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3D Printers Used For Making Costumes

3D Printed Iron Man Costume
3D Printed Iron Man Costume

At age 12, Clay Cardwell discovered the magazine Fangoria. His desire to replicate the costumes depicted in its pages led him to help run the Jaycees’ haunted house in his native Dothan, Alabama. There, he developed his costume and prop-making skills such that, by the time he graduated high school, he was lead costume and prop creator, as well as designing the house’s rooms and path.

Clay’s first costumes were made with fabric, but movies such as Star Wars and The Black Hole turned him on to vacuum forming costume pieces out of ABS plastic. “Being able to take a flat piece of plastic and [turn] it into an elaborate shape with depth and personality was intriguing,” the now-resident of Omaha, Nebraska recalled. However, although vacuum forming was great for creating larger costume pieces, it wasn’t well-suited for producing for small details at a reasonable price. (A vacuum-formed suit of Stormtrooper or Iron Man armor can run anywhere from $300 to $2000, depending on the amount of detail involved.)

In April 2013, Clay bought a Rostock Max 3-D printer from SeeMeCNC for $1000. (The Rostock Max is the top of the line of SeeMeCNC’s kit printers; the company also offers its fully-assembled Orion 3-D printer for an additional $500.) With it, he can produce the finger joints, hand plates, and palm pieces for Iron Man’s repulsor gloves, as well as the pendant from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the Hyrule family crest from The Legend of Zelda, and the four-part thermal detonator from Star Wars – all from a $40 one-kilogram spool of 1.75mm diameter ABS filament. Each inch of filament yields over three inches in costume parts; after a little more than six months of using his 3-D printer, Clay has just started using his second spool of filament.

To design these various parts, Clay currently uses freeware versions of programs such as Google SketchUp, Blender, and 123D Design, although he is looking to buy full versions of some of these. He also uses NetFabb’s Cloud Services to plug any holes in his designs that would prevent them from being sliced properly for printing. Once created, designs can be shared on websites such as MakerBot’s Thingiverse, or in the case of Clay’s costumes, at local events such as science fiction conventions and charity functions.

In addition to making costumes, Clay renders 3-D pieces on commission and is starting a business to sell costume materials and teach others the fine arts of mold-making, vacuum forming, and 3-D printing. He has been mentioned several times in the Omaha World-Herald during 2013. During April, the Omaha Children’s Museum exhibited 10 costumes he designed for himself and friends; the museum now wants to devote its second floor to display his work – and to have him make a costume for them to own outright. Despite these honors, Clay considers “the best recognition is in the smiles of the kids we entertain at charity events” such as Make-A-Wish and Forever Angels.

Although his 3-D printer has made it easier for him to create his costumes, Clay values the support of family and friends even more. “Having my wife (Tracie), daughter (Kira), and son (Tam), as well as many friends help me build is the only way I have time to complete such massive pieces. I would not be able to create a third of what I have done if it were not for their help.”

At present, Clay is the only costumer he knows of in the Omaha area with a 3-D printer, “but my wife and daughter said, ‘Yes, but the 3-D printer lives at our house.’”


(Image Credit – Clay Cardwell )

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