A friend planted an idea in my head that has already started to germinate, though it may not bear this year. He made mention that if he were to make cool costumes of the kind I mentioned, rather than using vacuformed plastic, he would use carbon fiber. I didn’t even realize carbon fiber parts manufacture was something hobbyists could do. I really need to stop thinking hobbyists are so limited.
Turns out, making parts out of carbon fiber isn’t all that difficult. It involves resin, which makes me a little sad, but it can achieve results at least as nice as HIPS1. On top of that, it’s substantially stronger as a result of being a composite and, oh yeah, carbon freaking fiber. It may also end up being lighter, though even if it’s heavier, it’s strength-to-weight ratio will be leaps and bounds beyond that of a plastic part.
Evidently, you can use carbon fiber to make all sorts of stuff: aerospace parts, automotive parts, cellos, or pretty much anything else you have a mold to put it in…like a costume. The process is straight-forward, if more time-consuming than vacuforming: make a mold, apply release agent, apply resin coat, lay down first layer of carbon fiber and press into mold, lay down additional resin/carbon fiber layers as desired for added strength/thickness, allow to set, release from mold. Trim, sand, polish, and so forth to taste. Done and done.
The obvious up side is that it doesn’t require nearly as much infrastructure (i.e. building a vacuform table). The downsides are working with resin and the cost. Low-grade carbon fiber2 costs around $20/yd2. HIPS, by comparison, costs $3/yd2. What you spend in infrastructure—I figure building a vacuform table with integrated plastic heating elements will cost me $150-$200—you quickly recoup in materials costs. I’m also not factoring in the resin costs into the carbon-fiber estimate.
I like the idea, though, so I may visit it in the future for a particularly special costume3. We shall see.