03/07/17- Obviously, I'm not too concerned about game-accurate weaponry. The N7's railgun-looking weapon came from an old (2001) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Jane Proudfoot doll. The Krogan's big-assed gun came from Paolo Parente's Dust Anastasia doll (obscure enough?). I thought they looked like good weapons for these guys, and they seemed to fit the spirit of the Mass Effect universe.

Weapons are about the only non-armor accessory option for Mass Effect 1/6th scale figures: In the future, they don't need rucksacks, canteens, breadbags or even pouches for grenades or fresh thermal clips. Living off the land sure makes things simpler! Apparently, slings are a no-no in the future, so I added a hook to the side of the Krogan's back hump so that the gun could be "slung" when Krogie needed both hands free for eating corn-on-the-cob.

I distinguish between a weapon's performance in the game and my opinon of what it looks like: The Black Widow sniper rifle is a great weapon to have in the game, but I think it looks clunky and boring. Although I'm not blown away by the look of many of the Mass Effect weapons (I think only a handful have great designs), I do think it would be kewl to have an assortment of game-accurate 1:6 replicas. ThreeZero made some good choices to include with their 1/6 dolls: The Avenger assault rifle, Geth Pulse rifle, and Phalanx heavy pistol.

3D Printed 1/6th Scale Weapons: If you want more than that, the most accessible source is the modern version of the 1:6 customizer-- folks who design in 3D CAD programs and make their 3D-printed designs available for sale on sites like Shapeways.

I recently considered purchasing a 3D printer and picking up a new hobby... until I remembered that the real challenge was designing the 3D model. The last time I explored this and played around with 3D software, I came to the conclusion that it's very frustrating to do 3D sculpting on a 2D screen, especially if you're used to the immediacy of traditional sculpting. To be honest, unless you've got the 3D modeling skills or are eager to explore the technology, there isn't much point in getting a 3D printer-- especially since commercial printing services probably have better equipment than you could afford.

Plan B: Search Shapeways for someone selling the stuff. Even though I had a much longer want list, I found 1/6th scale Predator and Carnifex heavy pistols, and a Black Widow sniper rifle. They're relatively pricey, but they're much cheaper than buying the equipment to make them. Placing the order is much faster than figuring out how to make them. Cool, huh?

Sort of. The modelers deserve props for doing a very good job-- accurate, with a high level of detailing. In pics of their unpainted form, they looked just like what they look like in the game, (aside from the color)... from a distance. However, in person the texture was very coarse, something that's easy to see in closeup. Not the designer's fault: It's the technology and your choice of a resolution/material that's affordable to print at.

I painted the Predator ("in White Strong & Flexible Polished") with primer and acrylic, and it looked funky: The paint made the rough texture stand out.

The material of the Carnifex ("in Black Strong & Flexible") didn't respond well to my efforts to smooth it (sandpaper, Flexbond) either. They're printed in a tough/durable waxy plastic that doesn't respond to sanding like resin or epoxy putty. Hand sanding didn't seem to have much effect so I turned to a Dremel with a sanding buff: It made a little difference but not much, especially for the amount of time that I spent trying to smooth it.

The Black Widow up close. You can feel the texture.

I painted the Predator without a vigorous attempt to smooth the texture; painting made the coarse texture more visible. It looks like it was cast in sand!

I think the Carnifex looked better before I tried to smooth it with Flexbond. I tried to remove it with water, alcohol, and acetone. Man, that stuff's tenacious! I later took a Dremel to it, and it took a long time to sand through to a smooth white (not shown). At that point, it was on the verge of losing the fine detail. The experience made me apprehensive about tackling the Black Widow.

Granted, extreme closeups can be awfully brutal, but it's not just a subtle visual thing-- you can feel the roughness.

In fairness, I had them printed in the cheapest material offered, which wasn't exactly cheap-- more expensive than a comparable traditionally cast plastic WWII weapon from Monkey Depot. Outwardly, the detail level is comparable (from a distance)... but painting them makes the coarse texture more obvious. Sorry, but there's no way would I pay $80+ for a 1/6 scale sniper rifle to be printed in the high quality material so I could paint it to match the quality of a $10 pre-painted piece (with working detail).

3D printing is cool technology but I don't think it's quite ready to fulfill the 1/6th scale hobbyist's dream of printing high-detail custom stuff on demand, cheaply. Bummer. Shapeways can afford much higher quality 3D printers than the average hobbyist, but if printing acceptable quality means paying a premium for expensive materials and higher resolution prints, it's not a practical option.

    Possible Finish Remedies?
  • Sanding: An obvious first-try remedy, but not as easy as you might think. As discussed above, I escalated to using a Dremel with a sanding buff. It smoothed the coarse texture, but took a lot longer than expected and smoothness was achieved right at the cusp of removing detail. A coat of primer would probably obliterate the detail.

  • Flexbond: I tried putting thinned coats of Flexbond on the Carnifex, but it made the unpainted surface look... bad. Flexbond doesn't sand in the traditional sense, i.e. removing surface material with abrasive action. I suspect that wet sanding is recommended because the water reacts with (softens) the coating and the fine grit sandpaper is supposed to smooth it. Maybe I freaked too soon: I didn't try to paint it, I tried to remove it. Water may soften it, but it doesn't remove it. Alcohol didn't work as well as I expected, so I escalated to acetone. That removed the something, but it didn't lift up in clean sheets, but in black-colored "boogers" (melted 3-D printing material?) that I tried to remove with tweezers. As you can see from the closeup, I didn't get them all. I need to experiment with Flexbond some more.

  • Bondo or Epoxy Putty: It might be possible to put a thin coating of either material in highly visible areas so that they could be sanded smooth with a reasonable amount of effort.

  • Resin Casting: Maybe one could make a resin casting of a special 3D print (with exaggerated depth) to refine it? That's not particularly convenient and easy, and would add to the time and cost. However, if I were a customizer selling these things, I might consider 3D printing as the first part of the production process, and sell the cleaned up resin castings.

Other Options: The 1/6th scale modeler/hobbyist who doesn't do 3D printing can attempt it the old-fashioned way: Scratch-building with styrene and putty or kit-bashing.

Scratch-building is challenging for mechanical subjects because it's difficult to create the fine detailing with the precision that the subject matter requires: Scribing/sculpting identical and perfectly parallel lines isn't easy by hand! If you're adept with a miniatures milling machine, you can produce work of this caliber, but that's it's own area of expertise. That ain't me.

If you're not too fussy about the fidelity of your Mass Effect shrine, kit-bashing with factory-made pieces is an attractive option if you just want a cool weapon with factory-quality detailing "in the style of...", rather than a replica of an in-game weapon. It's a lot of fun to exercise your creativity and design your own kit-bashed creations. That's pretty much how Hollywood created iconic sci-fi weapons for movies like Aliens and Star Wars.

Another option is to just use a fairly obscure sci-fi weapon from another 1/6th scale series, as I did. There have been so many produced, and very few weapons from media properties achieve "iconic" status. Honestly, I don't think, "That's a Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within gun!"... because I barely remember any details about the video (I had to search Google Images to figure out where the gun came from).

Afterword: I wasn't going to write off the three guns just because they didn't live up to my expectations. I revisted the pistols with an aggressive sanding buff and weathering paint treatment to make them tolerable. After the finish had been sanded smooth, a noticeable amount of fine detailing had been lost. That's easy to see in a side-by-side comparison with ThreeZero's Phalanx pistol.

I was more gentle with the Black Widow sniper rifle. Painted dirty black/gunmetal, the texture isn't as noticeable.


04/30/17- According to Mass Effect Wiki:

"Originally handcrafted for the exclusive use of justicars, the Disciple Shotgun's schematics were finally released to asari commandos after centuries of negotiation."

I'd been working on a Justicar Samara doll so this seemed to be the ideal accessory for the project. Even without that, it had caught my eye because it's a distinctive-looking weapon with interesting curves. If I'd been able to buy a 1/6 version, I would have bought it without hesitation. Unfortunately, only a handful of 1/6-scale Mass Effect weapons are available for purchase (including the 3D-printed selection on Shapeways), and the Disciple isn't one of them at this time. If I wanted one badly enough, I'd have to make it.

3D models of it may be available, but that didn't do me any good. However, there were enough 2D pics to attempt it the old-fashioned way, by eyeball.

Making manufactured objects like weapons require a cleanness and degree of precision that's totally alien to me (having tried it before). Some folks do it, so it must be possible. It could be the tools, or just the patience and perseverance to work at a model until it looks that way. Since I have neither, I'd need to figure out how to use the tools and materials that I have to give better results than I'd gotten. I considered sculpting it in putty, constructing it in styrene, or carving it in wood. Ultimately, the medium is less important than the tools: Styrene, wood, and putty all have to be shaped somehow. I suspect that there's no simple trick to it: To get machine-like precision, use a 3D printer or milling machine. For hand-made, the best tools are exceptional eyesight and rock-steady hands... of which I have neither. In the end, I went with sculpting it in putty since I was most comfortable with that.

Sculpting in epoxy putty is great for organic shapes: It's easy to sculpt curves, but it's harder to sculpt perfectly flat surfaces that make mechanical objects look precise; sandpaper can help with that. Fortunately, this particular weapon has more curves than most.

Putty is very dense so it makes a heavier weapon than most other materials. In 1/6, lighter is usually better (because articulation has to deal with it). However, putty is a very strong and hard material, good for inserting the pistol grip in a very stiff plastic doll hand (balsa wood would be a bad choice).

Sideview and topview pics provided a blueprint for construction using a variation on what a 3D printer does, except the slices don't come from data, but from eyeballing the model from different perspectives to deduce depth. Obviously, that's nowhere near as accurate. However, the main features of most weapons are the same on both sides of the centerline, and details and parts are built out from that centerline. That means that you can get a lot of info from a 2D sideview pic. That meant that construction could be aided by the sculpting version of "tracing".

For handmade, the computer and printer are very useful tools. I printed scaled sideview pics (one side flipped) and a topview pic (for reference). The sideview pics were glued to both sides of a styrene sheet (for rigidity) which was trimmed to the weapon profile. The putty was sculpted on each side in sections (the grips, the stock, etc.) to match the pics underneath and checked against the topview size reference. Of course, details like panel lines are covered in putty as you go along and have to be eyeballed. The perspective pics were used to deduce relative depth/height of parts and decipher features that weren't evident in the 2D view. Pics can only do so much, and a 1:1 3D representation would be much better. Therefore, it's only so-so accurate: Some of the curves and details were difficult to figure out or missed/left out (It's called "movin' on").

Eventually, the weapon starts looking less like a cardboard cutout and more like a 3D object. The 2D sideview should be pretty accurate (since it's traced), which is the most important view for making the weapon look correct. The 3D depth info isn't as critical, IMO-- it can be ballpark'd by common sense and by looking at other examples (obviously, a pistol grip shouldn't be paper thin).

Making a 1/6 weapon like this takes a lot of time since the putty takes a while to cure, and you want to avoid working on new sections while older sections are curing and can be damaged.

1/6 hand-made scale Mass Effect Justicar Disciple shotgun

Raw sculpt, with last addition still curing. The barrels are made from styrene rods.

1/6 hand-made scale Mass Effect Justicar Disciple shotgun, painted

Actually, you should sand and clean it up before painting...