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Picture of Articulated Wing Framework
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A skeleton set of wings made from balsa wood and an old frame backpack, suitable for angels, bats, demons, birds (but not so much for butterflies or other insects). They open and close as you raise your arms, and flap forward and back when you do. Decorate them with leather, feathers, streamers, gold paint, whatever strikes your fancy. Mine ended up with a 9 foot span when open fully.



I wanted a very lightweight wing that would not tire me if I wore it all night. I chose balsa wood over aluminum tubing because it's easier to work with given the tools I have available. The basic structure could be made out of almost any stiff material, however. (My prototypes were made from popsicle sticks and foam core.) Each wing is a simple set of linkages arranged to expand and rise when opened.
 
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Step 1: Tools & Materials

Picture of Tools & Materials
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Except for the backpack, which you may be able to find in a thrift store or Army Surplus if you don't already have one in your garage, all the materials needed can be found in a hardware store and/or craft store.

(A) 1 aluminum frame backpack
(B) 3 pc of 36" x 4" x 1/4" balsa wood
(C) 1 pc (60" length) of 1/4" wood dowel
(D) about a foot of "hanger strap" - a thin strip of metal with holes in it, mine came coiled up in a packet (found in the plumbing section)
(E) 4 nut/bolt sets, bolts of a diameter to fit through the holes in the hanger strap, and as short as you can find (they are used to fasten the hanger strap tight around the wing supports)
(F) 8 shaft collars with inside diameter 1/4"
(G) 6 pc 3/4" machine screws that fit the threadings in the dowel collars (F)
(H) 2 pc 1/2" machine screws that fit the threadings in the dowel collars (F)
(J) 4 pc 1/2" binding posts for the balsa/balsa hinges
(K) 2 pc 3/8" binding posts for the balsa/hanger strap hinges
(L) 10 pc 1/4" long nylon spacers, that the binding post (J) fit through
(M) 6 pc 1/4" long nylon spacers that the machine screws (G) will fit through (and turn; these will be some of the wing hinges)
(N) 4 nylon washers, 1/16" thick, that fit around the binding posts (J)
(P) a number of small nylon washers, 1/16" and 1/32" thick, that fit around the machine screws (G) 1
(R) 2 nylon flanges (I am not entirely sure this is the right term) to fit into the aluminum tubing of the backpack
(S) scrap leather
(T) couple inches of velcro

1 these washers are to pad the hinges created by the collars & the machine screws, so the thicknesses are determined by the actual dimensions of the hinge assemblies. I used, I think, 8 of the thicker ones and 6 of the thinner ones, but I suggest buying these later once you're ready to assemble the hinges and can take the wing parts into the hardware store and measure, or just get a bunch and use them as needed (they cost me something like 6 cents each).

Tools:
  • x-acto knife
  • Dremel or power drill with a cutting wheel attachment & a 1/4" metal drill bit
  • tin snips (you can use the cutting wheel if you don't have tin snips)
  • 2 pair needle nose pliers
  • wood glue
  • hot glue gun
  • screw drivers appropriate for your bolts and screws
  • sandpaper or fine file (I use fingernail files)
  • sewing machine or needle & thread

Step 2: Prep the backpack

Picture of Prep the backpack
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Remove the pack from the frame and the inner frame from the pack. Toss the pack on your scrap heap, you don't need it for the wings. You do need the U-shaped aluminum tube that forms the pack's inner frame.

Cut the top of the backpack frame off just above the highest crossbar. I used my Dremel for this and it took about 15 minutes to cut both sides. I then sanded the raw edges smooth. These will form part of the hinges that let the wings flap.

Next cut the inner frame in half using the drill cutting wheel or metal snips or whatever seems best - the cut edge won't show so it can be messy. Bend the pieces further at the existing right-angle bends, until each is a long thin U shape and the long bits are parallel. When you're done, the cut end should fit through the nylon cap (R) into the cut edge of the main frame. These pieces will form the verticals that the wings attach to - the shoulder joint, as it were.

Step 3: Cut the balsa pieces

Since there are so many parts, I have labeled the first picture with how I'll refer to the bits throughout. The hardware is labeled in the Tools & Materials step.

On a large piece of paper, draw three 'bone' shapes X, Y, Z. The important dimensions are the lengths from the middles of the hinge holes. I put masking tape over the back of the paper before I cut out the patterns; this made them much easier to trace onto the balsa.

bone X:
top hole to middle hole: 12-3/8 inches
middle hole to bottom hole: 6 inches

bone Y:
top hole to middle hole: 18-3/8 inches
middle hole to bottom hole: 6 inches

bone Z: top hole to bottom hole: 6 inches
and it should be about as long, overall, as bone Y

Trace the patterns onto the balsa, two of each. You should be able to fit 2 pieces per balsa sheet if your bones are shaped like mine (or smaller). Using the Xacto knife, cut the pieces out (a very small, fine saw would probably also work but my jigsaw just tore up my test sample). A good technique for this is to trace the lines several times, cutting deeper each time. Ripcuts are very easy; crosscuts are slightly harder as the balsa tries to compress. Cut only a little deeper each time. Don't worry too much about accuracy, once the shapes are cut out in general it's easy to carve the edges down as if you were whittling.

Lay each pair of identical pieces out with the pattern on top and line them up well. Drill pilot holes where you marked the hinges.

Step 4: Hinge prep

Picture of Hinge prep
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There are 2 kinds of hinges you'll be making, and depending on your hardware, you probably need different size holes for them. For the balsa/balsa hinges, you'll be using the nylon spacers (L), and for the balsa/dowel hinges, you'll be using nylon spacers (M). You'll glue the spacers into the balsa pieces, for strength at the stress points.

The balsa/balsa hinges are those at the tops of each of the bone segments, and the middle holes on the two bones X and Y (see the pic on the previous step). These take the spacers (L). All the lower holes on all 3 pieces are balsa/dowel hinges, and these take the spacers (M).

If you have drill bits corresponding to the outer diameter of the spacers, drill out these holes centered on the pilot holes. If you don't have drill bits, it's easy to carve them with the Xacto knife - just trace around one of the spacers, centered on the pilot hole, and gently slice along the lines. It's better if the holes are a tiny bit small than too big.

Using the wood glue, glue the spacers into the holes. This is a bit annoying because you want a tight fit, but a tight fit squishes the glue out. Do what you can. Let the glue dry thoroughly.

UPDATE: use epoxy, and spread it on thick! The wood glue turned out not to be strong enough, and several of these plastic sleeves popped out the first night I wore the wings out.

Step 5: Shoulder hinges (upper and lower)

The shoulder hinges are made from the strapping bent around the pieces of the wing base tube (the pack's inner frame that you cut up in step 2). Cut an appropriate length of strapping for each hinge - for me it was 8 holes' worth for the upper and 6 for the lower hinge. I also had to drill out holes on some of the ends, as the holes were of 2 sizes and my screws did not fit through the smaller ones. Bend the pieces into the shapes as shown in the pictures. The upper hinge straps have extra bends so the balsa bone will fit between the sides when they are held together.

Fit the pieces of strapping over the wing base tube so that the centers are 9-3/4 inches apart. With the nuts & bolts (E), screw the straps tight around the tube.

Assemble the upper shoulder hinge using one balsa bone X, two nylon washers (N), and one short binding post (K). The binding post should go through the strap, one washer, the balsa bone, the other washer, and the other side of the strap. Then screw the second half of the binding post in until the hinge is closed. Verify that the bone rotates sufficiently, you may have to trim the edges down.

Cut the dowel into 4 pieces, 2 of 8-3/4 inches and two of 18-7/8. (Many of these photos show a metal dowel instead of a wooden one. The metal turned out to be too heavy for the balsa, which in retrospect was not a surprise. I had to swap them out but didn't bother to re-take all the pictures.)

Assemble the lower shoulder hinge using one shaft collar (F), one 1/2" machine screw (H), one of the 8-3/4 inch dowel sections, and as many nylon washers (N) as needed. Fit the dowel section through the shaft collar (take out the tiny screw that comes with it). Put the screw through the lower strap (both pieces) from the front of the wing towards the back, and screw it into the shaft collar thread until the dowel is held in place. If there is extra space along the length of the screw, add some of the small nylon washers (P).

Step 6: More hinges

Picture of More hinges
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Now you have two of the seven hinges complete. The rest of the hinges are of two types, balsa-to-balsa and balsa-to-dowel. Both kinds of hinges are easy to assemble, but you need to get the bones in the right order. Assuming the wings are lying with the front down and the back up, put them together like a sandwich, bottom to top, as follows:

balsa/balsa hinge 1:
- binding post shaft piece
- bone Y middle hole
- nylon washer
- bone X middle hole
- binding post screw

balsa/balsa hinge 2:
- binding post shaft piece
- bone Y upper hole
- nylon washer
- bone Z upper hole
- binding post screw

balsa/dowel hinge 1:
- machine screw
- bone Y lower hole
- shaft collar (put the remaining end of the lower shoulder dowel in it)

balsa/dowel hinge 2:
- machine screw
- bone X lower hole
- shaft collar (put one end of one of the 18" dowels through it)

balsa/dowel hinge 3:
- machine screw
- bone Z lower hole
- shaft collar with the other end of the 18" dowel

For the balsa/dowel hinges you may need to add some of the small nylon washers. Use your judgment.

UPDATE: for the balsa/balsa hinges, once you are satisfied with the wings, glue the screws into the binding posts. Otherwise they will unscrew as the wings move, and fall out. I was lucky not to lose any pieces the first time this happened, and after that I checked often to make sure they were screwed in enough until I had time to glue them.

Step 7: The Leather Bits

First leather bit: a strap to keep the wings from opening too far and collapsing. Cut 2 pieces of leather (or similar material) about 6 inches long and an inch wide. Lay each wing out with the dowels up, and open them as far as you want them to go. Using hot glue, attach one end of the leather strip to the bones Y and Z near balsa/balsa hinge 2. You might be tempted to use staples, but don't - the balsa is too soft to hold them, they just pull right out.

Er, if you want to paint the bones, a good time for this is before you glue the leather strap down. I didn't do this and had to paint them with the straps in place, which was annoying.

Second leather bit: a strap that attaches to your arms to make the wings extend! Make the armband by cutting some leather that goes mostly around your arm, and some velcro to make up the difference (with some overlap of course). Sew these together as in the picture.

Then cut a piece of leather about 12 or 15 inches and stitch one end to the armband in the shape of a T. The other end will attach to the wings at balsa/dowel hinge 2, but wait to cut the hole for the screw until you can put the wings on to make sure the length is good.

Step 8: Finishing Details

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Almost done! You are ready to insert the wing base tubes into the frame. Place the nylon flanges into the frame and hot glue them in place. Then just insert the wing base tubes through them. To keep the bottom of the wing base tube from flopping, wrap a piece of wire in a figure eight around both tubes loosely enough that it will turn.

You may find that when the wings fold up fully, the edge of bone X hits the sharp edge of the strap on the lower shoulder hinge. I simply laid a small amount of hot glue along the edge of the hinge so it would not cut into the bone.

That's it. Decorate as desired. Fly and be free!
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TalontheShade3 months ago
What thickness of balsa wood did you use? Do you recommend any specific thickness?
Could you do a tutorial on adding the feathers? I'm not sure how to place them so they won't bunch up all weirdly
ModMischief made it!5 months ago

Thanks for posting such awesome instructions!

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I love this tutorial and I can't wait to begin making my wings for my Maleficent cosplay! The only thing I'm having trouble with is the Shaft Collars. I can't find them anywhere... Do they go by another name? Could you link me to any online?

rachel (author)  bekah.shambrook6 months ago

You can find them on Grainger (for example) but I got mine in a local hardware store in the section with all the tiny drawers full of tiny screws and such. A salesperson should be able to point you to the right drawer. You will want to make sure your machine screws G and H will screw into the shaft collar's set screw thread, so if you can find all those things in person in one place it's easier to check that. But you can also get the screws later once you have the shaft collars.

i really like the idea of these wings. Do you ever commission yourself to build them for others?

rachel (author)  patrick.hill.37609 months ago

I haven't made a set for anyone else but I am open to the idea - PM me and let's talk!

what are the dimension for the wooden bone pieces?

I know that they are probably custom to the person, so what are they person size : bone size?

rachel (author)  whouffle_bae6 months ago

Check out Step 3 for information on the bone sizes.

Happythorn rachel8 months ago
Hey! Im also wondering if you do commissions but I don't know how to message you :/ please email me at happythorn07@hotmail.com
Thanks so muh!
liberty.goss.710 months ago

Okay I have ben wanting to start this as a project for awhile now but the only thing that I don't get is how do you put shirts/jackets on over the wings or harness? I want to do this for my Gabriel cosplay and he wears a jacket so if I bought or made one would I have to cut it up in the back and ruien it?

http://whatishcc.com/tutorials/wing-harness/ here is a good idea without messing up the back to much. wish i had this sooner xD

im was thinking the exact same thing for an attack on titan cosplay im doing with wings. im not sure how else you would get them on so i just bought a cheeper lower quality jacket and tore out the back. hope this helps

talei.mikulas10 months ago

How did you attach feathers to it?

i attach feathers by covering it in chicken wire and hot glueing the fetahers to it

Does anyone have any tips on making these more like Max's from Maximum Ride? I very much want to be her for Halloween this year. Please let me know, I want them to be as bird-like as possible. Thanks.

I love maximum ride and the best i could say would make the wing span bigger and attach feathers that look those similar to an owl. I attach my feathers by covering it in chicken wire and hot gluing the feathers to the wire. sorry if this is really late but i hope it helped.

Do you, by chance, still have a pattern for the wing bones I could print and cut out?

Hi! It looks marvelous, and I have to admire the amount of work you put in so the rest of us don't. ;) I know I couldn't have figured all of this out on my own.

One thing, is there a way they could open and close without the arm bands?

IchigoCosplay9 months ago

Hello author, :)

It looks really awesome, congratulations !

would you have any idea on how to make articulated wings that sit on the hips, not back and shoulders and open flat (not standing) ?
Like in the two images down here (1st : closed wings, not that they are slightly curved, 2nd : opened wings, the behind of the wing facing down, not facing front like normal wings).

They don't have to be huge, mind you. :)

The way they stand make them harder to make :( I'm having issues, but since you can do such awesome things, maybe you know how to help me ?

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rachel (author)  IchigoCosplay9 months ago

Thank you for the kind words! Those wings do look harder to manage. If I were making them I would start with a small prototype model, maybe popsicle sticks and toothpicks, or heavy paper and staples, and just mess around until I got something that worked. Then I would figure out how to scale it up to (I assume) person-sized. They will clearly need a sturdy corset-like garment to support the wing bases, and that is also a possible starting point for figuring out the wing structure. I guess you will want to come up with a different opening/closing mechanism than attaching to the wearer's elbows. All in all, an interesting problem! I hope you will post an Instructable about the solution you come up with!

koroko19 months ago

Please post the exact measurements for the materials you used and where you bought it. I tried looking for them and it took me forever and went to three different stores looking for the materials and I havent found some of it. It would help thanks!

rachel (author)  koroko19 months ago

Unfortunately I can't do this - I made these wings about 5 years ago and I don't remember that level of detail any more. Improvise with what you've got - not everything I used was optimal, particularly the balsa wood which was too soft to keep the hinges and I would recommend a different material for the bones.

koroko19 months ago

Please post the exact measurements for the materials you used and where you bought it. I tried looking for them and it took me forever and went to three different stores looking for the materials and I havent found some of it. It would help thanks!

sarah.gawle9 months ago

I don't have the tools NOR the materials to make it how you did (though mine would have been much prettier and hardier if I did!).

My materials were:

-broken umbrella

-caradboard

-screws

-washers (decorations)

-knuts

-white fabric

-duct tape

-fishing wire (though fishing line is as good. Twine is not, because it succumbs to pressure more easily and snaps)

I took apart the umbrella and the "arms" already bend the way I wanted for wings. I threaded the fishing wire through the hole at the back of the farthest-reaching "digit" of each umbrella "arm" so that when I pulled it, it would extend the entire arm like a wing. Then I attached them to a cardboard backing I made with duct tape, made holes in the cardboard backing, and criss-crossed the wires through so I could pull on the strings while wearing it. I added old belts as straps, though you can make duct tape straps. I cut out the white fabric and sewed it around the umbrella arms. The washers I used to decorate to make the holes around the cardboard look a little better, and I also covered it in a wood varnish so as to maybe fool people into thinking it's made of good wood.

It doesn't work.

But all in all I made some working wings for less than $10. Though if people are feeling ambitious and want well-working wings, I would hope they use your tutorial!

rachel (author)  sarah.gawle9 months ago

This sounds like a super interesting technique. Can you post a picture? I'd love to see your wings.

Fortunately, the cardboard for this pair (the digits I saved from the umbrella allowed me to make 3, but this is the best one) came from a box of Steampunk accessories I had bought online, so it had a cool logo on it.
I don't know if it's visible in the pictures, but I also tied the ends of the wire around curtain rings so that they wouldn't poke or get caught around stuff. That way my finger slips into the loop rather than reaching for the end of a sharp wire.
I apologize for the random stuff in the picture, like me leg, my scarf and my shoe!
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rachel (author)  sarah.gawle9 months ago

Thanks for the pics, that's a great low-cost alternative.

ewickerham4 years ago
This is a wonderful idea and i am addicted to the idea of having wings, one year for halloween i had made those lil fairy wings out of wire hanger and stockings but i rlly want feathered wings. so i look at all these websites and find how to make wings out of cardboard..... well those wings are great but they dont move >.> so after a while of searching for articulated wings i found this, i love this idea and think it would be amaizing but i was wondering, how do u make the skin or feathered part???... and do i have to buy a really good quality backpack? cuz it cant get too pricey.... i LOVE this idea.. im trying to think how to cover the ugly frame... i mean it is beatiful work its just not what u want to see when u are supposed to be looking at a pair of angel or elsewise wings..... BUT I LOVE THIS!!!
rachel (author)  ewickerham4 years ago
A little while ago I saw where someone had made similar wings like this, but instead of using a backpack, they had made slots in a corset, to slide the wing supports into. If I were to make these again, I would use that method, it is much sleeker and made the wings really look like they were attached. Unfortunately I didn't save the link to it :(

Is this one similar?? I found it online and was thinking of changing it to work with your amazing wings. Problem is, when you search "corset for sale" you figure out what they are most often used for these days...

http://whatishcc.com/tutorials/wing-harness/

These look fantastically great! Do the wings open up if you put your arms up and forward too??

I would appreciate it if someone could estimate a cost for these. while estimating cost for feathers, without surface area calculation to work with, I came up with at least 50 bucks. :/

I spend about 50 for feathers. I'm sure if you do some hunting you may be able to find some place that will sell you them for cheaper when what i paid. I used under a 1/2 lb.

and could you maybe post a picture??

How did you adhere the feathers to the frame??

I made it and it works great for my Hawkgirl cosplay. I don't have to many pictures up but if you want to check it out in a week or so I should have more up on my facebook. Your instructable was great and easy to follow. I used a heavy gauge wire and a corset with channels to keep the wings on instead of a back pack. Also if you want to put feathers on it go slow! Try the feathers in a few different places with tape and make sure it still opens and closes. I made that mistake and it wasn't fun. I was able to cover both wings with just about 1/2 lb of feathers. Thanks so much!

https://www.facebook.com/PICosplays

My facebook if you want to check out the picture(s)

rachel (author)  jessica.gladstone.9811 months ago

That looks great! I'd love to see a pic with the feathers, please do comment here when you post that!

Is there a possible way to change the way the wings open without ruining how they do so? I would like to make it so that they open when the arms are thrust downwards instead of upwards to apply a more comfortable pose for photos.

I was wondering how this would work with real feathers or worbla-made feathers without the feathers bunching up? Thanks!

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