Jun 172011

I’ve been thinking and talking about building a vacuform table for about a decade at this point. In the period between living with my parents and owning a house, it wasn’t a practical aspiration to act on. Once my wife and I bought our house, it became a much more tangible goal. The size and quality of our basement only made it even more plausible. Still, we’ve lived in the house for about two years now and I have yet to actually build the damn thing.

That ends this weekend.

There is no intrinsic difficulty to the concept of a vacuform table. The basic idea involves heating up a sheet of plastic, and then pressing that down over molds while using a vacuum to suck the air out of the gaps. A many-holed “platen” sits between the mold and the vacuum hose, which allows high-pressure, even evacuation of the air. A very basic vacuform rig can be accomplished with a home oven, a home vacuum, and a cheaply-constructed platen.

I’m planning to be a little more grandiose than that, building an integrated unit that contains its own oven “above” the vacuform surface. Once the plastic is heated to sufficient malleability, it rides down drawer rails onto the platen, and the attached vacuum does the rest of the work. Hit the links for a pretty close approximation of what I’m planning to build.

I’m specifically not planning to finish building it this weekend; just to start. If I finish, great, but I’m trying to set realistic goals. Just getting all of the parts together will be a victory, and probably build enough momentum to see the project through to completion.

I’ll try to document as much of the construction process as I can, and put it up here as a Page, for those interested in making one of their own, or just seeing how I did mine.

Toying with ideas

 Posted by at 15:07  No Responses »
Sep 292010

A friend planted an idea in my head that has already started to germinate, though it may not bear this year. He made mention that if he were to make cool costumes of the kind I mentioned, rather than using vacuformed plastic, he would use carbon fiber. I didn’t even realize carbon fiber parts manufacture was something hobbyists could do. I really need to stop thinking hobbyists are so limited.

Turns out, making parts out of carbon fiber isn’t all that difficult. It involves resin, which makes me a little sad, but it can achieve results at least as nice as HIPS1. On top of that, it’s substantially stronger as a result of being a composite and, oh yeah, carbon freaking fiber. It may also end up being lighter, though even if it’s heavier, it’s strength-to-weight ratio will be leaps and bounds beyond that of a plastic part.

Evidently, you can use carbon fiber to make all sorts of stuff: aerospace parts, automotive parts, cellos, or pretty much anything else you have a mold to put it in…like a costume. The process is straight-forward, if more time-consuming than vacuforming: make a mold, apply release agent, apply resin coat, lay down first layer of carbon fiber and press into mold, lay down additional resin/carbon fiber layers as desired for added strength/thickness, allow to set, release from mold. Trim, sand, polish, and so forth to taste. Done and done.

The obvious up side is that it doesn’t require nearly as much infrastructure (i.e. building a vacuform table). The downsides are working with resin and the cost. Low-grade carbon fiber2 costs around $20/yd2. HIPS, by comparison, costs $3/yd2. What you spend in infrastructure—I figure building a vacuform table with integrated plastic heating elements will cost me $150-$200—you quickly recoup in materials costs. I’m also not factoring in the resin costs into the carbon-fiber estimate.

I like the idea, though, so I may visit it in the future for a particularly special costume3. We shall see.

  1. High-Impact Polystyrene, or the plastic one would likely use for vacuforming []
  2. I don’t need ultra-fine supermesh stuff; I’m not making airplanes. []
  3. I’m looking at you, Iron Man. []
Sep 272010

If you’ve been here long enough, or are the sort to read a blog’s entire archive when you stumble across it1, you may remember my this entry I posted about Halloween last year. The time is approaching once again, and once again both Cody and I are a bit at a loss for what to do. We have a fallback plan, but neither of us is very gung-ho about it and want something more interesting. I’m toying with the idea of trying to finish my Vader costume from several years ago, this time by first building a vacuforming table and constructing the various armor pieces out of plastic rather than placemats. The downside to this is that it leaves Cody in the lurch about a costume, since she has no interest in a Padmé costume2. The implications behind such a pairing are a little disconcerting, anyway.

I finally got caught up with House this weekend. I had forgotten how much I adore that show. Looking forward to tonight’s episode, especially on the heels of the last one, though I don’t know when I’ll actually watch it. Cody hasn’t caught up yet and I don’t want her to get spoiled about recent events. Olivia Wilde continues to be mind-breakingly gorgeous, but Cody is absolutely right when she points out that it’s particularly true in House. Outside of the context of the show, Olivia Wilde’s sculpted features can get a little too inhuman. Almost certainly a function of makeup.

September has been a very tough month, though not for any particular reason I can point to. Cody’s been feeling it too; the entire month has just felt frantic and busy beyond justification. You’d think that with the wedding behind us, things would have settled down. I think some of the insanity may stem from all the stuff we set aside for the wedding, or perhaps tuned-out while dealing with the wedding, which is now coming back with a vengeance. Even work has been nuts for the both of us, though. Not bad, just crazy busy. I’m hoping things will settle down a bit in October…so that the craziness of Halloween can take focus. Ugh.

Never rains, but it loves to pour.

  1. Guilty of doing that many times myself. []
  2. Can you blame her? []

Halloween Redux

 Posted by at 12:11  3 Responses »
Oct 152009

I’m excited about Halloween.

Cody and I have decided to pair as Dr. Horrible (her) and Captain Hammer (me).  They’re simple costumes, so they don’t really fulfill that deep-seated need to construct something  epic.  However, they’re fun costumes that we can achieve with the time we have.  Most of the attendees at the party we’re attending should recognize the outfits, which is a bonus.

So, that’s good news.

From a more long-term point of view, I did some reading up and I severely underestimated the utility of papier-mâché.  I’ve been imagining a future filled with hot ABS plastic and noxious fiberglass-resin fumes because those seemed the only ways to get good, smooth, solid costume pieces. I’ve always thought of papier-mâché as crude and flimsy.  In the form I used, it was.  But that’s because I was only exploring part of it.  Check out this guy.

It makes a lot of sense, if one pauses to think about it. At its most basic, papier-mâché is the same thing as fiberglass: fibers suspended in a glue.  Paper is a lot stronger than one might give it credit for, too.  Sure, we can rip paper by pulling nearby sections in opposite directions, but have you ever tried to tug on it from two opposite ends?  It’ll give, but not without effort and usually local to the area where you’re pulling, not in the middle where the highest stress is.  Paper’s strong stuff.  Add glue to the mix and you’ve got a decent material—if you execute it correctly.

What’s more, the “strip” form is only one of the two ways to use papier-mâché.  The other, using pulped paper, ends up as a clay-like material that can be molded and shaped however you want.  Way more versatile.  Layer something up with several layers of strips, work in detail with the clay form, and then waterseal it with lacquer of some kind and you’ve got a pretty formidable piece of hardware that’ll stand up to a good amount of weathering.

Get some fine-grained sandpaper to smooth it down, and you might, might have something on par with ABS plastic or fiberglass—as far as costuming goes, anyway—and at a fraction of the cost and risk (glass fibers can do terrible things to your lungs; where’s the risk in water, paper, and flour?).

Suffice it to say I plan to test out this hypothesis at the earliest opportunity.  If it works, hoo boy.  I shall become a costume making machine.