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woensdag 10 mei 2017

Mage Wars spellbook

A while ago, a friend of me asked me if I could make him something. He's a Mage Wars player, and wanted a custom made spell book. He had seen some of my other books before, and thought it would look cool on a spell book.

In Mage Wars, you play a wizard battling other wizards in an arena. Spells come in the form of playing cards, and you keep those spells in a binder with card sleeves. He gave me an old spell book to see if I could turn it into something like my other books. I always like to try new things, so here we go!

  • Mage Wars spell book (preferably old, since it will be cut up, only the card sleeves will be used) 
  • 3mm thick MDF
  • 5mm PVC foam
  • Cardboard
  • Kraft paper
  • Tissue paper
  • Book binding glue
  • Super glue
  • Regular printing paper
  • Parchment paper
  • Red felt
  • Foamcore board
  • Silicone molding rubber
  • Polyurethane casting resin
  • 35mm glass cabochon
  • Glossy photo paper
  • Transparent craft glue
  • Acrylic paints (black, burnt umber, pyrrole red, raw sienna, bronze)
  • Spray primer
  • Matte spray varnish
  • Hot glue gun
The cover
I started with the cover. I wanted to make a custom cover, carefully cut the card sleeves out of the original cover and put them in the new one. I measured the size of the original cover and cut two 15x20 cm rectangles out of 3 mm thick MDF, and one 1x20 cm strip of the same material (for the spine). Next, I glued the two large panels on a piece of paper, with the spine between them, and about 5 mm of space between them. A second piece of paper was glued on top of the panels, and pressed into the space between the panels. The picture probably explains it a lot better.

After the glue had dried, I ripped the excess paper off so the edge wouldn't be noticed afterwards. The paper forms a flexible hinge. I have said this before, but I can't stress this enough: use special book binding glue! White wood glue is very similar, but doesn't stay flexible and will crack.
Next, I cut out strips of cardboard and made a nice raised edge on both the front and the back. I usually design these things on the fly. In the past, I always tried making them one single piece, because I was worried the seams might show up through the kraft paper, but this was a big waste of material, so this time I cut them out of several pieces and puzzled them together.

On the inside of the cover, I wanted to add some sort of label, where the owner can write his name. I usually put felt on the inside of my covers, but I wanted the label to be flush with the fabric, so I first glued on a cardboard rectangle, and then a piece of parchment paper. I again tore the excess paper off to conceal the edge as much as possible.

And finally, I glued crumpled kraft paper on the cover, for creating the leather effect. When I first made these books, I always used one single piece of paper because I was afraid the edge of the paper would be too noticeable, but in the meantime I managed to blend several pieces of paper together without any obvious seams, so now I always use several pieces.

You'll notice in the third picture I didn't cover everything. That's because of the next step, the cover ornaments!

The cover ornaments
I like putting all sorts of ornaments on the covers of my books. I have entire pages in my sketchbook dedicated to all sorts of designs for cover ornaments! Most of them look horrible, but every once in a while, something useful emerges from the crap.
For the corners, I used a triangular ornament I made a mold for in the past. Along the spine, I made a new one out of MDF. It runs the entire length of the book, and covers some of the cardboard embossings.

After glueing the pieces of MDF together and sanding it, I glued a sheet of tissue paper on it to give the surface a bit of texture. I didn't make a mold out of these things, since they were purely experimental and I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to use something like this again. They are quite big and would require a lot of silicone for one single ornament, and silicone isn't exactly cheap!
I did make a new ornament I intend to use more than once, so I did make a new mold of that one!

This ornament is some sort of medallion and consists of two parts. The main body was cut out of MDF (things like this are the reason I never throw away scraps); the hole in the middle is about 36 mm wide, so a 35 mm glass cabochon fits nicely into it. The ring was cut out of 5 mm thick PVC foam. It doesn't really show on the picture, but on the backside, I had to cut away some material on the inside of the ring so it would fit on the other part when a glass cabochon is inserted in the hole.
Before molding, I always put on a coat of primer. This makes it much easier to spot any flaws or areas that need more sanding. After I was satisfied with the result, I built a box out of foamcore board held together with hot glue and poured in the silicone.

After the silicone had cured, I made castings out of PU resin and primed them with spray primer. For the medallion, I printed a green vortex I made in Gimp, cut it out and glued it to the back of a glass cabochon.

Painting and finishing
The painting techniques I used for this book are the same I used before. I am experimenting with different colors, so I hope to make books in other colors than brown in the future. I have tried different colors in the past, but they didn't really look good, so I'm testing all sorts of new things.
For the leather, I started with a layer of flat black, a mixture of burnt umber and pyrrole red for the basic brown tone, followed by a very thin coat of raw sienna, rubbed on with a sponge. To give it more depth, metallic bronze was drybrushed on the wrinkles in the paper. Finally, a topcoat of matte varnish.

For the ornaments, I used the same technique as always for achieving a cast iron effect. First, a coat of flat gray, followed by a black wash. Over this, silver is drybrushed. Very simple, but it looks very convincing. The cabochon with the vortex was sandwiched between the two parts of the medallion.

Next came a critical part: attaching the card sleeve binder! I had cut it out of the original cover without damaging it, and it turned out the plastic sleeves were attached to some sort of rigid plastic spine. I forgot to take a picture of this, but the spine had a row of small holes in it, wich hopefully makes it easier for the glue to grip onto it.
I used a hot glue gun to glue the binder in place. I don't know what type of plastic the spine was made of. Polyethylene is especially notorious when it comes to glue. I had tested it first. It was possible to peel the glue back off with some effort, but I think it's strong enough for normal use.

To finish the inside of the cover, I glued red felt on it. The label didn't really turn out the way I hoped. I should have used thicker cardboard, it doesn't really stick out enough.

And finally, the cover ornaments were all put in place with superglue.

donderdag 4 mei 2017

Voodoo Bottle and holder

Last weekend, we went to Elf Fantasy Fair in Haarzuilens. I put on my Voodoo priest costume again, and made one more prop to go with it. I ended up not using it, for reasons I'll explain later. It was a quite simple prop, made from an empty barbecue sauce bottle.

  • Empty sauce bottle
  • Sodium bicarbonate
  • Apoxie clay
  • Craftskin (a type of synthetic leather)
  • Red felt
  • PVA glue
  • Hot glue gun
  • Painters tape
  • PVC foam sheet, 2 mm thick
  • 8mm neodymium disc magnets
  • Acrylic paint and varnish
  • Short piece of string
  • Printing label
  • Sewing machine
The bottle holder
The bottle holder is made from Craftskin. A while ago, I bought a sample box from Minque, a cosplay supply store in the Netherlands. It contained several types of foam, a piece of Worbla (wich I still haven't used), some other thermoplastics and a piece of this synthetic leather. I'm quite pleased with it, it doesn't feel plastic-like like some other types of faux leather. I glued some red felt to the back using PVA glue for lining the inside of the holder.

The pattern for the holder was drawn directly on the bottle with a sharpie, and then two strips of Craftskin were cut out. I borrowed my wife's sewing machine for running a few decorative stitches across the edges, and then glued the strips together with a hot glue gun.

Next up, there's a strap that runs over the bottle to keep it in place, and closes with a magnetic clasp. It also forms a loop on the back, for attaching it to a belt. I made a simple pattern for this using painters tape, and then cut it out of Craftskin. Like the other straps, I put on the decorative stitches and then glued in in place. The loop on the back got reinforced with a few stitches to make sure the glue wouldn't come loose. This had to be done by hand, because the material was too thick here for the sewing machine. It doesn't exactly look nice, but it's on the back side, so it's not really a big deal.


Next up, the magnetic clasp. I still had some 8mm neodymium disc magnets lying around, I thought these would be perfect for this. I drilled a hole in 2mm thick PVC foam plate, put a magnet in it and glued another piece of foam to the back. I cut this into a circle and painted it; I made two discs like this. Sorry, I forgot to take more pictures.

After painting, I glued one disc to the front of the bottle holder, and another one to the strap. The magnets aren't as strong as I hoped they would be - next time I'll use larger magnets - but it does the job.

The bottle
The bottle I used was an empty barbecue sauce bottle. Although I had thoroughly cleaned it, it still had a very strong barbecue-smell. I wanted to put something I could actually drink in it, so I wanted to get rid of the smell. A few teaspoons of sodium bicarbonate in warm water did the trick nicely.
The most important thing I did with the bottle was modifying the cap. Using Apoxie Clay, I sculpted an organic-looking stopper around the metal cap. It didn't have to look very smooth and accurate, I was going for the wax stopper look.

After the Apoxie had cured, I painted it, wrapped a piece of string around it and secured it in place with a drop of hot glue. Next up, the entire cap got a wash or brown paint, including the string, to make it look older and dirtier. And finally, a coat of varnish.
For the label, I simply googled "Voodoo bottle label", and quickly found something perfect. I printed it on a label with a laser printer and stuck it on the bottle.

So last Saturday, we drove to Haarzuilens, and on the parking lot, while I was putting on my costume, I found out the bottle holder was useless. I should have made the belt loop a lot higher, so the bottle would hang below my belt, not right on top of it. Anyway, it was too uncomfortable to wear, and it would be hidden beneath my coat anyway, so I left it in the car. Too bad, I had even filled it with apple juice so it would look like a bottle of booze. Lessen learned for next time!

vrijdag 31 maart 2017

DMX Proto Shield

Allright, here's a project that has been underway for quite a while! Two years ago, I made a set of green LED spotlights. Back then, I wanted to make a proper controller, but due to lack of time I had to settle for an improvised one, consisting of some connectors soldered to a prototyping board plugged into an Arduino controller.
Ever since, I've been planning to build a DMX-based controller, so I can use a PC to program them. Although I quickly had a simple circuit up and running, I've been postponing designing a circuit board and building something that can actually be used for way too long. And here it finally is! This post is going to be a bit technical, some basic knowledge about electronics will come in handy.

Arduino and DMX
The controller uses the DMX protocol and the Arduino platform. I'll explain briefly what these things are. DMX is a system designed for controlling stage lighting. A DMX system consists of a transmitter (the "master") and a series of receivers (the "slaves"). Each receiver has an address between 1 and 512, and can receive one or more channels of data. For example, a simple spotlight will use one channel for brightness, while an RGB spotlight will use three channels. The transmitter can be a DMX console, with knobs and sliders, or a computer running DMX software and a hardware interface.
The Arduino is a simple microcontroller board. It has a series of digital and analog in- and outputs and can be programmed using a USB cable, without the need for additional programming hardware. Programming is done in a Java-like programming language. Expansion boards called "shields" can be plugged into an Arduino board, this controller is such a shield.

The DMX transmitter
The transmitter can be a hardware DMX controller, wich looks like a mixing console, or a PC and an adapter. Commercial DMX-adapters for PC's aren't cheap, but there's an alternative. DMX uses the RS485 electrical protocol. I bought a cheap USB-to-RS485 adapter, wich the DMX software recognizes as a generic controller.

The adapter I bought has an RJ45 connector (the type used for Ethernet cables). Most commercial DMX equipment uses XLR connectors, a round connector with 3 or 5 pins. For my system, I decided to use RJ45 connectors because, first of all, the adapter has an RJ45 connector, and second, it works with regular Ethernet cables instead, wich can be bought in any computer store and are much cheaper. This means, of course, this system can't be used for commercial DMX equipment, although it's possible to put an XLR plug on an Ethernet cable. This website does a good job explaining how to do this.
Besides the adapter, you also need software. There are many different programs, some of wich are free. The one I use is QLC Plus. Not only is it free, it's cross platform. It runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and Raspberry Pi. Since my PC runs Ubuntu, this was the best choice.

The DMX receiver
The receiver circuit is quite simple. It consists of only a single chip (a MAX485) and a few resistors. What the chip does is converting the signal voltage used by the RS485 protocol into a voltage the Arduino can process.

I have designed a simple prototyping shield for this. It plugs into the Arduino, and there's plenty of space on the board for creating a simple circuit. If you're interested in this board, it's for sale in my Tindie store.

You'll need the following additional components to assemble the shield
  • Arduino Duemilanove-compatible headers (2x 8-pin, 2x 6-pin). These also work on the Uno.
  • 8-pin DIL-socket
  • MAX485 RS485-decoder chip
  • 2 10k resistors
  • 2-pin header and jumper
  • 2 RJ-45 sockets
For the RJ-45 sockets, make sure they have the following footprint, or they won't fit on the board:

In the past, I have made PCB's myself, and there are lots of excellent tutorials on how to do this. However, there are so many affordable PCB manufacturers today it's hardly worth the effort anymore. Most are based in China and make double sided PCB's complete with soldering masks and silkscreens, something that's almost impossible to do at home without a big investment in equipment.
Now, the circuit may by quite simple, the firmware for the Arduino is a different story. The DMX signal enters the Arduino through its serial interface, and while the hardware is more than capable of handling the data stream, the default software library for serial connections isn't up to the task.
Luckily, I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. The people at Conceptinetics have written a custom library for handling DMX data, wich they released under the GPL license. I have written my own library on top of that, wich you can find on Github. I've also written a few demo projects, wich are demonstrated in the video below. This library is a work in progress, so check often for new versions.
One thing I have to point out is the jumper near the chip. The DMX data is fed to the Arduino through pin 0. When the firmware is running, it keeps this port busy all the time, and this causes problems when uploading programs to the board. The only way to solve this is unplugging pin 0, wich is what the jumper is for. It allows you to disconnect pin 0 without having to unplug the entire board.

A little demonstration
Finally, here's a little demonstration! I had put together a receiver board with a series of red LED's, an RGB LED and some connectors for servos. The board I used in this video was my first version, wich had a few flaws. The screw terminal connectors didn't fit, and the RJ45 connectors weren't wired properly. In the new version (the one in my Tindie store), this problem is fixed.

The main reason I put this board together was for developing my software library. In the demo video, I test controlling individual LED's, RGB LED's and servos.
So, to recap:
I'm working on lots more projects, so stay tuned for updates, and I hope it won't take so long to finish them as this one!

woensdag 18 januari 2017

Tiff's Axe

This was supposed to be my first video tutorial. I had my camcorder with me all the time while I was working on this, and recorded about 100 gigabytes of raw video footage. However, when I was editing the video, I realized how horrible I am at speaking in front of a camera. At first it didn't sound that bad, but the longer I listened to myself blabbering the more I hated it. Sorry, it's just too embarrassing to put online. Let's just say I sound like a complete jackass. Of course, I didn't take any pictures, so for this post, screenshots of the video footage will have to do!

So what am I building? My wife and me both love the board game Zombicide, and the player characters of the game are perfect for cosplaying. This particular weapon is Tiff's axe, from the "Angry Neighbours" expansion. Besides the axe, she also carries a submachine gun, wich will be the next project! In fact, my next project will be three submachine guns, since I will be going as Doug from the base game (wich I'm pretty sure is based on Michael Douglas' character from Falling Down).

  • Lumber, about 100x18mm (from my pile of leftovers)
  • Bolts and nuts
  • 2mm Steel rod
  • Acrylic paints
  • Wood varnish
  • EVA foam
  • Contact cement
  • Book binding glue
  • Construction glue
  • Acrylic caulk
  • 4mm PVC foam sheet
The handle
The axe handle is shaped like a bass guitar neck, complete with frets and tuning posts. To create a template, I used a picture of a bass guitar as a reference, along with the dimensions. I traced it in Inkscape, printed it and cut it out. Next, I traced the outline on a board of wood I had lying around and cut it out with a jig saw (wich I borrowed from my dad, since I don't have one myself).

The back of the handle had to be rounded with a hand plane. I had never used a hand plane before, and I was a bit clumsy with it from time to time. Luckily, the wood I used was quite soft and easy to plane. After planing, I used my bench sander to smooth the wood.

Like on a real guitar, the handle needed frets; simply painting on some lines wouldn't be good enough. I experimented with steel wire, nails and toothpicks a bit, without success. Then I found the perfect material in a local craft store: thin spring steel rods, about 2 mm. Very hard to cut (don't try wire cutters, it won't work, you need a grinding wheel), but it doesn't bend easily like normal steel wire. I cut slots in the handle where the frets would go with a hand saw and widened them a bit with a file.

Before I installed the frets, I painted the wood. I used regular acrylic paints, thinned down enough so the wood grain would still show through. The fretboard is painted in a dark brown, the rest in a lighter brown. I also painted on the markings on the fretboard and a biohazard symbol on the headstock using masking tape and a biohazard logo printed out and transferred with carbon paper.

Next, I gave the wood its first clearcoat and put the frets in place. I first cut lengths of the steel rods with my Dremel and a grinding wheel, and then rounded the ends a bit so there wouldn't be any sharp edges. To secure them into the slots I cut I used Tec 7, a construction adhesive that's strong enough to build skyscrapers. It comes in several colors, including brown, wich was perfect! I used a toothpick to put a bit in the slots, pushed the frets in and wiped away any excess that squeezed out. When they were all in place, I clamped another board on top of it and let it dry.

At this point, it still looked way too clean (not at all like something you've been carrying around in Zombieland for a while), so I applied some aging techniques. First, a dark brown wash all over the wood. This is the reason I clearcoated it first, because without it, the diluted paint would stain the wood too much. I just wanted a thin wash over the wood. After the wash, I drybrushed some light brown on the fretboard to make the color look a bit more fadedand when that had dried, a final clearcoat.

The blade
The axe blade is made out of 10 mm EVA foam floor mats, 4 layers sandwiched together. I had drawn a template in Inkscape, printed it (I'm so glad I have access to an A3-size printer) and transferred it to my foam. I cut the shapes out roughly and sanded the texture on the back away on my belt sander.

When the foam was sanded, I cut the pieces out a bit more precise (a few millimeters from the line I drew) and made a hole for the handle in two of the four pieces. To make sure the glue would stick to the handle properly, I sanded a bit of the paint off again.

For large surfaces like this, contact cement from a spray can works best. Also, the liquid cement I thought I still had had completely hardened because I didn't seal the can properly, so I didn't really have a choice. I first glued the two middle pieces, the ones with the hole for the handle, together, then one of the outer pieces, put the handle into place and finally the fourth layer.

The blade now was a single, solid block of foam. There was still a little gap around the handle, though. I fixed this with a bit of acrylic caulk. And I've probably already mentioned this before, but I'll say it again: make sure you've got acrylic caulk and not silicone, because you can't paint over silicone! Next came the messy task of sanding the blade into shape. Outer edges were done on the belt sander, inner edges with my Dremel and a sanding drum.

After the blade was sanded into the right shape, there were two things left. One, the cutting edge. I first cut away some foam with a knife, and then again to the belt sander. Two, there's a groove that runs across the blade. This was made by lightly scoring the foam with a knife, and then heating it with a heat gun, causing the cut to open up.

With the blade finished, there was one thing left to do: painting. As always with EVA foam, the most important thing is a good primer. There are lots of different methods, the most popular one being Plasti Dip, wich is hard to find here in Belgium, but my preferred method is a mixture of acrylic gesso and book binding glue. This adheres to the foam very well, and stays flexible so it doesn't crack.

I applied three layers of primer with a paint roller, and then a few layers of pure acrylic gesso over it. After it had fully dried, I sanded the entire blade, starting with 100 grit sandpaper and working my way up to 400 grit. That's why I used gesso on top of the primer. It's perfectly possible to paint directly over the primer, but the glue mixture, due to it's flexibility, can't be sanded very well.
After sanding and cleaning up the base coat, it was time for the actual paint job. First, a layer of gray spray paint, followed by a wash of dark gray. This was then clearcoated with a layer of matte varnish. On one of my previous projects, I painted on my metallic finish first and then clearcoated it, but this took away the metallic effect a bit, so this time, I clearcoated it first, and then drybrushed a thin layer of silver paint over it.

After the silver paint had dried, one last finishing - and messy - touch was needed: blood! I mixed some red and brown paint (pure red is way too bright and not really convincing), thinned it to a creamy consistency and then splattered it on with a brush. This is a messy process, and paint flies everywhere, so old clothes and lots of newspaper are a must for this!

The final result
There's one detail I added but forgot to document. My wife pointed out I forgot the tuning screws. I made these out of 4mm thick PVC foam sheet. I glued three layers together, carved and sanded them into shape, painted them and glued them in place.

And here's the finished axe in all it's bloody glory! Too bad the video I wanted to make didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. I still plan to make video tutorials in the future, though, but they probably won't involve me talking in front of the camera.