Sculpting Technique and Super Sculpey

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The manufacture of stop frame puppets and maquettes involves sculpting, modelling, molding and casting and has lead to the figures and techniques shown here.

<Last Updated: Jan 27 2023

Sculpting Overview View larger image of Sculpting Overview.

Character Sculpting

The picture above shows some of the steps involved in creating a small figure. The molding and casting stage can be skipped if a polyurethane resin model is not required. Sculpting is done in Super Sculpey, a ceramic like modelling material. Sculpting is basically a process of adding material that is missing and removing material that shouldn't be there, using fine dental and wire loop tools . Some details may be better modeled in styrene and wire. Such as uniform details on Spock's uniform.

 digital puppets in AM

Digital sculpting in the 3D animation program Animation Master is not quite as direct and hands on, but in another sense, very similar. The time consuming part of 3D is if you can not do your modelling and mesh sculpting with a real-time 3D shaded form ( using 3D accelerator hardware , or whatever) you have to waste a lot of time doing preview renders to see what you are actually doing. Animation Master does have real-time shaded modelling, but of a reduced polygon model, so that sculpting with clay is now probably as or more frustrating than sculpting in 3D wire frames.

View larger image.

Some Characters from Science Fiction TV and Film

They range in scale from 1/9 to 1/5 and have been mostly sculpted in Super Sculpey. Miniatures can not rely on room or stage lighting to produce natural shadows. These effects must effectively be painted in a figure. I use Tamiya acrylics exclusively and 2 Tamiya airbrushes(SprayWorks and HG) and quality brushes. All the colors I use are mixed into the empty paint jars Tamiya also sell. The paint for the airbrush is thinned using Tamiya thinner, but when I use brushes I just use water, dispensed from a small 'oil can' like plastic bottle. Getting the right mix of water and paint for washes is critical, otherwise the wash dries as specks of paint. The Tamiya HG airbrush is a wonderful tool.If anyone is interested, I can put in complete 'making of' articles on the Babylon 5 figures at some later date.

In the book Building and Painting Scale Figures it is stated that painting with oils on sculpey can produce a white crusty surface layer at a later date. I use acrylics and have never witnessed this problem , so I can only conclude that Oils and Baked sculpey .are not a good combination.

The Babylon 5 figures were done when I only had a second generation copy on VHS tape of the pilot and one first season episode, and that resulted in quite a bit of guess work, and less than accurate representations. Good reference material is vital to life like, accurate sculptures.

Sculpting Technique

Steps, Materials and Tools Figure.

Here is a 'starters tools and materials ' article, as I found the most basic of what tools and materials to buy and where to start, missing in the format I would have liked to have seen when I first started.

There are many materials and techniques that can be used for sculpting, but there are 2 main approaches to sculpting used by Garage Kit figure makers. 'Form & Carve' and 'Form & Bake' style . The two approaches use a different set of tools, techniques and materials. I've tried both and suggest that you don't need to.

I originally started with the 'Form & Carve' approach.

'Form & Carve' starts with a clay like material usually called 'paper clay' in Japan. Some trade names are 'Formo', 'La Doll' and 'Fando'. Another material that is used the same way is Polly Putty. The various 'paper clays' all have different properties. Some can be wetted to allow fine detailing, but can not be sanded without becoming fuzzy. I had tried 5 makes of 'paper clay' before discovering that Fando has the best collection of characteristics . These clays usually dry as you work them and must be wetted as you work. The 'Form & Carve' technique can be stated as.. form the material into the very basic shape that you need. Let it dry ( overnight or a couple of days). Then with a good selection of fine carving tools,tiny chisels, knives,(motor tool), files and sandpaper, carve the rough shape to what you want. Fresh clay can be added a little at a time and detailed with dental tools ( before it drys out and gets unworkable), or allowed to dry and carved. Repeat until the desired form is achieved. It is a lot of work, and a lot of elbow grease is needed to carve and smooth the hard material if you aren't using a motor tool. It is also rather messy. An advantage with the hard material is that it isn't that easy to accidently damage the form as you work. I now think the 'Form & Bake' style is a lot easier and faster and makes no mess.

The 'Form & Bake' approach uses Super Sculpey. A modelling material made in the U.S.A. I wouldn't even bother looking at any other material.It is a flesh colored plasticine like material that is quite soft, but once it is baked in an oven at 135 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes it turns hard and can be carved and sanded. That it is very soft but can be made hard in 30 minutes or so is very very convenient. Sculpey allows very small quantities of material to be added easily. If you try that with 'paper clay' the material is almost dry and hard by the time you get around to adding it. Sculpey also doesn't require the elbow grease, but it does require a very delicate touch.

Head on stand being refined Head being built up on stand over a hard core.

First point to working with Super Sculpey is that you need wire loop tools. I wish someone had told me that the first time I tried using it. This is used for removing Sculpey without effecting other areas. It also allows Sculpey to be pushed around a bit for detailing. I have bought a collection of sculpting tools and have come to the conclusion that you can just about make or find any tool you need, and you don't know what tools you need until you have used some.

The mechanics of sculpting with Sculpey are : add some Sculpey, push it around with the tools, take some off with the wire loop tool. Repeat till required form achieved. There really isn't any other magic too the mechanics of sculpting. Smoothing the surface can be done with your finger, tools, a fine paint brush (with/without rubbing alcohol or laquer thinner) or bake it and use sandpaper.

Baked componentsBaked components, before bust is sanded and refined.

Because Super Sculpey is soft, interesting surface textures can also be applied by making a texture pad and pressing it to the area to be effected. A texture pad can be made by applying several layers of latex, or in my own case a flexible RTV putty material, to the texture you want and producing a small flat rubber mold of it. For example applying several layers of latex to several square inches of an orange will allow the orange texture to be easily applied to your sculpture to create, for example, an alien's skin texture. A collection of such tecture pads can be very handy.

The key to sculpting, or possibly the only real trick, is observation, and reference material. Reference material is pictures of the object or form your sculpting from every angle. This allows you to duplicate the reality without guessing. Very few people work without such photographic reference. The way hair is and falls, joints in limbs, folds in skin, leather and cloth can all be produced by just copying photographs of such things.

If you are doing a full figure then you need an amature for either approach. This is just twisted wire formed into a 'stick man' to give the modelling material a foundation. The stickman should be lashed around the feet wires through holes in the wooden base, so that if the lashes are cut, the finished figure can be removed from the base for painting or casting. When sculpting a head in Sculpey, a basic core can be formed and baked. This then allows the head to be built up on a solid foundation without it sliding around when trying to work it. A problem to be avoided with Sculpey is that it is very easy to damage a finished section while working on the next unless you use a stand to support the sculpture so that you do not have to touch it and can grip it firmly without touching it.

Click to view Bought and home made tools, and sculpting amature( 50k byte jpeg file) .

There are commercial wire loop tools by KEMPER, but I have made small versions using stainless steel wire, epoxy putty and disposable chopsticks. Carving styrene and disposable chopsticks can also produce some tools just perfect for the problem at hand. I put several coats of car primmer on such tools to seal the surface from the Sculpey. You end up buying interesting looking tools, but after a while you tend to settle on just the ones that get the job done.

If you are doing a full figure, you should do the head first and get the likeness right. The size of your work tends to change as you work on it. The Babylon 5 Mimbari figure started this way, but we all make mistakes! Marked in RED is the section of the body that is too long and out of scale. To fix it requires baking the Sculpey and using a saw to cut out the section to correct the proportions.

The twisted wire amature can also be seen in an early shot of a 3 legged creature from a first season Babylon 5 episode. You have to produce an amature that you can work the Super Sculpey into and onto to form a stable foundation. You cannot sculpt on something that is moving around all the time. The basic wire amature with a thin Sculpey covering can be baked once before you start on the real detailed surface sculpting.

completed spock bust Completed Spock bust

From here you need practice and patience.


Some books that may be useful: