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    Tested Builds: Foam Propmaking, Part 1

    Welcome to a Tested week of builds! We're joined in the studio by prop and armor maker Bill Doran (Punished Props), who shares with us his techniques for making awesome foam weapons. Throughout the week, we'll be designing, fabricating, and painting foam props that can be used for cosplay! (This first video is available for everyone--watch the rest of the build by signing up with the Tested Premium member community!)

    Shop Tips: Save Your Silicone Pads

    We're back with another shop tip from Frank Ippolito's new shop space! This week, Frank explains why he saves silicone pads from the bottom of his mixing containers, and how those pads can be used for future projects. Post your own shop tips in the comments below!

    How To Fly Illuminated RC Models at Night

    The first time that I flew an RC plane at night, it was illuminated by a few chemical glow sticks that had been hastily taped in place. Unsure of success, I used an old model that wouldn't be missed if things went badly. It was a seat-of-the-pants, half-baked experiment by any measure. Looking back on that experience, it's hard to believe that the soft light of the glow sticks was adequate for me to see the model very well. Yet, the concept was sufficiently proven, and so began my still-active interest in night flying.

    The E-flite Brave is a newly-released ARF night flyer using foam construction. (photo courtesy of Horizon Hobby)

    These days, modelers can choose from a variety of very bright off-the-shelf lighting systems to illuminate their favorite airplane. There are also several Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) models with factory-installed lighting systems. Today, we'll take a look at some of the choices that are available for a moonlight stroll around the flying field.

    Lighting Choices

    The easiest method to make a model suitable for night flying is to add LED light strips. Many electric models already have a 12-volt power source for the lights. (photo courtesy of Hobbico)

    My use of glow sticks was limited to just a few experimental flights. I soon moved to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to brighten my night flyers. LEDs are ideal because they are adequately bright, very efficient, and they are available in a wide variety of colors. My initial experiences with LEDs required that I pair each diode with a resistor to establish the desired amperage. Setting up a simple model with a couple dozen LEDs required a little Ohm's Law and a lot of soldering.

    Before long, prefabricated strings of LEDs became available. These lights have the LEDs and resistors integrated together on a flexible strip with an adhesive backing. You just snip off the length of light strip that you want and attach a 12-volt DC power source. LED strips are not an RC-specific product. They have been embraced by the DIY crowd for custom PC cases, car accents, home theater lighting, and many other applications.

    While they are not the only lighting option available, LED light strips make the task of creating a night flyer a real no-brainer. Many electric-powered airplane models use a 3-cell Lithium-Polymer battery, which has 12.6 volts at full charge. It is a simple matter to tap into this battery to also power the lights.

    Introduction to 3D Modeling for Prop and Costume Making

    Through a weird and winding job path, I landed a pretty compelling career as a prop and costume maker, but I that's not where I intended to go when I started. When I was a starry eyed youth, I had ambitions of being a professional 3D modeler and animator for movies and video games! I even went to school for, and got a degree in, 3D computer art, modeling, and animation. Then life happened and I never actually got a real job doing any of that. I did, however, end up in a highly creative field that requires me to keep my fabrication skills finely honed and to keep pushing myself to make things better and faster.

    Why should I learn 3D Modeling?

    Enter my 3D modeling skills! In prop and costume making, I've found that being competent at 3D modeling has been an amazing boon to the productivity and quality of the pieces I produce. The obvious first reason is the current 3D printing craze. 3D models of props can be made real with affordable desktop printers at an alarming rate. This rapid prototyping makes iterating prop designs a snap! Not only can props be made completely from printed parts, but those prints can be used to design, scale, and test parts quickly and easily.

    These blaster grips were printed several times to adjust for the scale and thickness to get them just right.

    3D drafting can also provide a bevy of other benefits to the prop maker, even if one doesn't own a 3D printer. One of my other favorite outputs for my models is Pepakura. Many makers rely on the pep files that other makers release online to print out and make their own Iron Man helmets and armor pieces, but what if nobody has modeled the specific piece that you want to recreate? You're going to have to model it yourself!

    If you make your own Pepakura models, you have complete control over the size and form of the final pieces. This flexibility will give you the power to make pieces that will fit whatever body you plan to put them on. Plus you can design the Pepakura to work with materials of a variety of thicknesses (EVA foam vs. cardstock).

    How to Build the PinSim Virtual Reality Pinball Machine

    The PinSim cabinet is essentially the first eight inches of a real pinball table. I designed it to play VR pinball games, but it works just as well as an interface for traditional flat screen pinball games. The following instructions will help you make one of your own. I'll cover the most basic build first and then look at a few optional upgrades.

    The electronics are based on Teensy LC and employ the incredible MSF-XINPUT library by Zachery Littell. This new library fools the computer into thinking the Teensy LC is an Xbox 360 gamepad, thus minimizing latency and maximizing compatibility. It even supports force feedback rumble! Zack spent time improving his library to assist with this project, so major thanks to him.

    There are many possibilities for cabinet material. My original cabinet was cut from foam core but wood will provide a more lasting frame. Just make sure to consider the material thickness before cutting the sides of the cabinet. The graphics below illustrate the exterior dimensions and hole placements, but the diameter of the drill holes will depend on the buttons you choose to use.

    Let's start with the parts you'll need.

    The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (May 2016)

    The first round of 2016 Android flagships are all out in the open, and that means you've got a serious decision to make if the time has come for an upgrade. The best Android phones are priced near or over $700, so you don't want to make the wrong decision. That's a lot of coin to spend on a phone if you don't like it. Samsung was the undisputed winner last month on the carrier side, but this month the HTC 10 is up for preorder.

    Carrier Phones

    The Galaxy S7 has a very similar overall aesthetic to the Galaxy S6, but it makes several important changes. It's not a revolutionary device, but it really focuses on the GS6's shortcomings. There will be deals on the GS6, but don't let the similar looks fool you. The GS7 is a much better phone and it's worth the cost.

    Samsung is using a metal and glass unibody design for the GS7. So yes, that means fingerprints and the potential of a cracked back if you drop the GS7. The designers took an unusual step, though. Samsung made the GS7 about a millimeter thicker so the camera hump is flush with the back, and there's more room inside for a bigger battery. The glass panel on the back also has curved edges to make it more comfortable in your hand.

    The slightly thicker frame means the regular GS7 has a 3000mAh battery, and the GS7 Edge has 3600mAh. Both phones are also water resistant, which is a feature Samsung dropped from the GS6. There's also a microSD card slot in these phones, another improvement over the Galaxy S6, but it doesn't support adoptable storage in Android 6.0.

    The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge have new Super AMOLED panels with the same 1440p resolution as last year. The GS7 is 5.1-inches, while the Edge variant has a larger 5.5-inch display. The Edge, of course, has a screen that curves down on the left and right edge. I don't think the Edge is as comfortable because of the narrower band around the screen. There are a few software features that are intended to take advantage of the curved panel, but none of them are necessary. The real reason to get this version of the device is that it looks really cool.

    Shop Tips: Covering Your Work Tables

    A simple yet essential shop tip from Frank's shop today: covering your work tables with a big sheet of paper. Frank talks about what type of paper he uses and why it perfectly suits his projects and table dimensions. It's time to paper up our tables!

    How To Choose Your PC Processor

    Choosing the right PC processor lies at the intersection of what you need, what you can afford, what you want to accomplish, and your self image.

    The focus here is on desktop processors — in particular, desktop systems you plan on building youreself. Since laptop CPUs ship inside complete systems, that's a topic for another day. Note also that these are my rules of thumb. You may see things differently. When I've written these articles for other publications, I try to be dispassionate, but this time it's all about my choices.

    Let's run down each of these intersecting elements, shall we?

    Need

    I used to believe understanding your need to be the most important factor. I'm not convinced that's true any longer, mostly because even relatively low-end processors offer outstanding performance these days. Entry-level quad-core AMD processors can be had for under $100, while Intel's lowest-cost quad-core CPUs cost just a bit under $190, going back to Ivy Bridge, now three generations back. I'd steer away from dual-core desktop processors these days, since even web browsers now spawn multiple threads.

    Molding and Casting Tiny Prop Parts

    I don't know about you, but I tend to jump from one project obsession to another. Just as I was getting over my space gun prop obsession I slipped right into a deep fascination with tiny robot models. My current project is a 1:6 scale Mister Handy robot model from Fallout 4. The majority of it is 3D printed, but I'm molding and casting all of the parts for durability and so that I can make multiples of repeated parts like the arms and eyes.

    I've made a whole bunch of silicone molds in my career. Most of them have been of a moderate scale; roughly space pistol sized. Some of them, on the other hand, have been ridiculously large. For example, the District 9 alien rifle main body mold is over 44" long and took my wife and me 4 days to build.

    With this latest tiny robot project, I've gone in the opposite direction. The molds and pieces for such a small model kit are comically tiny compared to the rifle molds. Some of the parts for this pint sized robot are only a couple of centimeters long! Making gigantic molds and castings is extremely challenging, but I quickly learned with this new project that small molds have their own, different set of hurdles.

    Shop Tips: Working with Water-Based Clay

    In many of Frank's projects with us, he's used clay for both sculpting and mold-making. Today, we stop by his shop to learn about the different kinds of water-based clay he uses, along with his favorite sculpting tools. Post your own shop tips in the comments below!

    How To Build a $1000 Virtual Reality Gaming PC

    It's been too long since we've built a PC! We bring back illustrious technology journalist Loyd Case to talk about the state of computer hardware, the technical requirements of VR rendering, and then put together a $1000 virtual reality-ready gaming PC! Here's how to build a computer from scratch in seven steps. (This is the PC we've been using for all of our VR testing!)

    How to Balance 3-Blade Propellers

    I've often written about the importance of balancing the props on your multi-rotors and airplanes. An out-of-balance prop is only going to cause negative side effects to your equipment and rob your model of useful power.

    There are lots of tutorials out there that explain how to balance 2-blade props and I've touched on the process a bit in previous articles. It's a pretty straightforward procedure, so I won't rehash it here. Balancing 3-blade props, however, is a bit more challenging. Today, I'll explain how I tackle that task.

    When balancing 3-blade props, I use a magnetic balancer, tape, scissors to cut the tape, and a Sharpie to mark the blades.

    Inspection and Prep Work

    Regardless of how many blades your prop has, it's a good idea to inspect it before balancing. There can be deviations in manufacturing or during packaging that could create variances even among props produced in the same lot. If the prop has a thru-hole, I visually check to make sure that it is centered on the hub. This is especially important if you're working with second hand props. Some people use poor methods to enlarge prop holes and end up getting them off-center. I consider a misaligned thru-hole a death sentence for the prop. Toss it and move on.

    Another thing to look for is flash on the prop. Flash is thin, superfluous plastic along the outer edges of the prop. You plastic model builders out there know what I'm talking about. Flash is caused by leaks between the mold halves during the injection molding process. I trim it off with a hobby knife or sandpaper.

    It's best to just throw away a prop that has any sort of damage from a crash or other mishap.

    It's best to just throw away a prop that has any sort of damage from a crash or other mishap. The thin plastic blades on many smaller props are especially prone to damage. It can be tempting to massage a lightly damaged prop back into shape, but it can also be risky. There are two issues at hand if the damaged prop comes apart in flight. First of all is the potential danger of loose propeller blades sailing through the air. Secondly, the remaining parts of the prop will be extremely out of balance once the damaged blade parts company. The resulting vibration can shake an aircraft to pieces in an instant. I've seen it happen.

    If the only damage to a prop is scuffed blade tips from a tip-over, it can sometimes be salvaged. Just make sure there are no hidden hairline cracks or jagged edges. You should rebalance the prop before using it again.

    Shop Tips: Know Your Hot Glue Guns

    Every time Frank comes up to San Francisco to work on a project, he criticizes our hot glue guns. So we had to visit his shop to learn about Frank's favorite hot glue guns. For this week's Shop Tip, Frank explains the difference between high and low temperature hot glue, and how he uses each.

    How To Make Shiny Metal Prop Finishes

    Over the last month or so, I've been plugging away at building a replica of Rey's LPA NN-14 Blaster Pistol from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I suspect that the prop in the movie was made from a combination of found objects and milled aluminum parts. Mine, on the other hand, was made from scratch and cast with urethane resin parts. This made achieving a similar, convincing metallic finish a bit of a challenge. There are lots of different ways to finish resin parts to look like metal. I could have gotten the pieces chromed or vacuum metalized, but those processes are a bit cost prohibitive. On the other end of the spectrum, I've had less than stellar results with rattle can "chrome" paints. So instead I opted for an airbrushed finish!

    I've dabbled a bit with Alclad II metallic lacquer paints in the past and have been looking for an excuse to get more familiar with them. This project provided the perfect opportunity to expand my paint collection a bit further and do some experimenting. Their paints are generally used together in a set of two or three combined finishes. To get a real metallic "shine" it's necessary to lay down your metal paint on a glossy black finish. You also want a way to protect that finish once it's all done. So I went with their glossy black finish, the "polished aluminum" paint, and their Aqua Gloss clear sealant.

    Note: All of this finishing work, aside from the priming, was done with an airbrush. I like my Iwata Eclipse gravity fed brush for this kind of work.

    Shop Tips: How To Pour from Large Containers

    We're starting a new series this week with effects artist Frank Ippolito: Shop Tips! Frank shares his favorite tools, techniques, and processes that he's acquired over the years running his own effects and fabrication shop. This week, we kick off with a seemingly simple task: pouring liquid material out of one gallon and five gallon containers.

    The Best Android Smartphones for Your Network (February 2016)

    We're on the verge of big things in the Android ecosystem. Well, you could make the argument that we always are, but this month in particular things are about to break loose. New phones from Samsung and LG are a lock for Mobile World Congress in a few weeks, but in the meantime there are still some excellent devices out there. Let's see what your options are, and when you should hold off.

    Carrier-branded Phones

    In recent months, I've cited the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 as the best devices you can get direct from your carrier. That's still true, but the Galaxy S7 and Lg G5 are only weeks away. Let's examine some of the rumors and compare that to what you can buy right now.

    The GS6 has a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel, which continues to be one of the best screens available on a smartphone. It's 1440p and the colors are amazing. At 5.1-inches, it's actually comfortable to use one-handed too. The reasonably sized and fantastic screen continues to be one of the primary selling points of this phone. Based on what I've heard from reliable sources, the Galaxy S7 will have the same resolution and form factor. The screen's characteristics will probably be improved, but not dramatically.

    The Galaxy S6 has an aluminum frame and Gorilla Glass front/rear panels, and the GS7 will be much the same. Samsung's phones feel solid, despite having glass rear panels. You can expect the GS7 to also have a non-removable battery like the GS6.

    Samsung still has the best overall camera available on an Android smartphone. Even if you buy it now, you won't be disappointed. The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16MP shooter with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 lens. The exposure quality and consistency are better than any other phone right now, even in low light. The GS7 will probably step down to a 12MP sensor, but with a much wider aperture for better low-light performance.

    Inside, the Galaxy S6 has an octa-core Exynos chip with four faster Cortex-A57 cores and four light-duty A53s. This was a stopgap measure to counter Qualcomm's 810 overheating issues, but the Galaxy S7 will reportedly switch back to a Snapdragon chip, the 820. This is one of the big reasons you might want to wait -- the GS7 will be faster and more power-efficient.

    The GS6 also has 3GB of RAM, 32/64/128GB of storage, and 2550mAh non-removable battery. It's very fast in daily use, but battery life is just average. I regularly see 4 hours of screen time in a single day, but some people are a little higher or lower. It's not going to make it through two full days, but a little more than one is feasible. The GS7 is said to have a larger battery, but the big improvement here is the addition of a microSD card slot. This isn't 100% yet, but it seems very likely.

    Making Props with the Inventables X-Carve CNC Router

    Greetings Tested readers! I'm Bill Doran, prop maker from Punished Props. You may recall the District 9 Alien Rifle project I did with the gang for last year's San Diego Comic-Con. That was a super fun collaboration and we're looking to do more of that in 2016. I'm also slated to write some articles for the site throughout the year. These articles will be on various subjects relevant to prop and costume making.

    Today I want to talk a little bit about CNC routing, particularly with the X-Carve from Inventables. Inventables reached out to a bunch of makers on YouTube to share some demo units and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one. I've built up my tool collection significantly in the past few years so I'm not hurting for options, but I was particularly excited about this machine, for a number of reasons.

    First, it's big. The version I received has a 1000mm x 1000mm cutting area. Compared to the 20" x 12" area in my Full Spectrum laser cutter, the X-Carve is a monster. The CNC router can also cut materials that would be dangerous in a laser (like PVC plastic) or materials that would be impossible in my laser (aluminum).

    The X-Carve can also cut materials into 3D forms, similar to my 3D printer, but it has a couple of distinct advantages over that machine as well. For starters, my Dremel Idea Builder is limited to just one material: PLA. The X-Carve can tackle just about any plastic or wood you throw at it. In many cases, it's also significantly faster than a 3D printer. The Z-axis depth is much more limited than the 3D printer at just a couple of inches, but as I said before, the X and Y axis can travel 1000mm in either direction; much more than my 3D printer.

    Does this make the CNC router the only tool I'll need in my shop? Of course not! It is, however, an extremely powerful and versatile tool that boosts what's possible in my small prop making shop. I'm really stoked to see what I can make it do. I'm also looking forward to the day when my CNC router, 3D Printer, and laser cutter are all running concurrent jobs while I cackle maniacally like a mad scientist. At least until they all become self aware and destroy humanity.