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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Modelling, mouldmaking and casting course

The next course is scheduled to take place on March 12-16 in Deptford, London SE8 and there are (at the time of writing) still some places available.

April 2011

This is quite an intensive 5-day practical course designed for sculptors, model-makers, prop/puppet-makers or anyone wishing to learn more about the complete process of creating small forms, making moulds and reproducing them in different materials. The focus on ‘small’ forms (i.e. under 20cm) has been imposed simply by the time constraints within 5 days and most of the materials or procedures involved would be the same for larger work. For the same reasons, although we cover many aspects of modelling and shaping within the 5 days, participants are also asked to bring objects for casting with them. One should be fully 3D (such as a head or figure) for 2-piece mouldmaking and the other a simpler one-sided form. In the event that anyone prefers to work on a specific independent project during the course we can usually find ways to accommodate this as long as it’s not too dissimilar, but this would need to be discussed in advance.

We begin the course, rather like ‘jumping in the deep end’ by looking at the 3D objects brought and discussing how the more complicated moulds for these should be made. The reason is, we need to get this process started straight away because it takes at least three days to finish a 2-piece mould. A crucial decision is how the mould halves need to be divided and often it pays to take one’s time in rehearsing this.

rehearsing mould divisions

Participants then begin to prepare their prototypes (meaning the initial sculpture or ‘model’) for the first mould half, usually by creating a half-way bed of plasticine or clay around the form.

making the mould division wall

This is then followed by mixing silicone rubber into a ‘thixotropic’ (non-slump) paste which is carefully coated onto the first prototype half, making sure that all details are properly filled. This usually brings us well into the afternoon of the first day and the moulds-in-progress need to be set aside while the silicone is allowed to cure overnight. The plasticine wall being added in the photo below is in preparation for the next stage once the silicone is ready, which is making a plaster ‘jacket’ to support this half of the mould.

preparing first half of mould for plaster jacket

For the rest of the day we turn to the subject of modelling in ‘Super Sculpey’, a polymer clay widely used by sculptors especially in the film industry and we look at various ways of working with it including the use of internal supports (armatures or foam blocks) or the use of a variety of tools for impressing and texturing.

Sculpey hand modelling

The practical exercise involves each participant modelling their own hand in 1:3 scale, working in two separate halves on reduced photocopies of their hand outline. The photocopies serve well as guiding templates and the hand prototypes can then be moulded the next day using meltable vinyl. This exercise has proved to be popular and straightforward since all information is ‘to hand’ .. but there are alternative options.

By the beginning of the second day we return to the 2-piece mould and fairly shortly after the first plaster jacket is made the first mould half can be turned over, cleaned up (plasticine removed) and the whole process repeated for this surface.

ready for second half of mould

By this time the ‘pattern’ for the five days has been established, of preparing a stage/ moving to something else while waiting (a standard characteristic of mouldmaking or casting work). We manage to pack quite a lot into the five days. After the simpler 1-piece moulds for flatter objects are made (using silicone or vinyl) and the 2-piece mould is complete, participants can try various methods and materials for casting: whether hollow shell or solid; using plaster, resin or plaster/polymer mix; using fillers or colourants; pouring or press-casting.

April 2011 various castings being made

Included along the way is a look at methods of shaping rigid foams (such as styrofoam and polyurethanes) to achieve a variety of prototype shapes. We also demonstrate working with alginate (for life casting), working with latex, absorption casting using latex or clay slip and metallic ‘cold casting’ using polyester resin with metal powder. On the last day, amongst other things attention is given to methods of painting or patination. We always aim for the right balance between the showing of illustrative examples, time spent on practical demonstration and ‘hands on’ activity.

examples to show press-casting hollow heads

Throughout the course participants are assisted in photographing their work to provide a complete record of making-processes and results. In any case each receives a fully instructional CD which includes step-by-step photo tutorials of all the processes covered, together with technical information on the materials and lists of suppliers.

The course is full-time, Monday to Friday, starting at 10.30 and finishing at 5.30 each day. The cost per person is £400 and all practical materials are included. If you would like to know more you can email me at davneat@aol.com or find a full course description including detailed schedule (and a separate .pdf with guidance on the choice of objects to bring) at this link …..

https://skydrive.live.com/?cid=eaecd1e7a26821ec&id=EAECD1E7A26821EC%21104#cid=EAECD1E7A26821EC&id=EAECD1E7A26821EC%21217

….. yes, it’s quite a ‘mouthful’ so it’s just as well that it isn’t!