Casting prop books and making ‘specials’

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books c 1:6 scale

Continuing with the subject of prop-making for stop-motion animation, back in 2011 I had to make a small library full of books for one particular film. I made both the sets and props, including furniture, and the heads of the puppets for this one. The setting was broadly based on Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill so the books had to look ‘antique’ but with a little more freedom in the choice of colours. Most of the books on the shelves needed only simple surface treatment, and could be faked because they weren’t going to be taken out or touched, so for the most part it was sufficient to create ‘blocks’ of convincing frontage with some suggestions of depth at the sides and tops. But there also needed to be many piles of loose books on the floor and on tables, plus a proportion of loose books in the shelves, and a few of these actually needed to be opened! Below is a close-up of part of the shelf-book frontage with singles interspersed. Many thanks to Astrid Baerndal for this and countless other excellent photos in the past!

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books in shelves, c 1:6 scale

Since all of the books .. whether faked blocks, simple or more involved singles .. were made in polyurethane resin, the painting method was basically the same. The castings have to be left for a few days to fully cure; then they need to be lightly scrubbed in warmish water and detergent; then primed using a plastic primer such as Simoniz or Rust-Oleum; after which they can be painted with regular acrylic using whatever preferred methods. I used a mixture of my usual acrylics .. DecoArt ‘Crafter’s’ or ‘Americana’ also Rosco Supersaturated and in addition Vallejo Model Color for fine details and transparent glazing. Given the prominent ribbing and other textures the ‘worn’ look was easily achieved with a combination of careful sanding with a sponge-backed sanding pad and some dry-brushing. The film-makers agreed that any attempt even to suggest writing on the books would have been too overwhelming in effect .. quite apart from the effort, since there were many hundreds of them!

Library at Strawberry Hill, watercolour original by John Carter 1784

Above is the original watercolour by John Carter showing the library at Strawberry Hill, published by Walpole in 1784. Below is a photo I took of part of the 1:6 scale set in progress, under natural light without the full decoration, just to rehearse how the first try-outs of the shelf books were going to look. In addition to the blocks of 4-5 books at a time I included a number of individual books which could lean against them and impart, I’d hoped, a less regimental, more informal and certainly less tightly packed look than most of the other ‘old library’ references I’d seen. The other reason was that there would be scenes where some of the books fell from the shelves and started flying around the room!

David Neat, set for stop-motion animation (in progress, unfinished) c 1:6 scale

To look more closely at the ‘singles’ first .. my plan for the more detailed individual books was to prototype a collection of different covers and ‘spines’ in various matching sizes, and assemble these around a Kapa-line foam core. This was because the books had to be as light as possible and it was also because I had a good technique for scraping the foam with rough sandpaper to look just like blocks of old paper. I had some sample swatches of embossed paper from the firm E.Becker and these, together with some vinyl wallpaper patterns, were just the thing for creating some variety in the book cover surfaces. I cut and sanded shapes in 2mm Palight foamed-PVC and spraymounted the patterned paper on. I sanded/impressed the ribbed spine parts in Kapa-line foam.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book parts ready for mouldmaking, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, moulds and casts of book parts, c 1:6 scale

I think I must have run out of my usual Lukasil 429 silicone rubber to make all of the moulds so for the spines I used some leftover paste-form silicone which involved completing the mould block with a plaster ‘jacket’. The casts above are made from Tomps Fast Cast Polyurethane. Below is a collection of individual books ready for painting.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast books unpainted, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, various 1:6 scale model books

Above is a selection of the individually finished books showing the range of sizes and different treatments. There are touches of gold, which I preferred to be very sparing with. Thanks again to Astrid Baerndal for the beautiful photo!

The bulk of the shelf books needed also needed to be as light as possible. Because of the size of the model and the number of shelves to be filled I think I’d calculated that it would involve about 5 metres worth of miniature frontage!. For these ‘blocks’ I shaped individual fronts (only about 2cm deep) varying the heights and thicknesses, stuck them together and made moulds from them. These Kapa-line prototypes below are already simply painted because I wanted to test whether the detailing would be sufficient when dry-brushed to look worn.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting runs of books, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, prototype and mould for 'book blocks'

Shown above is one of the block moulds together with, this time, the painted resin cast. What is visible at the bottom of this is actually the top .. I’d realised I would have to detail at least the first centimetre or so at the top because this might be seen. Below shows the making of these complete blocks in progress, involving a short line of ‘frontage’ with a ‘complete’ book attached either side. This was necessary because the full depth would be seen when the loose individual books in between fell or flew out.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, 'blocks' of shelf books being made

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book moulds being filled with resin and foam

The parts of these book-blocks were cast in a resin/Fillite mixture (Fillite is a very light, grey ash filler commonly used in resin casting, especially where reduced weight is needed). As a further reduction to the weight I inserted blocks of Kapa-line foam while casting.

I’d made the range of individual, more detailed books first so I could make moulds of some of these to cast the larger end-books for the blocks, because for these it didn’t matter that one side would be blank.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, completed books ready to be moulded for re-casting

As I’ve said, there were a few special books that either needed to be opened and read in the course of the action or others which would flap like birds around the room. Luckily for me, I didn’t need to introduce tight hinges to animate this ‘flapping’, so I choice to make the practical books using cut portions of cheap notebooks, choosing only those in which the pages were firmly glued to a cloth spine which I could also attach to the cast covers. I could seal most of these pages shut, leaving a few free at the place of opening. These I covered with copies of minutely scaled-down text on especially thin cream coloured paper.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, making a 'working' book, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, c 1:6 scale practical books

I had a particular challenge coming up with a method of achieving the elaborate, raised cobweb design on the main book above. I wanted it to be as fine and sharp as possible so this ruled out drawing it on with a relief medium, even one of the relatively fine relief outliners used in glass painting. In any case, this might not have survived much handling! Luckily I had been thinking for a while about possible methods of ‘working in negative’ .. that is, casting into voids or depressions made to achieve certain effects instead of working ‘positive’ .. so I made use of the ease with which Palight foamed-PVC can be finely incised (a little like lino-cutting) as a mould for casting this very detailed form.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, carving a 'negative' for raised decoration on a 1:6 scale book


Finally getting the hang of Instagram


I’ve been thinking about tackling Instagram for a while .. because I desperately needed more opportunity not to have to write that much .. if you can believe it!  But because I process photos quite ‘seriously’ on my PC before letting them loose, and because I have a Windows phone which I’m determined to keep until the bitter end .. there just didn’t seem much hope! But recently I did yet another search for alternative ways of uploading to Instagram, and finally I’ve found a way that works .. like a dream! It simply involves installing the free browser Vivaldi on the PC (no need to make it the default browser) and accessing Instagram through that! The extra piece of software doesn’t weigh the computer down like some other methods I’ve tried and failed with. The only drawback is that it only allows me to upload one photo at a time rather than grouped .. but this could change, and personally I prefer that anyway. Here’s the link where I found out about it ..

I’ll be posting on Instagram more regularly than here, I would imagine. WordPress will remain my serious ‘writing’ place, and I’ll be able to elaborate here especially regarding ‘instructional’ content but .. you might have noticed .. I seem to have less and less time to do that these days. Here are some images from the couple of posts I’ve put on Instagram so far .. and if you’re interested, have a look at


Above .. works in progress. Green styrofoam ‘beasts’ shaped in two halves, ready to be sealed to make moulds and casts from, and polyurethane resin cast ‘Arpish Dancers’ which I’m testing on a mock-lacquer sushi plate.

Below .. I recently ‘re-vamped’ some pen drawings from the Thames Foreshore made a few years ago, converting them into transparent ‘layers’, colouring them in Procreate and finishing them in PaintShop Pro. This is ‘Base#1-1’ and below is an enlarged detail from ‘Base#2-1’

Below .. resin cast ‘eggs’ and foamed-PVC ‘twigs’ collection. I’ve given the PVC my usual treatment of ‘graining’ with sandpaper and staining with Spectrum Noir alcohol ink pens, to resemble bone or wood. I’ve surfaced the mat underneath with a laminated digital sketch .. part of my experimentation with different presentations, or ‘contexts’ as I call them, for the ensembles of small sculptural forms.


March casting exercise – ‘Two legs good..’ Part 3

Part 2 of this exercise, posted at the beginning of February, finished with the completion of a multi-piece silicone rubber mould of a plastic rhino toy used as a practise form. The form had two special requirements; the first being the need for a separate ‘plug’ piece to fill the area under the belly (between the four legs) and the second, as an extra safeguard, a separate mould piece for the top half of the head because otherwise the details of horns and ears would be difficult to fill without trapping air. This head portion will be cast first and then inserted into the main mould before casting the rest.

This technique of casting in stages, let’s call it additive casting, works best when working with resin because this usually binds strongly to itself. Resin was also necessary for this form because it is a relatively small size, and the horns and ears could be especially fragile. I am using a standard, low-viscosity (thin and flowing) polyurethane resin from Sika called ‘Biresin G26’. Most polyurethane resins are reasonably thin and can flow into quite intricate moulds. Most also share the following characteristics: they are supplied in two parts which are mixed in equal measure; these two parts are usually translucent until mixed, turning opaque as they cure to anything from white to beige dependent on the brand; initial hardening is quick (5-20mins); they are strong when fully cured but rarely brittle, retaining a little flexibility; they can easily be coloured or filled with other materials. In fact it is common to add a filler to resin, partly to economise. For this exercise I am using a specially manufactured ash called Fillite, a certain amount of which can be added to the resin without making it difficult to pour. It also gives it an interesting surface quality. Many powdered materials (such as talc, marble or slate dust) can be used as fillers as long as they are inert i.e. not affecting the chemical reaction which has to take place for the resin to cure.

The photo above shows equal amounts of Parts A and B of the polyurethane resin measured by eye in disposable plastic cups. The same amount of Fillite (light grey) is also portioned. I have found that this proportion, in total 2:1 resin to Fillite is best if one still wants the mix to flow. One can add much more filler to the resin if one wishes but this results in a thicker mix which is more suitable for spreading than pouring. This for example might be ideal for laminating, that is, building up a shell inside the mould parts in order to make a hollow cast instead of pouring a solid one.

The Fillite must be mixed into one part of the resin ( I’ve found it doesn’t really matter which) before the two resin parts are mixed together. This is because once the resin parts are mixed the time available to pour is very limited, basically just a couple of minutes. In the photo below the small head mould is supported on a bed of rice (so that its position can be easily adjusted). Working quickly, a little of the resin mix was poured into the recesses of horns and ears first and a cocktail stick poked around to displace trapped air, then the rest was poured. It is difficult to mix very small amounts of resin properly, particularly if there are three parts to the mix so I usually mix up larger, more measureable amounts and, if there’s time, use the excess for filling something else.

Above, these details on the rhino head (especially the ears) would never have filled properly if pouring the whole form from the top in one go. Small castings in resin may take a little longer to cure (the standard term for setting by chemical reaction rather than hardening simply by evaporation of water) since the greater the volume of resin the more heat is generated, which in turn accelerates curing. Large resin casts (whether polyurethane or polyester) can become extremely hot during this process!

The head portion has been eased into its position in the main mould. It will of course fit snuggly since it’s the identical form. When the mould is reassembled and secured tightly more resin can be mixed to fill the rest of the form. As long as the same proportion of Fillite is used the colours will match and the join should be invisible. It doesn’t matter how fully cured the head portion has become in the meantime; the new resin will bind firmly to it. Below is the mould set-up ready for pouring, couched on a bed of rice so that the mould top can be checked with a spirit level and adjusted. Since I have not incorporated pouring funnels etc. in this particular case, an extra precaution was to grease the plaster part of the mould top with Vaseline so that in the event that resin overflowed it could be more easily peeled off once hardened.

The form was carefully demoulded (taken out of the mould) after about 20mins. The plug was kept in place untill last of all partly to protect the legs which would be in a slightly softer state than the body untill fully cured. Full curing of resin varies with type but can usually take a few days.

However well-fitting the mould pieces might be there will always be wafer thin  ‘flashing’ where the resin has seeped into the mould seams. Polyurethane resin cures very quickly and can normally be safely demoulded after about 15 minutes, though various brands may differ if they’ve been developed for a specific use i.e. hollow casting. With most there is a so-called ‘green stage’ fresh out of the mould when the resin should be firm but still a little rubbery. This is the best time to trim or sand away such things as seam lines.

Below, if you imagine the rhino form feet-up and as a hollow cavity which is gradually filled through one of the legs, the liquid resin rises comfortably until it gets to the belly which becomes a ‘celing’ to the cavity. Air can easily get trapped here as it can no longer be pushed so easily upwards. A certain amount of rocking and tapping while pouring can help a lot but may not get rid of all. Often a channel would be drilled in the silicone plug (the pink part here) from the problem area to the outside top of the mould, to allow air to escape. Normally a test cast is made (or a few) to locate these problem areas first. Otherwise, a little more of the resin/filler mix can be made and the holes patched up, then trimmed or sanded. Polyurethane resin can be tooled (worked with power tools, carved or sanded) very easily, especially if a lightweight filler such as Fillite has been added.

Finally below, the finished cast (with the original behind it). I’d mentioned above that the Fillite gives the resin mix a sympathetic colour (which is also slightly speckled). This is one common purpose of fillers (especially marble or slate dust), to impart an appearance of other materials. But resins discolour in time; the UV (ultra violet) component of daylight causes yellowing. This is noticeable even if a filler or pigment has been added. In the case of polyester resins a UV blocker is available which can be added to the mix to prevent this. So far I don’t know of any equivalent additive for polyurethane resins. What this means is that if any permanence is needed for the surface effect polyurethane resin needs to be painted and, common to all plastics, that can mean quite a bit of preparation especially if the form will be handled.

Painting is another subject in itself, which I will probably deal with at some point, but for the moment.. the polyurethane cast should ideally be given a few days to fully cure, after which it should be carefully scrubbed in warm soapy water. It is better still to use a scouring powder which will make the surface ever so slightly rougher and more paint- receptive. Lastly the form needs a good priming coat using a spray primer, the best of which is Simoniz Acrylic primer. The most reliable, hard-wearing and versatile paints I’ve found, all of which are suitable on plastic if primed, are; Humbrol enamels, Rosco ‘Supersaturated’ scenic acrylics or Osmo oil/wax wood paints.