Silicone Valley

Sculpting has always been something that I enjoy doing, and I have made things in many a material over the years.  As an undergrad I spent much of my time learning the ins and outs of  woodworking, metal fabrication, welding, mold-making, lost wax casting, and many other sculpture-related skills. I even took the requisite "trash 101" (or its equivalent - every art school has one), where you reclaim junk materials and create something out of nothing. Graduate school was an opportunity to see the other side of the coin and learn digital sculpting techniques.  It was a lot of fun to learn new programs (ZBrush, 3Ds Max...) and see what was possible to do with them.  I had zero background in any sort of digital art before going into Biomedical Visualization, aside from the occasional foray into Photoshop to add watermarks to scans of my work.  But having a firm grasp on traditional sculpting really helped me pick up the digital workflow and hit the ground running.  3D modeling, along with photogrammetry and 3D printing, really blew the door wide open and made the whole experience come full circle.  Being able to go back and forth between digital and physical objects was really exciting, and taking those skills into prosthetics was,a no-brainer. Of all the materials I had worked with up to the point of graduate school, the one material that I had absolutely no prior experience working with - and possibly the most important - was silicone.  Luckily for me, about 90% of the work for facial prosthetics requires almost the exact same skill set as lost wax / bronze casting: sculpting in wax, texturing, making molds, and so forth.  So learning how to work with silicone and finding out what makes it tick was my main focus with anaplastology.  The silicone we use is a liquid 2-part base-catalyst mixture that you add pigment to and paint into a mold (ear, nose, orbital, etc.).  Everything is sculpted in wax, you make a mold (negative), remove the wax, then paint the silicone into the mold to replicate whatever missing anatomy you are working on.  Example:

However, prosthetic limb covers are made in an *entirely* different way... as I soon discovered.  The process requires all the same components, the same tools, the same materials, but in a completely different order and for different purposes. The silicone that I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with was miles away from the silicone used to make a realistic limb.  For silicone covers, you still use a 2-part compound, but it is extremely hard, no liquid at all, and it has to be mixed together with huge metal rollers, similar to a laundry wringer.  So you mix all of your pigment into your silicone with these giant, potentially finger-crushing rollers, until you have a nice, smooth, air-bubble-free sheet of silicone.  And the process goes thusly:  You take a cast of the prosthesis (which, in this example, is a vaguely leg-shaped prosthesis without toes), take your huge, flimsy, delicate sheet of silicone off the rollers and wrap it around the plaster, seal all the seams, sculpt some toes, paint the entire leg, then wrap ANOTHER layer of silicone over that (avoiding air bubbles the whole time), and finally sculpting in the fine details and texture.

It was a very steep learning curve.

So the past several months have been a crash course in yet another new material and sculpting process, rife with trial and error.  I'm pleased to say that each new prosthesis looks better than the last one, and I come away with a ton of new ideas and techniques to implement in each new project.  Perhaps somewhat naively, I thought that after finishing graduate school, I would be wading through familiar waters as an anaplastologist, but it would appear as though I leapt from the frying pan into the fire.  But I love it.  Any opportunity to learn a new skill is welcome, and I have enjoyed it tremendously.  There is little that gives me as much pleasure as hoarding new skills - the stranger and more specific, the better.

On that note, here are some process photos for a hand I made.  Enjoy!