Introduction: How to Make a Skeleton & Corpse From Scratch
As a designer/coordinator for our community haunted forest, I wanted some gruesome corpses to add to this year's attraction. Unfortunately our budget does not allow for the purchase of high-end expensive props. Even the full-size plastic skeletons can range from $50 - $100 each, and this adds up quick when you have to fill an entire attraction with props.
My goal for this project was to create a realistic corpse made from mostly recycled materials for less than $25. Most of these materials I already had on hand, so although somewhat time-consuming, this was a very cheap prop for me to build. It may cost more or less for you, depending on what materials you already have.
Step 1: The Skeleton
- About 3 feet of 1-1/4" PVC pipe
- 1-1/4" PVC Tee
- 2 - 10' lengths of 3/4" PVC pipe
- About a dozen wire coat hangers
- Old newspapers
- Electrical romex cable
- A roll of 5/16" plastic tubing
- An ice cream bucket or milk jug
- 4 - 1" hose clamps
- hot glue sticks
- Aluminum foil
- Several rolls of cheap duct tape
Using my own body frame as a template, I measured and cut a spine out of the 1-1/4" PVC pipe. I used a torch to heat the pipe and bend it into a shape similar to that of a human spine. I then cut the 3/4" PVC in lengths similar to my shoulders and upper & lower arms. I did not use PVC fittings to secure the majority of the joints because I wanted a little bit of movement and articulation with the skeleton. Instead I secured the joints with coat hanger wire by drilling holes in the PVC pipe, looping the wire through and twisting it together with pliers. I then made several balls of wadded aluminum foil and duct taped them to the elbows and shoulders to add bulk.
At the bottom of the spine, I added a tee fitting. This acts as the pivot point for the skeleton's waist.
The legs were made the same way as the arms using 3/4" pipe and wired together at the joints. The top of the legs are connected together via another 3/4" pipe which is the width of his waist. this pipe was threaded through the tee fitting attached to the spine. I attached two small hose clamps to this pipe, one on each side of the tee. This keeps the legs and waist centered while allowing it to pivot in the tee.
Balled up aluminum foil was then taped to the knees the same way as the elbows and shoulders.
This was probably the most time-consuming part. I could have done it easer, but this is what I did.
The ribs were made using electrical romex cable rolled up in newspapers, stiffened with coat hanger wire and wrapped in a lot of duct tape. I fastened each rib to the back of the spine by running a screw through the romex. I then later extended them by fastening wood to the spine as you can see in the photo. This is not necessary if you measure correctly the first time.
Once the ribs were bent and shaped the way I wanted, I laid the skeleton face-down and used a heat gun to melt hot glue sticks on the back where the ribs connect to the spine. This reinforces the screws and makes for a very strong bond.
The Pelvic Bone:
I used loops of romex to create the outer shape of the pelvic bone. This was secured to the skeleton using 2 more hose clamps and duct tape. An ice cream bucket was then cut to shape and duct taped to the romex. This probably could have been done easier too, but it worked great.
Hands & Feet:
The fingers and little toes were made with copper wire threaded through 5/16" plastic tubing. The tubing was cut in small sections to resemble finger (and toe) bones between knuckles. For the big toes, I used a large glue stick with a copper wire melted into one end for securing to the rest of the foot.
I then wrapped short wires around where the knuckles would be on the fingers and toes to give them a more realistic appearance.
When the fingers and toes were finished, they were wired together to create hands (or feet). They were then fastened to the lower arm/leg bone using coat hanger wire.
Step 2: Adding Meat to His Bones
- 2-3 cans of "Great Stuff" expanding foam
- Black, brown or gray spray primer
- Red spray paint
- White or pink spray paint
- Clear plastic sheeting
- Old clothes
Adding the Foam:
Do not even attempt this step without first protecting your floor with a drop cloth or plastic sheeting. Also, expanding foam does not come out of clothes, so old clothes are very highly recommended.
Okay, time to get messy.
With your skeleton positioned over the drop cloth, begin spraying expanding foam over the entire body. Spray plenty of foam on the legs, pelvic area, arms, shoulders and neck. The idea is to simulate muscle tissue.
Also add plenty of foam for the decaying organs and guts inside the ribcage.
Try to keep the foam away from the outside of the ribcage, the fingers and toes, and joints you want to keep moveable. If you get some on these areas, just let it dry and remove the foam later.
Wait until one side dries, then flip the skeleton over and repeat for the other side.
Wait a day for the foam to harden, then you can begin carving and shaping the corpse. I used a sharp non-serrated knife about 3-1/2" long to cut away the excess foam. I then rounded any edges left from the knife using a small rasp.
We want this to look like a rotting, decaying corpse, so choose several random places on the arms, legs and shoulders and tear out chunks of foam all the way to the bone. There is no way to do this wrong. The more imperfect, the better.
Painting the Corpse:
Once you are satisfied with the corpse's shape, give him a couple coats of rattle-can primer.
Then give the entire corpse a couple coats of gloss red spay paint. One thing I didn't do but wish I did was go back over the rib cage with hints of white or pink spray paint to indicate bare bone.
Don't use up all the paint. You will need it for the skull in the next step.
At this point, your corpse will begin looking like a very disgusting headless bloody human carcass. This might just get the attention of your neighbors if they see it in your garage or workshop, so let them know what you are working on to avoid getting unwanted visits from your local friendly police officers.
Adding Skin to the Corpse:
Now, as fun as this next part is, it can be very dangerous as you will be working with high temperatures. Also be sure to do this in a well-ventilated area since the fumes from the melted plastic and foam are toxic.
Working with one section of the body at a time, cut sections of clear plastic sheeting large enough to wrap around each arm, leg or torso a couple times and then begin melting the plastic to the body with a heat gun. The plastic will shrink and conform to the size and texture of the foam, giving it a realistic skin-like appearance.
Make small cuts in the plastic anywhere you tore chunks of foam out of the arms/legs, etc. This will allow the melted plastic to conform around the missing foam and create an effect that looks like an open sore.
You can also make small slits in between a couple of the ribs. This will give the appearance of tears in the flesh and expose the internals inside the ribcage.
Step 3: The Skull
- plastic skull to use for mold
- "Great Stuff" expanding foam
- petroleum jelly
- 2-1/2" - 3" long finishing nails or pins
- super glue or Gorilla Glue
- black, brown or gray spray primer
- red spray paint
- white or pink spray paint
- clear plastic sheeting
- duct tape or bungee cords
- old clothes
- leather gloves
Molding the Skull:
I bought a cheap plastic skull from the Skeleton Factory to use as a mold for expanding foam. Why create a mold when I could have just used the $4 plastic skull instead? Because I wanted an easy way to duplicate skulls for use in other projects. Besides, the foam allows for easier modification of the skull and its features.
Here is the link to the skull I used for this project:
Start by making a cut in the skull with a razor knife. Start at the back, bottom of the skull and cut up through the top and stop at the forehead, leaving the face intact.
Next, open up the clamshell skull and smear a thin layer of petroleum jelly over every surface on the inside. Be sure to get in all the nooks and crannies around the teeth, eyes and nose. This step is important because the petroleum jelly acts as a release agent for the expanding foam. Don't forget this step if you want to get your skull out of he mold when it dries.
When the inside is well coated, use duct tape or bungee cords to hold the clamshell together. If you think you have enough tape, you probably don't, just be sure to leave an access hole in the bottom so you can spray the foam.
Don't forget to put a drop cloth, plastic or newspapers down to protect the surface you are working on. Also, if you haven't already, now is the time to put on old clothes.
Starting around the facial features, slowly spray expanding foam inside the mold. Be sure to allow it to go into all the nooks and crannies around the eyes, nose, teeth and cheek bones. Rotate the skull around to add foam to the sides and back, be sure to leave a void in the middle to allow for the foam to expand. It takes some practice to get the right amount. If the foam does make a mess and squirt out everywhere, wait for it to dry and then cut it away from the mold.
I know it's difficult, but resist the temptation to pull the mold apart for at least 5-7 days. It takes a very long time for the foam to dry since there is no air getting through the plastic mold.
Once it's dry, carefully remove the skull and use a knife to remove any unwanted flashing left over from the mold.
Don't be too concerned if there are a few small gaps and voids in the skull. It's very difficult to get a perfect skull using this method. Large voids should be filled with more foam but small voids will be unnoticeable when the prop is finished.
Opening the Mouth:
Using a band saw, hack saw or coping saw, start cutting between the upper and lower teeth. Continue cutting around the lower jaw bone until the lower jaw is completely separated from the skull.
Use a rotary tool with a drum sander attachment to shape the inside of the lower jaw, around the teeth, tongue and throat area, as well as the roof of the mouth.
Also, use a razor knife to cut details between the teeth or completely remove some teeth as desired. The overall shape of the skull and lower jaw should look as realistic as possible.
When finished carving details, position the lower jaw onto the skull in the desired open position. Stick nails or pins through the bottom of the jaw and into the skull to hold everything in place. Then glue the two pieces together for a permanent bond. Gorilla Glue works perfect for this since it dries the same color as the foam skull.
Finish the skull in the same fashion as the rest of the skeleton in step 2.
Make sure you are working in a well-ventilated area, and start with a couple coats of spray primer, followed up with red paint and white or pink highlights.
Wait for the paint to be just dry enough to handle, then begin melting the plastic sheeting to the face with the heat gun. Try to pull the plastic tight as you work your way from the face to the back of the skull (you may want to wear leather gloves to prevent burning your fingers). Try to avoid folds in the plastic if at all possible. There is no way to avoid them all, but try to keep the folds in the back of the skull to keep them out of sight.
Use a sharp razor knife to trim the plastic around the eye sockets, nose and teeth.
Step 4: The Finishing Details
- wood stain of desired color (I used provincial)
- disposable foam brush for applying stain
- spray polyurethane of desired sheet (I used satin)
- white rope
- homemade clay, bouncy ball, marbles, etc. (for the eyes)
- clear gloss fingernail polish
- clear or white wood glue
- white or pink paint and small brush
- drop cloth
- old clothes
Attach the Head:
Cut or drill a neck hole the same size as the PVC spine into the bottom of the skull, and attach the skull to the rest of the skeleton. You can glue the head if you wish. I didn't glue mine because I wanted to be able to position it.
Staining the Corpse:
Time to put on the old clothes again and don't forget a drop cloth or you will ruin your clothes and your floor.
Brush the wood stain on the corpse, covering every square inch. Repeat as many coats as necessary until you are satisfied with the color. If you would like a more charred corpse look, select a dark wood stain such as ebony or dark walnut color.
Wait a couple days for the stain to dry and then cover the prop with several coats of spray polyurethane sealant. This will help protect the prop from mother nature if you plan on keeping it outside during the Halloween season. I selected a polyurethane with a satin finish because I wanted to knock down the high gloss resulting from the stain.
If you will be adding hair to your corpse, the perfect time is when the polyurethane is still tacky. I found an old white rope made with really fine synthetic fibers. When I pulled the fibers apart, it just so happened to look just like white hair, and it stuck nicely to the tacky polyurethane sealant.
If you cannot find a similar rope to use, you can either cut the hair from an old wig, or yank it from your little brother's head (just kidding, don't actually do that). Just use your imagination.
Teeth & Eyes:
I made my eyes using a very simple homemade modeling clay recipe of 2 parts flour to 1 part salt and 1 part water. I wouldn't recommend this however, unless you are planning on using the clay for other projects. There are much simpler ways to make the eyes. For example, you could cut a rubber super ball in half or use a couple marbles, etc. Once again, use your imagination. Once the clay was formed and hardened, I painted the eyes with a gray/tan acrylic paint to really give the prop a creepy lifeless appearance.
For the teeth, I simply used a paint brush to brush on a couple coats of white wood glue and waited a day for it to dry. This made the teeth very hard.
Finally, the eyes and the teeth both got a couple coats of my wife's clear fingernail polish. This gave them a realistic glossy wet appearance.
And that's it for this tutorial. I hope you've enjoyed it. Be sure to leave a comment, I would love to hear about your creepy creations.