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Imitation Imagineer
1,112 Posts
Discussion Starter #1
Hi, everyone!

I'm not really sure that this qualifies as a tutorial, as it is really more of a guide. However, there is not a section titled 'Rough Guidelines and Thumnbail Outlines from Hacks', so I'm posting it here instead. With any luck, it provides enough information to get into trouble, and sufficient detail to get back out.

Before undertaking this project, or applying the general principles to something else that we all need to have (for example, an Indiana Jones style boulder, or Easter Island head, etc), I would recommend spending some time over at Stolloween's site. The fantastic mache information and tutorials that are there will provide the necessary foundation for something like this.

With that said, there were some questions regarding the absurdly sized skull we constructed for last year’s pirate display, so I figured I’d put together a little breakdown on the prop.

There are bound to be some folks considering pirates for the first time, right? They'll all need 8 foot skull-faced-rock-type-things in their front yard, right? Right?

After all, a prop like this has some advantages:

• Cost- Relatively inexpensive for the size
• Scale- It can be pretty darned big
• Camouflage- it can be used to screen/house effects (lights, sound, fog, etc) or cover a yard element such as a pump, hydrant, etc

The loose inspiration was the ‘Skull Island’ concept from Peter Pan, but there are others such as King Kong, etc. there a literally hundreds of ways to interpret or pattern the overall look…our version is a fairly literal skull vs. something that only implies one….even more so than the source material:


Certainly, this version is pretty basic compared to what it could be. There are a TON of different things that could be added to the build depending on what the end goal is (eg, incorporate PVC to route fog, support for and/or apertures for LEDs, etc)

There is plenty of room in a prop of this size to do add in on board fog machines, air cylinder, lights, or anything else you might be able to think of. We’ve certainly discussed putting a scrim and rear projection image/video into the mouth…I guess the point is that this size prop opens up a lot of options for anyone wanting to undertake it. I may yet go back and do some of those things when we do a pirate theme the next time.

Anyway, it’s really a pretty straightforward build. It is just really time consuming, extremely messy, and big! With that said, on with the process!

Before starting, I would recommend having/acquiring/saving the following:

• Boxes- a wide assortment of corrugated packing boxes
• Masking Tape- wider is better, and can often be purchased fairly cheaply at the dollar stores
• Newspaper- we used 6 months of newspaper in this project. Honestly, six months.
• Glue- Elmer’s Glue was used for this project (dollar store again)
• Paint- Keep an eye out for ‘oops’ grey paint at the home improvement store. An entire gallon was required.
• Drylok- Grey Drylok was applied in an effort to weatherproof the skull.
• Paintbrushes- Cheap is the way to go here as you WILL ruin them.
• Floor Fan- Helps the drying time
• Ladder- unless you are Tim Duncan, you will probably need help painting the top of this guy
• Other stuff- This covers the things that I forgot that I used 10 months ago.

The first challenge was how to make it big enough to matter, but not make it too heavy to move around. So, we decided on cardboard infrastructure!. Initially, we just gathered a bunch of different boxes of various sizes (Thanks, Amazon!) and did a little dry fitting until we found a basic shape that hinted at the mouth and eyes:

Skull Start.jpg

Next, a top ‘jaw’ was formed by cutting a cardboard sheet into jagged teeth, and forming rolled newspaper over it to give the cardboard some dimension:

Making Teeth.jpg.jpg

Once this basic shape was there, we began building up/out with the newspaper that we’d been saving for the previous 6 months. This was essentially balled up, and taped into place until we’d ‘sculpted’ the cheekbones, brow ridges, etc. The teeth and upper jaw were also expanded with liberal application of rolled newspaper, masking tape, and beer. (to be clear, the beer was for drinking, not for making teeth):

Making Teeth 2.jpg

At this point, everything (skull, cats, kids) was covered in masking tape (hooray, Dollar Store!) and smoothed out a bit. This added some strength and structure that was sorely needed:


Once the facial elements were formed, we began layering the first of many coats of mache. I do not have the facility with language to convey just how time consuming and tedious this part is, so I will just say it is a really, really big pain. Really.

Eventually, after many hours and many beers, something like this appears:

First Coat.jpg

The rest of the head/skull is formed by (you guessed it!) more crumpled newspaper, and masking tape to hold it in place. Also, more beer is recommended. (unless you are underage, and then I recommend a tall glass of milk instead)

Basically, it's just more of the same from this point…just keep putting more crumpled paper balls in place, holding it with masking tape, and stuffing until you form all of the basic shapes you want to achieve.

We found that the newspaper REALLY had to be stuffed in there in order to get the form that is desired. Then we used more masking tape to completely attach the new formation (top of the head, etc) to the more solid structures already in place.

Once the full skull shape is formed, apply layers, and layers, and layers of paper mache strips. Multiple layers went into covering it all, and getting the shape we wanted.

For reference, our mache recipe was 1:1 Elmer’s Glue (more Dollar Store!) and water. No flour was used in this construction. I know that there are as many opinions on recipes and ratios as there are stars in the sky, but we live in Florida where mold, bugs and rodents are big concerns year ‘round….so, no flour for us!

Anyhoo….fast-forwarding through all of the gooey-gluey fingers, tedious tearing of endless strips of newspaper, etc. we finally had sufficient mache in place. 24 hours drying time was allowed for each complete layer, and a fan was run overnight in every instance. We did find that some areas (the eye sockets, for instance) required more layers, and more drying time to get the look we wanted. It was essentially trial and error, but the mache is pretty forgiving, so we just adjusted as necessary.

Once dry, the entire skull got a basecoat of dark grey ‘Oops’ paint, then a coat of Drylok (by FAR the most expensive element of this undertaking). The eye sockets received a coat of black.


From there, the entire skull was drybrushed with shades of grey made by mixing white into the ‘Oops’ paint. Finally, a VERY dry brush of white was used to bring out the detail.


The same process was then applied to creating a bottom jaw (just a box with the ‘teeth’ construction method applied) that slides into place. That completes the entire skull.

Below is the ‘finished’ version with jaw-shelf in place, and a cast of characters including a day-glow tentacle.

Of course, it’s not really finished because a prop of this size could have soooo much more detail applied than what we did. Unfortunately, our build last year was a bit aggressive, and in order to produce the sheer number of new props, some detail work got skipped. I’m sure the folks on this forum would be able to add all manner of detail and really take it to the next level!

As you can see from the image below, I clearly have no idea how to take photos at night, but this gives an idea of how it looked in place:


If you managed to make it this far, you have my apologies, and hearty congratulations! I'll be happy to try to answer any questions that I might inadvertently inspired through complete lack of detail....:D

Imitation Imagineer
1,112 Posts
Discussion Starter #6
Looks great!

Would someone please explain to a newbie. What exactly is DRY BRUSHING?
Glad you liked it...with any luck there is some information of value in there. :)

To answer your specific question, drybrushing is a technique used to easily bring out detail on a surface. It can be done with everything from oil paintings, to Halloween props.

The basic concept is to use only the smallest amount of paint on the brush (the brush is generally loaded, and then wiped off to a great degree), and to quickly but lightly move the brush across the surface of the object being painted.

This technique is generally applied with a highlight color which then naturally allows the darker regions to recede into the background as there is not sufficient paint to reach it.

I doubt that explanation did a great deal to clarify matters, but if you'd like, a video tutorial on the concept applied to gaming miniatures can be viewed here, and the same exact methods and concepts can be scaled up to be applied to just about any size Halloween prop.....including absurdly large cranial boulders. :D

Imitation Imagineer
1,112 Posts
Discussion Starter #9
Thanks folks!

I'm hopeful that this thing will help someone in some way if they decide to take on a large scale mâché project.

It was absurd in scope, but the whole family was able to participate (even some of my daughter's friends got in on the act), so it was a good time all around despite the repetitive nature and overall mess. :)

Imitation Imagineer
1,112 Posts
Discussion Starter #12
Found this via Pinterest.
This is FABULOUS!! Thank you for taking the time to share your creation.
Pinterest? Really?

I never would have suspected...I suppose I think of our little world here as being sort of insulated, but it probably isn't.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad you liked it! :)

Imitation Imagineer
1,112 Posts
Discussion Starter #15
Wonderful! Fantastic work .. I really love this, we are doing a pirate build this year .. All sorts of thoughts swirling in my head now. :D
That's great....we've done pirates twice, and enjoyed each year thoroughly. There is sooo much to mine in terms of ideas and details. I think you'll have a blast!

That is so rad! Really inspiring to see such a build.
Thanks! I'm glad you liked it.

One of the other members here took this little quasi-tutorial, and made the one pictured below, and that was pretty neat to see!


She detailed her work in
this thread too.

What was really cool is that they ended up making something that was more like what I originally envisioned doing. :)
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