One of my clearest memories of Star Wars was immediately after the film ended: I drove home with my dad, and thought of how cool it would be to be one of the guys in the cool white armor. Never mind that they were the bad guys - they just looked awesome.
Fast-forward several years, and I found the 501st Legion - a local member had come for a high school concert, and I purchased my first set of Stormtrooper armor from him. I put it together and ‘trooped’ (what we in the 501st Legion call suiting up for an invited event) a hundred times in the next decade.
The time has come for me to replace my old FX armor, and I’m going to run a somewhat regular feature here on the weekends, to show what goes into assembling a suit of Storm Trooper armor. It’s a fun, do-it-yourself (mostly) project that’s a good entry point into the higher-end costume scene. I’ve picked up a fan sculpted suit that I’ll be constructing to use in the future.
A couple of disclaimers: I’m not pretending to be an expert in this, and I’m not an authority on where to buy armor. A couple of great starting points are the First Stormtrooper Infantry Detachment (the Stormtrooper-specific detachment of the 501st Legion) and the RPF (Replica Props Forum). These are great places to check out and to conduct a little research into what type of suit (more on that in a moment) is best for you, and what goes into assembling it. Finally, what I’m going to go over isn’t necessarily a foolproof set of directions for joining a group like the 501st Legion.
I recently purchased an MTK armor kit: a set of rough parts that I need to assemble myself. The stormtrooper armor you see in A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were all created by vacuum forming plastic sheets. Plastic is softened in an overhead heating unit, and pulled over a buck and a unit that can suck the plastic down over it. The process gives you the individual piece of armor embedded in the middle of a sheet of plastic. Here’s how the original helmets were sculpted, from start to finish.
A vacuum former is commonly used in industry, but it’s a piece of equipment that you can make yourself, if you’re sufficiently motivated. In the late 1990s, before there were enormous fan groups that made it relatively easy to find kits of armor, a number of people built their suits from scratch, sculpting each piece themselves, based on the reference photos in books and from the films themselves. Vacuum form the parts, and you have a suit.
In my case, I opted to buy a kit of a certain fan sculpt. Since the original release of the films, there’s been a number of fan sculpts that have existed out there, either deriving from reference pictures, or from measurements taken from the original suits themselves. There’s also some official licensed suits out there from professional costume makers such as Rubies or Anovos.
The suit I started with was called FX, an extremely popular set of armor because of its price point and availability. I plunked down my money and it arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks later, pre-trimmed and ready to be assembled. This particular set of armor wasn’t entirely accurate, according to StarWarsHelmets.com:
It’s not as movie-accurate as a number of other designs, and this is because it was specifically sculpted, rather than copied directly of an original helmet/mold.
FX armor itself came from an earlier suit, known as Marco armor, which it improved upon. In particular, the helmet was a bit oversized, and the dome was slightly flattened on the top, which makes it easy to spot in a crowd of Stormtroopers at your local convention. Later, the maker replaced the helmet with something derived from props. The FX Model of armor was later discontinued in favor of other, more accurately sculpted styles of armor: ATA (Affordable Trooper Armor), TM (Troopermaster), AP (Authentic Props) and RS (the only armor that’s been sculpted directly from the original molds). More recently, companies such as Anovos have gotten into the game with kits of their own, which have reportedly been sculpted based the original suits in Lucasfilm’s archives. StarWarsHelmets has some more detail on some of the history on various suit types.
The newer suits of armor tend to be more accurate. The original movie props weren’t perfect: many of the helmets were slightly asymmetrical, had bumps, flaws and other minor problems that don’t necessarily get noticed on the screen. When it comes to replicating movie props, screen accuracy is an important thing to keep in mind, because this is what helps to inform what you see on the screen. The final stormtrooper armor for A New Hope was sculpted by Andrew Ainsworth (based on earlier sculpts by Liz Moore and Brian Muir and based on designed by Ralph McQuarrie) and was put together quickly. As a result, the suits are less idealized than one would think.
In the coming weeks, I’ll document my progress in constructing my own set of armor from the rough kit that I received. The first step? Trimming. There are 32 individual parts that make up the armor, and they all need to have the excess plastic cut off around the actual part before you can do anything with it. I use heavy-duty cutters (some people use a small saw), and I’ll follow up with a dremel and sandpaper to smooth the edges.
Next week: trimming, reference pictures and more.
Image credit: Hayes Johnson