Monday, June 20, 2016

Denver Comic Con 2016: Wings Tutorial

My absolute favorite thing to say is, "Don’t buy that – I can make it.” As if to test me and my motto, Emer declared several months ago that she wanted to cosplay as Hazel, the daughter of Alana and Marko from Image Comics’ Saga. I looked up a picture and considered the work it would take.  

I’ve been crafting things my entire life, and I’m well aware that not everyone looks at that picture and thinks, “Oh, that would be easy.” But I’m here to prove that it IS easy! Here’s the secret: make a prototype before you cut into anything that cost money.

This is how I made Emer’s wings for Denver Comic Con 2016:

Step 1: Plan
I printed out a picture of Hazel and drew the general shape of her wings on top of it. That made it easier to envision how many pieces I would need and how long they would be. I decided early on to make the frame out of balsa wood so it would be lightweight, but still strong enough to be fitted with feathers. With my rough sketch, I had a pretty good idea of how much material I needed to buy.

Step 2: Find feathers
This was actually the hardest part of the entire project. Why? Feathers are frickin’ expensive, people. I could spend years buying one feather at a time with Hobby Lobby’s 40% off coupon, but my time is more valuable than that. Google led me to a fantastic deal on – 10 meters of feather trim for $25.

Step 2: Buy frame materials
One pre-cut 4 x 12 x 1/8 in. plywood for the frame base and six pieces of ¼ x ½ x 36 in. balsa wood for the arms. I bought extra just in case I destroyed something, and because I wasn’t sure if I would need to reinforce anything once I was almost done. Everyone needs extra balsa wood around the house, right? I also went to Home Depot and bought tiny washers and two different sizes of screw and nut pairs. Since the plywood frame was only 1/8 in., the screws that held the balsa to the frame wouldn’t need to be as long as the screws I used on the hinges of the wings themselves.

Step 3: Plan again
I grabbed my handy X-acto knife, a cardboard box, and some twisty ties. I made a prototype with strips of half inch cardboard. The first version was made with the dimensions of the marked-up picture of Hazel in mind. But when Emer came over to approve the design, we both realized that wings sticking out 8 inches on either side of her body just wasn’t ideal in a crowded con situation. I cut the design down by several inches, then measured the parts and wrote the length on each piece.
Prototype 1
Prototype 2
Step 4: Go for it
Because I’d already made the prototype and measured the pieces, I knew exactly how much balsa to cut. All I needed was a fresh X-acto blade – with balsa wood, you should be able to press down with the blade, rocking slightly until it goes through the wood. I was already planning to sand my ends, so I didn’t care if the cuts were a bit rough. From there, I laid everything out on my drafting table to look at it again before I drilled any screw holes. (I do a lot of sitting back and staring at things before jumping to the next step). I decided to put screws half an inch in from the end of the balsa, so I marked them and drilled right away. If you don’t have a drill, you could probably use an awl or just a nail for this.

Step 5: Design check
Before I sanded anything or started drilling into the actual plywood frame, I put all my pieces together and had Emer come over to try everything on for size. We decided to go with backpack-style straps with another around her waist, and after that was decided, I used my cardboard prototype to mark up the plywood and drill the holes. For the ribbon slots, I drilled three holes close together, sliced through the remaining wood with my X-acto knife, and sanded the slot smooth on all sides.

Step 5: Make it pretty
One of the other benefits of balsa wood is that it’s incredibly easy to sand. I rounded all the edges and ends of every arm, and I even attacked the plywood frame, too. Once everything was nice and smooth, I snagged a can of dark green spraypaint and gave everything a thick two coats, leaving time to dry in between. I strung all the pieces on a piece of wire to dry, went out to run a few errands, and added a final coat of metallic black paint. I let it all cure overnight to be on the safe side.

Step 6: Assemble
When the pieces were dry, I put everything back together to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I decided to drill extra holes in the frame and arms that attach to the frame to lend extra support to the wings. That done, I sat back and stared at everything for a good half an hour, looking from the feather trim in my hands to the balsa wood on my mannequin, trying to decide on the best way to attach everything.

Step 6: Add feathers
 I wanted to cover both sides of the balsa wood, but the ribbon trim attached to the feathers doesn’t really bend much. I measured the extended wing and after some messing around and talking to myself, decided the easiest way to get feathers on both sides was to sew the feather trip to another ribbon. I pulled out some ½ in. black scrap ribbon. I cut a 3-foot piece of feather trim, folded it in half, and sewed a 20-inch piece of ribbon down the center. This fit perfectly over the wing arm. Next, I cut tiny holes in the trim over where the screws are. Slide the trim over the screw, twist on the nut, and violà!

Step 7: Wear the wings!
Emer wore two tank tops -- one on either side of the frame. I sliced holes in the top tanktop so the frame screws could stick out. The wings fit perfectly over everything, and once everything was situated, I covered the silver hardware with black paint. Emer says the wings are incredibly lightweight. They look really pretty, too! The only problem we had at the convention was other people...apparently no one cares if they snap your wings when they slam into you from behind. I'll probably reinforce the balsa with wire later this month.

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