HAMMERED METAL

Last modified:
Monday, March 10, 2003 4:35 PM

 

"If you drink Budweiser after Duvel, the natural cardboardish flavor of Budweiser will be revealed."

...ya knew it was a matter of time, right?

-02/09/03

 

hammered metal armor doll

02/15/03- That's right, because it takes time when you have to deal with bullshit! I might have shown the armour on the figure that it was being developed for, but I was pissed. I couldn't make the stinkin' figure stand! I can't believe I attempted to be diplomatic in my "BBI Perfect Body" review... the doll is a piece of shit. You can barely pose the thing with it's farked up click-stop legs that must remain spread apart; on top of that, the damn thing falls over when you finally think you've got a stable pose! Well, maybe metal armour is a bit too much for the figure. So I had to fix the figure, something I'd hoped wasn't necessary...I do give second chances, y'know? If they'd just make good figures, I wouldn't have to go through that kinda unnecessary time-wasting crap. Is that asking too much?

See? I told you I was pissed.

Well, not severely. I was kinda flush with the success I'd had with making the metal armour for my previous project, "Generic Red Demoness". I'd made this breastplate during the experimental phase of that project but didn't want to use it on her since I'd already done the work to show lots of skin; only an idjit would do that and then cover it up with a suit of plate armour. So here we are. This wasn't going to be about the figure, but the armour...

Even though I've previously made armour out of painted and metal plated styrene, hammered metal armour is something I've wanted to do for a long time: I've tried before and failed. It's a matter of authenticity. In certain cases, the closer you get to doing it the way it's done in 1:1, the closer you can come to capturing the elusive quality of authenticity. Plated styrene's been an acceptable solution for recreating the shine of metal that you can't get with paint... but it still wasn't quite right. The result can look similar to a casting process and it's very tempting to create details which would be unrealistic for metal-forming techniques. Oddly, when done too perfectly with a highly polished finish, it tends to look cheap, like vac-metalized plastic... Although I can't be accused of doing it too perfectly, my results seemed to be missing something that's hard to put into words.

Another difference is that electroformed metal is more brittle and lacks the resilience of sheet metal. This is relevant if you're making parts which will be subject to some bending and rely on springing back into shape. That's the case with the breastplate, which stays in place tight and secure with the excess metal bent around the back, but is still removeable. I'd be hesitant to try that with electroformed armour.

Above all though, metal is immediate and accessible. You can refine the shaping indefinitely, and the results are immediate. There are no intermediate steps in the process that force you to go back to the beginning and resculpt, or remake thermoformed shells. It's accessible because it's dirt cheap-- there are few required tools that can't be made or scrounged. It depends on your determination and persistence.

Maybe it's just psychological-- the technique of hammering metal just makes it seem more authentic, especially if you leave it with the kewl hammer planished texture. At any rate, it's good to explore new techniques. I should say though that this isn't exactly the fulfillment of my desire to make 1:6 armour the manly way they make 1:1 armour: I used copper instead of steel. But it's another step closer.

The secret to making metal 1:6 armour is..."bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam..." (hammer away until you're happy or give up in disgust.) That's not far from the truth. You could say that it's a form of sculpting, in that you're using your tools to shape a material. As such, it's difficult to talk about since the shaping process is either transparent or opaque, depending on your natural inclination for things like that. You have to recognize what needs to be worked, and how you should approach it. However, shaping metal is quite different from shaping clay, wood, stone or plastic, due to the properties of a sheet of metal. You don't push it around with a burnisher or chisel off chunks. You make shapes by bending. stretching and perhaps compressing the metal. More than the other forms of sculpting, the metal shaping process relies on many tools and your selection of the proper one to do the job.

The good news is that the tools are cheap... the main tool is a hammer. The not-so-good news is that, besides the hammer, you have to decide what other tools you need, and buy, scrounge or make 'em. These are things like forms and stakes... they're hard shapes (wood, steel, whatever) that you can use to pound the metal against to create curvatures, dishes and creases. The particulars of the situation determine which shape you use and whether you pound from inside or outside. Dishing, to make domes, is usually done from the inside against a circular depression; but you may need to pound from the outside against a rounded-tipped stake to refine the shape. Sometimes you need only a section of a curvature, so you use an appropriate section of a form to create it. As you create shapes, you may close off and limit access to areas which might usually be shaped with a particular form, but which now can't be used-- you have to find an alternate tool to do the job. This is all guided by the sense of which shape you need to do the next bit of forming; you can either scrounge around for the appropriate shape, or you can create one out of wood. My feeling is that an anvil isn't essential since you rarely need flat shapes, and there are plenty of alternatives for flattening creases and creating edges. But don't mistake me for an authority on this: I've read some stuff, but most of what I know about the hammering process is based on common sense and was figured out as I've gone along. There are a number of articles on the Internet about making 1:1 armour which may be helpful and are authoritative.

Besides the basic tools I mentioned, there's another aspect to this which is very important: You've only got two hands. One hand will be holding the hammer, and the other can be holding either the work or the shaping form. A simple dishing operation isn't a problem since the form rests on the ground. However, thin stakes require some kind of support-- for 1:6 work, a substantial vise is very useful.

hammered metal armor dollBecause 1:6 stuff is small, there's a limit on how finely you can shape things. It's very difficult to precisely place a hammer blow when making 1:6 fluting, for example. You could solve that problem by striking a precisely placed chisel, but if you do the math, you'll see that you need one more hand to do this and support your work. Vises don't do a great job holding this kind of work in place because of all the curves that you've gradually pounded in: There are few places for a flat gripping jaw to securely grab the work. I thought about this problem and knew the tool I wanted; then searched the Internet to see if anyone made such a tool. Bingo. I'm hoping to solve this problem by using a hammer handpiece; I've splurged on a Foredom rig (my Dremel is dying anyway, and I've always wanted lower RPMs for plastics and foot-controlled speed), so hopefully that will take care of it. If not, so what? (FWIW, buying tools can be more exciting than buying figures.)

The metal is another important ingredient...duh! Obviously, copper and steel look different, but they also differ in their hardness, which affects how easy they are to form by hammer. For medieval-style armour, you'd probably want to use steel because that's what the 1:1 stuff is made of-- it looks right. Steel's a relatively hard metal, which explains its use in armour, but that's part of the reason I didn't try it: I'm a newbie at this, so I preferred a metal which improved my chances of success, figuring that I could tackle the manly stuff-- along with hot flames and annealing if necessary -- maybe as a future challenge. Baby steps, y'know? Besides, I have a bunch of heavy copper sheeting on hand, and I'd have to scavenge steel scraps. I'll probably nickel-plate some samples to see how that looks and stands up to wear.

The thickness of the metal is an important consideration too. In the case of dolls, we don't care about the protective value of the armour's thickness. However, we would like for the metal to be fairly easy to work with and yet hold its shape against normal handling damage. If the metal's too thin, broad sheet sections will easily deform, crease, or dent with moderate handling. Craft tooling foil isn't really thick enough for breastplates in 1:6, but may work for smaller areas. Tooling foil's also not thick enough to survive repeated heavy hammerwork. When shaping metal with a hammer-- say, dishing a dome shape-- you're forcing the flat sheet of metal to stretch and bend. The stretching makes the metal thinner. If you don't start with a thick enough sheet, the metal is likely to stretch too thin and may crack or split open. Been there, done that.

hammered metal armor dollAn advanced technique, called "raising", provides an alternate way to hammer-form metal without creating thin spots. A dome would be created over a convex hump, hammering at an angle from the outside, to compress and distribute the metal from the surrounding area of the dome, inward. This spreads the metal thinning over a wider area instead of concentrating it. That's the theory at least, and was the technique reputedly used by medieval armourers since the protective value of armour meant the difference between life and death. Dolls don't have such requirements. Anyway, I wouldn't have a clue if I'd inadvertently used this technique or not, since the fog of hammering kinda takes over.

All this metal is heavy. I was surprised at how much weight the figure gained as I added more and more pieces of armour (naked figure: 131 grams; with armour: 367+ grams), since you don't realize it when you work on the pieces by themselves. This means that the figure needs to have good legs to handle the load. I replaced the figure's ankles with vintage-style ones and while I was at it, shortened the legs for aesthetic reasons. The PB's knees are okay as is. While I hate the ratcheting click-stops in the PB figure's hip articulation, I can live with it since it's much easier than reconstructing it and aesthetics isn't the issue. At least it ensures that the figure won't fold forward as with Dragon's figures (as I recently rediscovered with their "Stray Dog" figure). For figures with a lot of weight up topside, this is one of the more aggravating things, right after bad ankles and shelf-diving.

A full torso cuirass naturally means that the figure will lose use of its torso articulation. That's unfortunate, but it's the price you pay. However, it's unfortunate that the CG/PBs don't have neck articulation, since that can add a lot of expressiveness to posing. The CGs and PBs benefit from the sacrifice because it improves the look for the low-cut outfits and it would be difficult to add that to the PBs with their removable bodice construction. Consequently though, for this fully-covered figure it means the loss of one of the important no-cost articulation points. I hate it when that happens.

As I've said, I'm just a newbie at this and have lots to learn; but that's what keeps the hobby interesting. It seems that the more you learn, the more you become aware of how many other facets there are to explore, in addition to the areas where you've just barely scratched the surface and should revisit. Onward through the fog...

 

hammered metal armor doll02/23/03 I've been replacing the first pic in the previous installment as I've added new stuff, so here's a rundown: Light tooling foil was used to create the gauntlets (gloves) and sabatons (shoes). I looked forward to making the gloves because the thin foil was a lot easier to work with; hey... no pounding! (The kind of job you can do at 4 a.m.) It was a simple but repetitive task of scissor cutting and bending strips to fit the fingers. At this size, the softness of the copper was less of a liability. The strips conform to the plastic underneath and aren't as likely to be crushed or deformed. They can be dented easily enough though, especially on the flat area on top of the hand. The articulated wrist covers were made with the heavier copper sheeting.

The sabaton pieces are larger therefore less suitable for the thin foil-- but I used it anyway. The toe piece and the heel plate needed to be dished. A hammer is overkill for dishing tooling foil since you can do the job with a small metal punch. Light taps gradually produce a dished shape. The toe plate doesn't require much; the heel does though, especially because of vintage Joe's extended heel (hopefully spurs will make it look less odd). I wasn't able to produce it by dishing alone: the upper curve was produced by cutting a "dart" and soldering the foil. This was really a borderline use of the thin foil, and perhaps should have been done using the heavier copper: I shaped the plates by finger pressing them to the feet but they don't conform exactly to the contour of the feet. This produces a few unsightly creases-- they're not too bad since the plates were distressed with a hammer before shaping. I've tried to remember to do this to pieces even if they didn't need it because that makes them blend better with the overall look. I'm undecided about whether I'll polish this one. Although the polishing would remove tool marks and smooth the armour, I do like the rustic, hammer marked look.

The back plates of the shin armour were unexpectedly difficult to shape. Pounding out the calf wasn't difficult, but getting the metal to compress for the sharp taper above it was exceedingly frustrating. In theory, this would seem to be possible, but yet in practice, focused pounding just seems to make the metal pooch out somewhere else and crease, mucking up the shaping that I'd been working so hard to get. After many frustrating sessions wrestling with this, I ended up cheating again and cut a dart above the calf. It's really just part of the natural cutaway that's there for articulation clearance, so it didn't need to be soldered.

I'm in the process of adding decorative rivet detail and I've had a difficult time finding an appropriate rivet. I did the gloves with pins; these are functional, holding the strips to the hand and articulating the wrist guard. I would have preferred copper pins, with a choice of different head diameters. I therefore experimented with fabricating them from wire. Considering how many I'd need, grinding them individually wasn't an option. I adapted a pair of box-hinged pliers (sprue cutters) to press-form the reduced diameter, but it required much more cleanup than I was willing to do. I finally settled on the idea of copper plating pins; although it's a tedious process doing them one-by-one, it only takes a few seconds to get a thin deposition. They aren't bright copper, but it does tone down the bright shiny silver. If I get motivated enough, I'll redo the gloves and actively search for some different diameter pinheads or nails.

I did some research on the subject of annealing and tried a few experiments. According to the books, as you work metal, it gets stiffer and more brittle. Heating it to about half its melting point allows the crystaline molecular structure to realign randomly and relax, thus making it softer and less brittle. Copper, unlike steel, can be cooled very rapidly ("quenched") without undoing this annealing effect. In practice, I noticed very little difference, probably because copper's pretty soft in the first place; the thickness and shape of the piece more apparently affects how easily you can bend it. But it's good to know the underlying principles because they may come in handy in certain dicey situations (like pounding out a deep dish). A more apparent effect of heating is the coloration change: Copper goes through a rainbow of hues depending on the proximity to the heat source. This had a practical implication: There were a few parts that I thought should be soldered together for strength, but which I attached with contact cement because I didn't want the discoloration. Of course, polishing removes that.

I've come to the conclusion that there are some useful tools that are really worth buying for metalworking at 1:6. Probably the most important is a set of dapping punches, used by jewelers. These are ball-ended metal rods which you can use either as punches against a dishing die or, fixed in a vise, as a stake to pound metal over. Due to the small scale, many of the pieces become closed shapes that don't allow you to hammer from the inside, or place over larger block forms. I'd been using a steel ball bearing seated in the flared end of an Exacto knife handle, and as you can guess, blows that weren't directly from the top knocked the bearing out... again and again. Also, the bearing didn't cover all the contours I wanted. So a set of these preserves sanity and eliminates a lot of scrounging. They're also great for pounding in dishing dies or closed shapes that are too small for your hammer to access. Even though matched dies and punches are sold, they're probably not necessary since rarely are perfect domes needed and it's much cheaper to grind a bowl shape in wood.

Another tool that's highly useful-- no, indispensable-- is the hammer! I've been using a small ball-peen and riveting hammer for this, and wished that there were an even smaller ones. However, the softness of the metal determines the balance between the small size that's ideal and the mass you need to move the metal. Copper's a soft metal, and moving up to steel would probably require even heavier hammers for gross shaping.

An update on the hammer handpiece: Nope, unfortunately it doesn't have the oooomph (mass) to shape the thicker copper (although it can punch holes in the tooling foil). However, it does have some engraving uses, producing deep gouges when tipped at an angle to the surface. However, I was blown away by the Foredom flexshaft with a rotary handpiece! It's super-quiet and the smooth, foot-controlled speed range at the low end means no more melted plastic being slung everywhere or wrapping around and clogging bits. The Dremel hangs around for the really nasty jobs like cutting and polishing metal, at least until the bearings completely disintegrate and it fuses into a lump of plastic & metal.

Finally; as you may have noticed, the figure's head is relatively untouched territory, although the face is prepped for a complete reworking with backfitted eyeballs. I'm conficted about the pretty-girl but vapid look-- it looks purdy, but lacks. Also, I prefer the big hair look because it adds to the feminine balance, but know it's not very appropriate. I feel obligated to use the coif since it took so many frickin' hours to make... and I'd be real hesitant to cover it up with a helmet. On the other hand, making a helmet would be a supreme challenge. Anyway, that's why she's been staring at you with those inkwell eyes...

 

02/25/03- Damn. Isn't he ever gonna shaddup??? Writing an article in unplanned pieces can make it too long, rambling, and poorly organized... But I keep thinking of little things to add. I apologize, and congratulations if you've made it this far! (And for those who don't read, I've added some rare, ice-in-Austin pictures.)

I keep bringing up the subject of tools, and I've realized why this technique has such attraction for me-- it's a tool-geek's dream! Although it doesn't require many tools, and most of them aren't exotic, metalworking can call into play more tools than any other area of customizing. There's the tools that I've mentioned, like hammers, stakes, and forms, but there's also scissors, clippers, files, pliers, punches, chisels, scribers, sanders, polishers... Fairly late into this project, I realized the value of this and hauled out tools that I hadn't seen in years! It not that you'll use them all, but when you're trying to figure out how to solve a particular problem, it's helpful to have the variety so that you can pick the best one. Otherwise, you'll regret using the screwdriver instead of the chisel for making those fluted lines. I'd forgotten that I even had any chisels! (The pic shows the main tools I used, but not all.)

And sometimes, the tool you think you need isn't in your inventory... so you make your own. I wanted a crimper (upper left) to make rolled edges since the 1:1 way wasn't very feasible at 1:6. The bunged up pair of sprue cutters which I'd tried to adapt to create rivets became a crimper by grinding a channel in the jaws to fit a mating roll (a nail). The flat-faced riveting hammer was rounded at the edges and polished to make a smaller, shallower version of the ballpeen hammer. And of course, the forms (blocks of wood) were ground to offer different contoured surfaces as needed. This is the kind of stuff tool-geeks love, and while the subject of the project remains the main focus, those supporting actors receive their fair share of attention. Or sometimes, they become their own project-- I have yet to use my homemade edge-crimper except on pieces of scrap metal, but that in itself has been gratifying enough.

Gratifying, yes. That's what it's about. This project is a souvenir of my first crude steps into new territory, the pinnacle of which is represented by works like Magnus McLeod's perfect miniature replica armour. He gets to use the word "perfect" without pretension because that's as good as it gets by human hands. I don't have any illusions about ever being able to reach that peak, but it's inspiring, and taking my own little steps in the general direction has been extremely satisfying... and that's what it's about. You've gotta start somewhere. The alternative to not challenging yourself is giving up; I'd like to save that for my final days.

 

hammered metal armor doll

02/26/03- ...And in that spirit, here's the bastardized sallet-style helmet. Yes, this was a sonofabitch to make and it didn't turn out quite as I would have liked, but I knew it would be tough. It's very difficult to make a dish deep enough the dome from a single piece of metal. I'd probably still be pounding away at it if I hadn't given up. Doing it with two pieces means that the halves should be dished to the same curvature so that they can meet to be joined along the centerline... yah, that's easy. It was supposed to have a crest there, formed by folding back the edge where the halves met. I felt lucky to get the halves symmetrical enough to meet, without having to produce the folds along the curved edges. Joining the halves was also problematic-- in order to solder, the metal has to be heated to the melting point of the solder: A fairly big conductive piece like this takes a while to get there and gets really hot. I had to hold the pieces aligned together using a pair of gloves and steel wool to cradle and manipulate it, careful not to squash it and botch the alignment. I still haven't figured out how I can artfully hide the seamline.

The visor and tail were a lot more straightforward, but presented their own challenges. Creating a flare or fold in curved surfaces (or vice-versa) takes a lot of pounding. As you create the flare, it undoes the curve. Back & forth, over and over. And when you're finally happy with that, adding the center fluting line distorts the shape. Nevertheless, you do eventually get there, to the point where you can say it's good 'nuff.

One of the hard things about Joe scale helmet-making is the size and fit; oversized helmets look awfully funky. It's too easy to make them that way (especially from a frontal view), since some doll heads are that way, but also because dolls have rigid ears and hair, or in the case of non-molded hair, big hair. This means that the helmet should be pushed as far as it can go in the direction of a fairly tight fit, accommodate that stuff and remain removeable. That's not always easy. In this case, it means that in order to wear the helmet, the figure can either wear hair or the coif, but not both at the same time.

 

Part 2