Manning Makes Stuff - Halloween decorations, paper mache masks, costumes, party ideas, and more

Manning Makes Stuff - Halloween decorations, paper mache masks, costumes, party ideas, and more

Axeman skull mask! — part 2

Published by Manning on February 12th, 2018

Axe Man paper mache skull mask

This is part two of my Axeman paper maché skull mask for Mardi Gras 2018; see part one here.

Making the mustache

You may remember from part one I wanted to make the mustache attach to the skull with magnets so it’s removable. Here’s my convoluted process for designing the mustache, getting it to match the curvature of the skull, and getting the placement of the magnets correct.

I started by sketching the mustache right onto the surface of the paper maché skull with a pencil, to figure out the exact size of the two pieces of the mustache. I then traced the mustache shapes onto tracing paper, cut those pieces out and traced them onto thick drawing paper, and cut those out. I then traced those onto a sheet of craft foam, and cut those out as well. I discarded the tracing paper, and I kept the thick drawing paper and the craft foam shapes; these would all go into the finished mustache.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - tiny magnets

I used the tiniest rare earth magnets I could find for the mustache. They’re just a quarter-inch in diameter, and they come with a little peel-off sticker on one side. (The letters printed on the magnets are for Zorth and South.) These things are surprisingly strong!

In designing the mustache shapes I was careful to make them thick enough so that I could cut a hole in them and place these little magnets inside. I cut the holes in the craft foam with an X-acto knife and placed the magnets inside, one for each half of the mustache. I then laid the craft foam and magnets onto the paper cut-outs and wrapped some very thin strips of masking tape around where the magnets are to lock them in place and connect everything.

I then carefully applied about three layers of paper maché over the mustache shapes, using really tiny pieces of brown wrapping paper.

Axeman skull mask - paper mache mustache

Right after doing the paper maché, while the paste was still wet and the shapes were still pliable, I taped a folded sheet of wax paper in place below the skull’s nose, and laid the mustache pieces onto that, pressing them down so they took on the subtle curvature of the skull. I stuck some larger magnets inside the skull on the other side of the mustache to hold the pieces perfectly in place. I let the pieces dry there.

When the mustache pieces were dry, I carefully lifted them off the wax paper, and then removed the wax paper from the skull. I laid the pieces back in place on the skull, and then attached the magnets inside the skull again. I used larger disk-shape magnets for this, in stacks of four; the more magnets you stack up, the stronger they get. Once the magnets were in place inside the skull, I covered them with masking tape to hold them in place, and then I covered this area with paper maché to permanently lock them in.

I painted the mustache parts with black acrylic paint. I opted not to paint the back surface, in order to prevent sticking; two painted surfaces that are touching can bond to each other if the paint hasn’t had enough time to set completely, or even just if they stay touching for too long. The porous surface of the plain brown paper is less likely to get stuck on the white paint of the skull. Even so, if I planned on leaving the mustache on the skull for a long period of time, like weeks/months, I’d put a small piece of wax paper in between to help prevent sticking, just in case.


I ran into a big obstacle for painting this mask: the weather here in NYC stayed well below freezing for a few weeks, meaning I couldn’t use spray paint! I’ve always read that spray paint doesn’t work well when the air is below freezing, and a tiny bit of experimenting proved this to be true; some of the paint came out in big blobs along with the usual spray. So I had to paint this mask the old-fashioned way, which took a lot longer.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - applying gesso

(Above: finished Axe Man skull sculpture sporting a fresh coat of gesso, next to his oversized paper maché axe.)

I started by hand-painting a coating of gesso onto the mask using a big foam brush; gesso is nice and thick and helps conceal some of the texture of the torn paper edges, although you have to be careful to spread it around very evenly or you can get raised ridges on the sides of your brush strokes that’ll dry hard and then you’re stuck with ’em. Normally I’d use spray gesso for this, and on a really big mask like this without a lot of fine detail I might do two coats, to make it really smooth. But I settled on one coat this time, to save some time. Above you can see the mask with just the coat of gesso, next to the big axe prop I made.

Normally I’d then do a coating of white spray paint, before moving on to black shadows. So instead I applied a coat of white acrylic paint by hand with a big foam brush.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - black acrylic paint

I then did my usual step of using black acrylic paint and a slightly damp sponge to dirty up the entire outer surface of the mask. It’s fine to go very dark with this; I’ll be dialing this dirty effect way back in the next step.

While I had the black paint out, I also painted the interior of the mask, using a large paintbrush and lots of water to thin the paint. I don’t need to make the interior surface look perfectly solid black; I just want it to be nice and dark, and I don’t care if the paint is a little thin or uneven.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - white acrylic paint

I let all the black paint set for a few hours. I then used white acrylic and a damp sponge to cover over all the black, creating a nice textured effect (above left). I painted the teeth with the same white paint so I could see the range from the gray texture to solid white; this serves as a guide for when I’m painting the rest of the white highlights (above right). The difference is subtle in these pics, but I used the same white acrylic and a big foam brush to do a sort of drybrush effect over the whole mask, in order to bring out highlights on all the big raised areas — particularly the eyebrow ridges, the nose ridge, the cheekbones, the teeth, etc. The end result is a good range of very dark shadows to very bright solid white highlights.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - paint job finished

Axeman paper mache skull mask - with mustache added

One last thing I always do is use a small stiff brush and the tiniest amount of black acrylic paint to create shadows in between the teeth. I basically dab the brush in the paint, then brush off as much as possible onto a piece of paper until the brush is practically dry, and then rub the brush between the teeth to sort of scrub the tiniest amount of paint in there. It’s more like you’re rubbing dirt into the cracks rather than actually painting in them. It’s better to start with too little here, and add more as needed. You can add but you can’t subtract!

Finally, a couple weekends before Mardi Gras the temperature rose up above freezing and I was able to finish the paint job with a coating of matte spray. The various paints I use have various levels of shiny-ness, and I’m always happy to see how the matte spray removes pretty much all the shiny-ness and makes all the different surfaces look unified.

I let the mask air out outside for a day so the chemical odor of the matte spray could go away before continuing on to the next steps.

Installing the screen

I install pieces of screen in the eyes/nose/mouth of all my big masks; years ago I bought a roll of screen door material at the hardware store, and it’s gone into almost all of my masks.

For this mask I’m only looking out of the mouth; the holes for eyes and nose are higher up than where my eyes are, but I still wanted to cut them out and put screen in them so they visually match the mouth. For the eyes and nose I simply cut out the pieces of screen I needed and attached them inside the mask with a hot glue gun; two layers of screen for each opening.

For the mouth, I wanted to create a door I could open so I could drink without taking the mask off. The door is more of a vertical flap, really, attached behind the upper teeth and held in place at the bottom with magnets.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - magnets in the mouth

I used the two vertical supports in the mouth (made from wooden coffee stirrers, see part one) as the frame for the door. I took two of the same tiny magnets I used for the mustache and attached them to the base of the sticks, and then covered them over with two layers of paper maché. You’ll see I actually started this step way back before painting.

I used another wooden coffee stirrer as a cross bar for the bottom of the door flap; I attached magnets on either end of this, to line up with the magnets at the bottom of the mouth. I built a little handle in the middle with the plastic part from a scrap of plastic; this is what I’ll grab onto to open the door. I covered the whole thing with two layers of paper maché.

I measured and cut a piece of screen door material to fit the mouth opening, long enough to be folded in two and with some extra at the top to go behind the teeth. I attached the crossbar inside the folded screen with a hot glue gun, and then attached the top part behind the upper teeth with the hot glue gun as well.

I intentionally left a tiny bit of space at the bottom of the door, and added a thin strip of screen behind the lower teeth there, so there’d be some overlap.

For the sides of the mouth, I measured and cut large pieces of screen so they could be folded around the vertical supports in the mouth and attached near the inside-back of the mouth. I glued these in place with a hot glue gun.

And that’s it! The door stayed closed nicely with the magnets and was easy to open and close as needed.

Here’s a quick video of the door opening and closing; you can see how it snaps right back into place with the magnets.

(I’m writing about all the screened areas together here, but I actually did the eyes and nose first, then installed the hard hat — see below — and then did the mouth.)

Installing the hard hat

I use a hard hat in all of my big skull masks; they’re nice and stable and adjustable and they make the mask easy to wear. I always trim off different parts of the hard hat depending on the shape of the mask. In this case I wanted to trim off the entire brim in the front, as well as two big panels on the sides.

I usually use a small hand saw to cut through the thick plastic of the hard hat; this is pretty hard work and requires a lot of elbow grease. The hardest part is getting the incision started in the sides; once you’ve got a hole all the way through the plastic, the rest of the sawing is a lot easier. I usually use an awl to poke a small row of holes, which is pretty difficult in itself, and then I force the saw blade through there in order to start cutting. This time I tried using a dremel tool with a circular saw attachment — my plan was to use this to do all of the cutting, but it was very slow going and VERY loud, so I gave up after a few minutes. However, the dremel tool did help me get the holes started in the sides, and then sawing by hand was pretty easy from there.

Axeman skull mask - sawing the hard hat

Note: it’s important to wear a dust mask and eye protection while sawing hard plastic, whether you’re doing it by hand or using a dremel tool. Lots of tiny pieces of plastic go flying.

Oh yeah, and another note: you want to do this cutting of the hard hat with the interior rigging (the straps and padding and stuff) removed. When deciding where you want to cut, it’s important to look inside the hard hat first and make sure you’re not going to cut through any of the structures that hold the rigging! I’ve done that.

I marked the lines I wanted to cut with a white grease pencil. After sawing, the edges of the plastic are very rough with lots of tiny pieces hanging off, so I sanded the edges by hand with sandpaper.

Once this was done, I glued the rigging into the hard hat permanently with a tiny drop of Gorilla Glue in each connection point, and let that set for an hour. Normally you don’t need to glue the rigging into a hard hat, but with a big mask like this it’s very convenient to be able to carry it upside down in one hand, holding it by the rigging. If I didn’t glue it in it’d fall out.

I covered the middle crest part of the hard hat with four layers of paper maché. The paper maché sticks to glue and other materials much better than the plastic hard hat material does, and the way the paper maché is wrapped around the crest means it’s locked in place and can’t be pulled or peeled away.

When it’s time to attach the hard hat in the mask, I have the same challenge every year: how do I attach the hard hat firmly inside a much larger empty space? I can’t just glue it into the roof of the skull; it would be way too high. So, I’ve tried a lot of different methods and materials for this, and I came up with a new one this year.

Axeman paper mache skull mask - preparing the hard hat

I ended up using a foam pool noodle for the main connection at the top of the hard hat. The foam that these pool noodles are made out of is great to work with: it’s very lightweight, dense, and firm, and it’s very easy to cut and shape with an X-acto knife.

I guessed how much height I’d need to create between the hard hat at the top of the skull (about five inches), and sliced off a piece of pool noodle in that length. I shaped one end with my X-acto knife to fit over the curved crest of the hard hat, and I shaped the other end to make it a little bit rounded, to fit into the top of the skull. I taped this in place on the hard hat temporarily with lots of masking tape, put the hard hat on my head, put on the skull mask over top of that, and looked in the mirror to see how close I was to getting the right height — it turned out I needed to trim about half an inch off. So, I took everything apart, trimmed the foam, taped it back on again, and checked again: perfect.

So, at that point I applied four layers of paper maché over the pool noodle, connecting it firmly to the hard hat. When this was dry I painted it black, so it won’t be visible through the skull’s eye holes.

I then used lots of Gorilla Glue to attach the hard hat with its foam support on top into the mask. I set the mask upside down on a foam ring to hold it in place, and I dripped a bunch of glue inside the top of the head and on the top of the foam support on the hard hat as well, and carefully lowered the hard hat into the mask and set it in place. I wedged some big pieces of soft foam around the hard hat (not touching the glue) to keep it from tipping to one side or the other. The Gorilla Glue takes a few hours to set when you use this much, and it expands a huge amount as it dries, so the glue fills up the space between the paper maché skull and the foam support on the hard hat, and it also oozes out around it, locking the whole thing in place. I let all of that set for at least three hours just in case. The thicker you pour the glue in there, the longer it takes to dry and set, and I use a lot just to be sure.

When that was set, I created one more connection at the back of the hard hat, using a plastic zip tie, cut and bent to create a little bridge between the hard hat and the interior wall of the skull. I hot glued it in place and then covered it over with about five layers of paper maché. When it was dry I painted it black. This extra little connection helped make the hard hat 100% firm and stable in the skull; no wiggle or wobble at all.


That’s it for the Axeman skull mask! Did I mention I made a giant paper maché axe to go with it? Check out my article about that! I’m posting these articles early on Mardi Gras morning just before heading out to the parade route; I can’t wait to show people this stuff! Happy Mardi Gras, everybody!

Back to part one.

Axe Man paper mache skull mask

(Photo by Kevin O’Mara)

Here’s a quick video with a 360-degree view of the mask.

Interested in commissioning a piece from me? Please see my page about custom paper maché pieces. Please email me; don't put your request in a comment below.

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