(Or for those of us who have trouble learning without making the mistake first.)

• Start building from the interior-out

There’s nothing worse than spending days working on a prop only to discover that there’s not enough room inside it for some crucial detail. Case in point: the AEP Laser Pistol. I built up the main body of the gun but when it came time to make the battery fit inside, there wasn’t enough room! I ended up Dremeling out space for it but it would have saved a lot of work and time to know to use a thinner MDF for the gun’s body.

• Build the basic shapes before you worry about details

The temptation is to completely finish a part with all its fun detail once you start. But if the part doesn’t fit where it needs to or it’s the wrong size, all that finishing time is a waste. It’s better to build the basic pieces so you can see how everything will fit together. Decorate once you’re satisfied that.

• Don’t glue anything until it’s absolutely necessary

Test fitting will save you hours of work. The best way to build is with screws, bolts and pins so that if you need to get into a small recess, you simply disassemble. Some parts will just have to be permanently attached to proceed but there’s no reason to limit your options unnecessarily.

• Some details won’t make sense until you get there…don’t let unknowns keep you from starting

When you’re doing your research and drawing out your plans, there will be details that just look like blobs, especially if you’re working from screen caps. Take your best guess at drawing them and move on. Once you start building, those pieces will make more sense as you see what everything else is doing.

• Don’t be afraid to re-build

You’re almost done and suddenly you realize a part that you slaved over is just plain wrong! As painful as it is, you should just accept the fact that you’ll have to re-build it (as I just experience with the Yu-Gi-Oh cuff). The bright side is that you’ll build twice as fast and it will turn out twice as good. And remember, if you don’t, that detail will be the only thing you notice every time you look at it.

• Don’t get intimidated. Take it one step at a time

The biggest prop build can be broken down into little steps. Focus on completing each part and don’t sweat the enormity of the project.

• Don’t buy a tool or supply until you need it

There are many ways to build any object. If I bought all my supplies at the beginning, I’d have to return half of it because I will have found a different, better way to build it. This will also keep you from buying tools just because you want them.

• Work consistently

Set up a work schedule and stick to it. The more you delay, the more likely you’ll never finish it.

• If you don’t know, ASK!

Thanks to the Internet, you have a whole planet full of prop makers to consult with. Forums like The Replica Prop Forum and Blaster Builder’s Club are great resources for advice. In my experience, you can get answers to your questions within a few hours.

• “What one man can do, any man can do!” (to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, “The Edge”)

Even experts started where you are. You CAN build it if you work hard enough!

• BE PATIENT!

Some days nothing seems to go right. Or you’ve got a headache that just won’t go away. Or there’s some personal issue that’s bugging you. Recognize the symptoms and put the tools down before they go flying across the room.

• Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you suck

Don’t be discouraged by false starts, screw-ups and epic fail. Figure out what went wrong and do it again.

• GO BUILD SOMETHING!

Your full-size Battle Droid isn’t going to build itself…get started, already!

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10 Responses to Building Tips For Beginners

  1. Matt Risk says:

    Mr. Iverson,
    Long time fan, first time commenter. I just wanted to drop a line saying I love your blog and the new direction your going in. I am just starting the baby steps into prop making and your encouragement and wisdom are just awesome!
    I do have a technical question, I am working on a gun prop made from mdf. The basics of the build are there, my illustrator file pattern is made, my question would be, how do you typically seal an mdf prop? I would like to eventually cast props, but my first couple are going to be the original builds, since I’m taking baby steps. So I was curious how you would seal mdf to prep for paint. Bondo? Polyurethane?

    Thanks in advance!

    -M. Risk

    • Mike Iverson says:

      Hi Matt, Glad you like the new site! I seal my MDF with shellac. It soaks in about 1/16″ and hardens the surface. Be sure to wear a respirator as you sand the surface because shellac and MDF dust are no good for you.

    • I can’t speak for Mike, however I normally use wood glue to seal any work I do with MDF. I apply it in 2 thin layers with a chip brush. Then sand it down with 200 grit sand paper and you should have a nice smooth surface that is paint-able Touch up any small holes or gaps with either bondo or wood filler.

    • Mike Iverson says:

      Hi Matt,
      Glad you like the new site! I hope it continues to be helpful.

      I use shellac to seal MDF but you should always wear a respirator when sanding as both the MDF and shellac are REALLY bad for you.

      I may have to try Stefan’s glue method. It sounds promising!

  2. Thanks for the simple tips! You and Mr. Volpin are easily the biggest inspirations in me putting my own shop together. FINALLY, I’m taking my prop-building and costuming to the next level. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new competition next year at DragonCon…

  3. Vector Sigma Creations says:

    • Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you suck

    Don’t be discouraged by false starts, screw-ups and epic fail. Figure out what went wrong and do it again. — Thank you for this, I have been really discouraged lately and beating myself up over a build not going well. Thank you so much for taking the time and being so supportive of newer prop artists. People like you really make this a “community”

  4. Tomdflock says:

    I’ve always felt that it is ok if the first version of something sucks. Sometimes one has to learn to do something wrong to learn how to do it right.
    Great write up!

  5. Joseph says:

    Thanks so much for this list, and also for featuring newbie questions and answers. I recently asked a question on the replica prop forum and got no answer. No hard feelings against them or anything, but I should have just asked here since it was essentially the same question Matt Risk asked and there’s already two different answers.

  6. Jolie says:

    Ok I am trying to make props for my daughters pageants and I see props that are made out of a starefoam type substance , but isn’t . Could you tell me what that substance might be ? Thank you

    • Mike Iverson says:

      It might be the pink insulation foam called Foamular, available at Home Depot. It is a very dense foam that can be carved and sanded.

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