Update: The newly published WFTDA rules now allow for the use of traditional non-form fitting hockey half-shields. In other words, this entry is largely obsolete. I'm publishing it anyway, just in case you want to rock a form fitting one for some reason :)
I admit it. I'm a gear junkie. If some odd-ball wheel or a new kind of knee pad comes on the market, I'll probably be first in line. A few months ago I was told that I better protect my nose when skating, or be prepared to buy a new one (and new noses are expensive!) Always looking on the bright side, this presented me with a new opportunity to geek out on gear.
Research yielded one rule and two options. The WFTDA rule 10.1.3 allows for face shields, but only if they are form fitting. Hockey style shields and cages are prohibited. This yielded two options: a custom made face shield or an off the shelf one-size-fits-all equivalent.
- Custom face shield: This is the kind that Kobe Bryant has been seen sporting. Custom face shields are made from a cast of your actual face. Most prosthetics manufactures can hook you up with one. They offer a great fit and probably much better protection. But, they cost about $1000 D:
- Off-the-shelf face shield: For those of us on a budget you can buy a one-size-fits-all face shield like this one. They cost between $30 and $40. They're a lot cheaper but the fit is awful and big black pads block lines of vision that are critical to roller derby.
I decided to give the off-the-shelf face shield a try. I figured that even if it was a disaster, $40 would be a drop in the bucket compared to the $1000 for a custom made one.
- Vision blocked
- sweat builds up under pads
- stuck out really far
Since it was useless in its stock form I decided that there would be no harm in modding it. I hated it anyway, so even if I ruined it, there would not be a significant loss.
Modding phase 1: depadding and reshaping
I had seen a face plate once before. During the second jam of my first scrimmage I met Feisty Irish on the jammer line. Not only did she kick my ass but she also did so with a shiny piece of plastic in front of her face. I didn't remember any ugly black pads, so I emailed her.
She replied indicating that she was using the same off-the-shelf face shield that I chose, but without the black foam pads.
I carefully peeled the pads off. My vision was improved but the fit was not. The fit went from awful to unbearable. I knew there was only one thing that could save me: a heat gun. If in doubt add energy, right?
Polycarbonate, the material that these masks are made from, is very strong at room temperature, but when you warm it up it becomes quite malleable. Unfortunately, the temperature at which it's easily workable is quite close to where it begins to break down. If I warmed and shaped the mask enough I hoped for an improved fit. Here are the steps I followed to reshape it.
- Remove the foam pads and straps. They melt at a much lower temperature and it'd really ruin your day if they caught on fire.
- Place the mask against your face and select a part to reshape. Focus on places where the mask is flat or curving on only one axis.
- Hold the mask with tongs or a protected hand (oven mits work great). It's going to get hot.
- Turn your heat gun to its lowest setting. Point the heat gun at the part that you would like to reshape. Hold it about 3cm from the surface and move it in small circles. Focus the heat on the spot you would like to bend, but be sure to warm the surrounding area too. We want a smooth change rather than an abrupt crease.
- After what seems like an eternity but is probably under a minute you will start to see the spot that you are heating change. Edges will start to round out a bit, the reflectivity of the surface will change slightly and the shield may begin to bend from gravity. Stop heating the mask.
- Are you still heating it? do you see bubbles starting to form? Stop right away!
- The shield is a lot hotter than you think. With your protected hands carefully bend the heated suface to the desired shape.
- Let the mask air cool. After a few minutes when it is cool enough to put near your face, go back to step 2 and repeat.
Some importnat things to note:
- Did you get a ton of bubbles? This is bad news. The polycarbonate is a lot weaker now.
- Fewer heat cycles are better. As you heat and cool the shield it becomes weaker. My hope is that the improved fit is worth the decrease in strength.
- Make SURE it's cool before you put it near your face. It's hard to tell how hot it is, and plastic burns hurt a lot.
I ruined one shield with this technique, but the second one turned out great! The fit was acceptable and it sat close enough to my face to leave most of my vision relatively unimpeded.
Modding phase 2: grinding and drilling
Spring arrived. The rink I practice at began to warm up with the longer days. Sweat and fog began to build up beneath my face shield. My vision was once again blocked, by my own vapors of athleticism. Around this time I also switched to a hockey style helmet. The hockey helmet covered more of my head and provided less room for my face shield. Something had to be done.
In addition to being heat shapable, polycarbonate is also quite machinable. High speed tools work better, so I grabbed my trusty dremel and went to work.
First, I used a coarse grinding wheel to grind away parts of my mask that prevented it from fitting under my helmet, or were otherwise not helpful. I removed 7mm from the top, narrowed the part that covered the bridge of my nose by 5mm on each side, and removed a whopping 1cm from the tip of the nose (who are these people and why are their noses so long?) This obviously weakens the shield, but it was worth it for the improved visibility and air flow.
I wasn't ready to put away the dremel yet, though. I swapped the grinder out for a drill bit and drilled dozens of small 2mm holes. I placed them just under 1cm apart across the portions of the shield that cover my cheeks and forehead.
Later that night I took it for a spin. Not only was the fogging problem resolved, but it felt much cooler and the portions of the shield that bore holes became more flexible. This improved the fit even further.
Modding phase 3: helmet mounting
All this time I wore the shield under my helmet using the strap harness provided. Getting the straps tight enough yet tolerably comfortable was a continuous challenge. This is when I noticed that my hockey helmet had screws in all the perfect places.
I cut the elastic harness into 5 strips of varying length and used the mounting screws to secure my shield to the helmet. This only works because my helmet fits extremely well. My helmet shifts less than the harness that came with the shield making this an improvement.
Wrapping it up
So has my adventure into face shield hacking been worth it? Yup! I've taken many a wild arm to the face and every time the bearer of that wild arm has been damaged more than I have :)