Intro: Make Your Own Clay-sculpting Loop Tools-revised Version (updated 7 Sept 09)
Sculpting tools are essential kit for sculpting in clay or oil based clays such as plasteline (a high grade plasticine), wax or chavant.
Usually, there are two main kinds of sculpting tools-the stick-like variety which usually are used for adding material, and loops which are used for taking away. They are not that expensive to buy, but there are some great tools which are not easily found but easily made. It's fun, too.
This article will show you how to make your own loop tools from scratch. Loops can be all shapes and sizes depending on the scale of the job. For blocking out life size figures, you will need something bigger, and for fine lines and wrinkles on prosthetics you'll need something smaller. The principle remains the same.
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Step 1: Get Your Materials Together
The main materials you will need are brass or aluminium tubing (such as the K&S brand) and piano wire, which are available from good model shops, and bass guitar strings from music stores, or a guitar playing friend who may have a busted string. The rest is readily available from hardware stores.
You will need
" Brass or aluminium tubing
" Piano wire
" Bass guitar strings
" 5 minute, 2-part epoxy resin
" Wire wool or a dish-scouring pad
" Small adjustable pipe cutter, or a craft knife or blade (such as a Stanley knife)
Bass strings are available in different thicknesses (I have no musical knowledge at all, so could not tell you what notes to pick. Choose a selection if in doubt). They work well as the wire-bound string scratches little lines into the surface of your clay, skimming the surface without sinking in or creating little scoops.
The result is a three-dimensional cross-hatch effect which gradually smoothes forms without flattening them.
Step 2: Cut Your Tubing & Wire
Use the pipe cutter to cut a length of tubing to around 6" (150mm). Cut a 2" (50mm) length of your piano wire or guitar string.
Incidentally, if you don't have a pipe cutter, a sharp craft knife or blade will work. Place the tube on a hard work surface, and roll the blade on the tube whilst pressing down. Eventually, the scored line will cut through the brass, creating a nice, clean cut.
If you try cutting with a small hacksaw, very often the brass will bend and leave you with a jagged end.
Step 3: Give It a Squeeze
Using pliers, slightly flatten the end of the tubing. We want to be able to freely insert the wire, so make sure it isn't too closed. If you overdo it, squeeze the ends gently with the pliers again to open it slightly, or wiggle a screwdriver in the slot to prise it open.
Step 4: Give It a Curve
To create a nice curve, bend your wire carefully around the brass tubing. If you just bend the wire without it you can create a point. You can also use the pliers to bend the wire to any shape you like.
Step 5: Get Gluing
Check your wire fits nicely into the tubing.
Next, squeeze two equal size globs of epoxy glue onto a mixing surface. Make sure it is well mixed.
Step 6: Almost There...
Put your mixed glue carefully into the end of your tubing, making sure it goes down into the tube. You may need a pin or a little length of wire to get down far enough. Dip the ends of the loop in the glue also, then push them into the tube about 5-6mm. Squeeze the tube gently again with the pliers, mopping any excess glue with a cotton bud or piece of tissue.
You may have to hold the tool upside down for a while, and move it around until the glue thickens and begins to set. Speed this up with a hairdryer.
Step 7: ...and You're Done
That's pretty much it. Now do the same to the other end, using a different shape loop, or use piano wire one end, and guitar string on the other. Try experimenting with shape and wire variations to create different kinds of tool marks.
Step 8: Acupuncture Needles
Another couple of variations are to use acupuncture needles and fret saw blades as loop material. Acupuncture needles are available from online acupuncture suppliers and health stores, and are quite inexpensive.
They have both a plain, thin wire and a bound section so both ends of the needle can be used. This is great wire for fine, detail work.
Step 9: Fret Saw Blades
Fret saw blades are available from hardware stores, and are good for more coarse work, when blocking out shapes and smoothing larger forms.
You need to use a blowtorch to heat the blade white-hot in order to successfully bend it, otherwise the brittle metal snaps.
Step 10: Twist & Shout
Another variation is to twist some wire to create another kind of rough texture which is excellent for raking. Use piano/music wire or something a little less hard if you find it too tough to work.
Cut a 300mm (12 inch) length, and fold it in half.
Step 11: Get Twisting
Put the ends into the jaws of a pair of pliers, molegrips or metalworking vice. Insert a tool or strong rod such as a screwdriver in the loop. Now you can grasp both ends of the wire
Twist the ends in opposite directions, working against the resistance of the wire.
Keep going until the wire starts to buckle and loops onto itself. The more you twist, the tighter the ripples will become, and the finer the finish when using the tool
Step 12: Make the Loop
As before, cut the wire to size, being careful to create the loop by bending it around something circular in profile, such as a round handle on a vice, a paintbrush or a battery.
Insert the ends into the slightly flattened tubing, and apply adhesive. If you want, you can crimp it in place instead or in addition to the adhesive.
Step 13: Crimp the End
If you don't have a crimping tool, you can use a pair of pliers with a crimping device in the jaws, as shown above left.
Make sure that squash the middle area between the two twisted prongs, as shown in the middle picture. Once you have squeezed the jaws tight, you should have a nice clean groove in the end holding your wire firmly.
Make thicker versions with extra wire. In the picture on the right, I used two loops of wire at the same time and repeated the procedure. Do this to create tougher loops for larger tools or for working with firmer sculpting material.
Step 14: And, Finally…
Here is a variation using the same techniques using brass square section rod. I have chosen to use 1/16 and 1/32 gauge by K&S, a manufacturer of this kind of brass.
Step 15: Twist Again
Cut yourself a decent amount of brass rod to work with-here I used about 65mm (2 inches) to make this one. Using molegrips, pliers or a vice, slowly twist the brass rod in opposite directions.
Make sure they there is plenty of the rod in the jaws to be able to grip the brass while twisting, and maintain a firm grip whilst you do it. Molegrips or a vice are best, as this grip is held in place mechanically rather than by the strength of your hands.
Step 16: Nearly There
Keep twisting slowly until you end up with something that looks like this...
...then bend your twisted brass into shape before inserting into your tube and fix as before, using an epoxy resin glue, crimping or both.
Voila- the finished twisted brass loop tool. These work really well with plasteline and clay, and should give you years of excellent service. You may as well make a few once you have all the bits you need. That way, if you lose or break any, you can just grab another to keep sculpting.
Have fun experimenting with different shapes and sizes, and create your own customised sculpting tool kit. If you ever break or lose any of your tools, you will be able to replace them with ease.
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