Periodically I get bored with digital creativity and feel the need to make something a little more tangible. Being a character artist at heart this means making costumes. I’m not a fanatical cosplayer, but I have a history of LARPing and once helped out a friend’s weapon making business by being an assistant latexer. So now when the mood takes me, I make bits and pieces of costume and kit. Strictly for kicks.

Dwarf Project

My current costume project was inspired equally by The Hobbit, the concept of Crossplay and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a place where female dwarves exist and have actual characterization. I’m going to the DWCON in summer 2014 and that’s a perfect opportunity to wear an elaborate dwarf costume complete with beard. After all, I have the perfect dwarven physique and temperament, and I’ve always played dwarves in tabletop RPGs. This was a no brainer.

Last summer I made a LARP-safe replica of Dwalin’s Axe from a carbon fibre rod, a camping mat, some funky foam, half a liter of contact adhesive, a bit of burning with a soldering iron, leatherette fabric and 250ml of liquid latex mixed with acrylic paints. I used the amazing Quiche Commandoes Guide for how to build it. (Thanks guys!) It took about 35 hours in total, and here’s the result. It now hangs proudly in my office at work.

With the axe already made, the dwarf costume was essentially already started. Many months later I had cogitated enough to decide on the rest of the costume. I didn’t draw any concept art for it, because I handily have a Pinterest board with all my ideas and inspiration, and because if I did it would start to feel like work.  I’m just making stuff up as the whim takes me, but current plans are for the following costume elements. Caveat: some items I’m buying in because I don’t have the facilities to make them, or they’re too basic to be fun to make myself. where I have bought items, I’ve linked through to the online shop.

  1. Dwarven helm (with cast-latex rams horns)
  2. Plain under-tunic
  3. Embellished Tabard
  4. Chain mail bishop’s mantle
  5. Chain mail-look leggings (for practicality and comfort reasons)
  6. Dwarven toe-caps (for army boots)
  7. Dwarven gaiters (for army boots)
  8. Pyrographed leather belt
  9. Pyrographed Leather satchel
  10. Pyrographed arm bracers
  11. Epic beard, fit for a lady
  12. OTT female Dwarven make-up

Pyrographed Leather Satchel

The satchel was an e-bay purchase and cost £8. This was a test to see how hard pyrography is, and to learn the technique ready for more expensive items like the belt and the bracers.

Tools & items used: cheap leather satchel, pen, soldering iron, j-cloths, black acrylic paint.

First I free-handed a design on the leather with a biro (Pic 2). This was a mistake because the biro was a tad more permanent on the leather than I had thought. Next time I’m going to use a water soluble marker pen so I can wipe it off afterwards. The design was meant to be somewhere between Dwarven angular knots (as seen in Weta’s Hobbit production designs) and a more simple tribal design. I didn’t bother to measure it out because I wanted it to have a hand-made feel, and I’m an impatient person :).

The pyrography was simple: Gently, with very light pressure and with constantly moving motions, I burnt into the design with a soldering iron. The iron’s tip was a standard pointed, conical tip, which was held at an angle. The trick is to rotate the bag so that the tip burns the outside of the design’s edge cleanly. Let the tip make its own marks: Don’t fight them. The the inside of the design’s boundary can be scumbled or hatched in whichever way is desired. I used the small strap for the bag as a test, to make sure the leather was genuine and to see what sort of marks were made. The strap was too small for my purposes anyway, so there was no risk to the project if things went wrong. If you need your strap, I suggest testing out an inconspicuous spot before trying the main design.

The result was a very black design on a very light bag (Pic 3). I felt the whole thing needed to be aged because it still looked very 1970’s and the leather was too shiny. Borrowing a weathering technique from the great Adam Savage, the leather was then rubbed over with black acrylic paint using a dry j-cloth, and then almost immediately wiped off again with a damp one. Some areas I did more than once, and other areas I polished extra hard to give the impression of dirt worn off from use. This gave the bag a much older, used feel and reduced the contrast between the design and the surrounding leather (Pic4).

Next I’ll pyrograph a new and longer strap that goes across the body. I’ve also bought some metal studs for embellishments. Keep watching this space.

 Epic Beard, fit for a lady

The beard is made from a half-head wig of synthetic hair. This one cost £20. I originally intended to make a woolen beard as seen in this famous tutorial, but because the costume was going to include real chainmail, I felt it needed to look as authentic as possible.

Tools & items used: half head wig (£20), Scissors, needle and thread (thread to match hair colour), a stitch-ripper (optional), 2x safety pins, 2 x standard plain elastic ponytail bands, clear mini elastic hairbands, wide tooth comb, wig protector spray.

For the embellishments: mini crocodile hair clips, ribbon bows, acrylic paint, metal pin studs.

First I chose the hair piece to match my hair colour as closely possible (in my case: Schwarzkopf XXL Red Passion) (Pic1). The wig needed to be long so that it could be trimmed to the desired size – better too long than too short. This one is 22″, but a 12″ wig or hair piece should be enough for most. It is important that the hair piece has a lace front (for strength) and is not a full cap. This means it’s easy to cut apart without losing hair. It’s also useful for the hair on the wig/hairpiece to have a center parting and be without a fringe/bangs, allowing the long front to become a braided mustache and stay out of your nose and mouth.

The wig came with two plastic comb grips attached – one at the front and one at the back. I used a stitch ripper to remove them, but scissors would do in a pinch.

Then the mustache braids were separated and braided. I did this to keep the hair out of the way ready for cutting out the mouth piece, and to help determine the center of the beard on my face. The braids were held in place with the tiny elastic hair bands.

The wig was positioned upside down on the face so that the front center area (which is supposed to sit at the top of the forehead/hairline) sat under the nose. The nape of the neck went under the chin. It was then strategically cut in a few places to open up the rounded scalp shape and to provide a mouth hole (Pic4).

Only a single sewn strand of hair was cut out from the lace front of the wig (Pic2) . This was about 3″ wide to fit my mouth. Most of the cutting there was around the lace front, making a hole 3/4″ high and 3″ wide. I kept the hair strand and sewed it back into the front, under the bottom lip. This gave enough hair to cover the chin and the brown-coloured sewn bases of the hair strands. It also made it much less scratchy around the mouth.

The nape of the neck was eased apart from both sides of the wig by cutting through 5 sewn hair strands at the bottom and a few elastic supports. These were left to hang free, allowing the wig to dangle as 2 long mutton chops and a long chin piece, that were all still connected to the top/lace front. (Pic 4)

The next cuts were to remove some of the now very wide sides of the wig, so that it would fit on my face. I held up the wig to the center of my nose and made a note of where it reached my ears, then snipped the elastic and separated 5 more hair strands from each side. To keep these sections in good condition I braided them and kept them for use as sideburns later.

Next I positioned the hair bands using safety pins (Pic 4 & Pic10). It’s important to get the right tension here otherwise the wig will sag or pull your ears off. Note that to increase the tension, more of the band can be sewn onto the wig towards the nose (Pic 5). This took me 3 tries to get right. The result was a snug fitting beard with the center of the mustache in the right place – but the ear loops were visible. (Pic 6)

To cover the ear loops I marked the position where they intersected my natural hairline (Pic 7) and used the spare braided sections from earlier as additional sideburns. Stretching the ear loop, the sideburns were sewn on (Pic 11).  In order to ensure smooth outer edges of the wig, the left sideburn was sewn onto the left loop and the right onto the right. This covered the loops well enough for my purposes because I intend to have my hair down anyway. If they were to be visible I would probably buy another hair extension and shore this area up with more strands as this section of the wig was pretty thin.

The result so far is a very full beard that integrates pretty well with the hairline. Braiding the sideburns keeps them contained and fits with the general dwarven theme.

Next I’m going to trim and style the beard with accessories. Keep watching this space.

Chain mail-look Leggings

These were comparatively simple, but labour intensive: Hundreds of small circles were printed onto the fabric with 3D fabric paint.

Tools & items used: Black cotton-mix leggings, old cardboard box, scissors, silver 3D fabric paint (3 tubes +), a paint palette, an old-fashioned pencil tip eraser. (I also used some gold water-based enamel paint, a foam paint roller and some actual chain mail for a failed paint experiment which isn’t required, but for reasons of full disclosure is detailed below).

In preparation for painting, I used an old cardboard box to cut a generic leg shape to insert into the leggings (Pic 1). This allows the fabric to be lightly stretched and wrinkle free. It also stops any paint that saturates the fabric from painting the other side (Pic 2). The fabric paint I used was stretchy and seemed to contain some latex, so I didn’t want to glue the leg together by accident. The leg insert wasn’t even remotely to scale, which didn’t matter because the leggings used were on the roomy side for me, and the fabric wouldn’t be stretching too much. If I were using plain cotton leggings or tighter ones that would need to stretch a lot, I would have measured the cardboard insert to ensure more stretch was on the fabric when the paint was applied.

For the chain mail effect my first instinct was to use some spare chain mail panels I bought (as you do) to create some kind of contact print or stencil for the leggings. I used water-based gold enamel paint and a foam roller to load the paint onto the chain mail, and then pressed the chain mail onto the leggings. This resulted in a faint, very knitted looking print (Pic 3) which was enough to give a hint of directionality to a patten, but not nearly patterned enough. No matter, because the effect was subtle enough to give the impression of rust or wear underneath the silver, so it made a good base for the main printing.

The silver rings were printed onto the fabric using 3D fabric paint and the base of an old fashioned pencil eraser tip (Pic 4). The pencil eraser was great because it had a built-in handle, was made of rubber so held the paint really well, and the size was almost identical to actual full size chain mail rings. I simply squeezed the paint onto a palette (a plate would do), loaded up the tip and went at it. Each load of paint on the eraser printed about 4 rings before needing reloading.

The pattern was easy to create by printing the rings in rows and slightly overlapping each ring to give a chain effect (Pic 5). Some of the rings were very paint-heavy, others more subtle. I didn’t fight the medium and let it be messy in parts and neat in others, and the result looks pretty good overall (Pic 6). To get the best results, I found that:

  • It’s best to start at the bottom and work upwards so that the rings overlap from top to bottom.
  • It’s easier to get a straight horizontal pattern by positioning the legs horizontally so that you’re working vertically.
  • Depending on your costume needs, you might not need to print all the way up to the crotch/bum/waist (Pic 7)
  • You can print a third of a leg at a time before allowing the paint to dry, rotating the cardboard and carrying on the next batch
  • Vertical “seams” of heavy painted rings appear between these thirds/batches unless you deliberately stagger the heavy paint load from row to row
  • If you find your rows going off the vertical, you can add extra intermediate rings and it won’t be noticeable. It’s the overall pattern/density that is important. The occasional correction goes unnoticed.
  • Invest in an unabridged audiobook or two to keep your brain occupied while printing. Naturally my choice was The Truth by Terry Pratchett. 🙂

It took 3 tubes of 3D paint and around 8 hours of printing to complete the leggings. Being impatient I didn’t allow the paint to dry naturally between batches, but used a hairdryer to gently warm and cure the paint enough to work on the next batch. I worked on each leg alternately, so the semi-dried/cured leg was dangling free while I worked on the other.

Ultimately the leggings are very shiny and silver. For my needs I may tone this down with a light printing of brown or darker grey in parts (using plain old acrylic and a sponge) to give them a slightly more used feel. But we’ll see how they wash. The fabric paint claims that it’s OK to wash them at 40C and line dry them. I’m skeptical and will hand wash them instead.

Dwarven Helm with cast latex rams horns

By far the most time-intensive part of this build is the cast rams horns. Casting anything in latex is a long game, and something as large and thick as rams horns is going to take weeks to cure because I don’t have the facilities to oven bake it like the pros. In many ways this is a highly experimental endeavour, so forgive me if I give bad advice. It’s a learning experience!

All my research on casting says that fibreglass moulds are the way to go. I agree, but there is no way I’m working with that indoors in my craft room. My dad worked extensively with fibreglass in the past, most notably building a 40ft catamaran, so I know how nasty that stuff is and refuse to have it in anything other than a proper workshop. Which I don’t have. The next best thing is silicone and I immediately ordered some medium tensile stuff from e-bay.

Sadly the seller’s e-bay shop is closed for a fortnight so I won’t know if this stuff is any good until I’m back at work after my own crafting holiday. So I’ve resorted to Plan B, which is good old plasticine and open cast moulding.

Tools & items used: Large metal bowl, 4.5kg plasticine, hairdryer, 2x wooden boards, 2x rams horns (pair),  500ml liquid latex,  50ml latex thickener, 1 plastic coat hanger,  set square/ruler, sharp-ish kitchen knife.

The first thing I did was to thoroughly wash the ram’s horns (Pic1). They came from e-bay – well technically they came from an actual ram so who knows what kinds of filth and diseases they were covered with. A washing up bowl, some washing up liquid and a scrubbing brush were all that was needed to prep them for moulding.

Newplast is a great plasticine used by animators (Pic2). I’ve sculpted with it before and it’s versatile in that it gets quite hard when cool. To get the plasticine nice and pliant for moulding I broke it into small chunks and placed it in a large metal mixing bowl (glass or ceramic will also be fine) and warmed it with a hairdryer on the hot setting, for around 30 seconds to a minute. Throughout the moulding process, whenever the plasticine started to become harder, it was warmed it again for a few seconds to ensure seam free cohesion and easier working.

In as few chunks as possible, the rams horn was covered on one side with the plasticine, trying to get as few seams between plasticine chunks as I could. The the horn was positioned on one of the wooden boards in a horizontal position: I wanted the mould to be open and therefore needed to cut equally on each side. This meant some careful repositioning of the horn to ensure each cast side was as equal as possible, and was as horizontal as possible for the liquid latex. Actually, this was fairly difficult due to the coiled nature of the horn and took some time. I shored up the base as much as I could to provide stability and strength (Pic 5). I’m still not sure I did this properly. :/

Once one side was done, I covered the other side the same way. The I put the second board on top and flipped the whole mould upside down. This allowed the top side of the base to be shored up as well, making sure that the base was nice and horizontally flat top and bottom (Pic 6). Next the mould was measured and marked in the center all the way around (Pic 7) ready for cutting. It’s important to get this straight or the liquid will pour out of the lowest part, or not reach the highest part.

After marking, the plasticine was cut all the way down to the horn with a sharp-ish kitchen knife into the two parts of the mould. I didn’t use a craft knife because I didn’t want to damage the horn inside. I carefully pried the two sides apart. This caused some tearing on the mould around the tip, but it was relatively easy to put the horn back in and push the plasticine back into place. I did a bit more shoring up in areas where I hadn’t cut as equally as I’d hoped.

Looking closely at the mould it was clear that the plasticine had conformed really well to the shape, but still left small seams as it had been applied in separate chunks (Pic 8). In hindsight I should have rolled it into one large sausage and flattened that into the horn in one go. No big deal though, because some simple sculpting with the rounded edge of a pen blended these back in. The mould was now ready for filling (Pic 9).

Next I mixed the latex with the thickener until it was the consistency of gloopy cream and poured it into the moulds. Looking at the amount of latex it took (around 250ml for the horn in total) I started to worry about the weight of the horn when dry and hastily looked around for something to support the structure from the inside. A plastic coat hanger seemed the best idea, and I cut a strip off, unsuccessfully tried to bend it, and placed it onto one of the moulds (Pic 10). The thickened latex was thick enough to support its weight, so it didn’t immediately sink to the bottom where it might poke through. This was very much an afterthought though, and in a contact-sport LARP setting would probably make the helmet less safe because I didn’t have time to patch the ends with fabric.

[insert vast hiatus here]

So it’s been weeks/months since I had this part of the project on the go, and the verdict is that it was a complete failure. The major issue was the shrinkage of the latex as it dried. I kept topping it up but the horns pulled away from the mould edges resulting in a terribly suggestible shape in a dead-man’s appendage colour. The two sides just would not fit together. I won’t show pictures because…ewww. Suffice to say it all went in the bin and I started from scratch. Now if I had wanted to cast some wax into a candle, some plaster of paris or use some other form of hard form it might have been OK. But for anything soft or flexible, forget it.

What I needed to do, was to make a proper silicone mould in two parts. This tutorial on YouTube was perfect and so I got to it. 4 Kg of liquid silicone later, I had the 2-part moulds I needed for each horn. The things you need to know about silicone casting are:

  • It’s seriously expensive. I spent £30 on 2L of silicone. Twice. And then bought lots of other kit. I reckon the horns cost me about £100 in total.
  • You’ll need some relatively specialist kit such as a plastic tray, large disposable mixing cups and wooden stirrers and a kitchen scale that can measure in single grams. You’ll also need a glue gun, some foam core card and some clay. I used DAS clay substitute and it worked well.
  • It takes space and time. While the silicone fully cures overnight, the whole process is fiddly and you need space to mix, pour and cure.
  • Each horn needed two sides for the mould and I had to reuse the clay and the tray, so that was a lot of mixing, pouring, curing and drying. It took a week to get the moulds ready.

After all this, I was ready to cast the horns. Research showed that expanding foam was going to be the way to go. I did try to coat one of the moulds with a thin film of latex but it wouldn’t dry in the closed environment. In the end I bought some bog standard Polyfilla expanding foam in a small can, thinking what the hell, what’s the worst that can happen?

I dusted the moulds with baby powder closed them with gaffer tape (which didn’t stick very well, but did stick to itself) and lots of rubber bands. Then the foam was sprayed in, starting at the far tip of the mould and pulling out until it was full. The foam went a bit crazy and expanded out of the filler hole a bit, but this was good because it meant there were no air pockets in the horn itself. 6 hours later the casts were ready to open.

The results were awesome. Seriously awesome! The horns were incredibly lightweight, fairly robust given they have no core at all, and had taken the fine detailed shape of the moulds amazingly well. The foam was dense enough on the surface to get a great finish, and the bleed around the seams was easily trimmed away with a scalpel and sanded with a nail file and/or sand paper. It was so quick and easy that I made 3 pairs of horns from a single small can of filler over the weekend. I can also make more very easily now I have the moulds. If you want a pair at a reasonable price, just ask!

Pix coming soon!

Embellished Tabard

Tools & items used: 2m heavyweight fabric, 2m heavy upholstery calico (black), ~6m printed ribbon/trim, cotton thread, pins, sewing needle, scissors, iron, sewing machine. Optional: applique design for the front, invisible thread.

This is a standard tabard design (Pic 1), made with standard sewing techniques. I won’t go into detail here other than to mention these few tips:

  • Use apholsterer’s calico, it’s much more heavy duty than the regular kind and gives a pleasingly weighty result
  • If the outer fabric is thick, stiff or heavy (and it should be) don’t bother sewing the pieces together until the trim is ready to sew on. Just tacking is enough to keep front back and inner lining in place (Pic 2)
  • There are better ways to sew the neckline but I didn’t bother because I knew it would be under chain mail anyway
  • I wish I had sloped the shoulders down a little because without the mail mantle they fly upwards making me look like Ming the Merciless. 🙂
  • The applique wolf’s head (Pic 5)  is from e-bay and was very reasonable. It was sewn on by hand with invisible nylon thread
  • Look at my lovely new pin cushion!

 Dwarven Toe-Caps

In progress – coming soon!

Tools & items used: Foam camping mat, contact adhesive and glue spreader, scissors, craft knife, scraps of fabric, gaffer tape, thick elastic band, liquid latex and thickener, foam roller, acrylic paints, disposable paint brush. Optional: Wad punch, Latex mouldings for embellishments, made using liquid latex, latex thickener and a plastic mould for chocolate making.

Dwarven Gaiters

In progress – coming soon!



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