Introduction: Kids Build - Super Rainbowtastic Paper Mâché Unicorn


When we asked our youngest active member what our next makerspace group project should be, she answered without hesitation. A unicorn. She had all kinds of ideas of how we could create a unicorn that would do all sorts of awesome things, some of which were more achievable than others, but many of which were really good ideas!

So, a unicorn it was. A little different form our usual makerspace projects, but we like to be a little different. We do a lot of community outreach, mainly with children, and find that, even in this day and age, it can be hard to engage some girls in aspects of making that they - or society - consider to be a male domain. And even if they enjoy electronics, or design, or coding, they will balk at the idea that they are engineers. While we don't believe that girls will only enjoy 'girly' projects, or wish to imply that only girls like unicorns, or in any way pander to gender stereotypes, we do hope that, once completed, our unicorn will reach out to young makers who are unmoved by, for example, robots or rockets. But all of that is for later - this is just part one of our awesome make, so read about how we built the structure and look out for part two!!!

You will need:

For the form:

  • Light/midweight card (around 250gsm)
  • Masking tape

For the paper mache:

  • Old newspapers (including pink financial papers if you can get them!)
  • PVA glue, watered down just a touch
  • Paintbrush
  • Water-based white primer

For the horn:

  • Access to a 3D printer

Step 1: Shape Your Creature a Set of Legs

The paper mache is built around a form, a structure made from card around which we could layer up the paper mache itself. The first part of the form we built was the legs. Each is made from card that is shaped and then held in place with masking tape. The front legs are straight, the back legs are shaped by removing a wedge of card to form a joint. The card that we used is around 250gsm - thicker than the lightweight card you buy to go through copiers, but still light and flexible enough to be able to shape.

Step 2: Build Your Beast a Body

Once we had the legs, it was time to form the body, then the neck and head. Each was built up with more card and masking tape. Getting the shape right is quite painstaking, but absolutely crucial, as flaws in the basic shape cannot be undone! The head was built on last. At this stage, the entire structure consisted only of card and masking tape, so was very fragile.

Step 3: Layer Up the Paper Mache Layers

The layering of paper mache then began in earnest. This was when the 'group' part of 'group project' really became helpful! Each layer of paper mache is painstakingly built up from torn up newspaper and PVA glue. The makers quickly broke away into two distinct camps: those who painted the surface, added the paper then painted over again, and those who painted the newspaper, then laid it and painted over again. There is no right or wrong method, it is down to preference (and our psychological need to form tribes).

One awesome tip we learned was that when you are sourcing newspapers for a paper mache project, try and get hold of some financial newspapers! Because they are printed on pink paper, you can alternate between layers of pink and white newspaper, and easily see what needs doing.

We built up around ten layers of paper mache. By the time any of us thought to start taking photographs of the work we were doing, a horn had already appeared...

Step 4: 3D Print a Unicorn Horn

Our youngest maker found the perfect unicorn horn on Thingiverse, a paremetric design that you can find and download here. We printed it in pink PLA, and it took around six hours to print. We also printed a spare or two, for when the original inevitably gets broken or damaged by an over-enthusiastic child. The skirt we printed around it on our Ultimaker 2 was perfect to help glue it securely to the unicorn!

Step 5: Paint Your Unicorn

Once all of the layers of paper mache had thoroughly dried (you can tell when each layer is dry, the structure sounds hollow when tapped) we painted with primer and white paint, sanding lightly in between layers. With the paint, as with the newspaper before it, when wet the structure looks wrinkly and sort of baggy... but once it dries it tightens up and looks fabulous again!

Step 6: Unicorn Ready for Finishing

Once we had painted, we had the structure of our unicorn complete!
Although it already looked awesome, there is much more to come... stay tuned for part two!

Step 7: Set Your Unicorn Free?

Here is a picture of a rainbow. Because like all great partnerships (salt and pepper, milk and cookies, robots and LEDs) unicorns are nothing without a rainbow or two. That is a bit of a hint of what is to come... stay tuned for part two!

Also, small confession: Originally we intended to enter this into the rainbow contest. But the work was painstaking, and we preferred to create something truly awesome than rush it, so here we are, over a month later...

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