Intro: Propmaking With MDF
This Instructable will teach you some of the basics of constructing prop weapons (or really any kind of prop out of MDF).
Why MDF? MDF stands for medium density fiberboard. Essentially, it is wood dust that has been compressed and glued together. Saying it like that, though, makes it sound like a horrible product. I thought so the first time I was introduced, but MDF is amazing to work with (as long as you don't mind a lot of dust!). While it's dense, it's fairly lightweight and it's soft, making it very easy to shape. Best of all, it's cheap! A 2x4 1/4" sheet of MDF will run you about $7, and it comes in thicknesses of 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 inches. Perfect for just about any build. It's only real downside is that unlike real wood it lacks a grain. This makes long, single layers of mdf fairly prone to snapping under the right force, particularly with a thin piece like a katana blade. I speak from experience.
Anyhow, let the dust fly!
Step 1: Research
Okay, okay, we're not quite to the dust generating point yet.
First off, Research!
Every project starts out this way: Several hours of research, which entails stalking Google image searches as well as forums such as www.therpf.com (Replica Prop Forum) for references of your subject, from every which angle possible. Always have your references handy when you're working. There are times when I have an impression in my head of how something should look, I make it, and only then do I look at my reference and notice that it's different in some fundamental way, forcing me to scrap my work and start over.
The above pictures are the best references for Tidus' Brotherhood sword. The first picture is best for figuring out the how the handle will look. There's a great sense of the roundness and depth of the handle's features, as well as the appearance of the blade as water. We'll come back to this reference in a bit.
The second photo is more useful for creating your pattern. It's a straight on shot of the side of the sword, and it shows the whole blade. You'll have to contend with Tidus, who is rudely standing in front of a portion, but it's an easy thing to follow the lines through to finish it up.
Step 2: Patterning
Now that you have your references, you'll want to create Patterns.
The best projects always have good patterns to start with. Creating patterns first forces you to consider your project as whole and how you will construct it. It also gives you a chance to interpret exactly what's going on. Often times you'll stare at a line, or a shape, and wonder what its purpose was. Sometimes a game's 3D model or an animation wouldn't really work in real life. Sometimes you may even want to add your own embellishments to a project. Animation in particular, because they have to draw so many frames, often over simplify to make the process easier.
With Brotherhood, as I said earlier, the illustrated art of Tidus is actually more helpful because of the straight on angle of the drawing. Start by erasing that handsome devil. He's distracting, and we only want the sword. Then rotate it so it's horizontal (You can go vertical too, if you're weird). Create a new layer and copy all of the important lines. You can easily follow the contours through Tidus' leg. Afterwards, get rid of the original artwork from behind so you're only left with your lines.
You can do this process in any kind of art program. I used Photoshop here but I'm working more with Illustrator lately. You could also use a vector art program called Inkscape. It's very much like Illustrator, except it's free!
Make sure to re-size your prop so that it's proportionate to the individual using it. Use ratios to determine first how large it is in comparison to the character and then use that ratio to determine how large it would be for yourself or the cosplayer. Make adjustments as necessary. Sometimes game or anime proportions just don't look right against real people.
Finally, use the slice tool and set it to the dimensions of a standard sheet of paper. Then section out your pattern. When you print it, make sure you deselect the 'Fit to Page' option or it'll re-size each slice and they won't quite line up correctly. Finally, print them out, line them up, tape them together, and voila! Patterns you can now trace or attach directly to your materials.
Step 3: Cutting Out Slices
There was actually a year in between when I designed this pattern originally and when I began to work in earnest on the sword. When I began, I actually realized that I needed more patterns for the layers than I'd created, but the computer the file on had died. So instead of going back to the computer I actually used the printed pattern, taped it up on a patio door to use as a tracing table, and traced out the additional shapes I need.
After I had my patterns transferred to the MDF I used my scroll saw to cut out the individual pieces. Slicing is all about making the shaping of your piece easier. Subtractive art is always more difficult than additive. By separating your piece into layers you can build up, rather than sculpt down. You shape each layer as you add it. Here you can see how the layers of this sword stack up (without any shaping) and you can already see the final shape it's supposed to end up as.
Step 4: Shaping
Note that you don't glue all the layers together as soon as you get them cut out. Do as much shaping as necessary before you sandwich layers together. It make it much easier to shape the pieces.
In the first picture, the holes inside the 'heart' are to put your scroll or coping saw blade through to cut out the inside shape. The rest of the holes were used later to put wooden dowels through to hold the blade in place. You can't see it in this picture, but when drilling through MDF always make sure you have a scrap piece underneath. This ensures that the MDF on your piece doesn't blow out on the other side because of the drill bit.
Begin by shaping, fitting things together often. I use a lot of clamps to keep pieces in line as I work. (Whoever said duct tap holds the world together never worked in a prop shop. You can never have too many clamps!)
Eventually you'll start to see the final shape come out. My Dremel is the workhorse of the shaping phase. However, rasps, files, and sandpaper will do the same job, albeit at a slower pace.
Step 5: Sanding
Once you've done your basic shaping, you can glue you slices together. Afterwards, go in with sandpaper and really smooth everything out. There are no images of this because frankly you become completely subsumed in the process. Your world becomes nothing more than the fine cloud of dust about you and the endless back and forth of the paper between your fingers.
Oh, speaking of dust clouds, wear a respirator with this stuff! Otherwise your sinuses will be clogged in no time. Besides, you get to sound like Darth Vader and get weird looks from the UPS delivery guy when you answer the door.
Step 6: Bubbles!
This is where the Instructable diverges slighty, but you might find it fun anyhow.
Not everything can be made with MDF. Making props is an adventure of combining all kinds of different materials. Brotherhood's blade is supposed to be made of water. Originally I wanted to make it out of clear acrylic but time and money were an issue. I still didn't want the blade to be purely flat. Especially when you look at the CGI reference, there's a lot going on with those bubbles near the base. I wanted them to look very 3D.
So I cut out a piece of card stock in the shape of the base on both sides. Then using hot glue I began to layer it up. Hot glue has a bad tendency to melt though, when left in the sun, so I wanted the bubbles made out of something more durable. So I created simple silicone impression molds and pressed Friendly Plastic into them. In retrospect this was a mistake. The Friendly Plastic has a tendency to curl up slightly after cooling. Resin would have been more effective. Oh well. With epoxy and another army of clamps I was able to secure them to the blade.
Step 7: Waves!
Bubbles aren't enough, though! The rest of the blade still looked flat. The easiest solution with what I had on hand was epoxy resin. Mix some of this stuff up and spread it across the surface of the blade in a somewhat "shooting waters" pattern, let set, repeat a couple of times, layering, and you get a somewhat watery texture across the flat of the blade. This is also where I got the idea to coat the tip of the blade in epoxy resin. This keeps the thin MDF from splitting and degrading over time when the weapon is resting on the tip. It's a practice I now use on every MDF prop.
Oh, by the way, the hole in the handle that sort of look like eyes were to accommodate wiring for the light up gems that would be inset there later. There are no photos of this, but the handle has channels inside for the wiring to move through. Why do they light up? They don't do it in the game, you say? Uh... Why not? Lights are always cool, right!?
Right. Moving on.
Step 8: Painting
Finally the home stretch!
Start out by giving your piece a primer coat. The color is your choice really, but I tend to operate on a simple pair of rules. If your piece is primarily chromatic colors, use white as your base. Your colors will come out much brighter on top of a white base. If the project is primarily metallic, use black. Metallic colors show up better on a black base and if your prop gets scratched it will merely look like battle damage. It also makes metallic props easier to weather in the long run.
After the primer coats and some sanding, I applied two blues. The deeper blue started near the handle and faded out just a little past the halfway point of the blade. The light blue started at the tip and I sprayed a gradient just past the edge of the darker blue. After this, everything was hand painted. The blade in particular got a variety of darker washes and then some dry brushing of whites and light blue greens over the top.
Some finishing touches: Resin cast gems with embedded LEDs (mainly for fun and 'ooooo' factor), hand dyed ribbon wrapped traditional Japanese style for the handle, and a wonderful scarf to complete the look.
Thanks for reading! I hope this this tutorial will be of help in your future projects.
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