Introduction: Making a Grim Reaper Costume for Halloween

Welcome to my first Instuctable!

As Halloween rolled around, it was time to decide what I would dress as for this year. After looking at some of my past costumes (and maybe with a little influence from watching “Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey”), I decided that a Grim Reaper would be a great choice. So with that idea in mind, it was time to plan out what would be needed for this build.

First off, a Grim Reaper has a skull for a head. Since I love using facial prosthetics for Halloween, all I needed to do is find an appropriate mask online. Second, a Grim Reaper needs an appropriate hooded cloak, so I needed to get out my sewing machine and put my basic sewing skills to use. Only a cloak and face does not a Grim Reaper make (^_^) so I needed to make some props to go with them. Obviously, a Grim Reaper needs his trusty scythe to go out and reap souls, so I had to come up with an appropriately cool scythe design. I could have left the build here but I wanted to make something else to go with the scythe. I had the thought to make a glowing hourglass but then I thought “What about a book of names? A nice thick leather bound tome that tells the Reaper who is the next soul to reap”. I liked that idea a lot more and decided that was what I was going to make. With all of that decided, it was time to get to work.

Before we begin, I want to say that this won’t be an Instructable where I give precise detailed steps and measurements for you to duplicate. This is more of a teaching by example; I will show the steps I took with my thought processes behind this build for you to follow along. Maybe you’ll take this and recreate what I did, or maybe it will just give you some new ideas for your own projects. It’s up to you. Regardless, I hope you enjoy and on to the build!

Step 1: Step 1 - Book of Names: Part 1 - Generating the List, Aging Paper, and Assembling the Signatures

For the Book of Names, I thought it would be cooler to actually make and bound a real book then to make a fake book prop. With that in mind, I headed over to Nerdforge’s site and checked out their amazing bookbinding course. If after seeing the basic steps involved here, you decide that you want to try your hand at bookbinding, you can get access to their course through their Patreon.

I wanted the pages of the book to be printed with a list in a creepy font. I was feeling a bit superstitious though and using a list of real names seemed a bit too much like a monkey’s paw situation to me. To solve this (and because I am a big nerd) I decided to generate my list of names from all the characters who died in Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and (to fill out the list) all of the assassination targets from the Assassin’s Creed series. This gave me a list of 3526 names (WOW) that I just randomized a few times to use. The fonts I used I bought from DriveThruRPG. I took all these and laid out my designs in InDesign; the first third of the book with crossed out names, the next third with uncrossed names, and the final third with blank pages.

With all of that prep work done, I went and found sketch pads with the weight of paper that I wanted and removed the pages from it. Next I cut the pages down to the size that I needed and printed out the printed pages. Time to start aging/staining the paper. I did this by filling a baking sheet with cold coffee and soaking a page in it. I then laid the soaked page out on a clean sheet and baked it in the oven, using a spray bottle of coffee to give them interesting stain patterns while drying. I was able to do two pages at a time and repeated my way through the stack of pages (all 104 of them ^_^). As you can see by the before and after picture, the effect was perfect.

Once that was down, it was time to fold and compile them into the signatures for the book. A signature is a group of sheets folded in half, to be worked into the binding as a unit. In my case, each signature was made up of four sheets. I went and folded each sheet individually with a bone fold to give it a good crease, compiled the signature, and went over the combined fold with the bone folder again. In total, my book had 26 signatures. Next the signatures needed to be stacked together and put in a book press. I made my own book press using some spare boards, some carriage bolts, spacers, and wing nuts. Once all the signatures were in, I left them there for a day or so to flatten out the pages. This was helped along by my lovely assistant (Keiko).

Step 2: Step 2 - Book of Names: Part 2 - Sewing on Cords and Building the Spine

After removing the pages, you could see how well the book press flattened the pages. Next, I had to line up the signatures and mark where I wanted the cords to go (they would show up as ridges on the spine after I glued the leather on). This was made easier by putting something large and heavy on top (I chose to use my Dice Throne Season 2 box ^_^). Keeping the stacks in order, I took an awl and poke holes along each signature where I had drawn a mark.

I made a sewing jig to tie the cords to the same way I made the book press, out of spare lumber. I lined the twisted jute cord up on the frame with the holes along the spine. Then working in reverse order, I ran waxed linen thread through each of the signature’s punched holes, wrapping around the jute cords. Wash, rinse, repeat for all 26 signatures. After the last signature was sewn on and the thread tied off, I cut the jute cord from the frame and had my text block. Using bookbinding glue, I glued the folded edges of the endsheets to the front and back of the text block.

After putting the text block back into the book press, I shaped the spine into the desired rounded shape. I then brushed on a layer of the bookbinding glue across the spine and left it to dry. Once dried, I glued a ribbon to the spine to be the book’s bookmark and left to dry. The final step in this section was to sew the head- and tail-bands to both ends of the spine using round leather cord and embroidery thread, add another layer of glue, and wait to dry.

Step 3: Step 3 - Book of Names: Part 3 - Attaching the Covers and Leather to the Spine

Now it was time for the book covers. I wanted the covers to be thick and heavy, so I cut them out of a piece of chipboard. After lining up and marking where they needed to go, I drilled 3 holes into both the front and back covers. These holes are where the jute cords pass through to attach the covers. After fraying the cord ends, I applied a layer of glue and pressed the ends down flat. Keeping the cords tight, the cover was folded closed. Parchment paper and cardstock was used to make sure the glue on the cover won’t stick to the endsheets. Additional glue was applied to the other side of the cover holes, with more parchment/cardstock to prevent sticking. This was then repeated on the other side and then the whole text block was put into the book press to dry. The spine was then strengthened using a piece of cheesecloth and more glue.

Now it was time to prepare the leather, a piece of 1mm veg-tan sheepskin, for the cover. I measured out what I would need and then purposely left extra in case I put it on a bit crooked (spoiler alert: I did). After casing the leather (wetting with water to loosen the fibers), I applied a layer of glue to the rough side and then more glue to the spine. The leather was then stretched over the spine, using the bone folder to work it into shape. The spine was then wrapped in cord to keep it in place while drying.

Step 4: Step 4 - Book of Names: Part 4 - Finishing the Leather and Final Details

I realized that I forgot to add the cardstock for embossing the cover before I attached the leather to the spine, so I did that next. I wanted to keep the shapes simple, so I tested the layout with paper before cutting them out of thick cardstock and glued them to both covers. Once that dried, I skived and trimmed the edge of the leather to shape.

To glue the leather to the covers, I cased the leather and then applied bookbinding glue to the cover. I used the bone folder again to work the leather around the embossing. The edges were then wrapped around the cover and glued using contact cement for fast drying. After drying, I used a swivel knife and a background stamp to pattern the center of the embossed shapes and then dyed all of the leather black. Once the dye was dry, it was time to glue the endsheets to the inside of both covers. For fun, I applied silver foil to the outline of the embossings and then took down the shine by “tarnishing” the foil with more leather dye. A layer of wax to seal the dye, corner protectors on applied to the edges, and the book was done!

Step 5: Step 5 - Reaper’s Scythe: Part 1 - Building the Blades

For the scythe, I started with a sketch to plan out my design. With as big as I was planning to make this, I wanted to make the scythe come apart for easy storage and transport. I figured making the main blade removable and the staff come apart in the middle would work just fine. To get the proper size and shape, I just enlarged my sketch and printed it to size.

To keep the blade stable while keeping the blade removable, I used ½ inch MDF wood for the core. Originally, I thought I would need an MDF core for the back blade but I realized it didn’t need the added stability. I cut the blade core a bit angular to make gluing foam to the edge a bit easier. I took my spiral saw and cut an opening in a 1” PVC pipe which I then test fit. After locking the core and PVC down with clamps, I carefully drilled to holes straight through both. I used bolts to hold the blade in temporarily during construction.

The first step to blade construction was to outline the edges of the blade core in EVA foam, cut to the blade shape. I made sure to add extra to the foam shape because I would be carving it down later. Next, I added alternating layers of foam to both sides to build up the width. The final outer layer of foam needed the blade runes cut out before gluing to make them look engraved. I thought about using real runes for the blade but I actually liked the quick stand-in ones I used in the design sketch, so I draw clean, precise versions to use for a template.

I used the same layered foam approach in making the back blade, though I did not make it as thick. The top pieces at the base of the blades need rounded edges that I needed to dremel, so I cut them out but didn’t attach them yet. Using my box knife, I rough cut both blade edges to shape before smoothing and evening them out with my dremel and a sanding bit. I didn’t plan it this way but using alternating colors of EVA foam really helped in seeing what needed to be dremeled down more. Once I was through with my dremel, I attached the base pieces, sealed the foam with my heat gun, and had my blade construction completed.

Step 6: Step 6 - Reaper’s Scythe: Part 2 - Making the Staff

Like I said earlier, the center of the staff was
2 pieces of 1” PVC pipe. Using a full size outline of the shape I needed, I cut the two pipes to the appropriate lengths. Then I marked which directions I needed to bend the pipes and used my heat gun to slowly bend/twist them into shape. I attached a coupler and 2 end capes to the correct ends, then did a test fitting with the main blade.

To give the staff it’s needed gnarled wood effect, I decided to use foam clay. It sculpts like clay but then dries to a lightweight, EVA foam texture. Since foam clay will adhere to EVA foam using only a bit of water, I needed to glue EVA foam around the pipes. I started with the bottom piece so I could get the hang of working with the foam clay. I started by wrapping most of the pipe in very thin foam then, using thicker pieces, built up and shaped the sections that I wanted to be thicker and/or knobby. This helped me get my desired shape while keeping the thickness of the foam clay consistent, which was important because it’s thickness determines it’s drying time. Once that was done, I used a brush to wet the sections of the foam before wrapping the foam clay around it. By the end, I found the best method to spread the foam clay was to start at the end and push it up the pipe in the direction the grain was going to be carved. I used a couple of basic sculpting tools to carve in the deep grain that I wanted, using a little water to keep the clay workable.

For the top of the staff, I used the same method of applying a base layer of foam to build up the shape. I did have to get creative and frankenstein the pieces around the bolt holes to get the desired shape. Its look didn’t matter as it would be completely covered in the end. Before applying the foam clay, I wrapped the base of the main blade in plastic wrap to make sure the foam clay would not stick to it. Starting from the top and carving in details as I went, I carefully wrapped the pipe in foam clay. I didn’t go all the way to the end of the pipe because that is where I would wrap fabric for the handle. No sense in wasting foam clay. I did wrap a tucker section of EVA foam around the base to match the final thickness at the top of the other section. With the foam clay applied, it was time to hang them up to dry for 24-48 hours. Keep in mind that foam clay will contract as it dries.

I was very pleased with how they looked after they dried. They only required some light sanding in places for correction. The final step of construction was to make the pegs to attach the main blade to the staff. I wanted them to look like roughhewn spikes, so I cut four 6” sections off a square dowel and whittled them down into shape. I drilled holes in all of them for pegs cut from a round dowel, gluing one end in per set. I attached tiny magnets to the other ends to hold the peg capes on. With that, scythe construction was complete.

Step 7: Step 7 - Reaper’s Scythe: Part 3 - Painting and Final Details

The only things left to do for the scythe was painting and final details. I was fighting the weather during these steps, so some shots show drying inside while others are outside. Before painting, I first had to seal all of the foam pieces with Plasti-Dip. I applied 4 even coatings to all of the pieces, following the direction on the can for application and drying times. I also Plasti-Dipped the peg stakes to smooth out the visible wood grain. Next it was time to apply the base colors to all of the pieces. I used a medium grey for the blades, a leather brown for the staff, and a flat black for the peg stakes. All applied with 4 even layers. The next step was to apply a secondary color to the blade at the base and inside the runes.

For weathering on the staff and the blade, I mixed together a blend of burnt sienna, burnt umber, and mars black acrylic paint that I thinned out with water. I brushed this mixture on the pieces thickly with a chip brush and then whipped most of it away with paper towels. This had the effect of staining the base color while leaving darker pockets in the deep grooves. After this dried, I dry brushed silver paint to the edges of the blades. To protect and seal these layers, I sprayed 4 even layers of clear coat to the pieces. The final bit was to finish the handle. Using spray adhesive, I wrapped the handle with strips of muslin fabric. I weathered the cloth using my airbrush.

And thus, death's scythe lives!! ^_^

Step 8: Step 8 - Sewing the Cloak

For the cloak, I bought a Simplicity pattern (Simplicity 1582). After taking a look at the pattern, I realized that this pattern was beyond my current sewing skills, specifically the cloak. Time to Improvise!! I sewed together the under tunic from the pattern using basic black broadcloth and placed it on my mannequin. While the cloak was beyond my skills, a simple hooded poncho was not. I decided to make this piece out of heavier black duct cloth. I stitched together the poncho from two pieces and then used the hood pattern piece to make the hood. I was then able to attach the hood to the inside of the poncho. After that, I cut the edges of the poncho into strips. The final step was to wrinkle up and soften both pieces, by wetting them, crumpling them up into a ball, and tossing in the drier. I don’t have a picture of this effect until the final shots.

Step 9: Step 9 - Mask and Makeup Application

Before going into my makeup process, I want to say that this costume will work just as well with a traditional Halloween mask. Don’t feel like you have to use a prosthetic if you don’t want to.

For the skull face, I found a great mask on one of my favorite prosthetic site, The Scream Team. Since I am applying this prosthetic to myself, I find it helpful to pre-paint the mask to a degree. The first step is to seal the mask with a layer of Pros Aide, prosthetic adhesive. Next is to apply layers of color, mixing up my own PaxPaint (50/50 Pros Aide/acrylic paint). I applied black to all of the creases and divots. I then coated the mask in a layer of white. The covered black bleeds through as a shadowing that will help later. The last step before applying the prosthetic is to use a coating of powder to remove the stickiness of the adhesive.

For the makeup, I first pinned up my hair, coated it in a layer of temporary white hair coloring, and added a thick layer of eyeliner around my eyes. Next is to start attaching the mask to my face with Pros Aide. Starting from the nose, I work up, out, then down until it is all attached. Seal the edges of the mask by brushing Pros Aide over the edges. I then applied a coating of white cream makeup around the mask. Then I traced the shadowed areas with black cream makeup, using eyeshadow to fill in around the eyes, and black lipstick on my lips. Use powder to seal and the makeup. Not in these pictures is me coating my arms in body safe white paint. The final piece was to add a pair of special effect contact lenses and then putting on the costume pieces. Please remember, you must consult an eye doctor before using special effect contact lens, no matter if they are prescription or not.

Step 10: Step 10 - Finished Look

All in all, I am very pleased with how this costume turned out. The bookbinding was a fun project (though my friend likes to joke that it is the most complicated secondary prop ever ^_^). I think the scythe came out great; it stands about 6’8” tall and only weighs 5.4 lbs! I liked how the simple cloak looked and I liked the facial prosthetic. On a side note, I didn’t paint my feet because I felt that sandals were appropriate for this costume but I didn’t want to get paint on my Birkenstocks ^_^.

I hope you enjoyed following my progress for this costume.

In the next few weeks I will probably build my idea for a glowing hourglass. I’ll post it here when it’s done as an alternative to the Book of Names.

Halloween Contest

Runner Up in the
Halloween Contest