Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Materials I Use

I'm quite often asked (especially on YouTube) what materials I use, so the person asking can go right out and buy all the stuff at once. It's not really that simple. The materials I prefer may not be what someone else would choose, but I guess it's somewhere to start if you really have no idea about what you should get.

 I have used quite a few clays in my creative travels, but I didn't find a favourite until I came across Chavant, medium hard grade. This clay has been my mainstay, as well as the choice of many a sculptor in the FX business. But I have actually found something I like even more: Monster Maker's "Monster Clay". This stuff is very firm until you warm it, either by putting it in your microwave oven for a short while, or (as I do) by simply using a heat gun on it. You can melt it down to a puddle if you choose, and while it's soft you can slap together large rough shapes. As it cools you're able to work lots of minute detail into the clay, and you can handle your sculpture quite roughly without squashing it.

I use a variety of sculpting tools, but the ones I'm holding up here are my three most effective. The red one on the right is home-made, using an old brush handle and simple steel wire epoxied in place. I use this tool to work in both larger and smaller details. The middle tool has two hard rubber points, which are very useful for creating soft, but defined shapes. The larger loop tool to the left is used to smooth out the shapes made by the other two tools, and also to create larger shapes.
To soften the shapes further I put some Vaseline (petroleum jelly) on a finger, and rub it over the clay. I also have texture stamps made by applying latex or firm silicone rubber over surfaces with interesting textures, like bumpy plastic displays in cars or various fruit. I seldom use them nowadays, but these flexible texture stamps are a quick way to add interesting surface detail to your sculpture.

I use only really hard plaster, mostly some brand of dental stone. Hobby plaster will deteriorate very quickly, and if you plan to re-use your plaster moulds for new projects, you'll find that they won't hold up for very long. In short, buy your plaster from a dental supply shop, which is easy to find online. I keep all my plaster in a big plastic container, with a tight snap-on lid to keep dust and moisture out.

Latex can be considered a fairly primitive material now, but it's also one of the most reliable and cost-effective. I really should get on with using silicone for my puppets and masks, but I still find latex far more enjoyable and easy to work with. You can also find it at lots of places, from sculpture shops to hobby shops.
I often mix the latex with other materials, mostly cotton, to add volume. But it's important to remember to never add a cotton/latex mix to an area of the puppet which needs to be soft and bendable.


 For my puppet skeletons I only use aluminum wires of varying thickness. I have used advanced ball & socket metal armatures as well, but I often find them lacking in some aspect, mostly regarding movability. Aluminum wire allows you to bend your puppet's limbs in any direction, until the material covering the wire and padding the body can't be compressed any more, and starts to spring back.

To create the "bones" or the hard parts of the wire armature I use Friendly Plastic thermoplastic. This material is brilliant, and I've been using it for years for all sorts of things. I've made entire sword handles from it, as it's very sturdy. You melt these plastic strips with a heat gun, and if you have to re-do something, just melt the stuff again and again.

I pad the bodies of my puppets with the softest urethane foam I can find, which I simply collect from old cushions and mattresses. I piece together the foam bits using a brand of contact cement, which I believe is manufactured in Sweden. The Casco contact cement is yellow, smelly and dries to a strong flexible bond. It's perfect for puppet work, and I also use it for many other types of projects.
Master animator and puppet builder Jim Danforth recommends a brand called Pliobond.

This is my trusty Black & Decker heat gun. I've had it for over 10 years now, and it hasn't failed me yet. It's a real workhorse. I use it to quickly dry latex in a plaster mould, to dry paint, to soften the Monster Clay and melt the Friendly Plastic. It's an invaluable tool for me.

When I paint the rubber skins of my puppets and masks I use either latex tinted with Kryolan tinting powders or Universal tinting liquids, or I sponge on PAX paint; a mix of Prosaide make-up glue, and acrylic paints. There's a type of Prosaide formulated especially for making PAX, called No-Tack, which means it doesn't have the stickiness of normal Prosaide.
But when the base paint is dry I attack my subject with an airbrush, in my case the Iwata HP-C double action airbrush pen. I can't say if this model is still available, but it's another little tough guy, very precise and easy to clean. I use a small air compressor specifically made for airbrush work.

I've used a variety of airbrush inks. Right now I'm into the Liquitex line of airbrush acrylics. I only use airbrush paints that are water-based. Cleaning up your pen can be a real hassle otherwise.

Moving on to other materials, which I use for prop-making. I've found that the Dragon Skin FX-Pro silicone from SmoothOn is ideal for making soft, elastic moulds in which you cast plastic or plaster items. These moulds last forever, the materials are easily mixed on a 50/50 ratio, and the silicone sets up fast -within about 45 minutes you have a usable mould.
I've also made masks and puppet parts out of Dragon Skin FX-Pro, and there are many ways you can vary the softness of the silicone using additives. I can also recommend PlatSil Gel 10, which is another easy to use silicone ideal for both moulds and mask/puppet projects.

The material I use more than any other for casting props, fake jewellery, puppet armature skulls, etc, is SmoothOn's Smooth-Cast 325. It's another 50/50 ratio mix material, and it can be tinted with other SmoothOn products. Smooth-Cast 325 is ideal for "roto casting", which means that it sets on the inside of your silicone mould if you start to turn it. In other words, you can cast hollow objects of almost any size -from tiny puppet parts to big monster skulls. This plastic also sets very quickly.
Sometimes I use Smooth-Cast 65D, which is more elastic, and therefore able to take a bigger beating.

Are these material expensive, then? Well, the SmoothOn products cost a bit, but are worth every penny. The Monster Clay is also quite pricey, but other than that you won't have to spend an arm and a leg tooling up for your first puppet or mask project.

9 comments:

Kelston Hubler said...

This is cool!

I'm glad you talk about your materials, if someone wants to get into the art, they need advice!

I actually use hot glue as opposed to friendly plastic or epoxy. Not as effective, but works just as well. Also good for filling holes in the skin and making warts. I just tried casting yesterday, made the most detailed puppet ever! Your videos on that are awesome, thank you!

By the way, got my post up on my new kaiju flick: Kyoryu. Im looking for ideas!

Kelston Hubler

Richard Svensson said...

I saw the beginnings of your kaiju puppets -they're looking really nice! I think that when you start experimenting with sculpting and casting, you're really start to go places.

Kelston Hubler said...

Thank you for your comments!
Kyoryu's world and origins are still in development, but I can tell you this: many kaiju are based off obscure mythological creatures (for example, the Duah is a cryptid from Paupau, New Guinea). Can you give me any ideas?

Kelston Hubler

Richard Svensson said...

Good question! There are quite a few giant monsters in folklore and myth. I'll have to give that some thought.

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