Community Forums
Subscribe to the MCN Newsletter
Contribute Your Custom Content

Creating Custom Elements

1. Introduction

What follows is a discussion of some techniques I've developed over the past 10 years for modifying and customizing pieces for use with Lego minifigures. I use a variety of materials, including cut down and otherwise altered Lego elements. Needless to say, what follows is not suitable reading for Lego purists.

I've tried to explain basic techniques without going into too much detail about how one actually sculpts things into a particular shape. For that, consult a variety of books in any library or craft store. I've generally stuck to the things that are specific to the creation of custom elements for use in Lego creations.

I hope those who read these words will find something useful in them. I find customizing a very liberating creative experience. It's also a lot of fun, once you get the hang of things. Hopefully some of you will be moved to find out just how much.

2. Basic Materials My custom elements are largely created with epoxy putty. Some items are built up over a base provided by a butchered Lego element. For instance, starting with a cut-down Lego hair piece gives a reliable joint between the custom hair element and the Lego head. Another trick is to start with a cut-down spear or lightsabre blade for a custom sword or anything else that has to fit in a minifig's hand. For custom hair, I most often start with a "ponytail" hair element. They're common and, once the ponytail bit at the back is cut off, they fit quite close to the figure's head. This makes it easy to create a variety of different hairstyles without the thickness of the original plastic getting in the way. If necessary, a bit of work with a file or knife can further reduce and reshape the plastic. This is useful when shaping a custom hair piece to suggest ears showing below the hair, for instance.

One of the nice things about A+B putty is that it does not shrink as it cures. This means I don't have to guess about what size something is going to be when finished - I just sculpt it to the desired volume and cross-section.

The other big advantage about A+B is that it cures without needing to be heated. Curing takes place over a period of about 12-20 hours (depending on ambient temperature). This means that you can use A+B putty in conjunction with Lego elements without having the Lego plastic melt or deform.

My supply of A+B came from a plumbing supply store almost 15 years ago. Yes, a little does go a long way... I'm reasonably certain the same brand is still available in Canada and the United States, but there are alternatives. You may find something called Milliput epoxy putty in some well-stocked hobby shops in Europe and North America. Milliput comes in several grades - try to get the Superfine sort, which doesn't have the slightly grainy texture of some of the coarser grades.

Extremely important safety warning: like any type of epoxy, epoxy putty is not good stuff to touch. Once your skin exceeds its tolerance level, you're likely to get a nasty rash. DON'T shape epoxy putty using your bare fingers, and wash your hands promptly when finished. If you _must_ use your fingers to shape your work, wear thin latex gloves to avoid skin contact.

I know of some sculptors who use saliva as a lubricant for their sculpting tools when working with epoxy putty. I find that water does the job just fine for A+B, and there's no dangerous temptation to lick a tool...

3. Reinforcing pieces made of epoxy putty Despite what I've said about the epoxy putty's strength, there are some situations where some sort of internal skeleton to reinforce the structure makes sense. This is especially so for a thin cross-section in a piece that will be handled. For an example, look at the tendrils of hair framing the face of this figures:

A skeleton, when covered with epoxy putty, stops movement from side to side. This movement is what is known as "shearing."

The putty on its own resists compression and expansion very well - you cannot squeeze a piece smaller or stretch it out once the putty has cured - but it only has a moderate shear strength. That's why, if you strike an un-reinforced putty shape hard enough from the side, it will crack or break off. If the same putty shape has an internal skeleton to reinforce its shear strength, it will be far less likely to break. Oddly enough, the material used for the skeleton can be something that's easily bent on its own - surrounding it with putty on all sides keeps the skeleton from bending.

4. Using Paper as a skeleton

I've used a variety of different materials to reinforce elements.

For some applications, bits of carefully cut paper are enough. The brims on the hats worn by this Edwardian-period mother and daughter are an example of this technique

I use a small smear of epoxy glue (not putty) to secure the paper in place to the rest of the element, and then once that first application is cured, I go back and add a thin coat of glue glue over all the visible surfaces of the paper. Since I use thin, cheap paper (cash register receipts are good), the glue soaks in to the paper and gives it some rigidity. Once the glue has cured, the skeleton can be covered in epoxy _putty_ as necessary to increase its thickness or alter its surface texture. The epoxy putty will stick more reliably to paper that has been soaked in epoxy glue. The glue also prevents the paper from delaminating like cheap plywood left out in the rain. .

5. Wire skeletons

More often than not, paper alone is not enough to give the support needed. In these cases, I'll add reinforcements out of fine wire. Paperclips in various sizes, and the wire core of twist-ties are both useful sources of fine wire. Note that the wire itself doesn't have to be very stiff. It's there inside the final shape of epoxy putty to add shear strength, not rigidity.

The wires are secured with epoxy glue in holes drilled into the body of the custom element. For a custom hair element, this might be a Lego hair piece. Drilling and securing wire skeletons in this way makes it less likely that the wires will part company with the remainder of the work. If a wire was just glued to a plastic or epoxy putty surface, there's a risk that the glue bond will fail at some point, leaving the custom piece to split.

When building up epoxy putty around any sort of wire skeleton, make sure that there are no gaps or air pockets left in the putty. This can take some care, because it's easy to have a bit of wire end up inside a sort of irregular tunnel as the putty over top of it is shoved back and forth into shape.

To avoid this tunnel effect, I've used two different techniques. One is to apply a thin sausage of putty to encapsulate the wire and fix it into position, and let that cure. Then I add more putty, bringing the part up to its final volume and cross- section.

The second technique uses a composite wire/paper skeleton.

6. Composite paper/wire skeletons from twist ties

Recently, I've discovered that by using a twist tie with the paper strip left on, I can easily combine paper and wire into a skeleton. The twist tie has a small section of its paper stripped away to provide a bit of bare wire to glue into a hole in the Lego hair piece (or whatever else is appropriate). The tie is then cut to the appropriate length, and glued in place. Once the epoxy glue attaching the twist tie in place has cured, the tie can be bent into whatever curve is needed for thin- sectioned part of the custom element. A second application of glue is used to soak the paper of the twist tie. This will help to hold the skeleton in the shape chosen.

Once that second application of glue has set, cuticle scissors can be used to trim back the paper strip of the twist tie to whatever width is appropriate. For instance, a skeleton for a long pointed curlunder in a custom hairpiece could have the paper cut away until only the wire itself remained at the tip. From this point, epoxy putty can be added to the skeleton as usual to give added thickness. The result is a strong custom element that comes to an extremely fine point, as seen here:

{image of SgrNSpc}

Because there is a broad paper strip firmly attached to the wire skeleton, the epoxy putty doesn't have a chance to develop internal gaps or tunnels as it's being worked into shape. Composite skeletons take a bit of time to create, but are still faster than using a simple wire skeleton and using two separate layers of epoxy putty.

7. Creating the final shape of a piece

Once you have any necessary reinforcements in place, creating a custom piece is mostly a matter of adding and shaping epoxy putty. You can do this in stages, or all at once, depending on your skills, the size of the piece, and (most of all) on the design of the piece.

It's often a good idea to work on complicated pieces in stages. When you've finished work on a stage, let the putty cure, and come back to the piece another day. Working this way stops slips made while working on one section from ruining the carefully shaped (but not yet cured) putty somewhere else.

In some cases, it's even appropriate to create a single piece in more than one part, and join them together late in the process. For instance, when creating a set of custom wings for one character,

{image of Lokki from the front}

Missing Pic: http://www.brickshelf.com/gallery/nhblack/myfolder/thumb/myimg. jpg_thumb.jpg

I worked on each wing separately, joining them together only once all work on the intricately feathered wings was complete. A bit of wire skeleton was left exposed at each wing's root to allow them to be glued into place on a collar that was made to fit around a minifig's neck.

8. Getting things smooth

After the basic shape of a custom piece has been created, there's usually some work needed to create an appropriate surface finish.

I try to make all my pieces look like genuine Lego elements, and this means that the surface must be smooth and free of small irregularities (or fingerprints!). A little work with fine wet & dry sandpaper will give a good result. You may find that there are small holes or other depressions that remain. Fill these with a bit of fresh putty, and sand again once it has cured.

If you happen to sand away enough putty to expose part of a paper skeleton, don't worry. If you coated the paper with epoxy glue as I suggested above, the result will sand in almost the same way as the epoxy putty. There should be no change in surface texture.

Extremely important safety warning: _never_ sand epoxy putty of any sort without using lots of water. Epoxy dust is extremely toxic to the lungs, and it builds up over a lifetime until an allergic reaction is suffered. _Always_ sand your work while it's wet, and make sure the sludge of epoxy dust and water that results is washed down the drain.

9. Adding surface texture

Sometimes, your custom piece will need some sort of pattern or texture, such as strands of hair, or feathers. This is best added once the basic shape of the piece has been created and a smooth surface achieved.

If there is any sort of overlapping texture, it is best added in stages, like tiles or shingles on a roof. Look at your element, and decide which area is the equivalent of the bottom edge of the roof. Apply a thin layer of epoxy putty here, and let it partially cure until it is stiff but not solid in consistency.

When the putty is in this state, one easily sculpt sharply defined details and establish a regular surface finish with a knife or other tool. The putty is then allowed to cure solid, and then the surface slightly smoothed as necessary as necessary with fine wet & dry sandpaper.

Once the first layer is complete, another layer of putty is added, partially overlapping the first. Layers are added as necessary until the surface is completely textured. Keep in mind that you may need to texture more than one surface on a given piece, so plan to do this kind of texturing work in stages over a period of days.

A practical application of this technique is the set of wings seen here:

{Lokki from the rear}

I started from the inside bottom edge of each wing, adding a thin layer of putty over the area where the outermost layer of feathers would be seen. Individual feathers were shaped with a knife once the putty had partially cured. A bit of sanding was needed to smooth the feathers' faces once everything had set, and then the process was repeated three times. And then I started work on the wings' _outer_ sides...

Because one has to wait for each layer of putty to partially cure before work can proceed, this texturing process can take a long time. I've found that two layers per day per custom piece is a good rate to aim for. Beginners should be stick to one per day, until they gain some experience.

It _is_ possible to speed up the curing of the epoxy putty by heating it gently, but that is risky. First, it's very easy to have the putty cure too much, and be too stiff to sculpt. This means you have to sand a layer off and start over. There is another risk. If you have a plastic Lego piece somewhere inside your custom element, the heat may distort its shape. My advice is to learn patience. Work on more than one custom element at a time, if possible, to cut down on time wasted waiting for things to cure.

10. Adding color

Once you've finished creating the shape of a custom piece, you'll want to make it an appropriate colour. I use acrylic paints from a variety of sources. Feel free to use enamel paints if you choose, but they're toxic and require special thinners and solvents for cleaning.

If you do use acrylics, the kind of "craft" paints one buys in 60 mL (2 oz.) squeeze bottles is usually just fine. Buy a more expensive brand if possible - you will get a better density of pigment, and the paints last long enough to make it a good value.

I am still using bottles I bought 20 years ago, and always expect to get all but the last bit out of a bottle.

For some applications, I buy the acrylic paints made by Games Workshop, a British wargames company. These are very good quality, but are quite expensive and tend to dry out very rapidly. This brand is good value in one circumstance - when you need to match a specific Lego colour that's unavailable in other ranges, or hard to create by mixing other colours.

One example is Lego blue, which is very tricky to match. It's both slightly reddish in tone, and quite bright in hue. Most blue paints are either slightly yellow in tone, or less bright. Games Workshop Enchanted Blue is a pretty close match, especially with just a touch of white added.

Whatever brand of paint you use, make sure you use it in as thin a coat as possible. If necessary, dilute the paint until you don't see brush marks left when you apply it. Some colours will need several coats to build up a useful density of pigment. This is particularly so for reds and yellows. Expect to use three or more very thin coats.

11. Protecting the piece

To protect my work, I always add a couple of thin coats of gloss acrylic polyurethane floor varnish. Acrylic paint is fairly soft, even when dry, and custom pieces should be able to take some handling. Remember, use only thin coats of varnish (thinned slightly with water if necessary) and let them dry thoroughly (at least 24 hours) before handling.

For some surfaces, there's no point in adding paint (or varnish).

These include any surface that must mate with a Lego stud, or be gripped by a Lego minifigure's hand. I've found no acrylic paint or varnish that will stand up to such wear over the long run. The Lego Company does manage to successfully paint stud surfaces.

The company uses enamels, I'm sure, but they have the factory equipment to do so safely...

This need to avoid some surfaces means that some of my custom elements will have parts that cannot by painted. In these cases, I try to build Lego elements of the correct colour into the relevant area. For instance, I'll use a slice of a Lego lance in dark grey for the hilt of a custom sword. A gun can be built around the butt or grip of a Lego gun or pistol. There are a number of similar solutions for most shape/colour combinations if you do a bit of careful investigation and thinking.

12. Some final words of encouragement

By way of conclusion, I cannot offer any better advice than to tell you to have a try. Unless you are unusually gifted, your first attempt will not look as you intended, but don't give up. Start with something simple, and work up gradually to pieces with complicated shapes that require internal skeletons or textured finishes.

Keep in mind that there is often more than one way to solve a problem. The techniques I've described all work well for me, but you may have a way of doing things that works better for you. It's worth mentioning, though, that I've given you what I find to be the easy, fast and reliable methods. Give them a try before dismissing them - you may be surprised!

Above all, have fun doing the work, and don't be afraid of sharing the results with the rest of us.