Intro to Basic Resin Casting

resin armor

finished resin pieces and some components

One of the major challenges I faced when I was just getting started in crafting props and accessories was making the massive leap from cutting and gluing things (simple skills we began learning in kindergarten) to working with new materials like resin, plastic and various rubber compounds (which had more in common with an undergraduate chemistry class).

Granted, back when I started cosplaying, YouTube hadn’t yet been invented, and online tutorials were few and far between… (We also had to walk uphill both ways to buy thread. In the snow. Barefoot. Now get off my lawn.) That meant when I wanted to learn how to work with resin, I just bought a can and began experimenting – and while I did learn quite a bit, that trial-and-error process took its toll on my house (and probably a few brain cells, as I unknowingly purchased one of the more toxic varieties).

Fortunately, there’s now a wealth of information out there to help beginners select and approach new materials! Still, it can be daunting to take a step into working with toxic chemicals – and rightly so, as misuse can cause serious damage to your health or property. Even though I read instructions and do my research, I personally still find it helpful to watch someone experienced work with a material before I try it myself.

With that in mind, I’ve documented one of my projects and created a simple walkthrough to show, step-by-step, how I use resin to make small costume accessories. All the techniques shown here are beginner-friendly, especially if you’re starting with a fairly simple design. (If you’re looking for more advanced techniques, head over to Smooth-On‘s website and watch their product videos. Or troll that newfangled YouTube thing.) ^_^

(Links throughout are provided only for example; I recommend shopping around for the best price and availability.)

Choosing A Resin

There are several types of liquid resin. I won’t cover them all here, partly because I don’t want this to be a thirty-page tutorial and partly because I only have personal experience with about four or five types. Here’s a super-brief overview of the most common varieties, based on my own experience working with it (so should not be taken as proven fact; read the labels on your materials!):

Polyester resin is usually the cheapest and easiest to find at craft stores, but has the vilest odor of the three. You don’t want to pour it in your living space, because the fumes will do very bad things to you (though ALL resin requires proper ventilation; keep fans running and windows open, or pour outdoors when possible). Most craft-store polyester resin requires you to mix in a concentrated catalyst, which on its own is highly toxic and caustic. On the plus side, polyester resin is fairly forgiving about mix ratios, and you don’t need a gram scale or specialized equipment to cast it. I’ve also found it’s the least likely to trap air bubbles, so it’s good for gemstones or transparent objects.

Epoxy resin has a lower viscosity and is much lower-odor than polyester resin. It comes in both A-B mixtures and catalyst formulas, and what I like about the type I use (EnviroTex) is that it sets up fairly quickly, but doesn’t fully harden for about 48 hours. This means you can bend half-cured pieces to make curved shapes. (I’ll be doing this later in this demo.) Epoxy resin is less forgiving than polyester in terms of getting your proportions exactly accurate, though, so you want to make sure you measure carefully.

Urethane resin has the least odor and cures more quickly, but is also the most expensive. Also, a vacuum pump, pressure-casting or a vibrating platform is recommended if you’re casting transparent pieces, as in my experience it seems to trap more air bubbles than the other varieties.

Choosing A Mold

Slayers

Resin can only produce objects as good as the mold it is poured into. Molds for some shapes can be easy to find. You can buy commercial ones, or look for objects around the house –- for example, nearly all of the jewels for our Slayers costumes (at right) were cast in inexpensive molded plastic objects such as measuring spoons, a paint palette, or the shell of an inverted tap-light.

Molds must be rigid enough to retain their shape when filled with liquid, but flexible enough that you can bend them slightly to pop the hardened resin out. For a comparison, think of plastic or silicone ice cube trays or chocolate molds. (By the way, you can cast resin in those, too! Just… not the same ones you use for food. Please.)

Note: If you’re using a prefab or found-item mold, you can skip down to the “Prepping the Mold” section, as the next bit is about making your own molds.

Making An Original

If you need a specific design for your costume, you may have to find or create an original piece and make a mold of it. Resin can be very useful for replicating a handcrafted object down to the precise details, especially if you want to produce multiple identical objects.

originalIn this example, I’m going to cast an armored hand plate. For this costume set I need four identical plates, so rather than hand-craft them all and attempt to match the details exactly, I’ll make just one original, then use that to make a mold. I’m using Super Sculpey and half-round scrapbooking pearls to make this particular piece.

If you’re using a substance like polymer clay, make sure it is completely finished — baked, sanded, textured, whatever else you may want to do with it — before moving on to moldmaking. Even small flaws like fingerprints can reproduce in a resin cast, and it’s much easier to eliminate those from the original than it is to try to polish them out of each replica you make.

Note: In general, whatever you’re using to make your original should be a nonporous material. If you’re using a porous or semiporous material (fabric, wood, Paperclay, et al.), you will likely need to coat it in sealer or varnish before making your mold. This will depend largely on what moldmaking material you choose, though; read the directions on your material to determine if it will work with your object.

Prepping Original For Molding

This step will also vary dramatically depending on what moldmaking material you use. If your mold material is a putty type (Alumilite) or a paste (liquid latex), you probably won’t need to put the pieces inside a box. If you’re using any sort of fluid material such as silicone or urethane, however, you’ll need some means of containing the material in its liquid form.

Since I’ll be using silicone to make my mold, I’m using a plastic food container with raised edges. The piece is small and flat enough that I can place it on the bottom of the container and pour over it. (For larger pieces, I might have to construct a larger container to fit around my object.) Food containers such as carryout boxes, plastic plate lids and disposable cups are great moldmaking resources. For very small pieces, I cut paper cups in half and glue them edge-down on a piece of aluminum foil on a tray. Don’t spend any extra money on this step; recycle your trash instead!

glued
Because I need my piece flush to the “floor” of the box and don’t want any of the silicone seeping beneath it, I’ll use hot glue all around the edges of the back of the piece and glue it down flat. I have some extra room in this box, and I don’t want to waste expensive silicone, so I also add a couple of small armor plates that I need to cast to utilize the extra space. (If I didn’t have these, I would use some foil or cardboard to block off that part of the box to avoid filling it with silicone, or use a smaller box.)

Note: It should go without saying that you should NOT use the same containers for moldmaking and food storage. Plastic food boxes are three for a dollar at the dollar store. Go buy some specifically for your cosplay hobby, and don’t risk poisoning yourself.

Pouring the Mold

The silicone I’m using is Dragon Skin 30 from Smooth-On. As a platinum-cure silicone, it’s not cheap, but I like working with it (and also casting things from it, but we’ll save that for a different tutorial!). For less expensive options (also in smaller quantities), you can try tin-cure silicone, urethane, silicone putty, or liquid latex (though I’ve never had much luck with latex molds, as they seem to distort and lose detail fairly quickly). Read the directions for your material of choice, as each of these uses a different process!

pouring dragon skin
Dragon Skin is an A-B compound; it comes in two parts, of which you measure equal amounts and mix together. I use disposable paper cups to measure each part, then combine them into another container for mixing. This is not only for ease of measuring, but also for cleanup. It’s very difficult to clean part A or part B individually, since they are very gooey and resist washing, but once they’re mixed together, they cure into a dry, stretchy rubber. This means the individual measuring cups can’t be cleaned, but it’s easy to clean out the larger mixing bowl later; you just peel the layer of rubber off the glass in one piece!

mineral spirits

I’m using a high-viscosity silicone, but I want it to pick up the fine detail from my object, so I add a small amount of mineral spirits to thin it. (Using a lower-viscosity version like Dragon Skin 20 would eliminate the need for this step, but I have Dragon Skin 30 left over from a previous project. If you’re buying something specifically to make molds, you’ll probably want to go with one of the MoldMax products, so you won’t need to worry about this.)

mixing

When mixing any A-B compound, you want to stir aggressively for at least 30 seconds (longer for large quantities), scrape the sides and bottom of the container, and repeatedly scrape off the mixing stick against the edge of the cup to make sure all the material is mixed in. If there are areas of material that don’t get mixed properly, it could ruin your mold or make it sticky.

pouring dragonskin

Once the silicone is mixed, I pour a little of it into the mold. When pouring, always start from the lowest point of the mold; that way, air is pushed up and out as the box fills, rather than being trapped in bubbles at the bottom (bubbles can ruin your mold, as they’ll add unsightly tumors to the object you’re casting).

brushing
Since my object has a lot of detail, I use a paintbrush to push silicone down into all the depressions and make sure there aren’t any air bubbles lurking in the recesses of the design. Once the surface is completely covered, I pour the rest of the silicone in and let it settle. It’s often a good idea to tap the sides of the box or the table surface to shake additional bubbles to the top. (Or you can set your phone to vibrate, balance the box on it, and call it repeatedly… but I’m not responsible for any damage to personal electronics due to, say, being covered in liquid rubber.) ^_^

setting

Make sure your mold is sitting on a completely level surface while it cures. Since you’ll be flipping the mold over to cast the resin, you want the surface to be perfectly horizontal.

peeling moldmold

Removing the Mold

I let the mold cure overnight (read the directions on your material to know how long it must sit before demolding). When I’m ready to pull the mold, I start by loosening the block of rubber with a butter knife around the edges of the box. Silicone is pretty forgiving, so I’m not too worried about damaging it (but don’t force it). When I have a corner of the rubber free, I can just pull it gently out of the box, and presto! My original design is perfectly replicated in negative, ready for casting.

If your originals pop off and get stuck in the rubber, no worries; just ease one corner free and pull the rubber back gently until your original comes out. (If the rubber has soaked in or adhered to your original, it’s possible that your material was too porous or wasn’t sealed well enough.)

Preparing the Mold

powdering moldMany molds will need some sort of release agent applied to ensure that the resin does not adhere to the mold itself. You have a few options here: You can use a commercial release agent; you can make your own out of a spray solution of dish soap and alcohol; or you can use a coating of fine powder to line the mold. This third option is not viable for transparent casts, as the powder becomes embedded in the plastic, but it’s great if you happen to want your cast to have a colored finish!

I use a paintbrush to smooth a layer of super-fine metallic powder all over the inside of the mold (in this case, mixing silver and gold in different areas). It’s important not to have too much, as a heavy buildup of powder can create pits in the surface of the cast. The powder sticks to the silicone, so I blow gently on the mold when I’m done to clear away any excess powder.

You can purchase commercial resin powders, which are actually finely-ground bits of metal and tend to be quite costly, or you can use extra-fine craft glitter or any pigmented powder for a cheaper option. I’m particularly fond of theatrical makeup pigments and powders, which are not as cheap but go a long way.

Mixing the Resin

For this project, I’m using EnviroTex Lite epoxy resin. The formula requires mixing equal parts A and B, so I use graduated measuring cups to pour each part.
measuring resin

Note: I’m a big fan of reusing and recycling and saving money where I can, so I save things like liquid laundry detergent caps and plastic yogurt cups, wash them out, and use them for mixing resin. These graduated measuring cups came with a laundry detergent bottle over a year ago, and I’m still using them. Just clean out the uncured resin with a cotton ball soaked in acetone (nail polish remover) after each use, and you can reuse your cups indefinitely.

combining resin

Once you’ve measured your resin, combine the parts in a mixing container. Stir thoroughly, scraping sides and bottom, until resin is fully mixed. (I use wooden craft sticks, also known as Popsicle sticks, for this. They’re available by the hundred at craft stores.)
pouring resinPour the liquid resin into the mold, starting at the lowest point. Fill it 2/3 of the way, let the resin spread out, and then add a little at a time to avoid overfilling the mold.

bubble fishing

If your mold has undercut or recessed areas (such as the little dots across the edge of my piece), use a toothpick or pointed object to fish out any air bubbles that may have been trapped inside them. You may also want to tap on the table or blow gently over the surface of the resin to loosen any remaining bubbles trapped in the resin.

armor plates

I try to measure my resin accurately, but in case I overestimate the volume of the mold, I like to keep several extra molds lying around so I don’t end up wasting any resin. In this case, I have more small armor plates to cast, so I’ll pour the excess resin into those until I run out. If you don’t have any other molds prepared, pour surplus resin into a disposable container (Dixie cup, bottle cap, etc.) and let it harden before you throw it away. (If you throw it away in liquid form, resin WILL find a way to leak and permanently cement things to the inside of your garbage can.)

Bonus Step: Curving Pieces

curvedSo far as I can tell, this only works with certain kinds of epoxy resin, and your mileage may vary – but if you catch it in the right window, you can bend the mold while the piece is curing and get a flat piece to hold a curve. (Otherwise you have to make a curved mold and do slush casting, which is much more complicated and time-consuming.)

For the resin I’m using, the ideal window is between ten and twelve hours after pouring. That’s when the resin has set up so it’s solid to the touch, but isn’t yet hard. If I gently bend the mold and fix it in place, then leave it for the next 24 hours or so, the resin will finish curing in a curved shape. (If I miss that narrow window, the resin will still bend somewhat, but will revert to its flat form over time.)

I’ve tied the entire mold in place inside another curved piece so the plate has a slight curve and will fit comfortably over the back of my hand. I’ll leave it like this for another day.

Demolding

demolding

Once the resin is fully cured – which, depending on the kind of resin you use, can take anywhere from twelve hours to two days – it can be removed from the mold. If you prepared your mold with a release agent, this step is simply a matter of peeling the soft mold away from the cast, or flexing your rigid mold just enough to pop the resin piece out (just like a plastic ice tray).

(On the piece pictured, note that the flexible mold returns to flat, but the fully-cured resin piece retains its curve. SO much easier than slush casting in a curved mold!)

Once you’ve demolded the piece, you may need to trim or sand any irregularities along the edges. Then you’re ready to paint, drill, distress, glue or otherwise finish your piece.

resin armor…And voila! You have a custom-made hard plastic costume accessory. If you need more than one, just repeat the process as needed.

Boot Cuff & Contrast Lining Tutorial

finished

finished shoes

Perhaps you’re attending a Renaissance Faire, cosplaying classic Boy Wonder, or simply trying to hide the raw edges of the boots you’re cutting up to modify for your costume. Here’s a very simple tutorial for adding turnback cuffs or contrast lining to boots (demonstrated using the shoes I made for my Black Fox costume, at right).

 

Materials

  • boots to modify
  • fabric (whatever you’re using for lining)
  • scissors
  • sewing machine or hand-sewing utensils
  • (optional) interfacing or stiffening material

 

1) Choose Your Boots

Your boots should fit you comfortably and be the right base style for your costume.  It’s easy to alter the boot uppers, but changing the soles, heels or fit is more difficult.

The costume I’m making these boots for is pseudo-medieval and constructed entirely of suedecloth, so I chose suede 1980s-style slouch boots to match the pointed-toe ankle boots that Hollywood believes everyone wore in the middle ages. (The heels are not ideal, but I was in a hurry and these were in my size.) ^_^

original boots

Because I’m inherently cheap, most of my costume footwear comes from thrift stores. (If you aren’t buying new, you can use a disinfectant spray or a hot-water wash to sanitize most shoes). Keep in mind that used shoes often have worn-out supports, soles and heels, so they may require inserts or minor repairs. This pair cost me around $6 and needed one rubber heel tip replaced, which adds another 75 cents — still a fairly cheap pair of shoes!

 

2) Cut The Boots

Determine how tall your finished boots need to be and, if necessary, trim them to the right height. If they have foldback cuffs, you’ll need to cut a straight line down the front (or wherever the foldback point is) to make the flaps to fold back. If you aren’t sure how big to make your cuffs and don’t want to risk cutting too far, you can test the size by taping a piece of paper around the boot and cutting/folding it instead of the boot upper. When you’re happy with the paper version, mark the boot and cut it to match.

Side note: If your boots are slouch style, they probably have a strip of tape or cloth between the lining and outer fabric that holds the wrinkles in place. You will need to tear or cut this strip away in order to make the outer fabric lie smooth.

slouch tape

 

3) Cut Lining

Cut a rectangle that is big enough to wrap entirely around the outside of your boot upper (I recommend slightly larger, to be safe). You will want to finish at least one long edge. I’ve serged this one; you could also fold it under and stitch it to make a hem, or use anti-fray fluid or glue to keep it from unraveling (depending on your material). This edge will be inside your boot and shouldn’t be visible when you’re finished (which is why I didn’t bother rethreading the serger with matching thread, as you can see below).

If your rectangle isn’t perfectly square, or is too big, that’s fine; you’ll be trimming the excess.

lining

 

Optional: If you want your boot uppers/cuffs to have more rigidity or stand out from your legs, add interfacing at this point. Cut a piece the same size as your lining rectangle and position it against the back side of the lining for assembly.

 

4) Pin Lining

Wrap the lining around the outside of the boot upper, wrong side facing out (this puts your right sides, lining and outer boot fabric, facing each other. If you are using interfacing, it will be the outermost layer at this point). Pin along the outer edge.

pin lining

 

5) Sew Together

Stitch along the outer edge of your boot, through all layers of material. This seam will determine the final shape of the upper edge of your boot/cuffs, so if you have corners or shaped pieces, try to be as precise as possible.

If your boots are vinyl, leather or other thick material and you do not have a heavy-duty sewing machine, stitch very slowly or hand-crank the wheel to keep from damaging your machine.

 

 

6) Trim Seams

Trim along the line you’ve just stitched, leaving just enough material to hold the seam. Trim the corners diagonally to make it easier to flip them right-side-out.

trim

 

When finished, you should have the lining stitched all the way around the outer edge of the boot upper, with cleanly-trimmed edges and a finished hem at the bottom:

assembled boot

 

7) Flip Lining

Pull the lining up over the stitching, so it’s right-side-out, and tuck it down inside the boot. If you have corners on your cuffs, poke them out from the inside. With some materials, you may need to press the edges to make them crisp. Depending on the fit of your boots, you may want to stitch or glue the bottom edge of the lining inside the boot to keep it from riding up or shifting.

tuck lining

 

Put on the boots, fold back the cuffs as desired, and you’re finished!

The Essential Cosplay Arsenal, Part 2 – Basic Power Tools

tool aisle

so many from which to choose!

Part 2: Basic Tools

Now that you have the full complement of safety equipment from the previous article (you do have safety equipment, right? Or perhaps you’re just making the whole shopping list at once before you sell your soul to Harbor Freight?), it’s time to talk tools.

Since this is meant as an introduction to prop-making equipment, the items covered here are hand tools that don’t take a lot of prior training or additional safety protocols. There are certainly MANY other useful tools out there, but the ones on this list are those I tend to use most often for general prop construction.

1) Rotary Tool.

dremel

Dremel brand rotary tool

One of the most popular and useful cosplay tools is the rotary tool (known better by the brand name Dremel, though there are various other manufacturers). I don’t think it’s too much to say that the rotary tool is the single most versatile tool you could purchase for cosplay prop-making.

What it is: The rotary tool has a small motorized bit that spins, just like a drill or power screwdriver. However, there are literally hundreds of interchangeable tips for the tool, so instead of having to buy a power drill AND a pipe cutter AND a detail sander AND a buffing wheel AND a router AND an engraving tool AND a… (you get the picture) you can just have one rotary tool with several different tips.

Why you want one for cosplay: In addition to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of buying one tool to do a dozen jobs, rotary tools are amazing for building and detailing props. Most power tools are bulky because they are intended for construction jobs – they aren’t designed to reach inside pieces of armor or engrave tiny details into a sword hilt or drill tiny stitching holes through leather or beads. But the small profile of a rotary tool makes it perfect for such jobs, and the fact that it fits right in your hand makes it easy for even the inexperienced craftsman to engrave or detail a prop (it’s kind of like drawing with a fat marker).

Rotary tools come in both cordless and corded versions. The corded ones have a lot more power, while the cordless tend to be smaller and more portable. Look for a model with variable speeds (important for sanding or drilling different materials), and shop around for accessory kits – some are ridiculously cheap, and pretty much any brand of accessory will fit any brand of rotary tool as long as you have the right collet (an adapter for different sized bits).

carving a prop gun with the Dremel

carving a prop gun with the Dremel

Where to get one: Any home improvement store and most big box stores will sell rotary tools. Prices run anywhere from $25 to $150, depending on power, speed and features. They also turn up in some surprising (and cheaper) other locations! The rotary tool I use most often for cosplay was actually sold as a dog nail grinder, and it has more speeds than my cordless Dremel model. I’ve also seen them for sale at craft stores (in various pastel colors, because… crafts).

Dremel brand is the best known; other tool makers like Black & Decker have their own versions. If you’re looking for something cheaper, there are a number of less-expensive models on the market. There will be some variations in RPM and torque among these different models, but they will all function more or less the same unless you’re doing something really demanding.

2) Hot Glue Gun.

This may seem like an odd choice in a section on “power” tools (it is electric!), but if you remember that glue guns were originally sold by hardware stores and only later co-opted by crafters, you’ll see how it fits — and how useful they can be for prop construction! Plus, they have to be on this list because I use them ALL THE TIME.

hot glue gun and glue sticks

hot glue gun and glue sticks

What it is: A hot glue gun is a simple tool that melts and dispenses a stick of thermoplastic adhesive. You squirt this very hot goo onto your project and smash the pieces together. When the glue cools, it turns solid again and holds your pieces together.

Why you want one for cosplay: Due to its ease of use and very fast set time, hot glue is a favorite adhesive for crafters and cosplayers. (It is also VERY HOT, so if you’re prone to burning yourself, take heed.) Because it is solid at room temperature, it can fill gaps between pieces of wood or other material, reinforce a weak joint, or create raised surface texture. Hot glue can also be used in wig styling and wefting. (Note that while it is very versatile, it is easily overused, and there are other products that are better suited than hot glue for these applications on a large scale. If your prop sword is more hot glue than anything else, you might have a problem. Also, don’t leave it sitting in a hot car.)

The best thing about hot glue and cosplay, however, is that ethylene vinyl acetate foam – a.k.a. craft foam/Foamies/Fun Foam, a favorite crafting material for cosplayers – fuses permanently to hot glue on contact. If you’re making a costume or prop piece with EVA foam, hot glue is best way to stick it to itself.

Where to get one: Any craft store, art supply store, or silk flower retailer will carry glue guns. The small craft models are very cheap ($3 to $5), while larger or variable-temperature models might run $10-$20. The price of hot glue sticks also varies by size and type. Mini glue sticks are sometimes sold at discount stores (I buy mine 20 for $1 at Dollar Tree), while full-sized sticks are usually only available at craft stores and are more expensive. Glue sticks also come in low and high melting temperatures, so make sure you know what size and type your glue gun uses.

3) Power Sander.

Whether you go with an orbit (spinning) or palm (vibrating) sander, this little tool speeds up some kinds of prop-finishing by a factor of thousands. (There are also larger models for those really big props.)

sander

power sander

What it is: Sandpaper works on the principle of rubbing a coarse surface over another surface to knock off the bits that stick out and make it smoother. This is exactly what a power sander does – only it does it at 20,000 RPM, which is a bit faster than my arm can move the piece of sandpaper. It also provides a more consistent sanding pattern, since I can guide the sander over the surface at a steady pace.

Why you want one for cosplay: If you’re sanding a very large or flat surface (shield; armor), or one made of a dense material (wood; resin), your arm muscles will likely give out before you reach that mirror shine in the surface of your prop. Plus, if your prop has details like narrow corners or overlapping pieces, it’s almost impossible to get a piece of sandpaper back in that area with your fingertip and get a nice, even sanded finish – but you can get a power sander with a detail tip that will fit back into that awkward space and polish it just fine.

Most power sanders have either hook-and-loop or adhesive sandpaper pads that you can swap out easily as you need finer grain, and many have a little vacuum with a filter built in so you don’t blow sawdust all over your work area. (Well – at least there’s less sawdust.)

Where to get one: Any home improvement or hardware store will carry sanders. They range in price from $15 to $100, depending on size, power and features. While shopping, also check the price of the sandpaper refills (though many brands have interchangeable refills, so they stay pretty competitive).

4) Heat Gun.

heat gun

heat gun

If someone made a horror film about a hairdryer from hell… the heat gun would star in it. (Or maybe that’s Chuck Norris. I’m always mixing them up. Which one was in Hellbound?)

What it is: This one does exactly what it says on the tin – it shoots heat, at a (usually) adjustable temperature of 500 to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intended for paint stripping, pipe bending, heat shrinking, shrink-wrapping, and other high-temperature applications. (Like the hot glue gun, these things get HOT. Use caution.)

Why you want one for cosplay: Many of the most popular prop-making materials tend to be thermoplastic (that is, they are molded or shaped using heat). Wonderflex, Worbla, EVA foam, Sintra, styrene, ABS, Friendly Plastic and many other synthetic crafting materials require heat activation or heat setting. The heat gun allows you to heat up any of these materials to the activation point, then form them into the desired shape or melt them together before they cool. Heat guns are also good for stripping paint off found items to repurpose them into cosplay props, or (when used judiciously) for drying/curing certain types of lacquers and finishes.

mask made by using heat gun to thermoform craft foam

mask made by using heat gun to thermoform craft foam

Where to get one: All home improvement and many big box stores carry heat guns; they’ll be in the paint section. Prices range from $15 to $60 depending on features. I recommend a model with adjustable temperature and multiple fan speeds (most basic models have at least two settings, though the higher-end ones have up to 12 temperature levels).

(Also, watch out for models with automatic cooldowns. I recently purchased a fancy new digital heat gun that would not turn off for 80 seconds after you pushed the power button because it had to run a cooldown cycle. Worst design I’ve seen! How can you hold your plastic pieces in the right shape while juggling a blowing 1100-degree heat gun for 80 seconds? Not to mention the safety risk if you needed to turn it off in a hurry… I returned it the next day and bought a straight on-off switch model, which also happened to be $10 cheaper. ^_^)

…And that’s just a start! This is only a very introductory tool primer – so now, armed with a knowledge of the options, you can choose your weapons and start hacking out those amazing cosplay props! (Okay, since common sense must prevail, I also recommend that you read safety information and use caution when using new tools for the first time.)

The Essential Cosplay Arsenal, Part 1 – Safety Equipment

Alena demonstrates safety equipment

Alena demonstrates safety equipment

It’s pretty clear that in cosplay, the fabric bits do not make up the entire costume. We have a variety of other tutorials and workshops dealing with wigs, makeup, and presentation, so here’s an entry for those who want to get their toes wet in the props and accessories pool — a basic overview of some of the equipment I tend to use most often when crafting my props and non-fabric costume pieces. (This information is intended as a supplement to our introductory prop and armor-making workshops, but hopefully it can also serve as a primer for future website tutorials.)

Part 1: Safety Equipment

In any battle, the warrior needs proper weapons and armor!  This article will focus on the armor — the must-have safety equipment you should know about before you start working with power tools and other dangerous beasts.

Personal safety should always come first. Cosplay may be life and breath to some people, but it’s hard to pull off your favorite character after you’ve accidentally cut off your arm. (Unless you’re cosplaying Ku– oh, wait, that’s a spoiler.)

1) Safety Glasses.

safety eyewear wikimedia

eye and face protection

Protecting your eyes is very important, especially if you’re working with power tools, sandpaper or noxious chemicals. And while losing an eye may make you a perfect cosplay match for most CLAMP characters, we’re pretty sure you’d regret it eventually.

What to get: Unless you’re breaking out the uber-power tools, you’ll just need a deflecting layer between your eyes and what you’re working on. If you wear glasses, pick up a pair of high-impact goggles (the big flexible kind) that fit over eyeglasses. If not, you can use the hard plastic safety glasses that look like 1980s sunglasses; just make sure they’re impact-resistant.

If you’re doing a lot of sanding (which is likely to flip small bits of material toward your face at high velocity), you may also want to look into a full-face shield. This is especially a good idea if you have sensitive skin that may be irritated by dust or particles.

Where to find:All home-improvement stores, many sporting-goods stores and most discount stores carry safety goggles. Cheap ones start at $1; or, if you want fancy wraparound UV-resistant models, you can pay up to $35. Full-face shields are available at home improvement stores and range from $4 to $20.

2) Protective Clothing.

Not only do you want to keep all those icky chemicals and abrasive fibers off your skin, but you don’t want to ruin your clothes when the resin mold leaks liquid epoxy all over your good jeans (uh, not that that’s ever happened to me…).

nitrile gloves wikimedia

nitrile gloves

What to get: If you’re working with particulates such as sawdust, you want loose clothing that is easy to shake out and cheap enough to be disposed of if something gets really messy. If you’re working with something caustic, you should cover all exposed skin, including hands and arms. For resin or some types of adhesives and paints, you’ll probably want disposable gloves. (Read the safety labels on your materials to know how much protection you’ll need.)

Where to find: You may have old clothes in your closet that you can write off as cosplay gear. Personally, I buy $2 medical scrubs at my local thrift store — they’re loose, lightweight, and washable — and I have several old canvas aprons that I use if I need heavier protection (you can buy aprons at big box stores, craft stores, art supply stores and home improvement stores). Cheap work gloves can be obtained at discount stores for $1 or any home improvement or gardening shop for slightly more. Latex, nitrile or vinyl gloves are available at any pharmacy or home improvement store. You can even use rubber kitchen gloves for many projects, as long as they’re chemical-resistant.

(Note: When choosing disposable gloves, remember 1) if anyone in your group has a latex allergy, be sure you use latex-free gloves, and 2) some materials you work with may be reactive to certain types of gloves. For example, contact with latex can prevent silicone from curing properly. If you’re not sure what type to buy, vinyl is usually the safest option)

3) Respirator.

respirator

repirator

When working with materials that produce sawdust, resin dust, foam dust, fiberglass or any other kind of particulate, inhaling those little bits of powder can cause serious, potentially lethal lung damage. It may be annoying to wear a respirator, but it’s better to look like Darth Vader while you’re working than it is to look like unmasked Anakin Skywalker when you’re in the hospital being treated for pulmonary fibrosis.

Resin, paint, plastic and foam can all release toxic fumes that you don’t want to be breathing, either — so even if you have a mask, make sure your work space is properly ventilated!

What to get: You want a respirator with filters rated for the material you’ll be working with. Check the NIOSH rating (represented by N, R or P and a number, such as P100) and choose a filter appropriate for the materials you’re using. Don’t rely on paper pollen masks or surgical masks to block hazardous materials; although they’re better than nothing, they don’t seal completely around the nose and mouth, and they aren’t designed to block oily paint particles at all.

Where to find: Disposable masks are fairly cheap, but you don’t want to skimp on protection here, so I’d recommend going to the paint section of a home improvement store and buying a high-quality reusable respirator. You can often find good ones for as little as $15 or $20. Replacement filters range from $5 to $15, depending on type.

4) Hearing protection.

earplugsThis applies if you’re working with any motorized power tools such as drills, sanders, power saws and shop vacuums. Repeated noise in the same frequency can cause you to lose hearing in that range, and power tools are LOUD, even if they don’t seem to hurt your ears while you’re working. (Note: Noise-canceling headphones do not qualify as ear protection. If you want to listen to music, put in earplugs, then put your headphones on over them. You will still be able to hear the music, but your eardrums will be protected.)

What to get: Conical foam earplugs are the cheapest, but check the NRR (noise reduction rating) to determine how much protection they give. Some foam earplugs block only 5dBA, while others block 30+dBA. Although they are disposable, each pair of earplugs can be used several times – pretty much until they start to look dirty or questionable (at which point you should probably stop sticking them in your ears, because it’s icky).

If you can’t wear in-ear plugs for medical or comfort reasons, pick up a set of traditional over-the-ear protectors. These also can have dramatically different NRRs. They also come in electronic variety (like really, really high-powered noise-canceling headphones), which is useful if you want to have the ability to hear normally in between bursts of sanding/sawing/etc.

ear protection wikimedia

Where to find: Any big box store, drug store or home improvement store, as well as most sporting-goods stores, will carry foam earplugs. They’re available in quantities of 5 to 200 pair, ranging $2 to $30 depending on quantity. Over-the-ear protectors are available at home improvement stores, gun shops, or any place that sells lawnmowers, and range from $10 to $50. High-grade electronic earmuffs are available at gun stores and are typically much more expensive ($70+).

A note about where to obtain these items: I’m listing dollar amounts and retailers based on what’s available in the Midwest region of the United States. If you live in a different area, your mileage (and cost) may vary. If you’re not sure which stores I mean when I describe where to buy the items listed, here’s a quick reference:

  • Big box stores are large multi-purpose retailers such as Target, Meijer, or Walmart.
  • Discount stores are smaller retailers offering low-priced off-brand merchandise, such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, or Dollar General.
  • Drug stores would include CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, or most places with a pharmacy counter (also many grocery chains such as Kroger and Marsh).
  • Home improvement stores would include Lowes, Home Depot, and Menards. Harbor Freight is a similar store that specializes in tools.
  • Sporting-goods stores would include Gander Mountain, Dick’s Sporting Goods or (for the purposes of the safety equipment mentioned in this article) any store that sells firearms or ammunition.

Obviously, anything on this list can also be purchased online from a variety of retailers! But I like to include brick-and-mortar stores for those who need to go out and buy it RIGHT NOW because they’re in the middle of a project and can’t wait on shipping. 🙂

Invisible Shoes

Jack Frost invisible shoes

unretouched photo of invisible Jack Frost shoes at a convention

I’ve had a surprising number of questions about the invisible shoes that I made for my Jack Frost costume.  So, by request, here’s a step-by-step tutorial!

Many popular costumes call for bare feet (Jack Frost, L, Toph, Medusa, Radical Edward and Inuyasha, to name a few) — but running around barefoot can be unsafe and is forbidden by many venue policies. These “invisible” shoes will keep your feet safely off the floor without spoiling the barefooted look of your costume. Best of all, they’re easy to make and cost only a few dollars!

Materials

  • transparent PVC insoles
  • mesh fabric
  • needle & thread
  • markers, paint, fabric dye or makeup in your skin tone

The soles of your shoes will be flexible clear PVC insoles. These thin, flat shoe inserts are commonly found at discount or dollar stores (Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar, et al.) for one or two dollars. If you want something fancier like gel-filled, shaped, or padded supports, you can pick up name-brand insoles at a big box store like Target or Walmart, but those usually cost between $10 and $20. (If you don’t have a discount store in your area, you can usually find the lower-end insoles for around $4 on eBay.)

Here are a few of the $1 options at my local Dollar Tree:

PVC insoles

I opted for the “massaging insoles,” which have little nubs on the bottom, because I wanted my shoes to have good traction. Note that you will need to buy a size larger than you normally wear in shoes, as you want the sole of your invisible shoe to be big enough to cover your whole footprint. (Since I have fairly large feet for a woman, this means I had to buy the men’s insoles. If you have smaller feet, you can trim them to fit if necessary.)

I recommend a mesh fabric for the straps because the open weave breaks up the light hitting it, making it less visible, and the uneven edges are less obvious than a smooth strap across your foot. This is the fabric I used (primarily because I already had a scrap lying around), but any kind of mesh should work:

mesh fabric

Sizing the Straps

To begin, cut strips of mesh for the straps. Each shoe has two straps – one that loops over a toe, and one that wraps over the top of the foot. The toe strap will be between 1/2″ and 1″ wide, depending on what is comfortable for you, and about 3″ to 4″ long (you will trim it to fit). The foot strap will be 1 1/2″ to 2″ wide, and about 10″ to 12″ long, depending on the size of your feet. For reference, this is roughly where the straps will be placed on the insole when you’re finished:

clear shoes

To figure the length of each strap, you’ll need to size it on your foot. (Do this separately for each foot, since your dominant foot is most likely larger than your other foot.) Place your foot on the insole, positioning it so it’s comfortable to stand on and your toes aren’t hanging off the edge. Tuck the strap on either side of the toe you want to support the shoe (I put the strap around the second toe, where it’s less visible than the big toe). Make sure it isn’t pinching the toe, and leave room to wiggle your toe in and out of the strap. When you’re happy with the placement, mark the strap where it hits the insole, and also mark that spot on the insole so you know where to attach the strap. Add about a half inch to each end of that measurement (for seam allowance) and trim the strap.

toe strap

toe strap

Next, size the foot strap. This strap should start at the outside ball of your foot, wrap over the top of the foot at an angle, and curve back under the arch to the middle of the insole, just in front of the heel. It should fit snugly so the shoe won’t flop around when you walk, but have just enough room to slide on and off the foot. Mark this strap and trim it as before, leaving at least a half inch on either end for sewing.

foot strap

foot strap

Coloring the Mesh

In order to be invisible, the strap needs to match your skin as closely as possible. You can buy flesh-tone fabric if you can find one that matches your skin, but if the skin of your feet is lighter or darker than standard dancewear beige, you’re probably better off coloring the fabric to match.

It can be tricky to get fabric dye to exactly match skin tones, so I used alcohol-based markers to color my fabric (Copic and Prismacolor are available in a variety of flesh tones, and are available at most arts and crafts stores like Michaels or Hobby Lobby). You can also use any kind of flexible fabric paint, or acrylic paint mixed with a fabric painting medium. On some types of fabric, you could also use makeup such as a liquid foundation, but keep in mind that if your feet get wet or you want to wash the shoes, you may need to reapply it.

coloring strap

coloring the strap

Building the Shoe

Now that the fabric is colored, attach the straps to the insoles where you’ve marked them. Fold each end of the strap over so you have about 1/4” doubled. (If your fabric is very fragile, you may want to fold the end over again to make it 1/8” quadrupled, to reinforce the stitching.) Using neutral or flesh-colored thread, carefully sew the doubled ends of the strap to the insole where you marked it.

sewing strap

sewing the strap

Some insoles are already perforated for ventilation, so you can stitch through the existing holes; if yours is not, or if you need to add another hole, use a large needle, push pin or awl to poke a hole through the plastic. Try to use as few holes as possible and leave at least 1/8″ of space between them, to avoid weakening the plastic.

poking hole

poking hole

…And that’s it!

Once your straps are attached, try on the shoe to double-check fit and comfort. Make sure there are no lumps of fabric that will cause blisters if you wear it all day, particularly under the heel.

completed shoe

Pro tip:  Some insoles are more flexible than others. If your shoe is too floppy, you can use a couple of strips of double-stick fashion tape or other skin-safe adhesive to stick it directly to your foot. This is especially useful if you plan to be very active or doing a lot of action posing that might put undue stress on the straps.

Firearms for Cosplay

This article and the accompanying video are intended for educational purposes for costumers and cosplayers. This is not intended to be a firearms safety course, nor legal advice. Use common sense, thanks.

drake

Alena as Nathan Drake from Uncharted.

Why a firearms props tutorial? In a single con weekend, I heard from security about a SWAT team being called because of a cosplayer’s weapon, I watched cosplayers violate every firearms safety rule at once (which could have caused any onlooker to react), and I saw otherwise-excellent photos spoiled by the subject’s obvious lack of training with his weapons.

Prop weapons of all kinds are ridiculously common in cosplay, and most cosplayers don’t give them a second thought. But handling a prop firearm well will not only make your character more convincing, but will keep others comfortable and may avoid legal trouble!

There have been several incidents in which law enforcement was called because of a cosplayer’s prop or behavior, and some cons have responded by banning realistic weapons entirely. But it’s possible to be safe and respectful with your weapon props — hence this overview on how to stay safe, stay legal, and look much better in your photoshoot!

Safety First

Props & The Public

So you’ve got your guns at the con, and they’re realistic weapons rather than neon-colored space ray guns. Now you’re ready to head down the street to the local McDonald’s. What do you do with your props?

It’s safe to assume that you’re carrying your props openly, in your hand or in a visible holster, belt, or sling — after all, it’s a part of your costume and you want it to be seen. But you’re leaving the con, where costumes and props are the norm, so people are going to interpret your weapon in local, non-convention context.

Some states have legal open carry (with or without permit). This means that anyone who sees your gun prop may reasonably assume it’s a real gun which you are legally carrying. It’s legal, so this may not seem to be a problem, except that the moment you reach for or lift that gun, an observer may reasonably assume you are engaging deadly force.

Other states have no legal open carry (other than law enforcement). If someone sees your visible gun prop, they may reasonably assume you are a criminal, actively breaking the law.

Or it can be unspecified; at the time of this writing, my home state (Indiana) has not legally defined open carry. It’s a grey area, and at minimum a realistic gun prop is going to draw double-takes and suspicion.

In addition, most states have specific laws regarding legal carry, as to whether you’re allowed into a restaurant or bar and where you may sit in one, etc. If you sit at the wrong table with a realistic gun prop, you might well be asking for trouble.

What about just dropping the gun into a pocket? Probably this won’t be enough; there’s a reason concealed carry holsters are necessary and expensive, and costume prop guns are rarely the tiny, concealable type. Your prop is not likely to stay in place, and as soon as it peeks over the pocket top and into view, you’re now in the same position — or worse, as concealed carry without a permit may be illegal even where open carry is legal. A reasonable person may still call police, and though you might get off without charges, you’ve created a lot of hassle for yourself and others.

And you might not get off without charges. Remember that a fake weapon which a reasonable person might assume is real is considered legally a real weapon. You can be charged with assault or other weapons violations. (I was foreperson of a jury which convicted a carjacker who used a fake gun. It doesn’t matter if the gun is fake, if people are scared.)

In addition, if the sight of the (real or fake) weapon causes alarm, you may be subject to disorderly conduct charges.

So yes, you can certainly face charges for a non-working prop gun. Don’t risk it. Unless your guns are obviously fake (“space blaster” or other non-realistic design), it’s a good idea to bury them in a bag or leave them in the car or hotel. Don’t alarm any member of the public.

Handling Fake Guns Safely

There are four rules to handling a firearm safely, and you have to break at least two of the four in order to hurt someone. It’s a really good idea to know these — even for fake weapons.

All guns are always loaded.

We always consider every gun to be loaded and handle it appropriately. Never do anything with an unloaded gun that you wouldn’t do with a loaded gun.

For realistic prop guns, this means we handle them like guns, not like toys, anywhere others can see us.

(Seriously. I had someone point a prop gun at my face, idly snapping the trigger, not even aware of what she was doing. I gently took it away from the cosplayer because all my safety training was making me crazy-uncomfortable, but that could have resulted in an assault charge if the cosplayer had done it to someone willing to press charges. Don’t do anything with a fake gun that could be considered a threat or reckless.)

Never point the muzzle at anything you aren’t willing to destroy.

This means people, pets, and property. Obviously this is going to be difficult to follow while getting good costume photos; more on that later.

Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made the decision to pull it.

This is a tough one because most movies, television, comics, manga, anime, etc. get it wrong, and most untrained people’s default action is to place their finger on the trigger. Not only is this a major safety violation, it’s also a dead giveaway that you’re untrained and don’t know how to handle your weapon properly, and so it hurts your costume photos. (No one likes a supposed badass who actually doesn’t know what he’s doing.)

Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.

This is less critical for cosplayers, because you won’t even have a target, much less fire at it. But it’s a good rule to know — walls don’t necessarily stop bullets, nor do human bodies, and you can easily hurt someone through your practice target or the bad guy if you’re not paying close attention.

Cosplayers break all of these rules, sometimes all at once! This is not only forming very bad safety habits, it’s very disturbing to anyone watching. If I (as another cosplayer) am watching, I am bothered but I know you’re just ignorant; if another person who isn’t positive that the gun is fake is watching, you have just made yourself an immediate threat to everyone in the area. Again, police can be called, and if any kind of disturbance happened as a result of your sloppy handling, you can be charged with disorderly conduct.

Does it really matter? I think so. A quick Google search for “police shoot toy gun” turns up over 3 million hits on news stories; this one (the top result in today’s search) features a man in costume napping in a hotel, which might be any cosplayer!

Even if your gun is completely fake, obey the Four Rules to keep others comfortable and yourself safe!

Staging Battles & Photos

Again, consider what the public sees, especially non-congoers. Doing a photoshoot in a public space? Make the staging really obvious — have someone hold off-camera flashes or a camera bag for your photographer, or ask a couple of friends to stand in an obviously relaxed manner nearby. You want anyone who happens to glance toward the person with a gun to instantly see that no one nearby is concerned, and oh, there’s a girl with a big camera! It must be some sort of publicity thing.

Don’t shout, make any verbal threats, let anyone act out fear (other than an obviously staged pose between flashes and relaxed friends), and try to follow Rule #2 by pointing the gun into space or at a blank wall rather than at a friend or photographer. (More on posing below!) If you are going to do a video scene, stage it well out of the public eye, where no one can mistake what’s going on.

Why be so careful? Again, we don’t want anyone calling the cops — but we also want to avoid any appearance of an immediate threat. Depending on where you are in the country, between 1 in 20 and 1 in 10 citizens is legally licensed to carry a concealed weapon, in addition to off-duty or plainclothes police, security, etc. I have seen some cosplayers brandish weapons and behave in ways which might appear to be a real and immediate threat — and that could cause someone to draw their own weapon, and that’s not something we want to induce! At bare minimum, the paperwork is laborious; at worst, the untrained cosplayer accidentally swings his prop toward the shouting Good Samaritan or cop, and now he’s threatening the guy with the real gun. The good citizen will probably feel terrible after learning that his self-defense shot wasn’t necessary, that the weapon was just a prop, but that doesn’t take back the bullet.

Again, see all the news stories which came up involving police shootings and toy guns. Don’t be a statistic.

Wow, that sounded all heavy and stuff. Is it possible to take do photoshoots with prop guns? Of course it is! Just use common sense and make sure it’s very, very obvious that it’s a fun photoshoot.

Make Your Photos Better!

rizagunsNow that we know how to get our photos safely, let’s make them look better!

As mentioned above, failure to handle a gun safely is a solid indicator that you’re not trained to handle a gun competently. The temptation to have your finger on the trigger in every shot may be strong, but anyone knowledgeable will recognize your error. Make yourself look better by handling your prop as if it were the real thing!

Refer to the video below for specific advice and visual aids!

  • Many cosplayers grip the weapon too low and too loosely, which would result in poor weapon control during recoil. Grip it high and tightly, and index the trigger finger along the frame of the gun. Your James Bond and Charlie’s Angels type poses, mugging for the camera, shouldn’t have your finger in contact with the trigger.
  • If you want a “firing” shot, go ahead and touch the trigger — but make sure the rest of your body is in an active firing posture. There are several classic stances; pick the one most suitable to your character, or go ahead and use the crazy-unrealistic-but-oh-so-anime-cool signature move — it’ll look even better with a proper grip and sighting!
  • There’s a lot of chatter about low-ready and high-ready positions; either can be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. Make sure both you and your gun are shown to best advantage in the shot. You can also choose the classic Hollywood gun-by-character’s-face closeup, because after all, this is cosplay, not combat! Again, keep your finger indexed on the frame, and off the trigger.

And this is about showing off your costume and props, so go ahead and jazz it up for your photoshoot. Make it as awesome as possible, now that you’re doing it safely and competently!

Video Tutorial:


Master Knows Best

We rewrote an old Broadway tune to explore the conflict and consequences of the young Kenshin deciding to become a hitokiri. With dance.

Characters from: Rurouni Kenshin

Colossal Con 2011, Best In Show

 

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Ciel’s Revolving Door

The beginning (missing in the video) featured Ciel entering in his classic pink ballgown, complaining of Druitt and then being shooed off by Sebastian to change. And then we join our heroes….

Characters from: Kuroshitsuji

Anime Crossroads 2011, winner

 

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