Armormaking FAQ!

I’ve been asked on multiple occasions what my methods and materials are, so this post is a compilation of what I hope shall be the most helpful information for anyone curious. This is not a tutorial so much as what I’ve found works best for me. Behind the cut, there be many pictures and words!

I’ll continue to add to and edit this post for future reference.

What did you make ( X ) armor out of?

This is the meat and potatoes of the post, I’ll forewarn you now.

My approach is to balance cost-effectiveness with something I’m proud of once I’ve finished it; there are many other methods and materials out there, but I’ve neither the space or the capital to dedicate to some of them. For my builds, I’ve come to have a deep adoration for plastic. My first exposure to it was a brittle type of styrene that was somewhat problematic, but I’ve since discovered HDPE sheets that I get at TAP Plastics.

The sheets I get are 0.035” thick and 24.5” wide x 47” long (0.0889 cm thick, 62.23 cm wide x 119.38 cm long), and are described on the TAP website as:

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) sheets are the same material as cutting boards. Since they are 1/32” thick, they can be rolled up for storage and easily cut with scissors. FDA approved for food contact.

Making Aveline’s Guard Captain armor, I started with plastic place mats and cutting mats I purchased at Target. These are also HDPE plastic; it was due to finding these that I sought out a more cost-effective source of materials, and TAP worked out grandly in that area.

Here’s an example of the painted and assembled thigh and knee pieces during a test fitting before detailing/weathering. For some elements, I’ve glued the plastic over some craft foam to create both thickness and for comfort while wearing it. 

I got out a scrap piece of the plastic to use as an example here. If I need to draw/trace a pattern onto it, I tend to use pencil or sharpie, and then cut it out either with scissors or a craft knife for small/fine details.

For this example, I cut the corner off with scissors.

Then I bent the piece by hand, creating a soft curve and sharp edge to show some of its versatility.

It plays VERY nice with a heat gun if you want to create more complex or curvy shapes; while wearing some fabric gloves ( fabric or leather would do – the plastic, once heated, gets a little more than comfortably warm sometimes; not always necessary, but safety is important ), I shaped it by hand into an organic curve that looks a little like a wonky ear. You get the idea – it’s malleable.

To get an idea of its durability, my flatmate suggested I demonstrate how well this stuff maintains its shape so I put a hefty GRRM tome on it and then, for the heck of it, 20 more pounds of weight. It was just fine afterwards. Keep in mind, it’s not super-resilient - it can still be bent by hand - but it’s flexible enough that, especially when heat-shaped, it maintains the shape it cools into.

I also cut some small flappy-bits that I attempted to tear or rip off, to demonstrate that you can get some pretty fine detail in the shape without worrying about it tearing off. There was hardly any noticeable damage, and after twisting them around, it was easy to bend them back into place again.

I often line the plastic with craft foam either for comfort or to create the illusion of bulk so that the piece has a stronger silhouette. Craft foam is also good for softening sharp edges – the plastic holds an edge and it can poke or slash well enough that it’s like a papercut, so I try to make sure I either sand down or line sharp edges/points to avoid potentially injuring myself or others, as conventions (where I usually wear any armor I’ve made) can get crowded and I’d rather not cause an incident with overly-poky pauldrons.

I used plastic in combination with craft and EVA foam for my Commander Shepard armor. 

I’ve never made armor before. Where do I even start?

Don’t let it be daunting! I have a lot of fun figuring out how to approach making everything, and while I’ve outlined some of my methods here, there are countless ways of going about it. Experimentation is your friend.

Once I’ve decided what I want to make, I start by gathering as much reference as possible. I usually compile and print it all out then put it into plastic page protectors so that I can have it on-hand as I’m working or to take with me when I go get materials. Sometimes, it’s easier to pull out a few pages of images and point to what you’re trying to find as you’re explaining to a shop clerk (and I prefer it to handing over my phone with images on it). If there are action figures or statues accurate enough to be helpful, those would also make great reference.

I also tend to sketch out pieces that I’m unable to get good reference for or that I think might be tricky to construct. Establishing the scale of everything is also important, and I tend to do this with paper patterns made either of newsprint or circulars that come in the mail. For small, detailed pieces that have more delicate parts, I’ll use cardstock for a sturdier pattern.

Throughout the process, trying pieces on and finding out what my range of motion is or how the piece works with the rest of the costume has prevented a LOT of headaches and awkward mid-motion fumbles. I try to engineer multiple points of reinforcement into high-stress areas to ensure that, should one fail, it’s not going to fall apart entirely. The way I try to think about it, I want to be able to have as full a range of motion as possible and be comfortable enough to play silly dance games. Like so:

Trying things on as you go to ensure they not only fit you but are proportionate to the overall design is something that’s helped me a great deal, and an awesomely inexpensive help has been a simple dress form that I made; it also acts as my armor display when I’m not using it for construction.

Here, you can also see craft foam pattern pieces which I often use to line the back of the plastic with. 

To make your own, all it takes is a t-shirt you don’t mind getting rid of, some duct tape (one or two rolls), and something to fill it with when you’re done. It’s best to have someone assist you when you do this, too. Wearing the t-shirt, have your buddy wrap you in duct tape until it’s entirely covered. Once finished, have them carefully cut it off of you – easiest is probably to just go down the back. Tape up the cut, then stuff it to hold its form. Wadded-up paper works great and is lightweight, but you could also use expanding foam, which comes in a spray can and should be used with GREAT caution. If you go the foam route, I advise to make sure your work area has a drop cloth / sheet / paper, and that you start off with MUCH less than you think you need. The stuff is awesome, but will ruin anything it touches if you don’t want it there.

I also made a stand for my dress form out of a piece of PVC and an overturned plastic flowerpot that I made a hole in to poke the PVC through, then filled in the base with expanding foam spray. It’s adjusted to be my height, and stands all on its own, which has been ridiculously helpful while I’ve worked on projects!

How do you attach things?

My supply bins are mostly stocked with:

  • Hot glue
  • cyanoacrylate glue (ie: gorilla glue)
  • GemTac/FabriTac for some parts of fabric
  • elastic
  • nylon web belts
  • duct tape
  • Gorilla tape (duct tape’s steroid-pushing big brother)
  • two-pronged brads
  • Rivets
  • Chicago screws - they look like this:

How do you paint things?

Mostly, rattle-can spray paints have served wonderfully for almost every surface I’ve worked with. The plastic I favor has worked with every type of paint I’ve tried.

Craft foam can be a little trickier; I’ve yet to find a paint that eats at it, but it often takes several coats of paint due to its porous nature. It helps a great deal to seal the craft foam with something like a clear coat, simple school glue, or Mod Podge (either brushed-on or with some of the spray). The other issue is that, due to the foam’s lack of rigidity, paint often flakes off or cracks. I’ve seen others use methods involving urethane casting materials to harden foam, but have yet to try it myself.

When weathering pieces, I use acrylic paints. For fine metallic detailing, I like to use leafing pens.

Where can I find materials?

Craft stores, hardware stores, and second-hand/thrift shops are my primary stops when I’m gathering materials. It depends on where you are and what’s available not only around you, but also within your budget. I don’t have that much play money to set aside for cosplay, so I make every effort to keep my costs minimal. It pays to be on the lookout for craft stores that have coupons that they send out by mail/e-mail, and there are even some like JoAnn Fabrics and Michael’s that have free phone apps which also include regular coupons.

Other helpful resources:

The Replica Prop Forum - Amazing community of creative people from all around that is a wealth of great information and excellent constructive assistance.

Punished Props - Bill keeps excellent build logs to show you his process on various pieces, and works with casting, EVA, & foam PVC like a wizard. He’s also an all-around great guy. If you’re geared to a more sustainable, high-budget item, I highly recommend checking out some of his work to see if that’s more up to speed with what you’re interested in accomplishing.

To me, it’s fun when I’m limited by budget and material availability. It encourages creative innovation with whatever is on-hand, and I feel ridiculously happy with some of the discoveries that have helped me learn along the way. Whatever you end up creating, I hope you have fun and are proud of what you’ve made!

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