led-strips
Cosplay, Tutorials

Make Your LED Lighting Modular

So after a few cosplay projects, I got tired of having to buy multiple new Arduino boards for each project. Sure, the Adafruit Trinket is fairly inexpensive, but everything adds up, right? Also, some of my projects used identical coding to other projects, so it felt like a lot of extra effort having to wire up yet another Arduino board from scratch.

That’s when I had an idea: modular chop n’ change Arduino board circuits! This could be fairly easily accomplished with some trusty JST connectors and a little soldering.

This project is recommended for people who already know how to load up code onto their Arduino board, and who already have their lighting code written (or are using one of the examples that are included in the Neopixel or FastLED libraries). If you don’t know that process, however, never fear – I’ll be writing a Part Two of this tutorial to cover how to load up example code and turn on and off functions within the example. So stay tuned for that!

What I aim to accomplish with this tutorial is an easy to replicate method of attaching LEDs to an Arduino board that you can remove and switch out between projects. The finished product, in turn, will easily connect to any USB power bank, which is my preferred method of powering LED strips due to both using 5V power, the easy to recharge nature of power banks, and the ease with which you can conceal them in a costume – large, flat power banks can be concealed in the small of your back when wearing armor, while the thin, tubular power banks fit nicely inside sword hilts and gun chambers.

And, as always, use proper PPE! 

So, with that out of the way …

Things You’ll Need

  • A 5V Arduino board. For the purposes of controlling cosplay lights, a 5V Adafruit Trinket is what I’ve used for this demonstration, and a Trinket will handle most of the less complex cosplay light animations. The 5V Pro Trinket is another great board if you want a little more bang for your buck.
  • A 5V USB power bank. The kind you keep with you to charge your phone when Pokemon Go has eaten up all your battery! These come in a range of sizes and capacities – my current favorite one came from eBay and has a 20,00 mAh capacity, so it’ll power an average sized LED cosplay for an entire convention day.
  • 1 male and  1 female 3-pin JST connector. Most online retailers who sell LED strips will sell these too. Try eBay if you can’t find them – look for the kind with a red wire, a green wire and a white or black wire.
  • 1 USB cable. I love using old cables from broken stuff and upcycling them into my projects – just test them before soldering them. You’ll only be using two channels here; power and ground, so they don’t need to be able to handle data too.
  • Two short lengths of stranded wire. I like to use 2mm, with red for positive and black for negative, but really, use whatever you have lying around – just remember which pole is which.
  • Electrical Solder. Don’t buy the crappy stuff, or your joins will be weak. Don’t get cheap on me, Dodgson!
  • Hookup wire – I like the 2mm stranded stuff in red and black, so I don’t get my polarities confused.
  • Heat Shrink. I like to buy a big bag full of various widths. Read through the tutorial and decide what widths will work best for you – I think I used 5mm and 10mm
  • A length of 5V WS2811 or WS2812 LED strip. It absolutely MUST be a digital strip with 3 channels – power, data and ground – or this tutorial won’t work. Also called Neopixels; I like the stuff Adafruit sells, although you can buy them locally in most countries.

Tools you’ll need are:

  • Soldering Iron (and stand, little sponge etc). You will not be able to make this project without one. Invest in a good soldering iron
  • Helping Hands. Best electronics assistant ever!
  • Wire cutters/Wire strippersDSC_4246

Attaching the USB

 

First up, strip about 20-30mm off the outside of your USB cable. Try not to cut through the cables underneath – so leave a decent amount of length in case you sever one of the inside cables. It should look like this:

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Next, have a look at the wires inside. The colors can vary – in this case, there’s black, red, white and green. White and green are the data cables; we won’t need to use those as we’re just connecting to a power pack. The red (power) and black (ground) cables are what we’re using. If your USB has orange, white, blue and green cables inside, the orange cable is power, and the white cable is ground. We then need to strip about 10mm off each of those. It’ll look like this:

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Next, strip 20-20mm off the ends of your red and black hookup wire, and strip the ends of the leads on your JST connectors – red and white (or red and black if your JST cables use black), and twist them onto the corresponding color lead – power and ground. Like this:

 

 

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Now we need to join these combined cables to our USB cable. The reason for running two sets of power and ground cables is that LED strips need a separate power supply, since a significant length of them could draw more power than an Arduino board can supply. So we’re wiring the power from the USB to the Arduino and the LED strips in parallel, then connecting the data cable from the LED strip to the Arduino board. It’ll look like this before you solder things. Slip some heat shrink on as shown:

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And then solder those joins:

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Pro tip: before you slide the heat shrink over the join, put a scrap of wire inside the whole configuration. It’ll stop the tiny fragile USB cable joins from breaking:

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And the finished join, without Arduino board:

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Now all we have to do is add the Arduino board to the configuration! First, trim down the lengths of the free black and red cables if they need it – ideally your Arduino board should sit right in the middle of the JST connector cables. Then, solder the red lead to “BAT” (for power) and the black lead to “GND” (for ground).

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Next, solder the data cable to the correct pin for your code. I always use Pin #1. So trim the cable back – it should feel like the cables that attach to the Arduino board aren’t stretched as tight as the cables that lead straight from the USB cable to the JST connector, since the connections to the Arduino board are quite fragile and any tension could easily pull them out. The power and ground cables that bypass your Arduino board will serve as a supportive brace, of sorts.

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And lastly, solder that green connection to the right pin. Pin #1 in this case:

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And we are done with the main removable Arduino board component! Now we just need something to plug it into so we can run our LED strips. A lot of WS2812/2811 strips come pre-wired with JST connectors already in place – if that’s the case, cool! Plug in your board! If not, slide a bit of heat shrink over the end of your matching JST cable (I always use the female JST cables on the Arduino board side and the male cables on the LED side, for consistency) and solder the leads of your JST cable to your LED strip. Be conscious of the flow of current – indicated by the little arrow on the strip, it should always point away from your Arduino board. Solder the red cable to “+5V (power), the green cable to “Din” (digital input), and the black or white cable to “Gnd” (ground.)

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Pop your heat shrink over. Heat shrink isn’t strictly necessary, but when your circuits will see a lot of wear and tear, it’s a really good idea to heat shrink all your joins.

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Now just plug your LED strip connector into the one on the Arduino side, and you’re ready to plug in! This is just the basics of how this circuit works – you can add switches at any one of several intervals along this circuit to make turning your LED strips easier, and you can split the circuit to wire many more LED strips in parallel.

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… And then plug the circuit into your USB power supply, and (assuming you’ve loaded your code correctly – more on that in another post) and you’ll see the pretty lights! BEAUTIFUL LIGHT BULB!

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cosplay-planner
Resources

Cosplay Budget Tracker

Budgeting!

It’s the WORST! Deciding how much we can afford to spend on our hobbies can be soul destroying work, especially when we’re working to the limited budgets typical of most hobbies.

Fortunately, I’ve made things slightly less mind numbingly tedious by making my own Cosplay Budget planner. You can download it here!

I kept things pretty simple, so this works for most small-scale projects. You can add more rows if you need them like this:

 

instructions-1 instructions-2

And then you’re done! Easy stuff. Hopefully this helps some of you keep track of your budgets!

smoke machine preview
Cosplay, Tutorials

How to make a compact smoke machine for cosplay (for under $30!)

After creating my Orc Death Knight cosplay, I had an inbox that was pretty much flooded with requests for different tutorials. By far and away, the most requests were for a tutorial on how I made the little smoke machines inside my shoulders. The total materials cost for me was around $28 per machine, which is shockingly cheap given the effect they have, but that will vary depending on shipping and what batteries you choose to use.

I would also recommend this tutorial for experienced cosplay electronics enthusiasts only. That said, it’s easier to make these than it is to solder EL wire, but the risk of burning yourself on this project is pretty great. Always practice safety in the workshop.

I got my basic information for making these primarily from this tutorial over on Instructables, but there was a lot left out of that tutorial, and a lot of modifications I had to make to make these suitable for wearable projects like my Orc armor. There are also a number of extreme limitations on using these, due to the fact that they use e-cigarettes as a base – you can’t just walk around a convention all day with smoke pouring out of your cosplay – so I’ll go through those in this tutorial.

Things You’ll Need

  • A Kanger EVOD Bottom Coil Clearomizer. I got mine from Vapeking, here in Australia, and their shipping times were phenomenal. I’m pretty certain other e-cigarettes will work too, and experimenting with those is something I’d like to do later, but you need an e-cigarette that will screw into an eGo Battery Connector. Speaking of …
  • An eGo Unsealed Battery Connector. I got mine from Stealthvape, who were amazing with their customer service responses, since I was working on a tight deadline. This absolutely must, must be an unsealed connector, since this is what you’ll be connecting the tubing from the air pump to. Which leads to …
  • A 3V mini aquarium air pump. I got mine on eBay from China – be warned, sometimes these can take a while to ship. Allow at least a month, although mine came in around two weeks.
  • A 3.7V Power Source (and holder, if you opt for Li-ion batteries). The original tutorial I used said 5V, but that will burn out your e-cigarettes (I know from experience). I went with a 3.7V rechargable Li-po battery because I was pushed for time, but I would advise going for a different power source, like 18650 Li-ion batteries – you can get a holder here, and the batteries and charger here.
  • Aquarium tubing. I used some old 6mm tubing I had lying around the house. It fit neatly over the center of the battery connector. You only need a tiny amount, less than 10cm per smoke machine.
  • Hot glue
  • Electrical tape
  • Hookup wire – I like the 2mm stranded stuff in red and black, so I don’t get my polarities confused.
  • Fog juice. I just used some from a party supplies store. It’s strawberry scented, because even Death Knights need a little pampering.
  • Heat Shrink. I used 5mm heat shrink in black.

Optional things:

  • Male and female AC/DC Jack plugs. I love these and use them constantly in my cosplay projects because they’re easy to repair (if wires come loose, just screw them back in) and solderless. I use them liberally in my projects almost every time I have electronics I want to be able to remove, or armor pieces that need to come apart for transportation.
  • Switches. These aren’t necessary for wiring up the project and testing things, but I highly recommend installing a switch in an easy to reach part of your cosplay – for me I included two of these on my orc cosplay, hidden out of the way on the back of the horns of the skull on my belt. Left switch was lights, right switch was smoke. I like these little in-line switches (often used on lamps) because they’re incredibly easy to wire up, and they’re low profile without being fiddly to use while wearing cosplay gloves.

Tools you’ll need are:

  • Soldering Iron (and stand, little sponge etc). You will not be able to make this project without one. Invest in a good soldering iron
  • Helping Hands. I used to do electronics projects without a set of these, but they’re invaluable now. No, not the ones from Labyrinth. These ones.
  • Hot glue gun
  • Wire cutters
  • Wire strippers
  • Scissors

Making the Smoke Machines

Assuming you have everything, the first step is to solder cables to your eGo Battery Connectors.

Cut off two lengths of wire – black and red – around 20cm long. You’ll cut it to length later. Solder the positive (+, red) lead to the center of your connector, as per this photo. This is a fiddly job – I found that the best way to do this was to thread the lead through the hole in the side and solder from the top. It is absolutely critical that you don’t get any solder in the center of your battery connector, since this is where the air from your pump will flow through. If you’re messy at soldering like me, though, you’ll fill it with solder – if this happens, heat up the center part with your soldering iron and use a straw to blow through and clear out the molten solder. It’s a good idea to order more connectors than you need, though.

DSC_0344

 

Next, solder the negative (-, black) lead to your seal, like in this photo. This is a much easier job, and it doesn’t need to be in any specific spot, although I’d advise not putting it above the hole, since that’s a little more difficult (and who needs more work, right?).

DSC_0347

Then, thread the positive (red) lead back through the hole in the side of the eGo battery connector and pull it out the top, because you’ll be threading it through the tubing in the center next, and you need to make a good seal on the connector with the tubing.

Cut the tubing to length – I made mine about 6cm long, although you can use any length you like, really, and it won’t affect airflow. Shorter makes for a more compact smoke machine, though, and you can always add tubing to the tip of the smoke machines afterwards.

Snip a tiny hole in the side of your tubing, and thread the positive lead through the center of the tubing and out through the hole in the side. I pulled apart one of my smoke machines to take this photo afterwards, so ignore the hot glue on the end of the tube.

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Then, slide the tubing down your positive lead, seat it over the center of the eGo battery connector (and the wire soldered to that part), make sure you have a good seal, and fix it in place using hot glue. I basically filled the end with hot glue. Hold it in place while the hot glue cools, or you risk clogging up the end of the tubing. Once the hot glue cools, add a little blob to the side of the tubing where the positive wire feeds through the hole in the side. Once that bit of hot glue cools, blow through the end of the tubing to make sure you have a clear air flow.

Congratulations, the hardest part is now done! Now to connect up the air pump …

Cut two lengths of wire – red and black – around 10cm long or so. Solder a positive (+, red) cable to one terminal on the pump, like so. Solder the other bit of wire (negative) to the other terminal – on the air pumps I used it didn’t matter which side you soldered your leads to. Make your solder joins pretty solid, as these are some of the more delicate connections in your smoke machine.

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Once this is done, you can connect the tubing from your eGo Battery Connector up to the air pump. I just held it in place and blobbed on a whole heap of hot glue around the outside – make this sturdy, but remember we’ll be reinforcing the whole thing with electrical tape later.

DSC_0358

 

You’re mostly done now! This is a good point to test out your configuration. I just stripped the ends of the wire and twisted the ends together – positive to positive and negative to negative – and screwed them into the ends of an AC/DC jack, then connected the other part of the jack to my battery leads (ALWAYS connect the negative lead first when working with live batteries, or you will fry them).

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Fill your e-cigarette with fog juice as per the instructions (Hold it upside down, unscrew the base, tip it upside down, then carefully fill it to near the top of the coil without spilling any inside the coil). Then screw the base back in and screw the e-cigarette into the eGo battery connector.

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Wait around 30 seconds or so for the wick to soak up some of the fog juice, then connect up your battery for a test. You’ll hear the pumps run, and the e-cigarette base and connector will start to get warm – that’s how you know your connections are working. After it warms up, you’ll start to see the smoke being pumped out the end of the e-cigarette – success! If this isn’t working, double check your connection polarities, make sure the e-cig is screwed in firmly (but not too tight or you’ll never undo it) and make sure there aren’t any leaks in your tubing. Mine worked first try once I had the correct battery voltage, though (I went through quite a few battery choices because other tutorials recommended different voltages until I discovered a chart on Google with idea e-cig voltages) as the electronics in this are relatively simple.

DSC_0365

Everything working? Awesome! The next bit is to lay your leads along the length of your pump and connect up the e-cig and pump leads to each other (positive to positive, negative to negative) and solder them to a single lead each, so you can supply power to the whole configuration through two cables. Cut them fairly close to the pump and slip some heat shrink over the connections once you’re done. You can then connect those leads to your battery any way you like – I chose to connect them to an AC/DC jack plug, so I can remove them and switch them out between cosplays. The other end of the jack connects to a long lead that runs down inside the breastplate of my armor, and then into yet another jack that connects to the switch mounted on the skull on my belt, which is connected to the battery pack inside the skull. I won’t go into too much detail on the exact configuration I used, because that will vary wildly depending on your cosplay and needs. See the video at the end of this tutorial for how it looked in the end, though.

Once your smoke machine is finished, tightly wrap the whole configuration (from the eGo Battery Connector backwards) in electrical tape. Be careful not to twist or sever any of your delicate connections, and don’t cover the bit of your eGo Battery Connector where your e-cig screws in, since you need that free to refill your e-cig.

And, huzzah, bask in the shiny glory of your brand new smoke machines! Go forth and be awesome! There are a few caveats on using them, though …

Notes on using your smoke machines

First of all, some warnings:

  • These get VERY warm. Hot, even. The longer you leave them on, the warmer they get, and it’s important to make sure you don’t use these for extended periods – a minute at a time, tops. They’re great for cosplay competitions and video/photo shoots, but don’t expect to be able to walk around all day at a convention pumping out smoke. They’re great to just quietly switch on while onlookers are taking photos of you, though, and as people notice the smoke they really go nuts. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser in terms of cosplay effects.
  • Also, this means they are flammable. Be very, very careful where you mount these – don’t mount them where they’ll touch your flesh or your hair (that includes wigs). They WILL melt worbla, which is another reason I used EVA foam, as foam is a natural insulator.
  • Likewise, the batteries can also get hot. That’s fairly typical for all NIMH batteries, so treat them the way you would camera batteries – charge them properly and don’t leave them in the charger once they’re fully charged.
  • If the convention rules say no smoke machines allowed, DO NOT USE THEM. I haven’t tested this out, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. This meant that I couldn’t use these at PAX Australia, sadly.

These smoke machines are incredibly temperamental. But hey, you’re able to make smoke appear in your cosplay, and you’ve done it for under $30, so it’s absolutely worth it.

The downside to these smoke machines is they have a tendency to become oversaturated, so don’t fill them up too far in advance – just before your shoot is fine. Don’t be like me and think you’re being smart by preparing them the previous night, only to find they’re soaked through and you need to quickly open up your cosplay and fix them ten minutes before you’re due for cosplay competition pre-judging.

If they do get oversaturated, unscrew the e-cigarettes, open them up carefully while holding them upside down, and then (keeping them upside down) blow through the mouthpiece of the e-cig to clear it of fluid. Then screw it back in place, and they should work again.

Likewise, these won’t work if you mount them upside down. The fog juice needs to saturate the wick at the bottom of the coil in order for these to work, so you need to mount them so the mouthpiece is facing upwards. I used velcro lined with EVA foam (for insulation and grip) to hold these in place inside my shoulder armor. I also found that you can add tubing to the end of the mouthpiece and run that to anywhere you like to direct the flow of the smoke, so I mounted the tubing inside the armor to direct the flow of the smoke downwards – it was a simple solution to not being able to mount the smoke machines upside down.

Also note, these will stop working as the battery loses charge. Best practice is to keep some spare batteries with you and swap them out as they lose charge – if your smoke machines stop working, it’s almost guaranteed to be because the battery is drained.

Finally, the reservoir only has a small space for fog juice, so if you use them frequently you’ll need to keep tabs on how much juice you’re using. I found I needed to refill the juice after every ten minutes of use (which is actually quite a lot of time if you only use it for a few seconds at a time). I needed one refill over the course of a day at Oz comic-con, so for ease of refilling I just carried spare pre-filled e-cigarettes and swapped them out as needed – they’re only $5 each.

And that’s it! I’ve used these now at three conventions, and those are the only problems I’ve encountered. Keep all of this in mind while making these smoke machines – they’re definitely not plug and play tech, so a lot of testing is needed. Give everything a quick test before you put your cosplay on, as fixing problems is much easier before you get dressed.

Hopefully this tutorial will help out my fellow cosplayers in taming the smoke monster and harnessing it to your mighty cosplays of doom. 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42!

Image - giphy
Cosplay, Tutorials

Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)

Image - giphy
Image – giphy

I’m in the process of writing some tutorials, and I realized that they all repeat a lot of the same material in one area. It’s an important subject, so I’m writing this post so I can link back to it in the future. I guess it’s a sort of “Don’t try this at home, kids!” disclaimer.

Anyhow, given that the cosplay community relies quite extensively on short and informal tutorials, it’s very easy to skip over learning about personal safety. And given that this is an extremely broad-spanning hobby – we can be sewing one day, sanding armor the next, and using resins and paints the day after – we need a pretty broad-spanning range of protection. So I’ll cover some of the basics below, but I do think that every cosplayer should always research the hazards of any new material before working with it. I know we can very often have some crazy deadlines, and wearing goggles and a respirator take a little extra time and cost and are far from comfortable, but we only get one set of lungs and eyes.

 

Goggles, face shields and eye protection

Photo - Bunnings
Goggles with full side coverage are a must for EVA sanding. Image – Bunnings

Most of us won’t need a full face shield unless we’re working with materials that could cause damage at a high speed (think metals). If you’re doing sanding or other dusty work, make sure you use fully enclosed goggles, since dust can still get in around standard safety glasses. I use fully enclosed goggles (pictured above) for all my work that requires eye protection.

Safety goggles are also necessary when working with a lot of hazardous chemicals, since even if you don’t feel it immediately they can damage eyes. This is an area a lot of textile artists often forget, since they’re frequently working with bleaches and aniline dyes and the soft/textile side of costume making isn’t an area typically regarded as hazardous. If in doubt, just wear your goggles – it’s better to be over cautious than risk an injury.

Another very important note is that, if you wear contact lenses, you should NEVER wear them while working with hazardous chemicals or in dusty conditions, since dust and chemical compounds can be caught between the contact lens and your eye and case some nasty problems. If, like me, you’re short sighted and need to see what you’re working with, wear your regular glasses inside a set of safety goggles like the ones above – that’s what I do.

 

 

Respirators, dust masks, and respiratory protection

This is the style of respirator I use; a dual cartridge half-face respirator. Image – Bunnings

I am going to put this in bold, because this is important: This is the area that kills props makers. 

Not to frighten aspiring cosplayers, but ask any props industry veteran and chances are good they have had colleagues who died of a respiratory illness. The kinds of hazardous materials cosplayers can use – from resins to fiberglass to EVA foam dust to aerosol paints – can be pretty seriously nasty, and can absolutely wreck your respiratory system.

This area is really complex, since you’re often dealing with particles like dust and allergens and also gasses and vapors, and different substances require different methods of protection. This article does a great job of explaining how to choose an ideal respirator for the job you’re doing

Personally, I opt for a dual cartridge half-face respirator. This is a rubber respirator that forms a seal around your mouth and nose, and has replaceable cartridges. I use multipurpose chemical cartridges that come with separate replaceable P100 particulate filters – which means I can replace the outer filters (these filter out dust but not chemicals) frequently and leave the inner filters in longer, which makes for less expense and a wider range of coverage. I also like to make a note in my phone and set a reminder to replace my cartridges when the packaging says they need to be replaced. Dust masks aren’t a good option most of the time, since they don’t provide the seal needed to protect you against many smaller particles (like those from EVA foam sanding).

There’s a separate element to this for those of us who sew, and it involves a really bad habit – keeping pins in your mouth. I used to do this, until I heard a few absolute horror stories like this one about people who had accidentally  inhaled pins they keep in their mouths. That was enough to scare me for life – I made a cute elastic pincushion I wear on my wrist now instead.

 

Hearing protection

Earmuffs are great, but wearing goggles with them can compromise hearing protection. Image – Bunnings

Often overlooked, but serious issues can occur if you work with loud tools, especially over a sustained period of time.

Personally, I opt for hearing protection when I’m using loud tools like my circular saw and power file. This is generally really simple – either grab a pair of earmuffs or earplugs. Most cosplayers won’t be in an environment where they’re exposed to constant high-volume noise all day for days on end, so whichever one works for you is best, but in workplace conditions properly fitted ear plugs are generally regarded as being better, as they provide more hearing protection. I keep a box of earplugs in my workroom.

 

Protecting your hands

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Two by two; hands of blue. Nitrile gloves are worth paying extra for. Image – Bunnings

If you ever meet me at a convention and I’m not wearing gloves, look at my left thumb just below the nail. There is a very noticeable scar there from when I did something particularly stupid during shop class in high school – I was drilling a hole through a small piece of sheet metal, and instead of using vise-grips I held the metal with my hands. Of course, the metal snagged on the drill bit, spun at a very high RPM, and sliced my thumb open down to the bone. It was a very, very stupid rookie mistake to make, but I have absolutely learned from it.

So, when working with smaller pieces of metal, always use vise-grips to hold your work, or better still, mount your work in a good vise.

Gloves are a great form of protection from chemicals, heat and sharp edges, but be cautious – sometimes wearing gloves can contribute to injury, too, especially when working with rotating equipment like lathes and belt sanders. Gloves (especially loose gloves) can easily become snagged in this kind of equipment, so they should be avoided. Additionally, they should be avoided when using a lot of handheld tools that require precise control. Use your best judgement here, and if you need gloves make sure they are snugly fitted. A loose glove is very often much more dangerous than no gloves at all.

When working particularly hazardous adhesives and resins (like a lot of epoxies), always wear disposable gloves. I’m really fond of nitrile gloves – they cost extra but offer more protection; they’re less likely to puncture than latex gloves, they’re non-allergenic, and they’re resistant to a wider range of hazardous chemicals. Plus they’re powder free and have less friction, so they’re easier to put on and take off.

ALWAYS wear gloves when dying fabric. I have a great pair of industrial rubber dying gloves that has done me for years – they’re heat insulated (to a degree) as well as being resistant to hazardous chemicals. I also make sure I have a long pair of tongs (I use big barbecue tongs) on hand for dying fabric – you never know when you need to pull something out or push something around in a dye bath, and you don’t ever want to do that with your hands. This goes for bleaching, too.

And always exercise caution when working with knives. Keep your blade sharp – this may sound counter-intuitive to safety, but a blunt blade is more likely to snag in your work and cause you to exert excess force when cutting (and potentially wreck your work as well as your hands).

Footwear and clothing

Disposible overalls can last a long time if you're careful with them. Image- Bunnings
Disposable overalls can last a long time if you’re careful with them. Image- Bunnings

Fairly self explanatory – it can be really tempting to work in shorts and a singlet and thongs (or flip-flops for those non-Aussie readers). This isn’t great practice a lot of the time, though. Not only are feet particularly susceptible to injury from dropped heavy items (even rolls of fabric can cause a world of pain) but exposed skin is a bad idea around hazardous chemicals and particulates, particularly things like fiberglass. Make sure if you have long sleeves they’re not loose, too. A tyvek suit (disposable overalls)  is a good, cheap investment for working with aerosols and sanding, and if you look after them well they can last for a while.

 

Hair protection

This one is probably the one I have seen breached the most often. Always have your hair tied back so it won’t interfere with your work. This is especially important around rotating tools – especially tools like dremels, where you’re often doing very close-up work. Snagged hair hurts, and with more powerful tools it can cause serious scalp and face injuries.

Another less serious aspect of hair protection needed is when using aerosol paints and adhesives. I discovered this the first time I used spray plasti-dip – after sealing a suit of armor, I discovered my hair was covered in a fine coating of plasti-dip too, and it felt and looked pretty disgusting for several weeks afterwards until it gradually washed out. These days I wear a shower cap while spray painting. It’s not glamourous, but it stops my hair looking like The Junk Lady’s from Labyrinth.

 

Ventilation

For cosplayers, this is often a less than ideal situation, especially if you live in an apartment. In an ideal world, everyone would have an industrial extractor booth and dust extractors for all of our tools, but most of the time this isn’t the case. I live in a rural area, so I have a pretty huge backyard to go out and spray things in – I usually hang items from clothes hangers and use twine and pins to hold them in position, then I hang them from my clothesline and spray them there. If it’s wet weather or at night I’ll spray things inside my shed with the door open and a fan on.  When I’m working with things like contact adhesive, I usually open a window near my work and keep a fan on, since contact adhesive fumes can make you pretty sick if you’re exposed to them for an extended period of time.

A great option for cosplayers is making their own spray booth – this tutorial shows a great garage solution using drop sheets and PVC pipe, and this one is a good low-cost solution for people who only have a benchtop to work with (though you can’t fit larger armor parts inside the latter one).

 

Stay safe

If you’re ever unsure of what precautions to use when working with a certain material, make sure you consult the MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) – every potentially hazardous material has one. If your product isn’t shipped with one, just google “Product name + MSDS”, and you’ll be able to find the information you need.

Make sure you familiarize yourself with the appropriate emergency services numbers in your part of the world, too. And most areas have a Poisons Information Centre. In Australia, the phone number is 13 11 26. 

Hopefully this gives a good summary and starting point for staying safe when you’re crafting cosplay. I realize that sometimes when the convention is tomorrow and you feel like you have a million tasks to do it’s very easy to cut corners, but do try to keep in mind that all it takes is one slip-up for something really nasty to happen – and looking awesome in cosplay is a brilliant goal to have, but so is retaining all of your fingers.

coat
Cosplay, Tutorials

Mei How-to #3 – Jacket

So, if you’ve been following my posts about creating my Mei cosplay so far, you’ll have read how I made the boots and the gloves. Today I’m going to talk a little about how I made the jacket.

This tutorial won’t be quite as much of a step-by-step tutorial, because I used a reasonably traditional approach for creating a quilted jacket and just added the design lines and some EL wire.

A lot of people have been asking me which commercial pattern I used to make Mei’s jacket, and the answer to that is: I didn’t use one. I wish I could recommend one, but I drafted my own using flat pattern making techniques. Luckily, I have a three year costume degree behind me (and a graduate diploma in costume design), and part of that was studying pattern cutting for screen and stage, so I don’t ever work from commercial patterns at all. That said, I’m absolutely certain there are commercial coat patterns that could be modified to work for Mei’s coat, should you choose to go that route. Have a flip through the commercial pattern websites and pay attention to the design lines and you’ll undoubtedly find something that’s perfectly adaptable for Mei (and while doing this you’ll probably get ideas for about a bajillion other projects too, if you’re anything like me).

That said, if you’re keen to venture into flat pattern making and you haven’t done so before, you can absolutely teach yourself the basics with some good reference books and some YouTube searching. If I had to pick one set of texts to absolutely recommend for everyone (yes, even those where the dirty Imperial system is still being used – I use both systems of measurement reasonably well, and knowing both helps me use a variety of resources from a variety of eras), I’d pick Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting books. I’ve been consistently using these for years, and they are absolutely magnificent primers for drafting modern pattern blocks and manipulating those to draft patterns of all kinds.

My process for drafting a pattern always starts with a basic modern block – I have one well-looked after block that was drafted to my exact measurements that I’ve been using since the second year of my degree, where we all made costumes for each other. This is probably the most useful item in my entire workshop, since I also use it for drafting foam armor (which is probably a subject for a whole other post – someday!).  You can also buy basic bodice/skirt sloper commercial patterns and alter those to your measurements, too.

For the Mei coat, I took my block and modified it – removing the waist shaping, inserting a waistband, dropping the sleeve head, widening and shaping the sleeves, widening the neck and adding the design lines like the cheongsam style front, sleeve designs, hood, and fur trim.

One important thing to note about Mei’s coat is that the front opening is mostly decorative, since it doesn’t extend beyond the waistline to the hem like it would in a jacket with a functional opening:

khaaaaaaan

 

Not to matter – I figured that if I elasticated the waist, I could just pull the whole thing over my head. Hoorah!

Once I had my pattern finalized, I started by constructing the sleeves. In this close up, you can get a pretty decent idea of the fabrics I used – an off white matte PVC for the main sleeve (and the bulk of the jacket – this fabric proved really difficult to find, and when I found it I bought the last of the roll), a short pile pale blue fur for the head of the sleeve (I used this for the jacket hem trim, too) a shiny white PVC for the chevron detailing, and a bright blue leather-look PVC upholstery fabric for the spirals. I used double sided tape to hold them in place while I stitched them down. This isn’t something I’d recommend doing in garments you’re going to wash a lot, but since this is a jacket (and it has electrical components, so there’s no washing allowed anyhow), it’s totally A-OK.

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Next up, I cut my EL wire to length and soldered the ends. I’d post exactly how I did this, but Adafruit already have this pre-prepared tutorial that is pretty much the greatest primer on EL wire in the history of all things ever. Read it, go forth, and make with the shiny! Some pointers I can recommend are to solder the connected ends of your EL wire first, then cut the rest to the length you want it and seal the end with a little hot glue. The reason for doing it this way is you’re not wasting much EL wire if you accidentally cut through the ultra thin halo wires; you can just snip that piece off and try again.

Once I had my EL wire cut to length, I punched a tiny hole in the blue PVC in the center of the spiral (so I could run the wiring back to a central battery in the jacket) on the sleeve and threaded the EL wire through. Then I took a length of clear plastic sheeting (this is often sold as furniture protection, or it was where I bought it, because I guess Patrick Bateman shops there or something), I cut it into strips, and I stitched it in place close to the wire with a zipper foot then trimmed back the edges. It turned out like so …

 

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… and after stitching the sleeve closed, I was done.

As you can see from this next image, I did the same with the EL wire trim around the bottom of the coat. Remember not to put kinks in the EL wire, or you risk destroying the circuit inside. A gentle curve is best. The entry point for my wiring is a small hole punched at the back, which is eventually hidden by the cryo pack. The other trims were cut to shape, and I used fusible hemming tape to iron the edges of the blue fur under before topstitching that down. The rest of the trim is a pewter colored leather look PVC. Finally, I added my faux fur trim, which I managed to find on sale – which was a good thing, as it was normally $89 a meter. I’m not big on using ridiculously expensive fabrics, but when it comes to faux fur the difference in quality is really noticeable – $12 “fun fur” lasts about as long as a tuna sandwich in the sun, and if I’m putting several weeks worth of work into something, I want it to last. Plus the longer, nicer fur has a really beautiful movement to it – used around the hem of the boots, it makes a delightful “FWOOMPH” with every footstep, which I felt was really Mei. And it gave the hood the perfect volume and body.

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Once I had finished adding the trims, I stitched the lining to the top and bottom halves. I made a quilted lining myself, because I find my quilting more durable, but you can buy pre-quilted lining that would work just as well. To thread the cables for the EL wire through, I sewed a buttonhole in the lower back of the top half and the center back of the lower half – I made sure I had finalized all of my wiring first, and added a good long length on the inside to allow for any movement while wearing the jacket. Then I sewed a little pouch for the battery pack and inverter on the inside of the skirt, basically to sit just above my butt. I can feel the on/off switch on the alternator through the fabric, so it’s really easy to turn on and off.

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And then the jacket was almost finished! I still needed to finish the front of the jacket. I made some really chunky piping from some window sash cord and the main fabric from the coat. I stitched that to the front, then stitched the hood in place (the hood is quite literally a simple square of fabric that I trimmed with faux fur and then lined with the same quilting technique I used for the rest of the jacket) then stitched the lining in place.

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I also made a frog closure after I was finished and added that to the front, too:

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Then the only step left was to stitch the top and bottom sections onto a waistband, add elastic to the waist (I used 60mm wide belt elastic) and then add elasticated cuffs. I went with elastic cuffs mainly because they’re extremely easy to do, and the cuffs weren’t going to be visible anyhow, as they’re hidden in the gauntlet section of the gloves.  I know, this photo doesn’t show the frog closure and elasticated cuffs (I didn’t grab a photo of those while I was making the jacket because I was too busy dancing around celebrating the fact that it was finished!), but you get the idea.

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All in all, the jacket took about a week to make. And it was a pretty full-on week of work, too – I was working on another cosplay commission at the same time as this, so I was pulling 14-hour days in my studio while I was working on them both.

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Photo by R.A. Photography

Overall, I was really happy with how the jacket turned out. The only downside is that even in winter I was pretty blisteringly warm, but the bright side to that was that when everyone at the convention asked me “Aren’t you warm wearing all that?” (and just about everyone I met asked that)  I was able to respond in character with “Yes. But it’s too late to change.”
And I also won Best Cosplay in the Sunday cosplay competition at Sydney Supanova, which was unexpected but a really nice surprise.

So, hopefully some of the information here is helpful to those making their own versions of this cosplay – if you have any more questions about this, feel free to hit me up on Facebook and ask questions. And stay tuned for the final part (or it might be two parts), where I’ll talk about the other components of the cosplay – the freeze gun (which I 3D printed), the cryo pack, the leggings, and the hair stick.

See here for more pictures of the finished costume.

 

 

 

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Cosplay, Tutorials

Mei How-to #2 – Gloves

 

Okay, so on to part 2 of my series of posts about creating my Mei cosplay!

The gloves were reasonably straight forward. I’ve made gloves from scratch before, but the process is really fiddly, and generally I can find gloves where the palm matches the color and texture I want so I can just add to them. That’s the approach I took with these.

First, I enlarged a screenshot of Mei from one of the character introduction videos Blizzard put out. It showed the palms of her gloves pretty well, and I used this as reference to find a pair of gloves on eBay that matched the palms as closely as possible. I didn’t worry too much about the upper portion of the gloves, since this was all going to be covered.

glove crop

I settled on these motocross gloves. At $7.54AUD, I was pretty happy with how close they were – they’re black and not dark navy, and they don’t have the piping, but with just over one week remaining until the convention, they were exactly what I wanted.
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After removing all the armor on the upper part of the gloves (and setting that aside – these sorts of things come in really handy for future projects), I flipped the gloves upside down and traced around them to make my pattern. For the thumb, I pinned the base of the thumb in place on the pattern and then rolled the thumb out. Afterwards, I patterned the gauntlet portion of the glove, and taped the two pieces together to form the final pattern.

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Bear in mind that it may look a little different depending on the gloves you use. My pattern here is a little difficult to interpret (I cut out the bits for the EVA detailing – ignore that for now), but the important bit to note is where it says to leave the section that lays across the inside wrist open – as in, don’t stitch (or glue) this bit to your gloves. This is important because it’s much easier to put on your gloves by wiggling your fingers through the gap and holding on to the base glove while you put your hand inside than holding the end of the gauntlet section. Also note that the section marked for EVA doesn’t go all the way to the wrist – this allows room to insert your hand.

Mark up your pattern, and cut it out. I used a blue upholstery vinyl for mine, and I made the piping from leftover jacket fabric. Pipe the edges around the wrist, knuckles and thumb, like so:

 

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After that, cut out the section for your detailing and add your white trim. I made mine out of some shiny white tablecloth PVC, just to add a bit of textural difference. I used double-sided tape to hold it in place and then machine stitched it in place.

Next up was attaching everything to the EVA gauntlets – here the gloves really do start to take shape. I didn’t mark the EVA, because I was happy with the natural color of the foam, and I didn’t want any visible markings. I simply stretched the blue vinyl bits and pinned them in place, keeping things looking nice and even. I glued it in place with hot glue.

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After that, you’re onto EVA detailing – I used thin A3 foamies. I stuck double sided tape over the area I was going to cut my details from, then traced the detailing onto the back of the taped area. I then used a scalpel to cut the detailing out – this gives you nice clean work with no pen lines. Just peel off the backing and stick them in place – because you’re using the thing 2mm foamies, the double sided tape is more than enough to keep these in place, and is far less fiddly than trying to glue everything. Repeat this for all of your thin  EVA detailing. For the white detailing, I used hot glue to very delicately glue the extra V-shaped detail on (which, again, was cut out of the tablecloth PVC) and the little spots.

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The next bit was to stitch on the extra un-piped sections for the fingers (I stitched in the ditch of the piping with white thread), stitch the gauntlet closed, then stitch the part you’ve just made to the purchased gloves. I hand stitched in the ditch of the piping, then glued the little finger pieces down with some hot glue. I find this is a lot more solid than just gluing everything, but if that’s too fiddly and you’re not too concerned about durability, go ahead and glue everything – just make sure you’re not stitching or gluing the fingers closed, so put your hand inside the glove to test every so often, or stick the end of a paintbrush inside the fingers while you sew, like I did.

Then put the glove on and test – shiny!

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The last bit was to add is the padding on the back of the hands. I cut out some EVA blocks the right size and then glued some blue vinyl over them. Personally, I machine-stitched the corners, but it would be just as easy to fold and glue them. One important thing to remember here is once you’ve got your blocks covered, take some coarse sandpaper (300 or so) and thoroughly sand the portion of the vinyl that underlaps the block, since you’ll be gluing this down.

For the black rim, glue (I used contact adhesive) the block to a 2mm foamie, trace around it at a 5mm or so distance and cut along the line for your rim. Almost done!

I laid the block in place on each of the gloves, lightly traced around it with a pencil, then sanded that area of vinyl on the gloves – this is to ensure a good bond when I  glued it in place. I used contact adhesive, because this area was going to see a lot of flexing and hot glue wouldn’t stand up to that. It’s crucial to not use too much or too little here, or the block will peel off after a few hours. See the previous post for EVA gluing tips. To add the little white detail, I glued a tiny offcut of 2mm foam in place and stuck some white vinyl to that.

And I was done! The gloves took about a day to make, from start to finish, so they’re quite a quick thing to make. This technique can be adapted to make all sorts of gloves, and is a great shortcut for making really slick looking custom gloves for all sorts of cosplay projects.

See here for more pictures of the finished costume.

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Cosplay, Tutorials

Mei How-to #1 – Boots

So, now I have a website up and running, I figured I’d start things off with a tutorial post – and I’ve had so many questions about how I made my Mei boots, so here’s my write-up on the process I used, with a whole heap of my progress pictures thrown in for good measure.

When I built the boots for my Mei cosplay, I had a lot of experience working with EVA foam, but not a whole lot building complete pieces of footwear – and that’s what these needed to be. So not only did they have to look exactly right for Mei, they had to be completely functional and stand up to multiple convention wears. A tough challenge, since Blizzard aren’t exactly know for the practicality of their designs (which is why I love Blizzard designs so much, really).

I first started by creating an overall scale so I could figure out the proportions.
I’m roughly 175 cm tall, and the picture I had was 12.5 cm tall. So to create a scale, I divided my height by the height of the image – which gave me a scale of 14. This was my universal scale – I could measure anything on my printout (as long as the view wasn’t from a skewed perspective) and multiply that by 14 and I’d have the “real life” equivalent scale for my height.

mei scale

Once I had my scale, I started blocking out a pattern using cheap foam yoga mats. I personally don’t recommend anyone use these for actual cosplay pieces, as they’re far too soft to be durable through regular wear and tear, but when they’re on sale it’s worth stocking up so you can use them to block out EVA foam patterns.

At this stage of pattern making, I wasn’t looking to get the design lines right – those would come later – just the shape. So it was a process of gluing and adjusting and cutting and re-gluing. Once I had my shape right (and I was constantly checking my reference image), I then drew my design lines on, like so:

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And I cut up the entire boots to create the pattern for my finished boots. I like to draw my notes directly onto the pattern so I don’t forget anything as I’m working, and once I’ve got the basics roughed out in black I do a proper line in a different color, so I know where to cut. Also, putting great big crosses through the lines I don’t want to use helps, too. The lines with arrows are my own code for “mirror from this edge when you cut”, so I trace on half, mark the center, flip it, then trace the other half.DSC_2391

Once I had my pattern made, I was ready to cut my actual EVA. I used the higher density floor tiles from Bunnings. I use standard retractable knives to cut my foam – I own about a dozen, all for different purposes (and because I always need one around wherever I’m working, and they’re the thing I loan out and never get back the most). I keep a sharpening stone on hand always, and I’m sharpening my knifes between almost every cut – this means my blades last much longer and my cuts are much more precise. I even sharpen my knives when I’ve got a brand new blade in, because sharpened blades are sharper than new blades. I seriously can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep a sharp blade, not just because you get better cuts, but because they’re much safer to work with as you require much less knife pressure to make a cut. You should feel a little resistance when cutting foam, but very little – if you’re feeling resistance, either your knife is too blunt or you’re pressing too hard.

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Once I’d cut and glued the basic part of my boots together, I carved in the design lines at the front. I use a sharp retractable knife to make a shallow cut, and then hit it with a heat gun to open up the cut (I learned this nifty trick on YouTube a while back and it’s a favorite of cosplayers everywhere). I also go one step further and use a bone folder (used in leatherwork and paper folding) to wiggle the cut open even further.

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Once the design lines were done, I then glued the back seam shut, and used a small aluminium bowl from Ikea to heat and shape the toes over. With that done, I sanded back all the seams I didn’t want visible – starting with 300 sandpaper, then 400 and finally 600. I then sealed them with a heat gun – this will darken the area, but it’s not visible after painting.

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I also glued a bit of scrap foam to the insides of the ankles to reinforce the weakest part of the boots, and I ran a lip of foam around to hold the sole in place (I move the position of this to be a little higher after this photo, but you get the idea).

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Next, it was time to make the soles. I decided to set a pair of ugg boots inside mine, both because the idea of walking around a convention in ugg boots all day was pretty appealing, and because the soles of Uggs Boots are EVA foam, and I could just sand those back with a power file and use contact cement to glue them to the insides for an extremely strong bond.

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Next, I made the solves by layering a stack of EVA floor mats together with contact cement. Getting an even spread with the right amount is absolutely crucial to a good bond, especially with the soles, so I did two thin coats and waited for the glue to dry between coats after heat sealing the EVA, and before bonding I hit the glue on both sides with a heat gun. I have a roll of adhesive backed EVA foam that I use to make glue spreaders by doubling it over a coffee stirrer – I find the EVA is perfect for getting an even coat, and I can cut it to any width I like. Plus I can just tear off the foam bit and throw it out when the residue builds up too much, which saves on coffee stirrers (and trees). After heat forming both the ugg boot soles and the main boot soles to he contur of the bottom of the boot, I traced around the ugg boot soles, and spread two thin coats of contact over both the ugg boot soles and the new EVA soles, letting it dry for 5-10 minutes between coats. I then hit it lightly with a heat gun and glued the ugg boots in place, with a final sealing by running the heat gun around the sides and pressing down from inside the ugg boots to ensure the bond was rock-hard. I then glued the soles in place inside the main boots, and that was the bulk of the boot construction done. I waited 24 hours for the glue to bond and did a test fitting.

(as a side note, the positioning in these photos is wrong – after testing the boots, I discovered they were too bulky with the central poitioning, so I wound up moving the ugg boots to the inner front of the boots, which worked a treat and made them surprisingly easy to walk in.)

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Now, on to boot detailing. I used 2mm EVA “foamies” from a craft store (they come in A3 size, which is perfect for most projects) as an underlay, and glued those in place for the boots straps. Next, I cut the rest of the detailing from foam floor mats and used my power file to round out the edges roughly, following up with some 400 sandpaper to smooth out the shape.

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I glued everything in place, and here the boots really started looking like Mei’s.

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I like to use found objects a lot, especially when embossing foam -this metal pen lid was perfect for doing rivet detailing. I used a heat gun to heat the pen lid, heated the foam, and pressed it in firmly. Voila, ten-second rivet details. Now all that was left was to add the spike housings.

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I made a template for the spike housings, and cut a bunch of them out in EVA before roughly cutting the angles needed to set them flush against the boot surface in with my knife (I sanded these back smoothly afterwards with my powerfile). There were sixteen in total; eight for each boot. I decided against including the actual spikes, as walking around on a concrete floor would destroy them almost immediately.

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Once those were sanded back, I glued them in place, added some detailing with a knife and heat gun, and that was the base of the boots ready for painting.

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I coated the boots with three passes of Armor All Custom Shield, which is an Australian equivalent of plasti-dip (and comes in bigger cans for a much cheaper price). I bulk bought a lot in the clear color when Supa Cheap Auto had a sale, so that’s what I use on everything I make in foam. I then hit the boots with two thin coats of grey primer, then three thin coats of the grey top color.

Detailing was done with standard artists acrylics – I mixed up my dark grey and used that for the detailed sections, in two thin coats. After the detailing I applied a satin clear coat of Estapol top coat to seal in the paint and protect it from moisture. I decided against adding aging and detailing at this stage, as I was on an extremely tight timeline and I figured these were on my feet, so people were unlikely to kneel and look at foot details. Weathering and a bit of dimension is something I plan to add in the future.

For the fur, I used sections of open cell upholstery foam to line the insides of the boots. I cut and sewed a circular section of fur the same circumference as the outside of the boots, and applied this to the inside edge of the upholstery foam with hot glue. I rolled the tube of fur down over the boot outside and left the outside edges free to drape over the top of the boots, so that if they get dirsty and I need to launder/replace the fur, I’m not tearing glue off the outside of my boots.

I later traced a quick pattern for the blue details and cut those from scrap pieces of the upholstery vinyl that I used to make the gloves, then glued them on with a little hot glue. I also added some bicycle reflectors to the strapping as a finishing touch. And that was the boots finished and ready to wear! See here for more pictures of the finished costume.

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