When it comes to movie props, it's hard to think of any icon more memorable than the golden fertility idol in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was my very first Indy movie, and even all these years later I can still clearly remember watching it in the theater with my dad, completely awestruck at such an incredible movie. Even The Big Bang Theory's deconstruction of the plot can't ruin it for me.
Long before I ever began collecting movie props, the golden fertility idol was on my wish list, though I assume most people would lust after a solid gold statue...
When it comes to the question of 'do I buy' or 'do I make', typically my answer is driven by whether or not I feel I can make something superior to what I can buy. For example, I have a Star Lord mask that there's no way I could make it even half as nice, so buying was the way to go. But the fertility idols available for purchase all looked like cheap gold-chromed plastic, and likely weighed the same too. This little statue seemed a perfect candidate for printing, and various 3D models were plentiful. Click and print, what could be easier.
Just prior to this project, I had been working on The Fifth Element stones, which I printed hollow and filled with plaster of paris. Even though I've yet to paint them, they feel amazingly like stone, with proper weighting, a rock solid firmness, and even a river-stone coolness to the touch. Creating the stones had opened my eyes to transforming plastic into realistic representations of other materials. So, could I accurately simulate a gold statue?
As any fan of alchemy knows well, lead and gold are separated by three measly protons followed by a few thousand dollars. While most alchemists have failed at stripping off those extra protons, transmuting lead to gold, I felt I could succeed. Instead of science, I would use simple trickery.
If I could print the statue hollow, I could then fill it with lead shot. And then on the outside, I could apply real gold leaf. I figured this would be an expensive build, but to be honest my estimates were wildly low - even simulating a solid gold statue is expensive.
Picking the Model
While I won't claim that I chose the best fertility idol 3D model available, I did choose the most accurate one I could find. There are surprising differences in the various models available, many of which look very different than the movie prop. I ended up choosing this Indiana Jones Chachapoyan Fertility Idol modeled by McKrats, as he seemed to have made a very strong effort to recreate the movie prop.
The only downside was that the model ended up having a slightly low polygon appearance, but as I was planning for a ton of post processing sanding to prep for gold leafing, this didn't seem a big issue. Oddly, some of the photos on that model seem to show a high-fidelity version without all the obvious polygons, but if that version exists it certainly wasn't in the downloaded files.
A lot of planning went into printing the statue. The model comes in two versions, one split in half down the center of the face, so that you would print the two halves separately and then glue them together. I actually printed out this version first, and then realized it would be impossible to glue them together accurately and then fill it with lead, so I would have to print the model whole in one shot.
The model has a lot of overhangs, though I found that if I tilted the model backwards, so that the brow ridge and tip of the nose were roughly parallel, that most of the detailed areas would print without the need for supports. This position would require more print supports overall, but they would be focused on the bottom of the model in less visible areas. It was also around this time I began to realize just how explicit the fertility idol depicts child-birth... no wonder we really only see it from behind in the move, haha.
As you can tell, this is a fairly large model on my normal sized printer, though it easily fit within the print zone.
My next concern was how to print it hollow - while my positioning eliminated the need for external supports on all the facial and frontal details, it definitely didn't eliminate the need for them on the inside. I couldn't actually print it hollow at all. Instead, I chose the very special "gyroid" infill pattern, which both provides excellent support in all directions, plus has free flow for liquids in all directions.
Here you can see the gyroid infill looks pretty solid:
But from certain angles, you can see the passageways line up straight through:
Including straight down, top to bottom:
Using the gyroid infill at 5% (as shown in the images above) and 3 outer perimeters, I was able to get a successful print on the first try.
Cost wise, the plastic filament (PLA) consumed for the idol and the stand (discussed later) cost under $10. That's one of the benefits of printing a relatively large idol almost completely hollow, it doesn't use near as much plastic.
Filling the Model
Now that I had a model in hand to work with, the next step was to fill it with lead. While the gyroid channels were fairly large, I wanted to add as much weight as possible, eliminating all air gaps. For this reason, I chose the smallest lead shot I could find, Chilled Lead Shot #12, with a 1.3mm diameter, from Ballistic Products.
From my calculations, I knew one bag (11 pounds of shot) would not be enough, I would need two bags. I have mostly forgotten how I did this calculation, but it ended up being correct, as I used about 1.8 bags worth of lead. I think I took a few measurements of the model and came up with averages for height, width and depth, and simply calculated the volume of a cylinder. With shipping and tax, my total bill came to $90! Just for lead bb's!
When the lead arrived, I went about doing a test fill. I drilled a 1 7/8" hole (38mm) in the bottom of the statue between the feet, and poured in a bunch of lead shot. It went in easily enough, and with some shaking I was able to fill the nooks and crannies. But it quickly became apparent that the shifting BB's inside had a bean-bag sound to it, and I didn't think I would be able to pack the statue tight enough to prevent it making noise and giving away the illusion. Even worse, I worried what would happen if the statue was dropped and broke open, sending tiny lead bb's everywhere! I decided that a good solution would be to pour in resin, which would have two benefits: gluing the lead bb's together to prevent noise, and further filling in the statue, making it even more solid and heavy.
With the lead shot being so tightly packed in the statue before filling it with resin, I had great concerns about the ability of the resin to penetrate all the way through the statue to fill up every corner. I knew I would need a very thin pouring resin, and after some searching I settled on Unicone Art Epoxy Resin, which had many reviews claiming it has great liquidity. I took a guess that one 32 oz. set would be enough (and I was right). It was a ridiculous amount to pay for resin, $40 for just 32 oz, but being this was my first ever resin pour and I only needed a little, I spent the big bucks in an attempt to play it safe.
One thing I wasn't worried about was heat damaging the model. As resin cures, it kicks, which is a thermodynamic chemical reaction that puts off a lot of heat. In some situations it could be so hot as to melt plastic. But I wouldn't actually be using all that much resin, just filling in the gaps of an otherwise 90%+ solid infill, and all that lead shot would make an excellent heatsink to absorb most of the heat. (Having already completed the pour, I can confirm that heat was not an issue at all, I could barely detect any heat during curing).
Before committing to filling the model, I decided to do a test pour in a small clear plastic cap I had kicking around. I filled it with lead shot, mixed up some resin (but without heating the resin to improve fluidity), and did a very small pour. As you can see in the picture below, the resin did not penetrate all the way down, so I had a flaw in my plan:
If the resin wasn't even fully penetrating an inch, there was no way it would properly fill in the statue if I put the lead shot in first. Instead, I figured that it would be much smarter to pour in the resin, then pour in the extremely heavy lead shot which would easily sink to the bottom.
Even though I had specially chosen the gyroid infill pattern to permit pouring liquids to all corners of the statue, I had major doubts that it would work well for pouring in lead shot, which required me to shake the statue around a lot to make it setting into the nooks and crannies even without sticky resin in the way. Luckily I discovered a solution. Using a pair of long needle nosed plyers, I was able to grab hold of the infill to twist it apart and rip it out. It was several hours of painful ripping (sharp, pokey plastic), not a pleasant job at all, but eventually I had ripped out over 90% of the infill, and the model was now almost completely hollow.
One last step before doing the pour was to properly position the statue. With the fill hole in the base, I needed to stand it on its big round head. The solution here was pretty simple, I created 3D rectangle and subtracted the model's head from it in the orientation I wanted, then printed out the stand.
I didn't position the statue with the feet straight up, instead I slanted it slightly, ensuring that the angles at the base of the hair and base of the chin and other features were all slanted downwards, which I felt would aid in filling in the hardest to reach extremes.
To perform the fill, I first warmed up the resin in a bucket of warm water, and then mixed it 1:1 according to the instructions. I would then pour in some resin, then add lead shot and shake it around until I could no longer hear the tic-tic-tic of metal bb's, telling me they were all coated in resin. Once I added enough lead shot to no longer sink into the resin, I added more resin and repeated added lead shot. I did this all the way until it reached the fill opening I had cut. Then I wedge something under the stand to tilt the model so that the hole was pointing straight up, and completed with adding more resin and lead. As you can see in the picture above, I got it filled to the brim, with just enough gap so that I can add some sandable filler and smooth out the base.
It's amazing how heavy all the lead shot and resin made the statue. I don't have a scale accurate in this range, but by my measurements it's approximately 21 lbs. The numbers betray reality, though, as in person it feels impossibly heavy - your mind just can't process that something so small weighs so much. This was also when I first realized that the movie scene, when Indy pours sand out of the small bag to adjust the weight to match the idol, was stupidly wrong. A 21 lb bag of sand would be really large, and he has only about 3 lbs of sand in his hand. Perhaps the idol was supposed to be hollow, not solid, but in my mind it has always been and should be a solid gold statue.
My next step is to sand and prime and sand again the statue until it is smooth and ready for gold leafing. Honestly, sanding is my least favorite task, and I've been dreading this project more than most. I'm worried that if I don't completely remove the low-poly facets, I might not even notice until after gold leafing, where the reflectivity would make any mistakes obvious. I hope to get to this soon.
Though I've yet to prep for gold leafing, I have bought the materials. I want this to be a proper gold leafing project, so I did a ton of research and watched many videos on the process. One thing I learned is that proper gold leafing requires burnishing with an agate stone, and that standard gold leaf is not thick enough to survive burnishing, you need at least double-thickness. I bought 50 leaves of 24k Quad Gold Leaf (4x thickness). That's $158 worth of gold leaves, but ironically isn't even half my expense for leafing. I also bought red primer basecoat (I chose red to give the classic amber-golden hue), 3 agate burnishers of varying sizes, some quick set size, a sizing brush, a couple duster brushes, a gilding knife, a table cushion, and a squirrel hair tip brush. With shipping, my total bill came to $460!!! I expect to have some gold leaf, sizing medium and primer left over for other projects, plus my new tools should last for years, so I didn't sink all $460 into this project (unless I never do this again). Taking away the cost of the tools of the trade, I estimate that the bill of materials (primer + size + gold) to complete the idol will be in the $150 range.
Leafing is sure to be a challenge, mainly due to how much this little statue weighs. I'll definitely be sharing this process in the future.
As always, I love to figure out how much my little projects cost, though of course all my research time and labor are "free".
$10 for plastic, $90 for lead shot, $40 for resin, $6 for sandable primer, $460 for gold leafing supplies and tools. It seems this project is safely in the $600+ range.
Though I do have a little bit of lead shot and resin left over for other project, and fully expect to have gold leaf left over, and of course most of my gold leafing expense was purchasing the tools, not the gold. So a more accurate accounting of consumed materials might put the "out the door" cost at a much more palatable $265.
Now, if it really was solid gold, 21 pounds of gold (336 ounces), at $1770 per ounce, would cost just shy of $600,000. And that's before accounting for the fact that this is a thousand year-old ancient Peruvian artifact that was prominently featured in a famous movie.
The true value is priceless...
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President, Chameleon Consulting LLC
Author, Chameleon MediaCenter
Author, Chameleon MediaCenter