By: Red Bean, March 7, 2004
Since the launch of my website, I've received numerous emails asking me how my custom minifig accessories were made and whether I would be willing to share my 'secret' with the world. Well, to be honest, my 'secret' is no secret, really, because sculpting is something that anyone can do and learn; it just takes a lot of time and patience to master, that's all. I've been into hobby modelling for as long as I can remember, and making modifications to them has always been a passion of mine; with my minifig accessories, basically all I did was to apply what I've learned in hobby modelling into accessory sculpting. But to get you started on the right track (I'm going to treat you as a complete beginner in this art from this point on), I thought I'll introduce to you in this article my usual array of tools in making minifig accessories.
Firstly, there are all sorts of materials you can use to make your accessories out of. I use plasticine mostly nowadays, but although the result is good it is also complicated and often not easy to obtain; so for beginners I recommend sculpey. Sculpey comes in a variety of colors, and in its clay form and it can be molded into different sizes and shapes, which is just what you want in accessory making. However, there are a few things one should keep in mind regarding making accessories in Sculpey.
In general, it is very difficult to achieve smoothness in your sculpted piece; it is, however, not impossible, and with patience (lots of it) you too can get your sculpted piece to look as smooth and as Legoesque as an authentic Lego helmet. Whenever I sculpt with sculpey, I employ what I call a 'stages' process. This is best illustrated by an example:
Take a look at this viking helmet: to make it, the first thing I do is to make the clay into a round globe shape that fits onto a minifig's head. This will give you a correct shape of the stud to ensure that your helmet will fit. After this, smooth out the surface as best as you can, then blowdry it with a hairdryer until the piece is solid enough to be sanded. Do note, however, that blowdrying doesn't really solidify the sculpey (to do that, you have to either boil or bake the sculpey), but simply allows the surface of the sculpey to dry to a certain extent. The time it takes to blowdry also depends on weather and location. Back home in damp o'England, for instance, it takes forever... but I've also heard of other people using other means to achieve the similar effect, such as leaving it under the sun to bake for a few hours, though I've never tried this myself. But anyway, getting back to the sculpting process, after completing the globe shape of the helmet, you can move on to build the second layer, which is 'the rim part' (see diagram):
repeat drying and sanding process aftering 'the rim', then move on to the final stage by adding the rounded studs and you have your viking helmet. As you can imagine, sculpting can be (and indeed, it is) a painstakingly slow process, and sometimes the pieces might not be too stable; but the result is that you'll get an overall smoothness that is consistent throughout your model (which is hard to achieve if you build everything at once), and during the sanding process, you can also work on the symmetry of your model which I think is essential to getting a piece look Lego-esque.
For something like my swords, meanwhile, I employed another method which I called the 'skeletal' technique. Have you seen how giant ice sculptures are built? What they do is to first build a skeleton of the sculpture in metal wires, then they pile snow onto that metallic frame and the purpose of this is to help the snow stay in places. This same method can be applied to sulpting with sculpey, and it is particularly useful in doing tiny, narrow pieces. Most of my swords here, for instance, are actually sculpey wrapped around one or two toothpicks, popsicle sticks, or whatever I have lying around in the house. The downside of this process, however, is that you won't be able to 'cure' your sculpey with an oven or a pot of hot water because doing so will ruin whatever material you used as your 'skeleton', and your shape of your sculpted piece along with it. That's why for my prototype swords you never see my minifigs playing with them. They're just too fragile for anyone to take along into battle.
When sculpting something as small as minifig sword, it is also essential you have something that is small and sharp at your command because, unless you have hands of the size of a minifig, chances are they will be too crude to get any finer details into your sculpture. As for the exact tools to use, it is largely due to personal preference. The tools that I most commonly use are the sharp edges of an old butter knife and a set of paint scrapper that are easily available in any hobby store. Other stuffs that I find useful are a set of dental tools that I happen to have, and a set of Chinese sculpting knifes that I bought out of sheer curiosity when I was about 10. I have heard of other people using other weirder stuffs, but the bottom line is, whatever works for you, use it!
Sandpapers and files make up another essential part of my tools-of-trade. For files and sandpapers, I recommend getting them from a hobby store rather than a DIY shop because the ones from a DIY shop, despite being cheaper, I guarantee will be too rough on your sculptures. A general rule for sandpapers for this purpose is: the finer the better because, while it may take longer to sand, you'd be surprise how fast a rough sandpaper can ruin your sculpey.
As shown in the above picture, I find it a good idea to cut my sandpapers into smaller stripes because this will allow me to smooth out areas that are otherwise difficult to reach. When cut into stripes, however, do remember to label them at the back to avoid forgetting which is which.
It is also a good idea to cut your sandpapers into even smaller stripes and glue them onto popsicle sticks, small cylindrical rods, or whatever. This will allow you to not only sand tough-to-reach parts, but apply strength while doing so as well.
Having some epoxy putty can also be handy, because I find it easier than sculpey to spread out as a thin layer which is helpful when you want to patch up holes, chipped areas (from filing), etc. as the final touch to your sculpture. Just remember to paint over it in the end and no one will ever suspect!
Finally, a few words on mass producing the items you've created. To do this, you have a choice of making them in either resin or ABS plastic. For resin, go into relatively big hobby store as ask for a 'Beginner's Resin Kit', and follow the instruction on it. The knock on resin, however, is that quite often details will be lost from your sculpture to its resin duplicate; to avoid this, your only choice is to go with ABS plastic (which is the same material authenic Lego pieces are made of). It is a costly process (we're talking about several thousands US$ here) but the result will be professional-like. I'm somewhat of a perfectionist myself, which is why you'll NEVER see me offering any of my accessories in resin. The downside of this, of course, is that it'll likely be a very long time before I can save up enough money to cast any of my helmets and stuffs. If you want to speed up the process, you can always help by ordering some of my weapons, hehe.
Well, I hope to those who have an intention of becoming a serious customizer, the tips offered here will be somewhat helpful to you. Remember, if at first you don't succeed, keep trying! There's no short cut to learning sculpting, really, and I'm sure brilliant as Michaelangelo he didn't pick up his trade in just one day, or one year for that matter. If you're serious about making custom pieces, then be prepared to invest time (lots of it) into it!
Helpful Notes (I will continue to add to this section as questions from people like you continue to come in):
1. If you want your sculpture to come off a minifig with ease afterwards, the trick is to prepare your figure before sculpting. The best material that I know of is the tin foil of a Kit-Kat chocolate bar. What you need to do is wrap it one layer around whatever object you intend to sculpt on top of, such as the minifig head shown in the picture here:
You should then have no problem removing your sculpture from the minifig head afterwards.
2. Milliput puddy can come in extremely handy during the process of sculpting. If during the stages of drying and sanding small cracks appear in your sculpture ( which is quite normal), then all you have to do is apply a thin layer of puddy onto the cracked surface. As long as you paint your item afterwards it is virtually unnoticable!
3. When drilling holes, it is always easier to drill on hard clay than soft ones, for fear of twisting the entire item out of shape. So if you want to have a hole in your custom accessory, harden it first, then take a small drill to it (not your industrial ones from a DIY store, but a small, battery-powered one available in hobby modelling shop) and begin drilling. Here are a few more things to keep in mind when doing so:
A. Put sticking tapes on both side of the item before drilling. This will prevent your clay from crackling under the pressure of the drill. For this occasion, the stronger the tape, the better (Go into a DIY store and ask for the strongest type of sticking tape available).
B. Keep your hands steady, and make sure that the drill is parallel to the object and not slanted at a certain angle. If you made a mistake and realize it only afterwards, then the only remedy is to fill the hole with plasticine and try again after it dried up. Keep in mind though that the object may become extremely fragil after the first hole.
C. Make no mistake, using a hand drill is an extremely difficult process and most modellers don't actually try this until their skills are at a relatively advance stage. If you want to have a go at it, however, try making big holes at first to practice before you attempt a small one. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Finally, a question that I always get is 'I have followed your article and made some custom items of my own. How can I cast them into molds and mass produce them?' Well, if I had known, or if it is possible to do this at home, don't you think I would be offering ALL of my custom items for sale instead of just a selected few? I know there are methods out there (such as resin casting) which allow you to cast and produce items at home, but trust me, I've tried them all and the results are hardly satisfying (uneven edges, deformed shapes, hideous texture, etc.). If you are serious about mass producing an item in high quality ABS plastic, then the only way of doing it is to seek professional help. The process, in a nutshell, involves this: look up the name of a local plastic manufacturer in a phone book; talk to him/her, then send your custom objects to the factory for evaluation; pay to have your items turned into metal molds and then ABS plastic. The cost of the entire process can varies, and the more complex your design, the higher the cost. But be warned that even for the most simple design a metal mold will cost at least several thousand US dollars. You can phone up your local plastic factory and ask if you don't believe me.
4. Plasticard (also known as Styrene sheet) is another handy item to have around when sculpting custom accessories. These sheets of light, bendable plastic boards come in all sort of size and thickness, and can be made into shapes that are otherwise difficult to mold with clays. See the illustrations below to obtain a better idea:
Diagram 1. Cut the plasticard into desired shape with an exacto knife. Bend it around a head to get the correct shape of the contour. Then holding it in place with a pair of tweezer, blowdry it with a hairdryer (make sure you have a powerful one for this purpose!) until the plasticard softens to the stage that it can stay relatively in that shape by itself (note: not exactly in that shape, it may never come to that, just the relative shape will do). Next step!
Diagram 2. Simply sculpt on top of the plasticard with Sculpey or whatever material you prefer using. The plasticard should give you a very good shape to work with, and the sculpey, once hardened, should help the plasticard to stay in shape as well. Good luck!
Important: The use of plasticard is a difficult skill to master, it may take awhile for you to figure out all the little skills and tricks that can be involved in the process. If you want an easier method, then modification of existing pieces is the way to go. Simply cut up any old pieces that you may have lying around, and use them to give you an existing shape and sculpt on top of it. Also, although this tutorial is for making helmet only, the same methods shown here can be easily adapted to be used with any other objects. Just be creative and see what you can come up with.
Note: there is also a type of plasticard-softening liquid you can get from a hobby modelling shop which softens the plasticard to the extent that you can practically curl it around a round surface. It can, however, be rather difficult to control; so a hairdryer is recommended for beginners.