Introduction: How to Make a Papier Mache Dia De Los Muertos Esqueleto

Picture of How to Make a Papier Mache Dia De Los Muertos Esqueleto

This shows how I made my papier mache skeletons in the style of Dia de los Muertos for Halloween. Expect to take at up to a week to make this due to the drying required between steps (to avoid mildew growth when stored).

Step 1: First the Ingredients

Picture of First the Ingredients
Items required.
Tools
  • Drill and a 7/64" bit (used after dried and base gesso coats applied)

Papier Mache body, head, legs, arms:
  • Newspapers - about a weeks worth.
  • ** Precut some pages into 1" strips
  • ** This is easiest if done on one-three full sheets at a time, folded in half horizontally, then torn from the creased side down.
  • ** Store the strips in a plastic see-through bin, Sterilite 15qt #1906 (DVD size) is great for this.
  • 1" Masking tape, 1 roll
  • 12 yards of drapery cord or 3mm (from sewing store)
  • Water balloons (small for head)
  • Large balloons (for body)
  • Corrugated cardboard scrap - about 8" x 6"
  • Large trash bag(s) - for covering your papier mache/paint work surface.
  • ** I actually used several layers of newspaper and just turned my work frequently while wet to prevent sticking.

Hangar/Paper Clip contraption:

  • 3 Tubular plastic hangars - for drying arm and leg pieces.
  • Masking or duct tape.
  • 30 large paper clips - for taping onto hangars to hold drying arm & leg pieces.

Papier Mache Paste recipe (two to three batches):
Single batch of papier mache paste - recipe is from:
In a Rubbermaid or similar throw-away container with lid (669ml/2.9 cups).

  • 1 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 oz cup glue (1 school sized bottle)

Papier mache decoration:

  • White Gesso (8 oz).
  • Art acrylic paint (ASTM) 4oz bottles: white, black and various other BRIGHT colors you like.
  • ** Don't use drab or pastel colors as that is not in the spirit of Dia De Los Muertos.
  • ** The intent of Dia De Los Muertos is to celebrate your ancestor's lives, like a party, so think fun party colors.
  • Glitter.
  • Hot glue gun & sticks - or carpenter's glue.
  • Shiny (metallic) confetti or small shaped "spangles.
  • Mod podge and/or clear acrylic sealer.
  • Bristle paint brushes, various sizes.
  • ** Don't use foam brushes as they will disintegrate due to the rough surface of the papier mache.
  • ** 1" bristle brush is good for priming the work with gesso and large swaths of paint.
  • ** Small detail brushes are good for 'drawing' the circles and other borders.

Step 2: The Time Required

Picture of The Time Required
Time required

About 7 days 2-4 hours per day.
I made two at a time so this is based on that. I suspect you will save 20-30% of this time by only making one skeleton.

1. Two days for papier mache
  • Usually 2-3 hours for creating the frames.
  • At least 4 hours to do the actual papier mache.
  • Plus 24 hours for curing of the pieces.
2. Two days for priming
  • About 1 - 2 hours per priming coat + 8 hours to dry between coats.
3. Two days for painting/decorating papier mache.
  • About 4 hours for painting plus 8 hours of drying between coats.
  • Another 3-4 hours for decorating with glitter, spangles, stickers, allow to dry for 3-4 hours.
4. At least one day for sealing
  • Five thin layers requires about 1/2 hour to paint layer
  • Requires 1/2 hour drying time for each layer
  • **Check your sealer directions if its drying time differs follow your sealers directions.

Step 3: Frame Construction, Part 1, the Head

Picture of Frame Construction, Part 1, the Head
Head frame:

1. Blow up a small balloon to about 3-4" tall and tie off.
2. Cut a 8" (pencil length) 1" wide strip from a scrap piece of cardboard.
  • If you don't have cardboard roll use half of a full page of a newspaper.
  • Folded that down to half (like at a newsstand).
  • From the open (uncreased edge) begin 'folding' up a 3/4" section until the entire thing is folded up to become a 1" wide strip by 15" long.
  • Wrap masking tape around each end.
  • Tape the vertical seam down as well.
3. Roll up to break cardboard/newspaper strip and form a ring about 2" - 2 1/2" in diameter.
4. Mark point to cut at, then cut strip.
5. Masking tape the two ends together to form a ring.
6. Attach the ring to the bottom of the balloon at the tied end with masking tape in a balanced fashion.
  • For ease in painting and papier macheing you want to make sure the ring is attached in a level fashion so the piece won't fall over while you papier mache, paint or dry it.

Step 4: Frame Construction, Part 2, the Body

Picture of Frame Construction, Part 2, the Body
Body frame:

1. Blow up a large balloon to about 6"-8" tall, and tie off.
2. Cut two 8" (pencil length) 1" wide strip from a scrap piece of cardboard
  • If you don't have cardboard roll use half of a full page of a newspaper.
  • Folded that down to half (like at a newsstand).
  • From the open (uncreased edge) begin 'folding' up a 3/4" section until the entire thing is folded up to become a 1" wide strip by 15" long.
  • Wrap masking tape around each end.
  • Tape the vertical seam down as well.
3. Roll up each cardboard/newspaper strip and form a ring about 2" - 2 1/2" in diameter.
4. Mark point to cut at, then cut strip.
5. Masking tape the two ends together to form rings.
6. Attach one ring to the bottom of the balloon at the tied end with masking tape.
  • For ease in painting and papier macheing you want to make sure the ring is attached in a level fashion so the piece won't fall over while you papier mache, paint or dry it.
7. Attach the other ring to the top of the balloon with masking tape.

Step 5: Frame Construction, Part 3, the Arms & Legs

Picture of Frame Construction, Part 3, the Arms & Legs
Arms & leg bone frames:

1. Cut a full newspaper in half vertically, so each section is one page wide.
2. Fold the page in half horizontally, as if it were at a newstand.
3. Arms:
  • Cut (6) 18" - 19" lengths of drapery cord for arms.
  • Cut the folded page in half vertically (6 1/2" wide) to create a strip.
4. Legs:
  • Cut (6) 20" - 21" lengths of drapery cord for legs.
  • For legs, cut the folded page to a 4 column strip (8 1/2" wide).
5. Roll up the bones:
  • Fold the string in half and place that at the halfway point of the bottom of the strip (uncreased side).
  • Tape it down with a 2-3" section of masking tape.
  • The string should be hanging out evenly from both sides of the strip.
  • Tightly roll up the newspaper around the string to form a tube.
  • Tape both ends of the tube and the vertical seam.
  • Make 6 of each type of bone per calavera, 6 arm bones, 6 leg bones.

Hands/feet:

1. TBD.

Step 6: Papier Macheing

Picture of Papier Macheing
Notes:

  • It requires at least 24 hours to cure/dry the pieces, so make sure you have someplace to leave the pieces out for that long.
  • When the head and body pieces have finished curing, pop the balloon and remove the pieces stuck to the inside of the frame. You will need to cut the tape that held the balloon to the ring.

For each strip:

1. Finger paint the paste you made onto one side of the strip.
2. Cover all of it.
3. Don't be stingy with the glue/paste, it should slightly drip.

Body:

1. Vertically papier mache the body overlapping the base and top rings and each strip.
2. Do at least two layers.
3. You may also want to wrap the ring part horizontally at least once, but make sure the final layer is vertical.

Head:

1. Starting at the top, center a piece on top and fold down over into the base.
2. Repeat again but at a 90 degree angle from that piece - starting at the top, to form a "x" as if looked down from the top.
3. Repeat again, but this time splitting the open area.
4. Continue until the entire head is covered, then repeat for one more layer.
5. You can also wrap strips around horizontally, but make sure the final layers on top are vertical.

Arms & Leg bones:

1. Tie a loop at one end of the arm so you can hang it onto your drying hangar/paper clip contraption.
  • Make sure you can remove the knots later!
  • Easiest way is to fold the string hanging out in half then knot it - I think it's called a slipknot.
2. Start at one end diagonally and wrap to the other end.
3. Repeat but this time wrap so the diagonal crosses the other in an "x" fashion.
4. Repeat both layers.
5. For each end, roll slightly diagonally, then reverse so that you stay within 1 1 1/2" of that end.
  • You are building up a bulge on each end.
  • Repeat one time - so that you have two layers of this on each end.
6. Hang it up on your hangar/paperclip contraption, make sure you have newspaper underneath to catch the drips.

Step 7: Papier Mache Finishing

Picture of Papier Mache Finishing
Priming:

1. Primer each piece with a thin coat of gesso and let dry for a few hours.
2. Repeat with a second coat, let dry overnight.

Assembly holes - once the pieces are fully dry -mark/drill string holes.

1. On the body:
  • Draw a dot/circle on each side of the base ring for the arm string at least 1/4" away from the edge of the ring bottom
  • Do the same on the bottom body ring, making sure the leg holes are lined up with the arm holes.
2. On the body and head:
  • Mark two holes on the front and back spaced 1" apart for the strings that will hold the head to the body.
  • It is easiest to do this if you are holding the two pieces together to ensure that holes are lined up between the head and body piece.
3. On the head:
  • At the top about 1/2 from the center, mark a hole, then 1" from that across from the center mark a second hole.
  • These two holes will be used to tie the head to the hangar
  • Using a 7/64" drill bit, carefully and slowly drill each hole marked.

Prep paint shapes with pencil:

1. Pencil in the outlines of the eyes, nose hole and ear hole onto the head.
2. If you have any words you want to add also pencil those in.
3. Pencil in any complex items - like Our Lady of Guadalupe.
4. Don't pencil in stars, flowers and other simple items - as it takes too long to go back over it to remove any exposed pencil marks.
5. Pencil in the skeleton torso part (ribs, pelvis, spine) on the body.
6. Label the non skeleton bone parts with a mark or letter.
  • I labeled the bones and that required that I go back over those labels and paint them with white paint.
7. Do not pencil in any designs on the arm/leg bones
8. It takes too much time and also its pretty easy to make patterns up as you go.

Painting - use a fine bristle brush:

1. Paint the outline of each item you drew with black paint using a very fine bristle brush.
2. Paint the items you outlined with various paint colors as you like.
3. Paint in any undrawn items like flowers, glyphs, doodles.
4. Hang up the arm/leg pieces to dry on your hangar/paperclip contraption.
5. Let dry about an hour between coats.
6. Go back over with white paint to cover any mistakes on the bones on the body and cover any pencil marks still showing.
7. Let dry about an hour then touch up.
8. Let dry after touch up about an hour.

Optional: Glue on any sequins, spangles, glitter, stickers that you like to the various pieces.

1. I found that I didn't care much for the spangles. I think glue glitter would work better.
2. Let glue dry for two hours.

Sealing - use a large bristle brush:

1. Apply a thin coat of mod podge.
2. Let dry for about an hour.
3. Repeat the above twice.
4. Apply a thin coat coat of clear acrylic sealer.
5. Let dry for two hours.
6. Repeat sealer coat.

Step 8: Assembly

Picture of Assembly
1. Arms & Legs:
  • Tie two arm bones to the end of one arm bone, so that each arm piece has one 'bone' on top and two 'bones' on the bottom.
  • Tie two arm bone to the end of one arm bone, so that each arm piece has one 'bone' on top and two 'bones' on the bottom.
  • Thread and tie the single bone part of the arm to the arm hole on the body. Repeat for the other arm and both legs.
2. Head hanger area.
  • On the head piece run a 30"+ piece length of drapery cord, thread it through the two holes on the top of the head so that it forms a loop so you can hang it from the top (a big loop).
3. Attach the head to the body.
  • I ended up using those plastic tube ties with large wires that come with so many frustrating toy packaging.
  • I ran the tie through the holes on the front of the head then through the holes on the front of the body.
  • I repeated the same for the back of the head and body.

Comments

filmsay (author)2009-10-18

yeah, hah.

linlu (author)2009-01-02

I am trying to figure out next how to make reindeer in this style - for next Christmas :). I am stuck on the the frame, how to make it so that a) it stands up, b) can take the wind, c) is durable (rain, etc). I have a large porch so I can put it on that instead of the lawn.

canida (author)linlu2009-01-02

I would recommend using chicken wire or other wire mesh to form the body and legs - it will be much more sturdy. After you've added the papier mache and paint you can use a spray shellac (clear-coat) to keep rain out. That should be sufficient if it's on a protected area like your porch.

smessud (author)canida2009-10-18

Chicken wire will clearly make the project more costly and harder for small kids.
Don't rule out baloons. Fragile, but so cheap for just an evening or a WE (and easy to store -blow them up!! and send everything to the compost pile).
if your project is one-day-only, go for baloons.

When i was a kid (i haven't done papier maché in twenty (thirty!!) years), i used wallpaper glue. It's a cheap powder and it makes papier maché more like wood than a spongious material. But it is hard to get the right plasticity like putty.
I used to let newspaper in water and wall paper glue for days (yes days-i had batches and i made little moldings ... or bricks that i could cut and shape easily with my father's tools).

linlu (author)canida2009-01-02

thanks!

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