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

My first big paper maché skull mask, Mardi Gras 2013


Published by Manning on June 18th, 2015

My first Mardi Gras skull mask; photoshoot behind a warehouse in New Orleans

This was my first big paper maché project!

I started off by buying some chicken wire and trying to shape it into the skull shape I pictured in my head. It didn’t work out at all; I had no idea what I was doing and I just couldn’t get the chicken wire to do what I wanted. So I gave up on the chicken wire for this mask. (I used chicken wire again, with much better results, the next year!)

So, after my chicken wire failure, I had to figure out a different way to make my base. I decided to try a combination of bowls, baskets, styrofoam cups, etc, all taped together into a big skull shape (more details on that below). I went to the dollar store and tried out a bunch of objects together and found a good combination. I took everything home, taped it all together, and… the skull was WAY too big! Ha! I put that skull base aside and used it a couple years later as part of my giant spider decoration for Halloween. Here’s a pic of that giant skull, covered in masking tape but not yet paper maché’d:

Giant paper mache skull sculpture, now part of a Halloween decoration

(I ended up using this giant skull in later years as the head of my giant spider for Halloween 2013 and as the centerpiece in a voodoo altar for Halloween 2015.)

Okay, third time’s the charm! I went back to the dollar store and simply bought smaller versions of all those cups, bowls, etc. I taped them all together and this time the skull was just the right size.

Unfortunately I started this site a few years after I made this mask, so I didn’t take pictures of all the steps. However, I’ve been asked a lot about how I made the base for the skull, so I whipped up these very rough sketches of the basic steps.

Manking a paper mache skull mask

The first three views are from the side…

1. First, I started with a simple skull profile shape, cut out from foam board, with the bottom part measured to fit nicely in one of the plastic baskets.

2. Then I attached the two plastic baskets, one for the jaw and one for the back of the head. I attached these with tons and tons of packing tape. This whole thing was a big ugly mess of tape by the time I was done with it; that’s fine! The paper maché covers everything.

3. Then I cut out a couple dozen long strips of poster board, about 1.5″ wide by 20″-30″ long. I curved these around the mask from the front, and taped them in place toward the back. These will help round out the shape of the face. You might even want to do two layers of these, to help the base be a little stronger.

Backing up a step, you can see where I added a little triangle foam board shape at the bottom left to give the jaw some more dept; I put a dotted line there to show where it is. I think I made this out of foam board and then packed some wadded up newspaper or paper towels around, all taped in place, and then I did the poster board strips over it.

The back of the head was flat, since it’s the bottom of a basket. I put a dotted line there to show where it was. So I rounded that out with more poster board strips, gently curved over and taped in place.

4. Now we’re looking at the front. When all the poster board strips were done, I covered the ENTIRE base with masking tape, to smooth it out and make everything a little stronger (this whole project probably used three or four rolls of masking tape!). Then I added five shapes; these were made of wadded up paper towels, taped on with masking tape. Two shapes for the eyebrow ridges, two big shapes for the cheeks, and one for the bridge of the nose.

When those shapes are done, I covered them with masking tape as well. The masking tape is important because it won’t stick to the paper maché very well, and you’ll hopefully be able to remove all of it from the inside when you’re done.

With the base done, I applied about eight layers of paper maché. See my article about my paper maché method here.

5. Profile again. When the paper maché was dry, I opened the bottom of the base and cut out all of the base materials; the baskets, the foam board, and even all the masking tape (be careful not to tear the paper maché!). This is a lot of work! When that was done, I trimmed away the bottom part of the jaw; the part I shaded in my pic above is the part I cut away.

I went through a ton of masking tape and packing tape for all of this. The more tape you use, the smoother the shape will be, the stronger it will be, and the more easily you’ll be able to pull everything out when you’re done.

After all that stuff was done, the basic shape of the mask was looking pretty finished, but there were still several steps to do…

I reinforced the interior bottom edge of the mask with plastic zip ties, taped in place all the way around the opening and then paper maché’d over.

I cut the holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth with an X-acto knife, and then reinforced the edges with small strips of paper maché.

My paper mache skull mask with all layers done, pre-painting

For the teeth, I used plastic spoons, cut to size, covered in paper maché, and glued in place.

I installed a hard hat inside the mask with lots of Gorilla Glue and some styrofoam blocks to hold the thing in place.

Then it’s time to paint! See my article about my painting method for my paper maché skull masks here.

I installed black plastic mesh (like for a screen door; you can buy this in a roll at Home Depot) in the eyes, nose, and mouth holes with a hot glue gun.

And that’s it!

Paper mache skull mask with teeth added and painting finished

Along with the mask, I wore my hand-painted skeleton suit that I’d originally made for the previous Mardi Gras; and I’ve worn it every year since.

Me wearing my skeleton costume in a cemetery in New Orleans

Work-in-progress photos by me. Pretty photos of the completed costume by Kevin O’Mara.

10 Responses to “My first big paper maché skull mask, Mardi Gras 2013”

  1. Mary Says:

    Woah. That’s very cool. Planning a big procession for Dia de Los Muertos this fall. Hoping to make lots of big heads and skeletons for it. Thanks for the info!

  2. Manning Says:

    Hi Mary! Good luck! I’d love to see what you end up making.

  3. Paris Says:

    way cool – can you show the infrastructure ($$ store stuff)??? I had the same prob with chicken wire

  4. manning Says:

    Hello Paris! Unfortunately I started my website years after I made this mask, so I didn’t take a lot of picture of all the steps. I have your email address from your comment so I’ll email you some rough sketches I made…

  5. Lindsay Says:

    Manning,

    Would you mind emailing me your rough sketches as well? I’m going to attempt to make this skeleton head this weekend!

    wish me luck :)

    Lindsay

  6. manning Says:

    Hi Lindsay! I’d be happy to; I’ll email you shortly.

  7. Jose Luis Says:

    Hey Manning. Awesome skull! Would love it if you can send me the step by step that you have. My wife and I want to make this for an annual Halloween party we go too. Would appreciate it.. Thanks.

  8. manning Says:

    Hello lovely readers! After receiving many questions in the comments here about how I constructed the base for this mask, I went ahead and added sketches and descriptions of the steps, above. So now everything’s right here in the this blog post. Good luck and have fun!

  9. Jamie Says:

    I’m about to start a similar project, but I have a question! This says packing tape and masking tape. If I’m thinking correctly, packing tape is clear, while masking tape is (usually) white, correct? What is the difference? Do you use packing tape on the last layer?

  10. manning Says:

    Hey Jamie! Good question, and you’re right; the packing tape I use is clear (there’s also the opaque brown stuff which would work just as well) and the masking tape is off-white/yellowish. Packing tape is good because it covers large areas quickly, but it’s less stretchy and it gets some ugly angles and wrinkles when you’re wrapping it around curved shapes. One thing that’s GREAT about packing tape is that it tapes objects *together* really well; if you tape things tightly (like your base materials) they really stay put. Masking tape, on the other hand, is great for covering large curved shapes because it’s very flexible and can stretch to make nice curves. However, if you tape things together with it, \they can feel kind of flimsy, because the tape stretches and gives a bit.

    Really, you could use all packing tape, or all masking tape, and be just fine. I always have a ton of both on hand so I use them as described above: packing tape to connect shapes, and packing tape to quickly cover huge areas where detail isn’t that important. Masking tape to cover finer areas and get better curves. Hope that helps!

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