Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Project Dalek 2012: A Retrospective

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You may or may not have noticed that I have done very little in the way of blogging about Project Dalek since April. There is a very good reason for this. At a certain point, once I was well into the build, it began to progress, not forward, but outward. It becomes very hard indeed to track your progress linearly when there are so many irons in the proverbial fire. I tried to think of things to add to the blog, but there were so many things. Also, on Facebook I was employing a kind of photo-journalistic approach to the build. Small, bite-sized chunks of my progress, tracked with photos and brief comments. If we're friends on Facebook you likely are about as caught up as you care to be on the project. But that's not good enough. I started this blog with the intention of covering every step of the way, and I haven't done that. What I can do, however, is give you a little insight into the build. Why I decided to build a Dalek, how it went, and what I've learned. So, let's do that, shall we?

First of all, the build is complete. I finished Dalek Gan about two weeks ago inasmuch as I intended to finish him before GenCon 2012. There are a handful of upgrades and improvements that I'd like to make, but after the positively grueling pace I maintained for the better part of 7 months, I need to take a break before I tackle those smaller, fiddlier improvements. And so, as I said, Gan is complete. Observe:

This is the first photo of a Gan in his completed state, mere days before we left for GenCon. I have to say that I am very proud of him. When I began the project back in January, I had no idea just how much work I was in for. The skills involved were things I'd never even attempted so much of the project was on the job training. Some of it was successful, and some was not. The fiberglass for the dome was quite a mess. Fortunately I made a friend or two during the build who were much better at some of these disciplines than I.   The build cannot be said to be completely mine. There were a lot of people involved in one way or another. People assisted on design, various methods and techniques, educating me on the use of tools, ideas for parts, masters for molding and casting and a whole host of other things. No, the build was definitely not mine alone, even if the facilitation and planning was. I think I can safely claim the project as mine, but never the whole build. It takes a village to build a Dalek.

So, I'd like to thank everyone who made themselves available to help, or who contributed an idea, or a part, or even a compliment or word of encouragement. The result of the project is a fun homage to a great show and a great sci-fi monster, but the last 7 months have been very challenging and sometimes stressful like any ambitious project. Let me tell you, I had a great time and learned a lot, but sticking with it was tough and I am extremely glad that Gan is finally built! A special thanks to my wife, Michelle, who tolerated my long hours in the shop and obsessive Dalek talk, along with the scattered parts and messes that went along with it. She, too, is glad Gan is finished. :)

So, as I said, a little insight into how the build went. Very well I think. And I think better than I ever hoped it would. I think I made something that was beyond my skill to make, and of that I am very proud. In the language of my people, I would say that I rolled a 20 on an untrained skill. Gan has flaws, but then so do I. So the next thing...why build a Dalek?

Initially, I just thought it would be a fun idea and I'd learn some useful skills. Both true as it happens. As I thought more about it though, there were more reasons. The main one that keeps popping up in my head when I think about it is that I want to create one of those moments for someone that you remember the rest of your life. Everyone has them. Things that you see or do that you just don't forget. Some are good and some are bad, but they're indelible. And I think maybe the Dalek is capable of doing that. This past weekend, Gan made his first public appearance at GenCon 2012. It's a great costume because you're completely anonymous in there. People don't see you and so there's some illusion there. They KNOW it's not really a Dalek, but there it is all the same, and that makes an impression.

I knew I had achieved something based on the fact that Gan was completely mobbed most of the time during the 4 to 5 hours I was able to spend out in the hallways with him. The kids were the best! most of them would approach very cautiously so their parents could get a picture, but they couldn't take their eyes off of the Dalek. Many would carefully poke at the skirt, or lean up and try to see if there was someone inside, but they were amazed, scared and delighted, and that made the whole thing worth it. Here are a couple of pictures from GenCon:

Gan made a lot of people happy, and that was my goal. People talked to him and interacted in a lot of different ways and everyone who knew what Gan was wore enormous grins. Isn't it funny how a monster that is supposed to be the epitome of evil can make people clap, laugh and smile? Several people even gave Gan a kiss on his eyestalk or hugged him. Most of them even asked permission, sounding every bit the 10 year old kid when they did. It was awesome!

So, what have I learned?

I could do an entire blog on the things I've learned, or at least had affirmed, during Project Dalek 2012. There are a couple of things I can take away that perhaps aren't news, but it's good to see them in practice. 

First, the best way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. I'd get discouraged if I tried to look at the whole project. The only way to continue sometimes was to focus on one small thing and finish it. I had lists and lists of very small parts of the project. Checking things off of a list is incredibly empowering.

Second, the amazement and wonder of one person makes the entire project worth it. That was without a doubt the best part.

So, this is really just the end of the beginning for Gan. I plan to take him places, improve him, and hopefully show him to a lot of people. Project Dalek 2012 is complete, but the fun is just starting! Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the adventures of Gan!


Wednesday, April 25, 2012


     I have been hard at work for the past couple of weeks on some of the small pieces that will all be needed as Gan's main body begins to take shape. Of particular interest this week, as I mentioned briefly in the last post, is the casting of the surrounds for the hemispheres which cover the skirt, along with the trim blocks that adorn the neck struts of the new series Daleks.

     The best thing about this work, is that I am finally making actual Dalek parts! The trouble with fabricating a TV monster out of thin air is that many of the pieces require special tools that you can't walk into Lowe's or Home Depot and buy. And so, first you have to make the tools. But wait! In order to make that tool, first you have to make the tool to make the tool! This is a common 'making' process. And so, I've been working on the plug, to make the mold, to make the dome. And I poured the mold, to make the surrounds and neck blocks. Fortunately, the examples provided to me by a generous builder have saved me a great deal of sculpting and crafting. I have already posted a picture of the poured silicone, but here is a shot of the RP-40 liquid plastic as it is curing in the now finished molds.

     I needed to make 56 surrounds and 24 neck blocks. The plastic I ordered was precisely enough to make that, plus 1 extra of each. I was pleasantly surprised to find that RP-40 has a very quick curing time. 15 minutes! And so, I was able to cast all of these parts in about 2 days time. The process was fairly dull, as you might imagine, but fascinating as the plastic hardened right in front of me and it was cool to watch. All I did was level my molds, mix the two parts of the plastic together, pour, and wait a couple of minutes for the reaction to start. It was during that window of time that I inserted my bolts for the surrounds. I was even able to video the curing plastic once. Here's a video that will show you exactly how fast this stuff sets up:

     I'll be using quite a bit more of the RP-40, carried by Dascar Plastics, by the way. The same guy who sent me the parts, also turned me on to them. If it's alright with him, I'll link over to a video or two of his Dalek, which is quite impressive.

     So, after all of that leveling, mixing, pouring and waiting, here is the result:

     You can see all of the surrounds, the blocks, and my two panels and gun bosses in this shot. I decided, for cost reasons, not to mold the panels and bosses. I have to save where I can, because I had to buy way too many hole saws just the other day so I could complete another part of Gan. I am currently working on finding acceptable parts for the eyeball, but I do have this so far...

     That isn't the actual eye I'm going to use. Just a piece I was playing with using a toilet float. Not too shabby for $3, but I can do better. Anyway, the part I wanted to show is the rest of the stalk with the rings finished. I cut them from a sheet of plexiglass with the hole saws and thermoformed them around a bowling ball to get the curvature, then sanded them to a frosted appearance. I'm quite pleased with them, even if I did have to buy some fairly specialized and expensive tools to make them happen.

     So, what's coming up? I have ordered my gelcoat, having exhaused all of my local options. No shops I could find actually carry it. I checked marine, auto body, and pool. No dice. So I ordered a gallon and bought my resin and a chemical mask, which I will later turn into the housing for my microphone while piloting. (That sounds way cooler than driving, or puttering) I hope to be able to lay up my dome mold this weekend. If the gelcoat arrives in time, that's my plan. And so, maybe we'll see a dome by the end of next week? Along with the dome, I'll be working on finishing the surrounds, and beginning to plan the neck. The project is really moving and shaking now. My confidence is high, and my productivity is good. It's looking like a GenCon premiere for Gan! Just remember, you knew him when he was a pile of wood, metal and plastic in my utility room and my friend's garage.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Get A Head - The Dome: Part 1

     The Dome. This process has been just as unfamiliar to me in terms of skills, as the voice modulator. I have been feeling my way along with it just as I did there, consulting the Project Dalek website, and various more experienced people. I decided this would be a good opportunity to catch you up on how the process is developing.

We begin here:

     This is a shot of the beginning materials for the construction of the dome plug. In order to make the finished dome, you have to make two other things first. You have to make the plug, which should be an exact copy of the finished product (at least in its dimensions, some detailing is added later). Then, you have to make a fiberglass mold of the plug. Once that's finished, you can finally create the cast of the mold, which produces your usable Dalek cranium.
     To begin the plug, you have to build the jig to form the correctly shaped profile. As such:

     It's simple a base, an upright post, and a forming block. I rotated this former around the post a great many times. I used plaster, as a lot of people do, to build up the surface over a core. I used 3" blue foam, since I already had a lot of it on hand in the basement.

     Once the foam core was created, it was just a matter of layer upon layer of plaster. Mix, apply and wait. I applied about 15 layers of plaster of paris, and then about 5 more coats of patching plaster, which allowed me to work the surface longer. (I am terrible with plaster so I needed the extra time to get it right!) Fast forward about 15-17 hours and weeks of waiting.

     I ended up with a believable facsimile of a Dalek dome after what my former pottery instructor would call "excessive cat-licking".  I applied a layer of pond sealer to waterproof the dome, and was a little dismayed at the roughness of it, so I sanded it down and took the advice of another building by applying a nice hard polyurethane shell. About 12 coats. Apply, Wait, Sand, Apply....etc...

     And here we have it! This is the finished plug. I'll be fiberglassing it to make my mold as soon as I manage to get all of the materials I need. I'm also moving the dome to a garage for that part. The plaster was messy enough, but I absolutely don't want to risk getting fiberglass resin on my utility room floor. That will be part 2 of the Dome blog.

     Finally, I have also been working on some of the small parts. Little bits here and there that I'll need when the body is finished. Another builder I met on the forums was kind enough to help me out with some parts to mold and cast from, which has saved me a lot of time and effort. There will be more specifics on that as we go, but here's a shot of some poured silicone molds of said parts, just to keep you interested. The suspense is killing you, right? ;)

That's it for now. Coming soon, Dome Part 2, as well as another trip to Columbus to work with Aaron on the main stack of the body. Stay tuned, constant reader!


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Introducing: Dalek Gan

     I mentioned briefly on Facebook that I had chosen a name for my Dalek, but I was waiting to disclose it. I wanted to live with it a bit and make sure that it fit well. I wanted something that sounded like it could fit with the names given by the Cult of Skaro in the new series, as my Dalek is one of the redesigned ones for the 2005 season. So, I started thinking about names awhile back, and before long one stuck in my head. The name itself comes from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, but I'm not attempting to draw any other inspiration from those books. I just thought the name sounded right for a Dalek. Caan, Sec, Jast, Thay and Gan. See?
     And so, I introduce Dalek Gan. But also, he'd like to say something. That's right, I have a quick sound bite of Dalek Gan in his own (read: my) voice. The modulator being completed, Gan is now able to express his intentions to the world. Listen here.
     That's about it for now, other than the fact that I have updated my hours on the right. And I also have found someone to borrow a trailer from (Aaron's dad in fact) in order to transport Gan from place to place as we work on him. I am still looking into a hitch receiver for the xA. I have researched it and it looks like the Dalek and trailer will be well under the xA's tow limit. I'll keep you posted on any new developments!

Stay Tuned!

Monday, February 20, 2012

It Begins: A Dalek's First Steps

     It has been a long, productive, long, very long weekend! I took advantage of the long President's Day weekend and loaded up the Jazzy 1113 Power Chair in the very tiny Scion xA, bound for the home of my friends Aaron and Michele. (Thank you very much for the great time) I realized early on I'd have to try and get Aaron in on the design of the Dalek. His camaraderie, skill set and mig welder (As I expected) have proven absolutely indispensable. In short, from this past Friday night until early this afternoon, we lived in Aaron's garage, burning our respective candles at both ends. After a hard work week's worth of hours in a single weekend, we have made an incredible step forward in the build. It's epic really, as you're about to see. So, let me elaborate upon what we did this weekend by posting a series of pictures and giving you the nickel tour.

     Here is where we begin. A trip to Home Depot, a lot of careful measuring and some holes placed to allow the as yet to be designed frame to rest against the fender bottom while allowing the wheels to contact the ground and roll freely. I'd like to note that such is my experience that at this point I was already excited to see the build beginning to resemble a Dalek. And also a startled Tiki Mask.

     This is an early picture of the angle steel frame, which Aaron welded using some leftover stock he had in the garage. These are the wheels and motors from the Jazzy. The only difference is that we mounted them upside down for additional ground clearance. We didn't want to build a Dalek with a 1 foot clearance. They aren't classically "off-roaders".

     In order to show you what most of our time was spent doing, I'm putting this one up here. Each piece of the frame was cut to length and placed one at a time. We just kept plugging away at it, and by the end of the first day, we had a little something like this:

     This picture shows the completed base frame. It's a very simple and very effective design and I give credit to Aaron for putting it together on the fly and coming up with a killer result! We can stand and bounce on it without any trouble. If it will hold up to the abuse we dealt during the build, it will do just fine when cruising about looking for inferior beings to exterminate. The only modification to the wooden base that we made was to widen the wheel holes considerably to allow for them to flex and to keep them from rubbing.

     Here is a picture of Aaron on one of our many test drives during the design and building process. We had yet to fasten the wooden bottom firmly to the frame and it dragged a bit, but once we tightened everything down, it ran like a champ.

     I must take a moment to note that the voice modulator was also completed this weekend and the Dalek's first words were spoken. The best part about this experience is that the very first thing that my Dalek ever did vocally was to sing "Behind Blue Eyes" by The Who. This was completely unintentional, but we realized the next day just how appropriate the song was for a Dalek to sing. Voice clips of the Dalek in its true voice (meaning me speaking through the box) are forthcoming. As soon as I can get a good speaker/microphone setup we're in business. I also have a clip of the Dalek's very first "Exterminate!" but I need to clean up the clip. Soon, though!

     I'll jump ahead to the completed fender. I say completed, but what I mean is, all the pieces are cut and nailed/glued into place. There is a lot of body filler and sanding to come here as well as a rubber overlay. The observant will notice that we had to alter the front  supports for the pivot wheel. We were going to run into issues with the skirt if we didn't. At this point, the wood work was done and we got started on the portion of the project that would take the rest of the time. The skirt skeleton:

     Here you can see the beginnings of the skeleton base. We were moving along, cutting each piece to length and making it fit just inside the footprint of the actual skirt measurements. The idea is to bolt the panels onto this frame and eliminate a lot of need for bulky internal wooden supports as dictated by the official plans. As a result, I believe we will definitely have a lot more breathing room inside.

     This is a shot of the skeleton beginning to take shape. We were very particular as we went along to make sure that the angles of the ribs were correct. If you get this part of the Dalek right, not only is the rest easier, but if this part isn't right, then it doesn't really look like a true Dalek and you end up with an approximation. Needless to say we were careful. As we went on, we fell into a pretty good rhythm, with Aaron on the ground welding and marking pieces of steel, and then I'd cut them to length and grind edges. Before it was over, we were looking like a pair of seasoned Dalek builders. Just ask Aaron's wife. She was absolutely blown away by our skill. Yeah. Sure she was. ;)

     And here you have it. This is a shot that I took just before I left Columbus. The skeletal frame even has a removable panel for accessing internal electronics and the like. Initially it was for entry as well, but we discovered that it was quite fast and easy to step over the back and onto the seat to enter, and a little troublesome to work the wing nuts from the inside.
     So you can see that we accomplished a lot of work for one weekend. I'll be adding everything up and updating the hours along with linking Aaron's gallery of the weekend. Everything went very well. I'll be making another trip to Columbus again before too long to do another (shorter) weekend with Aaron. He's every bit as excited about the project as I am so he's agreed to work with me some more on it. We work pretty well together and it was demonstrated more than once this weekend that two heads are better than one. The only big issue this weekend was that I couldn't fit the completed portion of the Dalek into my car. I should have seen that coming, but there you have it. I had to leave it in their garage, and I'm now considering how best to transport a project that is bigger than the back seat of your car. I'm looking at trailers and hitches and hoping to find a deal. As many accommodations as have to be made for the Dalek, though, I'm still very much looking forward to continuing and finishing. I absolutely can't wait to unveil him this summer.

More to come!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Voice Modulator Update


     There you have it! This is a shot of my modulator in its current state. All of the soldered components are on the board. The next steps are heat sinks, fitting it into the project box and wiring it out to all of the peripheral components. Honestly it may be some time before I have everything in place to really test things out, but I am pleased with the progress so far. I didn't feel uncomfortable at all soldering this together. I was very careful concerning heat and static, but we'll see if I was careful enough before long. I do have spare ICs in case I ruined them somehow. (Those were inserted after this picture was taken, but they're in too.)
     I'm going to be shopping for the peripheral parts of the sound system in the coming days, but I now also look ahead to the next phase. As I mentioned briefly, I'd like to get the fender and base of the Dalek together, as it will power and support the rest of him. This will involve welding, which is a discipline I am hesitant to simply jump into, buy equipment for and have a go. Fortunately for me, I do have a good friend a short drive away who is going to be assisting me (yet again) in matters Dalek. He's got some welding chops, and a garage, which is perfect. I'll just show up with some wood and a Jazzy scooter, and off we'll go!
     I hope I'll pick up some welding skill or at least an introductory familiarity with it. Enough not to burn my, or anyone else's face off. That's what a large part of this project is about anyway. (Not burning my face off, but skill acquisition)
     A quick story about how this crazy project has already been validated for usefulness in the real world:
     At work this week, I was confronted with a problem. a $2500 ID Badge Printer had been damaged and was brought in for me to inspect. The USB connector on the back of the printer had been yanked and was broken. Quickly researching the parts, I found that the circuit board containing the damaged connector would cost the company $600. Better than a whole new printer, of course, but still not small change. So, I tried something else.
     We had an old laser printer collecting dust on my shelf. And yes, this laser printer used the same USB-B connection that the fancy ID printer used, so what did I do? I drove home and grabbed the electronics kit I've been assembling for the Dalek. I was able to desolder the component I needed from the laser as well as the broken one from the ID printer, and replace it. Cost? The price of a single Torx driver that I needed to get at the ID printer's board. So, just like that, $600 saved all because of a Dalek Voice Modulator.
     More to come on the Modulator, as well as the base. Stay tuned!


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Continued work on the Voice Modulator

     Tonight was a good, productive night. I can now say with a fair degree of certainty that the circuit board is complete. The exception is that I will probably try to transfer the component side artwork over to the PCB. Functionally though, I have it!

From this:

To this!

     Before long, I'll be putting my newly practiced soldering skills to work. I'm a little nervous about screwing it up, but if that happens, I still have enough board for more attempts. No worries.
     So far the hour count is at about 5.5 which includes the etching and other PCB prep. I think I'll add some kind of widget to keep track of the build hours. I'll be interested to see just how long it takes from start to finish. Watch for that over on the right.
     In other news, my shop manual arrived from the UK today. It's the one document that you have to purchase from Project Dalek if you're serious about building one. Coming in at about $12, it appears to be well worth the cost it'll save me in guesswork. I haven't gotten the opportunity to read it cover to cover yet, but that's the next immediate task. I'll have some decisions to make about how I'm planning to build certain parts and out of which materials. Naturally, all of that will be reported to you, faithful readers! I'm talking especially to you, my 3 followers! I hope to one day have as many as 5. I know. We can all dream. :)
     I'll report in on my thoughts after reading my shop manual. Until then, thanks for dropping by!