Introduction: Grease Monkey Mask & Costume

About: I Build Monsters.

This is the part where I usually give way too much backstory, so if you're just wanting to know what materials I used, here's a list:

  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Masking Tape
  • Duct Tape
  • Paper Mache Clay
  • Traditional Flour-Paste Paper Mache
  • Glue
  • Acrylic Paints
  • Metal Window Screen

And these are the basic tools I used:

  • Scissors
  • Mannequin Head
  • Xacto Knife
  • Rolling Pin
  • Cookie Cutter
  • Paint Brushes

Now if you like, you can skip ahead to what passes for a set of instructions, but if you're really bored or just love hearing strangers talk about themselves for no reason, here comes that 'way-too-much-backstory' part that I mentioned earlier.

In January of 2019 I finally started to work on a series of masks for an art show in the summer of 2021. The show had been arranged a few months earlier, a collaborative project between me and a maskmaker in Portland named Tony.

The director of Art Center East, which will be hosting the show, hadn't given us a specific mandate for the event, but she did seem interested in the urban/rural contrast. Now, in this equation I am the default representative of rurality, which doesn't really come into my personal sense of self, but I was fine with the idea of exploring it. However, I didn't have any idea what such an exploration would look like.

Shortly after being tapped to do the show, Tony was coming through town on a trip, so we got to meet and spend a few minutes talking. Being much more experienced at this sort of thing than I am, he had some applicable ideas.

His first suggestion was that we could both create some masks inspired by place. An amorphous notion, but it immediately put some ideas in my head, and I sketched them in my book. Most of those ideas remain to be realized, but so far I'm enjoying the ride.

For this series of masks inspired by the place I live, I've contemplated Eastern Oregon from a number of angles. While I nearly always employ humor in my work, I've resisted the temptation to mock this place from an outsider's perspective. I'm not always sure what that means, but I guess it's partly about focusing on the things that represent this place to me, without relying on what makes it different from me. If you feel like you don't quite understand that description, join the club. It's more instinct than calculation.

The word that jump-started this mask was 'garage'. With respect to Eastern Oregon, to me garage conveys images of tools, rusted metal siding, oil, tow trucks... a whole interrelated series of details and smells and textures.

A mask that looks like tools. A mask that reminds you of a garage.

What kind of creature works in a garage?

A grease monkey. Of course.

Among all the masks that I have made for the show, this is the one that I immediately knew I would have to wear myself. So over these past few months, I evolved a simple Halloween costume around the Grease Monkey, one that I could accomplish without taking too much time away from the other masks I have to build.

Step 1: Make a Monkey Outta Me

I built the main structure by simply cutting shapes out of cardboard and assembling them on a mannequin head with masking tape. At this stage, I didn't have a lot of clarity on the details. I knew that the face and head areas would be distinct from each other. I knew that I wanted the mouth open and teeth showing.

The closest thing to a clear idea was a vision of the protruding monkey brows. I remember an old crowbar with a hexagonal shaft. It was painted red, but much of the paint had been beaten off over time. I wanted the brows to look like the shaft of that crowbar. But that would all come later.

First I had to start with a flat plate for the eye area, which you can see from the pictures was all wrong. I discarded the original and tried again.

I shaped out the head area in facets, and as it took form, I decided to leave the rear portions with some irregularities of length.

Dramatic ears like jug handles, and a pointed little chinny-chin-chin, finished off the first round of the build.

Step 2: Primates Using Tools!

After an initial coat of paper mache, I started in on the face area with paper mache clay. This was a balancing act between industrial and organic shapes, and I wasn't sure how well it was going to play. But I also knew that the paint job was going to bring a lot to the table, too.

The muzzle and nose were easy enough to pull together, and then I could finally get to work on the brows. That's what I was really looking forward to! Those main forms came out exactly like I wanted, but I wasn't sure how to bring them down into the rest of the face. After they dried for a while and I was able to examine them from every angle, I added the lower portions that come down along the sides. Along with a couple of rivets and some lips, it was really starting to come together. I added brackets to the ears and one below the chin.

Meanwhile, I was also using the clay to sharpen the edges of the facets in the head area, to finalize the surface. This whole time, I'd been thinking about what to do with the head. I wanted something else, besides the paint job, to make the head distinct from the face, because real monkeys have furry heads and bare faces. But the idea of fur was at odds with the whole texture of this mask, and anything I could think of that fit the theme while being fur-like just seemed unpleasant. What was I supposed to do, give him wire fur? Because I considered it.

Diamond plate was not the obvious solution, and I have no idea why I thought of it. I spent plenty of time shuffling through different textures in my mind, and somewhere along the line it just hit me. Uneven pieces of diamond plate sheet metal, like shards, and bent up at the ends to emphasize how separate they were from the base surface.

They don't have to actually look like fur because their position in the structure makes it obvious that they are performing the function of fur in this equation. You know that the part of a monkey's head that isn't the face is covered in fur. That part of this monkey is covered in diamond plate. And your mind does the rest.

All I really needed for the diamond plate was a cookie cutter in the shape of the diamond. Which should have been easy to find, but wasn't. I'll spare you the embarrassing depth of my search, and just explain what I finally did. It's not very exciting.

I made a cookie cutter out of a cookie cutter.

Bill gave me a couple of his old metal cookie cutters that he was never going to use. I chose a duck, because the long bottom curve offered like two and a half inches of crease-free metal, and bending out the face with pliers wasn't very difficult. I cut myself a four-inch length of cookie cutter, leaving about a quarter inch to secure it. Of course I used duct tape, because what else is there?

So began the process of rolling out sheets of paper mache clay. I rolled two pieces at a time. One I would cut into diamonds, and then I turned the other piece into diamond plate.

I just did it freehand, I didn't bother trying to measure out where the diamonds needed to go.

Once the diamonds were distributed, I used a kitchen knife to slice the sheet into irregular pieces, taking care to slice through the diamonds on at least one edge of every piece.

I left the shards to dry. Some I tried to keep flat, some I let dry in whatever matter suited their individual personalities, and some were given deliberate curves.

The clay, while fabulous, doesn't stick to itself super well without applying pressure that would have destroyed my crisp edges. Just moistening the pieces seemed to make it secure, but several of the diamonds released as they dried and had to be glued back into place.

For the second round, I used basic flour paste applied with a brush to stick the diamonds on, and this method had a zero failure rate.

Step 3: Dental Work

At the same time, I got to work on the teeth. I had cut a piece of curved cardboard to serve as the base of a denture plate. The first step was to cover that in paper mache, then bend it to the correct angle and secure it with masking tape so it would keep its shape while drying.

The 'butterfly' shape was chosen so that air could still flow from behind the dental plate.

The teeth were sculpted from paper mache clay, applied directly to the plate. No real method here, just freehand with some metal tools, while looking at pictures of monkey skulls.

Step 4: From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Zee

Something really interesting about this mask, which had never happened before, was the logistical necessity of starting to paint the mask before I finished building it.

First of all, I didn't want to glue the diamond plate to a painted surface when I could glue it to the paper mache. That was going to make the paint job harder, but I think it's more secure this way.

I'd settled on the two main colors for the mask being red and green, because those are the colors that I think of being used to paint old metal shop tools. I wanted either a green head with a red face, or a red head with a green face, and that decision took a while. But eventually I had to pull the trigger, and I settled on green for the head.

I knew that I needed to put a black base coat over the whole back of the head. Then I would have to paint the base green but keep the diamond plate black. And my plan for using steel metallic paint to create the illusion of paint that has beaten away from a metal surface? That was going to take a lot of careful work.

The point is that I would need to get all up in that mask from all sorts of angles to paint the head area, and to do that effectively, I would need to be able to stick my fingers through the eye holes.

From the very beginning, I had intended to put metal screens over the eyes, with 'washers' holding them in place. That meant I needed to paint the head before I finished the face.

I also wanted to accent the mask with yellow, specifically in honor of my big metal Tonka dump truck that I had as a kid. Plus I was planning to use yellow on the teeth, and I wanted that reflected on the head.

Thankfully, when I started trying out the steel paint on the diamond plate, the results were pretty spectacular right away. I'd never tried anything like this before and it could have been really discouraging if it looked like crap. But it didn't!

It's sort of a weird process, because you're applying steel paint over the colored paint, but the idea is to create the impression that the steel is actually under the colored paint. Bass ackwards, as the kids say. In my imagination.

The Tonka-yellow parts needed a little extra care. The interplay between the yellow and the steel looked weird and unpleasant to me, so I added some rusty brown to dirty up the edges.

With the head section basically complete, I cut pieces of window screen to fit over the eyes, glued them in place, and fitted paper mache washers over them.

To paint the face, I mixed up a bright cherry red, but dimmed it with a touch of brown. A few coats of that were frankly quite dramatic!

As the project went on, I think my instincts improved with adding the steel paint. The idea was always pretty simple, though: steel on all the edges, the protrusions, anywhere that the Grease Monkey would have lost paint if it were being knocked around like a shop tool. Then I went back over several of the border areas with the colored paint, since theoretically the steel was supposed to be underneath it.

I painted the washers in the same manner as the head area, with a black basecoat and green topcoat.

For the finishing touch on the eyes, I cut out an iris of paper and taped it to the backside of the screen. I painted the screen black on the outside, yellow over the iris, and left it silver in the pupil. The last thing to do was mount the dental plate behind the mouth, which just meant mashing some paper clay behind it and waiting for it all to dry.

This was a really fun project to work on, and one of the most satisfying to complete. The overall effect was just what I was looking for, and while the mask is pretty light, it appears to be made from 56 pounds of Tonka-tough steel.

The rest of this costume is pretty basic. I found a stained orange coverall at a military surplus store and that served as the main body. Everything else is just accessorizing.

Step 5: See My Vest! See My Vest!

Making the vest was laborious but simple. I had a cheap twill vest that I had purchased for three dollars, and I ripped that apart to use as a pattern.

With one yard of brown fur fabric, I traced all the pieces of the vest onto the back, leaving about an inch of border around them. Normally I wouldn't leave such a broad edge, but I figured the fur was going to be a bit of a game-changer when it came to sewing it all together.

When you're working with fake fur, the only thing to keep in mind is that the fur lays in one direction, so you have to make sure that your pieces are correctly oriented.

The fur had to be trimmed from all the seam areas, and first I tried using my hair clippers. Which doesn't work. I had been informed that the clippers wouldn't work on synthetics, but I had to see for myself!

So then it was down to me trimming it all by hand, with scissors. That worked, but I also had to vacuum 34 times while I was doing it.

There's not much to tell about this process. I cut out the pieces and pinned it all together, and it fit just fine. I saved the front flaps of the original vest to use as a liner for the fur one, giving the front of the vest a bit of extra stiffness and also providing me with some interior pockets, should I need them for anything!

The whole vest was stitched by hand, with glue reinforcing the liner pieces.

Step 6: Monkey's Paw

The final bit of the costume was the ridiculous pair of shoes, which are weird and creepy and I adore them. I'd already picked up a pair of beat-up old black leather Skechers from the thrift shop, and I had leftover brown fur fabric, so all I needed was a pair of black vinyl gloves from the garden department.

Two pairs, really, since I needed one pair to wear as actual gloves!

Basically, I just cut off the fingers and thumbs from the gloves, stuffed them lightly with polyester fiber, and glued them to the shoes to make prehensile monkey toes. Once the glue dried, I reinforced the edges with black Shoe Goo.

For a finishing touch, I trimmed out three pieces of fur for each shoe, to frame the toes with shag while leaving the laces accessible.

For my hands, I had a matching pair of black vinyl gloves, and just glued a bit of fur to the backs.

The costume also includes a ridiculously oversized Monkey Wrench prop, which I'll be discussing in a separate Instructable!

Step 7: Conquer Mankind!

We strutted our stuff for a couple of hours downtown, during the Trick or Treat event, and had a grand time being spooky and a little weird. It's more of a kids-and-families thing, but Halloween options are limited out here so we will take everything we can get!

In the evening we went to a local restaurant that hosts the only reliable Halloween shindig in town, and took top honors for the third year running. Which is amazing but now I feel like maybe I'm just being greedy! The other thing is that it's a small town, and I haven't been here very long but in the very narrow social circle that constitutes 'Halloween in La Grande, Oregon' I've developed something of a reputation. So we walk into that place and there's no way that everybody doesn't know it's us! I'd like to find a way to use that to my advantage somehow.

Anyway, this was a rocking costume and I had a great time making it and wearing it.

Halloween Contest 2019

Participated in the
Halloween Contest 2019