Planet Express Ship, Futurama (part 2)

At the end of part 1, the Planet Express ship was earning its name in shape only; I had a Futurama ship, but it needed a coat of electric mucus in order to look the part. My master sculpt is also quite fragile and will need molding and casting before the parts can be finished and painted.

Moldmaking comes first, and the fuselage was up on deck. It was mounted shish kebab style on a steel rod and slathered in clay. Admittedly I’m still getting the hang of matrix molding, but practice should eventually make perfect (or at least perfect enough)

Matrix molding is a process by which you make the exterior mold jacket first by sculpting the shape you eventually want your silicone mold to take out of clay first. This is then covered in a rigid shell – polyester resin followed by glass fiber cloth in this case – and allowed to cure before opening it up and removing the soft clay surrounding the part you’re molding.

The master sculpt – ship fuselage – is then placed back into the rigid mold jacket and silicone is poured into the space between the master and the jacket, creating the soft rubber mold that will be used to replicate the form.

Like I said, I’m still getting the hang of this so my process is a bit sketchy right now. Specifically, the registration lines are far too tall and narrow, and I neglected to add any pour spouts in my mold jacket for the rubber to be added in later on. Learning is “fun”!

Still, the results are what we’re after here and they’re pretty darn good! The silicone I used here is Smooth-On’s Smooth Sil 940. A little thicker than I’d like for this mold, but if I’d added larger pour spouts and wider registration channels, it would have been fine.

The rest of the molds are pretty conventional block pours like I’ve done many times in the past. Embed the part halfway in clay, pour the first layer of silicone and allow to cure. Flip the part over, apply mold release, repeat.

These ranged from smaller detail parts…

…to much larger blocks for the wings and tail fin.

Typically I don’t add pour spouts until after the part has been molded. I’ve found that trimming pour and vent spouts out with a sharp knife is much easier than trying to sculpt them into the clay while making your parting seam. You will see the lines where I plan on making the pour/vent cuts though in larger molds like the wings. Drawing a line in the clay means I know where to put the registration keys so I don’t have to carve a weird maze between the lumps and bumps later on.

All of the block molds were made with Smooth-On’s Mold Max 40. This stuff is some of my favorite rubber to work with; it’s very forgiving stuff.

A few test pieces were cast in Smooth Cast 320. The smaller stuff has to be pressure cast in a chamber at 60psi to reduce air bubbles. Since gas is compressible but liquid is not, putting uncured resin into a pressure chamber reduces the size of air voids to near microscopic levels. This helps with the amount of clean up needed once the part is extracted from the mold after curing. This was especially necessary for the ship’s engine, since the super thin walls of the thruster nozzles really like to trap bubbles.

The front staircase/landing skid was a somewhat trickier piece. This is a 3 part mold with a plug insert. It’s complex but it means the seam lines are as hidden as possible and there’s virtually zero trapped air after pressure casting.

While these aren’t in the final build of the ship, I went ahead and made a few landing strut inserts for an “in flight” version of the ship. If I ever make one for myself (hahaha) I’ll probably do the flying variant.

Since I spent a lot of time thinking of the final assembly when designing the parts, putting these castings together went pretty quickly. The wings have large tabs that insert easily into the body and the turret just plops into place as well. A couple of other parts required more complex solutions, however.

The staircase skid connects to its mounting plate with four pins – two on each side of the strut. The plate itself screws into the base of the ship, and the skid snaps into place later. The tension of the plastic holds it in place easily.

I chose to use small neodymium magnets for the landing bay hatch. Easily removable but strong enough to not come dislodged accidentally.

Here’s the first completed set of castings awaiting painting and electronics!

Speaking of electronics, let me show you some of the assorted lengths of wire I used. The plan was that each ship – for some idiotic reason I has chosen to build three of them – would have pulsating engines, illuminated wing tips and a drop light on the front stair skid. This would all be controlled by an arduino prop mini and powered by a 5V USB adapter.

I designed a simple LED driver breakout board in Eagle, and had my boards printed by OSH Park. Parts were sourced through DigiKey and soldered together.

Power would be delivered through a jack hidden in the front landing skid. The wire would run up through the stairs and into the main body.

Each wing was drilled out to receive a set of wires and one red 3mm LED. As you can see by the small patches of filler, I wasn’t always able to core these things out first try.

The engine illumination would be handled by several 5mm soft blue 360º LEDs. There are 6 banks of 3, spaced apart and pulsing at random intervals that give the engines the firing look seen in the show. Each bulb was glued to a spacer to keep it centered in the thruster housing, then individual resistors and wire leads were added. I did this 54 times. Then I lost two of them, so I did two more. Woo.

For the wing tips, I made a small mold and cast these in Smooth Cast 325, which dries semi-clear. these act as diffusers for the 3mm red LEDs embedded in the wings themselves.

I also wanted a nice cratered cartoony planet surface for the ship to rest on, so I put a little oil on the rusty clay sculpting skills and knocked this out. I’m not the best organic sculptor in the world but I really liked the end result! The clay used was my crappy cheap non-sulfur stuff I use for making mold walls. This was then molded and a few copies were cast.

One last tiny detail were the ladder rungs next to the starboard wing. These were made from brass tubing and countersunk into the ship fuselage.

It was finally time for paint.

The simpler parts went first. Landing struts and porthole inserts were painted with airbrush Testors enamel, and I basecoated some parts on the ship fuselage.

I was trying out a few new things with the paintwork here. Typically when making space guns, there’s no shortage of black, silver and gray paint. Retail stores didn’t seem to carry the electric mucus necessary for a proper PlanEx paint job though, so I decided to mix my own. I went with Createx “Wicked Colors” paint here, though there was a steep learning curve and I think in the future I’ll probably try their “Auto Air” line instead.

I ran a lot of tests with various clearcoats to get the proper finish and shade to my liking. The lower middle was what I eventually settled on.

Unfortunately I ran into some issues when painting the actual parts. When they say “thin passes” they mean atomized. Just think the paint toward your model. Whisper the paint onto your model with a soft elvish lullaby. There exists somewhere an integer that is somehow more than zero but less than any actual amount observable by man. That is the amount of paint used per coat.

If you overdo it, this happens. The base layer never fully cures and the paint peels off like elmer’s glue off a third grader’s palm.

So I peeled all the paint off the fins, but learned enough to get everything else right. Here’s passes 1, 4, and 8 on the ship body.

Similar work was done to all other Electric Mucus parts

The fins were basecoated a darker green… then the masking began. Over the course of this project, I spent $80 on tape. To get crisp lines when masking off painted areas, spray a light pass of clearcoat across your seam first. This will fill in any of the small gaps in the masking tape that result in feathering or paint seeping under your tape line, leaving you with a crisp clean edge. It also helps to use good quality tape – the stuff I’m using here is Tamiya brand. Pricey but well worth it.

The body of the ship was masked off no less than six separate times for the tan, red, dark green and gray accents. Here’s a few highlights:

Smaller masking details were trimmed with my laser cutter. For the rivets on the fins, I laid tape over transfer paper then cut out small diameter circle masks. Similar curved shapes were trimmed for the masks needed to paint the front windscreen surround.

The final touch was a set of water slide decals I’d had printed for the fins. Despite their white backing the dark green background washed out the colors a lot and I ended up masking off a section behind the decal help the colors stand out.

Unfortunately the process of printing these decals uses some chemical that is wholly incompatible with the clearcoats I use. I tried several different others with little success, and this left the water slide decals very vulnerable to damage. Despite the effort to get them to work, the water slides were eventually shelved and replaced with a set of printed vinyl decals instead.

With all parts masked, painted, cleaned and clearcoated, it was finally…


I put together a video of this process, since videos are way more fun to watch than a blog is to read. Mainly the parts are held together with Loctite epoxy, however, in retrospect I would recommend 3M Scotch Weld as a better adhesive. Make sure to scrape away layers of paint before gluing together though, otherwise the only thing the epoxy is sticking to is fragile paint and clearcoat.

One thing I would like to point out is my luck in finding a piece of tube that centered the LEDs perfectly in the thrusters during assembly. Electrical connectors, woo!

The LED in the forward strut is one of my favorite accents on this piece. That’s just a single 5mm 45º bulb.

I created three painted bases for the three ships. The green one takes its color palette from Omicron Persei 8, the purple base emulates the colors of Eternium, the Nibbloniam homeworld, and the red/purple base was an exaggerated version of Futurama‘s Mars. There are felt pads where the ship stands to keep the plastic base from scratching up the paint on the landing struts. The bases were mounted to stained pieces of poplar to give the finished piece a bit cleaner presentation.

Add a few small white lines across the blue window areas, and they’re done! I had honestly expected this project to be far less complicated than it was, but by the end I think it rivaled the Needler in terms of complexity. My friend Dan Almasy did some amazing work documenting the final result. Enjoy:

As always there are a huge assortment of other progress photos and explanations available on my flickr page if you’re interested in more detail. The photos are all huge resolution too!

For larger versions of these photos, be sure to look in the portfolio gallery.
Thanks for reading, and FAREWELL, from the WORLD OF TOMORROW!
All of the products listed in this write up are the products that I used and can recommend. Some of them are provided as Amazon affiliate links, which help support Volpin Props.