Mandalorian Mysteries: Crafting the Armor

Members of “Talon Clan”, NC/SC chapter of the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club (Photo by Matt Zeher)

Members of “Talon Clan”, NC/SC chapter of the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club (Photo by Matt Zeher)

The #1 most asked question I receive from Star Wars fans: “Why do you like costuming as a Mandalorian, opposed to doing a screen character?”

It’s a very good question, and the answer has held true since my entry to Star Wars costuming: “It allows me the chance to put a character of my own into the Star Wars universe.” Unlike stormtroopers or Rebel Fleet Troopers, Mandalorians have always been a culture highly identified by their individualism and ingenuity. Those of us who don the armor of the nomadic warrior culture can identify with that sense of individualism, while also embracing our imaginations to create our own personalized character.

More than “just a costume”.

16th century depiction of European Blacksmiths vs. modern armor smithing used in Mandalorian armor design.

16th century depiction of European Blacksmiths vs. modern armor smithing used in Mandalorian armor design.

For me and many of my brother/sister Mandalorian costumers, creating our Mandalorian characters is more than just a costume. A good deal of this resides in the freedom to be unique, and think outside the box. There is inherently a part of ourselves in both the character and costume itself, our own personal slice of Star Wars, if you will.

In my case, I am a follower of “hyperrealism” in that my personal set of Mandalorian armor should look/feel/work as close to what you would find in the Star Wars Universe as possible. A large part of my goal is not just to be a Mandalorian fan, but to also help inspire more fans. In order to achieve this idea, I began using armorsmithing techniques from the middle-ages with some modern tools/techniques mixed in. “You can’t lead by example if you can’t be the example”; is a saying I like to use (and firmly believe in). The great thing about Mandalorian lore is that it tells us Mandalorian metalsmiths used very similar techniques to both past and modern metalsmiths of Earth. The ability to work Mandalorian Iron (also known as “Beskar”) has been explained as a closely guarded secret within the Mandalorian culture, a secret passed from one generation to the next. Ironically, there are less than a hand-full of people in the world who create Mandalorian armor sets using the same techniques our historical counterparts used to craft armor for Knights on horseback.

So, what goes into making these sets?

The evolution of my Mandalorian armor, from the first kit in 2007 (far left) to the latest version in 2014 (far right)

The evolution of my Mandalorian armor, from the first kit in 2007 (far left) to the latest version in 2014 (far right)

You have to start somewhere, and back in 2007 I really had no clue what I was getting myself into working on a Star Wars costume. Initially the desire came from wanting to emulate my character’s appearance from the Star Wars: Galaxies MMO. Over time my own armor sets grew as my knowledge, ability, and desire for more realism increased. A constant in Star Wars costuming is that you never finish upgrading until you’re ready to quit, and I’m currently working on my Mark 6 kit for Celebration Anaheim.

For me, building a set of armor takes several months and consists of several stages. The most important stage by far is the first stage; Planning. You have to start out with a mental image of the finished set before you can start working on it. Once I have the image locked in, the remaining steps come fairly easy.

Many times I’ll craft a set whose owner can’t come to me for measurements. In those cases, a tape-cast helps.

Many times I’ll craft a set whose owner can’t come to me for measurements. In those cases, a tape-cast helps.

Metal armor isn’t anything like plastic/fiberglass/ foam costume parts, one size never fits all. Each piece must be sized specifically for that person’s body, and I’ve never known two people whose plates weren’t shaped differently to fit. For the set to properly fit, move, and look correct on the wearer…measurements must be taken. When someone lives too far for that to be practical, I usually ask them to provide a duck-tape torso dummy of themselves to get those correct measurements. Unlike plastic/fiberglass/foam the wearer of a metal set can’t simply heat up the plates and change the form, so I take special care in making sure the wearer will be happy with the set they receive.

“Fluting” is an ancient armorsmithing technique that adds shape, definition, and strength to the armor plates.

“Fluting” is an ancient armorsmithing technique that adds shape, definition, and strength to the armor plates.

I make it a point to challenge myself in every set of Mandalorian armor I create, you can’t grow if you never push yourself to learn new things. Once piece of advice I give to new smiths entering craft is to never bite off more than you can chew. Nobody starts as a master and no true master calls themselves a “master”, you’ll go through a good amount of metal before you start feeling comfortable with your skills and technique. One of my favorite techniques is “fluting”, which consists of hammering shapes into the armor plates. The fluted shapes add both a decorative property, and help strengthen the piece from bending/warping.

A compilation of a few female armor sets I’ve crafted over the years.  Female armor is by far the most difficult to produce.

A compilation of a few female armor sets I’ve crafted over the years. Female armor is by far the most difficult to produce.

Female armor is by far the most difficult type or armor to create. My personal opinion on female Mandalorian armor is that it should be comfortable for the lady, without being overly feminine in appearance. Remember, it’s not what you wear…it’s how you wear it. Anyhow, female armor presents a challenge in that for it to sit properly it normally requires more cup and curve than male armor. This presents a challenge as you can easily over-stretch the metal which leads to tears. Tearing the metal means having to start over again on that plate, so my advice to the up-and-coming mando armorsmith is practice on scrap metal…a lot!

Armor parts made out of multiple pieces often times require welding skills for seamless construction

Armor parts made out of multiple pieces often times require welding skills for seamless construction

It only took about 2 years for me to feel really good about welding together cod armor and knee plates. Cod plates are not that difficult, being only two pieces of metal. Knee plates are a bit more on the intermediate side, as they can be complicated when you start adding extras like the dart launchers from Boba and Jango Fett’s armor. The most complicated and intricate pieces to weld are gauntlets, or lower arm armor (“vambraces” for you historical folk). Using my personal gauntlets as an example, each consists of around 13 different pieces of metal ranging from 8 inches x 6 inches to 1.5 inches x 1 inch. To weld them properly you must use a fairly thick metal, and I tend to stick with 18 gauge (1.25mm thick). They come out heavy, but in the immortal words of Kal Skirata; “Heavy is best!” Not having any formal training in welding, I taught myself by watching YouTube videos and practicing on scraps until I felt ready to take a leap of faith.

Comfort and movement are major factors when crafting armor. You don’t want to wear something that hurts, or hinders movement.

Comfort and movement are major factors when crafting armor. You don’t want to wear something that hurts, or hinders movement.

I can’t stress enough how important it is that your gear not feel too uncomfortable, or overly restrict your movement. Let’s be honest for a second; metal armor is not going to be completely comfortable. It doesn’t bend when you bend, and if it’s going to over-stress you before you over-stress it. While coming up with an idea for enclosed boot armor, I tried several variations until I settled on a design that worked. The trick is knowing “articulation” or creating joints in a way that doesn’t hinder movement or the armor’s ability to protect. To craft boot armor the way I did took 4 days to draw up pattern from an outline of my boots, plus another 4 weeks of testing various designs. The final product (middle picture above) is made out of 7 different pieces of metal, and you can see the articulation in the far right picture.

Yes, you can even make it “work”!

Your Mandalorian armor can be as simple or complex as you make it. Take my helmet for instance. Where does my head go?!

Your Mandalorian armor can be as simple or complex as you make it. Take my helmet for instance. Where does my head go?!

This goes back to my belief in “hyperrealism”, or making the armor as real as humanly possible. My absolute favorite part of armorsmithing is adding life to the armor itself, giving it functionality as close to the in-universe armor as possible. Adding functionality isn’t just cool, but it’s also highly useful when you’re going to be trooping in your kit for several hours. Over the years I’ve paid attention to how the armor diminishes my ability to do certain tasks, and then went back into the armory to find ways for the armor to accomplish those tasks for me.

A great example is hearing what’s going on outside the helmet. Wearing a Mandalorian helmet is a lot like wearing a bucket, you can’t hear what’s going on outside very well. To combat this problem, I added two sound amplification circuits that send 360 degrees of external sound directly to my ears. Have you ever tried to make a cell phone call or send a text message with helmet and gloves on? It’s pretty difficult, and to combat that I wired a Bluetooth headset directly too my external audio system. Now I can take/make cell phone calls and text messages without even using my hands.

One of the biggest issues with any armored costume (plastic, fiberglass, or metal) is the heat. You can get hot really fast, and sweating buckets while wearing your helmet is a huge issue. To combat the heat, I created a dual-speed fan system that pulls outside air in while pushing it over a small perforated steel sheet for better heat exchange.

Most of my electronics are built through trial-and-error, using parts from several boxes of scrap electronics I keep in the armory. I’m always working on making smaller, more efficient circuits that take less power and accomplish more tasks.

Here’s how you can learn some of the skills.

Just learning how to build a basic costume can sometimes be an extremely daunting task. There is so much to learn, and so many places to learn from. First and foremost you’ll need to figure out exactly what type of Star Wars costume you’re wanting to build. Do you want to be an agent of the Empire, or a hero of the Rebellion? Maybe you’re more like me, and hire your blaster to the highest bidder. Whichever route you take, there’s a community out there who can help you down the path.

501st

www.501st.com

If you like the “bad guys” of Star Wars ™, then the 501st is where you want to be.

RL

www.rebellegion.com

Home to Pilots, Smugglers, and Saber Jockeys of the Rebellion. Good guys apply here!

roundlogob

www.mandalorianmercs.com

If you heed the call of Mandalore, then you are always welcomed within.

TDEwww.thedarkempire.org

Custom Sith, Dark Jedi, and Grey Jedi can find a home within the temple walls.

tdhwww.thedentedhelmet.com

The absolute best online resource for info and help with Boba and Jango Fett costumes.

rpfwww.therpf.com

And if you want to tempt fate and try your hand at crafting metal armor, there are several videos on my Ustream channel that can help you get started.

You can also watch this YouTube series that was put out by a good friend and fellow armorsmith.

Happy armoring!

Tom Hutchens is the founder of the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club. You can follow his antics as “Mandalore the Uniter” on Facebook.

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