Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2001 11:52 AM



Tah dah! I deliberately saved the "visor down" shot till the end so I'd have something different to show you. Cheap theatrics, huh? I didn't think the electroplating would be a big enough change, since it's just a different type of finish. The figure costuming "look" was apparent even before the finish, but just like a model or sculpture, finishing steps like painting or electroplating satisfies curiosity and cements the look.

Electroplating differs from painting in one significant way: It's a friggin' bitch that takes forever and wears you out. So a project like this can seem to be almost done in paint-mentality, but weeks away from completion in electroplating-mentality. Some of that is due to the plating time-- I'm nervous about letting it run unattended, so I try to schedule those long runs while I'm around to check on it periodically. That doesn't leave too many windows of opportunity when you've got a day job. The other part is the endless, time-consuming grinding and polishing. Spending an hour or two an evening continously hunched over your Dremel wearing a filter mask and goggles to work on a single piece is hardly my idea of fun. It's grungy work that gives you back problems. You definitely have to approach this with quite a bit more patience to offset that yearning for quick gratification. As shown, the figure is quite a ways from completion-- held together by chewing gum and rubber bands, so to speak. It's gonna take a while to finish, but most of the remaining progress will be pretty unremarkable. I mean, do you really care to see that the back piece is polished? That makes it a lousy prospect for an ongoing web page article.

I alluded to some of the setbacks in my recent "Remarks" entry. Actually, every step of the electroplating process has been frustrating. It's understood that the process isn't as quick as painting, but there can be quite a few learning experience gotchas which just make it take so much longer. However, my first unpleasant experience was of my own doing, the result of my own stupidity.


In order to electroform, you've got to connect wire to the piece you're plating. This brings electricity to the conductive paint, which attracts the metal in the solution. At the start of this process, I didn't know if I was going to do the final plating in nickel or gold (I believe that I'll leave it in copper, since it's more of a workin' woman's material), so I left the wire connected to the first piece (the shield) and proceeded to the initial grinding and polishing phase. This was a big mistake. I was about three-quarters of the way through when I inadvertently grazed the wire with my Dremel (running a really high speed); it managed to snag the wire and wrap it, flinging the shield around and around as I fumbled for the Dremel kill switch. All in the blink of an eye. By the time I found the switch, it was too late. The shield had already been flung somewhere, and the tail end of the wire had flagellated my leg several times. Ouch. Unfortunately, the shield had been flung on edge, hit something hard and now had a major dent in it. We're not talking about just the plating being damaged/missing chunks, but the thermoformed shield underneath was dented too. Knowing that plating isn't removed quite as simply as paint is, redoing it from the start was out of the question: I decided to patch the damage and hope that additional plating would cover the damage. It worked-- sort of. The additional plating at least covered the bare spots, but the plating is much thinner there and warped. And now the shield weighs a ton from all the additional plating. I'd planned on backing the shield with wood (like the real thing), but I didn't plan on the thing being quite so heavy.

Another aggravation in the quest for perfection is that the plating tends to be of uneven thickness, and you can't tell where by visual inspection. This means that if you're grinding away the surface imperfections, there's always a chance that you're going to grind through to the substrate. When this happens, you're screwed. It means patching and another long dunk in the bath to build up the layer, then bunches of grinding to blend the uneven levels out. And if you grind through that top layer, you'll hit the middle paint layer which separates the two plating sessions, and you'll then be staring at edge intersection of two plating layers, which can't be blended. Then there are the tiny spots which, possibly caused by the contamination of some non-conductive impurity, don't plate. You might not notice them at first, but as you grind, you find an occasional tiny pit which might go all the way down to the substrate. So much for perfection...

I've noticed that the plating proceeds gradually in patches, radiating out from where the wires are connected. This still occurs, despite having changed to brush painting which presumably leaves a thicker and more conductive paint coating. It means that the current adjustment is considerably more finicky. At the beginning, the highly conductive surface area is very small (the wires), so a current setting for the entire surface area will cause a nasty crusty buildup of loose granular plating where the piece has good conduction. As the plating grows on the piece, the good conductive surface area grows as well, so the surface area amperage needs to be adjusted. If you don't build up the full surface conductive area gradually, there will be huge variations in thickness and granularity as the plating builds up more quickly in the plated areas (with good conduction). I'm trying to figure out the patterns to make this more painless and predictable-- I have the feeling that this is made more difficult by changes in the supplies I'm using. The chemical bath might be getting polluted (although I filter it), and the conductive paint might be getting less conductive. I'll probably buy some more conductive paint, and might splurge on the more expensive silver variety.

In the area of design, there were a few surprises which really shouldn't have been. I discovered (duh) that plating is not nearly as flexible as sheet plastic, or even a metal sheet. Therefore, the clamp-on design of the fitted forearm and shin armor were totally impractical. This is one area where it works in real life because our skin and muscles are flexible... but doll flesh isn't. So those pieces were trimmed to make them practical, and it remains to be seen whether they'll end up as two piece assemblies. That wasn't part of the original design. Likewise, the lower plate of the skirt was designed to be a separate piece, but after plating, I cracked it through the center while flexing it slightly during the polishing process. (So the companion back piece was glued to the back armor before plating.) Fortunately, the two-piece helmet design did work, although the rough interior plating makes the fairly tight-fitted helmet harder to place on and remove. (FYI-The cheekpiece relief decorations are owls, but they're hard enough to discern even in person.)

The biggest question going into this experiment was how the relief detail would stand up. Even though I put a lot of detail into the sculpting, I had low expectations for how much would survive the plating. I wasn't really surprised by the results either. Generally, it held up at a level which seems appropriate for this type of process. In metal jewelry, you don't expect to see razor sharp detail. That's because the polishing process removes sharp edges. It's the nature of the process- polishing buffs are big unfocused things compared to engraving and cutting bits. So it's not unusual to see rough spots in tight areas where the buff couldn't go, and generally the fine recessed detail is left alone-- filled by blackened polishing rouge, much as a dark paint wash would do. Because of their size, the buffs tend to obliterate some recessed detail as you're trying to polish out adjoining areas-- the scaly texture on the snakes, for instance. In some parts it's completely smooth, but in other areas you can see hints of it.

Overall, there are tons of imperfections that bother me-- things like pitting, uneven surface ripples, cracks, etc. They aren't readily visible except under magnification because of the way this type of finish reflects light. This would be totally unacceptable in a painted model, but here it seems almost acceptable. Some of it can be fixed with a little more polishing work (groan), some of it could be fixed at the risk of incurring another dunk in the plating bath (groan)... so it's one of those things that separates the perfectionists from normal folk.



05/20/01- If you don't get hung up on the imperfections, things move along pretty swiftly. Well, sort of... it's relative, you know? After the plating & polishing exercise, almost anything seems to move quickly.

Before plating, I'd done some preliminary thinking about how I'd do fasteners & connectors. There are a number of ways you can do them, so not having something specific in mind isn't reason to delay anything. I only planned out one area during the design phase-- the shoulder hinges -- but they didn't work out quite as well as I'd expected, so I'm even more of a firm believer in the "wing it" method now. As I mentioned in the last project, I'm not a true believer in absolute functional realism; I believe more in giving the surface impression of realism on top of a more practical solution. An easy-to-illustrate example is belt buckles: it's a simple mechanism, and not all that difficult to create in 1/6th scale, but certainly a bitch for a fullsize human to thread with tweezers. It's acceptable when there aren't a lot of 'em, but beyond that, it's an irritating thing to deal with, particularly if you're in the process of creating costuming. A hook is a far simpler mechanism to deal with, and if it can be hidden behind the facade of a belt buckle, cool. Toy figures don't gain weight, so it's not like the buckle's ever gonna need to be adjusted.

I applied this thinking to the hinges which join the front & back sections of armor together along the shoulders. This is supposed to be a hinge which is closed with a removeable pin. Initially, I did consider using a dollhouse hinge for this, but it was too large, so I made a hinge out of a pin & a thin sheet brass. Even though it worked, I realized what a pain in the ass it would be... so I sculpted a faux hinges on the front armor to overhang the top of the back armor piece, and placed brass strips underneath, bent in the shape of a hook. The back piece was cut with narrow slits for the hook. (This is similar to the design I used for "Generic Fantasy Warrior", but here the hook is on the topside, covered by the faux hinge.) This really should have worked, except the hinge detail area plated horribly thick and I didn't make the strip long enough to compensate for the edge plating accumulation. At any rate, it doesn't matter much-- the armor is so snug fitted that it doesn't rely on the top hinge to stay on (an advantage of the figure not having soft flesh). The fit between the sections would actually be better if I flattened or cut off the hook. I'll think some more about the armor's side fasteners.

The forearm armor was another area where I thought I had a solution... until I did the plating. Due to the stiffening of the piece from plating, the squeeze-onto-forearm design was not practical and I didn't want to rely on having to remove hands to do this. So the pieces were cut into a front and back sections, plated, and rejoined with a thin piece of fitted styrene. This gave them back the flexibility they lost through plating. To "rationalize" the seam, I placed a faux hinge (scored wire) in the channel between the pieces. Even though the hinge would imply some sort of fasteners on the other ends, I'm not going to bother since that would work against the easy-on/off design. Again, this is Fantasy... (?!)

I took the easy way out on the shin coverings-- I trimmed them so that they had just enough grab to hold around the calf without excessively stressing the plating when taking them off or putting them on. Maybe someday I'll make the back plate for them? (Maybe not?) Because they wrap further around than the forearm coverings did, they don't look as odd. Besides, then I'd have to plate some more pieces (groan...)

In both areas, I softened the edges with rabbit fur. This was not done as part of a plan, but as an extension of experiments to help conceal the elbow articulation (or break it up a little-- I didn't want giant puffballs at the elbows either). I wrestled with that one for a long time, using leather, simulated mail & cloth. All those solutions created too much bulk under the armor and looked unnatural. The rabbit fur looked the most natural as edge trim on the armor, and didn't create the look of a separate article which would need to be whole underneath the armor and therefore add too much bulk. This solution also brought in a little extra white color of a different texture, which is part of this figure's color scheme. It's hard to explain the peculiar reasoning behind all this-- suffice to say, I'd rather have not put anything there, but the ugly naked articulation hinges really bothered me and she needed some arm flesh to remain uncovered, so sleeves weren't an option.

The crotch defenses/skirt was a fun addition. I redefined the initial overall look a little bit, but adding the detail-- the copper buttons and ends-- really had an immediate impact on the way the figure looked, and balanced out the detail over the whole figure. Since I'd decided on a copper finish, I had to ponder hard to come up with the buttons-- most decorative trim like this would be available in brass, but plating such small things in copper, one at a time, wouldn't be easy. Instead, I made the buttons by punching holes in copper sheet, backed with a thick piece of leather. This compressed the cut edges, but left the center dome-shaped... like little buttons.

And getting back to that ever-so-important question of scale weight...(I knew you were curious) At this point, with everything except her yet-unmade sandals, sword and dagger, she weighs a scale 167/203 lbs (avoirdupois/troy). Minus the figure's weight, the armor comes in at 64/78 lbs. I carried a 30 lb bag of Miracle Grow potting soil through a loooong checkout line last night, and I've gotta say that the extra weight on top of my own 150 lbs felt heavier than a mere extra 30 lbs. To carry around sixty-plus extra pounds long-term, I'm sure I'd need to be outfitted with a pair of vintage-style ankles (and a back brace).


Dammit, her elbow articulation's showing! Arrrrrgggh...


05/26/01- Some accessories: (pic 1) The Roman sandals were adapted from a pattern available at a website somewhere (do your research... in other words, it was a long time ago and I don't have any idea what the link is). These were eyeballed and simplified from the fuzzy authentic pattern: I didn't think the thin, supple leather I used was going to stand up to a lot of cutting, so the straps were made wider and fewer in number. One word of advice for cutting leather: Use a virginal Exacto blade to avoid shredding it. Since I wasn't concerned about historical accuracy, I also took the liberty of gluing the straps together instead of lacing them. This avoided a lot of frustration and eliminated the need to find some kind of lacing that looked good at this scale.

(pic 2) The sword (first version) & speartip (and spear butt, not shown) are somewhat faithful to Greek design, even though I made up the details. I liked their designs and it was easier to copy them than try to come up with my own. This might have been a more historically accurate project if I had liked all aspects of the Greek or Roman outfit. On the other hand, I do sacrifice historical accuracy for the limitations of the figure anyway. The sword grip was deliberately made thicker because the doll's hands weren't posed for gripping a thin object. (They're posed to be multi-purpose: They look fairly good holding nothing, or holding the spear and sword in a loose grip.) Likewise, I had to alter the design of the shield grip since the historically correct hardware would have to be oversized to accommodate the forearm armor, and be a hassle to fit. (Besides, Amazons used crescent shields.) My feeling is that you should try to get as close as you can, but don't sweat it-- this isn't a perfect medium for realism after all.

The blades were fashioned from thick strip brass (spear butt from a rod). It's a soft metal which gave me some hope of cutting the channels and relief and polishing the suckers. (Still, it's not like working with plastic.) I was eager to try something out: The brass was nickel plated to look like steel without having to actually work with that difficult metal. It wasn't a complete success, since the thin plating of nickel didn't bond very well to the brass and seemed to wear away with handling.

(pic 3) I didn't like the sword blade's exaggerated curves anyway so I reshaped it slightly and had to reconstruct the grip. I did the plating again; this time, I tried to do the grip in copper and tried to keep the blade from being plated by leaving an insulating gap between it and the conductive paint (I didn't want a heavy buildup on the blade since it fit snugly in the scabbard). Apparently, the current jumped the gap and the blade was lightly plated. It was cool though-- the buildup was much less than the horrible detail-obliterating mess on both the grip and the scabbard. I salvaged what I could, because I wasn't about to go through that again. This time, the nickel plating on the blade bonded well.

It's amazing how a simple thing like "making a sword" can turn into a lot of unexpected work. I guess I blocked the scabbard and belt out of my mind, or took them for granted. Nevertheless, those took a lot of extra thought before even getting started. I first tried to engrave the scabbard halves out of wood, but that was too bulky, so I formed them out of styrene.

(pic 4) The belt was an even bigger deal. I decided to do a fancier Roman design with the plates and hinges but agonized over how I was going to detail the plates. However it was done, it was important to get a fairly uniform look on all the little plates. The were really too small for stamping-- besides, I've already overused the few metal stamps I have. That left engraving, and with that, the decision about what pattern to do (over and over) that would look reasonably consistent when done freehand. That ruled out designs with a lot of straight lines, or things with too many details. I finally chose the sun/flower pattern because the imperfections and variations didn't call attention to themselves as much as non-parallel or non-straight lines would. The "hinges" between the plates are the same trick I used earlier with scored wire. I also made an operating buckle with tine (despite whining about that sort of thing earlier-- there, I was thinking more about the breast armor's side buckles). At this point in the project, the belt's probably only going to go on once and stay there, so I can live with that. The buckle was extra trouble to make since I didn't have thick copper sheeting: I used a copper tube, slit it and flattened it out. The decision to use copper instead of brass has brought up a bunch of unexpected little problems like this.

I... uhhhh... changed my mind about the easy-to-make dagger, so that's about it for this project (for the time being). Some R&R and then it's time to start thinking about the next one, I suppose...