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Getting Started: A Guide to Materials and Tools

If you're going to be costuming for any length of time, it's important that you set up a workspace. It needn't be anything permanent or impressive - it could just be a quiet corner of your room where you set up a card table to work on and a cardboard box to keep your tools and materials in. Generally speaking, the more costuming you do, the more organized and planned out your workspace should be. In Volume One of my Compendium Book Series, I talk about the type of workspace you should set up for yourself, space and disposal issues that you might face, and general safety information that you'll want to know before you begin.

Since my methods require working with potentially dangerous tools like hot glue guns and sharp utility knives, you'll want to take the proper precautions to keep from hurting yourself. In most cases, this just means being extra vigilant when working with such tools--not using them when you're distracted or tired, for instance. Also, it means to shut down, unplug, and store your tools in a safe, secure place when you've finished working with them. Remember to wear the proper safety equipment (like goggles, gloves, or respirator masks) when working with high-powered tools like sanders or saws. (If you have any doubt as to how to safely work with a certain tool or material, ask a clerk at your local hardware store to help you.)

Tools

What follows is a general run-down of the tools that I use in the majority of my projects (Note: The prices I quote for these items may not be wholly accurate, but they should at least give you a rough idea of what said items will probably cost.)



Scissors: I recommend using a nice heavy scissors or shears--something strong enough to clip through a thin layer of plastic and leave nice, sharp edges on your craft foam. Cheapie, orange-handled scissors probably won't cut it (no pun intended.) Most fabric stores sell heirloom-quality scissors (at various prices) so you shouldn't have any trouble finding them. To cut thicker forms of plastic, I'd recommend going to a hardware store and buying a metal shears (or tinsnips.) There are many different styles available and their cost will depend a lot on their quality. To keep your scissors and shears at optimal sharpness, I would recommend not using them for any other purpose.

Craft/Utility Knife: These are available at most hardware and craft stores for about 2-5 dollars, and I'd recommend getting one with disposable blades that you can snap off once they become dull.

Long Serrated Knife: A long sharp steak knife will suffice. I use mine to cut through cardboard, pink insulation foam, and in general, everything that's too thick or too tough to be cut using a utility knife.

Hot Glue Gun: There are many varieties on the market today, but I'd recommend getting a medium to high-temp glue gun. I'd also recommend getting one that has a detachable power cord --very useful for gluing hard to reach areas or for gluing armor that you might have placed on a dressform. Most craft, fabric and hardware stores sell these for about 10-20 dollars.

I would recommend placing a piece of tagboard or a cheap plastic cutting board under the nozzle of the hotglue gun to catch any drips that might fall from it, since those drips could easily ruin any unprotected surface they fall upon.


Needle and Thread: My methods of armormaking sometimes require you to sew through many layers of plastic and foam. A thick, heavy needle will be the best tool for this job --although you don't want a needle that's TOO thick as it might leave a big hole. You can expect a lot of your needles to bend or break while you're pushing them through so you should keep a large supply of them on hand. I use regular sewing thread for most of my armor sewing (although I tend to double-thread the needles so I have a 4-ply strand, as opposed to the 2-ply strand I use for most of my fabric sewing.)

Needle-Nosed Pliers: I'd have all sorts of holes in my fingertips if I tried pushing my needle and thread through tough layers of plastic and foam with just my fingers, so I will usually grip the needle and push it through with a needle-nosed pliers. I also use my needle- nosed pliers to cut wire (most pliers have some small blade built into them that allows you to do that) and bend wire. These types of pliers usually sell at craft and hardware stores for about 5-10 bucks apiece.

Double-Ended Wax Carving Tools: If you plan on sculpting any of your costume elements with polymer or modeling clay, these tools are a must. They're also called Dental Tools and can be found online at places like The Compleat Sculptor: http://www.sculpt.com/ which, at the time of this writing, sells each individual tool for about 5 dollars apiece.
Hobby Sanding Films: These are small sheets of sandpaper commonly used to sand the surface of model cars, planes, etc. I use them to smooth the surface of my styrene armor and to remove any little stray strings or globs of hotglue. Hobby sanding films can usually be found in the model vehicle sections of most craft stores (near the enamel paints and brushes). A package of assorted sanding films will cost you about 4 dollars. (Important Note: DO NOT USE regular sandpaper to sand a styrene/plastic surface, as it will create scratches. Use regular sandpaper or sanding sponges only on wood, paperclay or other porous surfaces..)
Other items that will come in handy for your prop and armormaking are:

* A Hand-Held PVC Pipe Cutter
* Wire Cutters
* Rotary Leather Punch
* Markers
* Brushes (enamel and acrylic)
* Heated Stylus Tool (like the Creative Versa-Tool ™ )
* Dremel Tool


I go into a lot more detail about these tools and many others in the printed version of my Compendium, but this page should give you a general idea of what these tools are and what they should be used for.

Materials

For the vast majority of my armormaking, I use a substance called styrene. Styrene is a type of plastic that comes in thin sheets and its common hobby uses are modelmaking and vacuum-forming. The type of styrene I most often use comes in flexible sheets about .020" thick. I do use thicker gauge styrene sometimes to make sturdier, non-flexible items like prop swords, although none of the styrene I use approaches the 1/8" or ¼" thickness used by ABS Plastic armormakers. (ABS Plastic is basically the same thing as styrene, although the term "ABS" is associated more with the thicker varieties of the plastic.) People have been using industrial ABS to make decorative and mock-combat armor for decades. Due to its thickness and stiffness however, it can only be shaped by heating or boiling until it becomes pliable-at which point it is wrapped around a form of some sort.

Styrene in general has many interesting properties which make it an ideal material for armormaking (such as its durability and it's ability to be bent and shaped, etc.) Styrene is probably the best surfacing material you'll find for costume armor. Unfortunately, it can be one of the hardest materials to get ahold of--you'll probably have to order it online. (You may be able to find small sheets of it for sale at hobby shops or craft supply stores where model trains are sold.. You may also find styrene signage (like Garage Sale signs)at hardware stores.)
Here is a list of places where you can buy styrene:
Me: (http://www.amethyst-angel.com/armortutorial/styrene.html) I've set up a styrene shop where anyone can buy it in 24" x 48" long sheets. (I buy it directly from Laird Plastics, which only sells it to businesses.) I can ship worldwide, but if you live outside of the US and need a large quantity, you may find styrene more economially at Dani's Cosplay Supplies. (See link below.)
Evergreen: (http://www.evergreenscalemodels.com) is the most popular brand of craft styrene --both sheet and tube form. You can find their products in stores or you can order sheets from their website that are up to 12" x 24" in size.
Dani's Cosplay Supplies ( http://www.cosplaysupplies.com) A crafts and materials supply store with the cosplayer in mind. They sell large styrene sheets and ship worldwide. (Their site is constantly changing so if you can't find a link to the styrene, e-mail them or call them at 416-252-5657 and ask about it.)
Ebay: (http://www.ebay.com) Run a text search for ".020 styrene " or "vacuum forming" and you're bound to come up with a few auctions for it, if you're lucky.
US Plastics: (http://www.usplastic.com) Go to their main page and run a text search for "High Impact Styrene Sheet" This will take you to the catalog page were you can find sheets of .020" styrene
Thomas Register Online Database: (http://www.thomasnet.com) Text search the term "styrene" and you'll be given a list of plastic manufacturers who may have the product featured in their online catalogs.
P&A Plastics: ( http://www.paplastics.com ) A styrene supplier situated in Hamilton, Ontario.
Modeller's Mate: (http://www.modellersmate.co.uk/plasticard.htm ) - A model supply store in the United Kingdom which sells large sheet styrene.
Eagle Plastics: (http://www.eagleplastics.co.uk) Another styrene supplier in the UK.


Although styrene is probably going to take you a little more effort to get than most of your other materials, it's well worth it. Styrene isn't too expensive either, depending on how much you have to pay for shipping. (Air mail shipping for any quantity may cost 10-15 USD.)

Now .020" styrene by itself isn't thick or sturdy enough to make armor or props out of--it merely serves as a surface covering for a core material that will give the prop or armor piece its structure and durability.

When it comes to armor, the main core material that I use for its construction is:

Craft Foam
It has several names: craft foam, fun foam, foamies, etc….you can find these colorful foam sheets selling at many craft and fabric stores, but you may not realize that they are, in fact, a craftsy, kid-friendly version of an industrial product known as closed-call EVA foam. EVA foam is usually gray and is often used in home construction and insulation. It can be ordered online from industrial suppliers like McMaster-Carr where it comes in a variety of sizes and thicknesses, ranging from 1/8" (about 3mm) to 1" (about 25mm). This makes it great for making large armored items like breastplates, although a big downside to ordering it online is that (a) you have to pay for shipping and (b) you have to wait for the material you order to arrive in the mail. Still, if you want to order foam sheeting from McMaster-Carr, all you have to do is run a text search for "EVA foam" on their website to find their EVA Foam catalog page.
If you don't want to order the foam online from an industrial supplier, you can (as I have already mentioned) find the colorful "Foamies" version of it for sale at your local craft or fabric store for about 1-2 dollars per sheet. Foamies generally come in three sizes: 9" x 12", 12" x 18", and (more rarely) the 36" x 60" megaroll. It also comes in three thicknesses, 2mm, 3mm and 6mm. Unfortunately, due to some odd idiosyncracy on the part of Foamie's manufacturer, they only offer the 6mm thickness in the 9" x 12" size, while the giant megaroll can only be found in the 2mm thickness. The 2mm and 3mm gauge foams are the only ones offered at both the 9"x 12" and 12" x 18" sizes. (This means if you want to cut a large pattern piece out of 6mm craft foam, you'll have to buy several 9" x 12" sheets of foam and hotglue them together edge to edge until you come up with a craft foam slab that's large enough to cut your pattern from.)

Craft foam is sproingy, flexible, and tear resistant. As such, it makes a great core material for armor. (I'll go into more detail on how it can be used later on in this tutorial...)

Here is a listing of some other prop and armormaking materials that I commonly use:

Tagboard: (a.k.a. Posterboard) This, along with newspaper, is what I use to make most of my armor and prop patterns. If you actually want to use paper sheeting in the construction of your armor, you need to find as thick a version of it as possible. Card stock with a waxed coating works best for construction. You may be able to find some in a hardware store, or just save all of your cereal boxes and other kinds of food packaging made from card stock, and use those in your projects.
You can laminate (ie: hotglue) several sheets of card stock together to create rigid armor which you can seal with varnish or acrylic gesso. Thicker forms of cardboard can be used as a surfacing or structural material. Featherweight is a cosplayer who has managed to do some remarkable things with cardboard. Here's a link to his tutorial blog.
Rigid Insulation Foam: This is a type of foam which is commonly used in the making of prop swords, weapons, etc. You can find it selling in most major hardware stores, and it comes in large, flat (often pink) sheets. In appearance and texture, it resembles a thick styrofoam. If you are going to make an oversized sword with this material, it's usually a good idea to use a slab that's at least 1" thick. It's also a good idea to seal the surface of the foam somehow, either by coating it with bondo or fiberglass, or by gluing large sheets of thin styrene (ABS plastic) over it. Here is a good off-site tutorial which demonstrates how this material can be used to create a large, oversized weapon.

Foamcore Board (Pictured here) is a type of board that consists of two layers of posterboard with a stiff styrofoam sheet glued in between them. It's often used in kid's art projects and can be found selling at most craft and fine arts stores. Foamcore board usually is sold in sheets that are about 1/4" thick and 20" x 30" in size. If pink insulation foam is too thick and bulky to be used in a project, then foamcore board makes an ideal choice for your core material.


Wonderflex: This is a type of thermoplastic sheeting which is shaped with heat. Heating it is most commonly done using some sort of hot air heat gun (although a hair dryer on a high setting may work just as well.) This material can be molded over rounded objects quite easily and is great for making breastplates with female curves and shoulder pauldrons. One of its disadvantages is that it has a slight texture, although there are many ways you can try smoothing it out. Dani's Cosplaysupplies sells wonderflex and has some informative tutorials on how it can be used. I've also experimented with wonderflex, and have posted a tutorial on the site which explores using Friendly Plastic as a way to smooth out the texture of the material.

Friendly Plastic: This material is very similar to wonderflex, only it's not embedded in a sheet. Rather, it comes in two forms: sticks and pellets. Once heated, this material can either be sculpted into a shape, OR it can be used as a way to smooth out the texture of an object made from Wonderflex. It may be a bit more difficult to work with than polymer clay but its light weight and durability often make up for its shortcomings. Friendly Plastic is also available at Dani's Cosplaysupplies and at many fine art supply stores. (Make sure your supplier has fresh Friendly Plastic, as it tends to get brittle and more difficult to melt with age.)
Hot Glue Sticks: This is the most common type of adhesive I use and I find it works especially well for gluing craft foam to styrene plastic. Hotglue is also a useful means of decorating your armor. It takes a bit of practice to get a steady hand, but once you master working with hotglue you can create scrolls, ridges, leafs, stylized designs-- just about any kind of decoration on the surface of your armor. You'll have to experiment to see which brand and size of gluestick works best for you. (I generally prefer using full-size multi-temp hotglue sticks.) Hotglue can be expensive, so you'll want to sign up for your local craft store's mailing list to receive and take advantage of their big discount coupons.


Paint: The main types of paint that I use are enamel and acrylic. Each requires their own brushes and techniques --and not every paint is compatible with every surface you create. (Enamel will NOT dry on a polymer clay surface, for instance.) I'll go into in more detail about paint later on in the Painting section of this tutorial...

Buckles and Leather Strips: These are useful for making belts and straps for attaching your armor to your body. (If you want a cheap source for your leather strapping, go to a thrift store. The ones I go to sell belts for as low as 99 cents each.) As far as buckles go, you can find all styles and sizes at Tandy Leather (http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com. ) Don't forget to buy a rotating leather punch to punch out your buckleholes!


These are the basic materials I use, although there are many more I haven't mentioned that are related specifically to resin-casting, and more advanced prop and armor projects. I discuss these materials in depth in my book series and in certain projects in my Wordpress Cosplay Construction Site.

Here's a short list of additional materials that may be of use to you in your projects:


* Fabric Glue
* E-6000 Adhesive
* Wire (all gauges)
* Gems and Jewel Findings
* Velcro, Hooks, Eyes, Snaps
* Paper Mache
* Paper Clay
* Epoxy Putty
* Acrylic Gesso

Now that I've gotten our general rundown on tools and materials out of the way, it's time to discuss the hardest part of the prop and armormaking process: Making A Pattern