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Cubone Helmet Tutorial

This post is way overdue. I started writing it in July, and never finished - I started the project itself in February, and haven't worn it since August.

So, Chelsea and I went to GenCon, and I made three new costumes for the event - desert Jedi, Sans from Undertale, and Cubone from Pokemon. At the time, Pokemon Go had just come out and was all the rage, and the cubone skull I'd originally started as practice for the Sans mask turned into a huge endeavor. It ended up being my favorite thing that I made for GenCon, so I'm happy to finally be sharing how it came about.

I apologize for the incompleteness of this tutorial, especially the lack of pictures. I didn't have a tutorial I could follow to make this project - I used techniques from several different tutorials for other costume pieces online, and some techniques I've developed myself over time. But in the end I was making this up as I went along, always expecting it to fail. I didn't take a lot of in-progress shots until it was too late. If I had to do this all over again - and maybe some day I will - I'd change some things. I'll try to clue you in on my mistakes so you can avoid them. But I'm happy with this piece - really happy - so I'm hopeful that this making-of will be useful to someone else.

The scaffold

The first thing I needed was a scaffold - something lightweight but sturdy, in the basic shape of Cubone's skull, that I could paper mache over to create the actual helmet. So I went to my local home improvement store, found the electrical aisle, and started playing around with the different wire they had there until I found something I liked. Most big box stores will sell you wire by the foot, and (if nobody's looking) you can play around with it before buying to test its flexibility. I was looking for something that I could bend with my fingers (sculpting with pliers is a pain), but that wouldn't yield to light pressure (I didn't want it to deform in shape just from resting on the table). I ended up liking a blue-coated copper wire and got a few feet. I needed less than two feet for the helmet, but wire is cheap and I didn't want to run out.

blue wire on a spool
This is about what mine looked like. I wish I had a picture of the actual wire, but I used the rest of it up on the Sans mask so I don't have any left.

When I got home, I started bending the wire into shape, using my head as a guide and a mirror as reference. I started with the "footprint" of the skull, or the part that would rest flat against the table if it didn't have flutes or fangs. I sized it so that the spherical part of the skull would nestle snugly around my head - leaving just a little room for the paper mache and wood filler that would come later - and made the snout of the skull sized to match, about the size of the bill of a baseball cap. After twisting the ends of wire together to hold their shape (at the very back of the skull, where the bump would be less noticeable), I cut it off and started sculpting a new piece for the "spine" of the skull. This wire ran along the length of the "footprint" piece, forming the very top of the skull - the spherical brain case, and the lower snout, bulging a bit at the tip for the nasal cavities. I supported this "spine" piece with two crosswise supporting wires, one at the widest part of the brain case and one at the widest part of the snout.

I really, really wish I had a picture of this to show you, because I'm pants at sketching things and have failed over and over again to make an understandable diagram. So have instead some pictures of the almost-finished skull; I've crudely painted on some lines to show where the wires are, underneath all of the added material. It's not as good as actual wireframe photos, but hopefully it helps.

diagram of skull helmet showing wire placement

The wire frame provided a lot of the structure I needed, but I still needed to round out the shape before I added paper mache. Otherwise the skull would be all harsh angles where the paper mache was stretched between the wires, and I'd look more like pyramid head than a cubone. So I used masking tape - lots and lots of masking tape - and covered the wire frame in arching strips, then covered the sticky underside of those strips with more tape. It wasn't unlike the process of making a duct-tape wallet, but in 3D and much less frustrating because masking tape is a lot easier to work with than duct tape. This step is probably the single most important part of the process, and this is the point where I'd go back in time and tell proto-me to change a lot of things. I let a lot of imperfections slide at this stage, assuming I'd be able to fix them during the later steps, and now I wish I had known a couple things:

  • It's very difficult to add any significant bulk to the piece with paper mache or wood filler. I wish I'd padded out the eye sockets with some cardboard and taped over them, so that they'd look more hefty in the finished project.
  • It's very easy to notice assymetry when the piece is painted that you overlook when it's broken up by the lines of tape. I wish I'd payed extra special attention to the eye sockets when I cut them out, because they're crooked now and I'll never be able to fix that.

When taping was done, I ended up with something like this:

wire frame of skull covered in masking tape
Skull after the masking tape covering. You can still see the wire frame underneath the tape.

The horns were balls of aluminum foil, wadded up and pressed into shape and then taped onto the skull near where the wires crossed, for stability. The flutes (at the back of the skull) and the fangs were pieces of masking tape I folded over, cut to shape, and taped on. (This isn't actually the final shape; I ended up cutting some notches out of the flutes right before I paper mached.) The eyes I just cut out of the tape with a pair of scissors; I used a paper template to trace a similar shape on both sides, but it still ended up uneven. If I did this again I'd take more time with that step.

Throughout this process, I was fitting the skull to my head, trying it on in the mirror, and getting feedback on shape and form from Chelsea. I knocked most of this out in a few hours on Skype chat with her, but I left it overnight and made a few more changes the next morning. Giving yourself time to take a step back from the project and work on something else (or sleep!) really helps with perspective. I noticed a lot of flaws after that night I hadn't seen before, and a lot of stuff that was bothering me the night I made the skull didn't seem as bad after a good night's rest.

The paper mache

The masking tape shell is way too flimsy to hold its shape, so I needed to strengthen it with a few layers of paper mache. If you've never used paper mache before, it's dirt cheap, lightweight, and pretty strong, though it makes a crappy finish so you'll probably have to cover it with something else to get something that looks nice.

I make my paper mache out of newspaper and wallpaper paste. You can get wallpaper paste in huge tubs at the home improvement store for cheap, and it'll last you forever - I haven't even used half of mine across two different mask projects, and I waste a lot. But if you want something even cheaper you can mix glue and water or even flour and water together for the liquid component; there's plenty of recipes online. I just like the wallpaper paste because it's convenient and just a little stronger than the stuff I could make at home.

You'll also need paper - cheap newspaper works great, and the edges blend better if you tear it instead of cutting it with scissors. You just dip the paper in the liquid mixture, squeeze off the excess, and plaster it onto your piece. You can do two or three layers of paper before you have to leave it to dry.... just remember that when it's wet, the structure is very pliant and liable to bend out of shape. If you let it dry like that, you'll be stuck with a mishapen piece forever. I made this mistake, and one side of the skull is significantly flatter than the other. Both sides look fine if you view them separately, but you notice the difference when you see it head-on and it looks horrible.

skull helmet covered in paper mache
This is just one layer of paper mache. You can still see tape on one horn where I hadn't covered it yet.

You'll probably want several layers of paper mache on your piece, and make sure you let each coat dry thoroughly before applying a new one. I kept applying it until it no longer bent under thumb pressure; that's when I decided it was ready for the weight of the wood filler.

I also gave the skull one last look in the mirror before moving on. You really need it to fit your head in this step, leaving a little bit of wiggle room for your wood filler/wood filler alternative, because this is the last chance you'll get to make major changes to the shape and structure. Finally, make sure whatever holes you've cut in the skull are a smidge bigger than what you actually need, because you won't be able to remove material after you move on (but you can add it without a lot of trouble).

The wood filler

This next step is the longest, but it's really necessary to get a good heft and finish on your final piece. I needed some sort of substance to bulk out the skull, to give it depth and also a smooth finish. I wanted something I could clean up with sand paper, so I ended up following the advice of this Sans mask tutorial and used wood filler. You can find wood filler at your local hardware store - it's basically wood pulp mixed with glue and water to form a mealy paste. Carpenters use it to fill in cracks and gaps in wood projects, but I used it more like clay. I slathered the whole skull with it (inside and out), after giving the paper mache plenty of time to dry, and used it to add bulk to areas like the eyes that needed some extra thickness. This is also where you'd carve in details like the cracks around the eye of the skull - I didn't add these, but you definitely could.

The wood filler cracks as it dries, so you have to go back in and fill the cracks in with wood filler. Then those cracks will get cracks, so you fill those in too. Some of the cracks, especially around the stress points like the eye holes, were especially stubborn. I filled those in with wood glue, and then more wood filler on top of the glue once it had dried. All in all this process took the better part of a week. One tip I learned was to smooth over the wood filler with slightly wet fingertips after it had dried for a few minutes, to rub off some of the grainy texture. That really helped when I was sanding later.

 

skull before sanding; surface is very rough and pitted
Skull after wood filler is finished, before sanding. As you can see, the finish is very rough and needs lots of sanding.

Then you take a sanding block and go to town. Sanding takes a while and make a mess but it gives you a gorgeous, smooth finish that really sells the "polished bone" look. It will also help you smooth out lumps from the wood filler, but it's really best to smooth those out as much as possible before the wood filler dries. I started with a coarse sanding block and then moved to a fine sanding block, then progressively smaller grits of sandpaper. I think I finished on 800 grit, which I only used in some areas - I wanted to leave a few pits and scars.

skull after sanding, mostly smooth
Here's another photo after sanding is almost done. You can see some areas around the nose, flutes, and horns that still need some work, but it looks a lot better after this step.

N.B.: You don't have to use wood filler for this step. It creates a pretty heavy final product that's fine for my purposes, especially since I fitted the skull to lay at the right angle on my head with the extra weight. But it would be entirely unsuitable for a mask that's supposed to hang off the side of your face, and probably wouldn't work well for little munchkins or anyone whose neck will tire easily. If you have the cash, you can use store-bought paperclay for this step instead - it's lightweight and comes in a few great colors, and takes sanding almost as well as wood filler. But it cracks even more easily than the wood filler does, and it's harder to sculpt fine detail into it, especially since it dries pretty quickly. It's also expensive, especially for a project this large.

If the purse strings are tight, you can use paper mache clay. It's very light and cheap to make at home, but isn't as durable as the wood filler. It's a little easier to sculpt than store-bought paperclay, and will take paint well. This would be my choice for a face mask or a munchkin skull.

The finish

I finished my skull with some acrylic paint - I found a color called "bone white" and used it, but other colors would have worked depending on the finish I wanted. I used a sponge brush to apply it and then, because I hate myself, I sanded the paint. That's a totally optional step that requires several layers of painting, but if you're paranoid about brush marks you're going to do it.

finished cubone skull helmet
Skull after painting.

At this point you can weather the skull, if you're going for a gritty, realistic look, or seal it with some kind of protective layer if you're worried about scuffing your paint job. I opted not to do either of these things, because I was going for the slightly cartoonish look you see in the games, and because I knew the skull would weather itself over a long summer of use. The paint I used was pretty durable and hasn't worn off through several days of wear, including a rough day at the renaissance faire. The skull has acquired a few cracks in that time, mostly because I keep falling down while wearing it. (There was a particularly spectacular dive I took at the RenFaire when I was trying to dodge a Pokeball someone threw at me.) I don't mind the cracks, though - I like that the piece has a story, and really it's a testament to the wood filler's durability that the skull hasn't shattered entirely.

glamour shot of skull
Skull after some haphazard weathering on the RenFaire grounds

glamour shot of skull
The pits and shadows stand out in stark lighting.

And then you're done! You can mount it and display it, or wear it with pride to whatever costume event you please. I paired it with a costume store caveman bone to complete the look, but you can make a bone club using a similar process if you have the time (and I plan to do just that this winter). I'll post pictures of it on my head some time soon - as soon as I can take some that are internet-ready.

I hope the tutorial was useful! Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you have, or leave a comment on DeviantArt or Tumblr.