Monday, February 26, 2024

Star Wars - Denizens!

I'm excited to share this project with you today: the denizens of the Star Wars universe! 

From start to finish, this took about 7 weeks during the longest and draggyest part of the post-Christmas winter, so it actually was quite a welcome distraction. I have always, always wanted to paint Star Wars peg dolls for my girls, but they didn't get into Star Wars till late elementary/middle school and well past the age when it would've made sense to sink the amount of time needed to make them. So I shelved the idea - for good, I'd thought sadly - and let myself believe that our peg doll phase, while it lasted, was only ever meant to be Disney princesses (like this and this) and maybe the odd book character from my own childhood. 

Then four years ago, my nephew was born, much younger than the other cousins in his generation, and we got to relive the magic of childhood through his eyes. We never knew what new thing he'd be into next -  sometimes it'd be something we'd never even heard of, because it hadn't been around 14 years ago when my kids were his age. This past Christmas, it was Star Wars. I was absolutely delighted and for his birthday in January, schemed to paint him Star Wars peg dolls. Not just the ones I would've painted for my own girls back in the day, but also the new generation of characters introduced in the decade or so since then. 

Just before the new year, I drew up the list of shortlisted characters. There was an important consideration: as my nephew hadn't yet seen the movies, I had to avoid spoilers. So for example, Darth Vader could only ever be the one-dimensional adult Sith lord with the scuba voice, coal-scuttle helmet and no poignant backstory, least of all one connected to, say, any of the other characters.

Then I took stock of the materials I already had on hand and what needed to be procured. And now as I'm documenting this project, I thought I'd include links to where I went shopping, in case those help any of you wanting to take this project on yourselves (yes, it's never too late!). 

I have a stash of wooden blanks, including bulk quantities of peg dolls, which I'd bought online here years ago. I just checked and while their inventory has shrunk a little since, they still have lots to choose from. 

So, let's talk sizes first. For the majority of the Star Wars people, I used these 2-3/8" peg dolls. You can also buy those in smaller quantities at craft stores. 

Chewbacca, Darth Vader and Kylo Ren were especially tall and imposing, so for them I used these 3" dolls at Michaels

The Ewok was smaller, so I used this boy-sized doll

Yoda was even tinier, so I used a baby-sized doll.

Next, the non-humanoid droids. To make R2D2, I used the mushroom from this set of wooden shapes

sawed off the stem and wood-glued the cap to two flat wheels I already had in my wooden blanks collection. I can't be sure because I didn't measure them at the time, but they're probably these.

I also had actual wooden hemispheres which I'd used in the past to make another R2D2, but their size was such that the finished droid would've been disproportionately large next to the other characters. The finished size of this mushroom-wheel ensemble, however, was perfect. I filled the hollows with wood filler, then sanded and painted.

To make BB8, I used a wooden clothespin doll head bead for his body, which, because of the hole, has a stable end to stand on. Again, I had leftovers from when I'd bought them in bulk online, but I just checked and Craftparts no longer sells them. Here is a similar listing at a different store instead.  For the droid's head, I used some white polymer clay, baked it in the oven and then glued it on when dry and set. Here is BB8 painted,

and varnished

I tried as far as possible to render the traits of the characters with paint rather than a 3D add-on that could break off, mostly to make them as safe as possible for my nephew. However, there were some features that I chose to compromise on, so they could be extra-recognizable: Darth Vader's and the Stormtrooper's helmets, Kylo Ren's mouthpiece and Amidala's headdress. These were formed over the heads of the dolls, baked (some on the dolls themselves; others separately and then glued on when cool) and painted. Leia's side buns and Rey's topknot were beads which were hot-glued on. I hammered a tiny nail through Rey's to additionally secure it to the doll's head just because it was a single bead and tempting for small fingers to pick the entire doll up with. Yoda's ears were tiny pieces of felt hot-glued to his head.

In the next two photos, you can see all these embellishments on their respective dolls in various stages of assembly and coloring.

Over the next two or three weeks, I painted the dolls as I had the time not just to add layers but to allow those layers to dry before the next ones went on. I used the internet for inspiration and at any time, there were almost twenty tabs open on my phone referencing a particular character's outfit. I think if I'd been working on a deadline, I might have been slightly stressed. But I wasn't, and enjoyed the process, dragging out in order to include as much detail as was needed. I took copious photos of all the dolls from different angles just in case I wanted to someday replicate them - here's a series of Luke Skywalker shots, before the varnish went on - I thought it might be easier to capture the details in focus without the added reflection.

Some random shots of  other characters, with varnish. It was indeed trickier with the reflection!

Darth Vader, with clay helmet and mouthpiece.

Yoda, with felt ears. 


Leia with bead buns

C3PO - I didn't realize till painting him that one of his legs was silver below the knee!

Amidala - her headdress isn't totally accurate, but I only realized this after the clay was baked hard. The curvy things flanking her cheeks needed to extend below and frame her chin, but whatever. As long as she - and the others - are recognizable, I'm good, was my philosophy. And they apparently passed the nephew test: I wasn't there when he saw these dolls for the first time, but have it on good authority that he was apparently able to name every one of them. Success!

Some random group shots next. Here is the original trio:

Another awesome trio:

The ones whose morals were suspect, with some more ambiguously so than others:

Boba Fett must be my absolute favorite of the entire bunch to paint- he had so many fun details in so many colors.

Best ever supporting actors:

Spoiler alert: a couple of awkward family photos next, taken late at night with my phone.

And some pairs of BFFs:

You might notice that Jar-Jar Binks is conspicuously absent. You're welcome. 

I also left out Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Senator Palpatine, Darth Maul, and a whole host of others. In fact, the second trilogy is very underrepresented here. Apart from Amidala, everyone was either a time-travel or Jekyll-Hyde version of their first-trilogy selves, or both. Which felt like major spoilers to me, so, no. I was so extremely tempted to do Darth Maul, though - he would've been so cool to paint - but I had to stop somewhere.

because the characters were only Part I of this project,

and Part II, which wasn't even my original idea, but came from my brilliant friend Lindsay and her husband Paul 14 years ago, was even more fun to build. I can't wait to tell you in the next post about her crazy-wonderful inspiration and how, more than a decade later, I got to revisit it and finally, finally, bring it to life.

Linds: if you're reading this, thank you. I feel like I can - at last - exhale.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Midwinter Toymaking

Finished a fun toy project recently. It was a birthday gift for my little nephew, the one for whom I also made the Paw Patrol vest and matching game last year, and I had to keep it a secret until he received it last weekend. I love that creatively, I'm getting a second wind of sorts now that we have a young child in our extended family again. There's nothing like observing kids at play to inspire a person to make a toy!

This one is largely wood,

but with random plastic bits.

Is everyone's winter going well? Our cats are going slightly bonkers with cabin fever so I've converted most of my sewing room shelves to a climbing gym by simply taking stuff off them and dumping them on the carpet below. Stunningly organized and methodical, I know. In fact, for more than a month, my sewing room floor was strewn with the previous contents of those shelves (rationale: inventing new homes for them would siphon off brain power that would be better spent creating wooden toys) plus clamps, sandpaper scraps, half-opened packets of screws, files, screwdrivers, and random bits of 2x4s and plywood. Every night before bed, I'd do a precautionary once-over and corral all the sharp things into a safe place, and the next day they'd all be out on the carpet again while I worked. The mayhem was comforting in a seasonally-defiant sort of way - this should've been done in the summer, in the garage, dressed in shorts and flipflops, after all. But here I was, huddled indoors in too many layers of clothes, carefully sanding pine blocks over my wastebasket while the cats sidled in and out among all the junk. I loved being in the middle of an obsessive project. It made me sentimental for the other manic era in my life when I was on a wooden toymaking kick. Such fun. I can't believe that was 12 years ago (and no cats!). The difference is that I didn't have to hide any of this from my kids this time, because this wasn't their gift. How brazen to be making wooden toys in full view of everyone!

Sorry for all this coyness. I am editing pictures now, and will post some soon that actually show something recognizable. Back soon!

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Family Snowmen and Other Ornaments

It's been a pretty busy January so I'm only now belatedly posting about a fun tradition Kate invented for our Christmas celebrations with extended family. For the past four years (if I count right), she's been making ornaments for each of its 17 member. It started when she was in middle school and in a fimo clay phase. That first year, she made miniature clay sculptures representing each of our interests - cameras for the photographers, tea and coffee mugs for the caffeine addicts, books for the avid readers, and suchlike - adding even finer details with acrylic paint using toothpicks and paintbrush. The next year, she discovered that she didn't like the fine work of sculpting and/or painting nearly as much as cutting with scissors, so she ventured into felt and fleece ornaments. And we launched a collaboration: I mass-produced the basic ornament shapes with the sewing machine, and she sat on the sewing room floor beside me and painstakingly cut tiny embellishments out of felt to personalize each to our respective family members. That Christmas, we made fleece stocking ornaments and she had a blast cutting and gluing all the little felt bits and sequins on them.

Here's a right-way-up photo if you'd like to zoom in to catch all the details. 

I also took some close-ups of a couple of ours on our tree this year. Here's Jenna's - there's a sugar cookie, a chocolate chip cookie, rolling pin, her flute and piano keyboard.

This is Emily's: boba tea, a paint dot card from her Etsy shop, a bucket hat and a treble clef (easier to cut out than a trombone, Kate thought!)

The following year, Kate started high school and with the transition came a drastically increased academic workload which kept them busy in classes up till the day before Christmas Eve. So we had to tweak our collaboration: she'd still pick the theme for the ornaments but rather than working side-by-side as we'd done before, I'd sew and stuff the basic ornament shapes days ahead and she'd work on embellishing them whenever she could squeeze in some time between homework assignments and studying for tests. That year, we made Christmas Trees, and she opted for favorite-color-coordinated buttons along with a few felt cutouts. Mass-production sewing tip: I didn't cut all those evergreen tree shapes exactly identical, which would've been too fiddly and bordering on lunacy. Instead, I used the bubble-cut technique outlined in the last post to get the edges of the front and back pieces of each ornament to perfectly align after sewing.  

Here's the ornament Kate made for me: a predominantly blue color scheme, my crocheted blanket WIP (she did knitting needles because they were easier to render than a crochet hook) and a couple of jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Here's Emily's: a sprig of lavender and a cup of chai with our black cat Milo's face on it.

Jenna's has a sugar cookie, her music headphones and purple buttons.

This past Christmas, the theme was Snowmen. Kate made her sketches in preparation - note the last snowman, which was her own, and its complete lack of detail. I'll come back to that later.

Once again, manic school schedules meant she'd be cramming the snowmen-decorating at the last minute, so I helped as much as I could ahead of time. I made the basic snowmen - filled, with pipecleaner arms and felt eyes and nose. I also made beanies and baseball caps according to her sketches.

The night before our Christmas party, we stayed up till 3 am to get them done.We put on a video, sat amongst tubs of felt and buttons, set out snacks for sustenance and worked together to get all the embellishments cut out so she could glue them on. It was insane, and not something I'd recommend on a regular basis, but so much fun that one night, fueled by the euphoria of finally being done with school for the year and on the brink of Christmas break.

Remember that featureless snowmen Kate had sketched for herself? On previous occasions that she'd made ornaments for everyone else, she'd never made one for herself because, as she'd explained, they were her gifts to us. This year, however, I decided that had to change. So I made her one for herself, but kept it a secret until she'd presented everyone with theirs. Sneaky!

So here at last is Kate's ornament, featuring some of the many things we celebrate about her: her music, her love of cheese, her swimming (goggles in its left hand), her growing love for her high school and all its opportunities (scarf in school colors), and of course Bunny.

It's so much fun to watch this handmade ornament collection grow as we add the new shapes of each subsequent year. I can't believe this is the only first Kate ornament to join the others on our tree but it looks like the start of yet another new tradition - that of me (or anyone else so inclined) surreptitiously making one for her at Christmases to come. 

What are some of your favorite handmade Christmas (and other holiday) traditions in your family? I'd love to read about them in the comments!