Introduction: Felting a Hippopotamus

About: I love spending my free time making crafts and learning new media. I try to put my interest for Biology in my work and science is one of my greatest inspirations. Since 2016 I started needlefelting sparingly, …

Hello everyone! This is my first Instructable and I hope I’m able to pique your interest in the world of needle felting. This project at the scale presented here may be a little overwhelming for beginners but do not fear! you can scale it however you prefer and make it much more manageable. If this is just a small distraction you want to try doing it at a third of the size would be perfect, you should be able to use all the knowledge you get from here and obtain a creation rich in detail and love.

Still I recommend that you read everything so you are aware of what this project will demand from you.


For the main body you will need these materials:

  • Wool roving of different colors (for “full size” Hippopotamus)
    - Natural (about 1.5 Kilos)
    - Pink (about 100 grams)
    - Grey (about 200 grams)
    - Small amounts of white, black, brown and terracotta (or any reddish color)
  • Felting needles (three sizes 3’’, 3.2’’ and 3.6’’) five of each is recommended
  • Sponge base
  • Needle felting punch
  • A polystyrene ball (I used a 15cm one, but you can go up much more)

The colors presented above are the minimun needed but I suggets you find a couple more variants of grey and pink. You can get some tones by mixing, but it can take time and the more colors the more volume you can give to your work.Also, to mix colors a brush or a blending board can be used, here I just used my hands.

For the eyes you can use wool but, in this case, I used the following:

  • A small brush
  • Acrylic paint
  • Plastic gemstones

Take in consideration that these materials are the ones I used, but I encourage you to try other colors or solutions to give your project a personal touch.

Step 1: Get Familiar With the Subject

I cannot stress how important is to get to know the animal, in this case a Hippo, in its three-dimensionality to get a realistic result. For this I always recommend having several pictures of the subject available for reference at all times. You must also consider that, like most mammals, the Hippo has a dynamic expression, folds and details might change from one pose to another and there are also differences between individuals. Considering this, having a good idea of the key features that make a Hippo look like one are very important to reduce fixing after the fact.

Here I present some pictures that I used during my creative process that I find very useful. I also provide a PDF with some guides that you can scale and print for help. If you want other poses go to the following link in thingiverse where you can see a 3D Hippo from any point of view:

Step 2: Starting the Mandible

To start building this project the mandible is in my opinion a good point. It will allow you to get comfortable with all the wool you’ll be handling without overwhelming you. Also, as it is basically a layer of wool without much tridimensionality it is very easy to form from the guides on the pdf and will make for a great scale to use once you start to build the rest of the head. On this first steps I suggest the use of the punishing tool loaded with the big needles so you can progress faster.

For this you will have to take some small pieces of natural wool roving and start forming a thin layer over the sponge base with the punching tool. Then star thickening the layer. Once you have around 5 mm you can flip the piece to work both sides equally. Start adding more wool to the edge, stretch the piece and keep flipping until you have something a little bigger that what to plan for. Pile layers after layer compressing the piece in a homogeneous way.

Once the piece has around 1 cm in thickness in the center, around 5 mm in the edge and it is starting to feel firm, fold the border inside and with a couple of needle tangle them in place so you get a size that you are looking for. I is better if the edge that connects to the body isn’t worked more than necessary, having some loose fibers will make it easier for it to stick to the rest of the head.

Continue adding layers, in special around the edge and at the rim very carefully use a needler to define the shape. Once this is done you can use the punching tool un the center to curve a little the piece.

The mandible will be worked on several times during the building process so don’t worry if it is not perfect now. For the time being we will use it to see how the rest of our build looks by putting it in place without attachment.

Step 3: Rest of the Head

Now we will continue by building the rest of the head. For this we will start just like the mandible and from there create the snout. Then we will attach this to the polyethene ball and from there build the rest of the read, including the forehead, the eyebrows and the neck. You will get a good idea of what you need to do by checking the photos, but if you want some more insight continue reading.

Using the same method as described before start adding more and more wool, but now try not to compress the wool that much. As with all larger parts you want to have a somewhat firm base before adding more wool, but you also don’t want to spend more work and materials. For this try building a pretty firm base and adding lots of wool to buildup volume fast. Then with the punching tool compress it a little and add more. Finally add more wool but try to keep the size the same. With this you are getting a soft and spongy inside and a firm crust, just like a bread I suppose. This skill can take some time to refine, but once you get the hang of it you will have a better sense of how fat you are in the prosses and how much wool you will need next. What you don’t want is for the sculpture is too soft. If it is, you won’t be able to add color as easily when the time comes, take your time.

For this part of the build I like to star with the snout, this way you can use what you’ve learned in the previous step and use the mandible to know if you are in the right track in regard to the size and shape. Try to use bigger amounts of wool this time as mentioned above, this will lead to having less control over the shape, but don’t worry too much about that for the moment. Use the mandible to have a loose guide of how you are doing. Once you have over half of the snout volume start giving it some features with small amounts of wool like the bulges around the nostrils. For this it might be better to stop using the punching tool and just use a couple of medium needles, this way you will have more control and prevent the detail from disappearing as the inside compresses. Once you have a shape and size you are happy with, incorporate the polystyrene ball and cover it completely with a thin layer of roving. This last point can be done before the fact if you prefer.

Start piling up wool in several places to develop more details. The eye ridges, the forehead and the nose bone are good places to star to then continue adding some folds at the sides of the snout and between the eyes. Some of these features will be given more attention once color is added, so don’t spend time on every minutia.

For last in this step you will need to create the base or the neck of the Hippo. This phase will need lots of wool, patience and physical work. If you feel like making it more streamlined, you can also add another polystyrene ball and cover it in wool just as before. For this step the punching tool will be your best ally. Trying to add thick layers and get deep with the tool, this will go a long way in helping you build such volume fast. Take in consideration the point at which the mandible will be attached and start giving the base the final shape.

This whole step if one of the longest, but I find it very fun. You don’t have to go for every detail to end up with a realistic look, so don’t spend too much time in that. You can also choose to make a shorter neck which will make this part easier to finish.

Step 4: Upper Mouth

The steps to build the mouth can be ignored if you prefer an easier time or just want to have your Hippo with the mouth closed. All the steps needed for the mouth can stack to many hours, being a very long process, so take that into account if you want to go forward.

If you have been following this step should be simple enough. Still, for the inside in the mouth you will need to search for some reference material. The Hippo mouth has a peculiar shape with some bumps in front and a palate with row of teeth on the back. The bumps can be built up with a couple of medium needles just like previously, just consider the placement of the teeth as guide. On the other hand, for the palate you will need to build a ramp that gets higher as it leads into the end of the mouth, taking into consideration to leave spaces at each side for the cheeks.

Step 5: Coloring the Mouth

Now that most parts are ready you can star the coloring process. For this you will need to work with short fibers, so cut your roving in pieces of around 3 cm in length, mix the fibers and place them over the place you want to color. If you need to merge colors, you can mix them just by hand or use a brush trying to get as close as possible to a homogeneous blend.

In the case of the mouth pink will be the most used color that you will use. I recommend that you also get other shade, like magenta, that will give it more volume and make the piece more interesting. Start placing pink wool over all the mouth to give it a base color taking care to cover everything so no white shows. Once that’s done ad highlights with a lighter color or mix your pink with a little bit of white to get a similar result. In my case I highlighted the bumps in the front and made a gradient in the palate.

For the teeth you will have to first mix white or natural roving with a little bit of yellow. This mixture doesn’t have to be perfectly homogeneous considering that Hippo teeth aren’t the cleanest and usually have spots with different coloration. There are thee pairs of individual teeth at the front and a pair of rows in the palate. The first pair is fang shaped with about 2 cm in length, the second pair is similar to the first one and the third pair are the actual fangs with about 4 cm in length. All these teeth can be made first in the sponge base and once the size is right attached to the mouth, giving them the final shape. For the rows is better to build them over the palate at once, it easier and faster. The rows don’t need to have a determinate number of teeth, later as you add more detail you will see how good they look.

Step 6: Coloring the Snout

At this point is good to start painting and seeing how everything is turning up. So before finishing the rest of the head you can proceed by adding little bit of color for the snout. As mentioned before this will require for you to cut by hand small pieces of colored wool and placing them over the base. Then using medium or small needles to incorporate the fibers.

For the snout you will require some shades of grey and pink. Hippos can have different amounts for each color so take this opportunity to make it unique. In this case I decided to use grey on most parts directly pointing upward while keeping the pink for the sides. Take your time to mix the colors to make the gradation between them smooth. Also, adding just a little bit of red or orange with the pink can really give a more Hippo-like shade, try it out.

Step 7: Giving It Eyes

To start making the eyes build up with white a round shape in the corresponding space. In the case of the iris I used a couple of plastic jewels and painted the flat back using acrylic paint. A black layer can be enough, but a suggest taking some time adding the pupil in black and then the iris in brown. If you don’t have any jewels just paint the eye with a little bit of brown and black wool.

For the eyelids make using pink a thin layer over the sponge. Once you have a circle of about 4cm fold it over itself and use your needles to stablish the form. Make three more of these and then curve them pushing with a needle the flat edge between your fingers. Take care in this last step not to puncture your fingers.

Once ready with the eyelids begin attaching them to the Hippo. While doing this try curving them around the eye so it looks a little open. During this prosses also add the folds of the eyelids as this will start giving the eyelids its proper shape. Once both eyelids have been attached the eye should look a little bit closed, to give it its final shape use a needle on the edges to slowly start opening them. Position the painted jewels to see how you are doing. The jewels don’t have to be attached in any way as the eyelids should keep then un position, but if you prefer you can glue them with hot glue or other adhesive.

More details can be added mainly developing the folds by adding some fibers of orange, so they look deeper. Also remember to smooth out the color around the eye so it looks coherent.

Step 8: Finishing the Mandible

Just as done in the upper mouth you will have to develop the features inside the lower part. Now that you also have the upper part you can use it as a guide too. The main parts to take into consideration will be a bump in the front, a couple of ridges and the tongue. Build the bumps and ridges just like in the upper mouth. For the tongue start with a small lump of wool and build it up. The tongue is quite thick on the back side and thin at the tip. The tongue must be able to sit between the ridges and some uncompressed wool must be left at the back to facilitate attachment.

After adding these features, you can start coloring just as before. The edges at the sides don’t have to be colored as the cheeks will be attached there.

Step 9: Adding the Cheeks

For the cheeks start building up a thin layer of wool. Fold the edges that would become part of the rim of the mouth while leaving the rest loose as to make the attaching process easier. Hippos have a fold in the cheeks so take it into consideration if you want to add that detail.

Once the cheeks are done join them to the underside of the mandible. Then add more wool at the sides of the mandible to make the transition smooth. Once at this point you are free to color the inside of the cheeks.

Step 10: A Complete Smile

The composition of the lower teeth is the same as in the upper part with six independent teeth and two rows. The teeth at the front are quite similar, pointing at the front with an almost cylindrical shape. On the other hand, the fangs are really long, in my case about 10 cm, with a curved shape and a flat point. The rows are just like the ones at the upper side.

Just as before, combine white and yellow and start building each tooth and then attaching them to the mandible. The fangs can be a little tricky to get right so take you time un the sponge, so you get a firm consistency before attaching.

Step 11: Detailing the Mouth

Now that the end is close details must be added and the mouth has quite a lot. Hippos don’t have the cleanest mouth so black and brown should be added to the base of each tooth. The molars should also be detailed on its crowns, but don’t spend time trying to divide each one, instead ad some fibers over them an see how they get volume as you work the details with the needle. The fangs have curved ridges along its length, and they can be made by attaching long brown fibers. Having a couple extra shades of brown can really help giving to each teeth a more realistic look, try making some gradients from the base of the teeth. As these details are at the surface level, they should be easy to remove if you don’t like the result.

To give the mouth the effect of going into the throat add some black behind the palate. Making a gradient can make this effect easier to archive. Attaching the tongue to the mandible will get everting ready to be together.

Step 12: Putting All Together

Before stating this process check that everything is ready and put the mandible and cheeks into position. For this I would recommend using any spare needles so both pieces match as good as possible. Once all that is done the punching tool should be used to attach first the cheeks to the snout and slowly start going down on each side. Puncture deep and several times at each point to ensure that the joints are strong. Check inside to ensure that everything keeps into position and that no loose fibers show up.

It is then recommended to at least ad some pink wool at the point of attachment between the cheek and the snout to have a smooth transition. The rest of the joint can be smoothed out, but take into consideration that doing that can be difficult due to the limited space.

Step 13: Don’t Forget De Ears!

This one almost goes over my head when I was doing this. The ears are very simple, just a thin layer of pink wool. But take into consideration the shape of an unfolded ear, so you can then get a more realistic look. Add some details like folds in the skin and some grey at the back to complete the look. Once done attach them to the head.

Step 14: Finishing Up With Some Color

Now you are in the final stretch and this part is really fan so don’t go that fast. First add some more wool in some places. Depending on the final position of the mandible different fold of skin should be form or bones will become more noticeable so take that into consideration.

Once all that is done, start placing all the colors so no corner is still white. The cheeks tend to be pink while the back is grey. The underside of the mandible can be pink or grey and while you work there don’t forget to add some darker color for the folds. As you complete the rest od the head add some highlights with some lighter colors or just white.

Step 15: The End

You've finished! Either doing this yourself or checking the whole process and I thank you for taking the time. I took me some time to put this up and I really hope someone sees it at least.

This project truly was a challenge and I don’t see myself going though it again for the time. I hope anyone that sees this gives it a try. It takes a looong time, but after going through this believe my that your skills will be much more developed, and you will have an epic piece to hang in your wall.

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