Death of Rats

Introduction: Death of Rats

About: Find more of what I do on my homepage - but no matter where you go, remember to Be Inspired!

Everyone familiar with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series knows the Death of Rats (or should).

This year, I got inspired by jimmyzdc's Monster Mud Reaper for Halloween decoration. But when the time came I thought that such a reaper would take up too much space in storage among other things. So I reconsidered and set my mind on a smaller but not less iconic or striking incarnation of Death - the forementioned Death of Rats.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

- a skull that looks like a rat's might. Mine is from a boar and was sitting on my shelf for years. Don't ask me why.
- several pieces of wood for the frame. I used an old broomstick for the spine and some slats for the shoulders and arms.
- a block of wood for a base. I used a leftover piece of beam, but anything heavy would work, even a metal plate if you can find a way to attach the "spine".
- screws and glue
- two plastic bottles of equal size, preferrably round. The ones I used held fertilizer, 1 liter of it if I recall correctly.
- fabric for a cloak, preferrably black (for details see steps 6 to 8).
- if your fabric is not black: black dye
- thread (preferrably black)
- many small bones (this is where it paid off having collected bones when our roleplaying campaign visited an island populated by undead, but that is another topic entirely... Suffice to say that many a restaurant employee shot me bewildered looks when I started packing up the remains of my meal back then. For this project, the remains of chicken wings work best.)
- a piece of plastic (you could use metal - for the scythe - but I find plastic easier to work with and safer, too).
- spray paint of your choice for the scythe, possibly some primer. I recommend something metallic for obvious reasons. See step 11 for additional information.
- a small staff that will serve as the scythe's handle (details see step 12).
- a piece of natural rope (or one that looks like it).
- a few items of the electronic variety, depending on whether you want to include the Arduino or use the microcontroller on it's own once programmed. See step 21 and 22 for details.

- saw
- jigsaw
- screwdriver matching your screws
- hot glue gun
- scissors
- sewing machine (or a needle and patience)
- soldering equipment

I do not know whether this counts as material or tool, but I also used an Arduino for this project.

If I forgot something just drop me a note.

Step 2: The Main Frame

I began with the spine - an old broomstick cut to size. I opted for about a meter as the height of the rat.

Then I held the stick against the skull. I did not take any photos of this step, but I placed the skull on top of it to see how it would fit and where I needed to cut something off to make it fit better.

Once satisfied I used an unseemly load of hot glue to attach the skull to the broomstick.

Next came the shoulders, i.e. a horizontal bar or slat some 10cm/4" below the head. This I screwed to the spine using two wood screws.

Step 3: An Armed Rat

For the arms I used the same kind of slat as for the shoulders. My intention was to use them as a placeholder for something much better, much more elaborate, to use as arms at a later time. So I just took two lengths of wood each, attached one to the shoulder and made an elbow joint with yet another wood screw. I did not turn them too tight in order to allow for some posability.

Step 4: Shoulder Pads

Of course the Death of Rats should be bony, but imagining cloth hanging over the shoulder slat I could not help but think of it as skinny rather than skeletal. So I decided to add some flesh, I am sorry, some bone to it.

I found two plastic bottles of equal size and apropriate length. Using a (hack) saw I cut off the bottom and the cap including thread (the later two I kept for future mayhem). Then I cut a vertical slot into the bottle all the way through, as seen on the pictures (although it appears I did it the other way around, judging from that photo). I made the slot broad enough so that the bottles would fit over the shoulders and the arms.

Step 5: Scrapped Coat

Recently, I found some black leather-immitate in the scrap bin of a local fabric store, two pillow-cases and a larger piece. I decided to use them as a base for the rat's clothes. As you can see in the pictures, it did not turn out like a cloak at all, and not what I would imagine a reaper to wear. In my opinion, it looked like an officer of some regime's secret police, so I decided to try again.

If you are interrested, I used one pillowcase as the hood, no seqing necessary. The other pillowcase I cut in half and turned it into arms. From the larger piece I cut a "skirt" to simply wrap arround the spine, and a cover for the upper body.

Step 6: New Cloak

Since I wanted to try my hand at sewing something from fustian (a fabric that has been arround during the middle ages and is made of cotton and linen) I thought why not give it a go on a less human scale.

I am afraid I did not take too many pictures for this step prior to coloring the pieces, which obviously I did since the cloth came in a soft beige, it's natural color. Not what a self-aware reaper would wear at all.

I started by browsing the web for inspirations regarding cloaks and such. I came across one made from a half circle and set out to make one. 

Step 7: Excours: Coming Half Circle

On a side note, the last time I needed to cut a circle from cloth I used a fixed point, a length of string and a pen as an improvised compass. This time, I was not in the mood to defend any sufficiently large section of floor against two raging kids, so I tried a different approach.

I took the rectangle I had cut out for the cloak and folded it in half to make a square. Then I kept folding along it's middle line, in case of the square the diagonal, and kept doing so as long as the fabric would allow. Then I cut the small side of the triangle  off, the cut being a line making the result an equilateral triangle. 

Since I am rather certain that this description is as far from accurate as I can get without actually trying, I made an image illustrating the process. I hope this helps.

Step 8: Coloring

As I said, I colored the fabric to make it black, obviously, in irder to fit the death theme. Also, I had not bothered switching threads when I started sewing, so all the pieces were sewn with black thread anyway.

I used Simplicol (not a promotion, just for reference) and dyed the whole lot - cloak, hood and cover-up - in the washing machine according to the instructions.

Step 9: Hood and Cover-up

The cloak looked nice enough, but I still had to wash it - the fabric's threads had been treated to some starch prior to weaving, and now it would not fall properly unless washed. The thing about that, though, is that I did not figure in that it would shrink, too.

So now my rat had a cloak that would barely suffice for a modest day at the beach, but not for a cold october evening. After some tinkering, though, I managed to drape the cloak right to use it as sleeves. I found some patterns for a hood online (basically two triangles sewn together) and imnprovised something. Then I used the rest of the cut-off to make a skirt that could be pulled up over the rat's large wooden base and be arranged so that the whole thing would look like made from a single piece of cloth.

Again, I did not take too may pictures, and despite my planning at the time, I never completely undresset him afterwards.

Step 10: The Scythe

First of all, yes, I know how scythes work, I have used them myself to cut down grass and I do know that I forgot to add the proper handles and angles. I wanted to add them at a later time, but since I had already glued everything there was to glue to it I decided to call it artistic license.

That being said, you need a staff, a small branch, that will fit size-wise - slightly larger than the rat so that the scythe's blade will not obscure the head. If possible, pick one that ends "naturally", i.e. not obviously sawed off but rather broken and possibly weathered.

I know, the image is a spoiler at this point, but I did not take one from the branch prior to gluing it to things.

Step 11: The Blade

I wanted the blade to look like metal, but I did not want to actually make it out of metal. For one, metal would weigh a lot more than the plastic I chose (actually a piece of scrap from another project, another plus), it would also be harder to work with and potentially more dangerous.

I took a piece of gray plastic, about 2-3 mm thick, sketched a scythe-shape onto it and cut it out using a jigsaw.

Next I sprayed the plastic with primer to be on the safe side. I have no idea whather this is actually necessary since the color I wanted to use said it would work on paintable plastics anyway, but I thought better primed than sorry.

When browsing through my spray cans I found one that caught my eye - granite color with, how to put it, small lumps in it. If you spray it, It looks cool if you use it to cover a surface because the lumps add texture, but I wantes to use it here to add it as bumps in the metal. I sprayed a tiny amount onto the blade and let it dry.

The metallic spray I had also had an "effect" element. Called hammer finish, it produces, well, exactly that. Check out the pictures.

I did not bother painting or spraying any kind of edge on - I know real scythes do not look like that, nor do real blades, but if wielded by the Death of Rats, even dull plastic can be a fierce weapon.

Step 12: Hand of Death (of Rats)

The rat is supposed to hold the scythe, so it needs a hand. So far, so good.

I do not know whether there are good skeletal hands for sale - something I need to figure out for some of my ideas. But even so, I doubt that there is a market for oversized rat hands. I took to chicken wings in order to create the hand, and since it is meant to hold the scythe I decided to glue it straight to the stick.

I started by taking four small chicken bones and one slightly larger from my bag'o'bones and cut them in half, ending up with ten phalanxes. I laid them out to make a hand, butting one broken end against the intact one of another piece. I hope the pictures will make it clear.

Next, I held the stick in my hand the way I wanted it to be held and studied how my fingers were arrenged. Not in anatomical detail, but to get the general principle of "which digit goes where". Then I began gluing the first piece - the "fingertips" - to the branch using hot glue. I chose a height roughly about that of the rat's elbow.

From there I continued with the first four pieces, then I moved on to the second half of the fingers. Those I glued both to the branch and to the broken end of the already glued bones, looking for good joints and turning each piece every which way before deciding on how to add it. When in doubt, go for a little distance to the branch.

Also, arrange them in a way that the broken ends of the second pieces point towards each other. Again, refer to the pictures for an idea of what I mean. This is where the "arm" will go.

But first we need the thumb - the remaining two, slightly larger pieces, glued to the branch just like the others but on the opposing side, it's back end pointing to where the arm will be. Again, check the visual reference.

Step 13: In Arm's Reach

As arm I chose a larger bone that would butt up against the wood where the other fingers converge. Again, try first if it will be a good fit - maybe you need to file down one of the fingers to make it fit better. I then put a good dose of hot glue there on the stick and pressed the arm against it, holding it for the glue to cool.

In order to attach the arm to the frame I measured it against the slat representing the lower arm and cut off a length that felt apropriate. Take into accound that you still need some wood to drill into and glue the arm to.

As you can see in the pictures I used a wood drill, making two holes for an overall opening a little larger than the bone and about 1.5 cm deep. By moving the drill I removed the remaining wood between the two holes. Then I tested whether it would go in and once it did, I put some hot glue into the hole and pressed the bone inside.

I held it in place while it cooled, then I filled the remaining hole just to be safe. After screwing this back to the arm I had to make some modifications to the rat's posture so that the scythe would stand on the floor levely. 

Step 14: Base Plate

This is something I should have considered from the start, but as usual it was born later out of necessity. I now had a rat with a clunky block for a base and a scythe as another base point. Since the later was connected to the rest via a single bone and a not too stable hot clue connection, I envisioned many emergency re-glues from moving it - or having it moved by inexperienced rat-movers.

So I took a piece of transparent acrylic and set the rat upon it. With a marker I drew an outline on it, basically the base of the block of wood, some space in front of it for feet and an extension for the scythe to rest on. I checked whether the foil covering the acrylic was intact before drawing on it, though.

With a jigsaw I cut it out and drilled four holes where the base would go and a single one for the scythe. Laying the rat down I screwed the base to the block using wood screws, all the while holding the scythe so it would not break off. Last I put a screw through the hole in the scythe and achieved a small measure of stability.

Step 15: In the Footstepts...

As I mentioned, I anted to have feet keeping out from under the cloak. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to anatomical detail, but I made the feet first and put them in place only after gluing was done.

This time I picked larger bones, ones where one end is thicker than the other. For what I wanted to make I needed 16 of them, and I arranged them in two groups of eight each - left food and right. The bones of each foot I then sorted from larger to smaller in descending order, with the larger ones of each foot facing each other.

Next I glued the ends of one quadrupel together, much like the ends of the hands awaiting their arm-bone, Then I glued the second quadrupel to the first, end to end, while placing it on a level surface in order to get some third dimension going - I wanted the feet to touch the ground only as the back and at the tips, i.e. make a very low arc. Again, refer to the pictures.

Last, I placed the feet in front of the wooden base block and draped the cloak over them. They were way too long. They appeared to be placed way too far to the front, as if the rat was sitting and not standing. Maybe it is just me, and maybe the Death of Rats just has longer feet. For now, I just went ahead and glued them to the base - yes - with hot glue.

Step 16: Rat Belt

I was thinking "monk" when considering materials for the belt. A leather belt would not fit the robe's design in my opinion, and a chain would be too over the top. I thought about leaving this piece out, but then the rat would not look as bony.

So I went for the old-school hemp rope, although I tried with a newer nylon model before. It looked okay, but I still took the time to find something more vintage. The rope I had looked old enough, or rather had the right texture, but I found it to bee a little too clean, so I dyed it with watered-down black color.

I did that by putting a blob of black color in a bowl and adding lots of water. After stirring it thoroughly I submerged the rope in the solution for a little while, then I took it out and hung it up to dry.

Step 17: Two by Two, Eyes of Blue...

Since this is the Death of Rats we are talking about it needs to have glowing blue points for eyes. If there is any way to describe the beauty of blue LEDs I have yet to find it. In my mind I wanted them to flicker at random, or rather to change in intensity while you are looking at them without actually realizing that they do. 

I also wanted them to turn on when it gets dark, so I decided to use a microcontroller to controle them. Since I own one using an Arduino was the logical choice, especially since I have one with removable chip - I do not like the idea of placing a full Arduino outside the door inside something easily carried away.

Oh, and to spoil the surprise, the feature of turning on as it got dark never made it into the final product.

When I started programming I had also caught the idea of giving it an hourglass in the other hand, and that would have to be lighted, too. So at that point I could start building a program for both acpects of the rat's light and magic - see further down the instructable.

The actually LEDs were soldered to appropriately long wires and secured using shrinking tubes (both to prevent short-curcuits as well as disguising the contacts - the tubes used were black). Then I inserted them into the skull's eye sockets, checked their position while lit up to make sure they were in the proper place, and secured them in place with a drop of hot glue.

Step 18: Time Is Running Out

Hourglasses play a big role in a Death's day-to-day work, so it seemed only natural to give one to the Death of Rats. I used two acrylic teardrops, those decoration elements that come in two halves, for the base body.

One of my working surfaces has a number of holes in it to stick guides in. I used these holes to cut off the teardrops as can be seen in the pictures. I find that much easier than trying to describe the process. Just keep the teardrop straight so that the cuts will match.

I held the two cut-off shapes against each other and glued them together, making sure that the cuts between the two halves are flush. This way I managed to open the hourglass for later insertion of the lights.

Using hot glue, I began to add vertical lines along the "glass" pieces and then some horizontal ones to mimic some iron banding. I then painted the hot glue using acryllic paint. I have to admit that, thinking that the hourglass would not be inspected too closely, I did not put a lot of effort into it.

Step 19: Light Up the Sand?

In my mind I was going for an additional light effect for the hourglass. I wanted the sand to light up, sparkle and shimmer. To that end, I wanted to fill it with something translucent that still looked like sand.

To make a long story short, I first tried to use glass fiber, cut down to size. Maybe you know these decorative vase-like things where a bunch of fibers hang about to make for some nice display, lit from below by color changing LEDs. If you do not know those, just look at the picture for the fiber part.

I took scissors and started to cut...It turned out to be tedious work, I could not cut many fibers at once and my patience to make the cuts as small as possible was quickly worn down by the realisation that it would take ages to fill the hourglass halfway... Also, despite working halfway inside a container to catch as many pieces as possible, a fair number just jumped away from the scissors as I cut.

I considered other options, such as adding some kind of filler to the hourglass, but that seemed tedious, too, seeing how either I needed a layer of fiber cutoffs thick enough to obscure the filler or some filler that would look like the fibers, and then I would not need fibers at all.

I also tried using these plastic pellets used for melting and making art, but they looked kinda... off. I did not have enough transparent ones anyway, and it turned out that they did not light up well at all.

I finally opted to use some cotton as sand-replacement, and I think this might even work if lit up - but at that point I had already scrapped the idea of lighting the sand up, and not enough time left for me to actually revise that. At least I now have something to improve next year.

In the end, I kinda forced myself do go a different way. I had already glued the hand to the hourglass, so I could not really cut it apart anymore. Then it hit me - the Death of Rats would only appear if the hourglass was empty. There I had it, my excuse for leaving it empty. It was meant to be like that from the start, of course.

Oh, and yes, I considered using actual sand, but I do not thing the arm would be able to hold the weight.

Step 20: Lend Another Hand

Once again, I took to my supply of chicken wing bones, this time to make the second hand. As it turned out, my supplies were dwindling at the time, but I found five suitable bones which I cut in half using ordinary scissors and a little care.

I used a broarder bone cut in half as the palm, and a rib (not a chicken's) for the arm.

Like the other hand, I glued the phalanxes together using my own hand as a guideline, i.e. looking at how I would hold the hourglass.

After that was done, I drilled two holes into the rib to screw it to the slat that made the rat's right arm, and screwed it in place to make the arm of equal length as the other.

Step 21: The Coded Rat

I have to warn you, this step is kinda confusing. I think.

To sum things up, here is what I wanted the rat to do, light effect-wise:

- The eyes needed to be blue points, i.e. single blue LEDs. They should change in intensity over time while not flickering, and they should "blink" (turn off) every now and then. Blinking twice at random would be nice, and so would be winking, i.e. blinking only one eye.
- The hourclass should be shimmering somehow, if possible an uneartly light embedded in the sand.

I started with two LEDs on PWM pins, and programmed something for the subtle change in brightness. Then I added blinking using a random element, and after overcoming a glitch that caused the eyes to flash repeatedly after the first blink I decided that I did not really want the rat to wink after all.

Over time, I enhanced the code to make the blinking smoother and randomize the subtle shift.

For the shimmering I decided to use a shift register, at least at first. I thought this would allow me to put a number of LEDs into the hourglass with less wires. It was a nice way to practice, but I scrapped the idea on the breadboard. It might save wires, but I would be using a microcontroller with about 10 pins unused. 

So I decided to skip the shift register and use the LEDs directly, thus allowing me to take advantage of PWM for more effects, too.

The main problem there was to decide what color to use. In the movies, and in the books in general, there is one problem. Sure, there is lots of images and descriptions of Death (he's one of the best characters, believe me), and hourglasses are featured, too, but the thing is... Death's domain is black and white.

Going by what I had was not feasible either, since I still have a rather large stock of LEDs of different colors - the cheap ones, but they do light up and that is what counts. So I had green, red, blue, yellow, orange... Keeping in mind that the eyes are blue I thought green would be a good choice, but then a tiny voice inside my head - the one scolding me for using a shift register in the first place when I could have PWM instead - said "why chose?".

So I decided to go for green as blinking lights, mere on/off, and add other colors that would fade, mainly red and yellow. Those 2-3 LEDs would do some random up-and-down dimming while 5-7 green ones would blink at random. 

I put together something like it and after some playing arround, I decided that my decision had been flawed. So I switched to green and orange, more green than orange, with fading and blinking LEDs in both colors. 

And then came the point that I should apologize for, making you read all that only to tell you that in the end, being dissatisfied with my options and what they looked like, I scrapped the light for the hourglass completely.

So, here is the code I used for the rat. All it does it make it blink.


int auge1 = 6;           // the pin that the eyes are attached to
int auge2 = 5;

int auge_hell = 100;    // how bright the LED is
int auge_fade = 4;    // how many points to fade the LED by

int auge_hellmax = 250;
int auge_hellmin = 80;

int blinkytime = 0;
int auge_hellalt = 0;

void setup() {
  pinMode(auge1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(auge2, OUTPUT);

void loop() {

  analogWrite(auge1, auge_hell);   
  analogWrite(auge2, auge_hell);

  if (blinkytime == 0 && random(175) == 1) {
    blinkytime = random(4, 14);
    auge_hellalt = auge_hell;
    auge_hell = 0;

  switch (blinkytime) {
  case 0:
    auge_hell = auge_hell auge_fade;
    if (auge_hell <= auge_hellmin) {
      auge_fade = -auge_fade ;
      auge_hellmin = random(50,100);
    else if (auge_hell >= auge_hellmax) {
      auge_fade = -auge_fade ;
      auge_hellmax = random(120,250);
  case 1:
    auge_hell = auge_hellalt;
    blinkytime = 0;


Step 22: Finished Electronics

After I was satisfied with the code - i.e. I had cut away all the parts that did not work as well as I had hoped - I decided not to use my Arduino - it is the only one I had and I did not buy one with removable microprocessor for nothing. So, with the help of domiflichi's instructable about Standalone Arduino ATMega chip on breadboard I managed to put the chip onto a piece of resin paper (no idea what the technical term is here). It took some doing in terms of soldering and connecting the right pins, but in the end it worked.

I decided to use four AA batteries, rechargable ones, as a power source. I also took three 2-wire-connectors with screws and used them - two for power and three for the LEDs, one for both ground wires and two for the apropriate pins. I also added a 270 ohm resistor for each LED just in case. Thanks to my brother-in-law for having everything you could ever need stocked as far as electronics are concerned.

Also, I did not cut the resin paper, mainly due to lazyness. Also, the larger piece allowed for better stability after I placed it under the cloak.

Step 23: Finished Rat

And here is the finished product - the Death of Rats, probably larger than life.

Some final thoughts, there are still some things left to do to improve the rat for next year, including a refurbished hourglass - lit up, or even turning every now and then using actual sand to run through... A guy can dream, right? What I do hope, though, is that the rat survives, i.e. that it does not get damaged, attacked or spirited away in the night. But time will tell. I also chained it to the banister, just to be safe.

On a side note, when I told my 5 year old daughter what I was making and told her that it is called the Death of Rats, she corrected me - obviously it was not dead yet, so she named it something best translated as Life of Rats (it loses in the translation, but you get the picture). It kinda stuck.

Thanks for... wait, one more thing.

Step 24: Addendum: Death of Fleas

I have to make a confession - I did not remember this piece of wisdom from reading the books, and only stumbled across it in a wiki when looking for pictures to use as reference. 

The Death of Rat is not the only "Death" that Death kept arround after - well, read the book if you want to find out. Anyway, there is also the Death of Fleas, and, at least as far as I would imagine, he would travel with the Death of Rats if given the chance. So... 

I ran out of time to actually make it, but it will give me yet another excuse to revisit this next year.

So there we are, the Death of Rats, as complete as it will be for this year. Thanks for sticking with me, and I'd love your feedback (and, yes, your vote, but I am too well raised to actually ask for it. Only I just did. Darn.)

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    5 years ago

    after Death himself and Albert, Death of rats is probably my favorite reaper related character in the series ( yes I like him better than Susan hehehe)


    8 years ago

    Good writeup and a great project idea.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Beautiful work. Coincidentally, I just finished reading "Reaper Man" last night!