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

Cuckoo clock skull mask — part 3

Published by Manning on February 9th, 2016

This is part three of my cuckoo clock skull mask project. See part one and part two.

Where were we? Oh yeah, it’s time to paint!

Painting the mask

Cuckoo clock skull mask - roof and clock body spray painted!

I painted the clock body and the roof separately for the most part before joining them together. I first protected the screen in the eyes/nose/mouth with blue masking tape (the kind that’s really easy to remove), and then I spray painted the entire exterior of the clock white. I separately spray painted the roof black. I let these pieces air out for about three days outside.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - side view of painted pieces

You can see the relief of the raised Roman numerals here. I designed those in Photoshop, printed them out, and glued them onto poster board. I very carefully cut them out with an X-acto knife, and glued them onto the skull face with wallpaper adhesive, just after finishing the last layer of paper maché on the face (i.e. before spray painting).

You can also see the chains I installed for the pine cone weights; more on that later. By the way, in the two pics above you can see the roof sitting on the clock body, but they’re not actually glued together yet.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - Doing a wash with black acrylic paint and water

I dirtied up the clock body with my usual method; a sponge with watered-down black acrylic paint, applied liberally over the whole shape. I always think I might’ve gone overboard with this part (as you can see in the pic above), but it all comes together when I touch it up with paint white later.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - dry brushing effect on the roof

I did a simple sponge effect on the roof with white paint. This was really easy; you just put a small amount of paint on a damp sponge and very lightly drag it over the surface, so it hits the raised parts and skips the dented parts between the shingles. Super easy and looks great. I later decided this was too white so I went over it again with a sponge and watered down black paint.

I hand-painted the exposed beams black with acrylic paint, and then lightened them a bit with white acrylic and a sponge. I dry-brushed the clock body and face with white acrylic paint to bring out the highlights. See more about my painting techniques here.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - painting the Roman numerals

The hardest part of the paint job was those little Roman numerals. I bought an extremely narrow paintbrush, watered down some black acrylic paint, and very carefully painted the numbers by hand, using the 3d relief of the numbers as a guide. Since the paint was watered down, I had to go over the numbers twice. I goofed in a few spots and went back and fixed them with white paint later. No big deal. I also used the tiny brush to paint some lines around the teeth to help bring them out a bit.

After all my painting was done, I could finally install the screen for all the holes in the clock. For the face, I’d just installed one layer of black screen for each hole. For the cut-out panels of the clock body I decided to use two layers of screen, which I’d spray painted white earlier. I went with two layers of screen to make these areas a little more opaque to the viewer. For the open windows on the sides of the mask, I used four layers of black screen, since these are areas I don’t need to see out of; they’re just there for ventilation and to let me hear a little better. I also installed four layers of screen in the open door where the bird comes out. I left the bottom edge of this screen unattached so I could stick the pantograph out from there.

I painted the window shutters separately, and glued them in place with wood glue. Before gluing two smooth surfaces together, it helps to score them or rough them up a bit. I used an X-acto knife to cut some shallow grooves into the backs of the shutters and the surfaces on the clock where the shutters would be attached. This gives the glue much better surfaces to lock onto.

I made the clock hands with poster board, with three layers of tape added to make them thicker and stronger, and attached a magnet in each one with tape. The magnets are strong enough that the hands won’t budge unless I turn them myself; this way I can set the time to whatever I want. I added a magnet just above the nose of the skull (covered with paper maché) to serve as the base; you can see this little round spot above the nose in the some of the pics above. After trying a lot of methods this turned out to be a great way to have clock hands that can be moved but won’t move on their own; these magnets are really freaking strong. It’s also easy to remove the clock hands for storage or travel (and while painting).

Bird skeleton and pantograph

bird skeleton in progress

I made the bird skeleton out of a ton of different materials, and it was a pretty complex process. I ended up writing a whole article about just the bird skeleton; it’s here.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - pantograph, pre-painting

Next up was the pantograph (that’s the zig-zaggy extending platform thing that the bird sits on). I needed the pantograph to be really strong so it doesn’t sag under the weight of the bird skeleton. I tried a few different things that didn’t work out (wooden coffee stirrers looked great but weren’t strong enough), and in the end I went with a base of wire hangers. I bent the wire hangers into shape with pliers, and held them together with some tape. I made up a new method for the paper maché for this thing; rather than apply paper maché around all the edges of this complex wire shape, I decided to apply a few big flat rectangular layers of paper maché over the whole wire base, with the intention of cutting the shape out with scissors after it was dry. My hope was that this would let me get much straighter edges and pointier corners, and it worked! I actually did a rectangular layer of paper towels with paste first, to make the whole thing nice and thick, and then a rectangular layer of paper and paste on top of that. After the whole thing was dry (and that took a few days because it was so thick and there was so much paste in there), I cut out the shape with scissors and an X-acto knife, and then neatened up all the edges with teeny-tiny pieces of paper maché all the around around; this was a lot of work, but worth it! I painted the pantograph with spray paint and acrylic paint.

I cut two slits into the bird’s base with an X-acto knife, squirted some Gorilla Glue inside, and mounted the base onto the pantograph. Gorilla Glue expands a huge amount as it dries, so it locked the ends of the pantograph perfectly in place. Whenever you’re working with Gorilla Glue this way you have to be prepared to possibly have some of it squeeze its way out of the area you’re working on. If this happens, just leave it alone until it dries completely and then slice off the extra bits with an X-acto knife. Trying to wipe it away while it’s still liquid is usually no good; it’ll get all over everything and you’ll never be able to really wipe it away. Let it dry completely and then deal with it.

Once the glue was dry, I painted the bird’s base to match the pantograph.

Hard hat and interior

All of my big masks have a hard hat inside; a hard hat gives you the best stability and comfort you can have for a large, somewhat heavy mask. I sawed off the front brim of the hard hat, and I sanded the entire outer surface to make it take glue and paint better. I had some triangular styrofoam blocks left over from a package I received, and they were a perfect fit for fixing the hard hat into the roof of the mask. I taped the styrofoam blocks on top of the hard hat and another rectangular block behind it, and did a couple layers of paper maché over everything to create a very stable connection. I then glued this into the mask with Gorilla Glue.

attaching the styrofoam blocks to the hard hat

I painted the interior of the mask black to help reduce any reflection of light entering the mask. Believe it or not, if you leave the mask interior relatively light-colored, your face will be more visible through the eye/nose/mouth holes, as light can enter the mask and bounce off the interior walls and illuminate your face a bit. I’ve tested this and you can really see the difference.

Since the skull face of this mask opens like a door, this was the first time I had to care about what my hard hat looked like inside the mask. I painted the front of the hard hat a gray-ish tone with a quick coating of watered down white paint and then one of watered down black paint, applied with a sponge.

Gears on the hard hat

painting the gears

I made gears from images I found online. I printed them out, pasted them onto purple craft foam with wallpaper adhesive, let them dry, and cut them out. I then removed the paper by soaking the gears in water. When dry, I spray painted them black and then lightly painted them white-ish gray with a sponge and a tiny amount of white paint.

You can see my method for letting small projects air-dry outside; I put them in a shoebox lid with a piece of black screen taped to the side, so after I’m done painting I can lay the screen over them and weight it down with something; this prevents the pieces from flying away in the wind! I learned about this the hard way!

the hard hat with gears attached

I glued each gear onto the hard hat with a tiny dot of Gorilla Glue. Uh-oh, is my mask turning out a little bit steampunk??

Pine cone weights

Most cuckoo clocks have weights that look like pine cones, and I had a ton of different ideas about how to make these. I originally considered using real pine cones and covering them with paper maché, but I couldn’t find any pine cones in the shape and size I wanted. So I made them from scratch. I started by cutting two pieces of foam tubing, each about 8″ long. In order to change this tube shape into a nice tapered pine cone shape, I cut out some narrow wedge-shaped pieces at both ends — about 3″ long at the tapered end, and about half an inch long at the top end. I then wound masking tape tightly around the ends to cinch them together. When this was done the base was already shaped a little like a pine cone, but a bit skinnier.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - materials for making pine cones

The scale-pattern effect on the pine cones is made with craft foam. I cut several long strips of craft foam, about an inch and a half wide, and then I cut out the scale pattern with scissors. I attached one of these strips near the bottom of the foam tubing base with masking tape, and then simply wound it around and upward around the base, overlapping itself. When I reached the end of the first strip, I taped it in place with a small piece of masking tape, then grabbed the second strip and taped it onto the base where the first one ended, and continued from there. Easy! Each of my pine cones took about three and a half of these long strips of scales. A nice thing about the craft foam is that it has a tremendous amount of friction when it’s attached to itself, so you can wrap it pretty tightly and it will stay in place nice and snug. When I got to the top end of the pine cone base, I simply wrapped some masking tape all the way around the top edge to smooth it out and keep all the craft foam scales in place.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - pine cones with and without papier maché

I needed to add hooks at the top of my pine cones, so I made some out of a wire hanger with a pair of pliers. I made the same exact type of hook I used for my paper maché bat, so go check out that article for pics (scroll about two thirds of the way down the page). For the pine cones I made the hook shape and the wire base a bit smaller than I did for the bat, but it’s the same triangle base shape. Just like for the bat, I wrapped the wire base in packing tape in order to give it more surface area to help secure it in place. I cut the packing tape into a small circle shape with scissors. I then taped the hooks onto the pine cones and then applied paper maché over the bases.

When that was dry, I applied a layer of paper maché over the entire pine cone shape, using tissue paper; I wanted to use the thinnest paper I could get my hands on in order to keep the scale pattern on the pine cones as distinct as possible. To get the tissue paper onto the pine cones, I tore it into very long strips, about two inches wide. I covered the pine cones in tons of paste using my hands, and then I carefully wrapped the tissue paper strips around the pine cone shapes. Once the pine cones were covered with tissue paper, I spent a lot of time smoothing the tissue paper out with my fingers and working it into the spaces between the scale-like shapes.

Cuckoo clock skull mask - pine cones painted and drying outside

I spray painted the pine cones white, and then I did my usual wash of black paint with a sponge and then a dry-brush effect with white, to really bring out the texture.

Paper mache pine cones - painting done

The chain for the pine cones is just a white plastic chain I bought online; the cheapest and smallest one I could find was on Etsy. The chain is the only part of the whole mask that’s not hand-made. I snipped the chain into two uneven pieces and anchored them inside the mask with a wooden coffee stirrer, then covered over the wire with tape and paper maché.


Whoa, I forgot to make a pendulum?!?!?!?! Ha!

Anyway, that’s about it! I wore this mask on Mardi Gras morning in New Orleans along with my usual skeleton suit and skeleton shoes I wear every year.

This was an extremely challenging and fun project, and I learned a ton of new things along the way. I can’t wait for next Carnival season and my next mask!

Oh yeah, I did some rough estimates and found that I spent a little under a hundred dollars on materials for this mask. In hindsight I can always see how I could’ve simplified certain steps, or used fewer materials or cheaper materials, but in the end I’m really happy with how it came out. This was a huge undertaking and I’m really going to try to go easy on myself next year! I’m starting to brainstorm simple skull designs already. Now it’s time to start thinking about Halloween!

This is the end of part three of my cuckoo clock skull mask project. See part one, part two, and my article about making the bird skeleton. And here are a bunch more pics of the finished mask:

Work in progress pics by me; beautiful outdoor photos by Kevin O’Mara.

Cuckoo clock skull mask, Mardi Gras 2016

Cuckoo clock skeleton costume, 2016

Cuckoo clock skull mask by Manning Krull

Cuckoo clock skull mask, close up

Cuckoo clock skull mask -- bird skeleton

Don’t miss my article about making the bird skeleton if you’re interested!

With any big project like this that spans several weeks, I always have a list of things I’d do differently if I had to do it all over again. For this one, here are some things I’d change:

I probably wouldn’t go with the whole house-shaped box for the mask, and instead make a flatter clock (maybe 4″ thick) with the rounded part of the hard hat sticking out the back; like how I did for my violin skull mask. The house shape came out way way bigger than I intended, and in 99% of the pics of me wearing the mask you can only see the front, so making the whole house shape wasn’t really necessary. I could’ve reduced a lot of the overall weight this way, and I could’ve greatly reduced the amount of time and effort that went into the roof shingles, the exposed beams, the window shutters, etc.

I really didn’t need to paint the interior of the skull face to look like a skull; that was a ton of work and it didn’t really add anything to the overall mask, even when I’d open it to talk to people. The hardest part of that whole thing was having to add the black screen so early and then having to paint around it. In future projects, if I make my mask open, I’ll probably just paint the interior plain black or dark gray.

I really need to come up with a method for the teeth other than clay. For my last two masks this has been a big problem. The clay I use for the face is great to work with, but when it’s time to remove the clay from the mask, the teeth are very difficult to remove from the paper maché and I risk tearing and/or warping the paper maché a bit while I’m trying to pry the clay teeth out. I think my best bet is coming up with something for the teeth that’s light enough that I can just leave it in. I’m thinking maybe the black foam tubing that I’ve been using for a lot of recent projects; for my next mask I’ll see if I can cut that stuff into precise enough shapes to make the teeth that way, and then just leave them in there.

The magnets that kept the face closed presented a small problem; once the mask was painted and dry, if I left the mask closed for a long time and then opened it, the paint would stick together and peel off a bit. After repairing the paint job and letting it dry, I starting putting a piece of wax paper in between the face and clock body to keep the paint from peeling off again. That helped, but of course I couldn’t keep the wax paper in there while I was actually wearing the mask, and luckily the damage was minimal on the day I wore it. In the future, I’d probably find some white vinyl tape to put over the magnets before painting, so even if the paint peels off a bit, at least it’ll be white that shows through, rather than brown paper. Maybe I won’t paint over that part at all, just to be safe.

I wish I’d figured out a way to make my own chain from scratch for the pine cones; it really bugged me that there was one visible part of the mask that I didn’t make myself! Silly, I know, but still.

Making the bird skeleton was a total nightmare but I don’t know what I’d do differently! I actually made all the vertebrae three separate times in order to get them right; took ages. I would like to try gesso rather than thick acrylic paint to thicken up the flat shapes on future small papercraft projects, like the ribs. I just bought some gesso and am looking forward to giving it a try.

I guess that’s about it! Overall I’m really happy with how this thing turned out!

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