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Military Miniatures - Making an Original Model

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )

The methods and materials used to make an original model depend on the final results desired by the collector. An original model may be made so that duplicates may be cast in plaster molds, or the original may be created as a one-of-a-kind figure, not intended to be duplicated in molds. You must decide before starting your figure which type of model you desire, because in making a model for plaster mold reproduction there are a number of precautions that should be taken in order to eliminate mold-making problems. Because most collectors look for-ward to the thrill of casting original figures from molds they have created, and because in some cases there is an advantage to using cast parts in the creation of a one-of-a-kind figure, making an original for reproduction in a plaster mold will be discussed first.

Before starting actual work on the original figure, research and planning are mandatory if your final figure is to come up to your expectations. The chapters on Anatomy and Drapery and Source Material will prove of particular value in planning and making your original. Although you may have an ideal mental picture of the figure you are going to make, you should get it on paper before starting. This does not mean that your drawings of the proposed figure should be works of art in them-selves; in fact, even if you draw only straight lines in the proper proportions to indicate the pose and action of the figure, they will serve the purpose of a more elaborate drawing. These preparatory sketches are invaluable be-cause they will help you to eliminate many of the pitfalls you would otherwise encounter, such as bad proportions in arms and legs, as well as unnatural positions. One of the most conspicuous errors made by the amateur is to ignore completely the center of gravity, making their figures take unnatural poses that in real life would throw the figure flat on his face or posterior. Although it is certainly not necessary, an inexpensive manikin which you can purchase at any art supply store will also be of help. Manikins are usually made of wood or metal, hinged at all the joints such as knees, hips, and elbows, so that you may make the assume any action pose of the human body. By making the manikin assume the position of your proposed figure, you will find it very helpful to refer to while modeling your original.

The original figure may be modeled or carved out of almost any material: wood, wax, soap, modeling clay, plastic metal, plastic wood, and lead. In using materials like wood and soap, one first sketches the outline of the figure on the block of material, and the excess material is carved away in the usual wood carving or whittling manner. In the case of the soft or plastic materials such as clay and wax, the figure is usually built around a skeleton known as an armature. Armatures are made of any wire that is soft enough to bend easily with the fingers, yet firm enough to stand upright and support the modeling material after it is formed into position. In making the armature, be careful to make accurate measurements, so that the finished figure will be in proper proportion. Form a loop for the head and twist a number of strands of wire together for torso, legs, and arms. Allow an extra amount of wire at the feet so that the finished armature may be fastened to a block of wood or metal for support while the figure is being modeled; the extra wire and base can easily be removed when the model is completed. When the position of your armature is satisfactory, run a coat of solder over the wire to bind the wire and make the frame sturdier. In the case of an armature for a horse or other item which has a suspended portion between the legs, fasten a support of wire from the temporary base to the middle of the suspended section; this will keep the weight of the modeling material from causing a sag. After the modeling material has hardened, the support wire may be removed.

The important thing to remember in modeling a figure for reproduction in a mold is to avoid undercuts, unless you want to go into multiple piece molds instead of the simple two piece ones which are more practical. An undercut is any place where wet plaster may hook under and make it impossible to remove the figure from the mold, such as a cupped hand, a turned back lapel or coat tail, or even ears. If you desire the extra details of deep undercuts, they are easily cut or scribed into the lead casting after it has left the mold. In the original model all detail lines and modeling must be clean and straight into the figure; in fact, it will be an advantage to allow a very slight outward taper along all raised portions such as lapels. This taper is known as draft and insures easy removal of the casting from the mold.

It stands to reason that the simpler your original model is, the easier it is to make your mold, and by the same token, the less complicated the mold the longer its life, because there will be less chance of breakage in removing castings. For this reason most experienced figure makers model their figures in several pieces, or cut a complete figure into sections before making a mold. The figure is usually divided in this manner: the trunk and legs in one section, the head in another and the arms in another. Besides the advantages gained in making the mold you also gain the advantage of having parts which may be assembled in such a manner that different poses may be obtained from the same mold. For example: the head may be placed so that the figure is looking to either side, or up, or down; the arms may be placed in a number of positions which will add a great amount of variety and interest to your collection. Equipment such as belts, cartridge boxes, and swords may be modeled and cast on the torso section or they may be cast separately and fastened to the body in the same manner as the head and arms. Separate castings are the most interesting to work with because, just as you gain variety with the placement of heads and arms, so you can vary the positions of the various pieces of equipment and weapons to make a more natural looking group of figures.

Artillery pieces and other machines of war may be modeled and cast in very much the same manner as figures, and here too it is to your advantage to break the model down into a number of separate parts before making the mold for casting. Wood and metal are by far the best materials to use in making patterns or originals for artillery pieces. Cannon barrels may be carved or better still turned to shape on a lathe. If a lathe is not available, a satisfactory job of rounding and finishing a barrel may be done in this manner. First carve a piece of wood as near to shape as you can, leaving an extension of wood at one end so that it may be held. Screw a fair sized wood screw into the end of the wood extension left on the cannon barrel, taking care to center the screw; allow at least three quarters of an inch of the screw to extend out of the wood and then cut the head of the screw off with a saw. Now clamp an ordinary hand drill into a sturdy vise which has been fastened to a solid table and place the end of the screw into the chuck of the drill; insert the screw end deep enough to bring the wood firmly against the end of the chuck when it is tightened. While turning the handle of the drill, shape and finish the barrel with small files and sand paper. Of course, you can turn with one hand and finish with the other, but it's better to call in a helper to furnish the power for the drill while you give your full attention to the modeling. Besides, allowing other members of your family to help create a model is an excellent way to indoctrinate them into the hobby, and to encourage them to become your allies. Of course, you may insert the screw into the muzzle of the cannon if you prefer, so that the ball or any other extension at the breech may be more easily shaped and formed. Beside rounding gun barrels, this method of turning may be used for forming and finishing a great number of small parts from wood and metal.

Carriages and other parts for the cannon may be made of wood for each individual model, or these too may be cast after patterns are made. The best material to use in making patterns or original models for gun carriages and wagon parts is wood. The wood may be of any avail-able kind, even balsa which is obtainable in a variety of sizes at any model store. Details such as bolts and plates may be made from shim brass or paper and small pins

You can turn many small parts of your figures from wood or soft metal by clamping a drill in a vise. Chuck the material to be fashioned into the drill and get someone to turn the handle while you shape the material with files and sandpaper.

If you have selected modeling clay of the everplastic type, wax, or metal to make your original model, there is no special preparation for making your plaster molds, because all of the above repel water and the plaster shouldn't stick to the model. However, if you use wood, self-hardening clay, plastic wood, or any other porous material for the model, you must prepare the work so that it repels water, before it is placed in plaster. This may be done in a number of ways, but no doubt the simplest is to give the model several coats of shellac or varnish followed by wax or a very thin application of oil. When your pattern figure or model has been checked and prepared to repel moisture, proceed by carefully following the instructions set forth in the chapter entitled, "Making Molds and Casting".

In making one-of-a-kind originals the materials and methods are unlimited, because here you do not have to contend with the problems involved in making a pattern that must conform to certain rules so that it may be recast. In this type of figure you may combine a great variety of materials and obtain unusual and realistic effects with no worries about undercuts and textures. Wood, cloth, plastic metal, pipe cleaners, string, solder, plaster of paris, papier-mache and an unlimited variety of other materials can be incorporated in constructing successful models of this type. Only a very few of the various methods employed are described here, but they will no doubt suggest many other procedures and materials that you may employ in making an original.

A favorite method used by the greater number of collectors is to dress a nude figure in uniform by cementing or soldering clothing which has been cut from sheet lead or an old toothpaste tube to the nude form. Needless to say this makes a very fascinating and realistic model because all the little belts, the jacket, vest, hat and other pieces of clothing can be made to drape out from the figure in a most natural manner. This type of model also has that pleasing heft of an all metal figure which is greatly desired by many collectors. The nude for this type of figure may be formed or sculptured by methods set forth earlier in this chapter; one can take proportions from the chapter on anatomy and then make a plaster mold so that a number of nudes may be cast. When one makes the original nude, a natural standing position with legs apart is best; then a variety of positions may be formed before dressing. It is also an advantage to cast the little nudes in soft lead so that some minor bends can be made without cutting the figure. Nudes made in this fashion are also valuable in making figures you wish to cast in plaster molds. To dress the nude for mold making, use modeling clay, plastic metal or any other such material to build the clothing, taking care to abide by all the rules about undercuts and draft, and then proceed to make your molds in the usual manner.

Very successful and natural looking one-of-a-kind figures can also be made from very unusual things such as pipe cleaners for example. In making a pipe cleaner figure, fold the first pipe cleaner in half and, at the point where the cleaner is bent, twist a loop or roll into a nob to form the basic head. Below the head loop, the pipe cleaner is twisted together to form the torso and the remainder of the two ends form the legs. From another cleaner, cut a piece long enough to twist around the torso at the shoulders and extend out on each side to be formed into arms. Another piece of cleaner is then wound tightly around the torso to build up thickness. Naturally, the size and portliness of the figure you have in mind will govern the amount of additional winds needed. The pipe cleaners actually form an armature or skeleton, with the advantage of a heavier rough surface to which various molding materials and paints will cling. If the model is very small the entire job of filling and modeling may be done with paint. The best paint for this purpose is show card colors or tempera which may be obtained very inexpensively in a great variety of colors and shades. Since this is a water solvent paint, it flows easily and dries slowly enough for you to blend and make special effects on your model. If your model is to have a jacket which swings away from the body or a hat that has a turned up brim, cut these parts from paper or cloth and cement them in their proper places before starting to fill and paint. You should also attach any weapons, and the figure should also be fastened to the base on which it is to stand. This may be a small square of cardboard, or better still, a small square of metal, as figures made in this manner are very light and the metal will add weight in the right place.

When you have placed the various parts of the figure into their final positions, with all clothing in place and weapons securely fastened, paint the figure and clothing with a very thick coat of white show-card color. Use the heavy show-card color just as it comes from the jar and continue to apply layers of paint so that it builds up in the pipe cleaners and makes an even surface while covering the joints where the various pieces of clothing were cemented to the figure. When the pigments have been built up to your satisfaction, set the figure aside until the paint has had a chance to dry thoroughly. When the figure is dry, inspect it for any defects that may have formed in the drying process and fill them in with more white show-card color. Now when the figure has again dried, you will have a fully formed figure with intriguing drapery and a superb surface primed and ready to paint. Use regular show-card colors to paint. Since show-card colors are water soluble, after the figure is dry spray the figure with water color fixative, which may be purchased from any art supply store, and which is applied with a small mouth spray obtainable from the same source. Some collectors prefer to coat the figures with clear plastic which may be obtained in spray cans. This is an excellent protective coat, but you must be sure the show-card colors are completely dry and the spray must be applied with great care. It is strongly recommended that you practice spraying with plastic before attempting to apply it to your masterpiece.

Another interesting way of creating an original oneof-a-kind figure is with wrapping string and wire. In this method a wire armature is first made the same as in making an original with clay or other modeling compounds. However, instead of using the plastic material, you wind string tightly around the armature to build up the various contours of the figure, winding more coils of string where the figure is heavier such as the chest and hips and fewer winds on the smaller sections such as the neck, waist, and limbs. On sections where very small build-ups are required, the strands of the string may be twisted apart, which will make the winds on the armature smaller and smoother. An application of any good model cement when the winding of the string is begun, and frequent applications while winding, will insure a tight well-bound figure. When sufficent string has been wound on the armature to form fully rounded limbs, torso, neck and head, apply more cement to any loose bits of string and then set the figure aside for a few minutes until the cement has had time to set. When the cement is dry, the figure may be bent into the position that best suits your purpose and you may then add filler, details and paint.

The string-wound armature is full of ridges which are to your advantage, because they will give the filler some-thing to cling to. Plastic wood, plastic metal or any like substance is used as a filler, and modeling compound and is applied over the string-wound armature. Facial features and other details are formed as the filler is applied. The same as with the models made from pipe cleaners, various details such as coat tails and hat brims are made from paper, cloth or thin metal and cemented into place. The joining edges are concealed with the material used as a filler. The type of paint for finishing is purely a matter of your own choice.

Space does not permit the explanation of all the methods of making an original figure, for it is obvious that methods and materials are unlimited. Ways and means as well as results are only limited by the ingenuity of the hobbyist. Even finances, or lack of spacious working area, need not hamper your enjoyment of this fascinating phase of collecting military miniatures.

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