Misadventures in Mouldmaking

Hi all,  I thought I would just post a bit of a primer for newer readers, and all the lurkers with perhaps a little less experience.

We are incredibly privileged to have as Members of ‘Neill Gorton’s Makeup FX 911’ Group on Facebook many of the worlds most talented Makeup FX Artists. We also have several sensational sculptors, magnificent mouldmakers, terrifyingly talented technicians and fantastic finishers.

Each of these areas is a speciality all on its own, and you could easily devote a lifetime to learning and developing your skills in just one particular area and still not know everything about it!!

Most early career artists don’t start out with the intention of becoming, say, a great fibreglass mould maker, or a particularly expert seamer and patcher of foam latex and silicone. These skills are viewed as ‘less glamorous’ than something like sculpting or painting, or on-set application of prosthetics, although most people don’t even consider that by making a career out of honing a particular skill that it is possible to be more in demand as a specialist and get more regular work than a Jack-of-all-trades!

When we start out, it is natural to want to do EVERYTHING!

And, in our naiveté we often assume that if we are pretty good at one thing, we will be pretty good at all of it.

There’s your first problem… 😉

There is a lot of resource material on here and elsewhere in books and online, to tell you what you need to know to get started.

In a nutshell here’s the gist of it:

1. There is NO course or qualification ANYWHERE that will give you an automatic ‘in’ to this industry.

-Training institutions are in the business of Training. That is what they do, that is ALL they do, and it’s how they make an income. No matter what their publicity says, there are no guarantees you will be able to get a job after completing any course.

-A Certificate from a dedicated Makeup School is no worse or better than a University Degree.  No formal qualification is necessarily going to help you get ahead, if you have the talent and the ability to learn on your own using the vast array of resources available in this digital age.  None of the guys who started this business decades ago had access to ANYTHING like what is around now, and they managed to not only teach themselves but they invented many of the techniques and materials we use today. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Having said that, not everyone has the ability to teach themselves, some learn better from watching and copying. For you it may be worth your while doing some form of course.

-Learning on the job as an apprentice or trainee is not usually available or possible for many complex reasons but basically this is a business, not a charity or a public service. Nobody can afford to run a business properly in today’s tight economic climate AND babysit someone who knows nothing about the job. So USE the resources available, and get stuck in!

2. Should you choose to pursue formal training, be aware that you cannot learn enough in any course or training program to make you an instant expert in any aspect. You should be able to pass a minimum standard to qualify, sure, but that’s not the same thing as being employable in the real world.

-Best you will get is an overview, if you’re very, very, lucky it will be relatively comprehensive, and then it is up to you to go learn how to do things PROPERLY.

3. The only way to learn is to do. Practice is great, but it only reinforces what you already know. So practice does NOT make perfect. Learn, refine, get feedback, and THEN try again, only BETTER, because only PERFECT practice makes perfect!

4.  There is more than one way to do EVERYTHING. The way you learned at makeup school/university or from whoever trained you is NOT and will NEVER be the ONLY WAY. Keep an open mind.

5. This is a hard, hard road to follow.

– Get that straight right at the start. Although there is creative satisfaction to be had, that is no compensation for a decent quality of life. There is no such thing as a normal fulltime job. You will be a freelancer for the rest of your life, going from project to project. The number of people who work in one place for more than a few months, or in the case of a big project, a couple of years, is probably less than 5% of the total number of professionals out there. That is NOT including all of the amateurs and aspiring artists!!!!  So, if you depend on a regular paycheck, like to have consistent working hours and to be able to book your holidays and events months in advance, this is probably not the job for you.

-Money is often tight, and the golden years are long past. Work comes and goes. The industry is at the mercy of a million different factors. You may, or in all likelihood definitely WILL need a backup plan to get you through the in-between times.  If you can arrange it, a lottery win would be handy. Not only is the work intermittent, but training and practicing is expensive, and building and keeping a well-stocked kit and workshop will cost you big money.

But all I want to do is make something…

Ok, now you want to make your first foray into the artform, and you have chosen a project. You want to sculpt and mould something, and then make a cast and finish and paint it. Or maybe it would be easier to make a mould of an existing object.

Can’t be that hard, right?

Before you begin, you need to get yourself some reference material and learn a bit about the process of sculpt to mould to finished cast. There are at least a hundred little things along the way that can trip you up if you don’t know what you are doing, and most importantly, WHY you need to do it that way.

You may have seen the occasional post where someone has begun with their first sculpt and produced a masterpiece, but firstly that is incredibly rare and most definitely the exception rather than the rule.  Secondly, people who do manage to pull off a miracle may have neglected to mention that although it might be their first time using THIS medium, they may have years of experience in other forms of artistry, and so they have developed a sophisticated eye for shape, form, and colouring.

Just to give you an idea, here is an idea of all the things that can go wrong with a very straightforward piece.

Let’s start with what seems like a deceptively simple project.


STAGE 1. Take a lifecast of the hand using alginate.

Steps for using Alginate:

1. Make or find a container big enough to contain your subjects hand with clearance all the way around of at least a couple of centimeters.

Realise belatedly that you forgot to allow room in the mould for the fingers to be widely separated, and are forced to mould the hand with the fingers almost touching, but not quite.

2. Coat hand with a suitable release agent, such as Vaseline or thick moisturizer, to avoid the hairs sticking in the alginate.

Realise belatedly that subject has VERY hairy hands and wonder briefly if you should have asked them to shave.

3. Mix your alginate according to directions.

Realise belatedly that you have misplaced the directions, so guess at quantities and hope you get it right.

4. Place the subjects hand into the moulding container and pour the alginate around it, or pour the alginate into the container and insert hand.  Be careful to rub alginate over the whole surface so as to eliminate any air bubbles that might stick to the skin surface. Give the subject strict instructions to hold their hand steady in the desired position and to make sure their fingers are not touching, and not curled up.

Realise you needed to mix a little more alginate as it only comes up to the wrist and is not covering the forearm at all. Wonder if you could add some more now, or if you will just settle for a shorter hand….

5. Let it set.

Impatiently poke alginate every few seconds until its done. Wonder briefly if you should have put more (or less) release agent on the hairy bits. Hope you got all the airbubbles off.

6. Remove the outer support shell and very carefully remove the hand from the alginate. Sometimes this can be done by blowing air down the side of the hand into the alginate mould and breaking the seal, if the person has flexible hands. If they don’t you may need to cut a slit in the top of the mould to allow them to remove their hand without tearing the mould.

Realise you DEFINITELY should have used more mould release on the hairy bits. Apologise to subject with newly hairless hand.

STAGE 2. Making a positive from your lifecast. 

Following the basic moulding rules of soft into hard and hard into soft, you have decided your finished piece will be in silicone (soft), and as this is your first mould you are going to make a two piece plaster master mould (hard). You have chosen to make your positive in non-sulphur plastiline clay (soft).

Steps for making a plastiline clay positive:

1. Melt clay in a crockpot or electric frypan on low.

Realise belatedly that you should have started this about an hour before you wanted to use it, so hurriedly stuff wet paper towels into your alginate hand mould so it doesn’t shrink before the clay is melted. Turn the pot up too high and then smell horrid burning smell. Turn pot down again and go get a coffee.

2. Pour melted clay into mould.

Realize belatedly that it would have been easier to put it in a jug first instead of pouring directly from a hot pot. Jump around a bit and curse, while trying not to drop hot pot. Put pot down, go to sink and run cold water over hand for ten minutes. Go to the first aid cupboard and find a plaster. Be grateful you only burnt yourself on the pot and not with the molten clay itself.

Go and finish pouring clay into mould and hope the join isn’t horribly obvious.

3. Wait for clay to set. Remove alginate.

Carefully and with much excitement and not a little trepidation cut the alginate away from the clay, starting at the wrist. Come across the odd air bubble. Oh well. Realise as you get to the hand that the subject has completely ignored your specific instruction on how to position their hand and not only are a couple of their fingers stuck firmly together the hand is curled into a loose fist. Jump up and down and swear at your subject for not listening.  Realise that in your annoyance and impatience you have broken three of the fingers off the positive.

Calm down a little, remove the broken fingers from the alginate and stare disconsolately at your fingerless stump for a few minutes. Find a couple of toothpicks and skewer the fingers onto the positive. Observe carefully for a minute, then realise that you put them on in the wrong order. That’s better….

4. Mount the hand onto a base for cleanup and moulding.

Realise you forgot to insert a mounting rod into the wrist of the positive while the clay was still soft. Very very carefully attempt to insert a piece of pipe into the wrist without totally destroying the hand. Mount on a base for working.

5. Examine the positive for flaws before cleaning and resculpting any damaged or poorly cast areas.

Realise there are air bubbles between all of the fingers and on the ends of three of the nails. Realise the hairy areas are totally lumpy and useless and will need to be resculpted. Pick the subjects hairs out of the clay where they have transferred from the alginate lifecast. Notice the big lumpy line where your interrupted clay pour has caused it to set in two obvious and distinct batches.

Sigh and decide its time for lunch.


STAGE 3. Cleaning up the positive.

At this point you either perfect your lifecast or adjust it to turn it into the finished product you are making, by adding or enhancing features like creature nails, or perhaps sculpting wounds or a ragged stump.

Steps for cleaning and perfecting positive:

1. Using your reference pics and sculpting knowledge, go over the positive to remove and resculpt any imperfections before making your master mould.

Wonder briefly if you should start again. Remember your local supplier was fresh out of alginate. Sigh and find your sculpting tools.


2. Carefully remove airbubbles, cut away the areas where the hair was, and begin tidying the natural lines and features. Smooth over the clay join by adding tiny little clay worms and blending carefully.

Spend a couple of hours working away only to realise that you have pretty much obliterated all of the original natural detail on the original lifecast.

Decide to make a monster hand instead.

3. Resculpt and texture where necessary paying close attention to your reference material for accuracy.

Spend hours sculpting your monster hand. Fall exhausted into bed and have nightmares about molten clay monster hands clawing at your face.

STAGE 4. Making the Master Mould.


Steps for making Master Mould:

1. Build a dividing wall on your sculpt for making the first side of your mould.

Examine your model and work out where to put the mould wall so as to be able to easily separate the two halves of the mould.

Curse a little and realise you can’t, because the stupid *&%# had their fingers in such a weird position you are going to have to make a three piece mould if you are ever going to have any hope of opening it again afterwards.

2. Lie your hand model flat, covered by paper towel to protect it and supported on a soft but firm surface so as not to damage the sculpt.

Fill gaps between fingers with ordinary wet clay.

Cut strips of clay about five cm wide and build a wall around the entire piece, avoiding undercuts and keeping the wall as flat and smooth as possible.

Smooth base over with clay.

Add keys.

Realise you forgot to seal the surface of the sculpt before building the wall.

Swear loudly.

3. Seal the whole surface with a release agent such as liquid wax.

Clean wax off of the benchtop and the floor, once you pick yourself up off it. Find heatpack for your bruised ego. 

4. Mix a thin batch of plaster for the splashcoat. Allow to thicken slightly.

When it is the consistency of pouring cream use your fingers to splash a thin even coat over the entire surface of the sculpt and wall.  Build up the layers until you have a nice even covering.

Stand back to admire your work, and wonder how those white flecks got up there? Realise you possibly should have put down plastic on the work surface first. And maybe the rest of the room too…. Spend the next hour scraping flecks of plaster off everything.

Take a break to go make coffee.

Turn to go back to workroom and realise with horror that you have left a lovely little trail of plastery footprints from one room to the other.


5. Mix a batch of normal consistency plaster and allow to thicken slightly before building up the first half of the mould. Reinforce the mould with strips of burlap or loose-weave hessian.

Allow to set.

Cast an appraising eye over your work and wonder if it’s supposed to look like something Jabb the Hutt spat up. Maybe you should work on your smoothing technique. Realise you have totally all of ruined the clothes  and the shoes you are wearing and realise THAT’S why people wear those protective paper suits.

6. Once the first side has set turn the piece over. Carefully remove the clay wall and repeat process for second and subsequent sections of mould.

Realise the mould may be a little thin in places as it feels perilously fragile.

Overcompensate for the next piece.

7. Leave completed mould overnight to dry before opening.

Realise when you go to move it that you may have used a little too much plaster in an attempt to make sure the mould wasn’t too thin, because now it weighs a ton.

Assume that opening the mould will be simply a matter of sticking a wedge between the two halves and popping them apart. Stick a chisel into  the first visible gap, tap gently with a hammer, and recoil in horror as a large chunk of mould edge snaps off.  Put chisel away and go make coffee while you rethink your approach.

Come back, and using wooden popsticks and a LOT of patience, begin the slow process of levering apart the halves of the mould.

Finally get the first piece off the sculpt, which has broken in half and is stuck firmly to the mould.

8. Clean out mould.

Using patience and wooden tools , remove the sculpt from the mould. Once you have the majority of the plastiline out, use tiny tools to pick out the clay from crevices and wrinkles and then scrub clean with solvent and soft brushes so as not to damage the delicate surface of the mould.

Work diligently for a while cleaning. Realise after a period of time that you feel very woozy and your head is spinning, because in your enthusiasm to get it cleaned you forgot to wear your respirator and the fumes from the solvent are eating your brain. Rush to open all of the doors and windows.  Sit outdoors for a while until you feel a little better.  

Examine all the pieces of your mould and feel quietly thrilled that they actually fit together into a whole, and then come apart again. Resolve to celebrate your brilliance, just as soon as this solvent-induced headache goes away.

Ok, so now you have a mould!  Congratulations. You have managed to get through the easy bit!!!!

To be continued…..

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