How I Made This: Classic Iron Man
Making a Classic Iron Man costume was a real challenge. Making it for a twelve-year-old boy was another challenge, though it’s one I’m more accustomed to, as I’ve made children’s costumes before. This costume wasn’t primarily sewing, which was something new for me. This meant I had to learn some new techniques alongside a child with an attention span far shorter than mine, AKA I had to learn fast and adapt faster.
Because of this, Iron Man initially began as a project I wanted to span over a few months, something that we could work on for snippets of time over the weekends we spent together, but extenuating circumstances really didn’t allow for us to begin working on it until roughly three weeks before Emerald City Comicon (the deadline).
I began by simplifying Iron Man, printing out countless images from the movies, comics, cartoons, and identifying core lines that seemed to repeat across versions. I especially focused on the Marvel covers from earlier this year, with the baby-sized superheroes, since the simplification was already taken care of for me.. haha.
From there, it came down to picking which shapes and lines I wanted to use for Lo’s costume, which I then covered my entire design space with:
Breaking down what needed to be made first came next. I knew that taking measurements of Lo wouldn’t really cut it – armor doesn’t really have much give to it, so just knowing the circumference of Lo’s waist wouldn’t give me enough information to shape it to him. Lo’s attention span wouldn’t allow for me to mold piece by piece to him or anything like that, so I had to get clever.
In the end, the easiest solution was the best solution. I spent about a half hour taping newsprint to his body, arm, leg and foot. I marked key areas with sharpie, especially notched lines to match up when I cut it off him.
Then, I created a pseudo dress-form of his body to use instead of a squirmy, complaining pre-teen. I also stuffed his leg/foot mold, and his arm one as well. Carrying these around back and forth definitely raised quite a few eyebrows….
Starting the Armor
The actual armor process was entirely new to me. I knew that since Lo is a child, there were different priorities in place instead of an adult – namely, a lower tolerance for limited mobility and discomfort. This meant I couldn’t go with molded plastics like wonderform, because they’d inhibit his movement too much.
The solution? CRAFT FOAM, of all things. You know what I’m talking about. The squishy colored stuff in the children’s arts and crafts section of stores like JoAnn’s or even Wal-Mart. Alongside the beadazzle kits and tye dye tee-shirts.
Yeah. Craft foam.
The process was time-consuming but relatively simple. The supplies I needed to purchase were:
- Heat gun (you can get one at Home Depot/Lowes for under $30)
- A ridiculous amount of craft foam (I mostly used the 3mm thickness)
- Spray paint in final color choices
- Thin cardboard (called chipboard), cardstock, or something similar
- Masking tape (to help position pieces)
The first step is to create the individual pieces. I used the chipboard instead of just diving into the craft foam directly, mostly because I knew that there was a high chance everything would have to be adjusted once I tried to fit him the second time and I didn’t want to waste foam.
For me, this step was the most time-consuming. The dummy Lo wasn’t as reliable as I wanted it to be, and while it did help more than measurements, it was more useful as a tool to see the pieces all together, instead of pulling them on and off Lo constantly (which happened later on, anyway).
I ended up making multiple versions of this point, combining both foam and cardboard, as well as going through almost two rolls of masking tape in the process:
I knew assembly would be another issue to tackle with a child who wouldn’t be as willing to patiently wait while things were placed on him. I decided to break it up into key pieces of armor that would attach together. I made a chest piece and a hip piece that wrapped around Lo’s body and connected over a back panel with grommeted laces (much like a modesty patch on a corset). I then covered the laces with a panel to hide them.
In total, the pieces of Lo’s armor were numerous:
- helmet mask & headpiece
- front chest piece
- front hip piece
- back panel
- modesty panel
- shin pieces
- forearm cuffs
- modified shoes
- hand guards
The Armor Process
Once I figured out the basic shapes and assembly, I had to disassemble the whole thing, of course. This meant a lot of marking where pieces would connect, and a TON of labeling to make sure I wouldn’t confuse myself. Craft foam on its own isn’t durable enough for wearing around, but that’s where the Modpodge and cheesecloth come in.
Each piece has to be handled individually, which can be time-consuming depending on how complex the armor is. Since this was a very simplified Iron Man, it wasn’t so bad.
First, coat the back of each piece with a layer of Modpodge, followed by a piece of cheesecloth (NOTE: Cheesecloth and Modpodge will do a damn good job hiding all those careful, perfect little marks made before disassembly, so make sure the edges or front are also marked. Ahem.). While the Modpodge is drying, if you blast it with a heating gun it makes the craft foam and the cheese cloth hold a shape. When the foam is really hot, it’s super bendable and you can pose it however, but it doesn’t stay until it’s cooled. Consequently, I utilized almost all the glassware in the house to help everything set properly….
Once the Modpodge/cheesecloth has dried, it’s much easier to trim edges and make sure it’s shaped the right way. If it isn’t, it can still be bent and manipulated and it holds the adjustments to a certain extent.
So ideally, you would want to finish each piece by itself if it needed to move, to minimize dripping (if you’re spray-painting like I was), but because of the time constraints and the fact I was having a hard time visualizing the costume completed and looking good, I decided to assemble some parts of it first, spray-paint after.
To prep the foam, I coated the front in a couple of coats of Modpodge, and let it dry. I found the foam brushes worked better than typical brushes, the Modpodge went on smoother and didn’t streak.
From there, it was just about coating each of the pieces with a couple of layers of spray paint. Some required more than others, because I used different colored foam (thanks, multiple JoAnn’s, for running out). This was a longer process than I’d have liked, because I live in Seattle and okay. FUN FACT: While it doesn’t pour like everyone says it does, it does like to spit frequently and without warning, especially when you’re trying to do something outside and can’t afford to wait for better weather any longer.
I used Montana spray-paint, they have a crazy amount of colors and are really worth the price. The only downside is that the carrier near me only has their matte paints (which usually I love), and since I wanted Iron Man to be shiny, I had to search for a good clear lacquer that wouldn’t react with the spray-paint and the foam. The one I went with bled a little, but it dried too fast to really affect the smoothness of the Montana paint, thankfully.
After that, it was just assembling and testing fit.
Helmet & Shoes
For the helmet, I didn’t really have time to construct one by hand. It was easier (and more logical) to buy a cheap one and modify it. Luckily, one of the helmets I was looking at had a video comment from a man explaining the way he modded it, which worked perfectly with what I wanted to do so I got that one. It arrived in two pieces, but not really in any pleasing way, just a vertical slice separating front and back, and little velcro spots to hold it together. FLIMSY.
I glued the pieces together first, and then I cut off the yellow face panel, much like Tony Stark’s functions in the movie. From there, I layered on foam all over the outside part of the pieces, making it more sturdy but also unifying it with the rest of the costume. It was a movie version of Iron Man so it didn’t quite fit, but adding the foam definitely softened the textures a bit and made it more simple looking.
I attached strips of red velcro to the inside of the mask and the headpiece, so Lo could use it with the mask down, or up, but he’d need assistance moving from one to the next. It also gave him the opportunity to lift the mask up a bit when he couldn’t see where to go or step, without having to remove the whole headpiece.
For the shoes, I purchased these awful (like no. really) Toms knock-offs from the Target clearance section. They were poop brown and the most uncomfortable things on the planet, or so I was told. But I only needed the soles, really, so it worked out okay. I cut everything off the soles (just this cheap thick foam, really), and built the shoes up off that. I attached elastic along the back to hit his heels and hold him in place, kind of like Crocs, only with out the awful holes and obnoxious colors…
Bodysuit & Gloves
I had a couple different shades of yellow spandex I repurposed, instead of purchasing new yardage. Since it was in pieces, I couldn’t just make it just pants and a shirt, so I made it in pieces that traded off shades of yellow. I put stripes in the middle of his biceps, as well as his thighs. I think it ended up adding more texture to what would have been a pretty flat part of the costume, which was cool.
The shirt and pants are very basic – I cut and serged them a bit bigger than I anticipated, and when I fit him, pinned down the parts to take in. The waistband of the pants are elastic, and I added stirrups along the ankles so the spandex wouldn’t ride up his leg thanks to the shin armor.
Gloves are something of an afterthought and while I KNOW they shouldn’t be, it’s just always something I forget about until the last-minute. With Lo, it’s not so much of an issue, because he doesn’t really care. I just traced his hand to create the pattern piece, added 1/4 inch of seam allowance, and ran a quick zigzag stitch along the edge. It requires a lot of pinning and a lot of patience, because spandex doesn’t like to stay in one place, especially when it’s being sewn on a sewing machine and not a serger.
The palm lasers and arc reactor were a major reason for picking Iron Man, and Lo was super excited to have something that would glow. I purchased EL wire for the arc reactor, and a couple sets of LED shoelaces for the palm lasers. The shoelaces were both a great find and a horrible disappointment. They ran by a small, battery-operated unit that had two LEDs on either end, and a clear plastic rope that could be stuck into either end. The benefit? The rope could be shortened to desired length (I couldn’t find EL wire shorter than a few feet), but the downside was that it was a weaker light, and relied a lot on reflection, which made it really hard to make it evenly glow how I wanted it to.
For both the hand and chest lights, I wound the wire in a circle on a piece of duct tape (to hold it in place), and layered pieces of acetate and semi-transparent paper on top of it to hide the individual wire strands. I also covered the holes in the foam as well, since adding distance between the paper and the actual wire also diffuses it well.
I taped the three circular units into the foam, so they are removable when it comes time to replace the batteries.
It took about ten minutes to assemble Lo the morning of the convention, which worked out really well. By the end of the afternoon, the shoes had given up their battle and he had to shuffle around with some difficulty. Since we’re planning on a photoshoot and he’d like to wear it to the Iron Man 3 premiere… well, if it’s not R-rated. 😉 Anyway, I’ll have to remake the boots to be more durable.