Friday, May 27, 2011

Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet (pt. 1) WIP

As I mentioned in my post, Steampunk Phonograph (pt. 1), I am making a series of props for a live action role playing game to be run at Origins 2011. This project is also for that larp, and it is a work in progress.

I start a lot of projects in which I have only the vaguest idea of how I am going to accomplish them. I use a lot of experimental methods (experimental for me at least). I like branching out into new techniques and media. Most of the time those experiments go very well, and I happily end up with a very nice project and a new arrow in my crafting quiver. But sometimes,  ...not so much.

This particular project started off with a string of failures. Or, like T. Edison would say, I found about a half dozen ways not to make a diving helmet. Most of the failed methods came up while I was working on the air tanks that will be attached to the back of the helmet. Oh, BTW, although it's modeled off of an old time metal diving helmet, this is actually a space helmet, hence the steampunk part. Let's take a look at some of the less than successful attempts I made in the early going.

From the very beginning I had the idea to use two liter soda bottles for air tanks. I figured they would be very quick and easy and super cheap. Well, I got one out of three right. The problem came in when I tried to rectify two defects that the plastic bottles have. One, they have a funky shaped bottom, and I wanted a rounded bottom. Two, they are thin walled and easily squished. I wanted them to be more rigid.

My first attempt to round out the bottom of the bottle involved using papier-mâché. I tried to make a papier-mâché cap that would fit over the existing bottom. It needed to fit snugly, so I had to find a ball or other round smooth object that is the exact same diameter as the bottle. But I couldn't find one. So I wrapped a sheet of paper around a bottle to get the diameter right, then I inflated a balloon to match the diameter and stuck in at the end. It didn't want to stay put, so I tried to tape it in place. This setup was far from ideal. 

I don't do much with papier-mâché because, well, I kind of suck at it, as you can see. This piece of crap took about two days to dry, and was completely unusable. Time for a new plan. 

My second idea was to round off the bottom with clay and then papier-mâché over that. I'm not really much better at sculpting clay than I am at papier-mâché. While the clay did work, it used a lot of clay and made the end of the bottle very heavy. I kept it as a back up plan, but in my heart I knew I needed to find something else. 

My third attempt to round out the ends involved a relatively new material for me, rigid polyurethane foam. Again I wrapped the bottle in paper (waxed paper as a release agent, and then office paper for support). Then I poured the foam inside the paper cylinder over the end of the bottle. When the foam hardened, I removed the paper.

I used a cheese grater type hand rasp to shape the foam into a rounded end. While the foam is closed celled and forms a hard skin on the outer edge, by sanding it down, I was going to get a very rough and porous surface that would need coated with something, possibly resin, or spackle, or body putty. 

I liked the way this one turned out, and I figured that I would solve my smoothness problem with a coating of fiberglass resin. You see, by this time, I had already had several failures on my second criteria, that being the whole "rigid" issue, which led me to the idea of coating the whole bottle in fiberglass. But first, here are some of the other ideas I had for making the bottle rigid that didn't work out so well. 

My first idea to make the bottle rigid was a really stupid one. I thought I could keep the bottle under pressure. I considered putting a small amount of water (maybe an ounce) inside and then dropping in a seltzer tablet and capping it off. After some reflection, I decided that even if by some miracle I guessed the amount of water and size of the seltzer tablet perfectly, the whole thing would be very dangerous. This is basically the makings of a crude bomb. Not something you want to wear as part of a costume prop. In a sad testament to my thick headedness, in the end it was not the explosive potential that dissuaded me from this design, but the idea of having a little liquid sloshing around in the bottom of the tanks.

Not content to let the pressure idea well enough alone, I then tried to inflate a balloon inside the bottle. Not as easy as it sounds. The difficulty of the task ended those experiments fairly early (OK, and maybe I was starting to realize that a bottle under pressure was a bad idea). 

Up next,  I once again turned to the rigid foam. I mixed up a batch, thinking it was more than enough, and did a slush coating of the interior of the bottle. Unfortunately, it was not more than enough. The coating was too thin and spotty and its thinness caused it to be too brittle. 

This idea probably would have worked, and may have been my best (or at least simplest) design, but the amount of foam it would have taken gave me pause. You see, I'm cheap, and the foam is not. I have practically no budget for this project, as it is basically a lark and not going to net me anything beyond about four hours of enjoyment at a LARP. I winced at the amount of foam needed and so I decided to shelve this experiment and explore other options. In hind sight, if I had just bit the bullet and went forward with this plan, I probably would not have used any more foam than I wasted in other experiments. 

By this time I had spend probably a week or more futzing around with the bottles so far. Which brings me to the aforementioned fiberglass. Since I was having trouble shoring up the walls from the inside, I thought about forming a rigid coating on the outside. It should be noted that previously, I had only ever used fiberglass on one other project, and while that project was successful, it was far from pretty. Fiberglass is messy and difficult to work with (imho). Fiberglass matting is a hairy unruly mess to work with. Fiberglass cloth is a bit easier to work with, but is more expensive. 

So here's where my mind does some contortionist maneuvers that make the pressurized bottle design look sane. I have three quite large rolls of fiberglass matting that have been sitting in my basement for almost 20 years, doing nothing. Only used once. Lots of it. Already paid for. That was made specifically for this process. Sitting idle. For 20 years. I know this. I did not forget about them. Yet, instead of rejoicing that some finding from the junk store, purchased (albeit for a pittance) without clear intent or imminent need and squirreled away untouched through two decades and three moves, was finally going to find its purpose, I declined to use them. Instead, I looked for a cheap alternative to glass fiber of any kind.

I theorized that cheesecloth was cheap, thin, lightweight, and relatively easy to work with. It should make for an economical alternative to glass cloth. Mind you, I had to purchase cheesecloth for this project, cheap as it was. But in my mind, it was going to be worth it not to have to deal with the glass fiber mat. I did a little digging and found one artist who used the stuff with fiberglass resin to make sculptures, but didn't mention much about the precess. I posted a thread on the RPF, and basically got a bunch of people telling me that cheesecloth was going to be vastly inferior to glass. But I soldiered on. I'm an idiot. 

My first attempt to coat the bottle with fiberglass did not go so smoothly. In my mind, I imagined that it would be just like wrapping a gauze bandage in a spiral down a tacky barber pole. In reality, it was more like trying to paint a hair net with hot caramel. I pre-cut the cheesecloth into three inch strips and coated the outside of the bottle with fiberglass (polyester) resin. I barely got the first strip to wrap around, and it had massive holes in its coverage. Clearly I needed another coat, and possibly another tactic. 

The cheesecloth was stringy and flimsy and clingy and it did not want to behave while I applied it. So, I tried to make the cheesecloth a little easier to work with by starching it. Though it did make the cheesecloth easier to handle, this alone would not be enough to alleviate my difficulties. 

On my second bottle, I decided to try coating the bottle with spray glue and then wrapping it with cheesecloth before applying the resin. Brilliant! The cheesecloth went on just like I imagined it would. Easy as pie.

Working on both bottles at once, I moved to putting the second coat of cloth and resin on the first bottle. The second coat ended up going on a little smoother (probably due to having gained a little practice), but after it was dry I started to question if this was even the right path to be taking. The surface was very uneven and was going to take a LOT of sanding and putty to smooth out. It was barely even recognizable as the bottle who's shape I liked enough to use from the beginning. Without ever putting resin on the second bottle that I covered so nicely with glue and cloth, I set aside the fiberglass design and went back to the drawing board. 

I wanted to go back to shoring up the walls from the inside, in order to preserve the smooth clean outside of the bottle. I postulated that it was the narrow neck of  the bottle that was holding me back. If I had a larger opening, it should be easy to fit something inside that would make the walls rigid. I had thought of putting reinforcement bands with big rivets (fake) around the bottles for decoration. One of these would easily hide a seam, so I decided to cut the bottom of the bottle off. A fresh bottle, mind you. Which means that I will have to foam the bottoms all over again. C'est la guerre.

My plan now, was to cut a piece of chipboard to the exact size of the inner diameter of the bottle, allowing it to press firmly against the inside walls when inserted with the edges butted up snugly against each other. The chipboard is nice and stiff and about 1.5mm thick. Its edges would act like a keystone in an arch. This should allow very little room for malformation when pressure is applied to the sides of the bottle, but the fit would have to be very snug. I used a strip of paper to measure the exact inner diameter of the bottle. Some adjustment needed to be made to compensate for the difference in thickness between the paper and the chipboard. I didn't expect that to affect the length measurement, but it did, significantly. Anyways, I got lucky with the measurements and the technique worked perfectly on the first try.

 I did a test fit first, to make sure everything was OK, then I coated the chipboard with white glue and slid it into place. I left about a centimeter hanging out past the edge of the cut bottle, to create a flange for reattaching the bottom.

Of course the chipboard didn't fit past the curved end of the bottle neck. At first I thought the plastic in this area was thick enough and didn't need to be stiffened, but later I decided it did. So, back out with more foam. I gave it a much thicker coating this time, but I tried everything I could to minimize the amount of foam used (as best as I could, anyway).

Then, wouldn't you know it, I decided that though the sides were much stiffer, but they still needed more reinforcement. I cut out several disks from corrugated cardboard and glued them in as reinforcing bulkheads. This should make the bottle damn near squish proof. 

Next, as I mentioned, I had to re-do the foam on the bottoms. As unnecessarily complicated as this design seems to be, it is the final design, and the one that I used for the prop.

Since the bottoms were not going to be fiberglassed, they still needed something to smooth them out. Enter Bondo, car body filler putty. This is the first time I have ever worked with body putty. It was actually not that hard to use. However, to get a nice smooth surface, it requires lots of sanding, and re-applying, and then more sanding, and then a primer coat, then more sanding, then re-applying, then more sanding, and then more primer, and then more sanding....

Finally, they had the shape and rigidity I wanted. At last I was able to give both bottles a primer coat of flat black, then paint them in a nice metallic copper. 

The finishing details for these bottles will be the brass riveted bands. The bands themselves were cut out of chipboard, sealed with Mod Podge, and painted gold (brass).

To make the rivets, I found a nice rounded wooden "plug" that was the right size. These are normally used to plug the countersunk screw holes in wooden furniture. I stuck one on the end of a screw, to make a handle, then coated it in melted wax, letting it sink into the pours, and polished it smooth. This would serve to smooth out the surface, and act as a release agent. Then I pressed it into some rolled out plasticine clay to make a temporary mold for casting with urethane resin.

Of course, I momentarily forgot about my trick for using a light coat of spray paint as a mold release on plasticine clay molds. Because of my laps, I had a lot of clay stuck to the cast pieces that needed to be scrubbed off. You can bet I'll remember next time. 

 These bottles are now almost finished. The bands and rivets will not be applied for a bit yet, so that I know how to place them in relation to how the bottles will be attached to the helmet. They should be ready to view by the next post. 

Until then...

See Also:
Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet (pt.2)
Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet (pt.3)
Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet (pt.4)
Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet (pt.5)
Steampunk Diving (Space) Helmet Full Costume


  1. Another quickie "rivet" is to take a "googly eye", tack it down and paint over it. It looks suprisingly good.

  2. True. But then they would rattle, and that would bug the shit out of me.

    1. If you inject cheap white school glue through the backing into the "eye", no more rattle. You only need enough to get the "pupil" to stick to it and not move (and allow it to dry more quickly), so you don't even have to fill the eye, though you can if you want to. :)