Creating Custom Accessories
by Isaac Yue (Red Bean), 7 March 2004
Since the launch of my website, I've received numerous emails asking me how my custom minifig accessories were made and whether I would be willing to share my 'secret' with the world. Well, to be honest, my 'secret' is no secret, really, because sculpting is something that anyone can do and learn; it just takes a lot of time and patience to master, that's all. I've been into hobby modelling for as long as I can remember, and making modifications to them has always been a passion of mine; with my minifig accessories, basically all I did was to apply what I've learned in hobby modelling into accessory sculpting. But to get you started on the right track (I'm going to treat you as a complete beginner in this art from this point on), I thought I'll introduce to you in this article my usual array of tools in making minifig accessories.
Firstly, there are all sorts of materials you can use to make your accessories out of. I use plasticine mostly nowadays, but although the result is good it is also complicated and often not easy to obtain; so for beginners I recommend sculpey. Sculpey comes in a variety of colors, and in its clay form and it can be molded into different sizes and shapes, which is just what you want in accessory making. However, there are a few things one should keep in mind regarding making accessories in Sculpey.
In general, it is very difficult to achieve smoothness in your sculpted piece; it is, however, not impossible, and with patience (lots of it) you too can get your sculpted piece to look as smooth and as Legoesque as an authentic Lego helmet. Whenever I sculpt with sculpey, I employ what I call a 'stages' process. This is best illustrated by an example:
Take a look at this viking helmet: to make it, the first thing I do is to make the clay into a round globe shape that fits onto a minifig's head. This will give you a correct shape of the stud to ensure that your helmet will fit. After this, smooth out the surface as best as you can, then blowdry it with a hairdryer until the piece is solid enough to be sanded. Do note, however, that blowdrying doesn't really solidify the sculpey (to do that, you have to either boil or bake the sculpey), but simply allows the surface of the sculpey to dry to a certain extent. The time it takes to blowdry also depends on weather and location. Back home in damp o'England, for instance, it takes forever... but I've also heard of other people using other means to achieve the similar effect, such as leaving it under the sun to bake for a few hours, though I've never tried this myself. But anyway, getting back to the sculpting process, after completing the globe shape of the helmet, you can move on to build the second layer, which is 'the rim part' (see diagram):
repeat drying and sanding process aftering 'the rim', then move on to the final stage by adding the rounded studs and you have your viking helmet. As you can imagine, sculpting can be (and indeed, it is) a painstakingly slow process, and sometimes the pieces might not be too stable; but the result is that you'll get an overall smoothness that is consistent throughout your model (which is hard to achieve if you build everything at once), and during the sanding process, you can also work on the symmetry of your model which I think is essential to getting a piece look Lego-esque.
For something like my swords, meanwhile, I employed another method which I called the 'skeletal' technique. Have you seen how giant ice sculptures are built? What they do is to first build a skeleton of the sculpture in metal wires, then they pile snow onto that metallic frame and the purpose of this is to help the snow stay in places. This same method can be applied to sulpting with sculpey, and it is particularly useful in doing tiny, narrow pieces. Most of my swords here, for instance, are actually sculpey wrapped around one or two toothpicks, popsicle sticks, or whatever I have lying around in the house. The downside of this process, however, is that you won't be able to 'cure' your sculpey with an oven or a pot of hot water because doing so will ruin whatever material you used as your 'skeleton', and your shape of your sculpted piece along with it. That's why for my prototype swords you never see my minifigs playing with them. They're just too fragile for anyone to take along into battle.
When sculpting something as small as minifig sword, it is also essential you have something that is small and sharp at your command because, unless you have hands of the size of a minifig, chances are they will be too crude to get any finer details into your sculpture. As for the exact tools to use, it is largely due to personal preference. The tools that I most commonly use are the sharp edges of an old butter knife and a set of paint scrapper that are easily available in any hobby store. Other stuffs that I find useful are a set of dental tools that I happen to have, and a set of Chinese sculpting knifes that I bought out of sheer curiosity when I was about 10. I have heard of other people using other weirder stuffs, but the bottom line is, whatever works for you, use it!
Sandpapers and files make up another essential part of my tools-of-trade. For files and sandpapers, I recommend getting them from a hobby store rather than a DIY shop because the ones from a DIY shop, despite being cheaper, I guarantee will be too rough on your sculptures. A general rule for sandpapers for this purpose is: the finer the better because, while it may take longer to sand, you'd be surprise how fast a rough sandpaper can ruin your sculpey.
As shown in the above picture, I find it a good idea to cut my sandpapers into smaller stripes because this will allow me to smooth out areas that are otherwise difficult to reach. When cut into stripes, however, do remember to label them at the back to avoid forgetting which is which.
It is also a good idea to cut your sandpapers into even smaller stripes and glue them onto popsicle sticks, small cylindrical rods, or whatever. This will allow you to not only sand tough-to-reach parts, but apply strength while doing so as well.
Having some epoxy putty can also be handy, because I find it easier than sculpey to spread out as a thin layer which is helpful when you want to patch up holes, chipped areas (from filing), etc. as the final touch to your sculpture. Just remember to paint over it in the end and no one will ever suspect!
Finally, a few words on mass producing the items you've created. To do this, you have a choice of making them in either resin or ABS plastic. For resin, go into relatively big hobby store as ask for a 'Beginner's Resin Kit', and follow the instruction on it. The knock on resin, however, is that quite often details will be lost from your sculpture to its resin duplicate; to avoid this, your only choice is to go with ABS plastic (which is the same material authenic Lego pieces are made of). It is a costly process (we're talking about several thousands US$ here) but the result will be professional-like. I'm somewhat of a perfectionist myself, which is why you'll NEVER see me offering any of my accessories in resin. The downside of this, of course, is that it'll likely be a very long time before I can save up enough money to cast any of my helmets and stuffs. If you want to speed up the process, you can always help by ordering some of my weapons, hehe.
Well, I hope to those who have an intention of becoming a serious customizer, the tips offered here will be somewhat helpful to you. Remember, if at first you don't succeed, keep trying! There's no short cut to learning sculpting, really, and I'm sure brilliant as Michaelangelo he didn't pick up his trade in just one day, or one year for that matter. If you're serious about making custom pieces, then be prepared to invest time (lots of it) into it! Finally, do stop by and visit my website sometimes at www.redbeanstudio.net
Oh, and do leave a word or two on my guestbook there if you have the time. Nothing cheers me up like seeing all your great comments there!!