind destroying. I used an index card since I have hundreds left over from studying for my Bio degree. The fully cured apoxie can be sanded just like resin and presents a firm but smooth sanding surface.

Here is a piece I whipped up to try the Apoxie out, just a random swirl design, took about five minutes to sculpt and only required a few passes with the jewler’s file to sand a few jagged bits.

 

The verdict: A+  Apoxie will be a staple in the studio. I can see why so many creators work with it, an easy to use and durable product, and will fill the need I have for a sculpting material I can build up onto other materials and not have to bake in order to harden.

Ed’s Automail Arm – Step by Step

 

By request, here’s the step by step process of how I made Ed’s Automail. There will be a few gaps in the photos, as I wasn’t doing the best job of chronicling this build. I’ll try my best to fill in the image gaps with adequate words.

Since there was no way to meet with my client and make a mold of his arm, I got several dozen measurements from my client and stitched a plush replica of his arm in muslin. I also made several paper mockups at this stage of major parts and mailed copies to my client to hold to the appropriate areas on his arm and hands and take photos so I could verify fit and scaling before moving to making the pieces in woderflex.

 

To make the end caps for the fingers, I coated a it of PVC pipe the same diameter as my client’s largest finger with bondo and began shaping the cap.

 

The pipe was cut off and the bottom sanded. You can see here how tiny my hands are compared to my client. I have very small hands, so the plush arm/hand double was vital to making this automail. After I sanded the piece carefully, it got several clearcoats and went under silicone. I then cast five copies using black tinted resin with Smooth On’s cast magic powder in Silver Bullet.

 

For certain areas, I wanted to use silver metallic stretch vinyl in order to minimize how much this automail would restrict my client’s movement. Here is the cold cast resin finger cap next to the vinyl, the finish really is very similar.

 

After getting the confirmation that my paper mockups were the correct size, I started the somewhat tedious process of cutting out all of the pieces. Each piece was numbered to keep them straight, I ultimately had to cut out two dozen pieces in Wonderflex and keep straight probably three dozen resin castings, so numbering was vital. Each Wonderflex piece was double thickness, one layer was just going to be way too flimsy. Once cut, the layered were joined with some mild heat from the heat gun. The folks over at The Engineer Guy are my favorite source for Wonderflex.

 

Once the pieces were layered, it was time to form them. I recruited pretty much every wine bottle, storage jar and tin can I could find to get the right curve forms, and even used my own thigh for the upper arm plates, as it turns out it was the perfect size (Shows how tiny I am that my thigh is the same thickness as an average man’s biceps). I used painters tape to keep the wonderflex in place while it cools. Wonderflex is a very useful material because, once you have applied heat, it remains pliable for about two minutes afterwards, meaning when you handle it, it’s no longer scalding hot. This is a huge advantage for anyone who has had to deal with heat forming styrene, which is only pliable while hot, lots of burned fingers!

 

Here is where I start having gaps in photos, as I got to the point where each piece was at a different stage in the process. Here we see the upper arm plates heat formed and hit with 2-3 coats of primer, which was then sanded. Wonderflex has a slightly pebbled surface on the presentation side, but a few coats of sandable primer usually handles the texture. Another trick for smoothing the surface is to use the back of a spoon  to burnish the surface while the Wonderflex is still pliable from heating.

 

You can also see the elbow piece and some of the cold cast resin pieces. They’ll be used to fill out all of the screws, studs, pivots, knuckle covers and any other little circle bit needed to embellish the finished piece. The elbow piece is also wonderflex, but has had additional buildup with Bondo to create the rounded  form.

 

I also ordered some colored plastic tubing and heat shielding to add in the armpit area to replicate thewiring and tubing. The large screw top there is actually a cast from the mold for my gold circles for my Lightning’s coat, with the notch scored in with the dremel.

 

Here I started assembling the hand plate and started working the finger sections. These are just stretch vinyl cylinders, since if I had cast these in resin or used Wonderflex, my client wouldn’t have been able to fully bend his fingers.

 

A glove will hold all of the pieces in place and hide the client’s skin. It’s sewn in basic black spandex. The paint I used for the silver is Valspar’s metallic silver. It’s not a chrome-like finish, but is far more durable than most of the high quality silver glosses I use, which I felt was very important since this piece would rub on itself and bits of the costume all day. Another advantage is that this paint has a much more forgiving humidity and temperature tolerance, which was an absolute lifesaver in southeast Georgia in June and July!

 

For the large forearm plate, I needed to thicken the wonderflex substantially. So, I cut a lower layer in wonderflex, then cut filler layers with the three dents cut out in EVA foam. This was easy to cut, lightweight and could hold up to the heat-forming of the wonderflex. The blue strips all-over the board are the notches I cut out. I then layers another layer of wonderflex over the base and foam, then pressed in the trenches so that the top layer of wonderflex bonded with the base layer, rounded the edges and flattened the outer form. This is the plate in an early form, after this would come a lot of extra filling and sanding.

 

The piece starting to come together! As you can see, some places required extra puttying and sanding, but on the whole the wonderflex didn’t require too much extra work.

 

Here’s a shot of the plate as I was puttying and sanding it, the pink is bondo, while the grey is Krylon sand-able primer. To get into the trenches I used a combination of sanding sponges, emery boards and standard sandpaper.

 

The hand was finished up with a sewn vinyl half glove. The T-shaped fastener is EVA foam covered in stretch vinyl, and I attached it with heavy duty thread sewing the T to the half glove. The stitches and knots are hidden nicely under the little resin studs. I also attached the finished arm plate to a strip of stretch vinyl for the underside of the forearm. The whole forearm closes with velcro hidden under the plate.

 

Here you can see the full arm underside, and the elbow attachment. The elbow also has a strip of stretch vinyl which will give more comfort when my client bends his elbow. The upper arm was also finished with a sewn vinyl cover.

 

The complete hand, the only hard parts are on the fingertips, back of the hand and the resin disk on the side of the thumb. This will give my client maximum use of his hand. I also took these final photos before realizing I had forgotten to add the studs to the arm plate, Whoops!! I made sure the studs were attached before it went to the client however.

 

For the shoulder area, I connected the major pivot points with a few real studs, then added all of the extra studs using my resin replicas. I also epoxied in the tubing and heat shielding. The spandex glove pulls all the way up over the shoulder and has a strap that wraps across the chest to keep everything in place.

 

This was a really interesting piece to work on. It used several materials I rarely get to use, but have always loved working with. I can’t guarantee it’ll help with your alchemy or survive a disagreement with your teacher, but at least you should look cool with it. Hopefully this rather messy write-up will help others hoping to tackle the project. I gotta say I have even more respect for Winry after making this!

Light Staff from Final Fantasy 11 – Step by step

Design

This is a piece that has already been done by another prop-maker whom I respect tremendously, Volpin. So, I was very keen on making sure that I took this a different direction than he did and not just copy his work. The in game design is -very- low rez, so switching out the filigree work and forms was easy enough while still keeping the appropriate look. I went with a more organic and dense design on the filigree and changed some of the other details as compared to Volpin’s interpretation.

In-Game Model

As you can see, the staff is pretty low-poly, pretty common for MMOs. This leaves plenty of room for artistic interpretation. The staff will be collapsible into three parts, lower staff, mid-staff and staff head.

 

The design was printed out to size, then affixed to a bit of thin plywood and cut out with a scroll saw. I decided to use half of a clear plastic ornament for the orb base, to have a nice, smooth sphere with little work. This also allows me to pop it out freely while working. Here I also measured the width of the central spine and made perpendicular marks with the measurements.

 

Next, I carefully cut half circles out of styrene to act as guides to keep the spine perfectly circular. This was a bit tricky, as I also needed to trim off the precise thickness of the base plywood otherwise the final piece would be more of an ellipse.

 

Here, I have affixed the circles to the staff in the appropriate places.

 

I also cut two identical guides for the two lower arcs and glued them in place. Then, I cut rough semicircles out of insulation foam to fill up some of the space so that I wouldn’t need to use so much filler later. I also added a spine from the top of the rounded bit to the place where the point rests on the sphere.

 

Now, the bondo begins. I used a scraper to press and smooth the bondo into the spaces between styrene guides.

 

Even more bondo, it gets a bit rough as layers are added, but the styrene guides helps keep it manageable.

 

Here, with the disposable other half of the ornament, wrapped in cling film to prevent bondo from sticking to it and allowing me to remove it for sanding and cleanup as the upper wings get filled and formed.

 

The spare orb half was marked up with the outline for the upper arcs, then, more bondo! The shape is starting to come together here, and it only needs a little more bondo before I can start sanding it down and making sure that it is symmetrical.

 

Hit the staff head with the dremel here to knock out some gunky, overly raised bits and start smoothing the arcs. I’ll need to reapply another layer of bondo to the spine and one side of the upper arc, but the form is starting to become clear now. The spine got way too heavy a coat and I had to take about an eighth of an inch off in some places, which is why it suddenly looks lumpy. Lots of refinement to go!

 

New Scraper!

So, I wasn’t pleased with my metal scraper for applying the bondo. It was starting to go on chunky, which would make sanding harder down the road. So, I ripped the head off of a silicone spatula and started using that instead. Best tool ever for bondo application, everything is going on a lot smoother and with a great deal more control. I still need to break out the calipers and start matching the arcs to one another for symmetry.

 

Smoooth~

Got one side of the arcs smoothed into what will be the final form. It’s getting nice and smooth, too bad most of this smoothness will be obscured by filigree work later.

 

Even more smoothing, the pencil marks are identifying either areas to be built up or holes to patch. After this shot was taken, I decided that the spine was a mess, so I carefully ripped out all of the bondo on the spine and applied the new bondo far more carefully, using the good spatula from the start, and was able to achieve a far smoother starting ground that did not require dremel sanding, only sponge sanding.

 

Nearly ready to go!

 

A good coat of grey primer to look for any dents, rough patches or holes that may have been hidden by variations in the bondo color. The piece is now ready for embellishment.

 

Another angle.

 

Started the filigree work. Here, I am using black puff paint to draw on the design. I ended up needing to deviate from my filigree design, as I did not account for the 3d curve as I should have.

 

The straight design elements will all be done in 18th inch half round styrene.

 

The nearly finished embellishment. In order to mirror the design in some places, I actually made puff paint “decals”. I traced the design I wanted to copy on to some tissue paper, then reversed it (just by flipping the paper over and tracing it on the back), then covered it with some clear tape. I then drew the design in puff paint over the tape, allowed it to fully dry, then was able to carefully pull the “decal” off of the tape and place it onto the staff head where I wanted it.

 

Finished the embellishments!

 

Silicone! I used Smooth On’s Rebound 25 silicone. The first layer was un-thickened and smoothed on very carefully to fill all the gaps and prevent air bubbles. Then I used a few drops of Thi-Vex for the next three coats to make the silicone nice and thick to build up the mold wall. This then got a basic plaster cloth mother mold.

 

The piece was de-molded, and the mold was good! Here, after I cleaned the mold out, I applied some goldfinger casting powder to the filigree and trim areas. I was still unsure at this point if I would be doing this as a cold-cast.

 

I slush cast the main staff in brown tinted Smooth Cast 300.

 

After removing excess brown resin carefully from the orb area, I applied silver bullet casting powder to the silicone.

 

Now, the reinforcing layers and the orb was cast in white.

 

Here we have the original, the cold cast brown staff cast and a white cast. I decided after de-molding the first brown one that I would not be cold casting the gold, as it turned out there are a couple places that will require some spot puttying, so I’d have to paint those parts anyways, therefore, I will be painting the brown and gold areas, but still using the silver powder to give the orb a cool, pearlescent effect.

 

The two cast pieces roughly matched up together. I still need to trim both sides, so they aren’t matching up just yet. I really like how the side profile has come out.

 

I ended up casting another half, as the brown one had a few weak spots I didn’t like. I also got a much closer match to the cold casting on the orb on this one, so both pieces match in color perfectly now.

 

I filled the bottom caps in bondo, which will provide structure for the bolts when I get to that part. I should have taken photos, but while I was casting, I made sure to create raised resin “barbs” to help lock the bondo in place, the resin was also heavily scored on the inside as well, just to make sure.

 

I decided to use a leftover bit from an older commission to finish off the staff end. This pieces is a table leg turning, or what was left of it after I cut the part off I needed earlier.

 

I used Red Mahogany stain on the handle and end, and finished the bottom with some gold enamel before giving the whole piece a good clearcoat.

 

The end was attached to the bottom section of the staff with a threaded dowel, secured with epoxy.

 

The staff is collapsible, into three pieces plus the head for easy transport to and from the convention. I drilled out the ends and set a recessed nut in one side of each joint. Then, a threaded dowel went into the opposite end, secured with epoxy.

Here, the two pieces are being held together as they are being epoxied together.

 

After some spot puttying and sanding of excess epoxy, and some very careful taping of the orb,I hit the head with a few coats of primer to check for more defects, then set on carefully filling the last few gaps and cleaning up around the filigree.

 

More progress of cleanup.

 

After everything was smoothed, the head got a few coats of primer, a black undercoat and started getting thin layers of a dark brown acrylic. This will be the basis for the faux wood finish.

 

Starting on the wood grain! Here are the paints used here, along with my choice brushes.

 

Progress on the fake wood grain, the trick is to layer.

 

Slightly closer shot.

 

After the grain was done, I began gilding the filigree with basic testors gold enamel, first drybrushed on..

 

More drybrushing…

 

Then the highest points were hit with enamel highlights. After this, the tape was removed and the whole shebang was given several protective clearcoats.

 

Finished!

All assembled and cleaned up!

 

 

I couldn’t help myself, it wanted to be photographed in a natural setting.

 

The full staff is about 5’8, slightly taller than I am.

 

I am in love with these casting powders, the pearly effect is just wonderful.

 

The end of the staff.

 

Overall I am very pleased with how all of the shapes and forms came out.

 

The tone and texture of the painted resin turned out very close to the real stained wood.

 

 

 

Here is the piece disassembled for shipping and travel to the convention. Small enough to fit into a suitcase!

 

Here is the only shot I got of the nuts and screws. The screw end is epoxied into place, so that all of the tension is taken in the bolt instead of stripping away at the wood each time it is unscrewed.

 


A small bonus piece, My client wanted a quick replacement for the badge on his hat, his older version was just a scrap of felt.

 

This project was a lot of fun to do, and as always I learned quite a bit from doing it. Mostly I learned that I truly wish I had more shop tools, especially a lathe. I could have shaved a whole month off of production time! Ah well, we make do with what we have.