Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Apostle Altar--Tutorial

The Apostle Altar

The Apostle Altar Tutorial

The design of our production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead required an Apostle Altar with a fast trap set in it.  This production was set in a ruined parish church.

I designed the altar to be 6'-0" x 3'-0" x 2'-6".  The walls and top of the altar, as well as the pilasters, trim and arcade were built by the scene shop.  I was responsible for the "carvings".  I wanted each panel to have a single Apostle of the original 12 Apostles in it.  The names of each Apostle would appear under his figure.

Step #1--Bearding
I chose to "carve" the apostles out of G.I. Joe and Ken dolls or other eleven inch male action figures.  The first step in the process was to give the usually non-bearded action figures a beard.  The beards were sculpted out of hot glue.  I bearded all of the Apostles except for John the Beloved because he is usually depicted without a beard in Medieval paintings.

A few of the Ken dolls had fiber hair rather than molded plastic hair.  For these, I matted some of it down with hot glue.

Growing a beard on Peter

The hot glue, naked, bearded, G.I. Joe Apostles

Step #2--Sawing Usunder
In order to get the relief of the altar to appear as if it were carved from a single piece of stone, the action figures needed to be flat on the back.  This was done on a band saw.  I found that I only needed to shave off the back of the head the neck, the back and the buttocks of the action figures to achieve this look.

When using a band saw, be sure to use the blade guard, safety goggles and ear protection.  Also make sure your fingers are well away from the blade. 

The first cut is the cruelest

Shaving the buttocks

What the inside of a naked eleven inch action figure looks like

Step #3--Placement
There is a little artistry involved in placing the action figure Apostles.  Which Apostle goes where, how are they posed, etc...  Since Peter is traditionally the leader of the Apostles, I placed him in the front, flanked by James and John the Beloved.  On the end of the altar, as far to the left of Peter as possible, I placed Judas and cut him so his head would be turned away from all the other Apostles.  I also left off the halo on Judas.  The action figure I chose for Judas was one from one of the "Boy Bands" because I consider them to be a sin against Rock and Roll.  On the far right of Peter, I placed Doubting Thomas.

The figures are placed and fixed with hot glue.  When I did another project with action figures, I tried several different adhesives, including five minute epoxy and E-6000, but none of them worked as well or as fast as hot glue.  We glued the cut edges of the back of the figures and placed them, then posed their arms and hot glued them in place.

Gluing the cut edges of the action figures

Gluing the joints to freeze the figures in a pose

Front.  Peter is third from the left

Side on Peter's right

Side on Peter's left

Step #4--Dressing the Apostles
I got a scrap of wool tweed from the costume shop because I thought it would replicate stone in scale fairly well.  I think it did the job.

The wool is first cut in a trapezoid with the top being between three and four inches across.  The next step is to cut a V-shape where the neck of the garment would be.  After that, the garment is shaped around the arms and shoulders so it looks like a tunic.

Folds, creases and draping are then hot glued in place and the garment is fitted on the action figure.  At this point, you can determine how long the tunic needs to be, and if G.I. Joe's feet are going to show.

Once it is cut and glued to the correct shape, the garment is fixed in place with... Hot Glue!

For some of the action figures, I added a strip of cloth around the waist for a belt, others I added sleeves to and almost all of them got a head covering of some biblical sort.  These were all made with scraps of the original wool tweed

The shape of the tunic

With the V-neck

Engineering the folds with hot glue

The folds

Placing the tunic on Peter

Gluing the tunic on Peter

Peter with sleeves added

Adding the headwrap


The main side of the Apostle's Altar

Step #5--Mastic
Like many other prop projects, I like to paint a mastic over them.  I do this for several different reasons.  On the Apostle Altar, I used the mastic to stiffen the fabric so it could be painted to look like stone.  I also used mastic to give a uniform painting surface to the piece.  On the Apostle Altar I have several different surfaces.  I have blue polystyrene foam, luan, painted wood moulding, MDF, PVC, fabric and the plastic the G.I. Joes are made of.  These different surfaces needed to be primed with a common substrate so they would accept paint the same way.  That is why I use mastic.

We used Childers CP-10 Vi-Cryl mastic.

For the fabric, we thinned the mastic with water in order to get it to spread easier without moving the fabric too much.


Applying the mastic

The Apostles with mastic

Step #6--Bad Latin
I wanted the names of each of the Apostles to be inscribed in Latin below them.  I went to a free translation site on the internet and typed in each of the Apostle's names.  I got some of the Apostles names in latin and some in English.  I didn't check other sites, I just went with the first one.  I regretted that because it isn't consistent.  I'm one of very few people who will notice this fact during the play, but it will still bug me that I wasn't more thorough. 

I cut the bad Latin under each apostle with a soldering iron.  If you attempt to cut polystyrene foam with heat, be aware that anytime there is heat transfer of polystyrene you release Hydrogen Cyanide gas into the atmosphere.  Make sure you have proper ventilation when cutting foam in this way.  If you can smell it, you are being poisoned by it.

Inscribing the bad Latin

Step #7--The Paint Job
After the altar was primed, the scenic artists painted a base scumble with several different colors of paint.  It looked particoloured.  Then they painted a workup with Burnt Umber paint in a natural sea sponge.

At this point, I was bad and added another element.  I added halos to eleven of the twelve Apostles.  I used plastic shower curtain rings that I flattened on the belt sander and hot glued them into place.  I didn't put a halo on Judas for obvious reasons.

The painters went in and put mastic on the halos and based them and gave them a workup like the rest.  After that, several thin washes of Raw Umber were applied until the particolour was obscured but not lost.

The particoloured altar with workup

The altar with shower ring halos and the first washes of Raw Umber

Another view of the Apostle Altar.

This was a fun project to craft.  It was the work of many people.  The carpenters, the scenic artists, a few tech students and me.  I enjoy repurposing action figures to make something special like this.  I will craft with them again.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skeleton Hands

Skeleton Hand

Skeleton Hand Tutorial

I had an idea about a year ago to make a fully articulated, poseable skeleton hand.  I thought about it, did a prototype of a bone, thought about it a bit more, saved some parts and thought about it a bit more.  I finally created a prototype last week and felt gratified that it worked out well so I made it's brother last night.  This time I captured the whole process in photos.  Here is the odyssey.

One of the first steps in any project is the research.  I wished to have my hands be as accurate as possible, or at least as credible as possible.  I started with which is a haunt site with some really cool bone proportion calculators.  I also researched hand proportions and found the following, from  I added a few of my own lines and numbers.

Hand proportions diagram

The Skeleton of the Skeleton
I have crafted with clothes hangers for many years.  They are predictable.  I know what they can do and what they cannot do.  I chose clothes hangers to be the superstructure for the skeleton hands.  The toughest part about the superstructure was to design the wire placement to accommodate the carpals, the meta-carpals and phalanges. 

I printed several hands from the Zombietronix page and developed a wire map for the skeleton hand. 

Wire #1 diagram

Wire #2 diagram

Wire #3 diagram

Wire #4 diagram

Mini-wires diagram

The superstructure is made from 3 heavy guage wire coat hangers with the top cut off and straightened.  The next time I make these I will use non-coated coat hangers.  The rubberized coating got in the way sometimes and I had to strip it in places to get the bones to fit.

Cutting off the tops

No top


The next step is to bend the wires and begin attaching them to one another.  This is done entirely by bending.  No external fastener or adhesive is used in this process.  The parts are bent according to the drawings.  These can be made as large or as small as you wish, within reason.  I made my hands about the size of an NBA player.  They're scarier that way. 

The wires that make up the thumb and the middle digit extend to become the radius and ulna bones.  Don't cut them to length until you know how much of the arm you need for your project.  Cut them to length at the end of the project.

To attach the wires to each other, bend small circles with long nose pliers about the diameter of the wire where the wires would intersect on the drawing.  It's important to note that each circle twist takes about 3/4 of an inch of wire, so you must add that much length times how many twists you need for each wire.  That distance stays constant no matter if you are making small hands or large ones.

The thumb bend

Bending the loop

The loop

The middle digit wire inserted in the loop

The second loop around the first loop

The forefinger and the pinky finger wire

The loops.  Next time I'll make these loops going opposite directions, one vertical the other horizontal

More of the forefinger and pinky finger wire with loops

The next time I make this project I will make one of the loop bends on wire #3 vertical instead of both of them being horizontal.  I believe it will make a more stable platform.  As it was, when the final project was done, it was plenty stable.  It would just make it more stable in process.

Before you assemble any more of the armature, you need to create and install some of the carpal bones.  This part of the process is part superstructure and part finish work. 

The carpal bones are made from different size wooden beads with the handles of milk jugs melted onto them with a heat gun.  Make sure you get beads with big enough holes to string on wire coat hangers.

This project takes a lot of milk jugs.  You will need to save them up for awhile until you have enough.  Better yet, have all your sympathetic neighbors and relatives save them for you.  When I get a milk jug, I rinse it and immediately cut off the handle and recycle the rest.  No sense having a ton of milk jugs hanging around.  I store the handles in a box or bucket and build them up until I have enough.  Pretty painless actually.

The humble milk jug

Cutting the handle off

Melting part of the handle to a wooden bead with a heat gun

The gnarly carpal

The first carpal installed

More carpals.  Note the wire from the ring finger wraps around the wire for the middle finger

I'm not as concerned with the carpals being exactly anatomically accurate.  I just need some mass down there that looks kind of legitimate.  The meta-carpals and phalanges are what are going to give this project it's credibility.

When I put this together, I realized I had missed a bead, and so rather than taking it apart and putting it all together again, I added the naked bead on the lower wire as seen above and cut a section of milk jug out, then cut up the inner seam.  Then I wrapped it around not only the bead but also the upper wire.  When the milk jug gets to temp, it becomes transparent and sticky.  I like to have something to poke at it with to move it around when it is in that state.  In this case I used a modified seafood fork.  You can also scab sections of milk jug in areas and heat gun them in place.

Cutting along the inner seam of the milk jug.  (The pink handled scissors belong to my wife)

Wrapping the cut jug handle around the bead and the wire

Heat gunning it to death

The scab

The Bones
Making the bones is pretty simple really.  It's nothing more than heat shrinking the polyethylene plastic from the milk jug around a couple of beads.

I made a jig out of an intact hanger where I straightened the hook part out, then made a stand with the rest of it.  You can make a jig however you wish, I had a hanger on hand, that's what I used.

This is a good time to talk about the size of beads to use in the fingers.  As I look at the joints in my own hand, I see that some of the knuckles are larger than others, some of the joints are larger than others.  This is true from end to end of individual fingers and it is true from finger to finger. 

I put together a string of beads to show the graduation pattern that worked for me.

Graduation pattern for the beads.  The meta-carpal begins on the left and the small bead at the end is the end of the phalange

To make individual bones for the meta-carpals and all but the final stage of the phalanges, take a bead and place it on the jig.  Sleeve a section of milk jug handle over the bead and then add the second bead.  Understand that the plastic will shrink when heat is applied, so cut the milk jug handle longer than it needs to be.  The length of the plastic is something that has to be figured out by trial and error, unfortunately.

When applying the heat, first crimp one end of the bead, then the other.  After that apply heat as evenly as possible along the length of the bone.  I use a seafood fork to move the bone around on the jig.  The plastic will turn transparent when it reaches temperature and will begin to sink in in the middle of the bone.  Gravity also works on the semi-molten plastic and it will begin to deform.  At this point, remove the heat and grasp the end of the bead with the long nosed pliers and hold the other end in place with the seafood fork and pull to the desired length.  When the plastic turns white again, it has become rigid and can be moved and placed.  I'm impatient, so I usually blow on the plastic to try to cool it faster.  I don't know if it actually works, but it makes me feel better so I do it.

Placing the first bead

Trimming the milk jug handle

Placing the milk jug handle

Placing the second bead

Crimping the end with the heat gun, note the seafood fork

Crimping the other end with the heat gun and the seafood fork

Heating the middle, note how it's becoming transparent

Becoming transparent and sagging



The jig is really important, by the way because you need to line up the holes in the beads in order to sleeve them onto the phalange wires.  Which is the next step, by the way.

As you sleeve your bones onto the wires, pay attention to the length of the fingers.  The middle digit is the longest etc...  I paid attention to that moreso on the first hand and less so on the second hand.  The second hand still works, but it isn't as elegant as the first.  Keep that in mind as you bead the wires.  This really is just a beading project actually.

Start with the meta-carpals, then the first two joints of the phalanges.

Meta-carpals installed

First row of phalange joints installed

Second row of phalange joints installed

The last joint is also the device where the beading is held into place.  Take a small bead, place it on the end of the wire, then cut off the excess wire with the side-cut on the pliers.  Leave enough to bend over.  This will lock the bones on the end of the wire and it also gives the foundation for the final bones of the phalanges.

Take a small section of milk jug handle and place on the bead.  Heat crimp the plastic to the bead, then move the heat to the rest of the plastic.  When it becomes transparent, begin shaping and pressing the end of the plastic around the end of the wire.  Try to force some of the plastic inside the hook on the wire before it hardens.

Small bead

Trimming the wire

Bent wire

On the jig

Jug handle on the bead


Crimped and finished

Fill in the remaining holes in the wrist, the carpals with more covered beads and a strand of floral wire.  I don't have any photos of this step, but it's quite simple really.  Just fill in the holes.

I purchased a ten ounce package of wooden beads from Wal-Mart for $4.97.  I did a rough count and determined that within forty beads or so there were about 300 pieces.  That comes out to about 1.66 cents per bead.  This project takes about forty beads so it comes out to about 67 cents of total beadage per hand. 

I purchased a package of floral wire for $1.49.  It had 20 pieces.  I used one strand per hand.  That comes to 8 cents a hand for wire.  That comes to 75 cents out of pocket per hand.  Not bad eh? 

Wal-Mart Beads for $4.97

Floral wire from a craft store for $1.49

A pair of hands

This was a fun project to create.  Know that polyethylene plastic is very difficult to paint.  It rejects almost all paint.  There is a spray paint by Krylon especially formulated for painting on plastics.  I would recommend using that.

I have about four hours total time in these two hands.  I imagine if I made more of them I could knock that back to one hour per hand.