How To: Skeletons


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DESCRIPTION

The skulls are made from balloons, newspaper, recycled cardboard and two different papier mache techniques. Skeletons and skulls have been the mainstay of past Halloween displays and prove to be fun and challenging papier mache projects.

This project was created for the July Mad Lab Prop Building Contest at Hauntspace.com. The contest required that four different items be used in the construction of a prop. The required items were books, twigs or branches, candles and some form of string, yarn, twine or rope. The tricky part is that the items were revealed one-a-week over the course of a month which meant that you had to be flexible and a little bit creative to incorporate all the necessary items.

THE BOOK

When the first Standard Everyday Item (SEI) was announced I immediately came up with the idea of a life-sized skeleton sitting next to a pile of books with the top book opening up to reveal a nasty sort of face. A trip to our local thrift store enabled me to get three large books for a buck apiece.

The concept was to carve a face out of the pages of the book similar in fashion to the way you would carve a jack-o-lantern. The process involved designing the face template then using an x-acto knife to cut the design into the pages. The design was cut into approximately 240 pages. The book was the most tedious part of this project.

After the face had been carved each page was then glued together. Eyeball made from papier mache clay were added then the whole book received an ample coat of stain to give it an aged appearance.

The Skeleton

The skeleton started with a homemade papier mache skull. The second SEI was a branch, stick or twig which worked well because it would serve perfectly as a spinal column. Who needs PVC?

A 20”x15” piece of plywood was used as the base. A large L-bracket was attached to the plywood and the branch was secured to the bracket with 16-gauge utility wire.

 

Once the branch was securely attached to the plywood base it was cut to the desired height and the papier mache skull was attached. The next steps involved using recycled newspapers and magazines to create the basic skeleton torso shape. Newspaper was wrapped and taped around the branch to add bulk and rolled tubes of newspaper were used to create the ribs, collar bone and arms. Lots of masking tape and hot glue were used to fasten it all together.

Pieces of corrugated cardboard were glued to the spinal column to help define the vertebra. An anatomy book illustrating the human skeleton was used as reference to determine the proper scale of the bones.

Once the entire upper torso armature had been created it was covered with strips of newspaper coated in papier mache paste.  Note that the goal of the strip mache was strictly for strength. I was not too concerned about smoothness because the next step was to cover the papier mache armature with papier mache clay.

The final phase of building the skeleton was creating the hands. The hands were made by rolling newspaper into small tubes, stapling  and rounding the ends, inserting 16-gauge utility wire into the tube then attaching the fingers to a corrugated cardboard palm and bending the fingers into the desired positions. The final step involved covering the fingers and hand with papier mache. For this step I used crepe paper wrapped around the fingers then coated with paste via a paint brush.

Once the papier mache dried (torso and hands) the hands were attached to the arms using hot glue and masking tape. The next step is my favorite part of the process….applying and sculpting the details using papier mache clay. (cellulose insulation+papier mache paste). The eyeballs were created from ping pong balls and paper irises created in Photoshop.

The dripping flesh was created from paper towels soaked in papier mache paste, a very effective technique. The papier mache clay was allowed to dry for several days.

The eyeballs were covered with masking tape and the whole piece was painted with black latex exterior paint.

After the base coat of latex paint had thoroughly dried white exterior primer was used for dry brushing which revealed the texture and details.

A coat of oak colored stain was applied to the entire skeleton using a foam brush. The stain gave the skeleton a nice sepia or brownish/aged/rotted feeling.

At this point the third SEI was announced, a candle. Another trip to the thrift store and I had a candle for 80 cents. The concept was simple, the candle would be mounted on the top of the book, a butane torch was used to melt and drip wax over the entire pile of books. Note: the books were secured to the base with large wood screws; also stain was used to discolor the pages in order to look antiqued.

So now I have the skeleton done along with the pile of books. The fourth SEI was announced three days before the entries were due. The fourth SEI was string, twine or rope. This SEI was the most challenging but I decided to give my skeleton dude a hat and hair. This is a very cool way to make some very realistic hair.

The hair was created using polypropylene twine. The twine was cut to the desired length, knotted at one end then unraveled by hand and brushed with a wire brush. The result is a very fine and believable hair. The sections of hair were glued to the hat rather than the skeleton prop.

One final added detail was the addition of some cheesecloth dipped in liquid starch and black coffee. The starch stiffened the cheesecloth and the coffee added some coloring. The effect is some rotted stringy looking clothing remnants on the shoulders.

This project was easily one of the most challenging and fun prop-building experiences.