Sculpting tools and materials

 

I describe the process of sculpting my BJD heads and dolls here, like many other sculptors do, considering BJD features.

 

Classic Japanese BJDs are mostly done in self-hardening clays, like Paperclay, Ladoll and so on. While those are great for stylized features I understood they're not enough when you sculpt a portrait head where precision is everything. So I use a softer but strong medium that is easy to edit and then make a hard copy that can withstand molding process.

 

I started sculpting in plasticine:

 

 

As you can see I've managed to do two heads, but gave up on the stuff, as it's too sticky, gets soft from hands very fast, and it's hard to do a tiny details. I had to do a lot of refining work in a harder medium, but that took too much time due to the kind of that medium.

 

So I started searching for alternatives.

 

Luckily I stumbled upon a thread posted by Namonaki BJD sculptor on "The Joint" forum (no longer existing as it's been merged to Den of Angels). She used Castilene, and I absolutely loved the medium.

 

 

I believe her background in action figure sculpting defined her medium choice, as Castilene is widely used by traditional sculptors who reproduce their stuff by casting. There are 3 main mediums that I'm aware of: Super Sculpey, Chavant Clay and Castilene. Chavant is too soft for our purposes, Super Sculpey is great but needs baking, and I'm just not good at baking clays, so Castilene is my choice.

 

 

The stuff is mostly a wax with some secret ingredients, and it comes in 3 grades. Namonaki used the hardest grade that could even withstand a loose stringing, so I purchased the same kind.

 

The stuff is very lightweight, so buying 0.5 kg of it you get maybe twice as more in volume as the other clays can provide.

 

The stuff is strong enough to support itself. The armature is needed only for a long thin pieces.

 

Its melting point is 70 degrees in Celsius: that's enough to withstand the heat of your hands, but not too much so you can melt it with tools. My tool of choice is a heating gun with a thin nozzle (not that brand on the photo - but some local $5 stuff):

 

 

Sculptors also use gasoline blow torches for local heating and boxes with a heating source for heating a big blocks of wax. I don't work in such a big amounts to use a heating box, and I prefer electricity over gazoline, that's why I use a heating gun.

 

That's my heads in Castilene:

 

 

A sculptor can make a tiniest details in Castilene, like skin texture, wrinkles and so on. I keep my sculpts to a certain level of stylization because of several reasons:

- it should look nice with a stylized BJD bodies,

- it should be polished to perfection so a faceup artist would have an easy time painting the heads and removing faceup if needed,

- the dolls would look OK next to other realistic sculpts on the market.

 

But actually any wild ideas are possible to do in this medium. I highly recommend it. 

 

Sculpting tools I use:

 

 

1 and 2 a dental tools, and those are my main tools not only for sculpting but for variety of tasks.

 

#1 has a flat blade with a rounded tip, and it can be used for cutting pieces of wax, spreading it, making grooves, flattening the shapes, and so on. The other edge is a thin cylinder with a rounded tip, nice for making holes.

 

#2 has a similar flat blade which is thinner (more sharp) and bends easily so I don't use it much for sculpting, but it's a great tool for applying paint, glue or a bits of medium when you have to fill an unwanted hole. The other blunt tip is also great for filling holes and spreading the stuff in there.

 

3 and 4 are wood-carving knives.

 

#3 is great for making a small holes, #4 is very handy when you have to make a hollow piece, like insides of a head or a torso.

 

#5 is a drilling tool, its chuck head allows to hold a variety of drilling bits. Mine can hold anything starting from 60 mm thick stuff to a tiniest 0.4 mm bits. I prefer to do a magnet holes in my prototypes so I only have to install magnets into a casted piece - the bits are a great help here.

 

#6 is a flat leather knife, I use it to flatten the surface keeping it perpendicularly to the surface and scratching gently.

 

Well, all of the above aren't clay sculpting tools by design)))

 

OK, here are a real sculpting tools, though I use them only from time to time:

 

 

I have this set from Aliexpress, it costs about $8 or so there. Does the job perfectly.

 

Actually, a selection of tools is a matter of a personal preference - I just show mine, and yours can eventually differ: just try them and find what works best for you.

 

Also a set of "cake decorating tools" is a must have for every BJD sculptor:

 

 

These can be heated and applied to the wax making a hollow spaces. Also these are great if you need to fill in a piece or mold with a clay from inside and smooth the surface.  

 

I have a selection of beads and balls of a various diameters: I use them for making plaster molds when I have to make clay balls, or I use the beads in my heads to make the eye sockets. You could see a pair of black beads on many of my progress photos.

After you sculpted something the surface is still rough, and the traces of the tools are inevitable.

 

To smooth out the surface sculptors use various solvents: turpentine, citrus oil, gasoline, etc. I use a kerosene, applying it onto my sculpted head with a soft brush. Kerosene melts Castilene a bit, and you can kind of polish the surface with a brush spreading melted wax and covering the surface evenly. I use a soft flat brush with a shortened hairs:

 

 

Don't use that brush for anything else, lol! 

 

CAUTION: work with Kerosene only wearing organic vapors respirator and in a nicely ventilated area. Always read precautions written on chemicals! My kind of Kerosene doesn't have any significant smell, so you don't know how much you inhaled.

 

 

Here is the result of smoothing the sculpt with kerosene:

 

 

The difference is pretty drastic, isn't it?

 

Here is the video on my Instagram where I smooth the surface of my RDJ head.

 

So, your sculpt is ready and nearly perfect, it's a time to replicate it in a harder medium for casting!

 

Casting companies prefer a hard stuff because more fragile prototype could be broken while being retrieved from the mold. Also it's a common practice to pour silicone onto the prototype and to cut the mold in two after silicone is cured, so the prototype can be damaged with knife.

 

Also it's easier to polish a harder stuff and to cover it with primers. BJD doll surface should be absolutely perfect, because any bumps and dents would be recreated in resin copy. They would not only look bad, but they could make doing faceup a much more difficult process, especially if the faceup artist uses pastels for blushing. Pastels get into scratches highlighting them and making the blushing uneven. 

 

My first head was copied in Apoxie Sculpt through plaster molds. 

 

 

I worked with Apoxie Sculpt before - made a BJD head from scratch, so I was pretty familiar with the stuff.

 

Why I chose Apoxie Sculpt for prototyping?
- it's really strong, just as strong as casted resin, so you can test stringing or even make a playable BJD out of it,
- it can be easily drilled, sanded and so on - just like resin,
- you can add new parts anytime, applying more Apoxie over your piece,
- it takes tiniest details so you can make exact copy,
- it has zero shrinkage: it's a very important quality, as resin shrinks a bit, and your doll will be smaller than your prototype anyway, so less shrinkage - less engineering errors.

 

Apoxie Sculpt is a 2-part epoxy putty made by Aves located in US. I have to order it internationally paying as much for the shipping as the product itself costs. There are similar epoxies: Milliput, Magic Sculpt, Tamiya Putty and so on. Use whatever you like and what is available to you. They're all alike: there are 2 pots of putty, part A and part B, and you have to take equal amounts and to mix them thoroughly. Two components get in a chemical reaction and start to harden, so working time is limited: it's about 1-3 hours for Apoxie Sculpt. 

 

 

It's great to measure the parts by kneading each part into a ball, so you could easily compare two balls in size. Though Apoxie allows even 4:6 ratio so you don't have to be too precise.

 

It depends on many factors how fast Apoxie hardens. A thoroughly and extensively mixed parts, higher temperature in the room, mixing ratio (more of B part) make the stuff harden faster.

 

You have to get used to the putty, to get some practice to understand its qualities better.

 

It's easily smoothed with water, and if you want it to be more soft add more water. I have a bowl with water on my working place where I wash my hands during work. I usually dip each ball of putty into the water, then knead each ball separately until they get soft and have no hard particles in them, then I mix two together. Because if you leave a piece of hardened putty it could happen that it won't be mixed properly, and you'll get a gummy, sticky stuff inside your prototype that may get in the way while you sand or cut it.

 

CAUTION! All epoxies are toxic while soft! Always wear gloves while working with those! I recommend nitrile gloves, as they're the strongest while they still allow you to feel the putty. 

Persons with allergies and sensitive skin might want to protect themselves with respirator and glasses. Also, allergy can develop over time. Never touch the stuff, never lick it, keep your children and pets away!

 

I do only the rough job with my hands: mixing, sculpting large parts, etc. I use tools for all the precise works. Some kinds of works can be done while Apoxie is soft, others are better to do when it hardens.

 

I prefer steel tools, here is the same photo you've seen already:

 

 

#1 and 2 are still my favorites, the rest of the tools are used on a hardened Apoxie only.

 

These are great for smoothing out soft Apoxie on concave surfaces where it's hard to reach with your fingers.

 

 

You'll feel when Apoxie starts to set, as it becomes gummy and hard to knead. That means your working time ran out. 

 

After you wait about 6 hours Apoxie becomes very similar in texture to erazer, and if you need to drill a big holes, do major cuts and so on it's just the time to do it. You have to be very careful, as Apoxie is not set yet, and it breaks easily. 

 

After 24 hours Apoxie has to completely harden. Though I can say from my experience that this time is not enough, and the piece still can be very slightly sticky to the touch. I prefer to wait 48 hours, and it never failed me.

 

So, these are the basics for working with Apoxie.

 

Let's talk about plaster of Paris aka gypsum.

 

Why I chose plaster at first?
- it's cheap and easy to purchase, as it's available in any hardware store,
- it's rather easy to work with,
- it copies the surface nicely.

 

Though it has one huge disadvantage: the mold isn't flexible, that's why I eventually gave up on plaster and switched to silicone. So the mold should consist of several parts, while silicone mold can be one part mold.

 

There are a lot of tutorials online on making plaster molds, I advice to watch a few to understand basics. Here is a very basic 2-part mold.

 

Plaster varies in quality, from friable to hard and strong. You can use a good plaster for the layer touching the prototype and a cheap basic plaster for the outside to make your mold thick.

 

Then you have to plan how you divide your prototype in parts for the molding. 

 

The main rule of a plaster mold is that it should have no so-called locks, otherwise the mold or the prototype would be damaged.

 

 

Human head sculpt has a lot of a such locks. If you do a single part for the face you have to fill the nostrils with plasticine or any other stuff so they won't be filled with plaster. And that means you have to cut the nostrils on your copy prototype made out of Apoxie.

 

Also you can see a flat ears here: I did a simple basic shapes and created a realistic ears adding Apoxie in some places and carving it in other places, after my prototype copy completely hardened.

 

 

This way you can do only 3 part mold: one for the face, one for the back and one for the neck hole. And you end up with a head that you have to cut in two to make the main part and the headcap part.

 

You can add two more parts for the sides of the head with ears, so you can sculpt your ears in wax and copy them in plaster.

But the more parts your sculpt has the more trouble is keeping them together. So choose the way that works for you.

As you can see on the photo above I created walls for the first part of the mold out of plasticine. It's good for wax models too. You don't have to cover plasticine or wax with anything, as you can easily remove it later. 

 

Mix your plaster with water. I like to work fast, so I usually use hot water and add plaster constantly mixing it until it reminds a sour cream. Water:plaster ratio depends on many factors, and it usually takes more plaster than the water, even to 1:1.5 ratio. Then I apply a layer of plaster to my prototype with a synthetic brush that has a thick fibers (it's easier to clean afterwards). As the plaster is not too liquid it stays on the prototype covering it with a thin layer. The brush-on technique is shown in this video.

 

I let this layer to set up a bit, mix a low quality plaster and build the walls of my mold.

 

Plaster sets up with a heating reaction, so you can determine if it setts up by touch. Let it cool for a bit, remove the plasticine, build another supporting wall if needed, and let's make another part of the mold.

 

Great release liquid for plaster that works fine for me is 1:1 mix of sunflower oil and dishwashing liquid (I used "Fairy" brand). I thoroughly cover the sides of the mold with it letting it soak the plaster. Then I can apply the plaster to the prototype as described above.

 

After all parts are done I let the mold dry in a warm place for several days. Then I carefully open it, a thin knife helps to divide the parts from each other. Pull each part of the mold gently, where it has the least resistance.

 

Put the prototype aside. Put the parts of the mold back together and let them dry completely. Plaster should become more white and make a sonant sound when being hit. 

 

So, you're ready to fill your mold with Apoxie Sculpt. And you'll need a release, otherwise Apoxie sticks to the plaster so securely that you won't be able to remove it. I use vaseline. It works great but has one major disadvantage: it leaves residue on Apoxie that's hard to remove. 

 

Cover insides of your mold with a thin layer of vaseline, using soft brush. Release that I used for plaster won't work - did it once, and it worked rather like a glue!

 

Mix Apoxie and spread it on the insides of the mold. 3 mm layer is enough. I fill in both parts and make a layer of Apoxie thicker at the edges and a bit sticking out of the mold, then press both parts together so Apoxie sticks to itself.

 

After Apoxie fully cures (48 hours) open your mold. There can be dents and bumps, especially in the places where parts of the mold meet.

 

You can see several parting lines on the forehead, and lots of imperfections.

 

 

I messed up with release this time, that's why the head is so bumpy. The previous one was more neat.

 

I tend to make the mold of only the outer surface, while I create the inner surface of the head later, adding Apoxie. 

 

Also you can see that I made a separate mold for a headcap this time. I filled both parts of the mold, but it's too hard to determine how much of a putty exactly to apply, because if you add too much the mold won't close, and if you'll add too little there will be gaps. So there is a huge gap that should be filled later.

 

These bumps and lumps have to be filled with Apoxie and sanded down after it gets hard. The process of sanding is tedious and long, because you have to wait at least 24 hours until you can sand the head, and then you discover another bunch of issues. 

 

I developed a set of how-tos on sanding my pieces.

 

No matter how hard I try to make my prototypes even the big areas like forehead, head cap, cheeks may have slight bumps and irregularities. To even them out I use a stiff sandpaper of about 80-150 grit. It has a fabric base and is marked as waterproof.

 

 

If you don't have a studio where you can do a dirty stuff like sanding which produces a lot of dust there is a solution: a bowl of water, so you put your Apoxie prototype there and sand it underwater. All the dust is washed into the bowl. 

 

CAUTION! If you don't use water for any reason you have to wear a proper dust mask and to work in a well ventilated area. Otherwise tiny particles will fill in your lungs causing issues.

 

I use this 3M 3200 dust mask with replaceable carbon filters for dust protection.

 

 

But even a simple cloth mask is better than nothing.

 

Stiffness of sandpaper evens out bumps and dents creating a smooth surface.

 

When the rough job is done I use sandpaper of 600 grit on a paper base, also waterproof, then 1200 grit. Sandpaper gets smoother and smoother with use, so worn out #600 would work as #800-1000))

 

A finer sandpapers usually come not in rolls but in sheets:

 

 

There are places that are hard to reach: eye corners, nostrils, inside the ears, etc. I fold sandpaper making a tiny cone and sand tough areas with its tip or sides.

 

Making your mold out of silicone is much much faster and easier. If your prototype is made out of wax you don't have to cover it with anything. Choose silicones that have the least shrinkage, there are zero shrinkage silicones, they're the best. Also Platinum-based silicones are better than Tin-based, but if Tin-based are strong enough and don't tear easily they're OK too.

I use a local brand Elastolux Platinum 23. You can try silicones from Smooth-On, they're very good.

 

Silicones are liquid, so you have to make a casing, put the prototype inside and pour silicone. I use a piece of a thin yet stiff plastic that can make a nice cylinder, glue it to the table with hot glue and pour the silicone inside, then after silicone is cured I take my mold apart.

 

You can do one piece mold with silicone, and the prototype can be of any shape. 

 

Prototype may need support, so they're placed in the mold in a certain way. You can use sticks glued to the table and to the prototype with a hot glue, any objects, or plasticine. Plasticine has to be sulfur-free, otherwise silicone may not cure.

This video from our local supplier shows the process of making molds just like I do it.

 

That's how my mold for the facial part looks. It has a cut so I can retrieve the prototype from it.

 

 

After the mold is ready you can fill the insides with Apoxie Sculpt. Though I discovered that working with silicone molds is harder, because Apoxie doesn't stick to it properly, and the surface is more uneven. I tried wetting the mold with water, with Apoxie thinned out with water, but still got bubbles. That's the issue I still have to solve.

 

 

I have to fill in all those bubbles with Apoxie:

 

 

Primers are a great help for smoothing out surfaces and revealing imperfections. I use automotive and hobby spray cans mostly: matte primers Presto, Motip, Bosny, Color Works, the best color is gray as it reveals any issues better. White primer is great if you want to paint a piece made of Apoxie and use it right on a doll. 

 

 

Bosny is pretty thick, it's good for filling in dents. Presto is the finest of all that I used.

 

Research your local brands and find the ones that work for you. There are plenty of automotive primers available, so you don't have to order them from other countries. 

 

If you want to get that super matte surface for your doll use Tamiya or Humbrol primers:

 

 

I didn't use those yet but was advised to try them. They come both in spray cans and in jars so you could use them in the aribrush too. You can even brush it on but the results won't be so good.

 

Mr. Surfacer is great for filling a tiny dents too. Comes in 3 grits that make a surface similar to sanding plastic with sandpapers of the same grit. I tried Mr. Surfacer 500, and it worked great for me.

 

 

I also tried Mr. Dissolved Putty, but it was too liquid so it added too little stuff after drying, while Mr. Surfacer is thick and substantial.

 

CAUTION! All primers and fillers listed above are nitro based, acetone based or have other aggressive chemicals in them which help them to dry fast. Organic vapors respirator should be used, also please work only in ventilated area. Protect your hands too if you hold a prototype in your hand while spraying.

 

I use 3M 7502 respirator for any toxic stuff.

 

 

The more control you have over the amount of filler or primer applied - the better. That's why I fill in the dents with Apoxie first, then use brush-on Mr. Surfacer, then use primers in spray cans. Overspraying could even out not only the issues but the details you sculpted so carefully. 

 

If you've been patient enough you get a smooth surface, primed to perfection. Matte primer creates an uniform texture that's similar to skin.

 

 

Prototypes and even artistic dolls can be also made in self-hardening, or air-dry, clays

 

Along with Volks introducing polyurethane customized BJDs many Japanese artists also started to make One Of A Kind BJDs out of LaDoll clay. There is a famous book written by Ryo Yoshida - "Ball Jointed Doll Making Guide" where the artist describes creating a BJD out of LaDoll. 

 

 

There are several similar products from Padico company in Japan: Paperclay, LaDoll and LaDoll Premix which is the mix of two. There are other self-hardening clays: Darwi, DAS, Dozen, and other kinds of cellulose based clays. Every clay has their pros and cons, here is a nice review on LaDoll Premix and Paperclay.

 

Though everything I tried had those nasty hairs in it. Remember, we have to prime our prototype for casting or to paint it. Every tiny hair is an obstacle making the surface rough, and adding more sanding work. 

 

Here is a cute dog made out of LaDoll Premix that is considered the best air-dry clay for BJD makers so far.

 

 

(source

 

See these tiny hairs? Just imagine that all the surface is covered in those here and there.

 

But I was lucky enough to find a clay that is strong, cheap and has a very fine structure. This wonder clay is Korean Mungyo Sculpt Dry. Just try this stuff and decide for yourself if it's worth attention.

 

It's really strong - and I compared it to Apoxie Sculpt. Paperclay and DAS were much much more fragile. 

 

It produces almost no hairs that are easily covered with one layer of acrylic paint applied with a brush, or one solid layer of primer out of a spray can.

 

It's about three times cheaper than LaDoll or Paperclay (the prices may vary depending on your local availability).

 

Mungyo Sculpt Dry is available in white and terracotta colors. White is better for a finished pieces, terracotta reveals details better. Also you can try to mix them to get a more –°aucasian skin-like color.

 

 

I made my Mr. Ropuha Toad prototype in Mungyo Sculpt Dry and sent it to be cast - received no objections from the caster.

Doll's height is 13 cm, and he has a lean fingers on his feet.

 

 

I molded those in plaster - here are preparations for making the mold...

 

 

...and retrieved the pieces out of the plaster with no major issues:

 

 

Just the paint stuck to the mold, and top layer of Mungyo was torn off in a few places, because the plaster molds were not dried thoroughly.

 

Making silicone molds should be no issue whatsoever, just my advice is to use a mold release.

 

Here is a female body that I was making out of Mungyo.

 

 

So, Mungyo is a cellulose based, hypoallergenic air dry clay that is good for everybody - from kids to sculptors.

 

Mungyo is easily soluble with water. When you work with it keep a bowl of water at your desk, so you can dip the pieces, wash your fingers and tools - the same as for Apoxie. Unlike Apoxie, it's hypoallergenic so you won't need gloves. 

 

When you open the pack and tear off a piece of clay it's better to add some water and to thoroughly knead the piece. You should feel and understand Mungyo, because if you add too little water - it feels like a stiff rubber, if you add too much water - you get a messy slip. But when the proportion is right the clay is very pleasant to the touch and easy to work with. 

 

Mungyo dries pretty fast on its surface, so if you kneaded too much clay wrap it into a cling wrap so it doesn't have contact with the air. The opened pack should be closed ASAP too. You can wrap it in a cling wrap too, for an easy access. When I finish my work I wet the surface of the clay from the opened side so it stays moist.

 

After Mungyo dries it can be soaked with water, and you get a soft clay for working again. It's both a huge advantage and disadvantage of this medium. If your pack was opened for too long or wasn't airtight you can get a huge hard brick of a dry clay. Don't worry, just wrap the clay into fabric or cotton discs generously soaked with water, leave it in a bag, repeat if needed: clay sucks the water in and gets moist again. A few days, and the clay is restored.

 

But if you made a doll out of Mungyo you should seal its surface with paint, varnish or primer, and please never submerge any pieces in water, as it sucks the water pretty fast! That means wet sanding is also impossible. Though you can smooth your sculpture with a wet cloth or wet fingers, and after the surface is relatively smooth you can perfect it with a fine sandpaper.

 

CAUTION! Please always wear a dust mask, no matter what you are sanding!

 

 

While Apoxie hardens through a chemical reaction Mungyo dries out starting from the surface. It's OK for thin layers, but layers over 1 cm thick may dry for days. My advice is to sculpt in layers thoroughly drying each layer.

 

Also Mungyo tends to crack, because it shrinks while dries. You can see a pretty obvious cracks on a doll body that I'm making:

I widen them with knives even further for my convenience and fill with more Mungyo.

 

 

Dried clay is easily cut with knives, drilled and so on. I prefer to sand my pieces roughly with 80-100 grit sandpaper and cut with knives by hand because the clay is really lightweight, and when you use a rotary equipment the dust is all over the workplace. Apoxie is much heavier, and the dust it produces doesn't spread as widely. 

 

When you have to apply additional layer over a dried piece wet the surface with your finger dipped in water, rub a surface a bit so the top layer of the clay begins to melt, and then add a new layer of clay. Though sometimes a top layer may peel off, especially if it's too thick. Thin layers blend smoothly, and the main dry piece sucks water from a new layer making it stick nicely.

 

Mungyo shrinks while it dries, and that means you have to add more layers and to correct the pieces if needed. I tried to make a hollow hemisphere for a big joints, but they not only shrank in size but deformed so I had to add clay on the outside and to smooth the surface.

 

 

When I decided to make a big doll I commissioned a set of templates out of 2 mm acrylic sheet, because it's hard to find a perfectly round balls of a big sizes, and paper templates won't work well with a wet clay. 

 

 

And then I discovered that the sharp edges of acrylic make it possible to even out the rough balls that I made out of Mungyo.

I wet the surface of the ball, let it soak water a bit, then lay acrylic template of a slightly smaller diameter than the ball itself and start peeling the wet layer off with circular movements. 

 

 

You get a perfectly round balls as a result. 

 

The easy way to make sockets is to make them slightly larger than the ball, covering the insides with a thin layer of wet clay, inserting a ball and gently pushing and rotating inside the socket. If you use a ball made of Mungyo you should protect it with something to prevent sticking of a wet clay. I usually wrap my balls of clay in a cling wrap.

 

One of local shops created this video review of Mungyo Sculpt Dry covering many topics that I described. Just a remark: it doesn't crack that bad if you work in layers and wet the clay creating a layer of slip between pieces.

 

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