IMAT – TIE Pilot helmet and flight suit

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I’ve wanted to go to a con in costume since I knew people, you know, did that.  UK Games Expo was that con and this is the story of that costume.  I went to UKGE to play in the X-Wing Miniatures Game regional championship and Yavin Open Tournament.  The former had more than 100 players and the latter nearly more than 400.  I’m also intending to bring the costume along to EMF and spend some time out in costume there, assuming it’s not heatstroke weather in an all-black jumpsuit and helmet…

So I built a TIE Fighter pilot costume.  Mostly this is uncomplicated – a boiler suit, a belt, some boots, some gloves – so the complex bits are the helmet and the chest armour, on which I’ll be focussing.

I wasn’t shooting for complete screen accuracy, more for something that looked about right, was functional, quick, and easy to put together, and wouldn’t fall apart in a couple of days’ wear.  I can try for perfect screen accuracy on future costumes.

raw materials
The raw materials

I built this on the base of a baseball batting helmet which I saw used for a rebel pilot helmet in this tutorial, and picked up a lot of the techniques by osmosis from watching this youtube channel.  The majority of the rest was made from EVA foam as I’ve seen used in a bunch of cosplay and prop-making tutorials, as well as some pipe lagging, foamcore board, duck tape, and a clip top box for the chest piece – which also served as storage for (almost) all the kit I needed to play the game on the day.

This was the first time I’ve done anything like this, so I had a few false starts and wasted most of a sheet of foam getting things wrong, but that’s part of the learning process and I’ve now got lots of scraps left over.  I started out by patterning the most difficult part of the helmet – the curved detailing on each side – by sticking masking tape to the helmet, drawing the piece on, then removing it and cutting darts in the sides to allow it to sit more or less flat.

Lesson number 1: I should have masked the whole helmet, and cut the shape to fit right into the middle, which would then have let me glue it down and cut away the excess rather than needing to fit it on after constructing the central ridge.  As it was, it worked, but was more awkward to do, as the processes weren’t happening in the most favourable order – but conversely, doing them in the order I did let me get more done more quickly, as I was able to work in an sequence that meant I could get started at home before moving to the Hackspace to heat form parts.

It’s also worth noting that the patterning process went through several revisions as I didn’t account for the extra thickness the foam would add – I could certainly do this better another time.

The central ridge was next – I started out trying to make this a couple of different ways, by gluing down flat pieces the whole length of the ridge, then small sections the right width, but all of this didn’t work as the hot glue wouldn’t hold well across the curvature of the helmet and kept popping off.  Version 3 was the one which worked – I glued a thin strip down the lengths of centre and then two taller strips with the bottoms cut at 45 degrees down the sides.  These went on a touch wonky, but that’s life.  Then glued a long flat strip down the top, which worked well and is now holding very firmly.  At some point in here I cut the brim off the helmet and trimmed down the end of the ridge with a hand saw and added some detailing.

Lesson number 2: don’t try to hot glue onto smooth, non-porous curved surfaces, especially without scoring them first, heat forming the parts to be glued, or keeping them very thin and flexible.  Ideally all three.  Well, actually ideally I probably would have been using a contact cement rather than hot glue, but you’ve got to work with what you have.

Next was the mask.  Weirdly this was actually the easiest part to prototype – I taped a piece of paper to the inside of the helmet and drew the mask shapes on.  Then cut them out.  Remarkably, all of them fit first time, and I was able to work out where the bends and details needed to go from looking at the screen reference which is copious and detailed, and masking tape together the first prototype. (PIC OF PROTOTYPE)  I then heat formed the parts to shape and glued them together at the hackspace.  I experimented with a technique I’ve not seen used before to help here – I cut some loose tenons out of plastic packaging and used them to hold the joints in the right orientation whilst the glue set.  This didn’t work *at all* because the holt glue just melted the plastic.  I might try it another time with metal pins or wooden skewers, but I didn’t have any to hand, and some experimenting led me to think that it would deform the shape of the piece – not to mention that in practice, the piece worked out fine without the need for additional support.  I also found it helpful to thin down the foam on the back of tight bends like the one down the centre of the face plate by carving a wedge out of the back of the foam in the relevant place – a technique which I’ve since found on other foam-armour-making youtube channels and tutorials.

initial build
The mask after the initial day’s prototyping.

The eye lenses were made with pop bottle plastic held into rebates in the eye pieces, then coloured using a permanent marker on the back, and glued in with epoxy.  It’s very difficult to see out, but that’s manageable.  If I could have found some sunglasses to fit for cheap I would perhaps have used those for better lenses, but I doubt they would have had the right shape, which the pop bottle plastic was perfect for.

The rest of the curved side details were made up from pipe lagging.  I had some major issues here as one of the hot glue guns I used was WAY too hot for the lagging which immediately melted.  I tried it with my colder gun at home which worked, but still needed to be used only shortly after being switched on.  Waiting too long led to melting again, and I was running perilously low on the right size of lagging (and time to go and buy more) by that stage!

only finishing to go
The mask after completion of the construction – ready for finishing.

The chest armour was quite simple – a single layer of eva foam for each side, cut and heat formed then sealed and painted as below, with simple straps.  I didn’t bother with any of the greeblies on the straps, for time reasons.  The straps were originally going to be clip-buckle luggage straps, but these didn’t arrive in time so I bodged something up at the last minute out of gaffer tape and velcro which actually worked impressively well to the point that I’m not going to be replacing the straps now that the intended ones have arrived, and will instead save them for the next project.  I didn’t take any photos of these unfortunately, but basically I made them by sticking the gaffer tape to itself, sticky side in, then using that and some sticky backed velcro as the basis for the straps, which held very well and looked about right.

I also did some minor work on the belt buckle, which had a recessed Dunlop logo that I filled, sanded, and painted to match the rest of the buckle, but again, didn’t photograph that stage.

The chest box was the other complex piece.  The base of it was a clip top box from Wickes which I spray-painted the top of black – it was clear to begin with.  I should have primed it first, and a lot of the paint flaked off before the end, as did one of the buttons.  The details were made as follows: The square buttons are foamcore, painted with markers/spraypaint and sealed with gloss varnish.  The white lines are printer paper, held down by saturating it with PVA/water mix.  The rocker switches are eva foam with a wedge cut out from the bottom side, sealed and painted as below.  The cylinder is more pipe lagging, covered in black gaffer tape, as are the sockets for the breathing tubes, which are themselves electrical conduit from Screwfix, heat formed to rough shape at the hackspace and just press fit into their places, so they don’t stress the parts too much and it’s easy to disassemble.  The cogwheels on the sides I 3D printed at the hackspace, but I had backups made from pipe lagging just in case.  They would have looked fine at a distance.  The whole thing is held on to the armour with velcro, as it needs to come off to get the stuff out for play.  The cylinder stays on the armour but is also held on with velcro so it can be removed for easier transportation.

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3D printing the cogwheel greeblies

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And the final shot before finishing, including the heat-formed breathing tubes.

Finishing and painting:

This is a huge process; the EVA foam and particularly the pipe lagging cannot be spray painted until they have been sealed.  The propellant in the paint eats the foam of the lagging, and doesn’t cover well or provide a good finished surface on the EVA, which is quite porous, though not actually dissolved by spray propellant the way some foams are.  So the process is thus:

0: (Optionally) go over all the surfaces with the heat gun.  This smooths them slightly and seals them a little so the glue doesn’t absorb quite as much.  But be careful going over surfaces you’ve already hot-glued, as the heat gun is more than hot enough to melt the glue.  Also take care to keep the gun moving, it’s more than hot enough to scorch the surface if you stay in one place too long.  Which I did in a couple of places.  Blaster burns!

1: Smooth any rough edges and fill/radius the internal corners using latex mastic/caulk.  I used latex because of its flexibility though it’s a little harder to paint, but epoxy putty or even polyfilla would do at a pinch.  Ideally a sandable filler is good, but sandable, flexible and quick-setting is very difficult to get in a single filler.  I also coated the pipe lagging bits with two or three layers of mastic, before the PVA coat, both to seal and smooth them.  It might be tough to get the curved surfaces which had to have darts cut in them smooth, but don’t worry, it’ll look fine when painted.  If you have time and have good patterning skills, it’s more than possible to get them perfect, but I had neither!

2: Coat with as many layers as you have time for of PVA glue mixed 50:50ish with water.  5 layers minimum, preferably more, I think I was up to nearly 10 by the end.  The more layers, the better, too, it was noticeable to me that the surface finish on the helmet was better than on the chest armour, which received about half the number of PVA coats.  Drying with a hairdryer can help, but don’t use the heat gun, you might melt your joints, and that would be bad right now.  I understand that you can also use Plasti-Dip or latex for this stage, with which I have yet to experiment.

sealed
The helmet after sealing with mastic and PVA.

3: Spray paint.  I primed grey then used gloss black for the majority, including giving the whole helmet a once over to cover any of the marks and layout lines.  I used gloss white for the white rocker switch, and gray primer for the grey switches and buttons; these just happened to be what I had on hand, then gloss varnish over the whole caboodle.  Make sure you mask any areas of exposed foam, for instance the inside of the helmet and the inside of the tubes.  I should, as noted, have primed the box lid first though, the black paint peeled very easily.  And the foamcore buttons got eroded by the propellant/solvent from the varnish, but that’s not a huge issue.

primed
The helmet after priming – please ignore the expanding chaos of my workspace!

The whole thing was done… ooh, hours before I had to leave for the expo, as the straps for buckling the armour hadn’t arrived in time so I completed the makeshift straps the day before leaving.

The finished product:

The photos with green-screen background are the photos taken for the cosplay competition by Thanet Cosplay, used with their kind permission.

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Plans:

I didn’t produce detailed plans for this, and what plans I did produce were very specific to the helmet I bought, but what the hey, I traced around them before I glued it all together.  There’s a rule in the photos for scale, which are available on request.  Please comment or post on the hackspace boards if you’d like to get access to them.

During and after the con:

It went down a storm with my opponents at the tournament, and with the con in general.  I entered the cosplay competition, coming in the top 10 in a very strong field with which I was extremely pleased.  It wasn’t actually too hot to wear, because it was easy to remove the bulk of the hot parts and take the top half of the boiler suit off when necessary to cool down.  Te worst part of wearing it was the blister from the boots which I hadn’t worn in a while.

There were some casualties as a result of the con.  Quite a lot of the paint, both gears and one of the buttons on the chest box popped/flaked off – 5 minute epoxy glue did an OK job but was never going to be amazing at holding these things down – and the helmet got a bit bashed and dinged in places, but mostly these bashes could be covered up with permanent marker.  Beyond that, the costume actually stayed basically undamaged.

The overall cost was about £150, but much of that was in the big parts – the gloves, the original helmet, the boiler suit which between them accounted for around half the cost of the costume, and the straps, plus the glue gun which I bought as we didn’t have one at home.  Many of these parts can be re-used or will be useful in other contexts, and I ended up with a lot of scraps of more or less usable sizes, and a full sheet each of EVA and foamcore left over.  The only pieces that were used as bought were the gloves, the motorcycle balaclava that went under the helmet and I ended up not bothering to wear after all, and the boots.  Even the boiler suit received some minor alteration – I added a button and buttonhole to the point of the collar so I could pull it up around my neck.

Minor issues: the helmet was a bit the wrong shape; it would have been better if it had descended a little further down the back of my neck.  I could have fixed it with some more foam, but I didn’t really feel inclined to add more enclosure to something that’s already hot and poorly vented, and it would have made it a lot harder to get on.  The faceplate was a little long.  This is just a drafting issue I think, I could have shortened it by nearly an centimetre further in total and made it look better, and that’s having shortened it a centimetre or more from the original plans.  It was at least partly related to having made the eye piece a touch too large, but I’m glad I did that – any smaller and it would have been almost impossible to see out.  Finally, I should have taken way more photos, but time was short, and this is the first time I’ve tried to fully document a project like this.  It’s surprisingly hard to remember to take photos when you get into the flow of making things.

But really, this went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, doubly so for a first attempt at doing a project like this.  In particular, I’m amazed at the solidity of the construction of the helmet – youtube viewing had led me to believe it would be flimsy and deform easily but it’s remarkably rigid, possibly because of the base helmet being a lot stronger and more rigid than the all-foam constructions I’ve taken inspiration from.

10/10 would build again.  Hopefully with more time next time though!

I’m already planning next year’s costume!

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