Building My Torso

By Steve Tanner

First, I have to say that this was without a doubt the most difficult item that I had to build. It took more hours than I ever imagined it would and many times during the process I asked myself, "Are you SURE you can't afford to buy one?". Whenever someone asks me about the torso, my first suggestion is "Buy one if you can!" With that said (and after finishing my torso) I feel I could make another much easier and faster. I made my mistakes along the way and flew by the seat of my pants for most of the project, not knowing how I was going to do the next area until I got to it.

It may have been the most difficult to build, but it is definitely the most rewarding. Hopefully, my method (and those of other builders) will make the job much easier for anyone else who attempts this.

Other builders who are making their own torsos are using various methods (including foam for the top & bottom rings or "domes"). I went my own way because I felt I could get the curves of the rings shaped more easily & keep them consistent by using a spreader of the correct shape & Bondo. (I'm very limited in the tools department, too!) Check Dave Painter's construction techniques on the B9 Builders web site. This was where I started. It gave me a good overall idea of what I was getting into.

On with the step-by-step of how I made my torso:

Step 1 - Buy Dave Painter's drawings. These are absolutely essential!!!! I could have included the dimensions of the torso from my set of drawings but I'd be doing you a disservice. Having a set of 1:1 scale drawings at your disposal is worth every penny. If you REALLY want to build the torso, you're going to save enough money, so don't be cheap… the drawings! Many, many thanks to Dave!

Step 2 - I started with the same basic methods that Dave Painter used to build his (see his pages on the site). I ended up going my own way, though, on some of the stuff. I started with the upper & lower "rings". The curved or rounded sections at the top & bottom of the torso. These consisted of 4 circles of wood (2 for each ring or dome). Since this consists of some rather large circles and most of us don't have giant compasses for drawing them, I made a simple compass out of a strip of 1/16" scrap styrene. I cut a 2" wide strip about 16" long. I put a drywall screw through one end, so the tip just poked through. This is the pivot point for drawing the circle. Then for each diameter that I needed, I measured from the pivot point ½ of the diameter needed, drilled out a small hole, and put the tip of my pencil through it. The point of the drywall screw is sharp, so it was easy to hold in place while I traced the circle with the pencil. My "compass" now has about 15 different holes in it from all the different sized circles I had to draw!

See Figure 1: The top circle is made from 2 pieces of ½" plywood laminated together (using wood glue & clamps) to make it 1" thick. Glue them together before cutting! The next circle is made from ¾" birch plywood. I chose birch plywood because the finished sides are very smooth & the grain is very tight, making it easy to finish. The edges, however become "fuzzy" when sanded, so you need to coat them with fiberglass resin to get a good, smooth finish. The 2 circles are separated by three 2" x 2" supports which were glued into place and secured with drywall screws. Only 3 were used so they would not interfere with the neon opening in the front.

The top circle of the lower ring is also made from ¾" birch plywood. The last circle (on the bottom) is made from ½" plywood. These 2 circles are separated by four 2" x 2" supports. I made sure they were evenly spaced so they wouldn't interfere with the four vent openings of the bottom ring. I left the bottom of my torso solid, except for a 4" diameter hole to feed wiring through, etc. I didn't see a need to make a large opening since I don't plan to wear it as a costume.

Make sure you cut out the centers of each circle to the same diameter! This will help you line up the rings when you have to join them together! Also, when you cut out the circles, mark them on the edges to help align them later. Do this by drawing a line straight across the center of the ring (front to back), then bisect that line (using a T-square) directly across to the sides. This way you'll have four marks showing the center line of the front, back and both sides.

Both of the rings were made in the following fashion:

Also in Figure 1: Approximately 20 forms were cut out of corrugated cardboard (from an old cardboard box) to match the curve of the torso rings. I reduced the size (but keeping the same curve) by approximately 1/4" to allow for the thickness of the fiberglass mat & Bondo to be applied later. I placed these cutouts evenly along the rings and glued them into place with a couple of drops of wood glue to hold them (temporarily). Then I placed strips of masking tape across the cutouts to "bridge" the gaps and provide a basic support for the fiberglass mat. I balled up some pieces of newspaper to also support the centers of the tape, being careful not to raise it up too high. I cut the fiberglass mat (available from most auto parts stores) into strips approximately 2" wide & 6"to 8" long.

I soaked the strips of mat with resin and laid them over the cutouts & masking tape. It's very difficult to cover it entirely, but 2 layers should get most of it, leaving only small holes that can be filled later with Bondo. (When it came to filling larger openings where the fiberglass mat didn't cover, I applied more masking tape from the inside to keep the Bondo from oozing through until it cured) **Be sure to keep the fiberglass mat flat. It will try to buckle a little around the curves & you don't want it to stick up beyond the 1/4" you allowed for the thickness of the fiberglass & Bondo. If it does, the areas that protrude can be trimmed off later.

Once the fiberglass has set, it will look horrible. It flattens out between the cutouts, etc. but you will begin to see the shape you're going for. Next comes the Bondo.

See Figure 2: I made a "spreader" to apply the Bondo for each ring, since they are different in size, curve & shape. I took a piece of 1/16" styrene plastic (scrap left over from my pedestal covering & brain) and cut out a curve to match the curve of the ring (dome). This was easy using Dave Painter's drawings. I also cut out a guide notch in the top & bottom of the spreader to rest on the wood portions of the rings, keeping them in the proper position. I gave the spreaders support by gluing a couple of popsicle sticks to one side. I used styrene for the spreader because the Bondo doesn't adhere to it well, so it was easier to keep the Bondo from building up on it while working.

***Be sure to clean the spreader between batches of Bondo so you don't get any build up. This will cause lines & streaks in the Bondo if there are even small, hardened pieces on the spreader. Also clean off your mixing palette. I used a non-stick cookie sheet for my mixing palette. It's only about $1.50 at the supermarket and it was very easy to keep clean!

I mixed the Bondo in relatively large amounts (4 tablespoons at a time) since there is a lot of filling to be done. I used almost 2 gallons of Bondo, although a great deal of it was waste. To limit your waste, you may want to take your time and use smaller amounts of Bondo. Slap on the Bondo and use the spreader to even it out. It will take several coats to get it completely filled & shaped, so take your time. You're much better off applying more coats than having to sand down excess. You will also end up with a better shape since the Bondo does shrink up a little when curing.

After the Bondo is applied, you may notice some lines caused by the spreading, maybe a low spot or two. No big deal. Since you used the spreader, you know that there's no way the Bondo is too high in any of the areas, so FILL the low areas, using the spreader to maintain the shape. Don't try to sand it smooth yet! You want to be able to hand-sand the Bondo smooth. You don't want to try to sand it to get the correct shape! DO NOT USE an electric sander for this! It will give you flat spots! Fill the smaller grooves, air holes, etc. with Bondo Glazing & Spot putty.

Step 3 - Attaching scrap plywood for the "skin" to be attached to. (See Figure 3) Using the measurements from the drawings, you will see that the skin of the torso is attached approximately ½" in from the outside edge. I made a paper template for these circles. I took the outside diameter of the ring and subtracted the measurement of the "recess" x 2 plus the thickness of my skin material x 2. If the outside diameter is 27.75", the skin is recessed ½" and my skin material is 1/8" thick, then I subtracted 1" for the recess & ¼" for the skin material to give me 26.5". **These measurements aren't the actual sizes. They're just for illustration purposes.

I drew & cut out a 26.5" circle using a piece of stiff paper. I used a sheet of 65# (65 pound) cover stock. It's available in 23" x 35" sheets and is available from most commercial printing companies and they probably will just give you a few sheets. I placed the template on the bottom of the top ring and traced it onto it. Now you'll have the position for the wood pieces. I used some scrap ½" plywood for the pieces that the skin will attach to. Use the same template to cut out the pieces so the curve will match. I used about 8 small pieces to go all the way around each ring.

**Make sure you don't put any where your neon opening will be (top ring) or chest panel (bottom ring) & leave room for your vertical supports that will connect the two rings. These small pieces don't have to fully encompass the entire circle, since the skin material will be stiff enough to follow the curve. Just use as many pieces as you can without interfering with the openings or supports. After you cut out the little curved pieces of plywood, glue them in place with some wood glue along the line that you drew. I didn't use any nails for these small pieces. Wood glue alone is good enough.

Step 4 - Cutting out the neon opening. I did this before attaching the rings together since wood has to be removed from the bottom of the upper ring. Trace out your opening before cutting. Make sure it looks right! I drilled small holes along the lines (remember to stay INSIDE the opening!) then I used a small coping saw blade to "connect the dots" to make the opening. A jig saw blade attached firmly (using tape?) to a handle of some type would probably work as well. I just held the saw blade in my hand and it cut through pretty easily. Once this is cut out, you'll notice that the thickness of the Bondo / fiberglass varies. The vent & neon openings are the only place where this is a concern, but it can be corrected. More on this later. (For cutting out the vent openings in the lower ring, I used a cutting disc on my dremel tool since these are fairly straight cuts.)

Now you have to remove a chunk of wood from the bottom of the ring where the neon opening is. BE CAREFUL!!! Mark the area to be cut out, removing the wood as close to the skin as possible so your neon tubes will fit right. When cutting, angle your jig saw or whatever you're using so the blade won't punch through the fiberglass & Bondo! I didn't push my luck and just used a grinding attachment on my dremel tool once I got close to the edges so I wouldn't cause any damage. It took some time, but not as much as having to fill & re-shape the Bondo!

Step 5 - Attaching the rings together. Again, I used 2" x 2" supports (three of them) to attach the upper & lower rings. Since the centers of each ring were cut to the same diameter, positioning them was fairly easy. I made a tube out of stiff paper to the proper diameter to fit inside the rings.

I attached the first support to the bottom ring at the back (exactly on the center line that I drew on the circle). I used wood glue & a couple of small L-brackets. I then attached each of the other 2 supports at the sides, just behind the center lines so they wouldn't interfere with the arm hole openings. **Consult Dave Painter's drawings (side view) so you can see the clearance necessary. The back piece of the arm sockets can attach to these 2 supports, so consider their placement (don't forget to allow for the thickness of the wood for the back piece of the arm socket).

Next, I placed the paper tube inside the bottom ring and set the top ring onto the supports and over the tube. Since all of the supports are toward the back, the upper ring will tend to tip toward the front when you let go of it. I placed a 10-pound weight from my weight set on the back of the top ring to keep it from toppling off. Don't glue it yet. You want to position and mark it first. I found that the wood glue set up very quickly, making it tough to reposition the upper ring if the glue is applied before your position is correct.

Then, as a double-check, I used those center lines that I drew on the edges of the rings to make sure it was correctly in place. I made some home-made plumb bobs using string and some washers. I tied a washer to the end of the string and taped the string to the top ring, directly over the centering line that I drew. I made the string long enough so that the washer hung below the top circle of the lower ring. Since the upper ring is larger in diameter than the bottom ring, the washer & string hang freely. I then taped 3 more plumb bobs over the other three centering rings. Once the washers stop swaying, they should each hang directly over the centering lines of the lower ring. Adjust the position of the upper ring until they all line up.

Once the upper ring is in the correct position, mark the position of the supports where they contact the bottom of the upper ring. This is because you have to remove the upper ring to apply the wood glue and you want to mark the position. Apply the wood glue to the tops of the 3 supports and set the upper ring on top making sure it is positioned correctly as you had marked it. Place a weight on top to hold the back of the upper ring down and wait for the glue to set (30 minutes should be enough). After the glue has set well enough so it won't move, attach a couple of L-brackets to secure it in place. I don't know if this is really necessary, but considering the amount of work I had into my torso to this point, I was leaving nothing to chance!

Step 6 - Attaching the skin. For my torso, I used 1/16" ABS plastic. This was both good & bad. The good part, it's flexible enough to wrap around the torso, yet stiff enough not to flex after it was in place. The bad part, Bondo doesn't stick to plastic very well AT ALL! The ABS plastic sheet that I used was a 2' x 8' sheet and has a textured side and a glass-smooth finished side. I used the smooth side out, which made it even harder for the Bondo to work. (The Bondo is needed for the ribbing around the arm holes and to fill in any gaps where the skin meets the rings)

Roughing up the plastic helps a little, but not much. Wood would be a better, but I made the plastic work pretty well, which I'll explain later. I just found the plastic much easier to work with overall with very little finishing needed.

First, you need to make a template for the skin. Since the upper and lower rings are different in size, the torso tapers out at the top. I used the same 65# paper for my template. I just wrapped pieces of the paper around the torso, attaching it with staples and tape, trimming it as needed and taping the pieces together. It's kind of tricky, especially if you use a flimsy paper. Once all of the pieces are in place, wrapped all the way around the torso & taped together, take it off and you should have a long, slightly curved template. Trace this onto your skin material (plastic or wood) and cut it out. I had no trouble cutting the ABS plastic with a small pair of snips (I got them from a gardening center…they're used for pruning bonsai trees).

Once I got the plastic cut out, I stapled it in place at the front (where the chest panel opening is) and test-wrapped it around. It fit perfectly, although there were some minor gaps at the top & bottom, but easily filled with Bondo. I then glued it in place with Plumber's GOOP and stapled the other end to hold it in place at the other side of the chest panel opening. I was amazed at how well it wrapped & stayed in place with just 4 staples! The GOOP really holds it well! If your using wood for the skin, use wood glue instead of GOOP.

Once the GOOP has set (I waited overnight), mark & trim the plastic around the chest panel opening. I used a cutting disc with my dremel tool. It's also OK to remove the staples now.

Step 7 - Cutting out the arm holes. Using the marks on the upper & lower rings I had drawn earlier, I had centering lines to work with. Dave Painter's drawings show where the arm openings are in relation to the chest panel, distance from the center of the torso side, top & bottom, curve radius and height of the opening. Again, the drawings came in extremely handy!

I started with a template. Since the distance between the upper & lower rings is 11", I used some 8.5" x 11" copy paper for the template. I just had to make sure I centered the template on the paper (centered top to bottom) and it would be centered on the torso. Since Dave's drawings are 1:1 scale, it was easy to simply trace the curves in the arm openings!

On a piece of paper, I traced out the front & back curves and extended the straight top & bottom lines a couple of inches each. I cut them out & taped them to the skin of the torso where shown on Dave's drawings. Now I had 2 "D" shaped pieces on the skin. All I had to do next was put a third piece of paper in the middle and tape all 3 pieces together and connect the top & bottom lines. I removed the 3-piece template (taped together) and drew a straight line to connect the top and bottom lines of the template. I cut it out, taped it back in place and traced it onto the skin. Then it was just a matter of cutting it out. Again I used the cutting disc on my dremel tool, except for the curved areas. For these, I used a spiral cutting bit on the dremel. I used a slow speed for both accuracy & to keep the heat down so the plastic wouldn't melt. The hand-held saw blade method used for cutting out the neon opening would work here too.

Now make the back panel inside the arm sockets. I attached a piece of scrap wood to the torso supports on each side. These would be the backs of my arm sockets. NOTE: I made my arm sockets much deeper than the original. This was done to accommodate the spiral arm hose I am using. It doesn't collapse very far. When real rubber arms are available, I'll fix mine by installing a plate further forward.

I made a paper template for the skin inside the arm sockets with the same stiff 65# cover stock. Dave Painter used manila file folders for his and they would also work great. From these templates, I made the skins from 1/16" styrene plastic. (I bought a big sheet for covering my pedestal sections. It worked out well since the leftovers came in very handy on other stuff!) I used Plumber's GOOP to glue it in place.

Step 8 - The chest panel. I first put in a curved panel that matched the curve of the torso. I then test fitted the 2 large chest lights and it just didn't look right to me. They seemed to point too far out to the sides. This would be a good question to ask the guys who own an accurate torso. I ended up using a fairly flat panel. First I cut out a panel of the correct size from a piece of ¼" hard board. Then I cut out the holes for the lights and chest buttons. Dave's drawings show size & position. Since I already had the 12 belly lights and 2 large chest lights, I knew the size that the holes needed to be. (The Sylvania belly light bases fit a 13/16" hole. I drilled these by first marking the centers and drilling a small pilot hole. If these aren't lined up & evenly spaced, it will look bad!)

My suggestion is make the panel look right BEFORE you mount the panel! It's much easier to drill, etc. before you put it in and it's easier to re-make it if you mess it up.

I made my panel just a little wider that the opening in the skin. To get a slight curve, I put a thin layer of Bondo (1/4") over the surface and covered it with a piece of 1/16" styrene plastic. Before the Bondo set, I worked the plastic down carefully from the middle towards the sides to give it a curved front. As it started to set, I flipped it over onto the plastic side and rocked it back & forth to even out the curve. I removed any excess Bondo before it set in the light holes. After the Bondo had set completely (I waited a few hours to be sure) I opened the holes that I had cut by cutting through the plastic from the back. The extra bonus of the plastic is no finishing required!

I mounted the panel perfectly vertical. I used wood glue at the bottom edge of the panel and slid it forward until it touched the inside of the torso skin. I used a can of wood filler (anything will do that has a little weight) to hold it perfectly vertical. The can, which has a lip at the top and bottom, was perfect. Since the lips were of the same size and they both made contact with the panel, all I had to do was to slide it against the panel from behind. The skin held the panel at the front & the can held it from the back & kept it at 90 degrees vertical. Once the glue dried, I removed the can and put a heavy bead of wood glue along the bottom, inside edge of the panel for insurance.

The rest is basically easy. I used some ½" square plastic rod for the ribbing at the sides of the chest panel and a piece of ½" plexiglass across the top. I later noticed that these are incorrect widths! I took these measurements from Dave's drawings, but they are too wide! If you compare my photos to the original, you'll see that the ribbing on the original is more narrow. A fellow club member measured his torso (from Dewey) and these measured .424"

I glued in the 2 sides with Plumber's GOOP. Then I attached the piece that goes across the top to the side pieces & the panel itself, also with GOOP. Now the panel is secure. All gaps were filled in with Bondo.

Step 9 - The ribbing. Since I had already made the mistake in the width of the panel ribbing, I decided to keep it consistent when I did the rest. I used Dave Painter's method of using foam weather stripping to make channels for the ribbing and filled the channels with Bondo. Very important: Remove the foam before the Bondo sets completely! If you don't, you'll have to pick little bits of foam out of the Bondo because it will stick to the foam. This is a ROYAL PAIN!!!! Remove the foam when the Bondo becomes stiff.

I used 4 rolls of weather stripping, but if you remove it carefully before the Bondo hardens, you can re-use some strips. It's cheap stuff, though, so don't skimp.

The ribbing around the arm sockets was the only tricky part since I had to get the Bondo to stick to plastic. First, I marked the area where the ribbing was to go. Then I roughed it up with some course sandpaper (60 grit). Then (and this was key) I drilled many, many small holes through the plastic with the smallest drill bit I had. Now that the Bondo/ribbing area was perforated, the Bondo could be embedded into the drilled holes, flowing slightly around the insides of the tiny holes, locking it in place when it cured. This worked very, very well.

Remember those nasty areas where the thickness of the Bondo varied from making the curved surfaces on the upper & lower torso rings? I fixed these by using strips of styrene plastic to make small forms that I taped in place. Fill in the gaps to even out the thickness and remove the strips when the Bondo becomes firm (but before it's completely set).

The rest was just finishing work (tons of sanding & filling) where needed. Bondo Spot & Glazing Putty worked great for smoothing out corner areas too. I applied it with my finger tips to get a smooth fill in areas where there were corners.


The rest of the photos are of the torso in various stages of completion: