One our favorite traditions in the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club is to honor our allies and friends with their very own piece of Mandalorian armor, normally in the form of a helmet. Dave Filoni, Katie Sackhoff, Simon Pegg, Vanessa Marshall, and Tiya Sircar are just a few of the individuals we’ve been able to thank this way over the years. There’s a feeling of “awesomness” you get when you’re wearing a Mandalorian helmet, plus they work great for walking around conventions “incognito” (as Simon Pegg learned at San Diego ComicCon in 2013).
Sometimes the rare opportunity comes along when a friend has earned a place among our family, and we bestow upon them the gift of armor. This is the story of former Lucasfilm Events Lead Mary Franklin (now managing Star Wars Celebration for ReedPop), and her gift of armor.
I first met Mary via an email conversation back in June of 2007. There was no instruction manual for starting a Star Wars fan group, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t breaking any laws that might get someone in trouble. After asking a few of my friends in other groups, someone was able to send me an email address for an employee at LFL named Mary Franklin. Mary was very instrumental in helping MMCC get up and running, weather it was the use of licensed material or event protocol. In 2009 it was an honor to induct her as one of MMCC’s first Honorary Members, which was a small “thanks” for all the help she had been.
When MMCC’s European Clans were hard at work preparing for Celebration Europe 2 in 2013, it was decided that we would give Mary her own customized Mandalorian helmet as a “thank you” for everything she has done for Star Wars and our group. It wasn’t long after CE2 that some internal discussion began about creating a set of armor to match her helmet, and I really didn’t need any convincing on how good of an idea that was.
As with any set of armor I craft, the first thing you need is inspiration. What does the future owner like, and how can I incorporate some of that into the armor and make it look like a Star Wars character? After some discussion with Mary, we had our Art Team go to work on a concept sketch. We found out that Mary is a big fan of Gladiators, and wanted to work some of that into the concept and hopefully final product.
Once she signed off on the concept, it was passed over to me so the fabrication could begin. Concept art is meant to inspire a final product, and with that in mind I knew that some things would work while others wouldn’t. Unlike plastic or other materials commonly used for costumes, steel is a fickle beast that demands respect of both the crafter and wearer. Another issue that needed to be addressed is that female armor made of steel should ideally be crafted to work with the natural curves of their body. Getting those curves correct requires measurements and several test fits, but Mary being across the country from me presented a rather large problem. How would I get the measurements and test-fits required? I reached out to MMCC’s Haran’Galaar Clan in San Diego California, and they were able to schedule some time with Mary during San Diego ComicCon to create a duct tape cast of her upper body (You can read a short blurb about it in Star Wars Insider #155). This type of cast is invaluable when can’t have the person in-shop for measurement and fittings.
So now it’s time to take a trip with me into my “Mandalorian Armory”.
The first step in creating a set of armor is choosing the proper metal. Because I don’t expect this to be “combat” grade, I stick with a metal that is thick but easier to manipulate cold. Most of the sets I craft are made out of cold-rolled sheet steel, because cold-rolled steel has a higher tensile strength than other non-spring steel varieties. To conserve metal I trace my patterns very tightly, leaving minimum space between each. A good portion of my patterns are hand-drawn, especially for female armor. Patterning (the art of creating patterns) is the single most time consuming and complicated part of the armoring process. Each pattern must account for sizing, movement, and metal shrinkage…one does not simple draw a 2D shape and expect it to translate easily into 3 dimensions.
Once patterns are traced, it’s time to cut. I use a pair of electric throatless sheers when cutting metal, they go effortlessly through the 18 gauge (1.25mm thick) steel or 14 gauge (2mm thick) aluminum I use for armor. I do a general cut first, leaving a metal border around each piece before going back and doing a detail cut to remove the border. After that, it’s a quick check around the edges for burrs (barbs sometimes made during cutting) and then it’s time to pay a visit to “Old Betsy”.
These days I mostly use my pneumatic power hammer for shaping, but for super-special occasions I go back to my roots and use the dishing stump. This has been the preferred method of adding complex curves to metal for the last several thousand years, and any Armorsmith worth their salt has some sort of dishing (sometimes called “doming) utensil in the shop. Those who use stumps mostly prefer hardwoods, but I’ve found pine to absorb hammer blows much better and doesn’t dent/mar the metal nearly as bad.
I have 3 different grades of bowl-shaped indentions carved into the stump’s surface, they range from deep to shallow and their use depends on how much curve is required. Normally I use the medium and shallow bowls, the deep bowl is strictly for helmets (I’ve never crafted a Mandalorian helmet out of metal).
Depending on the piece, it can take from 1 to several hours of hammering to get the proper shape. Female armor always takes the most time, because of the curve needed by the chest plates to sit properly and move comfortably. Even using the power hammer it takes around 6 hours to complete 2 female chest plates, by hand it takes around 12 hours. That’s 12 hours to produce two pieces, which still have to go through a “finishing” process. When I first started making metal Mandalorian armor, it took days to make those two pieces.
Metal naturally curls along the edges as it’s dished, and you have to combat that curl by hammering it out. If you’re not careful you’ll accidentally hammer in the dished area and warp the piece, which then requires time to knock back out. The more you do it, the better you get at gauging where and how hard to hit. These days I can gauge everything just by feeling how the hammer hits the metal, and listening to the sound it makes. Once piece is curved appropriately, it’s off to the forming stake to refine and smooth up.
I have several forming stakes that range from big (10lbs) to tiny (14 oz), and each one has a specific function. Normally I use the medium-sized stakes, which are re-purposed auto body dollies. The function of the forming stake is to get that finished complex curve/shape, smooth out hammer marks, and straighten the edges. This part of the process doesn’t normally take very long, an hour or less depending on the piece.
forming is completed, it’s time to do the finishing process that will make the armor part complete and ready to paint. The finishing process consists of removing all sharp areas by rounding the edges and corners. I use a hand file to round the corners, and also work out any edge dings. Once that’s done, I use a wire wheel attachment on my drill press to smooth out the edges and shine up the top/bottom of the plate. At the end of this process, you have a completed piece of “Beskar’gam” or Mandalorian armor.
Building off the “Gladiator” concept of this build, I wanted to incorporate leather parts as well. There’s lots of leather used in Star Wars, and it’s a material that I’ve learned to use well over the years. While looking for inspirations, I remembered a female Mandalorian from the recent Darth Maul comics who was drawn with long wing-like “tassets” (thigh/groin/waist armor) on her armor. While those tassets weren’t practical for real-world armor, they were perfect inspiration for something similar.
So it was back to creating patterns for a specific look I wanted to achieve. These pieces had to move easily, so I already knew that would need to be segmented and free-flowing. However they also had to add an armored element other than thick leather, so I knew they would need to incorporate steel as well. Lastly I needed to keep them light enough so they could be attached to a belt, and not cause the belt to sag.
There really isn’t that much difference between metal and leather when crafting armor. Metal requires lots of heavy blunt tools, while leather requires lots of light sharp tools. Both require equal amounts of care for yourself when working with them.
As you can probably tell, a great amount of care goes into creating one of these sets. I tend to joke about it being a great outlet for my ADHD, but in truth it is very much a labor of love. Just like any skill you learn throughout your life, it requires patience and repetition to grow.
Stay tuned for the completed set in Part 2!