Action Figure: a How-to!




Introduction: Action Figure: a How-to!

About: I'm an industrial arts major at SFSU with an empahsis in product design. I'm online all the time and I find myself constantly checking out these sites:, wikipedia,,, inst…

In this instructable I will guide you into creating a custom action figure.

This is my first action figure so I'll keep it simple. A figure of my own imagination. More advanced sculptors sculpt exact likenesses of anyone they choose! How cool would it be to have your own action figure?

This instructable does require some sculpting skills and a few hours of your time. The first few attempts at sculpting won't even come close. It's ok, that's how even the pros started out.

Before you start you will need a few things.

Sculpey III
Armature wire (two different kinds)
Wire cutters
Plastic bubble from a toy (the thin clear plastic cover that encases the action figure)
Sculpting tools are optional but highly recommended for detail

First off a primer on Polymer Clay
Polymer Clay is a clay like substance that when baked in a ordinary oven will harden to a plastic durability. According to it's wiki it's PVC based which could be dangerous if instructions are not followed closely ( we know what it can do if used in a laser cutter ). Can we agree PVC is just little bit dangerous?

There are many brands of polymer clays and each has it's own set of instructions. For this demonstration I will be using Sculpey III. Sculpey as well as the other brands all come in a rainbow spectrum of colors. I will be using "translucent". After it's baked in the oven it offers a pinkish translucent color that closely resembles my pale pink skin. Polymer clays can also be blended with other colored polymer clay to get the right skin color. Another apporach is to paint it after its baked in the oven. I'll have to double check which paints work. But I'm leaning towards acrylic paints.

Sculpey III comes in a small 2oz size that costs around $2.50. I bought three of them and that will be plenty. My plan is to sculpt the action figure as well as accessories. I will show you tricks on how to use less sculpey later if you are on a dollar a day budget as most of the world is.

Using Sculpey III
Sculpey III will pick up any dirt on your hands and then discolor the clay giving it a marbled dirt effect. So wash your hands before handling. Sculpey III will also leave a slight residue on your hands after handling. Regular soap worked for me. Some will suggest nail polish remover. Label on side of Sculpey III package states not to place uncured clay on furniture.

Sculpting skills
The majority of this project will involve sculpting. So learning the basic sculpting is a must.

I recommend heading over to
Check out Patrica Roses series on Polymer figures. Smartflix offers a three disc combo set for beginners and intermediate. I have both and they are worth getting if you want your finished action figure resembling anything like your subject. Also Patrica Rose is a fantastic artist and some of her figures have sold thousands. If you get into this you could make a living!

Action figure accessories
So after you've mastered sculpting, it's time to think of some awesome accessories you might want to include with your figure.

Highlyflammabletoys is a company that will make custom action figures for you. Although they are a bit pricey their figures are the best looking and are amazingly awesome.

On the left hand side you will see names and links to finished figures. Check them all out and notice all the cool scale accessories. This is a good starting point for ideas. And with a little bit of effort you can create something close to what they offer.

Remember custom accessories are key here, the more personal the cooler you're figure will be! Turning your skateboarder friend into a action figure? They will need a scale skateboard accessory.

Another place for inspriation is intuition kitchen productions Again go look at allof them. Each soo unique and amazing. Each with it's own special details and accessories. One day your figures will look like these.

Another good site for ideas is Spectre studios. This guy has created some of the coolest action figures around. He's gotten huge attention on tv, and online about his unique peices. Check out Pamela Rogers, nutty Britney Spears in a straight jacket and recently his jailtime Paris Hilton complete with orange jump suit and pet rat. ::Jaw Drops:: It's also on ebay right now...

Step 1: Plastic Bubble

Somewhere along the line you will need a clear plastic bubble to encase your figure. We will work on cardboard backing later.

Where to find
Dollar stores carry cheap action figures and they will work. All we need is the bubble!

Decisions, Decisions
While browsing for a suitable cheap figure for it's donor plastic bubble keep in mind what you want to make for accessories for you're figure. As you can see in the pictures the plastic is custom fitted for the Ninja's accessories. Not much else will fit in there. So you might decide to instead go on ebay or shop around for say like a McFarlane action figure. They usually have nice spacious spots for custom accesories.
You can use the Ninja plastic as is or cut out some plastic and then tape your accessories in place. Another idea is "vacuum forming"

Found yer bubble
I'm sticking with my idea of the dollar store bubble.
So you want to get the clear plastic bubble off the cardboard backing without scratching or marring it up. If you can present the action figure in a clear brand new looking plastic bubble it will dramatically add to the wow factor. You like wow faces don't you?

And then
After carefully prying off the plastic bubble I removed the glued on paper with nail polish remover. Some ink residue remained and I'm ok with that. Set this aside for later. Somewhere where it won't be squashed, bent or scratched up.

Cardboard backing
Eventually you will need to design your own cardboard backing.
I measured this particular action figures cardboard backing and it measured 6 3/4th inch wide by 9 1/2 inches long. You can use this as a template later. Also you can use the slat wall hook as a template to where to cut out on your final cardboard backing product.

Step 2: Time to Build an Armature

What you'll be using
First off you will need "armature wire". Most art stores will carry small and large quanities of it. It's basically wire, usually aluminum or steel. You can use paperclips, coat hankers, any metal wire in which you can bend with your fingers and holds up pretty well. Only need a about a foot of it.

What wire am I using?
Wire as you know comes in different gauges. For this demonstration I'm using stuff I found in my dad's tool cabinet.
I found copper wire at 16 gauge and I also found 24 gauge steel wire. An example of a "wire" not to use is soldering wire. It's lead and very weak, it wouldn't hold up for long. Alternatively wire so strong where you couldn't bend it at all with your fingers wouldnt work either. You can use pliers to bend your armature but I like the freedom of bending at will and the ease of it. Work with whatever you like best. You will also need wire cutters. The one's pictured are not really right for the job. Ask a Homer at Home Depot. Probably a good tool to have around anyhow.

Tricks of the trade
Most of the professional sculptors will use two different gauge wires. One thicker wire to build the base armature and a second thinner wire to wrap around the thicker base armature. This will provide a better grip for the clay you will eventually squish around it. Without that second thinner wire the clay tends to slide off.

Measuring, proportions and posing
With this knowledge you're ready to build your figures armature.
Be sure to check the size of your action figure bubble. You want your figure to eventually fit inside the bubble don't you?
You can also use the original action figure as something to measure up to. You will have to decide if you want a certain pose. This being my first attempt at this will keep it real simple. Also instead of building the figure all at once. You might decide it would be easier to build different limbs and torsos sepearate later gluing them together. Also if you do wish to make action figure posable. IE has articulation it will require some more research into jointed limbs. The classic 4 and a half inch GI Joes always had hinges molded into the arm with a rivet to hold them together. You might decide you can use magnets. Or just a metal tube with a rod.

Step 3: Building Up and Sculpting

The plan
Get polymer clay onto your armature. Not worried about detail or anything. Just get it on there. This is a rough stage. Want to get approximate proportions. Legs and arms are skinny, torso is thick.

Killer Tip
To save on clay you can also wrap your armature with aluminum foil as a "filler". Build up a layer of aluminum foil and then wrap it with polymer clay.

Instructions on the Sculpey III package state to Bake at 275 degrees for 15 minutes per 6 1/4" thickness.

So keep this in mind as your adding alumnium foil as filler.

Remember how thick your figure is.

But wait
A word of caution, baking Polymer clay can get tricky. For instance when time comes to bake the polymer clay figure, pros know to bake fingers and toes separately with less time as they will cure quicker. IE thicker pieces of clay will take more time to bake and cure than thinner pieces. IE If you use the same instructions for thick pieces your fingers will burn.

Polymer clay, PVC, burning PVC melts laser cutter optics voiding warranty, don't let it burn! Pretend your baking a pie and your life depends on it. No really...

Time to Sculpt
I realized within a few minutes sculpting a accurately proportional face or body would be nearly impossible so I decided to create a figure of my own imagination.
Sculpting as you find out will be the most difficult and time consuming part. What's nice about polymer clay that it doesn't dry out like water based clay. Although if you do let it set for a few months I hear it hardens up. If you need to take a break put what you have in a bag to keep it from collecting dust, dirt and debris.

You may want to invest in a small tool set. Although there are professional sculpting tools I'm sure common objects around the house could get the job done. Patricia Rose in her dvd series examines the different tools that are available. Here is an example of some of the many tools that are available. Often times professionals will make their own. Instructable in the making?

DVD help
The Patricia Rose series is excellent on the sculpting process. She works with the scale were working with here. And covers all aspects of figure sculpting, from fingers and toes to faces. Also her website has a list of tips and all things related to sculpting.

Another DVD tutorial I have not checked out is this one

It looks to be helpful in creating more accurate faces.

The face is one of the most crucial parts of sculpting. People tend to focus on faces first and is the most difficult to capture realistically. We all look alike body wise. It's our unique individual faces that separates us. Goats don't have that. Earthworms don't have that. Kinda interesting to think about though. If you're just starting out faces will be most difficult. Especially if your modeling it after someone.

Take your time
If it's not coming out as planed, don't sweat it's your first shot. Professionals have created hundreds before they got where they are now. Taking breaks is good here.

Step 4: Paint? Bubble It and Wrap It

Sometimes sculptures look cool even without paint. I many plastic models growing up and most of them I never wanted to paint. No paint job was better than a whacky one. Painting is a tough gig. It's up to your skill level and knowledge base. More advanced users will learn how to mix different colored polymer clays and not even need to paint the finished product.

Skin color is often tough to reproduce in paint. I reccomend David Fischer he has an excellent series on painting models. Fisher covers all aspect of painting and even covers some basic effects such as drool and wounds.

Bubbling and backing
All you need to do now is put your model into the bubble and glue the bubble to the cardboard backing. Hopefully you're backing has cool graphics with images related to your action figures. Check the highly flamable toys examples.

Well it's all done, wrap it up and impress your friends. Eventually you'll be able to sculpt exact likenesses to anyone you want. Which is what highly flammable toys does.

But creating you're own ideas is just as fun and rewarding!

I hope you enjoyed my second Instructable!


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    5 years ago

    does this have articulation ???????? (can it move ?) please respond


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Nice article, thanks!


    10 years ago on Step 4

    Are these made for play? And what do you mean "burn your finger"?


    Reply 10 years ago on Step 4

    I think he meant the fingers on the figure


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I'm a trainer sculptor and SFX guy.

    I dont know what the product name is for the plastic used for small action figure arms and legs. It's rubbery and flexible so the two piece torso can hold the limbs in and they can rotate without joints.

    Anybody able to tell me?


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Neato! I intend to create a miniature figurine of a robot with an actual LED in it. Since you've wrapped wire around the main wire of the armature, I could find a way to get current to the LED. The question is whether or not the heat of the oven would affect the wire inside or not..... It might melt the plastic jacket around the wire, but I don't know if it would do anything..... Oh, and I love sculpey. That is all.


    12 years ago on Step 1

    :P Nothing says ninja like a ten foot revolver and a shoulder harness.


    Reply 12 years ago on Step 1

    lol seriously


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Im also pretty sure Sculpey III comes in larger bricks now, a pound maybe? I think they run about 15 bucks.


    13 years ago on Introduction

    This is a cool idea. I have worked with polymer clay some, so I have a couple suggestions. First I might recommend using clay that can be baked multiple times without losing strength. Try Kato Polyclay, it can be a bit more expensive but I've had great results from it. This will also allow you to do more with your action figure, most importantly you can make an accurately proportional body and get better detail. Try building the shape up in a couple layers, baking in between. It's a similar process to the 'bulking up' part of drawing that those comic book tutorials always include. I'd still recommend baking smaller bits (like fingers) last or separately though


    14 years ago on Introduction

    very nice. at 1st i was sceptical, then i was like, wow, this could work! _


    Hey guys. I actually have some experience with Super Sculpey and a few of my pieces are on my myspace page at They are in my pics under 'projects'. I actually just finished my first jointed action figure and hope to post pics soon.Good tutorial and please have a look at my work. Thanks.


    14 years ago on Introduction

    A few things I would like to add because they are realted--

    Joints aren't hard unless you want the kind of joints that actual action figures have, which is closer to a pin in hinge type. A bit harder to make with sculpey, but still possible.
    I suggest a ball joint route, where you have a shpere that sits in a hollowed area. The entire doll could be held together with elastic, and all the pieces being hollow. A few S hooks in the hands, feet, and head, and you would have a completely poseable figure.

    It's completely in Japanese, but google does wonders: It details everything that I have said here, and can be applied to any type of figure.


    Reply 14 years ago on Introduction

    Another note-- When using SS, don't bake pieces. You run the risk of burning them! Instead, put the soft piece in a large bowl full of water (so that the water covers the piece) and stick it into the microwave for 15mins. The piece will cure in the microwave. If you want a better sandable surface, go to a local art store and buy "gesso". It's a primer for canvases, but it makes a sandable surface that can be smoothed and finished out. After that, paint it with whatever you like, and seal it in a dull coat matte finish so it isn't too glossy. Something like Testors Dullcoat. If you want a shiner finish, pick a varnish instead.