Building a Steampunk Hand Cannon, Part 2: How to Make and Detail a PVC Gun Barrel
As I said in this earlier post, there's no easy way to explain or define the Steampunk aesthetic. There are a large number of Steampunk tropes or "cues", as I call them, that bring to mind the feeling of Steampunk. These cues combine to push past the "not-Steampunk" threshold into firmly "Steampunk" territory.
This is essentially a complicated way of saying that Steampunk is all in the details. I combined quite a few details in this hand cannon project, which I first spoke about in my article on making wooden gun stocks. In this article, I'll show you how to make the barrel of the gun and explain the various Steampunk detailing.
Again, here's what the finished product looks like:
Before I had a really cool-looking thing, I started out with a piece of PVC pipe last seen in the previous article:
Because I wanted to make a cannon, I needed a pretty big diameter pipe. In this case, I used a 2-inch PVC pipe, but it wasn't the right length, so the first thing I needed to do was...
Cutting PVC is really easy. You can use pretty much any sawing implement. The length I wanted wouldn't fit in the band saw, so I used my Dremel tool with a cutting wheel.
First I put it in my clamp:
Then I just attacked it with the Dremel. It isn't really important that you get a straight cut, because we're going to be sanding it down. For example, this is what my edge looked like after I finished cutting it with my Dremel:
Yeah, it's pretty ugly.
Now it's time to make it smooth.
I mentioned in the previous article that I used a bench sander, so let me bring back a picture of that. As you can see below, it has both a belt sander and a disc sander. For this, I used the disc because I wanted a flat edge.
I just held the pipe evenly against the disc at the bottom right of the picture, and it just flattened it right out for me.
Sanding PVC is super easy! Here's what it looked like after only a few seconds:
After that, I had two more things to sand. First I had to sand the inside of the back end so that it would fit the mounting I found (more on that later), and then I had to sand the front end so that it was rounded like a cannon, and didn't just look like a pipe.
I did both of these with the Dremel tool using a sanding head, and it was a pretty simple matter. Neither of them had to be absolutely perfect, so I wasn't too concerned about symmetry.
After using the Dremel to shape them, I went back over them with a fine-grit sandpaper (220 grit) to smooth out any irregularities. Once it was smooth, it was time for the next step!
Attaching things goes in several stages, based on whether you want to paint what you're attaching. In this case, I wanted the rear bit to look like it was all one piece with the barrel, so I attached it first.
I forgot to take a picture of this piece before I attached it, but it's a rubber shower head. Yup, rubber. And before I put it on, I sanded it to get rid of any irregularities.
Rubber isn't as easy to work with as PVC, so you have to be careful when sanding it. It won't come out as smooth as it once was. That happened to be fine for this particular project, but just be aware of that.
All I did in this case was to put crazy glue all around the edge, and then just set it in the indented area I made at the back of the barrel.
Unfortunately I couldn't get any good pictures of the next part of this step, but once the crazy glue dried (only a matter of minutes), I went back over it with a silicone-based adhesive (Liquid Nails in this case, but you can use caulking, or whatever you'd like) to seal any holes between the PVC and the rubber endpiece. That way it looks more like these two pieces were cast as one piece!
While I could have just used the PVC pipe on its own, that would be boring. So I found some sheet metal with a design and wrapped it around the pipe for decoration.
However, I didn't want it to be the same color as the pipe, so this was just a test run. I needed to cut the piece to size before the pipe was painted, because otherwise I'd have to worry about messing up the paint while I did this step.
Here's what I started with:
They sell this at the hardware store, and I believe it's primarily used for ducting and whatnot. It's pretty flexible, and it's easy to cut with a pair of tin snips. The designs on it make it super easy to cut in straight lines.
I cut it to size and wrapped it around the barrel, then I clamped it on using these guys:
Now, at this stage, it wasn't absolutely perfectly cut to size. So while the metal was clamped on, I carefully Dremeled off the rough edges so that it was the perfect size. I probably should have done this earlier, but oh well.
Here's what it looked like afterward:
Looks a little sad, I know. Time to pep it up a bit!
The first, and easiest, stage of the painting process involves painting the metal grating. Once it was cut to size, I just removed it from the pipe and spray painted it with Rustoleum's Antique Brass.
After that paint was dry, I sprayed it with an enamel clear coat.
It turned out fine, but the photo doesn't really do it justice.
Okay, this was the hard part. Or, at least, the time-consuming part.
The very first thing I did was cover the barrel in a gray primer. This was so that the paint would stick to the PVC better, and so there was no chance that the lettering would show through.
I didn't take special care to make it smooth because my next step was to give it texture!
I wanted to make it look like the cast iron of a real cannon, so I gave it a light coat of knockdown spray texture. You can buy it in the hardware store, and it's generally used on drywall.
With just a light coat, this is how it turned out looking:
Not very impressive, is it? However, my next coat was Rustoleum's black satin, and after that, I added an enamel clear coat. This is how it turned out:
Much better! It looks almost like a proper cannon, now. However, since this wasn't the final layer, I didn't take extra care to make sure it looked good. I just wanted the verisimilitude of cast iron underneath the grating.
This was the easy part. I just pulled the grating tight against the pipe and screwed the metal clamp-y bits together until it was really, really tight.
It looks much better with the brass of the grating pulled tight against the black barrel!
It was finally time to attach my barrel to the stock I made. Now, I could easily have drilled holes in the barrel earlier, but I decided against it because they wouldn't show. Obviously the holes are hidden beneath the stock.
Waiting until the end to do this means that I can make sure that the fit is perfect, and that no paint got into the screw holes.
Also, at this point I cut some of the grating away so that it wouldn't get in the way of the screws. I could do that without fear of messing it up because, again, it would all be hidden underneath the stock.
You'll note that I did, in fact, mess it up a bit!
So, this is where you make your Steampunk prop shine. The details.
Considering that the grating itself is pretty busy-looking, I didn't want to overdo it. I tend to be a fan of 'less is more', but that's also because I get intimidated thinking about putting a ton of things on anything.
Here's what I ended up using as a detail:
Yup, a fuse. I just peeled the label off, and drilled some pipe holders onto the side.
I did it a little asymmetrically so that it would look cooler, but there you go.
What purpose does it serve on the gun? Funny you should ask! Allow me to go off on a bit of a tangent about adding things onto guns (or props of any variety).
Different people use different styles, and I'll try to lay them out here for you.
- There's the type of person who plans everything out in advance, and figures out a purpose for every single attachment, complete with in-character story.
- Then there's the person who pays no attention to that, and simply puts on whatever they think will be aesthetically pleasing.
- Lastly, the people who do a mix of both.
Personally speaking, I'm more of a number three. If you ask me what something does, I'll more than likely say, "I don't know." Because I don't. I don't tend to think that deeply about it. However, I want all of my parts to look as though they could do something, so that at a moment's notice, I could just make something up. For example, maybe my fuse is a reservoir for gunpowder. Maybe it electrically charges my cannon balls. Maybe it's a stabilizer. Use your imagination.
Frankly, if I had to think of a story and a purpose for every single bit of my props, I'd never build anything. I'd get too caught up in making it perfect. So instead, I just let myself get caught up in whatever I think looks good, provided that it also looks like it might work.
Please, please don't just glue gears onto something. I don't mind gears being used as symbols. Everything can function as both a concrete object and as a symbol of an idea, so that's not a problem. However, when you take a metal gear and stick it on something, that's not a symbol. That's a concrete object that doesn't do anything.
So just bear that in mind when you're constructing a prop.
I mentioned in the beginning that the details are what makes something Steampunk. So, what makes this gun Steampunk?
First, the color scheme and materials. Wood, cast iron, and brass are all "acceptable" Steampunk materials, and will serve as a primary indicator that something is Steampunk.
Second, the barrel is ornate.
Third, it has the copper detail on the side.
All of those things together come off as Steampunk to someone who looks at it. So remember two rules when making a Steampunk prop:
- Make everything look like it does something.
- When in doubt, add another thing.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.