Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Making a Jurassic Park prehistoric mosquito in Amber

When I visited the Universal Studios theme park last year, their store had a "mosquito in amber" artifact from Jurassic park. I inquired about getting one, and they emailed me saying "due to the possibility of unauthorized Dinosaur recreation, we only offer these as displays in our shop ". Real cute. So this week, after catching a large Crane-fly, I made one myself with resin. I’m quite proud of how real it looks. In case you're wondering, the store "artifact" also had the appearance of a "found" amber piece, rather than a polished egg-shaped cane grip the movie featured, and that's what I was going for.

Here’s how to make this (scroll to the bottom for some history/info on this, if you like)

  1. Find a Crane-Fly that you will put inside the artifact. In most of the world, you can easily find one in certain times of the year and climates. If not, you might be able to find one for sale on eBay or Etsy, though sellers of bugs aren’t very consistent. Naturally, you can use any other insect to do this, if you’d like to just make a DIY insect in “amber”, although many gift stores sell these quite cheaply, so I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. This would be a good idea if you have a pet insect that perished and that you want to preserve.
  2. Find a stone or rock to serve as the shape template. Could be any, but should be 2-3” diameter, depending on the size of your crane fly or other object.
  3. Make or buy a frame for the outside frame. You can construct one out of plastic, wood or thick cardboard. If the stone is is up to 3”, you can get a 4” pipe piece at Home Depot. This is a piece of pipe that’s about 4” wide and long and is perfect for a frame.
  4. Get silicone mold polymer, or some other molding material/kit. Remember the rule with mold – you use a soft mold for hard cast, or vice-versa, so for this, you cannot use plaster or anything else hard. I used this kit: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B094W15XPF . It cost $20 and I needed about 70% of the amount in it. A difficult choice is how much to get, as you probably want to keep costs down, but not end up stuck without enough material. You can calculate the expected volume by measuring the stone’s volume with water-displacement, and calculate your frame size by simple geometry, but be sure to get at least 20% more for safety.
  5. Get polymer resin of some kind. These can get VERY expensive, so consider whether you want something super high-end. The cheaper stuff might be less clear than the good stuff, and also produce more bubbles or have a very long cure time. My favorite is https://www.resin4art.com/, though it’s not cheap (I used 3 OZ resin for my stone, and that cost about $2 per ounce). If you get bigger containers of standard resin, prices can be as low as 50 cents per ounce.
  6. Get dye to color the resin. You can use real amber color, if you can find any, or something similar. Keep in mind that in nature, amber comes in different shades and colors (including Red, Blue and even clear), so you can take some license with this. I used green food coloring.
  7. Place the frame on a surface, and use a glue-gun to seal the edges around it.
  8. If your stone is dirty, wash and scrub it well, and dry well.
  9. Place the stone on the bottom of the frame.
  10. Prepare (mix) about 2/3 of the silicone molding material and pour it into the frame. Pour from about 8-12 inch above to minimize bubbles and air-pockets.
  11. Once the silicone has fully cured (typically, 12 hours), remove it from the frame CAREFULLY. Do NOT remove the stone from it.
  12. Cut 2-3 “keys” into the top of the frame. Keys are holes into which the top-part of the mold will fit, to make closing it easier. Make this intentionally a-symmetric.
  13. Take a little Vaseline and rub it on the surface of the mold in a nice, thick layer. Make sure it goes into the keys you cut as well. You can do this with a brush, cotton swap or your fingers, but don’t let it get TOO thick.
  14. Put the piece back in the frame.
  15. Mix the other 1/3 of the mold material and pour into the mold until it covers the stone well (ideally, at least ½” above). Let it cure.
  16. Remove from the frame and separate the mold. Do this carefully and slowly, as the top part might stick to the bottom a little despite the Vaseline. It might require some force, but be careful not to tear it.
  17. Remove the stone from the mold completely, and turn it over (the top of the mold will be the bottom when you cast)
  18. Ideally, the bottom of the mold will have a hole, where the stone was standing-on. If there is none or it’s very small, cut it a little open. You need to have room there to pour-in resin later.
  19. Mix your poly-resin as per the instructions. Most of them are 1:1, but some are 2:3 or other variations. If your stone is like mine, about 3”, mix 1 or 1.5 OZ using a scale…and be ACCURATE.
  20. Add coloring to the mix to make the resin look like amber. I used just ONE drop. Keep close track of the quantifies you used in this step and the previous, as you’ll need to do this TWICE more and you want the proportion of resin to dye to be the same so as to avoid color-bands in the result.
  21. Pour the resin into the bottom (which was the top beforehand) to its brim. Try to avoid spilling, but it’s OK if it’s not all the way to the brim.
  22. Give the resin some time to harden. Doesn’t have to fully harden, just enough so that the bug won’t sink in (most resin will be there in 2-3 hours, some less)
  23. Place the bug in the middle and close the mold above it.
  24. Let it stand for another hour or two to make sure the bug is stuck in place
  25. Prepare another serving of the resin and dye and remember – the proportion of dye needs to be identical. It’s generally better to make a little too-much resin and throw it away then to get stuck without enough in the middle of a step.
  26. Pour the resin into the mold carefully and slowly, so it surrounds the bug and builds around and above it. It should engulf the animal, but doesn’t have to do so fully (we waited earlier so it stays stuck in place and doesn’t float)
  27. Let the resin harden for a bit – doesn’t have to be fully, an hour or two will suffice.
  28. Prepare a final batch of the resin, with the same proportions and pour it in. The idea is to NOT fill the mold all the way to the top but a little below. That will create a flat surface, which will be transparent and let you see into the amber. Just make sure the bug is fully covered.
  29. Leave the resin to harden (typically 12 hours). You can test it with a toothpick, but carefully to not leave dimples in the casting. If you had leftover in your mixing cup, that is a good way to test if it hardened or not.
  30. Demold the result, carefully and slowly. Good chance some resin will have crept between the mold pieces like a film, which you need to cut out and remove carefully. It might leave behind a lip, so grind that down with a nail clipper or with a mini grinding wheel (Dremmel, or similar)
  31. That’s it – it should look nice and pretty!

Now some history lesson:

The mosquito seen in the movie (attached to Dr. Hammond's cane, and depicted as the source of the blood used to recreate dinosaurs) is actually Toxorhynchites, or "elephant mosquito". These aren't "real" mosquito, as they eat other insects, just like the Crane fly, rather than blood. However, the film makers wanted something more impressive than a real mosquito, which is just 0.15-0.4". The elephant mosquito is about an inch, so fits the idea that prehistoric mosquitos were huge, even though it's not true. In reality, prehistoric mosquitos were about the same size as today's. There *were* giant insects, like a prehistoric dragonfly, with a wingspan of 30" (size of a crow), but not mosquitos. The crane fly I used was about an inch, so it's fairly screen-accurate.

BTW, Amazon sells a replica of the cane grip, but it actually contains only a flat graphic of the "prehistoric" mosquito. My piece is fully 3D.

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