Introduction: Giant Skeleton Halloween Decoration
First Prize in the
Halloween Contest 2017
I'm an amateur Halloween enthusiast who goes overboard on Halloween costumes each year. This year I turned my attention to decorating my house. I wanted to take advantage of my home’s flat roof and parapet wall to make a decoration that was interacting with its environment. I considered various creatures but decided on the skeleton / grim reaper due to its robe which would cover much of its body - this helps cut down on the carving. While you may not have a roof line that lends itself to this approach, your skeleton could be coming up over a wall, hedge or shed. Hopefully you'll be able to put your own spin on this to suit your environment!
This project took roughly 80 hours in total and the materials cost around $250.
More projects at my website, Funtitled Workshop, with more Instructables on the way.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
- Rigid foam insulation - 2" thick, 4'x8' (Foamular 150) - 3 sheets
- Foam board adhesive (Loctite PL 300) - 4 tubes
- Black craft felt fabric 72" Wide-By The Yard) - 14 yards
- Plastic garden fencing - 18 feet
- Latex wall paint or drywall primer - 2 quarts
- White glue - 5 tubes
- Black spray paint - 1 can
- Clear matte acrylic sealer (spray paint) - 1 can
- Black acrylic paint - 1 small tube
- 2x4" x 6' - 14 boards
- 1x6" x 4' board
- Plastic hanger (pipe) strap - 10'
- Hot glue sticks
- Zip ties
- Screws - variety ranging from 3/8" to 3"
- Black thread
- Snap blade shop knife
- Drywall hand saw
- Rotary tool
- Staple gun
- Screw gun
- Chop saw
- Reciprocating saw with saw blade for metal
- Jig saw
- Sewing machine
- Table saw
- Tape measure
- Hot glue gun
- Safety gear (mask, glasses, gloves)
- Computer (optional)
- LCD projector (optional)
- Airbrush (optional)
Step 2: Plan and Design
I created a pretty crude mock-up on my computer using a picture of my house, images of a skeleton and a black "paint brush". Once I knew the general design, I took a photo of myself in the desired position to help visualize how the shoulders, arms and hands of the skeleton should look. I then gathered reference images of skulls and hands to help keep the project (somewhat) anatomically correct.
Next I measured by own proportions: the height of my head, distance from elbow to wrist, distance from knuckle 1 to knuckle 2, and so forth. I decided to multiply my dimensions by a factor of 7. So the skull was over 6 feet tall and the entire creature would stand 45' tall (glad you can only see part of it).
I later used this same spreadsheet to help estimate fabric.
Step 3: Build the Structure of the Hands
The structure of the hands is made with 2x2s which were originally 2x4s that were cut (longways). I had some 2x4s on hand so I took this approach but you could buy 2x2s instead if you'd rather not use the table saw. Next I cut the 2x2s to the dimensions of each finger bone that I had determined in the previous step. Since I wanted the pinky and pointer fingers to be a little shorter than the other two fingers, I cut each of these pieces slightly shorter.
To allow for the bends of the joints, I used plastic pipe straps. I cut the straps in approximately 2" segments and used between 2 and 4 pieces per knuckle. The straps on the inside of the hand (palm side) were attached while the two pieces of wood were touching. I first used a staple gun but some would pull out so I decided to use short (3/8") screws to attach the straps. Once the inside straps were secured, I flipped the hand over to attach the straps on the outside of the fingers. I positioned the boards so that, when the straps were attached, a angle was created - appearing as though the fingers were bent.
For the left hand (the one that would be grabbing the porch), I used the same straps to secure the four fingers to a 1x12 board that I trimmed to make a sort of triangle shape; this is the wrist. The wrist board was then spray painted black.
Step 4: Carve the Hand Bones
I carved the bones from 2" thick rigid foam insulation. Using an extendable (snap blade) shop knife, I first cut the foam in 4" wide pieces then trimmed them to the correct length to cover each segment of the wooden structure. Keep in mind that, based on the bend of the joints, the foam bones will need to be slightly longer than the wooden structure. I used the shop knife and a drywall saw to notch out a channel so that the foam would fit down onto the wooden structure. For the final bone (finger tip), I only cut the trough in half of the foam piece since the foam will extend further than the wood structure.
Once I cut the trough, I roughed out the shape using the shop knife.Try not to cut too deeply through the foam so that it creates a hole through to the trough. But this is supposed to be a creepy old skeleton so if there are some nicks and holes, it's not a big deal. You can also patch spots with spackle if you want. To smooth the edges I used a (Dremel) rotatory tool with a drywall cutting bit. I would carefully ran the edge of the bit along the surface which would leave burrs... creating a sort of fuzzy appearance. For final smoothing of the surface, I used 200 grit sandpaper. I suspect there's a more streamlined approach that might cut out one of the steps so see what works for us, but this was my approach.
For the wrist bones, I cut 8-10 bones in various shapes that would fit together without large gaps between them. No need to cut a channel in these since they will be adhered to the wood of the wrist. I carved the start of the forearm but didn't end up using these since the sleeve would have covered them.
In the end, I carved 46 hand bones. Depending on your installation location, you may need a slightly different number. For example, I didn't carve wrist or some hand bones for the right hand - the one on the roof line - since they were out of view and covered with the sleeve.
Step 5: Seal and Paint the Hand Bones
Some paints - especially spray paint - will eat through foam so it's essential to seal it first before applying any paint. I use diluted white glue (ie: Elmer's type of school glue). I normally use two or more coats to seal foam projects but in this case I just used one. The reason: I didn't mind if the surface became a little pitted when the paint ate through the foam a bit. After sealing, I then tried spray painting the bones; this helped to create some pitting/texturing but the coverage wasn't great. So I ended up using drywall primer that I had on hand from a previous project. The off-white (slightly grey) color was great. Really, any off-white latex wall paint would work. After painting, I sprayed on layer of matte acrylic sealer.
Step 6: Draw and Carve the Skull
I found a picture of a skull (with its mouth open) and projected it onto a 4' x 8' sheet of 2"-thick rigid foam. I traced the picture with a marker doing my best to indicate where I'll eventually be cutting. After tracing the skull, I used a shop knife to cut out the outline. I then used this piece of foam as a template to trace and cut two additional pieces of foam. These three pieces of foam were then glued together using foam adhesive. After allowing the adhesive the dry (roughly 24 hours) I began to carve.
To rough out the shape, I primarily used a reciprocating saw with blade designed to cut metal. I also used a drywall hand saw and shop knife. I tend to be cautious when carving so I gradually took more and more material away. To carve the teeth, add random notches and pits and add some of the more detailed contours, I used the rotary (Dremel) tool with the drywall attachment.
Some people prefer to use a hot wire foam cutter and there's a great Instructable post on how to build your own.
After I finished carving, I sanded the entire thing to smooth the rough edges. But if you're placing this on your roof or some other location which will be a distance from the viewer, don't worry about it being perfect. And skulls - especially creepy grim reaper skulls - are not completely symmetrical so don't worry about that either.
Step 7: Seal and Paint the Skull
Similar to the foam for the hands, I sealed the skull with diluted white glue. After this dried, I applied a base coat of off-white spray paint. Just like the hand bones, I didn't like the coverage it provided, but I did like how it ate away the surface to create some texture and pitting. I then used the drywall primer to completely cover the skull. After this coat of paint dried, I started adding the eye and nose shading with black spray paint. Since the eyes and nose will eventually be backed with black fabric, my goal was to have the deepest parts of these holes as dark as possible to give the appearance of depth. For shading on the teeth, temples, jaw, brow, nose, etc. - basically anything with detailed painting - I used a cheap airbrush with diluted black acrylic paint (probably not the best, but what I had on hand). I was timid at first but applied coat after coat to make the shading pretty severe so it would show up well when lit. Just like with theatrical makeup, it's okay to go a little overboard on shading to make sure it doesn't get washed out. The shading helps to add depth to the jaw and, hopefully, make the whole skull look a bit creepier.
During the painting process, I built a wooden frame to which I attached the skull. The specific dimensions of the frame will depend on the shape of the skull but I had two vertical boards with 6 cross pieces. I positioned the cross pieces so that they were mostly not visible from the front (ie: they didn't bisect the eye holes, for example). The skull was attached to the frame so that the bottom of the chin wall tall enough to not be obscured by the parapet wall when it was installed. The skull was glued to the frame using foam adhesive.
Step 8: Sew the Hood and Sleeve
To sew the hood, I simply folded over black felt length-wise and sewed the end. This served as the top (peak) of the hood. Since the felt was 72" wide, the hood was 36" deep. To keep the hood from folding over, I hot-glued a ~24" piece of scrap wood along the inside of the seam. When determining the length of the hood, I accidentally didn't consider that the fabric would need to follow the curve of the skull and not hand straight - so I cut the hood about 2 feet too short (to correct the issue, I just sewed on additional fabric - no biggie!). So, I suggest holding the hood in place then marking where it should be cut. Once I installed the skull and built the wooden frame, I needed to cut the hood down the back to accommodate the braces; you'll probably need to play it by ear. The good news is that when in place on the roof, it'll be impossible to see the details.
For the sleeve, I sewed a long "tube" of black fabric. I used the same 72" wide fabric and just folded it over and sewed up the edge (final dimensions 16' long x 36" wide). No need to attach the sleeve to the rest of the hood. Once installed, I wrapped the frame in fabric, stapled it in place and it looks a cohesive piece.
Step 9: Build and Install the Structure
First off: PLEASE be careful if you're installing this on your roof. I built the supporting structure away from the edge and slid it into place when done. And always work with a partner (shout out to my husband who helped!).
The supporting structure is very site-specific so the approach and dimensions will differ from project to project. In my case, I constructed the primary supporting structure using four, 6' long, 2x4s to make two large triangles to keep the skull upright. The weight of these boards was enough to keep the skull standing but I added additional scrap wood at the back to add more counterbalance weight.
In addition to the supporting structure, I created two "shoulders" out of 2x4s of different length. The left shoulder required additional support since the left arm was anchored to this point. The sole purpose of the right shoulder was to provide the correct silhouette when covered with black fabric so it doesn't have to be too sturdy.
The arm was made of two pieces of 2x2 for the upper arm and forearm. The "elbow" joint was secured using a number of zip ties. To keep the zip ties from sliding off the end, I used a couple of short screws. The arm will be covered in the fabric sleeve but I first wrapped it in plastic garden fencing which I attached with a staple gun. The width of the fencing was roughly 1.5' wide. The goal was to add a bit of bulk to the arm without increasing the weight. I slid the sleeve over the arm before putting it into place with the help of my husband. Once it was positioned, I used screws and plastic zip ties to secure it to the shoulder at the top and the porch post below.
The left hand was attached to the porch post by screwing directly through the wooden finger segments. Once attached, I adhered the foam to the wooden structure. To avoid putting too much weight on the hand, the arm was attached to the porch post behind the hand.
The fingers of the right hand were attached to a 2x4 as a counterbalance to anchor the hand in place.
The entire structure was then covered with black felt fabric which was secured using staples and hot glue. While the robe is made of a bunch of different pieces of fabric, from a distance they look to be a single piece. The eyes, nose and mouth holes were also covered with fabric to black them out but allow air to flow through.
Step 10: Light and Enjoy!
Our house is on a well-lit street in Chicago but I used two LED floodlights to illuminate the skeleton: one was positioned on the porch roof and one was on the ground.
The reaction from neighbors, passers by and local press has been great. It was well-worth the time and effort.
Good luck building and adapting to your unique location. And please feel free to message me with any questions. And check out my website, Funtitled Workshop, for more projects.
Thanks (and Happy Halloween)!
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