GeekDad Interviews Foamsmithing Master Bill Doran

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Doran-CoverAs cosplay becomes more popular and prevalent around the world, more and more people are looking for help on making great costumes. Bill Doran, one of the preeminent foamsmiths out there, is here to help with a new print book, Foamsmith: How to Create Foam Armor Costumes.

Doran has had eBooks available for some time, but, after being asked at conventions about a print edition, he finally assembled all of his sage advice and put out a print edition.

Bill and Brittany Doran and Will Morgan at Emerald City Comic Con. Photo by Will James.

I’ve stared in awe at many a foam armor cosplay, attended several panels at cons to listen to the masters, watched too many YouTube videos to count, and even dabbled in making some cosplay accessories, but diving into armor making has always seemed a bit daunting, until now.

Doran’s book takes the reader from the most basic tools and methods all the way through the most complex and expert level techniques. His writing is engaging, funny, and accessible. He manages to explain the tools and techniques of fabrication to someone with no skill–that would be me–without making it feel like he’s talking down to us newbies.

The book is not only full of tons of photos of tools and techniques to teach the path to enlightenment, but also plenty of pictures of the armor and props Doran has made that will help inspire you.

I was shocked at just how much information Foamsmith fits into one tome, but every possible topic and question is covered. The book begins with the basic tools and techniques of cutting and gluing foam, then progresses to more detailed work like etching and battle damage. There is plenty of material on sealing, painting, and finishing your work including some very advanced weathering techniques. The book wraps up with really advanced topics like under suits, how to make straps and buckles to wear your armor, and some really cool lighting methods.

I was able to do a quick interview with Doran on the heels of the release of the book.

Bill and Brittany Doran as Blue Team. Photo provided by Bill Doran.

GeekDad: How did you get into cosplay and armor making? What was your first cosplay and your first set of armor?

Bill Doran: My friends, who are avid anime cosplayers, convinced me to dress up in a costume for PAX Prime here in Seattle. We went as the Blue Team from Team Fortress, and it was really fun! My first set of armor was Mage Hawke from Dragon Age 2.

GD: Your wife, Brittany, is also an avid fabricator and cosplayer. Did you get into it together or did one of you bring the other along for the ride?

BD: Brittany and I got into it together. For our first TF2 costumes I was the soldier and she was the sniper.

GD: How much time would you say you spend doing your own personal builds versus commission builds?

BD: Most of my work is spent on commission builds. They pay the bills, so I have to keep that crazy train rolling!

Bill and Brittany Doran as Draugrs from Skyrim. Photo provided by Bill Doran.
Bill and Brittany Doran as Draugrs from Skyrim. Photo provided by Bill Doran.

GD: Do you have a favorite build of yours?

BD: I usually say “my favorite build is the last one I did.” I am rather fond of the Skyrim Draugr Deathlord costumes that my wife and I made. It’s super fun to wear and always gets a great reaction.

GD: Do you have a favorite commission that challenged you or was something you wouldn’t have thought of doing until someone asked?

BD: The Starcraft 2 Kerrigan rifle was very challenging for me. I ended up making some pretty big molds for that one and had a lot of trouble along the way. In the end it was worth it, but it was touch and go for a while!

GD: If someone is totally brand new to foam armor making, what sort of piece would you recommend as a good starting point that might require less tools and be a good way to practice a lot of techniques without costing a lot up front? And what would you say are the bare minimum required tools to get started?

BD: I would have them try to make something simple like a forearm bracer. The form is mostly just a tube, so the concepts are pretty easy to wrap your head around. All you need is some foam, a knife, and some glue!

GD: It’s been a while, but I used to do quite a bit of scale model building, and I see a lot of similarities in techniques between small-scale building and your armor building. Have you ever done any scale modeling or smaller scale builds?

BD: I haven’t really done scale models since I was a youngster, but I definitely want to get back into it. Both finishing other model kits and possibly making my own scale model kits for others to paint.

GD: Most of our readers are parents and, like me, want to share their geeky interests with their kids. I’ve started trying to do father and son cosplay with my son. Do you have any suggestions on how parents can get their kids interested and involved with cosplay and fabrication?

BD: I don’t have kids, but when I was growing up we did lots of building projects with my dad. I would say that his enthusiasm for the project definitely rubbed off on us. Don’t be afraid to show your kids how excited you are to make things.

GD: As someone who is local to you, I’d love to come and hang out in your shop and learn from a master, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Do you have any plans to open up your shop and maybe do classes or workshops to do some hands on teaching?

BD: I do very much want to have workshops in my space, but that isn’t possible with our current arrangement. We are making plans to do in-studio classes once we move to a location that is more suited.

GD: What made you decide to put together the Foamsmith eBook series and now the print book?

BD: I get a lot of people asking for tips and tricks about how I make my stuff. Even though I’ve posted most of that information on my website over the years, I figured it would be handy to put it all in one place as digital books. It turns out that most of my fans also thought that was a good idea! Enough so that we’ve also turned it into a real, legit printed book.

GD: Lots of us geeks would love to do something we love as a full-time job; how did you make the transition to doing this full-time, and what was your nine-to-five job before this?

BD: Before being a full-time prop maker I was a video content publisher at a small, local company called Microsoft. When I started picking up prop commissions from people on the internet I decided to give it a try full-time and never looked back! It’s been the most fun living anxiety attack that I’ve ever had!

GD: Something along the lines of “Being a geek isn’t about what you love but how you love it,” is sort of the new geek mantra. Do you have anything, besides cosplay, that you consider yourself a geek about?

BD: I am SUPER geeky into photography. I grew up shooting–my mom is a high school art and photography teacher. I love to geek out about photo gear and techniques.

GD: What upcoming conventions do you have on your schedule that people could see you at?

BD: Up next I’ll be at ConStruct in NYC! I’ll be doing some panels and workshops on prop and costume making. It should be a good time and if folks are in the area they should definitely come by!

If you are at all interested in cosplay, and specifically foam fabrication, go over to Doran’s site, Punished Props right now. In addition to the print book, they have eBooks, blueprints to help get your started, and even videos to show you how to do things.

Sneak peek. This is my print out for making my first foam armor piece.

I’m going to be taking everything I’ve learned from Doran, his book, and his videos and doing my own first fabrication in the near future so look for that post coming soon. I’m going to attempt to make a Hylian Shield, of Zelda game fame, to take my son’s Link cosplay up a notch.

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