Modelling small-scale figures – Part 1: ‘twisted wire’ armature

Here is a full, step-by-step account of making a simple twisted wire armature suitable for 1:25 scale figures. I’ve been meaning to put this together for some time, since long before WordPress, because in my book I suggest a more involved method soldering brass and there was a need for an easier alternative. A good armature is not merely the support for a soft material which would otherwise lose its shape; it should also provide guidance on where to model, in the way that a version of the human skeleton would when modelling on a larger scale. For this reason I’ve found it valuable to define torso and pelvis mass by adding thin cardboard pieces.

I also felt that I definitely needed to choose a wire that was easy for anyone to find again and, hopefully, always available. It’s not enough to say ‘use a very thin wire’ .. because the right kind of thin wire isn’t easy to find! Luckily I’ve found the perfect one for this purpose, a thin plastic-coated garden wire from B&Q called ‘B&Q Value Plant Twist Tie’ costing £1.98 for a 50metre spool. An almost identical kind of wire and spool can be found sometimes in £shops. The whole armature is made from one continuous length of wire, doubled up and twisted fairly tightly together. Although the plastic ribbon adds to the bulk, you will see from the photo below that it compresses well when twisted. If twisted firmly and evenly the final thickness is only a little more than 1mm, representing 3cm at 1:25 scale. What’s more, the twisted surface gives a much better key for modelling material than smooth wire alone. This form of coated wire is also very strong (although it doesn’t have to be so much for this purpose). For example I’ve been testing it as a possible alternative to thicker aluminium wire for animation puppets and at the last marathon ‘bending session’ I reached 100 times back and forth on a fairly fixed point until I gave up .. it seemed completely unaffected!

wire armature

Here below are the scaled templates I’ve drawn up, used as guides throughout the making process. The first is for a 175-180cm male, the second for a 160-165cm female. I’ve uploaded them at proper size (right-click and save) so they should print out at the right scale but if not they are available to download (along with some other modelling reference sheets) on an older resource site of mine:

http://cid-eaecd1e7a26821ec.skydrive.live.com/browse.aspx/.Public

These template drawings need a bit of explanation. The proportions are based on an ‘idealised average’, if that makes sense, i.e. male a little taller and with broader shoulders than real average and female a little more shapely. The stick figures include hands and feet, just so that it’s clear where these are .. but I usually recommend snipping the wires for arms and legs just halfway into the hand or foot symbol. That is explained below. The torso and pelvis ‘plates’ are indicated by the lighter outlines. Just about any thin (i.e. up to 1mm) strong card can be used, or even thin wood, but not plastic because this will distort with the heat of baking if Super Sculpey is to be used. The drawings also indicate where elbow and knee joints are likely to come, as reference for later modelling. The ‘high kicking’ legs drawn with a dashed line are just there to be able to measure the full length that the leg wires should be outstretched, before they’re glued to the sides of the pelvis plate.

male soft wire armature 1to25

female soft wire armature 1to25

A 70cm length of wire is needed for a 1:25 scale figure, allowing for some extra in case of mistakes. The wire needs to be folded to find the mid-point and the two strands twisted together from there forming a little loop for the head. The neck is then twisted down to the shoulder line. The head-loop should be kept small, certainly no bigger than the size indicated on the drawing. One problem with achieving realistic figures in this small scale is that the heads invariably end up too big, usually too round .. what I call the ‘Playmobil syndrome’ .. so it’s best to guard against this from the beginning. Although this wire is easy enough to twist using just the fingers it may help to use a cocktail stick as a lever, shown below.

twisting wire

The length of the ‘neck’ should then be checked against the drawing (below I’ve placed it a little underneath just so that you can see the drawing) and the two strands of wire splayed out.

checking shoulder line

Each strand will first form an arm, and this is done by making a loop which returns to the centre. To be safe make the loop extend about 1.5cm longer than the drawn arm, because the wire contracts when twisted.

forming loop for arm

Hold the two strands of wire firmly together at the bottom of the ‘neck’ and start twisting from there. Twisting is much easier, and more regular, if after a few twists you open out the loop to use as a lever.

twisting loop for arm

Keep going until the loop becomes a bit too small to manage with the fingers and then check against the drawing. The arm needs to be long enough to extend just halfway into the hand shape, not right to the fingertips.

twisting loop for arm

At this scale hands are so slight and the wire is too thick for them. This way there’s just enough wire to attach a small ‘flipper’ shape to it, to suggest a hand.

trimming to length

The wire can be cut with an old pair of scissors, but it’s much easier and more accurate to use proper wire snippers below. Actually they’re known as ‘wire nippers’, just for cutting wire, with a head like a puffin. £shops don’t tend to have them but the cheapest one’s I’ve found in London are from the Danish chain ‘Tiger’, small ones for £2 usually found in the crafts section.

wire snippers

Below, of course next comes the other arm done in exactly the same way. But make sure that you do this with the right strand of wire remaining. There are two .. take the longer one! It may seem obvious to some, but anything can happen during a lapse in concentration!

other arm

But here it’s also important to try to make the twist start as level as possible with the first arm.

keeping shoulder line straight

Next, twist the two remaining strands together to form the spine as far down as the top of the pelvis shape.

twisting down to pelvis

This is where the armature starts becoming something more identifiable .. more believable. Use the drawing as a shape template to cut thin pieces of card for the torso and pelvis (see the paragraph at top, just above the template drawings). Tack the torso piece to the drawing using UHU or double-sided tape and position the wire figure over it, pressing down so that the wire lies as flat as possible on the cardboard.

positioning for torso

Below I’m fixing the torso in place with superglue, adding baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) to accelerate and thicken the glue. It’s the quickest and strongest method. Superglue alone can’t be made to stick enough to this kind of plastic, but adding the powder seems to ‘cement’ it solidly.

gluing

Above and below, I’ve dripped thin superglue over the wire pieces, enough to run onto the cardboard, then used a plastic brush loaded with the baking soda to drop it onto the glue. It sets almost immediately into a rock-hard mass, filling gaps between the wires and the cardboard.

using baking soda

hardened superglue

Other things could be used for this such as 2-part epoxy glue, which can be fast, but this is instant and the rough surface is a good key for any modelling clay. Using baking soda as an accelerator and gap-filler with superglue has been known about for some time but as yet I’ve found no complete explanation as to why it works so well. I’ve read that superglue, apart from needing a small amount of moisture to set, also needs neutral ph conditions (i.e. not too acidic) and since baking soda is often used to create just that (i.e. used as an antacid, for example) this may have something to do with it. It may also just be physical rather than chemical. When superglue is filled with particles of a certain type the chain molecules that form as it sets don’t have so far to go perhaps, so setting is quicker?

But getting back to this, the next stage is to repeat the process for the legs …

legs

… and cement them to the pelvis piece in the same way. The surplus strands of wire can be cut off after gluing.

gluing to pelvis shape

The legs need to be secured along the top of the pelvis piece first, then bent round the outside edge and glued in place. That’s another great advantage of superglue, to be able to glue in small installments!

gluing to pelvis

The armature is now ready to be modelled upon! My technique of modelling, whether I’m using Super Sculpey ( a polymer clay which needs heat to harden) or Milliput ( a 2-part epoxy putty which cures on it’s own), is to build up very slight body masses first, just enough to make those parts of the wire inflexible but keeping the joints free so that the figure can still be repositioned. It’s easier to work on the general shapes of these body masses, and to keep the symmetry above all, while the figure is still a ‘spreadeagle’.

But the modelling is a separate chapter, which will follow at some point …

armatures in progress

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Working with ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc

I’m really very keen now to get a better idea of just how many people are working with this wonderful stuff or have even heard of it? I’ve been working with it for years having been introduced to it by a good model-maker friend from the US. I’ve always assumed it must be well known to architectural and product model-makers here in the UK but since I don’t mix with them (as much as I might like) I’m really not sure anymore. Another reason for my doubt is that 4D in London are now planning to stock it (partly at my suggestion) but they’ve always been very much in touch with what their customers might be looking for and obviously haven’t noted a significant enough demand up to now. Even though many established freelancers or model-making firms may be more likely to order in bulk from other sources the ‘knowledge’ does normally tend to filter through to the rest of the community. So I’d be very grateful for any feedback on this i.e. whether you’ve heard of it and from where, whether you use it and for what?

The following ‘article’ is a transcript of the guidance sheet I’ve put together especially for 4D in conjunction with their presentation of my 1:25 scale teaching kit in the shop later in May (see previous post May1st). Therefore there’s some emphasis on small-scale work but foamed Pvc is available in thicknesses up to 20mm making it applicable for virtually any scale of work! I’ve also just started to compile a directory of materials accessed from the ‘header’ menu above in which I will group information like this according to material.

Foamed Pvc is an extremely versatile sheet plastic. Of all the different brands I’ve tried over the years Palight has proved to be by far the easiest to work with by hand. In fact it’s become my own first choice as the basis for almost everything I make! It can be easily cut with a scalpel, or carved, sanded, even embossed to a certain extent. It can be painted without any danger of warping (though it will usually require priming first) is not affected by humidity or (within reason) heat from strong lights. It is also incredibly light! For example, when I use it to make larger-scale sets for stop motion animation it delivers the structural strength of Mdf at a fraction of the weight! The only caveat in all this is the fact that it can only be glued with superglue, but on the other hand this gives a very strong bond and also once one has mastered the option of ‘gluing from outside’ it all becomes much easier!

I’ve chosen and illustrated three examples of its use: firstly using 1mm Pvc (the thinnest available) for intricate forms; secondly using 2mm Pvc for general construction; thirdly using Pvc as one may not otherwise have expected, to create surface effects.

Although it’s much easier to draw on foamed Pvc with a pencil (unlike styrene or Abs) I prefer to work out a design on paper and spraymount a copy on the plastic. In the photo below I have started cutting out the ironwork shape through the paper. Curves are much easier with Pvc than cardboard because the composition is much smoother, with no particles or fibres to affect the passage of the blade. Cutting is easier also because it is more porous (foamed) on the inside and will ‘give’ a little under the blade causing much less friction.

If the paper cutting template is lightly fixed with spraymount (especially the repositionable type) it can be easily peeled off the form once cut.

In this case the Pvc cut-out serves as a firm, cleanly cut basis upon which more detail, profiling or strengthening can be added on top. It’s a constructional principle of ‘building in layers’ which I’ve developed for myself over the years and try to follow most of the time. Below I’m adding a strip of styrene (a harder plastic which can be bought in a wide variety of pre-made strip formats) to make a thicker top rail. The easiest way to glue this on in exactly the right place first time is to position a guide-block (in this case a metal block) against the top, press the cut length of styrene against it and run a little thin superglue (using a plastic gluing brush or cocktail stick if preferred) along the join. The thin type of superglue will travel into the join and set immediately.

Below, I am doing similar but this time with a very thin (c. 1mm) cut strip of the same Pvc to give the arches more substance. Pvc is nicely bendable, especially in thin strips. The trick with bonding a strip in an exact curve is to fix the strip with a spot of glue at one end first, then curve and position the rest, ‘spot-gluing’ at intervals to the other end. I’ve cut the strip a little longer, to be trimmed off when the end is reached.

The following example illustrates some of the benefits of using foamed Pvc to construct walls etc. Even thin Pvc will retain its rigidity well. For example 1mm Pvc can be used to represent walls up to 30cm high easily, as long as they’re not load-bearing. Because Pvc sands well cut edges can be cleaned up if uneven and right-angles bettered prior to gluing together. Also because Pvc sands well the visible joins after gluing can be sanded often to invisibility!

In the next example I am constructing a piece of vaulted ceiling by first making a framework box (2mm Pvc) and then curving a thinner piece of Pvc underneath it. Curves are much easier to cut smoothly in Pvc because there is no grain and the material ‘gives’ a little. It is also possible to make a definite guiding groove in the soft surface using a compass fitted with two metal points. Curves can also be perfected by sanding them.

Here I have scored the 1mm on one side to help it to bend. The same can be done by heating it uniformly and securing it until cool on a curved surface such as a bottle. The piece can be glued in position, in much the same way as the curved profiles on the ironwork example, by first securing one end, pressing the rest into position and ‘spot- gluing’ from outside. Here the end has been made purposely longer and can be easily trimmed off once the rest is glued.

Whereas other plastics such as styrene or Abs can be sanded to modify the surface, because foamed Pvc ‘gives’ so much more it can be inscribed or even embossed to create different textures. Here is just one example where I have scraped the surface with coarse sandpaper to simulate wood.

To build up the structure of wood panelling I first cut out the raised areas as continuous pieces, then pressed firmly with sandpaper (120 grit, mounted on a small block) along the length of each part. ‘Grain follows length’ almost always for any realistic wood construction.

I scraped those areas of the base piece which would remain visible as panels then stuck the frames into position (just spacing dots of superglue). I used different thicknesses of ‘half-round’ profile styrene (also sanded) inside the panels and around the door frame.

The painting method and the choice of medium are fairly crucial in making this technique work. Normally it wouldn’t  be reasonable to paint plastic with any water-based paint  and expect it to stay, but because the surface is sanded it can grip quite well. The paint needs to emphasize the scratches made by the sandpaper, settling well in the grooves but not too much on the surface. Sometimes this can be achieved well with washes of thin paint, other times by rubbing in/rubbing off like a polish. For this example I just used a regular System3 yellow ochre acrylic thinned down with a little water and ‘rubbed into’ the plastic surface using a medium-hard brush. It takes some practise to find out for oneself what a particular painting medium might do and how best to do it.

1:25 scale feature at the 4D modelshop, London

I’m exhibiting my 1:25 scale teaching kit for a short while at the 4D modelshop 120 Leman St, London E1 8EU www.modelshop.co.uk as part of their focus in May on working in 1:25 scale. Because of teaching commitments I can’t donate it for the whole month but it will be there from the 15th. The kit comprises model examples, worksheets and material samples and I started developing this compact form (the intention to fit everything into a box measuring 350x530x100mm) when I was asked to teach in Helsinki last December and I imagined that I wouldn’t have much more than half the space of a suitcase after all the thermals went in!  As it happened it was the warmest Helsinki December for a long time and I spent most of the time in t-shirts but the Helsinkibox as I call it for short has remained one of my better ideas and I have continued to develop it. My aim is to keep refining it until I have illustrated just about every material and technique that it likely to feature in my regular teaching .. without adding to the overall volume! This is quite a challenge since I obsessively update my teaching plans and continue researching new materials and methods almost every day.

What’s rather satisfying though is the thought that the project has become very similar to a theatre design brief, in which the ‘stage space’ has a physical limit and the materials are ‘characters’ which need to be conveyed (sometimes under various disguises) by means of ‘set pieces’.

4D modelshop have also asked me whether I can contribute a few guidance sheets focusing on some of the materials displayed which will be printed out and available to take away (adding to 4D’s already impressive array of free guidance sheets!). I am planning to post them here in my usual format but am hoping to open up a new section for these, accessed from the menu underneath the header image, with the title ‘Materials’. This will I hope make it easier to search for guideline information on using specific materials.