Last modified: Sunday, April 1, 2001 12:20 AM



03/15/01- THE SPECTACLE The waiting is over! New toys, new fun. The overall stumbling block for this project has been the difficulty of bringing you the spectacle that you've come to expect. Wait... I'm not doing that any more, right? I didn't want to make just another figure using the same old techniques... particularly since this isn't a real flashy figure, and doesn't have big tits. If I had, this project would have been finished in the blink of an eye and I'd have been forced to move on and make another scantily-clad femfig... with big tits. Besides, if you make stuff too quickly, you keep having to figure out where to put it all. Big ol' bummer.

The experiments in trying to find a good metallic finish for armor left me with few options-- either use paint (very unsatisfying), pound it out in metal (very difficult), or investigate an unfamiliar technique-- electroforming. A little bit of Internet research* on plating gave me the background info I needed to decide to take the plunge. Well, more accurately, I had an irrational moment and decided that I'd be willing to take the considerable financial hit to satisfy my curiosity on the possibility that it might be the right stuff. I've done this kind of thing before-- spending half a grand on now-defunct chemicals to experiment with flexible plastics... Spending a hundred clams on a butcher's glove for chainmail... The Unimat... 'nuff said! I'm not rich and brainwork like this ensures that I never will be. [*For a nominal fee, I would be willing to recommend you for membership in that most exclusive research institution,]

The realm of jewelry crafting is populated with tools and techniques that have potential application in our hobby. The only problem is that they're generally upscale and expensive. Instead of Dremels, they use foot-controlled Foredoms with an awesome selection of burrs & bits; they use pneumatic engravers with dedicated sharpening stations; they sculpt in wax and cast in metals. It's serious stuff for professionals. Seeing as how commercial Joe customizing isn't a particularly efficient way to recoup major bucks, you really do have to have some other motivation to draw you into it. Otherwise, for such investment you might as well get into the jewelry trade.

I suppose it gets down to priorities and why you're customizing. If you're doing it to spiff up and have fun with your collection, then this kind of stuff is probably overkill. There are other more entertaining or practical ways to spend your money and you can buy a lot toy figures for the price of an expensive tool. As was suggested in the Guestbook, companies will electroplate for you if you need something specific done, and the price is pretty reasonable. But if you're doing it to learn and satisfy your desire to explore, then it's exciting stuff. Personally, I'd rather spend money on that sort of thing than on the less flashy health-maintenance things like eye exams and visits to the doctor. As Conan O'Brien said, "Who wants to see forever?" That's in line somewhere way behind the toys, the juicy steaks, and the other fun stuff. Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age and experience.

So... what is electroforming? If you didn't do your homework, I'll tell ya: It's an electrochemical process, very similar to electroplating. With electroplating, you bond metals like copper, nickel, silver, gold, or chrome as a surface plating on another metal. The cathode of a DC rectifier is attached to the metal object to be plated. The anode is placed in a chemical solution of the metal you're using to plate. When the object is placed in the solution when current is applied, the metal in the solution is electrochemically fused to the surface in a very thin coating. That's regular plating.

Electroforming allows you to build up the metal coating on a non-metallic object. The layer is usually built up much thicker to form a self-supporting shell. This is accomplished by painting the object with a conductive paint. The process thereafter is quite similar to plating except that the deposition is done at a low amperage and for a much longer period of time. The metal bonds to the paint, but not the non-conductive object. As long as the paint doesn't totally enclose the object or trap it, the object can be removed. If you electroform a wax object, it can be melted out to create a hollow metal shell. Once you've created the metal shell or coating-- usually copper-- it can be plated with other more durable, non-tarnishing or expensive metals.

That's the basic idea behind it, and it's not super high-tech. Specifics regarding time, current and voltage depend on which solutions you're using for particular metals, the size of the object and how thick you want the coating. Proper settings are essential for getting good results. There's also the compatibility between metals to consider-- you can't just plate gold over aluminum, for example. There are a bunch of companies which sell supplies and kits for this and their approaches are vastly different. Some are quite dangerous and require chemicals which can produce Cyanide gas. I went with Dalmar since they offered a system which seemed relatively safe and simple. It is, despite rather spotty instructions-- I ain't dead yet. But I am poorer and it ain't cheap. I don't know if I'd recommend them over another company since I'm so new to this. Their rectifier seems to be home-brew quality, but if you don't know how to roll one which can be dialed down to low amperes, you'll probably want to buy theirs. And you don't want to get their cheapest model because you won't be able to do brush and pen plating-- that technique allows you to "paint" plating on specific areas instead of using a tank of chemicals. All told, for a basic set to do copper and nickel plating, you can expect to spend... nearly half a grand. And then you'll probably want to buy more chemicals and sacrificial anodes. Hardware to do pen plating will cost you extra. Not surprisingly, gold and silver plating solutions are real expensive. You'd only use those to preserve those really special memories-- like your cat's first solid-state poop.


Tah dah! The first electroformed piece. I woke up at 1:30 a.m., and was glad I did because the copper anode was getting awfully thin; eroded by the process to replenish the copper in the solution (that's why they're called "sacrificial anodes"). Dammit, I need to get many more if I want to continue this madness. [ I ended up buying 7 lbs. of copper sheet at a recycling center... it's much cheaper.]

Actually, the upper left quadrant of the top pic is representative of what I got, straight out of the bath: bumpy, uneven brightness with lots of closely-spaced raised lines. The backside is a dull salmon color, indicative of not using enough current, according to the instructions. But I don't think so, since I plated the whole thing at the same time. I don't know enough about chemistry or electroforming to diagnose this, but I think that some of this may be due to not agitating the solution. The fact that the lines are directional leads me to believe that a natural deposition pattern gets established and exaggerated when you let the piece sit in an unagitated solution for 8 hours. Sort of like fast-paced erosion in reverse. Of course, that's just a wild-assed guess based solely on my ignorance.

On pulling this from the bath, my first reaction was, "Shit! That's no better than crafting foil!" However, once I began polishing it (bottom half & lower pic), the difference was clear: you can work this stuff like real metal. The only iffy part is not knowing how thick the coating is. I used a high speed abrasive only enough to remove the major blemishes instead of grinding down to flatten the lines (and risk grinding through to the styrene); as a result, the polishing still shows the pattern (lower right of top pic), but it's subtle. Another concern I had was the heat of polishing-- it's certainly enough to melt plastic, and I was worried that the plastic might expand, crack the metal and possibly ooze out. Or explode. Hell, I don't know. It didn't happen so I guess the concern was not warranted.

Because of this abrasion/polishing step, I think putting fine detail in a piece like this might pose a problem. That's because the deposition is relatively thick, which gives the process more opportunity to form imperfections which you'd have to remove. Such imperfections stand out on a large smooth piece like this. Smaller detailed pieces probably wouldn't need as heavy a deposition and small detail doesn't require the perception of smoothness.

Pic #3 is the piece after nickel plating for 10 minutes and a good polish. It came out of the bath with a dull finish and a big circular tarnish-looking discoloration right in the front. I did this in a very small tub and I think the piece was too close to the anode. For my purposes, this degree of shine is not really appropriate-- it looks like a Cylon Warrior's helmet. But ya know how it is; you've gotta test the limits. I'll probably tarnish it back to a less gaudy shine.

03/16/01-- The bottom half is the more appropriate hazy finish that the armor should have. Trust me. It looks better in person. The highly polished nickel plating looks a lot like chrome, but with a slight yellowish cast. Funny thing is that it looks kind of cheap & cheesy... that's because so many toys use the vac-metalizing process! Who'd have thought that all this work would produce something that looks like a cheesy space toy? One of the ways to get around that is to tarnish it. You don't find too many cheesy space toys with pre-tarnished chrome.



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