I have a huge attachment to dia de los muertos, the Mexican tradition otherwise known as the Day of the Dead. I think my love for it lies in the respect and the honor given to the dead. So, two years ago a friend of mine who is Mexican hosted a Day of the Dead party as his home and encouraged everyone to dress up. That spawned the original version of this costume. This past year I wanted to build on that and make it better all while adding in more elements and keeping a sacred nod towards respecting the custom. So with a little bit of brainstorming I became inspired to turn my basic costume into a living altar. I was inspired by two images. The first is of a model looking stunning with candles lit on her shoulders (I dare not post the picture just out of respect for any legal issues, but you can find it by searching for images of "candles on shoulders.") The second image was of a teenage boy who lit candles on his shoulders as his sacrifice in honor of his little brother who had been killed. But how to get heavy wax candles to balance and no break through the wearing of the costume? Most make their candles out of PVC pipe. Even that is too heavy. The answer....paper towel rolls! (or in my case toilet paper rolls).
Step 1: The Materials
1. Cardboard Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Rolls - You will need as many of these as the number of candles you wish to create. In some cases you can cut the tubes and get two candles or even three out of one roll.
2. Tape - I used tape to hold my toilet paper rolls together to make longer/taller candles. You may not need this with paper towel rolls, but you may consider splitting some of the rolls lengthwise and pushing the cut ends past each other to make thinner candles for variance. Then you can just tape down the split or hot glue it.
3. Hot Glue - And a lot of it too!
4. Something to mount the candles on to. I used two plastic armor shields from the Dollar Tree. I cut them with scissors to make a platform shaped the way I wanted and that flowed well with my body shape. If you have more narrow shoulders you may a more narrow platform.
5. Paint - I chose an ivory color that worked best with making the candles feel aged. It gave a better sense of realism when the candles were activated.
6. Electronic tea lights or votives - For obvious safety reasons I didn't really want fire around my face, flammable paint, or other parts of the costume. The idea is to give the illusion of danger without actually being in danger.
7. Newspaper - I used newspaper stuffed into each candle to hep with rigidity and to elevate the electronic tea light.
8. Netting or Fabric - I used basic Halloween decor netting to wrap around the base of my candles and to cover the platform. In the dark it appears almost like moss (which you could use) or decaying fabric mixed with spider webs. This softens the base of the candles, hides extra glue, and because it hangs down it covered any separation between my shoulder and the rigid platform.
9. Detail Accessories - For my final costume I added a rosary intertwined in the candles, some fake spiders, some miniature skeletons, and even printed out antique photos of family members that I glued in place between the candles.
Step 2: The Structure
I don't have many pictures of the process details. But in the picture you can see how I taped together some rolls to make the taller candles. I also cut the tops of the rolls at sloped angles to imitate how large candles don't always burn evenly. It helps make the pouring wax more believable and adds realism.
In my case the bend of the toy shields make very natural shoulder pads for me. So I didn't straighten them or bend them I left them with their natural curve and trimmed them to the right shape. I cut the bottoms of some of the cardboard rolls to help them be more flush to the platform. I decided on the height differences and arrangement and then simply glued the rolls down to the platform.
Step 3: The Wax
To create the wax like effect I simply dripped hot glue down the sides of the cardboard tube and let it run naturally. This process takes time and lots of patience. There's not really a wrong way to do it but keep in mind that you want to see some separation in the "drips" so it looks as though they've formed slowly over time. Remember, be careful! Hot glue is HOT and it burns fast.
-Sometimes i rested the tip of glue gun at the top of the "candle" and pulled the trigger allowing the glue to run from the top down. My glue hardened fairly quickly, so for longer runs I would start at the middle or bottom of the candle and over squeeze a bit to form that droplet end, then run a steady line of glue back up to the top.
-Let the glue pool at the bottom of shorter candles. Remember, if these have been burning a long time there is a lot of wax that has run down and cooled.
-Layers are your friend! They add dimension and depth. After going around the top of the candle once, I would run a ring of glue around the top of the candle like a halo and blow on it to dry it quickly. Then when the next layer was applied it would hold the glue out and create that rounded 3D edge of softened "wax" you see on large candles and hide the harsh edge of the cardboard roll.
-Don't be afraid to blow on the glue to help control it. Variance is good!
-Let one layer cool a bit before adding the second. If you don't wait just a bit the new hot wax can cause the under layer to heat up again and it'll all slide down instead of giving definition.
-Pull the hot glue strings off NOW! You can't always get them all, but when it's time to paint they will catch the paint and they will not look like anything but a mess. So pull them now and clean them up as you go. Save yourself the headache later.
Step 4: The Magic
The only secret to this magic trick is to take your time and use light coats of paint. I ended up with about 4 coats on my candles.
Make sure you spray each candle at different angles to get into all the nooks and crannies. You'll be thankful for your patience later. Very quickly you will see clear shiny hot glue turn into rivers of aged wax.
Note: You could probably paint one darker color on first, then lightly spray a lighter color outside to get a shadow and antique feeling. I didn't feel that it was necessary for my project.
Once painted, I went back in with my hot glue and created fine strands that looked like spider webs between the candles.
Step 5: The Ambience
I packed my candles with Newspaper to about an inch and a half below the candle height. This helped sturdy the candle and it also gave a resting place for the battery operated tea lights. Leaving them below the height of the candle gave the appearance that the candles were melted down in the center from age and also hid any straight (obviously fake) lines from the edge of the candle. I used tea lights that had a pretty natural flicker, again purchased cheaply at the Dollar Tree. As you can see they glow from within giving that creepy mesmerizing light. These also added light to my face and neck around my mask and under the sombrero.
Step 6: The Look
To attach my platform to my suit jacket I used...you guessed it, hot glue! I put the jacket on and had a friend drizzle hot glue all over the should pad area and then place the platform right on my shoulder. This helped keep them even and fairly straight and the second set of hands helped hold them in place until the glue took hold. They never let go under the weight. All that was left was to drape the netting around the bottom and tack it in place with glue and add the finishing touches.
It all comes together once you add the little details. Here is my full costume on the street. Most everything on the outfit was put together with hot glue including the trim on the jacket, all the flowers, and even my top hat made from a yoga mat and hot glued together. An impressive look can be put together with very little money and some glue.
Whether you're using these candles for a Day of the Dead project, a theater prop, a Halloween decoration or any of the limitless uses; the fun is in the details. Add some dust or even vacuum lint to look like thick dust around the bottom of your candles. Create holders around them or places for little sacrifices. You can really make them into anything you want! Enjoy!