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May 25th, 2010

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08:32 pm - Creating the Airship Camille
Behind the cut is a long and picture-intensive description of how I built the steampunk airship Camille.

Airship at Arisia
At the Arisia Masquerade

Dr. Von Fishbottle's Personal Airship Apparatus
a.k.a the Airship Camille

I'm going to explain how I made my personal steampunk airship, but of course this is not the only way one could go about it. Feel free to use this description as a starting point and experiment with your own ideas for design and materials.

Additionally I have made some notes and warnings about the practical realities of wearing a very tall prop strapped to your back. While I would love to see a flotilla of personal airships at some future steampunk event, if we're all banging into the light fixtures and our fellow attendees, we'll become very unwelcome very quickly. Have fun and be safe!


The airship prop was originally built as a masquerade (costume contest) entry for Arisia, a science fiction convention held in January 2010 in Boston. It reappeared with a few improvements at the Steampunk Festival in Waltham, MA in early May, and then at the Steampunk World's Fair (SPWF) in Piscataway, NJ two weeks later.

The idea for building the airship partly came from my experience at DragonCon, where I saw lots of Steampunks with amazingly cool backpack props. It got me started thinking about whether I could do something other than a backpack. I remembered a project I'd seen in a craft book I'd picked up at a used bookstore called Magic Lanterns by Mary Maguire (ISBN 158180248X). Most of the projects are for creating clever lanterns to decorate your home and yard; however, the final project at the end of the book, “Crescent Moon,” had the instructions for building a large back-mounted parade lantern in the shape of a crescent moon. I adapted their instructions for the bamboo frame and instead built the airship shape (inspired somewhat by another project in the same book, the “Willow Fish Lantern”).

Some additional photos:

Supply List

I used a lot of natural materials such as bamboo in this project. Since these items aren't precisely manufactured, there was a certain amount of variation in terms of thickness, smoothness, etc. The result is that airship isn't precisely symmetrical. Don't drive yourself nuts worrying that things look a little out of whack – to me that's part of the charm. Besides, the thing's going to be several feet in the air, so nobody can see the details anyway if you don't let them. If you do want to build something with very precise dimensions, you'll need to think about other techniques and materials than what I used.

  • Bamboo sticks – Bamboo is a really great building material, as it's light, strong, and cheap. I used four 6-foot sticks in the project, which I found in the garden department at a Lowes hardware store. They were a little grubby so I used paper towels with spray cleaner on it to clean them off. I cut them with a rotary tool.
  • Willow sticks – I found these in the floral department of the local craft store. I used 16 of them, but the bundles were sold in 50-packs so I had plenty. These form the ribs.
  • Wreath frames – These are lightweight round wire frames that are meant for people who want to create their own holiday wreaths. I used an 18” frame in the middle and two 14” frames on either side to provide the round structure of the airship. Found at craft stores.
  • Electrical tape
  • Twine
  • Window shrink plastic – Plastic that you tape over your drafty windows in the wintertime and use a hair dryer to shrink it tight. I used it for the base layer of the airship's skin. If you can't find it locally, Amazon sells it (more details below).
  • Tissue paper – Found anywhere they sell wrapping paper.
  • Mod Podge – A thin glue used for decoupage and other crafts. Found at craft stores.
  • Sponge or brush – To apply the Mod Podge. Found at craft stores.
  • Craft foam – Found at craft stores.
  • Whirligigs/pinwheels -- Got them at a dollar store.
  • Brass paint

Willow and bambooWreath frames
Willow reeds and bambooWreath frames

Airship from the back
The airship from the back.
[Photo courtesy of Beth Carson
via the SPWF Facebook group]

First, work out how tall the main vertical supports will be. Measure the distance from your shoulders to your hips, and from your hips to the base of your buttocks. These are the positions of the three horizontal supports (see photo). Allow for a few inches to extend below the bottom support. From your shoulders up, you need to allow room for your neck, head, possibly a fancy hat, and room for the airship itself, plus a few inches of wiggle room. In my case, the total height of each of the two bamboo poles is about 62 inches. Mark your measurements on your vertical poles, but don't cut anything yet; instead do the initial assembly and double check that your measurements are right.

Central Structure
Main supportWreath frame on bamboo
The main structureThe large wreath frame taped to the bamboo supports

The 18” diameter wreath frame forms the center of the blimp. I taped the two bamboo poles to the frame, allowing the frame to stick out on the sides, and leaving a little bamboo sticking out of the top. In my case the vertical poles ended up being about 16” apart from each other at the center (around 15” of clear space between them).

Cut three 18” pieces of bamboo and tape them into place at the shoulder, hip, and buttock marks. On my airship these are all on the back side of the frame, so they aren't digging into my back. They will stick out a little bit on each side.

At this point the frame ought to be held together well enough that you can pick it up and hold it against your back (having a friend assist you may be helpful). Are the horizontal bars about where you want them? Is the wreath frame far enough above your head? Is the top of the airship going to be scraping your ceiling? If necessary, cut the tape and try again until everything is in the right spot. When you're satisfied, tape the heck out of all the joints in all directions. At this point you can also trim off excess bamboo from the bottoms of the vertical poles if you wish.

Now, we're going to reinforce the frame with the two diagonal bamboo pieces. In my case they're each 23” long. I laid them between the shoulder and hip supports and taped them in place. They aren't symmetrical because of the way I laid them out – one piece is angled between the vertical supports and the other is angled between the horizontal supports. I did that because I didn't want the layers of bamboo to stick out any further than they did already, and the bamboo wouldn't bend. Tape everything securely.

I wrapped twine around the visible joints, but it is mostly decorative. I just did it to make the electrical tape a little less obvious. Note that bamboo + twine = Gilligan's Island. If you really want to cover up the electrical tape completely you'll need to find something else to layer on top of it.

The crossbeamsTaped jointTwined joint
The central reinforcementsTape both ways around the jointsA little twine to take the curse off the electrical tape

Adding the Ribs

Taping the willow
Match a thin end to a thick end and tape
Now you need to work out the length of the airship's ribs. Mine are 40” long. Note that this includes a couple of inches at each end that are gathered up into the fore and aft endpoints.

My ship has 8 ribs. I cut 16 of the willow sticks to 40” long, and then taped them together in twos. The sticks will be a little thinner at one end than the other, so match the thin end of one stick to the thick end of the other to more or less average out the thickness of the rib. Tape them at least at the ends, in the center, and at the quarter points, though you can add more tape if needed.

Mark the halfway and quarter points on each rib. Also mark the eight compass points on all three wreath frames.

I rigged up a couple of foil trays and soaked the willow sticks for an hour or so to get them wet and pliable. I did this at the suggestion of Magic Lantern, but I'm not positive it was necessary. You be the judge of how bendy your willow sticks are – if you are worried about the ribs cracking, let them soak.

First five ribs
The first five ribs
Prop the central structure up securely so that it won't slip. Make sure you have the room you need to work. You'll notice that a lot of my photos are taken in the kitchen; I jammed the bamboo structure up against the counter and had room for the ribs to extend over the counter.

Grab five ribs, towel them off so they are not dripping, and wrap a rubber band around them at each end an inch or so from the end. Now, bend the ribs and place the center part of the bundle around the outside of the wreath frame. One rib goes on the outside left, one on the outside right, one at the top, and one at each of the two quarter points. (The three remaining marked points on the frame are all on the underside between the vertical bamboo supports; we'll get to them later.)

Now take one of the smaller wreath frames. Bring it up between the ribs from underneath. Locate the quarter point marking on the top rib and match it to one of the marks on the frame. Tape it into place. Repeat this for the other ribs, matching the quarter marks on the ribs to the appropriate marks on the wreath frame. Try to keep the frame vertical and parallel to the central frame. This part of the job is something that I had to fiddle with a lot, adjusting and retaping things until the overall effect was what I wanted. Not everything lined up precisely, but eventually it looked like what I had in mind. Once you have everything in place, go back and tape everything more securely. Repeat this process on the other side with the remaining frame.

It's now time to attach the three ribs that go on the bottom, between the vertical supports. Take a rib, tuck one end into the rubber-banded gathering at one tip, pass it between the supports, and tuck the other end into the other rubber-banded tip. Adjust the rib as necessary and tape the half and quarter points to the frames. Repeat this for the two remaining ribs.

Wrap lots of electrical tape around the rubber band to secure the endpoints of the ribs. For good measure I also blobbed lots of wood glue in between the gathered ribs (be sure to have something covering the floor to catch drips).

All eight ribsGather the ends
All eight ribs (note wood glue jammed in)The gathered rib ends (only five ribs at this point)

OK, the fundamental structure of the airship is done! Pick it up, walk around, give it a little shake, tip it in various directions, and generally make sure everything seems secure. Reinforce the taped joints as needed.

The Skin

The plastic layer
The under-layer of plastic
Now that the structure is in place, it's time to put on the skin of the airship. While it looks like Camille's skin is paper mache, there's a good solid under-skin beneath that. What you want is something that you can wrap around the ribs to provide a foundation, on top of which you can put the visible outer layer. The Magic Lanterns book suggests kitchen plastic wrap, but a friend of mine (science fiction writer Jennifer Pelland, who doesn't write steampunk but you should go buy her book anyway at http://www.jenniferpelland.com [/plug]) suggested using window insulation shrink film. It's this clear plastic that you tape over your drafty windows in the wintertime, and when you run a hair dryer over it, it shrinks and tightens up. This worked perfectly for the airship, as it shrank nice and tight around the ribs. Also it's thicker plastic than kitchen wrap.

If you live in a warm climate or it's currently off-season for winterizing your windows, I have found the stuff on Amazon – try searching for “window shrink film”. I used “Frost King” brand as that's what I found in the store, but I think they all work pretty much the same way.

I cut the window plastic into large pieces and taped it into place with scotch tape, either taping to the ribs or taping to another layer of plastic. Given that this stuff was meant for use around nice flat windows, not an uneven oval object, it's not going to look very tidy, and it's going to bunch up a bit when gathered around the nose and tail. Since this is the under-layer that will be covered up with something else later, don't worry too much about how neat it is. Just get it taped securely in place and shrink it up as best as you can with the hair dryer.

The paper mache layer
Adding the paper layer (this is also a nice shot of the inner structure)
The outer layer of the skin was created using brown tissue paper (the stuff you use inside presents). I ripped up big chunks of tissue paper, then used a sponge brush to paste one side with Mod Podge, which is a thin white glue used for decoupage and other crafts. I then just slapped that on top of the plastic layer. I overlapped the edges of each piece of tissue paper and eventually covered the entire blimp. I did two layers of tissue paper, then added additional patches wherever it looked like I had missed a spot. Inevitably there were corners and edges that were sticking up, and I just mashed them down with the glue brush to get them to lie more or less flat. I also put some paper on the vertical bamboo ribs, just enough to cover up the electrical tape around the wreath frame.

The end result looks rather like patchwork to me – you can clearly see the edges of the tissue paper, and there are shiny spots where there's glue on top of the paper. I rather like it. However, I imagine that you could get different effects by cutting long regular strips (or other shapes) of paper. You could also use multiple colors of paper, or put some paint on top of the paper, or even use fabric instead of paper.

The skin has proven to be pretty durable. I've banged the top of the airship several times while trying to get through doorways, and it's held together. All I've needed to do so far is put a new layer of tissue paper down to cover a scraped spot on top. That being said, whenever I take the airship anywhere I do bring extra scotch tape, tissue paper and Mod Podge in case I'll ever have to patch a hole on the spot.

Finishing Touches

I used two wooden condiment cups to cover up the ends of the ribs where they were all gathered together. They're just glued on with lots of E6000 craft glue. They definitely don't sit quite flat but from a distance they look OK.

The nose cone on the front is the plastic tip off of the E6000 glue tube, painted brass. It's also just glued on, and I've knocked the darn thing off several times getting the airship in and out of the car. I knocked it off again coming back from SPWF, in fact. I'm going to set it back on with Super Glue, but I suspect it's just a vulnerable feature and that I'll manage to knock it off again someday. So if you want a pointy nose on your airship, you may want to consider a sturdier solution. On the other hand, if I were to give up and leave the pointy nose off, the blunt condiment cups would probably be safer from a not-poking-someone's-eye-out point of view.

Update 9/18/2011: The nosecone finally came off and got lost after Camille had a wild fling with an itinerant commedia dell'arte troupe; it's been replaced by a much less eye-stabby rounded plastic cap off of an orange juice jug.

The tail fins are made from craft foam, which is usually in the kids section of the craft store. The stuff I found in the craft store was pretty thin, so I glued two layers together. Then I cut out the four fins, glued one edge of each fin to another strip of foam to provide a base, and then glued the base to the airship along the ribs. The nice thing about craft foam is that it's light and flexible, so it doesn't add much weight to the airship, it will flex (to a certain degree) if you accidentally bump it, and you can bend it a bit if the ribs of your airship aren't quite straight. I imagine there are other materials that would be suitable as well.

Update 9/18/2011: The tailfins did eventually take enough damage that I had to replace them.

The “engines” weren't part of the airship when I debuted it at Arisia because I hadn't found a solution I liked. I'd gotten a couple of cheap dollar store battery-operated mini-fans and played around with them, but ran out of time to figure out how to mount them. However, if you want a powered “engine” then that might be one way to go if you can find a place to put the batteries. When spring rolled around, I found whirligigs in the dollar store, and that's what I ended up using. I spray painted them brass. I found that I could not glue them directly to the bamboo supports because there wasn't enough clearance for the whirligigs to spin, so I glued them to some wooden sticks which I then glued to the bamboo in order to hold the whirligigs out further. When you get outside and there's a breeze, your engines will spin! Frankly I think that these are a vulnerable point like the nose cone, and I suspect I'll knock one off someday, but so far it hasn't happened.

steampunk airship steampunk airship steampunk airship
Foam finsNose coneWhirligig engine

The Camille nameplate is just standard computer printer paper. I printed the nameplate, cut it out, and glued it on with Mod Podge. Avoid getting the glue on the printed side of the paper as the ink can be smeary. If you have any clear acrylic sealant around, you can spray it on the paper to provide some protection for the ink.

The tops of the vertical bamboo poles that are sticking out of the top of the airship can be decorated. I painted some wooden endcaps copper and glued them on top just to make things look finished. I had considered rigging some lights on them to cast spotlights on the airship, or to act as headlamps, but they'd be hard to notice unless you're actually wearing the prop in the dark. You could also go with antennas or flags or something, but beware of adding additional height to the prop. Alternatively, I think you could cut the extra bits off if they bother you.

The Airship Controller

I decided that I needed some way to pretend to control the airship. I settled on a quick and dirty joystick setup, but you could also handle this with an arm-mounted gadget, or whatever else you can think of. Or you're a mentalist and you're controlling it with your MIND!!!!

I started with a Blue's Clues kids' video game (one of those toys that plugs into your TV) and unscrewed it so I could remove the buttons and cables sticking out of it. (Yes, I destroyed the video game.) I got lucky because the game base was hexagonal and I found a cheap hexagonal wooden box at Michael's craft store that the game fit in. I spray-painted the handle, covered the top and sides of the game with felt, stained the wood on the box, glued the joystick unit into the box, and then did the usual "glue some watch bits to make it steampunk" thing to decorate it.

Every now and then I get someone who thinks the controller really does something. You may want to think about how you'll respond to that – either tell them out of character that it's a prop, or tell them in character how exactly it controls the ship.

Controller steampunk airship
Original box and gameFinal control unit

Wearing the Airship

steampunk airship
D-ring and strap, with a little twine reinforcement
I sewed two 6-foot-long straps from muslin fabric. They are long enough to be attached to the shoulder bar, brought over my shoulders and across my chest, and then be passed back to the hip bar behind me, looped over the bar, and then brought back in front of me and tied. You need to get the straps pulled pretty snugly to keep the airship from wobbling. You could probably use other material, but muslin doesn't stretch much, isn't slippery, and isn't bulky.

I attached the straps to the frame by sewing a d-ring into one end and looping the strap over the shoulder bar/vertical support joint, then passing it back through the ring. I tied some twine around that to make sure the straps didn't slip off of the frame. I didn't tie the straps on because I didn't want bulky knots on my shoulders, but there's no reason you couldn't do that. Go with whatever works for you.

The airship is light, but top-heavy. I can put it on by myself, but it's much easier and faster if you can get someone to hold it for you.

Sitting down
The problem with sitting down!
[Original photo courtesy of Tripletlads]
Now for some warnings about wearing the airship prop. Safety first!

Because the airship prop is tall, but not wide, I can walk through crowds pretty well. However, there are obstacles you need to watch for:

  • Low ceilings – at SPWF I was not able to walk into the hotel room wing at all due to the low ceiling. I always had to carry the airship to the hotel lobby and put it on there.
  • Low-hanging light fixtures and other dangling hazards – at SPWF, the hotel's lobby had nice high ceilings, but there was a light fixture that I bumped a couple of times.
  • Doorways – there are two ways to deal with doorways: bend your knees to make yourself shorter, or bend forward at the waist so that the airship goes through first. Be very careful when bending over that you have plenty of clearance in front of you! Don't whack anyone.

I have worn the airship outside in mildly windy conditions. Be aware that a good gust of wind will push on the airship. I don't think I'd take it out in severely windy weather.

I've been able to wear the airship for several hours at a time, but eventually it does get tiring. It's not so much the weight, as the prop is fairly light, but the fact that it holds my posture in a particular position. I can't really wiggle and stretch my back too much.

It is possible for me to sit down while wearing the blimp, but I have to sit sideways – I can't put my back against the chair. However, if you're going to sit down, then please be aware of this VERY IMPORTANT WARNING: when you are sitting down, the pointy ends of the airship are now at everyone else's eye level! You MUST be very careful to make sure no one is in your immediate area when sitting down. I recommend you pull a chair to the back of the room and stay out of the crowd. (My apologies, once again, to the lady at SPWF with whom I had a close encounter due to a moment's inattention while sitting down. Seriously, airship-wearers need to be careful with this.)

Transportation (or, Beware of Unexpected Airship Surgery)
steampunk airship
How it fits in my car

So, back in January, I finished the airship just in time for the Arisia convention. I brought it out to my Toyota Corolla sedan, and discovered to my chagrin that the darn thing didn't fit in my car! Sure, in theory there was enough room with the back seat folded down for the legs to go into the trunk, but what I hadn't realized was that I couldn't make the angles work to get the airship into my car in the first place – no matter how I far up I pushed the front seats, the legs always stuck out the door and I could not swing them around into the car to then push them back into the trunk. The top of the airship doesn't fit in the trunk, either, so it couldn't go in that way.

Since it was time to go to the convention, I had no time for an elegant solution, so at the last minute I sawed off the bottoms of the legs between the hip bar and buttock bar, and spliced them back together at the con using extra bamboo sticks as splints and lots of electrical tape! This is the solution I have continued to use, and it works fine – the legs wobble a bit at the splint, but it holds together. Generally people are looking at the airship and not the spliced section behind my back. I am sure one of you geniuses could figure out a better solution to the problem.

I did try wearing the airship without the bottom portion, but it felt much less stable. I think what happens is that the hip bar gets into the small of my back and becomes a fulcrum, and the airship starts tipping back and forth. Adding the bottom bar underneath and around the buttocks keeps the frame from tipping quite so much. Thus I have scientific proof that my butt is a stabilizing influence.

Also note that since I have to push the front passenger seat all the way forward to make room, the airship occupies two seats. That cuts down on the remaining room for passengers and luggage.

My point here is that if you don't have a van, hatchback, SUV, or other vehicle of that type, transportation might be an issue, and you may need to take that into consideration when building the airship.

So there you have it! Please feel free to leave comments if you want clarification on anything. I will update the instructions as necessary. Thanks!

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Are you coming to Dragon*Con this year? If so, I'd love to be able to use the airship (when you're not wearing it) as a prop in the Alt History track room.

If not, I guess I'd better start on building my own *grin*
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)
I am coming, but I will be flying down from Massachusetts and am pretty sure there's no way I can get it on the airplane. Sadly the airship doesn't actually fly. :(
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
That's the next mod to it, correct? ;)

OK, then my husband and I are going to work on making an airship for display--hopefully you'll get to check out our version of it in 99 days or so...(I'd do the wearable thing, but it's not practical with all the stuff I have to do at Con....)
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
I have wondered if you could make a framework light enough that you could fill the inside of the airship with helium balloons and have it float. :)

I'd be willing to talk about the airship project at D*C if you want. I look forward to seeing your take on the airship! :D
[User Picture]
Date:August 11th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
Ack! While going through my emails I found this one and have suddenly realized that neither my husband nor I have taken step 1 toward building an airship for me *frowns*

Oh well, perhaps next year. Do be sure to look me up at the Alt History Track, though! :)
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
After I posted my "great job" comment on the Steampunk Fashion comm, I thought of an alternate fix for the beshortened leg issue. You might want to pick up some tubing - either brass tubing or painted PVC tubing, depending on your budget. Glue the bottom leg section into the tubing, then when you're ready to strap the thing on, set the top section into the other end of the tubing.

Does that make even a little bit of sense? I can see it in my head, but I don't know if I'm describing it correctly.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think I can see where you are going. You still need some way to securely attach the sections; perhaps drilling a hole through the pipe and the bamboo and inserting a pin or screw that can be removed later would do it.

Or, slide both legs into a tube and then loop something (twine, bungee cord) between the hip and butt bars to hold them together?
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
I think the pin idea would be sturdier, but that's just me.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)
Or I could go buy a van. ;)

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