Part One: The Whooters of Purgatory

Last modified:
Sunday, November 17, 2002 5:01 PM


11/16/02- What a low-rent little planet we live on that only gives us 24 hours per day. Sheesh. You're supposed to eat, sleep, work, watch 180+ minutes of Doctor Who videos and take care of everything else in mere 24 hour increments? Now that we've finally reached The Future, we're supposed to have robot slaves and abundant leisure time to make up for this deficiency, so that we can tool around the domed cities with our levitation packs and watch Doctor Who videos. They lied. And because of this betrayal, I've had to cut my Doctor Who watching time in half just so I could begin testing some techniques for my next customizing project. Given the current influences -- not Doctor Who, but the Renaissance Festival -- it's about armour. The heavy metal kind of armour. I'd been shortcutting in recent projects by doing it in other ways: through leather, chrome paint & simple metal shapes. Anything to avoid Electroforming. Remember that? Nooooo, not Electroforming!!! Horrible, tedious stuff. A revived interest in real armour has pointed me at that path again and I guess I've recovered enough from the last traumatic experience to begin considering it again. Polishing "Generic Fantasy Warrior's" armour is what really convinced me: For the metallic shine, chrome paint and SnJ faux metallic finishing kits don't really get ya there.

That's not to say that electroforming gives the best results-- Nickel plating isn't quite the color and texture of steel armour. Pieces look more like they were produced by a casting process. When highly polished, it tends to look like vac-metalized plastic (which it's similar to, and which I think looks pretty cheesy). For obvious reasons, banging the armour out of steel (like Cotswold's armour) would give the most authentic finish, including the need to keep it polished with oil to ward off rust. I don't consider that a good feature of steel; handling removes the oily protective barrier, so ongoing maintenance is required, just like it is with real armour. From an efficiency angle though, it's much easier for me to sculpt a shape than it would be for me to bang it out in metal-- believe me, I've tried. It's that blasted 24-hour day of ours again. Still, it's something that I would like to try in earnest when the website settles into the once-every-six-months update pattern.

Before starting such a figure project, I needed to refamiliarize myself with the technique. Although I've recently used the equipment for small electroplating jobs, I hadn't done any electroforming in a long time. To refresh your memory: Plating is easy-- you start with a conductive object and in a matter of minutes in the plating bath, a thin layer of the plating metal is deposited. A little bit of polish and it looks spiffy.

Electroforming is much more involved: You start with a non-conductive surface, coat it with conductive paint and over a period of many hours, build up a self-supporting copper layer by electrochemical deposition. Unfortunately, it doesn't end there: (Speaking as a tyro...) The deposited layer will more than likely be of variable thickness with a granular finish, and possibly a few spots which didn't plate. The voids can be fixed by more plating, but after that comes the ugly part: Metal simply isn't as easy to finish as putty or styrene. Sure, you can use a high abrasion power tool to quickly grind down a metal surface, but in this case-- because we're dealing with a relatively thin layer of unknown thickness-- you run the risk of grinding through the deposited layer, down to the substrate. When that happens (without much warning), you're screwed. So the less abrasive and slower method is a safer choice-- power polishing. Lots of it, with fine grit abrasives on a felt pad. Polishing a single small part like a shoulder piece can take, depending on the quality you're chasing, from 15 minutes to an hour with a Dremel running at full tilt. Felt pads need frequent replacing too. It's a dirty job which requires eye protection and a dust mask. Heat builds up very quickly, so you need to keep moving to polish different areas and let the hot areas cool down.

For all this punishment, your reward is seeing the polished surface eventually peek through the blackened polishing rouge. It's a near-miraculous sight because the finish is so radically transformed in texture and coloration, and you're so damned tired of polishing.

For my refamiliarization exercise, I tackled "Queen Dragon Momma's" armoured parts. These had been targeted for the treatment before, but Electroforming Trauma was overwhelming and I couldn't convince myself that it was worth it. Even now-- still wary of the horrors of electroforming, I did first try to polish her SnJ paint-and-polish armour. I soon realized that it would always look like metallic paint... and her ample cups demanded to be transformed into shiny metallic hootered armour.

I didn't get very far in the refamiliarization before I figured out a very important and rarely-mentioned thing about electroforming: Electroconductive paint has a limited shelf life. At the tail end of my first electroforming stint, I'd wondered why it had gotten harder to electroform stuff. I started getting thin and spotty coatings-- I was thinking that my chemical baths had gotten contaminated, or that I wasn't laying on the copper paint thick enough. Since I hadn't done any electroforming in quite a while, I'd forgotten about this. But now, having attempted to revive the old electroconductive paint, I decided to test the surface coating with a Volt Ohm Meter: Infinity... In case you're not familiar with this stuff: That's bad news. Infinity means a lot of resistance, and no conductance. You want less than zero (on an uncalibrated VOM) or near zero ohms of resistance, and you should be able to measure this between your lead wire and any point on the surface to be electroformed. My guess is that the conductive particles in the paint begin to oxidize once you've opened the bottle, and conceivably this could change the conductive properties of the paint. In other words, toss out the old shit and get some new stuff. Being in a somewhat extravagant mood (not really) and wanting to be sure I got the best conductivity I could afford (true), this time I bought silver conductive paint ("Silver Print", from MG Chemicals), which is normally used to fix or alter circuit boards. Expensive stuff, but it comes in a small half-ounce bottle so I'm sure that it'll get used up before it dies (How's that for a silver lining?). Yes, silver tarnishes too (about 3 months?), but I didn't run across any gold conductive paint. Actually, the much cheaper nickel paint might have worked just fine.

The paint was very thick but thinned well with lacquer thinner. With near zero ohms of resistance, the silver paint electroformed easily, except for trial & error uncertainties about setting the correct ampere on the rectifier. Some pieces came out with areas of granule clusters (overamped, I think), so quite a bit of cleanup was necessary (as usual). The polishing process was every bit as painful as mentioned above, but thankfully these were fairly small pieces and doing all four pieces took a total of about 4-5 hours, in addition to the electroforming time (about 4 hours). It's foolish to torture yourself, but you can't help but think about how long the process takes compared to spray painting.

Once the pieces were polished, they were ready for a quick bath of nickel electroplate, light polishing, and finally, a quick session of gold brush plating. The intermediate nickel plate is applied as a "basecoat" for the gold. Being a bright silver color, nickel is easily tinted by a thin plating of gold: The gold plating would probably be overwhelmed by the electroformed copper's reddish coloration.

Brush/pen plating is alternate to tank/bath plating. I think that gold is expensive to do in a bath, even though those plating solutions are less concentrated. With brush plating, the anode and electrolyte bath combine function in the form of a felt-tipped pen/brush, saturated with concentrated gold electrolyte. This is used to "paint" the plating on the surface. This lets you be very specific about where it's applied so that none gets wasted where it's not needed.

So yeah... the Electroforming avenue is available, if I decide to go that route. At this time, I don't know exactly what the project is going to be, beyond the very general notion of "armour". I have some specific ideas, but it's probably wise not to ramble about that just yet. It's wrong to promise people flying cars when all you can deliver are gas-guzzling SUVs and traffic-choked highways...


(Hmmmm... could it be the beginnings of an armoured condom???)


Part 2