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Adventures in Thermoforming: Full Metal Molds and Inversion Casting

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about a product because I can verifiably say that I eat and drink this stuff 24/7. Every now and then though, we turn something out that reminds me of why we went into this business. It’s not because these pieces belonged to the coolest characters in the galaxy, but because when you know something looks as perfect as our team originally envisioned, it’s like tasting a fine wine or beer.

The First Order Stormtrooper kit is just that. Yes, it took an inordinate span of time to create as this went through three renditions before we felt it was truly ready for prime-time.

It wasn’t enough to know that it was “just right,” we felt that it had to be darn near perfect. We now feel absolutely positive that this is the most accurate, and easy to put together armor which makes even our Classic kit look relatively complex in comparison.

So how did we do this? It boils down to these three primary focus points:

  1. Metal Molds
  2. The Power of Inversion
  3. Sourcing Multiple Screen-Used Suits

Why Full-Metal Molds?

To reproduce just about anything, you need to create a mold of your original piece. A mold is a hollow container used to give shape to your injected material of choice, or a solid object (often called a “buck” in this case) that can have material formed over it to create copies. There are a few ways to build a mold, and many material options to consider depending on your project.

First you need to determine how many “pulls” (or copies) you will need the mold to generate, and how to best optimize the molds to make the most use of each sheet of material.

Each mold has what is called a “pull life,” which is typically measured in how many times a mold can be used to create multiple copies of a piece before the mold degrades from overuse. Much of a mold’s life is determined by the materials it is constructed from, as temperatures and other normal wear-and-tear affect the mold’s life.

After making earlier versions of our prototype armor out of more malleable materials (to test construction, accuracy of detail, and other factors during the development process), we elected to go with a full-metal mold for our larger key projects such as our First Order Stormtrooper. The pull life of a metal mold is much longer than other alternatives, like medium-density fiberboard (“mdf”) or fiberglass, and can handle the thousands of pulls our factory required.

Metal molds also affect the final product itself! The metal surface of the mold has the advantage of retaining and holding heat during the forming process, creating smoother surfaces and better pulls due to longer work times.

Often, the shorter the work time, the greater the chance a pull will come out poorly and will need to be re-done. As one might imagine, this reduces efficiency and wastes material. Once a pull is finished, there’s no way to go back and re-use the same sheet of plastic so into the scrap bin it goes!

What is “inversion”?

Thermoforming uses air in order to suction heated, malleable plastic tightly down over a mold via a strong vacuum (hence the hobbyist term “vacuum-forming”) to create a copy. In some instances, using the traditional method of thermoforming may mean that the plastic can’t be formed tightly enough to the mold, causing the deeper corners and features to be softer looking and less defined than the original. 

In the case of our First Order Stormtrooper armor, we opted for inversion casting on key pieces that require sharp detail.  Utilizing an “inverted” mold forces the plastic into the mold details rather than over them, thereby creating sharper details in the finished product.

Using Multiple Screen Used Suits as Sources

Above all, this point is probably the most pertinent. The lineage of an item is unquestionably important and, in our case, we always go to screen-used pieces as reference whenever possible for scanning, photography, and documenting fine details. These are the things that make it to screen, and thus inform the most recognizable details, or those “holy grail” attributes, which when replicated bring a “right off the film” level of quality.

When we started with this project back in December of 2015, long before the release of TFA, we were tasked with creating suits for marketing purposes to be on stage for Celebration Anaheim. While the task was daunting, our source material was a cleaned up 3d print from production and not a screen-used suit. While the impression was wonderfully achieved, the source was a print that was rooted in poor scanning and reference technology. These first marketing suits were always considered passable versions that were larger and clunkier than they were supposed to be.

SWCA 2015 Reveal

Nearly a year later we were given the opportunity to examine not just one, but many screen-used outfits from the film. This was extremely helpful — we could now photograph, Pantone color match and, most importantly, take our own 3D scans of multiple suits.

Having now acquired the best possible reference, we undertook the task of creating a new 3D model based on all these elements. The comparison between the previous, bulky, passable marketing trooper, and our final model was staggeringly different.

The new armor has finer proportions, and sharper detail.

Armed with this new reference, we could not only generate our own 3D model, but continuously compare our own physical prototypes to ensure faithful replication down the entire manufacturing line.

The conclusion: Darn near perfection.
Anovos Productions LLC March 01, 2019 0 tags (show)


John F Brosio

John F Brosio said:

Will it be on display anywhere?

John Child

John Child said:

After much research and hearing about the long waiting times. I still chose to place an order for this armour last week. The quality, accuracy and the customer service were the deciding factors not to go fan made armour. Reading this update makes me feel that I made the right decision and appreciate Anovos transparency and efficacy of it’s production. I look forward to further detailed updates and hopefully images of the manufacture process.

Kevin D Merritt

Kevin D Merritt said:

When will the first order stormtrooper armor be available and will it fit someone with a waist of 40


Steve said:

These posts about process and your attempts to be more transparent about why things take time are great.
Keep it up!

Mauricio Antunez

Mauricio Antunez said:

I can’t wait for my armor kit to be shipped. Looks awesome. Congrats on finally getting this kit out to us, loyal Star Wars fans.


Bernitaly said:

It ‘s been two years and more since my order, and you all know the story .. Many have left the’ wait .. but I have not lost hope .. Today finally seems that the product is excellent, I look forward to the message of shipment


John said:

I like what you do. I have the bsg, cylon rader, and star bucks viper. Love star wars and bsg, for more work load for you any chance a full cylon mask? I no you would do it wright Thought I would put that idea out there For you.


ian said:

i’ve been waiting for this kit since i placed an order back in 2016 and i’ve always had confidence in anovos with completing this kit with much accuracy as needed and possible. i’m glad i waited this long and from this information its worth the wait. i never intended on going with any other fan made armors because i knew (judging from pictures) that just because they could get it ready faster, doesn’t mean they had the same screen accuracy and screen used resources anovos used to put into their armor, all in all good things come to those who wait

Jon Viloria

Jon Viloria said:

Hey any other armor outside of anovos is just a replica, I’ve glad I’m waiting for perfection!

Jeff Davis

Jeff Davis said:

I cannot wait to get mine.


John said:

I remember watching Andrew Ainsworth and his beautiful set up he has complete with Aluminum bucks. There is a science to vacuforming but having the right equipment, materials and knowing the limitations to everything makes a huge difference. I surprised you guys didn’t attempt the negative castings or inversion castings. I can imagine the contact surfaces would have to be pristine and polished since the part everyone is going to see is the part making physical contact with the buck. My friends and I have made both FO TK’s and OT TK’s by vacuforming using bucks we hand crafted and cast in ultracal. After about a dozen of them you feel like a robot in a factory. Still its a cool experience. Now if only I care about the Sequel Trilogy to want one for myself.


gerald said:

any ‘short to be a stormtrooper’ versions?

JR Berube

JR Berube said:

Very nice to hear how you are making these great trooper outfits. I would l would love to see how it’s made for real. Do you have videos of the process? One day I will be able to afford one one them.

John Child

John Child said:

As R Berube said, I would love to see a video of the painstaking efforts Anonos put into this kid and the result. It will give a higher appreciation to what the kit stands for. A bit like watching a Royals Royce making of documentary.

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