2.8 Making figures for models
I have been building a model of a wherry to a scale of 1/16. Wherries are steered by a tiller that overhangs a small cockpit in which a man stands. I wanted a figure to create a small diorama at the stern of the boat and the outcome is on the front page. It seemed to me that others might use my methods or adapt them to make figures as well. So I took photographs at several stages of construction.
What is the goal? We want to create the image of a man, woman or child in some desired attitude and dressed in a suitable way. The trouble is that there are an infinite number of positions that can be adopted by the human body, or by any other creature having a body based on a skeleton covered with tissue. We cannot hope to buy a figure to the scale we want in the necessary position and dressed as we need it dressed. The thing that is often available is a figure to the correct scale having a suitable head. Figure 1 shows the toy that provided the head for my helmsman.
I have seen lots of figures that modellers have carved but only a few have looked to be right. We do not need to be told when a figure looks to be wrong but it is hard to know what makes them look right. I am not an artist but an engineer and so I approach this problem as an engineer. I know that the poses that the human body can adopt are limited by the rigid bones that are articulated at joints that can swivel. If I create a figure with the correct proportions and moving joints I know that I have a good chance of getting it to look right. I think that the best way is to start with the figure unclothed with its limbs and torso in some desired attitude and then to dress it using filler just as artists might use clay.
Fortunately many years ago I came across a reference manual for engineers showing the mechanical arrangement and sizes of people. It was called The Measure of Man from Dreyfuss. It must be hopelessly out of date now given the weight explosion of people but it is still relevant for us. Figures 2 to 5 are extracted from Dreyfuss.
The important things to note are that all the pivot points are shown. We know which joints can swivel, we know that our backs can bend and twist so that information is not necessary. It was not for artists.
I build my model figures in balsa and, as a guide, the finished figure for the wherry weighs ½ ounce.
I started by printing copies of the figures from “The Measure of Man” to the correct height, 4.25², cutting out the paper figure as seen from the front and sticking it with Pritt stick to a suitably sized block of close grained balsa as shown in figure 6. The figure can then be cut out using a band saw with a thin blade with fine teeth. We do not need the arms and it will make cutting easier if we cut them off. We do not need a head at this stage. He will look like figure 7.
Now we need the side view. It is shown in figure 8 stuck to our block. Now it has to be cut out. When that has been done you get a figure like 9. He has no head or arms but all in good time. Our first need is to get him to stand in a suitable pose and this means moving his legs and bending them as required. I took a fret saw to him to produce three pieces, shown in figure 10, that could be cut and reset to get the legs in suitable positions for a man standing to operate the tiller of a wherry. I parted the legs a little, put one foot ahead of the other, and let the torso lean slightly forwards. These changes are locked with superglue to give the figure in 11. However people do not stand with feet parallel so the feet must move.
Figure 12 shows what to do. Cut the legs through at the knee, insert short lengths of copper wire to rejoin the legs and make it possible to twist the legs and bend them if needed to get the feet in the right position. When they are in a satisfactory position use superglue to fix them. Then the figure looks like photo 13.
I did a little paring of the corners just to show where we are going. In effect we are creating a figure of an unclothed man as in 14.
This figure has no arms so we must go back to the Dreyfuss diagram and use it to cut two arms. Figure 15 shows how to do it. Stick a copy of the upper torso to a block of balsa of a suitable thickness and cut out the arms as seen from the front. Then cut these blanks to the view from the side. You end up with arms of square section as seen in figure 16. They look ridiculous but study your hands, they are about as long as the distance from the inside of your bent elbow to the wrist. Hands are big.
Cut off the hands at the wrist and cut through at the pivot point at the elbow. Angle the ends and rejoin with copper wire. Make a hole in the upper arm at the pivot point and push a cocktail stick into the hole and on into the torso at the pivot point. Join him together to look like figure 17.
Now we have to pose him in his position in the wherry. In figure 18 the right arm is more or less correct for holding the tiller but I did not know what to do with the left arm. So I turned my attention to the right hand.
Balsa is too soft for making details by carving. Use a close-grained, semi-hard wood. What we are trying to do is produce a hand looking like the one in figure 20. It is necessary to have something to hold whilst carving so cut a piece of wood like the piece in figures 21 and 22 where the hand has been roughed out.
You need a model. Your figure might be holding a ships wheel or a tankard or a pipe or even resting a hand on his knee. Whatever is needed get some digital pictures of your hand and print them as a pattern. In my case I held a suitable sized piece of round wood as if it were the tiller. I started making the hand by drilling an appropriately sized hole at an angle as you can see and opening it carefully to accept the grip on the tiller bar. The object is to carve a blank of the hand with the thumb and a block of four fingers in the correct positions. This is shown in figure 23. The hand was soaked with superglue to harden the wood ready for the fingers to be cut with a suitable needle file. The wood was thinned down to form a wrist and eventually the hand was cut off and drilled to accept the copper wire.
Now the hand has to be attached to the right arm in the correct position and the arm set up to suit the posture of the figure. Angle the upper arm outwards as required, get it all in the correct position, glue with superglue and trim off the cocktail stick. See figures 25 and 26.
I did not know what to do with the left hand but I settled to let him have his hand free but ready to move to do anything that might be needed. The hands look very large as he stands here but look at the heading picture and the sleeves seem to make the hands more naturally sized.
Now the clothes have to be built up with filler, Leak Fix in my case. Once more a model is needed. Get someone to stand in the appropriate pose dressed in suitable clothes for the figure. Take photographs from north, south, east and west and print them. Study them to see how the clothes fall. The legs of the trousers will rest directly on the upper leg but hang below the knee perhaps with a crease. Each trouser cuff will rest on the shoe at the front and produce a deep fold at the front and possibly two and be different for the two legs. The cuffs will hang at the back and probably have deep folds at the knee. As the filler goes on to give the shape these creases etc can be filed in using coarse needle files. I have shown progress in figure 27
Once I had found a head I cut it from the toy using a vee shaped cut and made a matching cut in the model which, by this time, was acquiring its body shape and its arms.
From here on it is about improvising. The head could be pared with a knife so I trimmed off the hair. I also made a saw cut above the eyebrows to accept a peak for the cap and set it in with filler. I stuck a disc of thin ply to the head at an appropriate angle for the top of the cap and filled all round and crowned the top. It is all just modelling. The collar and lapels were cut from two layers of 90 gram paper stuck together with superglue. Once it was good enough, the figure was painted. The face is as I bought it with the exception of the eyebrows that are now brown.
The final figure when viewed closely is very crudely modelled. But I learnt with several other figures that getting a good and faithful figure takes a long time and no one looks at it carefully anyway. Providing that it looks natural in its pose almost anything will do. My little figure gives a scale to the whole model and shows how the cockpit provides accommodation for the helmsman and how the wherry is steered.
When I made my steam launch it had a notional scale of 1/12 that is the scale of doll’s houses. I had never used resin figures but I found that they give an excellent starting point for creating new figures. With the exception of grandma the figures in the six photographs above started as the three figures in figure 30. The little girl had a solid hoop dress that was too heavy and was replaced with a stiffened fabric dress with new legs. Her hair was not very attractive so I cut it off and replaced it with plaits. It was also necessary to move one arm to make it point towards the dog. The dandy became both the engine man and the owner.
The main problem for non-artistic people like me is the face of the figure. Resin figures have well made faces that can be altered within limits if only by painting.
The resin figures that are readily available at a very reasonable price inevitably have set poses that may not be suitable for the situation in which they are to be used. They can be changed. Then the problem comes down to moving the legs, arms and so on to the desired positions.
The first step is, in my view, to get north, south, east and west pictures of someone of a suitable age and sex in the desired pose and wearing appropriate clothes. This can be done quickly with a digital camera and checked just as quickly for acceptability. The pictures show the folds etc in the drapery and the attitude.
The next step is to plan the alterations. By this I mean that to change a standing female figure wearing a long dress to a sitting figure in a long dress means that the original skirt most go and be replaced completely whereas, for a male figure, the existing legs can be altered to make the same change.
The big thing to get right is the position of the pivot points. These diagrams show where they are.
When I start to change a figure I start by drilling holes through all the pivot points before cutting the doll.
Somehow, if the figure is to be articulated, its joints must be made into halving joints without noticeable loss of length.
I have shown how to do this in figures 31a to 31 d for a block of wood. It is no different for a leg or arm.
Start with a hole through it for the pivot pin as shown in 31a. Cut the block into two parts as in 31b. Now make two more cuts as in the 31c to give three pieces of wood shown in 31d. If B is now stuck to C we have the two parts of a halving joint. If the ends of A and B are given a radius they can be joined with a pin and we have a movable joint.
This calls for a glue. Superglue will do for resin but I use Leak Fix that is intended for plumbing use because it is also a filler. It sets quickly (5 minutes) has a short plastic range and it can be filed and painted.
A limb can be made to twist by cutting it into two and drilling both ends axially and rejoining with a piece of copper wire held in with superglue.
When the figure has all the joints needed to produce the required pose it can be set up and glued with Leak Fix and then shaped.
For skirts the figure must have legs to set the drapery on. These can be made from balsa. The new skirt can be made from handkerchief material and soaked in a two-part resin glue like Devcon before draping over the figure. Then the skirt can be shaped and joints tidied up by adding Leak Fix.
Be prepared for a long job. But it is fun and mistakes can easily be rectified even if you have to start again.