Basics: Prop Making I: Pepakura
For those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you will know that recently I have been making my own props for a couple of shoots I had planned this summer – (I wrote previously about sourcing props for your shoot, but in my case the props I want to use are not available commercially). Prop making can be as delicate or robust as you like, and there are so many different ways to create props and a plethora of materials to work with.
If, like me, you do not have a workshop in your house, or a huge budget to spend on power tools and materials (or even a huge DIY knowhow), do not worry -there is a growing community of people who build their own props, be it items like hats, helmets, weapons and body armour, right up to life size video game characters and more, to professional quality finishes using commonly available materials and tools. These prop builders are not just photographers but those who are avid videogamers, cosplayers, larpers and also people who simply want genuine looking movie props in their homes, or convert them into household items (like making your own hatstand in the shape of Yoshi, or a Console caddy to store your controllers in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog).
This series of articles is for those who are a bit creative and want to have a go at making their own props for a shoot, or just to have as decorative items – these will look as professional as you want them to, if you are willing to put in the time. This is particularly useful for instances where you want props that are simply not available to buy or are well out of your price range (e.g. a studio quality batman cowl will cost upwards of £200).
I will be covering prop making in 4 stages:
- Pepakura (this article)
- Working with Resin and Fibreglass (“resining“)
- Filling and body-building (“Bondoing“)
Today we will cover stage 1: Pepakura
What is Pepakura?
Pepakura is Japanese paper craft. It differs from origami, as we use glue to stick parts together. Don’t be fooled into thinking it is for making gift cards and scrap books, Japanese paper craft is a lot more powerful:
The accepted arguments on the historical divergence of technology rests upon the Orient (namely China and Japan) discovering and honing clay, silk, and hemp materials, whereas the Occident (e.g. Europe) had discovered (or stolen) glass. Whilst the East and their perfect clay vessels went on to develop a society based on leisure, the arts (theatre, acrobatics, and calligraphy) and cultural enlightenment, the West developed their glass to make telescopes and the like, leading to high science (this has changed somewhat today). Japan, for its lack of readily available glass, developed hemp, silk and paper alternatives for things like windows, screens and room dividers. It is speculated that the constructional use of paper in the East is the reason why Japanese Papercraft is so much more developed than the West’s – whilst we build nice wedding invites, the Japanese make paper balloons and paper blinds, and even clothes.
What does it really mean to prop builders?
Pepakura begins with a digital model. There are large communities of people who make models based on movie characters, video games, anime and other general objects. If you work in 3D modelling, you can even make your own. For the most part though, most models you will ever want to build are available on the internet – you want a sword from He Man, or a blaster from Star wars? Life size and wearable battle armour from HALO ( ALL versions and variants), right down to Robocop and Darth Vader’s Helmet, they are ALL about on the internet, and they are almost always free.
Software (Pepakura viewer, FREE), opens the models and then maps out the parts for your on paper (it creates a “net”), and you simply print out the nets and build it – it even creates adhesion flaps and numbers them for you so you can see where parts line up.
Its not rocket science, and I’ve seen excellent models from kids as young as 10 working with safety scissors and PVA glue.
I’ll walk you through the process quickly right now, with a few hints and tips that I and a few colleagues have developed along the way. If you want more info then there are some great communities, namely therpf, and the 405th, who go through everything from pepakura to working with mold casting and beyond.
You will need
- Pepakura Viewer software (From here. its free to use).
- A Model (in .pdo format)
- A Printer
- A cutting board
- Paper (cardstock)
- A rule
- A scalpel or craft knife
- Time and Patience
So if you have a computer, and a printer, then the cost for the whole hobby is pretty low – the cost of your cardstock and scalpel blades are about it.
Pepakura viewer is software that opens the model files that modelers have produced. The Viewer version is completely free. If you model in 3D, like I do, or want to be able to import things like .3ds files from other modelling software, then you might consider getting the Pepakura Designer version, which is about £25.
Above, Pepakura software shows the model (on the the left), and the nets on the right, divided up into printable pages. You can fully rotate around the 3D model, so you can see how things stick together, you can also zoom and move, to get into the really complex corners. When you click on a panel on the model, the corresponding piece in the net is highlighted in a red square, to make finding the piece even simpler. The software automatically spaces out the pieces on the page, but you can alter the page size (e.g. if you are printing on A3, A4 or US letter) You can move the pieces around on the net to minimise your paper wastage. The pieces don’t need to be in any order on the page, and if you remember to click on the 2D menu ” show edge ID” option, then the flaps are numbered. You cant go wrong. It is that simple – shown below, I zoomed into the net, so you can see the numbers – which print out on the adhesion flaps. The folds are printed as either dashed lines (mountain folds, where you fold both sides of the line downwards, so as to put the fold line atop the mountain), or dot-dashed lines (valley folds, where you fold both sides of the line upwards, so as to put the fold line at the bottom of a valley).
The bottom right shows you the dimensions of the model, and the number of parts. You can re-scale the model to be larger or smaller (if you want a 2 metre tall Mario, you can do that) – you will need to move pieces around on the pages though. If you are going to re-scale things, I advise buying the Designer version, as it allows you cut pieces into smaller ones to fit your page. If you design your own models elsewhere, or want to have a go at converting models into pepkaura to make unique items, then here is a great resource for 3D models.
A word of advice on printing: when I first set it up, the I had to change the software settings to “print lines clearly” and bitmap quality to ” very high”, else the lines might not print. If you are worried, print to PDF or XPS file, and then look over the file before printing to paper, to ensure that all the lines are nicely visible – there is nothing worse than sending your 45 page pep file to print only to find that you forgot to add the flap numbers (edge IDs) or the lines don’t print properly.
Now you can view pepakura files, you’ll want to chose something to build. Maybe you followed this article as you had an idea already? – then just use your favourite search engine to search “your model – pepakura”, and see if there are any out there. In many cases there are dedicated fan sites for particular areas e.g. Nintendo, Star Wars, Halo, movie props, and in some cases there are multiple models for the same prop. For example I am creating a Guy helmet from Daft Punk, for a summer seaside shoot I want to do. There are about a dozen different versions of the same helmet – take a look at the models, gauge which are easiest, which have the most accurate features, or would be the most likely to give a high quality finish. Some models come pre-coloured, so that that when you cut out your model and stick it together its already painted – this is very common for children’s cartoon characters and anime characters. You can toggle the colours off to get back to a black and white print.
Right, that’s the technical bit out of the way: let’s go through what will you need craft wise…
Go to your local pound shop or bargain household shop to get one – a word of advice though: don’t get a metal or glass coated one: you will be applying a reasonable amount of scalpel pressure over extended periods of time – these materials will dull your blades really quickly, but also there is no give, which may cause pain in your scalpel index finger. A plastic one from Wilkos was £1, and has lasted me over 100 cutting hours. Ideally a workshop cutting mat (those green ones with the lines on it you had at school) are the best, will reduce wear on your blade and will absorb some of the force better so as to minimise hand aches.
Decent quality paper is going to make your model stronger and easier to work with – ideally you want 200+ gsm. I routinely use 240 gsm, as its dead cheap (Wilko’s again, £1 for 10 sheets, acid free). If you buy bulk you can get it even cheaper – £8.50 for 100 sheets of 300 gsm. Be aware of the finish of the paper and also how thick your printer can handle – go to your craft shop and buy a single sheet of say 300 gsm to test before you commit – if you have a straight-through printer tray, you might be able to go 300+ gsm. I have a printer that bends paper over a roller, through 180 degrees – like most LASER printers, so I’m not sure how much beyond 250 gsm I can go before it becomes a problem.
If you are going onto the next stages with your pepakura (e.g. resining), then you will want thick card that wont collapse or warp too much as the resin sets (200+ gsm is about right here). Try not to use gloss paper, as it will not absorb resin as well as normal paper, and will also stick to your rule and fingers when you cut it.
There are a bunch of options here. Typically pep’ers in the US tend to use a hot glue gun, mainly because it sets fast and is pretty strong, but I have built all of my models with simple PVA – PolyVinyl Acetate (which more UK pep’ers tend to do) – its dead cheap – less than £1 a go – get yourself PVA in a squeezy pot with a nozzle though – not just a tub – you want accurate application. You can run a tiny bead and then spread it with the nozzle edge or a spatula. My preferred brand is “Anita’s PVA Tacky glue” at a princely sum of £0.80 a pot, as the nozzle for me is just right. PVA is PVA though, brand doesn’t matter.
A quick note that “PVa” and “PVA” often refer to different materials: “PVa” refers to polyvinyl alcohol, which is a weaker adhesive used in mold casting as a release agent. Luckily you will be very unlikely to find this in the craft shop to confuse you.
For those REALLY annoying spots that you cant hold whilst it sets, a colleague added some great advice – lay down some PVA on both surfaces and wait for it to dry without bringing the surfaces together, and then use a drop of superglue and bring the sides together – you can’t use superglue straight off as the paper will absorb it. This is a really great way of bonding those really tricky flaps that are under high tension, as it sticks fast, and strong. Realistically I have never had to do this, but I can easily recall situations where this would have made my life easier.
Craft glue sticks and Pritt Sticks are not great here – the glue is a bit waxy, and doesn’t really stick as well as you’d like – it is also impossible to get into really small spaces (you end up resorting to shaving the glue stick with some tweezers and then applying the glue with the tweezer arms.
Get yourself a metal rule. Not only is it safer and easier to cut with with when using a scalpel compared to a plastic rule, it also presents a nice sharp edge to pre-fold your flaps over.
Scalpel / Craft knife
Choosing the right scalpel for you is actually a big deal – it can save you finger pain, and increase your agility to cut fine work out. Firstly you can’t really use a Stanley knife, and for most models I wouldn’t advise using scissors – you cant get right into some of the small niches that a scalpel can, unless you have some nice craft scissors and you are a pro with them.
There are generally two common brands of scalpel handle (and associated blade system). The Swan and Morton (the surgical type), or the X-Acto blade (the craft type), shown below:
Swan and Morton (bottom): a very solid feeling scalpel handle, made in Sheffield, UK. These are multi-purpose and have a massive range of blades available. they are used in hospitals, crafts and workshops alike. The blades are cheap (typically about £1 for 5), but you have to be careful when putting the blades on, or taking them off. They are flat sided and so sit nicely on any surface. There is no real support for the index finger, and the blade is a bit too far from the grip space in my opinion, which means for cutting sharp curves its not great – and you can put a slight flex on the blade.
The X-Acto Blade handles (top) are round and have a nice gripped section where your index finger and thumb are – this massively reduces pressure on the finger pad, and makes for a nicer handling feel – and you can be more precise as you have a better grip. It is a screw-lock blade fitting system and so its really easy to change blades, and the grip is closer to the blade which means you have better blade control. It is not without its problems though: IT IS ROUND, so it ends up rolling all over the place. Even on my desk which is pretty flat, it rolls about – and you never want to have to launch out your hand to catch a rolling scalpel. My cutting board has a lip that it sits in (in fact I had to put it in it to take that photo). Alternatively get a bit of blue tack and make a mound for it to lie in. The second problem with this scalpel system is that the blade tips are weaker than that of the Swan and Morton. ALL of my scalpel blades die due to the tip snapping off, rather than dullness – but with good scalpel technique you can reduce this. Thirdly the blades are more expensive – about £2.50 for 5.
With both options available to me, I must admit that I prefer the X-Acto Blade system – despite its flaws, the reduced stress on my fingers, and better control are worth the blade costs. Both scalpel handles are available for about £7 each at your local craft store..
Some needle nosed-tweezers for holding small edges together are really useful. The tail end is also a really useful tool to press joining surfaces together in those hard to reach spots (especially inside a narrow tubular sections where you cant get your fingers in).
Time and Patience:
Pepakura’s biggest resource requirement is time – models take hours, depending on the number and detail of the pieces: a 30 peice helmet with large pieces can take about 3-4 hours. A 360 peice Luigi Character can burn up 30 hours easily. Pace yourself to avoid strain injuries on your fingers and wrists, and your back as you will be siting there for a bit – remember though, creating things as a hobby is meant to be relaxing – if you see it as a chore – don’t get involved. For me, I tend to have the TV or radio on in the background and I work a section at a time, ” today I’ll finish Yoshi’s eyes”…
When all is done, it’s kind of impressive to see what you created from some flat paper.
OK lets build
So you got all your kit? You got a model you want to make, and you’ve had a quick spin in Pepakura Viewer / Designer to check that its all good. You’ve checked the “show edge ID” in the 2D options, and you have checked the print set up (and checked via pint to .pdf or .xps to ensure its all going to print OK?). OK lets go:
- BEFORE you print: get the cardstock from its packaging and flick through it, get some air between the sheets. Often cardstock is packed and squeezed under weight of other packs in transit, and all it takes is your printer to pull in two sheets at once for it to ruin your day – 2 sheets of 240 gsm is 6 sheets of normal paper. It’ll jam.
- Get a clean and well lit workspace – lets not get eye strain when working here.
- If possible, start with a nice big structural piece. Some people start at the top of a model and work down, some start and the bottom and work up, some people build structural parts first (and leave detail and embellishing pieces until last), and some people work in sections (e.g. make a hand, and then the other hand, then arms, and the legs, and then combine them at the end). The best approach varies from model to model – some models (such as my Yoshi) there is a specific last piece to put in, as if you put it in earlier, you cant access the panels you need to connect the arms, legs and head).
- Your scalpel technique will improve as you get used to the feel of it and the texture of your cardstock. This will mean you often reduce the strain you put on your index finger and thumb, and your scalpel blade life will extend.
- Cutting flap edges needn’t be massively accurate as you are using it as an adhesion panel. Non-flap edges need to be accurate – once you have good scalpel control, you won’t really need a rule for the cutting.
- SCORE your folds using the back of the scalpel blade (or the actual blade edge if you have enough scalpel control) – score the dashed side for mountain folds, and the back side for valley folds to get them nice and sharp. Use your metal rule edge to fold over to help ensure sharp and straight fold edging.
- Some models will have their pieces arranged section by section on pages, and so you can work straight from the paper. Other models have optimised their layout on the pages to reduce paper wastage . I would advise having your computer or laptop in front of you with Pepakura viewer open, so you can locate the pieces when you click on them in the model – it also helps you to visualise how the pieces fit together.
- Take it easy, try not to rush and make sure to sit properly. Treat working on it the same as working at a desk – keep your fingers and wrists relaxed and take breaks to stretch.
- Taking photos as you go can help you visualise the final model, and keep you motivated by the progress.
So I have gone quickly through Pepakura as a simple (and cheap) way to start creating your own props. I linked to a few sources of prop making site that use pepakura extensively .
Pepakura is the first step in a 3 /4 part prop making process. It doesn’t really require any expensive kit, or know-how, but it does require patience and a bit of time – the pep stage of a prop project often takes longer hands-on work than the rest of the project all together.
I hope that I have changed the way you think about papercraft – it is powerful and can make some pretty impressive items.
The next stage in the prop creation stage is using polymer resins and fibreglass to strengthen up your props, but until then,