Aug 262013

This post is part of a meta-series. Click here for a list of all posts in this series.

For 14 years1, ever since first seeing examples of others that have done so on the Internet, I’ve schemed, planned, yearned, learned, studied, and plotted to make myself a “real” set of Stormtrooper armor, from scratch. It’s been a long road full of reading, studying, and learning about vacuum forming, mold-making, resin, fiberglass, silicone, carbon fiber, plastic, urethane, Bondo, pepakaura, and more. Finally, I’m at a point in life, skill level, patience, and focus that I feel ready to tackle this project.

The most complex part of the whole endeavor, which I’ve decided to tackle first2 is the Stormtrooper’s distinctive helmet. I’ve seen a number of fantastic approaches to this part of the suit, ranging from wildly complex3 to astonishingly simple. I decided to take an approach I hadn’t yet seen and start digitally, since my background is in digital art.

The idea behind doing it this way is to get familiar with the shapes and flow before I ever start assembling a physical object.

First pass 3D, with inaccuracies noted post-render:
stormtrooper_2013-08-22-000 stormtrooper_2013-08-22-001 stormtrooper_2013-08-22-002 stormtrooper_2013-08-24-001 stormtrooper_2013-08-24-002 stormtrooper_2013-08-24-001_notes

Second pass 3D, with inaccuracies corrected:

Final pass 3D with some additional shape refinement:
stormtrooper_2013-08-28-000 stormtrooper_2013-08-28-001

Once I brought the 3D version to as high a level of fidelity and accuracy (with certain intentional caveats) as I wanted, I created vertical slices from front-to-back and a single horizontal slice. These slices are printed out and then carved into cardboard and assembled into a real-world 3D “skeleton.”

Initial test print of profile silhouette:
Stormtrooper Profile silhouette test print

Real profile silhouette alongside the actual cardboard cutout:
Stormtrooper profile cutout

Starting to assemble the portrait cross-sections onto the profile frame:
Stormtrooper cross-section assembly

There are 34 individual cross-sectional slices, separated by about 1cm each. As of this writing, I’ve done 11 of them.

Once I’ve printed and cut all of the cross-sections and glued them into their proper place, I plan to fill the gaps in the skeleton with expanding insulation foam, sand that down to get the rough volume, and then coat the whole thing in Bondo for further shape revision. Eventually, this will create a positive mold that I can coat with silicone, create a negative mold, and finally create an actual urethane “pull” that I’ll end up wearing.

Someone asked which version of the helmet I’m making and the answer is: a little bit of a mash-up, actually.

The helmet is predominantly ANH Hero, since that’s historically the most “real” one. The ANH Stunts were made first, but the ANH Hero is the only one of the lot to be both fresh off the master and vacuum-pulled from white ABS rather than off-white polyethylene and spray-painted. However, because of the way the ESB and ROTJ helmets were made (either refurbishing the ANH Stunts or using the ANH Stunts as a “master” to create new pulls), certain details from the ANH Stunts became more common: namely, the 8 “teeth” compared to the 6 in the ANH Hero. I’ll be going with 8 for this.

The other piece, which I haven’t yet decided about, is the eye lens. The ANH Hero had a nice, bulbous green lens that I’d much prefer to use based on look. However, these are also notoriously difficult to see through, leading many to prefer the ANH Stunt’s flat, smoked lenses instead. I’m going to try the rounded lenses first and, if those prove really difficult to see through, will fall back on flats.

The rest of the helmet details will be ANH Hero, though.

As for symmetry, while I’m usually a stickler for “on screen = authentic; author’s intent = irrelevant” I’m deviating from that standard here and going for as much symmetry as I can manage. I think asymmetry crept in unintentionally and isn’t representative of what the Empire would actually manufacture for its troops. The in-universe Stormtrooper helmet was almost certainly designed using 3D software of some kind, with the resulting specs then sent straight to an automatic manufacturing facility that stamped out millions upon millions of perfect, symmetrical, identical copies.

For the rest of the suit, my current plan is to, again, mostly go with ANH (Hero and Stunt armors were identical), but pull any more-interesting design features from the later suits as I go. Ultimately, I’ll end up with an ANH Hero variant suit, but I’m okay with that!

Stay tuned!

  1. I first saw fan-made versions when I was ~15, which was a pretty significant year for me in a lot of ways. Many things in my life have resulted from events that happened and things I learned at 15 []
  2. Primarily because it’s the one piece that I don’t need my nascent vacu-form table for. []
  3. Andrew Ainsworth, the guy in this video, is the guy who made the original helmets for A New Hope back in the 70s! []
Aug 172011

A great deal has happened since my last post. I’m 27 now, had the best birthday party of my life, have been married for over a year, went on a cruise with my wife (Port Canaveral, FL and the Bahamas, leaving out of NYC), and have been doing some intense self-introspection. I’ve also been working on the second draft of The Novel (which I have now identified as the third of a four-book arc), have resumed playing guitar, and have even been working on my digital painting. Some of the stair pieces have been stained (thanks, Dad!) and more will progress in the coming weeks. Alas, as a result, still no progress on the vacuform table beyond the last update. October is not far, though, and I’ve had a new fire lit under my ass about getting it done (you know who you are).

I had an absurd amount of energy when I got home last night. I decided I should try and bleed some of it off by exercising, so I hopped on the elliptical and jogged 1.11 miles in 15 minutes. That’s not terribly impressive in and of itself, until you factor in the fact that I haven’t exercised in any serious way in months. Not sufficiently exhausted by that, I proceeded to do some weight-lifting. Still not really exhausted, but very sweaty, I showered and then rather than heating something up quick in the microwave for dinner, I decided I really wanted some eggs, so I scrambled those up. At them and still had too much energy, so I sat down to play some Rock Band on expert drums for about an hour. All of that combined finally wore me out enough to be a little more low-key. Very weird, but honestly…I could get used to having that kind of energy.

The lawn desperately needs to be mowed. It needed to be mowed before Cody and I went on our cruise. We returned this past Saturday, to find it looking like a minor rainforest. I should have mowed it then, but had just spent an hour and a half driving with my parents from NYC to CT, and then another three hours driving from CT back to MA, so I was a little tired. Sunday, it rained. Monday, it rained. Tuesday, it didn’t rain, but it was still wet. The minor rainforest is now more of a mid-tier rainforest. I am mowing tonight, the wetness of the grass notwithstanding. It’s embarrassing. Unfortunately, this probably puts the kibosh on any stair work happening this evening. Sigh.


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Jun 182011

True to my word, I started on the vacuformer last night. The basic table framework is assembled — a gangly 3’x3’x3′ metal lattice of shelving parts. This afternoon, I headed out and bought a couple of cheap toaster ovens, the heating elements from which will end up as the oven component of the vacuform table. I couldn’t do much more construction until I had both of these components in hand, in order to properly plan out dimensions.

There’s also another impediment, which I’m working on presently. The basement stairs are, succinctly, a deathtrap. They’re very old wood held to the floor above by a thin piece of plywood and held up by one solid piece of wood and one cobbled-together leg. I am worried they’ll collapse out from under me every time I use them. Since the vacuform table is to be assembled and used in the basement, it’ll necessitate traversing these stairs on a regular basis. Not cool.

I’m building new ones. My big expedition today included transporting a great deal of lumber in my tiny Jetta (12′ long boards in a Jetta is quite a thing) from the store to the house. I’m presently in the process of slicing up the lumber destined to become the risers and steps. All the wood will get a nice sanded edge, be stained and sealed, and the new staircase will be supported by six 2″x8″ support beams.

While I’m not working on the stairs, I’ll be proceeding with planning out dimensions and materials for the vacuformer, so progress continues on that front continues unabated.

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.

Jan 032011

I saw a lot of people glad to be done with 2010. The general feeling seems to have been that 2010 was a less-than-satisfactory year. For my part, I’m inclined to disagree: in March, I got a new job at an awesome company working with awesome people on an awesome project; in July, my groomsmen took me to Atlantic City; in August, I got married and then went on my very first cruise; in October, Cody and I went as a very convincing Rose and the 10th Doctor for Halloween; in November, my parents finally came down to Maryland for Thanksgiving; December featured one of our best New Year’s Eve parties ever.

So, y’know, go 2010. May 2011 be as good or better.

To that end as is custom this time of year, I have a list of goals that I’m planning to work toward this year. They’re not “resolutions” and they’re not carved in stone; either notion is folly. But they’re things I care about and want to get better at, which I think carries more weight.

  • Devote some time each evening to writing or playing guitar. The main thing here is taking care of my “daily chores” in WoW, and then setting it aside while I spend some time doing either of the above activities. Once I’ve put some good effort in toward either, I’ll allow myself to go back to playing more WoW. I love my WoW hobby, but I can’t continue neglecting my others!
  • Get better about watching my diet again. I’ve slipped a bit since the wedding, which is probably entirely unsurprising to anyone who’s gotten married. I haven’t backslid irrevocably or anything drastic, but it’s noticeable enough to me that I want to do something about it. So, I plan to. Having a Droid will, I hope, make keeping track of my food intake a little easier.
  • Finish unpacking the house. This includes getting some additional furniture (bookshelves) and also tidying up the pantry shelves so that we can actually start making use of the damn thing.
  • Build the vacuform machine I’m always talking about. I intend to for Halloween to be very interesting this year.

That seems like an ambitious-enough list to start with.

Oct 082010

I had this whole plan for what to write about today that congealed as I drove to work. It vanished when I actually sat down to write it.

Yesterday marked Cody’s and my second month as a married couple. So far, so good! It seems a little silly to celebrate these milestones, given the four-closing-on-five years we’ve been together. The relationship is solid, we love each other just as much (if not more) now than we did when everything was exciting and new, we live together well, etc. It still feels like an achievement anyway. Marriage! It’s this big, important word that, for us, represented no functional change in our relationship toward one another that nevertheless bestowed a reaffirming, reinforcing strength that I didn’t even know could exist. I heartily approve.

I decided to bite the bullet and forgo worrying about writing a tailor-made web app for play-by-post Firefly-inspired Star Wars game I’ve been planning for a few months now. Instead, I went with MyBB and will adapt it as the need arises. I’ve used phpBB in the past, but it’s always felt a little clunkier than it ought to. MyBB is very smooth by comparison. This doesn’t obviate the need for a character creation web app, but it’s one less technical hurdle to starting the game than I had before. It’s been a long-standing desire of mine to play/run a Star Wars game that used an adapted version of the 7th Sea rule-set, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out. Play-by-post is an odd fit for such a dynamic and fluid system, but one never knows until one actually tries.

November is bearing down on us, which poses two annoying problems. The first is that Cody and I are still at a loss about a concept for Halloween costumes this year. There isn’t enough time to do anything complex1 in the time we have—next year, for sure—but even within that constraint, it’s rough. The second problem is one of time management: NaNoWriMo is going to eat my time in November, which presents something of a blockage on both the aforementioned Star Wars game as well as the heavy WoW-playing fronts. Oh, to have just six more hours each day.

Hell, I’d settle for two.

  1. Like the various costumes I’d make with a vacuform table []

Toying with ideas

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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? []