Introduction: Posable Action Figure Building System

About: Send me a message if you're interested in Technology or Science Workshops in Flanders, Brussels or the Southern of the Netherlands. I have over 20 years of experience in developing and giving creative workshop…
Make a custom action figure gift: a "Build your own Model Woman" kit, featuring magnetic joints, washable colouring and a vacuum formed packaging.

I have been making a couple of portrait fashion dolls (think "Barbie style" dolls) or action figures as custom gifts for female friends of mine. I have been using different clays (self hardening and polymer types) and different techniques for the joints (copper wire, elastic bands, RC-model ball joints) . I made the gift discribed in this Ible for a male friend, modelling it after his gorgeous wife. I presented it as a kit allowing him to build a model of his ideal woman.
I got the idea to use magnets for the joints after reading the comments about joints on the inspirational Ible!/. The magnetic joints not only give extensive posability, but also allow the figure to be assembled and disassembled again and again.

From other polymer clay doll making projects of mine I learned that the colouring of washable ink felt markers is easily removed with water and soap from (Fimo brand) polymer clay . This allows for application and complete removal of many different colouring schemes again and again (different clothes, make-up, body painting).

From these two things came the idea for an action figure building system.

Step 1: Materials

Each joint consists of a strong (neodymium magnet and a steel counterpart in the opposite body part. In each joint, one side is a ball (either a magnet or steel) and a cylindrical part (either steel or a magnet). For the hip joints, which need to be extra strong for the figure to be able to stand on its own, both sides contain magnets. As this means both sides need to be aligned in polarity. This implies a restriction in movement. I chose a hip joint only allowing rotation in one plane anyway. As the hip provides enough room, the alternative could be the use of a bigger, even stronger magnet and steel counterpart, allowing for a ball hip joint.
I used 5 mm neoflux® ball magnets purchased from (ref. 203.707) at a very affordable price of 3.55 EURO for 10. As counterparts I used M5 and M4 grub screws. The latter offer several advantages: you can thread them in drilled holes in the baked clay, adjusting their depth and their hollow hex end allows them to lock on all positions of the ball magnets, with only little preference to the magnetic poles (a flat tip would have trouble locking on the "equator"). Logically the number of magnets corresponds to at least the number of joints. With 2 extra for the hips and one added for a removable ponytail, I used 12 magnets. Classic cylindrical neodymium magnets in combination with ball bearing balls should also work.
Warning: powerful magnets need to be handled with care to avoid damage to equipment or data or even injury. Read the manufacturers warnings that should be included went buying. Ensure that the magnets are kept at due distance from any magnetic information carriers such as credit cards, magnetic tapes and floppy discs and from any electronic equipment such as hearing aids, pacemakers, measuring and control instruments, computers and watches, as these items may be affected or damaged by the extremely powerful magnetic fields.
I sculpted the figure in Fimo, a good quality brand of polymer clay. The low baking temperature of polymer clay (110°C) allows the magnets to be incorporated without them loosing their magnetism. You can find plenty of information on sculpting with polymer clay on the net, so I will focus my explanation mostly to some specifics for this kind of figure. In this case I mainly used Fimo "Miniature", specially suited for small dolls. It works well and gives a strong result, but I found it to give a discernible colour change after baking, something I never noticed with other Fimo. However, after two attempts I got the right mix with some chocolate brown "Soft"-type Fimo to obtain the desired tan .
Take care as polymer clay in unbaked condition is considered harmfull to your health and to many plastic surfaces. I guess it's the softeners that do the harm. Check the instructions of the manufacturer. Avoid contact with anything not needed for the sculpting and wash hands, tools and working area thoroughly afterwards.
You will need the sculpting tools of your choice (I use only some toothpicks), an oven with good temperature control, some superglue, sanding paper (medium coarse and 320 or 400 grain), possibly a medium to fine file, drill and bits, optionally a countersink drill bit (see picture), Allen keys for the grub screws and felt markers.
For the packaging you can use cardboard (e.g. an existing cardboard box), high quality printer paper, a printer, a digital camera, glue-stick, clear plastic sheet and a 5l "jerry can" poly-ethylene bottle (from, distilled water, milk...), some scrap wood board, some clay that kan be removed with water, broad tape, a vacuum cleaner and a heat gun (paint remover).

Step 2: Determining Dimensions With Sketch and Armature

Some sketching showed the 5mm magnets should allow an action figure at scale of 1/12 to 1/10. The sketch is made at scale 1/12th. I ended up making the figure at a scale of 1/10, standing 16 cm high. Some would call the subject a bit short (I don't), but almost everyone considers her other measurements to be perfect ;-).

I made the "armature" parts in Fimo. Although the manufacturer warns against to long baking times, I never had any trouble with baking Fimo several times, with intermediate cooling down. I made the mistake of making the "armature" parts in the base colour, not the final skin colour. At one point sanding the part made the base colour re-appear. Fortunately, the colour difference is small, but it is better to use the final skin colour for the armature. The balls are attached to the knee of the upper leg parts, the upper arm elbows and shoulders and the neck. Note the shoulder ball is attached towards the side. The upper arm part should be exactly the desired length. The other parts have one end that can be easily adjusted later on.

Use a second magnet to align the magnets. I put the north-south axis in longitudinal position to achieve the highest strength in the position standing upright. You might choose otherwise for the arms.

Bake the parts with the magnets in place and aligned as shown in the picture. The cylindrical counterparts I prefer to put in later (see step 5 and 6). After cooling down, check if the magnets stick to the parts. If not, re-attach them with a little superglue.
The head "armature" part proved to be unsuitable; it was easier to sculpt the head from scratch out of a ball of unbaked Fimo.

Step 3: Sculpting the Limbs

Coat each part with the skin coloured clay, keeping the thickness to a minimum on the ball. I find it easiest to shape the part close to its final shape, not covering the ball at all. Then I apply a thin Fimo "pancake" over the ball and rub it to a smooth transition to the rest of the part.
For the limbs I prefer to leave the final shaping to a sanding step after baking. I first sculpted and baked the upper arms and upper legs. I sanded their "ball ends" carefully to their final shape Then I covered the parts completely with thin wrapping foil, keeping it as smooth as possible at the "ball ends". This way I could push on the counterparts on for a perfect fit.
For the hands I first made a rough shape and cut with scissors to make the fingers. I kept the further sculpting to a minimum.

Step 4: Sculpting the Rump and the Head

For the rump and the head sanding is not as easy at concave shapes, so sculpting these as close as possible to the desired shape as good as possible pays of. One exception is the hip joints, were the flat sides are of course easier to sand (see step 5). I sculpt it with some excess material, both on the flat faces, as on the neighbouring edges. The magnets (on both sides of each hip joint) will be placed in drilled holes after baking.

For the shoulders I made round cavities with a countersink drill bit after baking (see step 6). Actually this allowed for baking the rump and the upper limbs at the same time, as I did not need to push fit the rump on earlier finished counterparts.

For the head I first only sculpted the skin coloured part, with eye sockets made with a tooth pick. You can wrap the baked and sanded rump with foil to allow fitting the head, but again I chose for drilling a cavity after baking the head.

When the skin coloured part of the head was I continued with eyes and hair. For this figure, to be coloured with felt markers, I only make the white of the eye, by pushing a white ball of Fimo into the socket, flattening it only slightly. Not adding an iris, eyebrows or lip colour will allow for different colours and to some degree even facial expressions to be applied with felt markers.
For the hair I first brought a thin layer of the desired colour and then made the hair itself with thin rolls. For some figures I made before, I used different hair colours (shades close to each other), only partially mixed to give a more realistic look. For this figure I did not, as this effect can also be achieved with the felt markers. One could think of making white hair, allowing for applying any hair colour with the felt markers, but it would be very difficult to colour in the deep gaps between the hair strands.
The pony tail broke off later, which gave me the idea to attach it with a magnet also. This allows it "to follow gravity" when the head is tilted, and might also become a basis for interchangeable hairpieces.

Step 5: The Hip Joints

When all parts are baked you might need to do some sanding to achieve the final shape, at least, I did. The flat faces of the hip joints certainly needed to sanding. Do notice the angle on the flat faces and their circular section. This results in an aesthetic joint, with a good representation of a pert bottom (as is the case for the subject and my favourite type anyway).

Getting the rump and upper leg outside surfaces fit will take some more sanding, but that will be done after the joint magnets are in place. Find the middle of the flat face of each upper leg parts and drill a hole with the diameter of the magnet and just deep enough for the magnet to sink in it half way. Glue it in place using other magnets to align the polarity. I used superglue. In the rump drill a hole at least deep enough to take a magnet and half of another one. Don't worry if it is somewhat to deep, the magnets will keep together. Actually I put a small piece of paper between the magnets, when carefully gluing the each rump-side magnets in place with superglue. When this piece of paper is removed afterwards, this makes the hip faces will touch sooner than the magnets touch each other, otherwise this could lead to a to large gap between the body parts. Of course it is best to use only thin paper, to keep a short distance and thus high attraction forces between the magnets.

Step 6: The Other Joints

Now you need to do some drilling to fit in the cylindrical metal parts (or magnets if you work with cylindrical magnets and steel balls). I found that drilling with the same nominal diameter as the grub screws allows for a self-threading when inserted. This in turn allowed for their dept to be adjusted easily. I used 6mm long M4 screws for the lower arms and 6mm long M5 screws for shoulders and head and 12mm long M5 screws for the lower legs. M5 definitely gives a stronger attraction/joint. I expected the extra length of 12mm instead of 6mm also would give a stronger connection, but I could not discern a difference.
For the shoulders and the head I still needed to drill the cavity, which I did with a countersink. You can also do it with an ordinary drill bit with a diameter slightly larger than the fimo covered ball on upper arms. Of coarse you do it without the cylindrical magnet or the grub screw in place. If you make it just a little todeep, the dept of the cylindrical magnet or the grub screw will determine the fit of the joint.
At the knees and elbows you will need a cut-out in the edge of the cavity to allow assuming a bended position. I find it easiest to prepare that only roughly in the unbaked condition and do it mainly by filing the baked part. With just a cut-out in the part with the cavity, you can have joints that work up to about 90°. If you want to go further, you will also have to  "free" more of the ball shape in the counterpart. I prefer not to do that as it looks less good in the straight position.
Assemble the figure to check the fit and the possible positions.
The figure is almost fully possible and it can even stand upright without support. But as the parts easily come apart and polymer clay is still not as though as plastic, it is not quite suited for really playing with it as young children do (but then, what hand made action figures are?). Also, the washable felt marker ink also tends to come of on your fingers. But you can use it to set up an innumerable number of static scenes. Stop motion might just be possible, although the very "lose" joint movement would require a very careful approach.

Step 7: The Packaging

For this figure, I thought it would be nice to present it in disassembled condition, with included felt markers. Therefore I made a "blister" holding al the parts to show them through a clear cut-out in the box. The blister is made with vacuum forming, on which there is a very good Ible You can use vacuum forming to make a clear "bubble" packaging, but I found making a good looking clear packaging is a tricky. A white blister is however quite easy with poly-ethylene 5l "jerry cans", the ones in which distilled water or certain cleaning products are sold. A great advantage is it becomes clear when it has reached forming temperature. Heating is done locally with a paint remover heat gun. The jerry-can shape avoids the need of framing your plastics sheet. I simply cut out one face to see what I am doing, opposite the face I heat to transparency. The unheated sides make frame, suitable to push the heated part over the forming "mold".
To make the "mold" I positioned the body parts on a piece of wood board, a bit smaller than the available "sheet" on the "jerry can" and at least about one cm thick (to allow the sheet to be pressed over the edges, thus forming a seal for the vacuum).
I positioned all parts on the board with clay. Do not use polymer clay this time but any clay that can be removed with water. I made "ridges" that afterwards became cavities that allow to put your fingers in and take out the part.
I put the board on a box allowing sucking vacuum under the board. The box was assembled by taping together. The vacuum cleaners tube was taped in hole. Then I drilled 1,5 mm holes closely around the shapes to be formed, with about 2 cm in between, and one in each corner. 1,5 mm is rather large for an aesthetic result, but OK for this application (some dimples marking the holes will even add to the realism).
I heated the side of the jerry can, switched on the vacuum cleaner, and put it sheet over the parts, switched of the vacuum cleaner after about 15 s and let everything to cool down. With the help of water I cleaned out the clay and cleaned the parts and the "blister".
I cut out the "blister" and adapted a box with extra cardboard. I made a window with a transparent sheet and glued on printed sheets with pictures and text. The text includes a warning about the strong magnets. First, so the receiver is indeed warned , but also to add to a realistic look of a "real" product. I was planning to use pictures of the figure fully coloured in different outfits, but I was running out of time. Therefore I used some pictures of the naked figure in different poses and coloured outfits on the prints. This does not give the best results of course.
Homemade Holidays Contest

Participated in the
Homemade Holidays Contest