The FF Toy That Exists Nowhere Else!

By | Friday, April 01, 2022 Leave a Comment
At the start of the week, I said that I'd managed to "fan a spark of curiosity" that I think has helped get back into reading comics more actively, Fantastic Four in particular. That started last year as I kept seeing more and more disparate supply chain issues pop up seemingly at random. My wife and I are pretty good planners when it comes to our own supplies and such, so we never had anything we ourselves ran out of, but there were more than a few instances of our own stockpiles running very low as we had trouble finding some items. Everything from coffee and soda to a home furnace. In light of that, it occurred to me that if I had a 3D printer, I would be able to simply make many of the items that might prove difficult to find and/or might be cost-prohibitive because of low supples.

Despite sounding super high-tech and expensive, it turns out that you can get any of several 3D printers for under $200 now. Which isn't nothing, of course, but that's not unreasonable either, I don't think. After putting in a fair amount of research, I picked an inexpensive one up last fall and started learning how make my own stuff. My intent with was largely practical. Again, what can I print myself now that would otherwise be problematic to purchase? The first thing I printed were small clips to hold the valences up on our bedroom blinds -- I couldn't find any in stores or online that matched the old ones well enough that I was confident they'd be suitable replacements for the broken ones. Next was a wall mount I designed for our shower brush and its various heads, which had previously just been kind of laying about in various corners because it didn't really fit anywhere. I had the printer running virtually 24/7 for the first two months while I was churning out a backlist of items for minor fixes and improvements throughout the house.

I've kept the printer running pretty heavily since then as well with sporadic breaks as I might take a few days to sort out some problem, or finish a new design, or wait for a new spool of filament to arrive. But I've by and large used it exactly as I hoped it would be able to. When the wheel mount for the vacuum cleaner broke, I was able to find someone had already posted a design for one online and I had it downloaded, printed, and installed in about two hours -- a fair bit quicker than the 30-45 days it would've taken if I had ordered an official replacement to be shipped from China. Even the cap on my X-Acto knife was replaced in 30 minutes -- it would've taken me at least that long to drive out anywhere where I might be able to pick one up, and then drive back home.

But, of course, you can print more fun stuff as well and I would from time to time set aside some time to make something a little more frivolous. I found designs online for Twiki (from Buck Rogers), B-9 (from Lost in Space), and K-9 (from Doctor Who) that I scaled for 6" action figures and printed out. Which is (finally) where I circle back to the Fantastic Four!

I've had a variety of Fantastic Four action figures over the years, going back to the Mego ones I had as a kid in the 1970s. However, there was never much in the way of accessories. The "Marvel World" playset from Amsco did include a Baxter Building, but that only worked for the smallest figures. ToyBiz produced a Fantasticar in conjunction with the late '90s cartoon, but it alwys felt cheaply made and I didn't care much for the design anyway. The only other one I can think of was the Fantasicar they made in conjunction with the 2007 movie, but that was a godawful design! And we did get part of model 1 Fantasticar with one of the Mr. Fantastic figures, but they never made any of the other sections.

In 1997 or '98, I did make a Four Freedoms Plaza playset for myself. It was mostly cardboard, with one room basically just a re-purposed Star Trek: The Next Generation engineering playset. As that was mostly cardboard, though, that died when my basement flooded in 2010. Since then, I've moved to a place where I don't have room for an action figure metropolis anyways, so I've never bothered to rebuild it.

Ah, but with a 3D printer, I could make something smaller than an entire playset but still larger than a figure, more detailed and durable than cardboard. Something that's never been commerically produced before but with virtually the same quality level. Perhaps most importantly, I can make it to my specifications. So now that I've gotten (at least for now) all my practical printing done, I've been putting my efforts towards the Fantastic Four's first Fantasticar, colloquially named the Flying Bathtub!
I had actually looked online to see if anyone had made one already. And while there do seem to be a handful of 3D designs for them out there, none were in a format I could use. So in going about designing my own, what were the criteria I put in place? Well, first -- and seemingly most obvious -- it needed to be scaled so that it could house Marvel Legends Fantastic Four figures. They have the widest range in body sizes/types, and it would be easy enough from there to scale up to 8" Megos or down to 2" Mini-Mates or whatever. Second, it should be built as a toy. Meaning that it's less about being 100% accurate to the comic book (which, given that no one ever drew it consistently, would be impossible anyway) and more about having just enough believability in detail that a kid could look at it as a toy and come up with plausible enough explanations for any buttons, lights, etc. that might be on it, but not so many that it becomes visual noise. Third, it should match the "functionality" of the Flying Bathtub in that all four cabs should be able to separate and come back together in a reasonable manner without a lot of connectors and hookups that might significantly alter the asthetic. Basically, I didn't want this ugly tab/slot or peg/hole system visible when the four cabs were separated.

For design purposes, I use a free, online program called Tinkercad. It mostly only allows basic shapes -- which is fine for creating some kind of mounting bracket, but not so great for designing toys -- but I was able to borrow a few elements from others' 3D models to add some detail. Many of the controls, for example, were literally copy/pasted from a model of the captain's chair from Star Trek. The headlamps were a cosplay prop someone had made for their kid, and the turbines on the underside were just from a turbine model someone made. Pretty much everything else are just boxes and cylanders joined in a variety of ways.

I wanted to use magnets to hold the four cabs together and, although you can't really see them in any of these pictures, I carved out spaces for them in the backs of the seats. The idea was that by using magnets, I could just stick the pieces up next to each other and they'd hold in place, satisfying my requirement of not have external connection points visible when the cabs are separated. My initial tests with them seemed to work well, but with all four cabs and the weights of the figures, I couldn't get strong enough magnets to keep the whole thing together by itself. Each connection point currently has a magnet with an 8lb pull. But because I've got six millimeters of plastic between them, they lose just enough strength that they can't hold an entire cab in place. That's acually where the "bumper" idea came from. Coupled with the magnets, a single band around the top is enough to hold everything together pretty securely. I'd prefer not to deal with having to put this bumper around the whole thing every time I keep them together, but it does add a nice bit of color/detail to an otherwise pretty bland exterior.

The photos you're seeing here show the piece incomplete. I've been having a lot of difficulty with the dark blue printing properly (the filament is from a different company than I normally use; they have some great colors but their filaments can be very finicky) so the seat cushions are actually in really bad shape and all need to be re-printed. I've actually been wrestling with that most of this week. Because of that, I haven't glued most of the pieces in place yet, and they're prone to flopping around and falling out. (The control panels are only being held in with double-sided tape right now!) I really wanted to have everything completed by the end of this week, but it's not quite there yet. Once I'm sure everything is perfectly spot-on, I'll upload my files so that anyone can make their own. If anyone's curious about the design process I went through, I did a Twitter thread where I've posted a short background and a number of my progress shots.

I'm really proud of the design and basic functionality, moreso that it's been less than two weeks since I first started this and many of my prototypes took a full day or longer to print. I was especially pleased I was able to do some clever problem-solving around the various design issues that came up. I know I'm going to be thrilled with this once I get everything finalized and completely assembled. I can't imagine how stoked I would've been if I'd had this capability when I was a kid!

But yeah, learning 3D printing over the past several months has been very energizing and envigorating. At first being able to make tools that had practical applications around the house, and now being able to create full-on toys that I would've loved to have as a kid! It's that kind of curiosity and (mental) exploration that helped draw me to the Fantastic Four, and I think being able to tie the actual learning process back to the characters has been very satisfying.
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