The Costume Counselor: Armor 101

Armor is, without a doubt, one of the most intimidating things out there.  And I’m not just talking about when you’ve got a legion of stormtroopers marching towards you led by Darth Vader although okay yeah that’s a little scary if it’s unexpected.  No, I’m talking about the process of actually making armor for yourself.  We’re not going to go into the crazy world of vacuum forming or the kits that you can buy for stormtroopers.  Instead, we’ll look at the more affordable armor materials that are out there.

Let’s cover a couple of basics first.  All of these materials are going to require heat to shape them.  You can get a heat gun/embossing gun from almost any craft store but BE CAREFUL.  Things can get very hot very fast and you may burn yourself if you’re not cautious.  I speak from personal experience.   You’re also going to need to paint the crap out of whatever material you use.  Some of these will need multiple layers of gesso plus sanding in order to get a smooth surface.  (I will admit that this is something I haven’t quite yet mastered…)  I also cannot recommend enough getting some large sheets of paper to use for templates before you start messing with your chosen material.  You can probably find newspaper for free and recutting that a dozen times to get the shape right is infinitely preferable to doing so with a more expensive material.  

Mara Jade v1 v2As with all things, armor takes practice and it’s something that you’ll improve at over time.  Case in point: my Mara Jade costumes.  The first time I tried to make armor was in 2012 (the version on the left) and it was a bit of a mess.  I covered craft foam with cheap leather and tried out some shapes that sorta worked for the time but didn’t actually work in the long run.  Fast Forward to 2014 where I started working with Wonderflex and craft foam and had much better luck.  Version 2 (on the right) may not be perfect but it was a definite improvement over Version 1 and came about because once I figured out a better medium to work with and learned how to better manipulate things that weren’t fabric.

Despite it not being my personal forte, I recognize that craft foam can do some miraculous things.  If you’re just starting out, it may be the best one to experiment with.  It’s incredibly cheap and if you mess up, it’s not the end of the world. If you want to see someone do awesome work with craft foam, a good friend recently completed her Zora build and made magic happen with foam and painting and she only started working with the material recently.  As you can see in her pictures, the advantage of foam is that you can draw designs right into the material.  I’ve also seen people successfully paint it to look like leather or even metal.

If you want to take things up a notch, look to the thermoplastics like Wonderflex or Worbla. Arda Wigs recently released their own Thibra but the preorder is currently sold out.  I recently purchased some but haven’t had a chance to try it yet.  The basic concept of all three materials is the same though.  They are a hard plastic material that, when heated, can easily be formed into shapes.  It will then hold the shape once it cools and hardens.  Which one you prefer comes down to personal choice.  Worbla is better at forming curves than Wonderflex but is also a little more expensive.  The mesh side of Wonderflex is pretty good about sticking to other materials or gluing to itself.  Supposedly you can also rejoin together any left over pieces of Worbla and use them again.  Personally, I’ve had luck with sticking Wonderflex to craft foam to get a nice thick and sturdy look and then forming them both at the same time.  If you look at the new Mara in the picture above, you can see the varying heights.  Those were the product of layers of craft foam beneath the Wonderflex.  If you’re not sure which is the right material for you, order a smaller piece of one of them and play around with it.  As always though, remember that you may not get it right on the first try and that’s okay.

The most important piece of advice that I can give you about armor is that it takes time.  It takes time to figure out the shapes, it takes time to form the materials, and it takes a ton of time to paint multiple coats on everything and then wait for it to dry.  A corner of my apartment turned into armor painting central for two weeks while working on my Revan.  So while I’ll always advise you to start early, armor is definitely something that you’ll want to budget a lot of time to make sure you get it right.

And that’s all for this week!  Any topics you want us to cover?  Any topics you want us to go back to and cover more in depth?  Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter!

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