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

Making the bird skeleton for my cuckoo clock mask

Published by Manning on February 9th, 2016

I made this bird skeleton for my cuckoo clock skull mask for Mardi Gras 2016. Making this skeleton was extremely challenging, and I basically made up all the steps as I went along. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned a lot and I’m very happy with the end result. I didn’t take as many pictures as I should’ve along the way, so I’ve done some sketches to explain certain steps.

Cuckoo clock skull mask -- bird skeleton

The main materials in the bird skeleton are:

  • steel wire
  • thin jewelry wire
  • masking tape
  • a drinking straw
  • craft foam
  • drawing paper (or construction paper)
  • bristol board (or poster board)
  • wood glue
  • newspaper
  • craft paper
  • wallpaper adhesive
  • acrylic paint

Start with a skeleton of a skeleton

I started my bird skeleton with a very simple wire base, made of strong steel wire that I bought at the hardware store (you can see the thickness of the wire in the neck in this pic although the pic is several steps ahead). With wire cutters, I cut a very long piece of wire, about 24 inches long — better to work with a piece that’s too long, so you have a good place to hold onto while working, and then you can cut away the extra when you’re done. I bent this into a simple upside-down Y-shape (see sketch); the middle part will be the spine and the side parts will be the legs. You’ll see that the legs and spine each have two pieces of wire in them; I wanted the finished skeleton to be very strong and not sag under its own weight.

I bent this Y-shape to form the legs; two joints near the top of the leg and one at the bottom (see sketch). Note: the curved bits in the sketch where the feet will be are not actually the feet. These are anchors that I will insert into the base that I’m making for the bird. They’re to lock the skeleton in place so it can’t move around on the base. Later I’ll add feet on top of the base.

Making the base

I created the base for the bird with some drawing paper (you could substitute construction paper for this), rolled up and taped closed. It’s about three layers of paper thick, to help make it sturdy (see sketch). Later it will get covered in paper maché, which will make it even stronger.

I poked holes in the base with an X-acto knife, and inserted the curved wire bits (see sketch). I removed them and re-bent them a few times to get a shape that would lock in place nice and firm. I don’t want the bird skeleton to be able to move around on the base. (Note: the sketch also shows two slits below where the ankles go in the base; I actually cut these much later on to insert the extending pantograph — more on that below.)

I wrapped the base in masking tape, putting lots of tape around the slits where the wire skeleton goes in, in order to reinforce those areas. At this point the wire skeleton was locked pretty firmly in place on the base. Now I had two great areas to hold onto while working on the skeleton: the base, and the long wires at the neck.

Padding out the bones with masking tape

I wrapped my wire skeleton with masking tape; about three layers for the leg bones, and a lot more for the spine. I wanted the tape on the spine to be thicker so it can hold the vertebrae I’ll be adding later.

Creating the vertebrae

Making the vertebrae for the bird's spine

The vertebrae are made with paper, glue, and a drinking straw. I actually made them all in one long piece on the straw, and then when they were finished I snipped them apart with scissors. Each vertebra is made up of three little pieces of paper — one for the tube-shaped base, one curled around from the bottom to form the ridge on the top, and a smaller boomerang-shaped one curled around from the bottom to make the side ridges (see sketch). I started by simply wrapping the straw in drawing paper, taping it in place, then I added all the little pieces along the length. When it was dry, I cut them apart, and snipped the ridges with scissors to make them all uniform. Making all the vertebrae on the straw at the same time made it easier to keep all these tiny shapes relatively the same. I made about a dozen vertebrae; I wasn’t sure how many I would need so I just made a lot. This allowed me to pick the best-looking ones. I ended up using seven of them in my bird skeleton.

The cut-out paper vertebrae were very flimsy, so I dipped them into very thick white acrylic paint (Golden Fluid Acrylic Titanium White — I bought a huge 32-ounce jar of the stuff for my first skeleton costume and I’m still using it five years later) and let them dry on a piece of fishing line for several days. The paint filled up the space inside the vertebrae and put a thick, smooth coat of paint on the outside, which blended the edges of the pieces of paper. The finished paper vertebrae with the thick coating of paint looked great and were somewhat gummy and flexible. In pulling them off of the fishing line, some of them lost the piece of drinking straw inside, so I decided to pull the straw out of all of them for consistency.

I put some of the vertebrae onto the bird spine, and they fit great. I decided I didn’t like how they were perfectly cylindrical, so I took them back off and snipped a diagonal line through the front of each vertebra with wire cutters. Then I put the vertebrae back on the spine. They stayed in place nicely but could still turn and move a bit. Later on they’ll get glued in place, but for now it’s important for them to be moveable.

The ribcage and pelvis

Bird skeleton - work in progress

I made the ribcage and pelvis out of thick drawing paper, cut and bent and curved and taped (see ribcage sketch and pelvis sketch). I had no idea what I was doing here, so there was a lot of trial and error. When I got the shapes the way I wanted them, I dipped them in that same thick white acrylic paint, to thicken them up and smooth out the edges. I had to let them dry in between sheets of wax paper with small objects weighing them down in order to keep their curved shapes.

When the ribcage and pelvis were dry, I attached them to the skeleton. I attached the ribcage with a piece of jewelry wire (I got this at the art store), wrapped tightly around the spine. This went in between two of the vertebrae and pushed them apart a little bit, which is why it’s important not to glue the vertebrae in place right away.

I glued the pelvis and tailbone in place with wood glue. The tailbone looked too plain and flat to me, so I decided to twist a piece of jewelry wire around it to give it some depth; very easy and it made for a big improvement. I painted over this wire with thick acrylic paint to smooth out the edges a bit.

Making the wings

For the wings, I used a long piece of jewelry wire, bent it into two simple wing shapes, twisted together at the bottom, and with a long loop of wire left over (see sketch). This extra wire at the bottom will come in handy when adding the wings to the skeleton.

I gave the wings a bit more shape by laying them in between two pieces of masking tape, then cutting out the wing bone shapes with scissors. Then I wrapped more masking tape around the bones, similar to how I did with the leg bones. I then dipped the wings in thick acrylic white paint to give them some depth and smooth them out a bit.

When this was dry, I snipped the loop of wire at the bottom, and used this long wire to wrap the wings onto the bird’s spine. The long pieces gave me a good place to hold onto while pulling the wire and tightening it, like shoelaces; I actually used two pairs of pliers for this to let me really pull them tight. Like with the ribcage, the wire went between two vertebrae, pushing them apart slightly. Once the wings were secured in place, I used wire cutters to snip off the excess wire. Once they were firmly attached, I re-bent and repositioned the wing bones a little bit.

The bird skull

Making the bird skull

The bird’s skull is mostly made out of paper maché. (You can read all about my paper maché method and materials, here.) I made up a fun technique for this project for creating the hollow paper maché sphere for the skull. Normally when you’re starting with a base for a hollow paper maché project, you have to have a hole in your piece that’s large enough to remove the base materials through. I couldn’t really start with, say, a ball of aluminum foil, because how would I get that out? So I decided to trying something weird, using a plastic bag and this dried corn-cob pet litter stuff that we buy for our pet rabbit — lentils or rice would work, but I didn’t have either of those. I tied up the pet litter in a scrap of a grocery bag, sealed it with masking tape, and then covered that with aluminum foil. Aluminum foil is a great release agent for the paper maché — the paper maché doesn’t stick to it well, so when you’re done you can easily remove it. I added a beak made of bristol board (you could use poster board for this), and then I did about five layers of paper maché over the skull, but not the beak.

Now the fun part! When paper maché was dry, I poked my X-acto knife into the bird’s mouth, dumped out the pet litter, and removed the plastic bag and aluminum foil with tweezers, leaving me with a perfectly empty shape, sturdy paper maché shape. Worked like a charm.

Making the bird skull

I cut out the eye holes with an X-acto knife, and I cut off the twisted bit of aluminum foil and plastic bag at the back of the skull. The edges were a little rough, so I took some more wallpaper paste and rubbed it into the edges of the holes; this smoothed them out nicely. I also rubbed some wallpaper paste around on the interior of the skull to smooth it out a bit. In removing all the base materials, the beak had come loose, so I glued it back in with some wallpaper paste. No big deal.

I dipped the whole skull in white acrylic paint to thicken up the beak a bit and smooth out the whole shape. I didn’t attach the skull to the skeleton at this point; that would come several steps later…

Making the bird skeleton for my cuckoo clock mask

Attaching the pantograph

Next up, I wanted to attach the pantograph I’d made — that’s the zig-zaggy extending platform that the bird comes out of the cuckoo clock on. This connection needs to be super strong because it has to hold the weight of the bird out away from my mask, and it has to survive a Mardi Gras parade and a whole day of partying. So, I covered the bird’s base in paper maché, leaving one end open; you’ll see why in a bit. When that was dry, I cut two slits in the base with an X-acto knife, and I inserted the ends of the pantograph as far as I could into that. Then I added more paper maché around those holes to lock the pantograph in place. On top of that, I filled the base part-way with Gorilla Glue; this is why I left one end open! I turned the bird skeleton on its side, and dripped Gorilla Glue into the base. Now, you have to be careful here; Gorilla Glue expands a huge amount as it dries, so it’s great for things like locking the ends of the pantograph perfectly in place, but if you use too much it will bubble up and expand out of the area you’re working on. This happens over a few hours so you have to keep an eye on your project. I only filled the base about a third of the way with the glue, but after an hour or so I noticed the glue expanding all the way out of the hole on top, so I wiped away what I could with a paper towel. You’ll never get all of it off of any surface; it’s too sticky. In the end when the glue had settled and hardened, there was a bit left on the outer edges of the base. No big deal, as I needed to close up this end with paper maché anyway. First I used an X-acto knife to slice off as much of the exposed dried glue as I could, and then I covered the whole area with paper maché. A little bit of glue had even squeezed out of the slits in the back where the pantograph went in, so I sliced those bits off and paper maché’d over them as well. When everything was dry, the base was rock-solid and the pantograph couldn’t budge at all. Perfect.

Making the bird feet

I made the bird feet out of craft foam, aka Wonderfoam. I simply cut out six little shapes (see sketch) that would fit around the base; you can see them in pink in a pic further down the page. I glued them in place with Elmer’s wood glue. This was a little challenging, as they wanted to slide around a lot while the glue was still wet. I did one foot at a time, and used tweezers to hold the toes in place and reposition them as they slid around. Slowly, the glue started to harden, and the toes stayed in place. When they were dry, I dripped some more wood glue on them to let it flow over the craft foam shapes and lock them in place. I also used a small paintbrush to paint some wood glue along the sides of the toes, to attach them even more firmly to the base. The wood glue gave a nice smooth texture to the bones of the feet, which gave me an idea…

Smoothing out the whole skeleton

At this point I noticed that all my various materials for all the different bones all had very different textures, and this bugged me a bit; some parts were very smooth and others were very rough. So I decided to brush wood glue over most of the skeleton in order to smooth everything out and give it a more consistent texture. I brushed the wood glue onto basically everything but the vertebrae; they were already pretty smooth and I didn’t want to lose any detail in them. The wood glue did wonders for the leg bones, the wing bones, the ribs, the pelvis, the tailbone, and the skull. I used a small paintbrush to add glue between all the vertebrae, finally locking them in place. I also brushed glue over the whole base to make it match the smooth texture of where the feet are connected.

Attaching the skull

I attached the skull by bending the long neck wires into a shape that would fit nicely inside; at this point I snipped off part of the wire to make it fit better. I attached the wires in the skull with a quick layer of paper maché, which was a pain to get inside that small space, but it worked. For good measure, I turned the bird over and dripped a lot of wood glue into the interior base of the skull so it could dry over the wires and paper and really lock them in place.

Here’s a pic of the bird propped up while the glue dries in the base of the skull; you can just barely see part of the wire inside the eye socket, although it’s covered with paper maché. You can also see the yellow-ish color all over the skeleton from the wood glue I brushed onto it.

Gluing the bird skull onto the skeleton

The skull ended up a little bit farther away from the neck than I wanted, with a small gap in between the base of the skull and the first vertebra. So I took one of my unused vertebrae, cut it with wire cutters to be extra-small, and glued it in place with wood glue. I let all of this stuff dry for a long time, because I used a ton of glue.

Painting the bird skeleton

Finally, time to paint this whole thing! The white paint I used while making a lot of the bones was really more for volume than for color — I’d love to try gesso for something like this, but I’ve actually never used gesso so I didn’t have any handy. The final coating of wood glue gave a yellowish tint to the whole skeleton, so I definitely wanted to paint over that.

Bird skeleton - spray painted white

Bird skeleton - spray painted white

I started by spray painting the skeleton white, using as fine a coating as I could get, so as to not fill in any spaces and diminish and detail.

Applying a light dusting of black spray paint to the bird skeleton

When that was dry, I did a fine dusting with black spray paint, to darken up the shadows; this made the whole skeleton look much darker, but don’t worry, that’ll change. I wanted the shadows even darker, so I did a wash of black acrylic mixed with water, brushed into all the dents and shadows. Now that the whole skeleton looked dark and dirty, it was time to bring out all the highlights again with two rounds of white dry-brushing. See my article about my painting method for more info on dry-brushing. I did one coat of dry-brushing with thick white paint, just barely hitting the very outer edges, and then I did a second coat with watered down white paint, pushing harder with the brush and hitting most of the exposed surfaces. After dry-brushing I took a tiny paintbrush and some more white paint and touched up a lot of the skeleton’s details.

Then all that was left was to paint the base! Easy! Here are a bunch of pics of the finished bird skeleton:

Bird skeleton - painting finished!

Bird skeleton - front view

Bird skeleton - back view

Bird skeleton - top view

Bird skeleton - close up of skull

Bird skeleton - close up of body

Finally, the skeleton was all done, and ready to attach in my mask. I’m writing this before Mardi Gras, so I’m crossing my fingers that the whole thing won’t fall apart mid-parade! But I think I was careful enough to make all of the parts strong enough that it should survive the trip and the festivities. I’m actually packing the mask and bird separately for my trip and will attach them down in New Orleans. I built a slot into the mask where I’ll be able to drip some Gorilla Glue and then insert the pantograph, and in theory they’ll hold together well. I’m not too worried about it.

I learned so much in making this skeleton! It was a huge challenge for me to work at this small size; I’m used to working on giant skulls and stuff, not intricate little things like bird vertebrae. Working small like this is actually a lot slower for me, and it’s definitely harder and more nerve-wracking. I need a new huge project to get this out of my system! Now then, on to Halloween…

Update: Mardi Gras was two days ago, and the whole cuckoo clock mask held up great! My two biggest concerns were the hinge in the skull face (see part one) — would it stand up to heavy use over the course of the day? (it did!), and the bird skeleton and pantograph (see part three) — could I avoid bumping them/catching them on something and breaking them? (I did!). I’m very pleased with how the whole thing worked out and I’m going to try to incorporate the hinge idea in future masks whenever possible. It really made the day a lot easier, being able to drink or talk to people without having to take the mask off every time.

2 Responses to “Making the bird skeleton for my cuckoo clock mask”

  1. NOLAmangeaux Says:

    Hi Manning! I’m trying to make bulbous eyes for an oversized paper mache mask. It looks like your bird skull is about the same size I’m trying to achieve. Do you have any tips for getting the paper mache smoothish and round? Mine is extremely lumpy. The more layers of paper mache I add, the more accentuated the lumps become. My base is a tennis ball wrapped in bubble wrap and masking tape to get the right size. I plan on cutting it in half and each half of the sphere would be one eye. Thanks for your help!

  2. manning Says:

    Hello! It sounds like you might be doing something similar to what I did with my giant Pez dispenser — take a look at the 7th and 8th pics on that page to see the eyes and nose. I covered a hollow rubber ball with paper mache and then sliced it in half to make the two eyes. The only real tips I have for getting the paper mache pretty smooth are: use really tiny pieces of paper, and really soak them in the paste so they (hopefully) become very soft and malleable. If you use larger pieces, or if they haven’t fully absorbed the paste, then they can stay kind of stiff and give you folds/bumps/wrinkles. You could also try doing a couple layers with tiny pieces of paper towel; that should help you get a smoother surface. However, if you take a look at the eyes I made for the clown, they’re still a little bumpy; it’s almost impossible to make something truly smooth. Good luck!!

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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