This is the method I first began learning, and probably the easiest. In short, all you do is sculpt the foam into the right shape, and then apply the fiberglass directly onto it. This works great for thick/dense armors, or swords, or horns, or even oversized helmets. As is, I’ll be demo-ing with the knee and skirt pieces from wildfire.
For this method and the rest, there are 3 main parts I tend to look at in making things; the sculpting, the fiberglassing, and the sanding stages. The sculpting is probably the quickest and cheapest stage if you’re good with 3 dimensional surfaces; while the fiberglassing is probably the hardest and most chemically hazardous part of the whole process, and the sanding part is probably the easiest yet longest of the three. Basically, the sanding phase is the most important part; as in, if you don’t sand it smooth enough, it’s just not going to look good. The fiberglass phase is quite important as well, cause if it isn’t applied right, it won’t be very strong. Overall, this is what I did for this method, and in most cases what I’d suggest, but there are other ways of doing things.
Phase 1: Sculpting Phase 2: Fiberglassing Phase 3: Sanding
The first thing you have to do is gather up all the reference pictures you can. Preferably at least 10 pictures of any particular piece from all directions. I’m rather particular about authenticity and accuracy, so just because one picture shows something one way, doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be that way. Basically, within an anime production company there can be dozens of different artist drawing the same character, and so not every drawing will match. Thus, I take an average of about 10 drawings, and then comparing them to the original concept sketches or character turnaround, I figure out how the part really looks.
Next up is proportions. To get the correct proportions I generally match my body to the characters body. On a side note, character proportions may not always match your own, as the drawings tend to be exaggerated such as long legs, thin waist, or large head. In which case I try to get as close as I can at the expense of my own stature.
Using the skirt piece as an example, it appears to start at the hips, and end just above the knee. So, I then transfer those proportions over to me, mark, and cut the foam.
I generally use foam (pink house insulation) for getting the initial shape, as it is easy to shape and very light weight if left inside the armor. If your armor needs to be thin though, you can also work on thin wire meshes that are bent into the right shape. But going back to foam, once you have the basic large mass of foam correctly proportioned, cut as many pieces as needed to block out the rest of the basic shape. The objective of this step is to make sure you have more than enough foam in the right places so that when you cut and shape the foam, you won’t have to add more.
Gluing the foam is actually really cheap and easy. Simply use hot glue, and it should stay in place well enough to apply fiberglass. If it breaks, just re-glue. The hardest part is trying on the chest piece without it breaking.
Once the form has been blocked out, use a saw, file, sander, exacto blade, and trim the inside carefully while continually trying it on to make sure it fits securely, not to tight or loose. Once the inside fits, the outside can be shaped proportionally around the interior shape. Doing the outside first could result in the interior fitting awkward.
For the outside, I used a saw to take off the large chunks of foam that weren’t needed; quick and easy. Then I lightly glided the saw across the foam taking tiny slivers and even just particles of foam off until the shape was flat and level. You could use a sander to do all the shaping, but power sanders take off foam fast, so you have to be careful. Either way, try not to take too much off, as it’s a lot harder to put back on what’s been taken off.
The objective here is to smooth out the piece, as the saw should have already formed the shape correctly. While using the sander, go in a circular motion for best results. If the sander stays in one place to long, a flat spot or a cavity may form. Also, the foam may start to melt from friction, so keep lifting the sander and blowing off the dust. 60 grit sand paper works best for quick removal. Hand sanding is another option too, and typically useful when trying to perfect a piece with final touches.
For slightly elevated or raised pieces, I found it easiest to make the basic shape first, then go back and depress the needed areas. To do this I pressed the sander down into the foam creating a small edge, then did edge cleanup with exactos. Using the sander too much may leave a round mark on the edges. The exacto blade should last about 20-40 cuts before it starts getting too rough to cut. At this point it is best to get a new blade and use the old one for cutting harder, less exact things like fiberglass. If the sander can’t reach a certain spot, and the exacto would be too much work, a file works well to smooth the surface and shape the foam.
Overall, you want to get the foam as accurate as possible, even though changes can still be made once it has fiberglass on it… as long as the changes are adding to the piece and not taking away. And, some details I wouldn’t bother carving into the foam, like bumps, ridges, embossed lines, or sometimes even edges. That’s easiest with the putty sculpting method, and just more work trying to fiberglass around.
If too much foam is taken off in a small area like a ¼ of an inch crack, the fiber glass can cover the gap. But, if the area is too large, and the foam around it can’t be leveled to match, the easiest way is to just add putty into the gap later after the fiber glass has been applied. Basically, don’t cut to deep.
Unless you’re planning on using the epoxy resin for the entire armor, you need some kind of sealant on the foam. Polyester resin alone on foam, well, you don’t have foam anymore. So, the best way to seal this is by putting one very thin layer of epoxy resin down first (takes about 12hrs to dry). Then the polyester resin is fine to use overtop the dry epoxy. Another method is applying 6 coats of polyurethane. Cheap, but time consuming. Although 3 layers of polyurethane can work, a noticeable wrinkling does occur.
Spray paint does not seal foam, it melts it, and papier-mâché didn’t seem to stick. Some other friends have suggested aluminum foil, which does seal foam great; it’s just that the shiny surface can make it hard to see what you’re doing. There are probably other things to seal it with, but epoxy is quick and easy to use.
Since fiberglass is made up of two components, resin and glass like cloth, it’s best to use the cloth for strength, but resin alone can work too. I typically prefer the woven type of fabric as it doesn’t get as messy when wet. Which, is exactly why you want to pre-cut everything before you start! Once you get sticky, you don’t want to try using scissors on fabric. So, make sure you cut as much cloth as needed, at sizeable chunks that will cover as much surface area as possible (it’s faster), and accommodate for edges. Using small strips like papier-mâché is just messy and unnecessary unless you have an intricate piece. The edges should be trimmed of frays too, or else the resin will cause a terrible mess and much frustration (it looks like drippy snot).
At first the cloth may seem real stretchy and form fitting, but when wet, it doesn’t stay in tight spaces. So, in edges and places like that, I’d cut separate pieces, one for each elevation and not try to keep the cloth in the crack. Corners are also a problem, as the cloth seems to bubble back from them and your sharp intricate corner is now a blunt, child safe bubble. The corners can maintain their hard edge though if you overlap the cloth by a few inches and keep pulling it tight while drying.
For intricate pieces like the helmet, I actually cut small strips and stapled them onto the foam so that I wouldn’t have to remember where each piece went, try and pick it up, and then try to get it off my slimy hands and stay on the foam. Gravity also likes to pull your hard work off too.
And now, you’re finally ready to begin the daunting fiberglass stage. It’s not actually that hard, just very messy and discouraging. The only thing you have to remember is that it doesn’t matter how bad it looks (cause it’ll look like a jagged sloppy piece of… well, pretty bad) but as long as the fiberglass is on there, and in sufficient quantities, it can be sanded and cleaned later. On the other hand, the smoother you make it now, the less work you need during cleanup.
So, how many layers of cloth? Well, one is noticeably soft. Two is stronger, but will dent if hit hard. I usually put two layers on the inside because it won’t be exposed or matters if it dents. And three is what I typically use for the exterior as it’s incredibly strong and doesn’t weigh a lot.
Now, does it matter which order the fiberglass and cloth are applied? Well, not really. Depending on the piece, the order of layer application can be adjusted. I typically put two layers of cloth down, then pour the resin over until it has absorbed thoroughly, and then add a third layer overtop. In some cases I put a layer of resin down first so that the cloth has something sticky to hold it from sliding off (cause that can be annoying), then put on two layers, soak them, and finally a third layer. Putting down three layers first may make it hard for the resin to fully absorb through. For intricate surfaces you may only want one layer at a time though.
The resin application takes a little getting used to, but can be done quickly. For polyester resin I generally put in half as many drops required by the directions, and it works fine. But make sure you don’t put in too few, as a nondrying piece is the worst thing that can happen… cause it won’t stop smelling bad till it does dry. Your average working time is about 5-10 minutes. After that, the resin turns to gel, and a minute later, it’s hard. So you need to be quick when putting down the resin. And don’t mix up more than you can use in one attempt, unless you like solid blocks of resin clogging your cups. Either way, you’ll probably mess up a few times. And only set your wet piece down on a plastic or rubber surface, unless you want your piece stuck to the table.
Once the final coat of cloth and resin has dried, it will still feel tacky. At this point, roughly sand off any major bumps. Cut off any loose cloth, and for the most part just make the piece clean rather than perfectly smooth.
Here’s a quick review of materials and things for this part:
Respirator- you don’t want to smell this stuff
Gloves- really easy to clean off your hands if you don’t get anything on them
Mixing cups and sticks
Fiberglass and cloth
Rubber table… or just a trash bag to keep things from sticking to surfaces while drying
After all the fiberglass cloth has been applied, you may notice the cloth texture on the surface. And after rough sanding, you may notice the cloth tearing up. Putting on two coats of just resin (the smooth coat) is what will then give the armor its nice feel and shine.
Basically, the whole purpose of the smooth coat is to give the armor a nice sanding layer. If you sand the cloth, it begins to tear up and doesn’t paint well. So, all you have to do is mix up a lot of resin, more than you would usually mix up, and then just pour it thickly all over the armor. The thicker the coat the better, just don’t let it drip or run, cause that’s wasteful. I find it easiest to spread the resin with my fingers. The plastic spreader if done correctly can float out the surface, but can also scrape off too much if done wrong.
Almost done now… except that this step takes longer than both the previous ones… put together. It all depending on how nice you want the armor to look that’s going to determine how long you sand. If you just want hard armor with a matte finish and don’t plan on using a glossy paint, sanding the smooth coat should be fine. But, if you have shiny paint, every little bump, dent, and cavity will reflect unevenly… looking poorly done. For the most part, the smooth coat will only give a mostly smooth finish. You don’t have to sand down every dent, that’s what the putty is for. Just sand the hills of the surface until you see only valleys, and that’s where you’ll put the putty. Keep in mind, the more you sand off, the thinner and weaker it gets.
A precautionary step when sanding fiberglass is to wear protection. The fiberglass particles when sanded become incredibly itchy, and may cause a rash. So, it would be best not to have that go down your lungs. Also, if you’re using an electric sander, it would be a good idea to keep the flying dust out of your eyes and off your skin too.
The putty is really nice. It dries in about 5 minutes or less, is nearly as strong as the fiberglass, and is far easier to sand then the smooth coat. The main objective is to cover every little tiny spot, cavity, hole, or mess up with excess putty. Once all the putty is applied and dried, just sand it flush to the surface. If you use small amounts of putty, you may have to go back and recoat, so it’s best just to put enough on the first time. I typically wait an hour after puttying so that it firmly attaches itself to the surface.
After the puttying, continue sanding in a circular motion with the sander trying not to go to deep. All you want to do now is make the armor fully smooth. The best test is to run your hand across the armor and every tiny little dent you feel, putty and sand it. This could take hours upon hours, days, and weeks. But, it’s all up to you how nice you want it to look. Though, regardless of how much effort you’ve put into making it, if you don’t sand it nice now, it won’t look like you spent any time making it at all; strange how that works.
Bolts and connections can be applied in any number of ways. The best way is to lodge a piece of wire under the fiberglass while applying it or even a block of wood under the fiberglass, since screwing into a thin layer of fiberglass isn’t very strong. For the skirt I used a hook on each side screwed into blocks of fiberglassed wood, then a hinge to hold both together. For other parts I put large staples and hooks buried into the fiberglass. These hooks would then connect to other hooks or hold elastic/Velcro straps. Just putting extra resin on the hooks give added attachment, but not enough to guarantee it stays. So think about where the hooks will go so that they don’t get ripped out when you move. Put them in places that move the least.
And lastly, painting. I typically use expensive automotive paint, as it has a strong surface and amazing shine. Standard spray paint with acrylic coats can work pretty well too though.