Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vortex Manipulator, Part 1

I present Captain Jack Harkness's Vortex Manipulator as seen in Doctor Who and Torchwood. This was a complicated build, and I'll be presenting it in two pieces. It's a long conversation, but I think there's some worthwhile stuff in here. Throughout, I'll point out some things that worked, a few that didn't, and what we might expect from Version Two, which may be built in the future.

Any attempt on may part to list all the bits and bobs in advance would result in sadness and rampant editing, so I'll talk about stuff as it comes up. Bear with me, and let's jump in.

The first step was looking up as much info as I could to begin my build. The fine folks at SciFi Hero had a wealth of shots in addition to what I had already found. In some ways, mine is patterned after the Vortex Manipulator Toy released in the UK. Price varies wildly, and suppliers to the US and Australia have been back ordered for up to a year at a time. Plus, some folks can't even get it to fit around their wrist. All that meant I was going to have to build my own (not that I wasn't gonna anyway).

So I took the clearest photo I could find and loaded it into AutoCAD. I traced all the elements and then scaled the drawing to the size I had determined with a high-end cardboard mockup:

The mockup got cut down to 3" when I was worried it would be too big, but some size issues regarding my snaps necessitated going back up to 3.5" square for the enclosure. That set my measurements for my drawing, and I printed off a bunch of the Manipulator plans I had made.

I spray-mounted the plans to an old gift card (a ready and nearly free supply of PVC plastic sheet). However, early cutting and shaping proved the card much harder to cut than anticipated, so I switched over to a 1/32" sheet of styrene plastic. Much friendlier material for my purposes. The PVC card would go on to serve as a measurement plate and appears in a few more pictures as we go.

The base of the Manipulator is a piece of 3/16" basswood. It also got a spray-adhered copy of the plans and was cut to shape with a break-away blade razor. I find the heavier blades cut through things like basswood and matte board more easily that my beloved X-Acto. I gave it some slop around the edges and sanded precisely up to shape using a Lego frame that gave me perfectly 90 degree edges. Note: Don't slide the Lego part back and forth unless you really want to mess up your Legos.

Once I got the basswood puck to shape, it was time to give a 3/16" round over. I wish I could tell you I fired up my Dremel Trio and just routed that thing, but Dremel doesn't make a 3/16" roundover. I could also say I popped down to the woodshop, but I'd still be lying. I did that stuff by hand. I took long slices of with a razor and did the final shaping by hand on a succession of sanding sponges. Light pressure controls how much you take off with each pass, and I took confidence in knowing it would mostly be under leather when I was done. Once it was shaped, I sliced the perimeter of the "grill" and carefully chiseled out the surface with an X-Acto #17 very, very carefully. Just like installing a strike plate on a door, I kept telling myself.

The woodworking portion completed, and therefore passing the point I was familiar with, I snipped a small piece of Amaco WireForm as the grill and glued it into place. Then I cut all the styrene face pieces apart and began attaching them directly to the puck. This was my first big mistake.

I had adhered the paper plans, assuming I would remove the paper with Goo Gone before application. Then I thought they might sand off. They didn't, really, and the Goo Gone eventually worked its way under the styrene pieces, dissolving the Super 77 under the paper on the basswood puck. A few frightening minutes later, I realized I had carefully glued all the plastic parts to a pieces of paper which no long adhered to my basswood base. Uh oh. I ended up gluing everything down a second time, no harm or foul, but it was nerve-wracking. So next time, remove the paper first. 

Happier days, shortly before I dissolved everything with an orange-scented Universal Solvent.

The "viewfinder" was a small feat in and of itself. My original plans called for a quarter inch viewfinder, but that proved much too large, so I trimmed everything down to the itty bitty size on the plans (just over an 1/8", as it turned out). I scribed the missing placement lines from the plans directly into the plastic and PlasticWelded them into place. The ended up with a slight but notable twist, which I'm comfortable calling Mistake #2. This whole assembly then got primed and painted with Rustoleum Bright Metallic Finish Silver. 

 You'll note I also drilled out a hole to accept the dummy LED I installed later in the process. The silver Manipulator got a wash in my default Black FutureWash (tm): 1 part water, 2 parts Future Floor Wax (a delicious-smelling floor product which is a gloss acrylic at water consistency) and a few drops black acrylic paint, stored in a dropper container with a BB for mixing. I use it on pretty much everything, the way most folks treat a beloved condiment or body fragrance.

That takes us to the end of Part 1. Stay tuned for our thrilling conclusion later tonight as I describe my foray into uncharted leather-working territory. What mistakes and discoveries lie ahead? Only the Shadow knows! Or you can go and read Part 2.


  1. The vortex manipulator tutorial is awesome! I'm using it to make one for my son for Christmas. Tonight I've put together the leather work, and your detailed instructions have saved me hours of grief. Thanks so much!

  2. Wow! I don't know if I will ever manage this but I'm sure going to try! Your instruction look clear enough, I might get it done for the next convention.

  3. The server that had the plans no longer exists