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

Paper mache horse skull mask!

Published by Manning on March 5th, 2019

This year for Skeleton Krewe’s 20th anniversary, my wife, Marjorie, decided to make a mask of our mascot, Skelly the skeleton horse! And I’ve decided to steal it for blog content. This is her second big skull mask project, and she let me be her assistant!

Horse skull mask - close up

The real Skelly is a fiberglass horse on wheels; she used to one of many gold horses that were mounted on top of tractors that pulled the floats in the Mardi Gras superkrewe of Rex. She was rescued by Skeleton Krewe and mounted on wheels and now we push her along the parade route as a “float.” Here’s a pic of one of the golden horses in Rex, and our Skelly today.

Skelly before and after

Anyway, that’s Skelly’s backstory! On to the mask that M made…

Like with M’s Baroness de Pontalba skull mask last year, the rules she dictated were: I was allowed to sketch designs for the mask and draw some actual parts for her to cut out, but beyond drawing I wasn’t allowed to actually touch any of the materials for the mask — no cutting, assembling, etc. I could give instructions and tips, but that was it! So the finished product is physically 100% her work.

I started by resizing a photo of Skelly in Photoshop to figure out the exact size that the mask would be. I printed this out at actual size, and then M cut it out, traced it onto foam board, and then cut that out with an X-acto knife, to create a sturdy profile of the mask at its real size. The she then cut off all of the protruding areas — the mane, ears, and lips — leaving just the basic shape of the head structure.

We measured and drew a bunch of foam board shapes to pad out this 2d profile shape and make it 3d — starting with a bunch of oval shapes for the neck, sliced in half and attached on either side with shipping tape and supported by little triangular supports.

Horse skull mask - building the base with foam board

She did the shape for the head in a similar way; we designed long horizontal pieces for each side, and then added lots of smaller vertical cross-pieces to fill up the empty spaces. We switched from shipping tape to hot glue for these smaller pieces. Little by little this foam board structure started to look like a horse head and it started to feel nice and sturdy and stand up on its own.

Horse skull mask - covering the armature with thick paper

Next, to cover this armature, she tore lots of long narrow strips of this very thick brown paper — I don’t even know what you’d call this paper; there was a roll of it inside this cheap Christmas wrapping paper we bought at the dollar store, and we bought four rolls so we had a lot of it. It was perfect for this job; rough like construction paper, thicker than construction paper but thinner than poster board, and very easy to tear in straight lines. She ran out of this paper before doing the neck, so we tore strips of white poster board to finish that part. As you can see, this is all connected with tons of masking tape.

The goal of adding thick paper over an armature like this is to span the gaps between the pieces of foam board, hiding the edges while creating nice curved shapes.

Next, a layer of narrow strips of bubble wrap. I use this technique for a lot of projects; I take a 12″ roll of bubble wrap and cut it into 3″ strips, and tape the ends together. This gives you one very long strip that you can wrap around a shape. M carefully wrapped this strip around the base, being careful to make the edges overlap a little bit, and adding pieces of tape here and there to secure everything.

Now, a layer of masking tape over the whole shape. This locks all of the bubble wrap firmly in place, and finally we’ve got a shape that’s very smooth, with all of the edges of the foam board pieces nicely concealed.

Horse skull mask - building the mane

For the mane, we needed to start with four big blobs to make the basic structure, and then added detail from there. For the basic shape of the four big bumps, we used pieces of foam insulation tubing, cut into half-cylinders and tapered at the end with scissors. One of these lays horizontally across the neck and three more sit vertically side by side over top of the first one, to make the big curve shape.

From there we built out each individual lock of the mane with a long thin (1/2″?) strip of the foam tubing taped in place and then covered with a wider piece of craft foam. Little by little, the mane took shape!

Next, M made Skelly’s lips out of pieces of rope, taped in place and covered with masking tape.

She sculpted the ears out of aluminum foil, and cut the eyelids and nostrils out of craft foam, and taped all this stuff in place.

Paper maché

Horse skull mask - paper mache

Next, M covered the entire horse head with seven layers of paper maché over several days. (You can read about our paper maché process and materials here.) Since I didn’t make this one, I’m allowed to say: I can’t believe how beautiful this all came out!! Here are a few more views of the finished paper maché:

Horse skull mask - paper mache finished

I don’t have pics of the remaining steps, but I’ll explain how it went; most of these steps are our standard routine for all our big masks…

Cutting everything out

When the paper maché was done and 100% dry, M cut open the bottom of the neck and carefully removed all of the base materials, leaving just the paper maché. This is a ton of work! This is one of my favorite parts of the whole mask-making process every time, even when I’m just a spectator.

Now that the paper maché horse head was empty, we carefully worked out how the mask would fit on M’s head and what parts we could cut away. We knew we’d be trimming the bottom of the neck quite a bit to make the mask less tall, and we wanted to remove the absolute maximum amount of area from the front of the neck in order to maximize visibility. This area would get filled in with screen material later.

Reinforcing and counterweights

Once the neck was trimmed and cut as needed, M reinforced all the cut edges with plastic zip ties and wooden coffee stirrers, taped in place inside the mask and covered over with two layers of paper maché. She cut a length of coat hanger wire to use as a vertical support in the front, to keep the hole from collapsing. She bent this into shape with pliers, hot glued it in place, and then covered the hot glue connections with a few layers of paper maché.

M hot-glued a bunch of pennies into the inner-back edge of the mask to act as a counterweight to the nose in the front. This took some trial and error to determine the right amount of pennies. When this was done, she covered the pennies with two layers of paper maché.

With the holes reinforced and the counterweight added, the paper maché stage of this mask was finished. Time to paint!


M painted the interior of the mask by hand with watered-down cheap acrylic paint and a big foam brush. She then took the mask outside and applied three light coats of spray gesso, waiting about an hour in between each coat. The gesso helps smooth out the surface of the paper maché a bit more.

After the gesso, she painted the exterior of the mask black with acrylic paint and a foam brush. When that was dry, she painted the hair with gray acrylic and the bones with white acrylic.

When all this was dry, she applied a water-based gloss coat with a big brush. Normally we’d use gloss spray for this, but it was below freezing and very windy outside, so we decided to work inside the apartment.

Hard hat and screen

The one place where I/we cheated a bit was installing the hard hat in the mask; I helped a bit with this, because it was much easier to do with four hands. We measured and cut a small length of a foam pool noodle to stand on top of the hard hat in order to hold the mask up at the right height. We attached the pool noodle to the top of the hard hat with tons of hot glue, and then we set the mask upside-down and glued the other end of the pool noodle into the top of the head with a ton of Gorilla Glue. Gorilla Glue expands a huge amount as it dries so it locks everything in place perfectly.

M cut out pieces of screen material and hot-glued them in the neck hole; she used two layers so you really can’t see through it from the outside.

And that’s it!

Horse skull mask - finished!


Here’s M wearing her Skelly mask, hanging out with the real Skelly:

Horse skull mask - next to the original Skelly

And here’s my favorite pic of M and me on Mardi Gras day; stolen from the wonderful @katie_scarletttt. Check out my mechanical skull mask with marching skeletons here.

Horse skull mask - Mardi Gras day

2 Responses to “Paper mache horse skull mask!”

  1. Ed Murphy Says:

    Hi Manning…Kudos to your fiance on the Skelly mask!

    I’ve got the itch again (its been too long since the Marvin mask.) I’d like to tackle a banana head for the Pride parade in June. My first thought is to follow the general pattern for Skelly but I’m concerned about the “neck” part where the head would go not looking right (but I think it would be more stable resting on the shoulder.). So maybe have the head go into the “banana” part itself? (But then I’m concerned about the counter balancing?) Any advice on pros and cons of different design of this? (Feel free to e-mail me directly.)

    Best, Ed

  2. manning Says:

    Hey Ed! Great to hear from you, and that sounds awesome! I’ll email you later with some thoughts, but two things I want to share that might inspire you: my fellow Krewe member Kevin’s giant carrot skull mask, and Mondo Kayo’s banana mini-float! I’ll be in touch with some ideas I have about making something like what you’re talking about!

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