I've been making costume props for between 4 and 5 years now because its fun, larger and more craft based than fiddly little models and the ladies love it (one of these statements may or may not be true). I always feel more like I'm actually making something with props than I do with Warhammer or ridiculously pricy Japanese fighting robot kits and it is this distinctly pleasurable sensation that keeps me coming back to the hobby. Here are some of the more recent fruits of my labour:
As you can see I've made a few bits and pieces over the years; I've made my fair share of mistakes, burned, cut, sanded and drilled myself more times than I can count (I would not for example recommend impaling your finger with a hobby drill, it hurts alot) and spent many a sleepless night desperately trying to finish off things that I've left to late. I have learned from these experiences and intend to help you avoid them.
Tools of the TradeHere are the tools I most frequently use when making props:
- A Stanley knife for cutting craft materials.
- A hot glue gun for sticking things together. It's important to note that hot glue is very hot and will burn you. Remember often less is more and excess glue can cause tiny spider web strands to form on and around your prop which are a total pain.
- An engineer's rule for measuring and a number of other things. These are indespensable as they are accurate, strong and hot glue does not stick to them very well. This meanst that you can use your rule to spread out hot glue without risking burns.
- A mechanical pencil with 0.5 or 0.7mm diameter graphite leads. These are great because pencil rubs off easily to remove mistakes and they have a set lead width unlike standard sharpened pencils which assures consistant accuracy.
Having a Plan
One of the most important parts of making props is planning, never before has the old adage "measure twice cut once" been more apt than here. If you want to research a particular character's weapon it's worth trying to find out if it's based on an actual piece of period weaponry. Wikipedia is great for this kind of thing. Also search websites like Cosplay Island and see if you can crib some notes off of people who may have tried to make that particular prop before. The Gibson Les Paul pictured above is based on a cutting guide I printed off the internet after googling around for literally 10 minutes.
Another great source of inspiration for prop measurements is action figures. If you can get your hands on a reasonably well scaled figure version of the character you want to cosplay there is a simple trick you can use to work out all the measurements you need for your prop. All you have to do is divide your height by the height of the action figure (both in cm) and that gives you a scaling ratio. You can then multiply the dimentions of any prop that comes with said figure by that ratio to scale it up to your size. For example for the cosplay to the right I based the gun and the breasplate design on scaled up versions of the action figure to the left with moderate success.
If no action figures or easily printable templates are forthcoming fear not! Just grab a pen and some scrap paper and scribble out some rough sketches/ diagrams of the item you want to make and try to build up in your head how it's going to fit together. How will you strengthen it? where might it flex? which parts of it might need extra support. These aren't meant to be detailed schematics so just let loose and get some rough measurements down.
The next stage on from roughly sketching out/ drawing your prop is scaling it up as a rough draft. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is using templates made out of thin cardboard, about the same thickness as a birthday card. You can buy this in sheets online but I have always made mine out of old cereal boxes, dividers on the inside of packaging and just about anything else I can get my hands on. Once again these templates are intended to help you get an idea for how your prop is going to fit together. Card is cheap and easy to find so its easy to go though plenty of revisions.
Use your sketches, an engineer's rule and a mechanical pencil to sketch a rough 2D version of all or part of your prop then cut it out. You can even attach various parts together with tape to make a full 3D draft of the piece. Don't expect to get things right first time; template drafting is supposed to be a gradual, creative process and making mistakes are all part of the development of your prop.
So now you've got templates made for all the parts of your prop and your ready to make it. For example lets say your making a samurai sword like I did last week. you know roughly what it looks like from the anime:
You've researched it and discovered that Katanas are always at least 60cm long and that the blade should extend into the hilt to balance and strengthen it. You've also seen that the blade you want to make (based on one of Mifune's from Soul Eater) is only slightly curved. You've also made 4 templates, one of which is just the right curvature. All you need is a strong but light construction material. The best thing to use for straight, flat props like swords and guns is Styrene sheet (AKA plasticard) which I buy from Station Road Baseboards, a UK based company which usually delivers very fast. 1mm to 0.7mm thick is what I tend to use unless it needs to bend around something.
Start by bluetacking your template to the plasticard and drawing around it, if your template is too long for the plastic just tape two pieces together:
then carefully cut around the outline with your stanley knife:
these two pieces make up the two halves of your sword (this approach works well for any single edged blade). The line drawn down them indicates where the cutting edge of the blade starts. Now we need some 0.6cm dowel which you can buy from any high street DIY store. The dowel is used to form a backbone for the sword. It's too flexible as a single rod but the magic of physics results in a massive increase in strength and sturdyness once two dowels are taped together by wrapping them in selotape. Now hot glue the dowel backbone close to the back of the blade (but not right on its back edge)
You'll notice that the backbone is not one continuous piece of doubled up dowel and it does not extend to the tip of the plasticard, this helps it conform to the curve of the blade and allows it to form a sharp looking tip. The blade is also gaffer taped together along the first 15cm to prevent the two halves from connecting unevenly. Now score but don't cut along the second line on the outside of the blade. This will allow the plasticard to flex where the cutting edge starts, creating a realistic looking diagonal that gradually sweeps into the point.
once scored, simply wrap the unglued side of the blade around onto the dowel and (once you're sure both sides line up) glue it in place along the backbone. Then to seal the cutting edge of the blade apply hot glue liberally on the inside of the sword and spread it along one side edge where the two diagonal pieces meet with the flat end of your engineer's rule in sections; holding the outside of the blade till you feel it cool as you go. Finally glue the tips of the sections together and back the blade with a thin strip of plasticard; you can use a 0.8cm strip and cut off the excess from the pointy end using your stanley knife.
So that covers making the blade. Next week we'll go into making the hilt,cover some finishing tips and talk about spray painting and decal paper. Also: how to make your props convention safe.
Stay Crunchy Internet