Noncomics: Making Superman’s Shield

For a change, today’s article isn’t about something created by someone else… this is a vanity project! (In stark contrast to the pure altruism that drips from every other article on this blog…)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll likely be aware of my interest in logos and symbols, particularly when it comes to comics, and easily the most iconic comic-book symbol is Superman’s shield…
00 shield pic 1

Whether you see it as an S, or the El-family crest, or the Kryptonian symbol for “Hope,” or as a collection of yellow blobs floating over a red background, Superman’s shield has been one of the most recognisable images in the world for the past eighty years.

Initially it definitely was an S, but it’s been nudged and tweaked over the years by different artists (see this great feature on Comics Alliance for a comprehensive list). The above image is one I made around nine years ago: it’s based on John Byrne’s redesign in his 1986 Man of Steel mini-series.
man of steel

Recently I decided that I wanted a nice big Superman shield that I could put on the wall.

But I didn’t just want a poster or a mural: I wanted something more substantial. Since I have no idea where I might get hold of such a thing — apart from in a shop or on the internet — I decided to make one.

I’m not the greatest of woodworkers, but I have a large collection of power-tools and all my digits are currently still attached and functioning, so I can’t be that bad. Why not give it a go?

I even had a handy off-cut of plywood left over from a recent kitchen-cabinet build. Plywood’s not the ideal material for something like this, but it’s strong, relatively easy to work with, comes in large sheets and tends not to warp over time.
02 plywood

The thought quickly occurred to me that I could save a lot of time and work and heartache by tweaking the design of the shield so that the bottom point is a 90-degree angle and then using one of the plywood’s existing 90-degree corners. After all, the artists and movie-makers tweak Superman’s shield suit their needs, so shouldn’t I?

Then to compensate for making things easy, I decided to make them harder again: rather than simply cut out the basic outline and then paint the yellow blobs on a red background, I wanted the red part to stand proud, with the yellow “holes” recessed. One way to do this would be to use a combination of chisels, routers and other tools to carve out the yellow parts, but this is plywood: it’s composed of several thin sheets of wood all glued together and it doesn’t lend itself well to carving. The simplest solution was to cut out the holes completely, paint the red part, then attach a board painted yellow behind it.

The steps involved:

  1. Tweak the image so that the bottom corner is a 90-degree angle.
  2. Print the image the size I wanted the final piece to be.
  3. Turn the image into a template and mark up the plywood.
  4. Cut out the bits that aren’t meant to be there.
  5. Sand and paint the rest.
  6. Cut out the backing board, sand and paint it.
  7. Attach the backing board to the plywood.

To tweak the image, I opened it in Photoshop…
03 ps grab 01

I created a new layer that had two 45-degree angled triangles, each aligned with the shield’s bottom point, and set the layer to 50% opacity.
04 ps grab 02

Next step was to shrink the shield on the horizontal axis until the sides lined up with the two 45-degree angles…
05 ps grab 03This adjustment also forced the angles at the side into 90 degrees, which saved even more time, as we’ll see later on.

Then I hid the triangles layer, and replaced the shield’s red and yellow with white (keeping the black outlines, of course).
06 ps grab 04

Last step in Photoshop was to rotate the image 45 degrees, so that when printed the bottom point would fit neatly into the corner of the page, like thusly so herewith:
07 shield rotated 45

It was around this stage that I decided that the shield would look much more interesting if the wood was stained rather than painted. A wood-stain makes a feature of the grain and texture of the wood, whereas paint hides it.

So I built a 3D model and played around with colours until I found a combination I liked: mahogany stain for the red parts, light-oak stain for the yellow. They’re much muted colours than in the comics, of course, but I really liked the “rustic” look.
01 cinema 4d 2

Plus one advantage of the rustic look is that the plywood already had a few knocks and scratches: I’d originally planned to fill them, but the damage would help give it a weathered, aged look. It also meant that I didn’t have to be too precise with the cuts or the finish. That’s a huge time-saver because I’d be using my hand-held jigsaw for most of the cuts, and plywood is prone to tear-outs — where the saw’s blade pulls out small chunks from the surface veneer of the wood as it’s cutting — if the surface isn’t scored first, and that’s a strong likelihood because most jigsaws cut on the upstroke. The rustic, weathered look practically begged for tear-outs!

(If I really wanted to keep the edges perfectly sharp, the next step would be to flip the image horizontally and cut out the shapes upside-down, so that any tear-outs would be at the back.)

So that was the design done: time to print out the shield. I’d scaled the image in Photoshop to fit into six A4 sheets (three across and two down). I could have split the image into six pieces and printed them one-by-one myself, but I was sure there must be a banner-printing program out there somewhere. A quick search on-line turned up a program called RonyaSoft Poster Printer that seemed to be what I needed, and it’s completely free!
08 poster printer 1

One minor problem: the unregistered (that is, unpaid-for) version of the Poster Printer only prints the first three pages, so it’s not completely free after all. I didn’t want to register it until I was sure it would work, so I cheated: I printed the first three pages and then loaded a completely different image
09 poster printer 2
… And then printed the — ahem — first three pages of that image. (Since I do now know that the software works, I’ll register it next time I need it: it’s only fair to pay for the software you use, folks!)

Trimming and taping the pages was a pain, especially because I couldn’t find the good tape and had to resort to an old roll of packing tape which kept tearing in the wrong place, but eventually I ended up with this:
10 template taped
(I didn’t bother attaching page 3 as it was only a simple line and even I couldn’t get lost there, probably.)

I next cut out the holes…
11 template cut-outs

Then trimmed the outside, and set it down on my target sheet of plywood:
12 template trimmed

Through judicious use of what we expert wood-workers call a “pencil” I traced the outline of the cut-outs, and the overall shape (using my ruler, speed-square and framing square for the straight lines).
13 plywood markedSo that was all the set-up done: time for the actual work to begin!

I used an 8mm drill-bit to create a starter-hole in each section to be removed…
14 first drill holesThe 8mm holes are just large enough for my jigsaw blade… This is a fiddly process: you start by cutting from the hole towards one of the edge-line, then sneak up on that line and merge with it, following it to its end. The jigsaw is great for cutting straight lines and curves but it does not like corners, so you have to approach corners from both sides.

Usually I find that there’s a lumpy bit where the saw-lines merge, but sometimes I get lucky and the curves end up quite smooth. After that, it’s just a process of gradually taking away chunks until all of the to-be-removed bits have turned into have-been-removed bits. (Some people drill their starter-hole so that its edge touches the line they want to cut, but I prefer not to take the chance: if the starter-hole is even a millimetre out, that could ruin everything.)

Below: Note the rips on the right of the cut-out’s curved edge. Normally I’d pack them with filler, wait for it to dry and then sand it smooth, but I decided to leave them alone as they add to the weathered effect.
15 first cut-out

Seventeen minutes after I made the drill-holes (judging by the time-stamps on the photos), all the cut-outs have been cut out, some a bit wonkily. Much sanding and filing will be required!

I used the jigsaw to chop away the top, and because the angles at the sides were at 90 degrees, I used the table-saw to trim the rest (I could have used the jigsaw for those pieces, too, but the table-saw does it with perfect accuracy in a tenth of the time, and much, much louder).
17 edges trimmed

After almost an hour of sanding and trimming and filing, and a lot more sanding, it was time to start staining…
18 staining

The fully-stained piece…
19 stain completed

While the stain was drying — it was mostly touch-dry in less than ten minutes, properly dry within forty — I turned my attention to the backing piece: this is a sheet of 6mm veneered chipboard, fairly dense and very rigid for its size. It was originally part of a headboard that was donated by the kindly folks next door when they moved in a couple of years ago and were chucking out all the stuff the previous occupants had left behind.20 background sheetGood news was that the chipboard was already the colour I wanted for the “yellow” parts of the shield! Not so good news is that I now have no use for the light-oak wood-stain I bought this morning.

It was now lunchtime, and my supervisor Dora arrived to assess my progress. Her report reprimanded me for allowing her to get so close to the freshly-stained wood, even though it was mostly dry by now.
21 dora approves

Once Dora resumed her hourly patrol of the entire house (including the standard mewing outside every closed door, just in case there’s a monster or a treat behind it) I aligned the paper template with the chipboard:
22 marking backgroundI cut the chipboard to size, but clearly it wasn’t deep enough, so I cut a separate piece to cover the bottom hole. Then I spotted that the veneer had split on the main piece right across the left-most hole, so I had to trim that part away and cut another patch.

I attached all three pieces to the back of the plywood with 12mm single-thread screws (I counter-sunk the screw holes so that the backing would be flush). I decided not to use glue just in case I ever want to replace the backing with something more yellow.

And at last, here we are… All done!
23 complete 1

A better angle…
complete 2

From the printing of the template pages to the insertion of the last screw, the total build-time was about four hours, fifteen minutes (minus about ten minutes for lunch and another ten trying to herd the cats back out of the room). If I’d stuck to my original plan of making a perfectly neat and accurate shield in the “proper” colours it would have taken a lot longer, not least because it would require several coats of paint with a couple of hours’ drying time between each coat.

Finally, here’s me showing off my creation…

complete 3
Photo by the lovely Leonia!

(In this photo a weird trick of the light somehow makes me look old and tired and bald, instead of virile hirsute young man I know myself to be. Strange, that.)

3 thoughts on “Noncomics: Making Superman’s Shield

  1. That’s amazing. I once saw something similar to this in the WB store in early 90s. It was about half the size and was used as the the base of a model. A silhouette of Superman stood on top of it. I tried and failed to make it.


    1. I remember seeing something like that in a WB store in Manhattan around 1999 — I really, really wanted that shield, but couldn’t justify the cost. It never occurred to me then to try to make one!


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