Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Rebuilding a Muscle Body GI Joe - Part Two

Adventure Team meeting in progress!
In the previous post, I talked about stumbling onto some muscle body GI Joes in my brother-in-law's storage locker. The action figures had suffered the same fate as so many muscle body Joes: the rubber skeleton inside the figure that held all the parts together had rotted away and the arms, legs, and head fell off the body. Since I had always wanted some muscle body Joes for my collection, I thought I could rebuild the figures with the help of some careful Internet searches. Trouble was, there was very little available online for the do-it-yourself rebuilder, so I decided to come up with my own way of rebuilding my Joes. The following is a step-by-step explanation of what I did to make my talking GI Joe Commander whole again. Only time will tell if my repairs will hold up, so I make no promises that this is the best way to go, but if you want to rebuild a muscle body Joe and have no other ideas on how to go about it, I offer my solutions as food for thought. If you did not read the first part of this post, you may want to go back and read about my thought process for these repairs. Okay, here goes:

1) I'm assuming that, like my Joe, your Joe has completely fallen apart. Therefore, let's start by separating the front body piece from the back body piece. To do that, insert a thin screwdriver into the seam between the two sections. The upper arm socket is a good place to start since there is a hole there. Gently work your way along the seam to the neck, wiggling the screwdriver a bit to widen the gap between the two halves. Go slow and don't use too much force or you'll break the body parts. It may take a few passes around the body seam to fully pry it open. Once you get one side partially open, you may also want to place a screwdriver in that side to hold it open while you work on the other side. Eventually, the pins will work loose from the holes they are seated in. With luck, the pins will not break but, in all likelihood, most if not all the pins may break. Don't panic as we will be gluing the whole thing back together with modeling glue.

3) You'll want to use this same technique to pry apart the upper arm sections and the upper leg sections. Remove any leftover rubber bits and lay the pieces on your work table where they will need to go (e.g., upper right arm sections on the upper right hand side of the body, head stalk and head at the top, etc.). You want the work table to look like an exploded drawing of your Joe. That way, you know where the parts are supposed to go back together.
Muscle body GI Joe with body section opened.
2) Once you have the two body halves apart, you can get a view of the inner workings. You will likely have bits of dried rubber inside. Carefully remove the excess rubber. Also, if you are working with a talking Joe, the talking mechanism will be in the body. The mechanism has some foam rubber attached to protect the mechanism. If it is dry rotted, delicately remove the old foam and replace it with new foam that has a sticky side. I used some insulation foam from another household project. Cut it to the size and shape of the old foam and stick it to the mechanism in the appropriate spots. Lift out the mechanism and set it aside for now.

3) With the top of the body removed, you can also see how the legs were attached. In my case, the remnants of the rubber skeleton were visible in Joe's speedo shorts. A loop of rubber still clung to the large peg in his abdomen. Remove the excess rubber bits.

4) The upper leg sections should have a semi-circular cap inside. This sat just above the rubber half-ball part of the rubber skeleton. Since we will be using shock cord to string the legs to the torso, we'll need to create a plastic ball to replace the rubber half-ball. To do this, place some plastic modeling pellets in warm water. When they have softened, remove the blob of melted pellets and begin to shape them into a ball that will sit underneath the semi-circular cap. Once you have the ball at the right size, take a wooden skewer or some other thin, pointed rod and work it through the center of the ball. This will create the hole that the shock cord will pass through. It should only be just big enough for the cord to slide through. Once you have finished creating the ball, see how it fits under the disc and within the thigh pieces. If it's too big, you won't be able to close the two upper leg sections together when you reassemble it. Repeat the process for the other side.

5) Set the balls and caps aside. Now we will concentrate on the knee pegs. The knee pegs from an original GI Joe will work for the muscle body Joe with some adjustments (replacement pegs can be obtained from Cotswold Collectibles). There's a peg and slot arrangement the two halves of the upper leg sections. If you bore out the hole in the vinyl knee peg a little bit, you should be able to fit the peg onto the slot on one half of the upper leg. To check the fit, snap the two thigh pieces together and see how the peg moves. The hole in the top of the calf piece will be too big to receive the knee peg. To make the fit tight, I put some of the soft plastic pellet material into the calf hole and jammed the knee peg into it. The plastic pellet material will fill up the excess space and form a custom hole for the peg. You may have to cut away some excess material that might ooze out the top. With the pegs fitted to size, open up the thigh pieces and set aside. Repeat the process on the other thigh.

6) You can attach the feet to the calf pieces by using a wrist peg from an original Joe. Cut the original rivet out of the foot with needle nose pliers. If you do not have pliers that are small enough, you can use a small saw but be extremely careful not to cut up the foot. With the old rivet removed, line up the wrist peg with the loop inside the opening in the top of the foot. Insert a new rivet (3/32" X 7/16") in the hole on the foot from the small toe side of the foot so that it captures the loop of the peg. Rest the head of the peg on a hard surface and place a center punch inside the tube end of the rivet. Strike carefully with a hammer. The feet might move around loosely, but they will attach to the hole in the bottom of the calf.

7) Okay, this is where it gets a little dodgy. Start with an ten-inch length of shock cord. Wrap it around the long pin in the lower abdomen of the figure, then tie a tight knot in the center, leaving equal lengths of cord on either side of the knot. Run the lengths of cord through the leg holes of the speedo shorts. Place the outer half of the right thigh into the leg hole of the shorts and let it lay flat on the table with the length of cord laying inside the piece.
View of abdomen with shock cord tied around the large peg. The cord runs through both sides of hip sockets into the semi-circular plastic caps and my custom balls that I made. The taut cord is secured with metal end crimps used in jewelry making. Note how the left thigh section fits over the cap and ball.
Thread the semi-circular plastic cap onto the cord, followed by your custom-made plastic ball. Push the two pieces up to the top of the thigh and pull the shock cord taut. While holding everything tightly in place, slide a crimp end onto the cord and up to the bottom of the ball. Then crimp the crimp end with a crimping tool (you might need an extra set of hands to pull this off). When you release the cord, everything should be held tightly in the upper part of the thigh piece. Cut off any excess cord. Be sure that the knee peg is still on the slot in the other thigh segment and glue the inner thigh piece to the outer thigh piece with modeling glue. The cord and ball arrangement, along with the knee peg, should now be securely contained between the two upper leg segments. Repeat the same process with the left thigh.
Another view of the leg repair.
8) When you have finished step 7, the thighs should be attached to the body tautly, but with some twisting movement for poseability. The knee peg which we attached earlier should be held in place by the two halves of the thigh and ready to receive the calf and foot. With legs assembled, we can move on to the top of the figure.
The upper body repair kit from Cotswold Collectibles. The "T" shaped joints fit into the shoulders, the joints with the balls on one end attach the upper arm to the forearm, and the length of elastic cord is used to attach the head plug to the body.
9) With the figure laying flat on your work table, Take one of the "T" shaped shoulder joints from your repair kit and place it in the upper left arm segment so that the top of the "T" is nestled in the appropriate slot. The disc side of the joint will be fitted into the body later.

10) Remove the rivets from the elbow area of the forearms using the same technique as we used on the feet. Take the elbow joint from the repair kit and place the disc side into the slot of the forearm. Slide a new rivet through the hole in the slot starting from the thumb side. Position the head side of the rivet against the table and tap the tube side with a center punch the same way as was done on the feet.

11) Set the ball side of the elbow joint into the bottom part of the upper arm. With the two joints in place, glue the top half of the upper arm to the bottom half with modeling glue. Repeat the same process for the right arm.

12) If you are not rebuilding a talking GI Joe, you can skip this step. For those who are, this is when you return the talking mechanism to the chest cavity. In my case, the mechanism was not working, so I replaced the speaker with a new one from Cotswold Collectibles. Simply remove the old speaker and put in the new one, making sure that the indentation in the center of the speaker is facing out toward you. Set the talking mechanism back into the chest on top of the speaker. Thread the pull cord through the grommit in the shoulder and tie the cord to GI Joe's dog tags.
Upper body with talking mechanism in place. The new speaker is underneath the mechanism. Note the shoulder pegs installed in the upper arms, the elbow pegs are in place and connected to the forearm, and the elastic cord is in place to receive the head plug.
13) We now move on to the head. Take the head plug shock cord from the repair kit and slide the eyelet end over the retaining pin closest to the neck opening in the bottom body section. Set the arms in place with the disc part of the shoulder joint set in the arm socket hole. At this point, you can glue the top half of the body section to the bottom half. Be careful to keep the head plug cord, shoulder joints, and talking mechanism in their proper places as you seal up the body. You don't want to have to crack open the body again once its glued down.

14) Once the body is glued together and the glue has fully dried, you can reattach the head plug and head. You will likely need to heat the head with a hair dryer to remove the head plug. Once you have heated the head, use a pair of needle nosed pliers to grip the head plug and pull down until the plug is removed. Thread the head plug cord through the head plug and pull the cord through the top. While holding the elastic cord taut, slide on the brass piece of tubing provided in the repair kit and crimp it to the top of the plug with a wire crimper. Cut away the excess elastic. Reheat the head with the hair dryer and slide the head over the plug.
Muscle Body Talking GI Joe Commander is fully assembled. 
At this point, you can breathe again: your muscle body Joe is fully assembled! While I can't guarantee that this repair will be strong enough to hold up to a full day on the playground with a 10-year-old, it should be sturdy enough so that a middle-aged man can dress him up in some vintage Joe duds and put him on display with the help of a doll stand.

"C'mon, the Adventure Team is needed!"

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rebuilding a Muscle Body GI Joe - Part One

Original body GI Joe compared to "Life Like" Muscle Body GI Joe
When I started collecting action figures in the late 90s, my goal was to not only acquire all the figures I owned as a kid, but to find the ones I wanted but never had. The "life like" or muscle body GI Joes from 1976 were among those figures that I just missed owning. While I liked the beefier looking bodies, I wasn't crazy about the whole trend that Joe was taking at the time with Bullet Man and the Alien Intruders, so I decided to focus on Star Trek and Space: 1999 figures instead. By the time I was back into full collecting mode at the turn of the new century, most muscle body Joes could only be found as a pile of limbs and heads, thanks to the cost-saving measures Hasbro took in making these figures. It seems that, with the cost of plastic rising due to the oil embargo, Hasbro had to come up with a way to make the big 11 ½" Joes cheaper to produce. Their solution was to make his body and most of the limbs out of hard plastic shell pieces that could be glued together like a model airplane. To attach the various limbs to the body and one another, the inside of the figure had what I can only describe as a rubber skeleton that held the arms and legs to the body and allowed the limbs to twist and bend. Sadly, after a dozen years or so, the rubber skeleton would dry rot and the figure would simply fall apart.

Given the small number of muscle body Joes made in the US (only one year of production) and the scarcity of ones that were still intact, the prices were usually more than I wanted to pay. Then last year, while I was helping my brother-in-law clean out a storage locker, I found a G.I. Joe playset filled with muscle body Joes along with a Mike Powers, Atomic Man. Of course, the muscle body figures had fallen to pieces, but all the pieces were still in the playset. Since my brother-in-law had no interest in them anymore, I was glad to take them home and try to rebuild them. This storage locker find took some of the pressure off me. I didn't have to pay for the figures on top of whatever it would cost to rebuild them and, if I damaged them in the process, it was better than if they had been thrown away.
The playset and GI Joes found in my brother-in-law's storage locker. Of course, this is after they were repaired and cleaned up.
I started researching how to rebuild muscle body Joes and, to my surprise, there was not a whole lot of information available. There were people who would rebuild them for a fee, but no instructions on the web for do-it-yourselfers. I did find a repair kit from Cotswold Collectibles which was designed to rebuild the top half of the figure. Specifically, the kit provides a thick shock cord to reattach the head to the body, special shoulder joints to reattach the upper arms, and elbow joints to connect the upper and lower arm pieces. The kit is a variation on the pieces that were used for the old Talking GI Joe Commander figure. Since the talking Joes had the talking device inside the body cavity, the head and legs could not be attached to the body with shock cord and hook-in-eye hardware like the regular Joes, so a new system of joints were used. Why the muscle body Joes didn't use a similar arrangement as the old talking Joes is unclear, but it works for them all the same.

Since my African-American Joe still had legs attached, I decided to use the repair kit on him first. The instructions provided with the kit were well detailed and the repair was faster and simpler than I anticipated. About one hour of work and I could display the figure in my case. The muscle body talking Joe was another matter altogether. Since I could not find any repair solutions for the legs online, I had to come up with a solution on my own. That meant taking the body completely apart and assessing how the thing was put together originally.
My muscle body talking GI Joe with the detached arms, legs, and head. I opened the body section and the left thigh to figure out how the guy was put together. Note: the foam rubber in the left shoulder is a replacement piece since the original piece disintegrated.
The rubber skeleton which held the legs to the torso started with a loop around a post in the lower part of the body. Two lengths of rubber extended from the loop, each length running down to the legs. When I pulled apart the two plastic shells that were glued together to create the thigh, I discovered that the rubber line that extended into the thigh grew into a rubber half-ball. This half-ball was nestled in a plastic cap at the top of the thigh. This is what kept the thigh firmly attached against the hip socket. A length of rubber continued from the bottom of the half-ball to the knee. Here the rubber was formed into a small loop which was designed to receive a pin inside the plastic shell. The solid plastic calf piece also connected to this pin. Actually, the calf piece is not completely solid as it has a hole down the center to receive the rest of the rubber skeleton. The rubber finally terminated in a loop. This loop would hold a rivet joining the foot to the bottom of the calf piece.
The semi-circular cap and rubber skeleton inside the thigh. The cap sat on top of the semi-circle of rubber, and the long piece (now dry rotted and broken) ran down the thigh to the knee joint.
So, in effect, a single, custom-made rubber skeleton held the thighs, calves, and feet of the figure to the torso. My challenge was to find a way to replace that skeleton with parts I could buy or manufacture myself. I started with the easiest part first: attaching the feet, calves, and thighs together. On the original GI Joes, these parts were connected with metal rivets and vinyl pegs (in other words, parts that were actually designed to last for a long time). I decided to see if replacement Joe pegs could do the job, so I bought some pegs of different sizes from Cotswold Collectibles. I tried various combinations, but none of the pegs fit exactly right. I decided to let that problem simmer for awhile and moved onto the hip socket.

On the original Joes, the thighs were made of solid poly-vinyl plastic and were attached to the hip sockets using metal hook-in-eye hardware. The necessary tension was provided by a thick shock cord inside the body that also held the arms and head. Shock cord could be the answer here, but since the head and arms would be attached using the repair kit, the shock cord would only be used in the lower part of the body and had to be attached in a way that would create proper tension between the socket and the thigh. I went back to the rubber skeleton for inspiration.
A view of the rubber loop that wrapped around the pin in the abdomen. The rubber skeleton (shown above) continued down into the thighs and legs. Unfortunately, I can only show you everything in pieces because the rubber dry rotted and crumbled apart.
The top of the skeleton had a loop around a pin inside the body. The shock cord could be tied around the pin and the two lengths of cord extending from the knot would go into the thighs. The rubber skeleton had a half-ball shape formed in it to hold the thigh in the socket. Perhaps I could create a ball of the same size with a hole in the middle through which I could run the shock cord. I would pull the cord tight and clamp it to the underside of the ball with a crimped clasp. That sounded good in theory, but where would the parts come from?

For the ball, I started looking at beads in craft stores. Nothing seemed to be exactly the right size. Also, the holes in the beads were so small, I would have to find shock cord that might be too thin to do the job. My wife suggested that I could make the balls myself using plastic modeling pellets. I was not aware of the product, but she ordered me some. The stuff is exactly like it sounds: little plastic beads that become soft and pliable when dropped in warm water. Once they are soft, you can pull them from the water and mold them like modeling clay into whatever shape you like. You have to work fast though, since they harden in the cool air. If you don't get it right before the stuff hardens, however, you can drop the plastic back into warm water and start again.
Another view of the abdomen and thigh. I would custom make plastic balls to replace the semi-circle of rubber holding the cap in the hip socket and replace the rest of the rubber with shock cord.
With a product to make the ball, I had to find the right shock cord. Shock cord comes in all sizes. I wanted cord that was thick enough to hold up to the tension I needed, but thin enough to tie in a knot inside the body and thread through a ball that would fit inside Joe's thigh. I settled on 3/32" thick shock cord that is sold for repairing camping tents. Once I had the shock cord, I molded my plastic balls and created holes in them that were just big enough to accept the cord. Now I needed clasps small enough to fit in the thigh but big and thick enough to hold the shock cord taut for many years to come. This proved to be the most time consuming search. I settled on some end crimps used for jewelry making that I picked up at a craft store. Not perfect, but they would do the job.

With all the pieces in place, I could now reassemble my muscle body GI Joe. In part two, I will go through the step-by-step process of rebuilding a muscle body talking GI Joe Commander.