Introduction: Phoenix Costume Headpiece

About: Former long time designer at Instructables. I have a degree in fashion design and like to sew, get crafty, and attempt to use power tools.

I have been wanting to make an epic phoenix costume for years. The idea of rising from the ashes in a burst of fire is amazing costume inspiration. I started this costume two years ago, and it's finally done! This is the first of two instructables and covers the headpiece, as it is the most complicated piece of the outfit. The second covers the wings and bodysuit, and you can check it out here! Also a big thank you to mikeasaurus and davekaplan for the amazing photos.

Why a phoenix? I love what a phoenix represents: rebirth, renewal. In Egyptian mythology it was knows as Bennu and represented creativity and the life force, in Greek mythology immortality and resurrection. In Chinese mythology the symbolism is completely different, but on a superficial level I like that it is the female counterpart to the dragon, since who doesn't like dragons?! And speaking of dragons, of course let's not forget about our favorite phoenix Fawkes from Harry Potter :)

Enough about mythology, let's get started!

Step 1: Design

The first step in any creative process is research. I spent hours looking at feather headpieces to get a sense of what I wanted for the general shape and style. What I found landed in two general styles, either a mohawk style or a valkyrie style with wings on either side. While I like the valkyrie look, it seemed inconsistent with what I imagined the head of a phoenix to look like, and went forward with designing something more like a mohawk (center sketch).

As for electronics, I knew I wanted there to be a fiery effect diffused by the feathers, and an LED strip was the obvious choice for illumination.

That was enough of a general design for me to go forward and order my materials.

Step 2: What You Need

I used a lot of different materials for this project, my apologies for not having an inclusive photo here! Many of these materials I used because I had them on hand, but could be substituted. I will suggest alternates throughout the instructable.

Headdress Base/Beak

  • Veg tan leather - you don't need nearly this much, but this is the smallest piece Tandy offers. If you have access to a leather store you could likely find remnants big enough for the central mohawk piece. 2-3 mm is ideal, or somewhere in the 6-8 oz range. I used a slightly thinner part for the bird beak, and thicker for the base. Most pieces of leather will have a range of thickness within the piece.
  • Leather stain (I used black and red)
  • Leather finish
  • Worbla - I only used this for the bird eyes. Not worth buying for just this as you can use parchment paper, but it's perfect if you do happen to have some scraps of it already.
  • EVA foam - EVA foam is flexible but dense, but any similar type of foam would work. I used 8mm.
  • Contact cement and hot glue
  • Primary material for straps - I used a black leather strap from an old jacket, but you could use anything strong and rigid
  • Spandex for end of straps - to get a tight fit
  • Small piece of squishy foam (to pad the electronics)
  • Fabric to create electronics housing - I used some medium weight black leather I had on hand
  • Brass colored rivets for ornamention, could use whatever you like


  • The long central feathers are pheasant feathers, and I used around 20. These can be expensive when you order super long ones, but are reasonable for ones of this length. These are the feathers I used here (orange). Note that the yellow ones of this same brand are a terrible greenish hue and not as pictured. I ordered a bunch of them in yellow to mix with the orange, but ended up having to dye them orange to be useable.
  • The gradient from red to light orange is a set of three feather types: red guinea feather trim, loose orange guinea feathers (loose are annoying to work with, but you get more for your money), and lighter orange rooster feather trim. One yard of each of the trims is more than enough.


  • Gemma microcontroller (could use any small arduino compatible microcontroller, but might have to edit the code)
  • 21 pixels of RGB neopixel strip. I got the skinny size out of curiosity, but any of the RGB strip works.
  • lipo battery - I used a giant 2500mAh battery because I had it on hand, but I think you could get away with the 1200mAh and still have a full night of life. I'm currently testing how long a full charge with this size battery will last, and am at 6 hours and counting.

Step 3: Wet Form Bird Beak

I knew the bird beak/face would inform the shape and width of the rest of the headpiece it rested on, so I started with this element.

If you have never wet formed veg tanned leather before, it's surprisingly fun! Veg tanned leather is quite malleable when wet, and can be molded easily.

I started by getting a piece of leather of the approximate finished size thoroughly wet, and made a crease down most of the middle. From there I pressed it to my face to get the beginnings of indentations for eyes. I folded it down the crease again and trimmed it into a beak shape, then slowly worked a curve into the folded beak. Forming wet leather involves a lot of repeated working of the leather into the shape you want, and once it was close to what I wanted I left it to dry.

Once dry the leather is rigid again and holds its shape remarkably well. On the now stiff bird face I marked holes for the eyes and cut them out.

Step 4: Make Mohawk Pattern

Once I had the bird face, I could sketch out a pattern for the headpiece base. I measured out a guess for length on the head form, and tested it on myself to make sure it felt like a good length to reach the widest circumference of my head.

For width, it had to be wide enough in the center to easily accommodate the lipo battery. At this point I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to create access to the battery, but planned to put it on the center top of my head for balanced weight. I added about 1" on either side of the battery for plenty of wiggle room, and this marked the widest point. I made both ends tapered as I planned to weave the support strap through these two ends with a tie at the back.

Step 5: Wet Form Base

I struggled with what material to use for the base. I had read Bofthem's great instructable on making a feather mohawk, and he uses buckram to make the base. Buckram is a stiff canvas material readily available at fabric stores, and is a great material for a feather only headpiece. However because I was integrating a lot more weight with the electronics I was worried it wouldn't be stable enough, and opted to continue on my wet forming kick and used veg tan leather. While I think you could use buckram successfully, I ended up very happy with the leather, as it made it easy to create a trap door to the electronics and provided more structural integrity.

Once this decision was made it was easy to make. I cut out another piece of veg tan leather using the pattern I had just made, and got it soaking wet. Then I formed it to my head, and left it on the head form to dry.

Step 6: Finish Leather Pieces

Time to dye leather! This part is so fun.

First, I prepped the leather by trimming down the edges, particularly on the inside of the eyes as I planned to cover them and wanted a less noticeable seam. If you don't have leather tools, you could get away with an exacto knife and some patience. For the edges of the base piece I beveled them slightly on both sides.

From there, I dyed the base piece black, and faded the bird from red in the face to black at the beak. Once dry, I applied a coat of satin finishing fluid.

Lastly I burnished the edges of the base piece, and the red edge of the bird face as that edge would show the most.

Step 7: Add Strap

This was one of the first mistakes made in this project. I made a spandex strap thinking the ability to pull it tight would provide the most secure fit, and did not anticipate the fact that once this piece was carrying weight in the center, the front would become a pivot point and it would flop over easily to the left or right.

One way that might have fixed this would be to integrate a "T" shape into the front of the base piece of leather, which when attached to the stretchy straps would give some rigidity along that axis. However as that should have been done at the beginning, the easier solution for me at was to add two additional straps on top of each ear, and it worked well. I attached them to the trap door created for the electronics because it was the only place I could access to attach something, but if I were to do it over again I would attach them to the sides at this stage outside of the area cut out for the trap door (more on that in step 9). Check out step 17 for more on how I revamped the straps, and do that now instead of later :)

Step 8: Diffuse the Eyes

I added a layer of worbla to diffuse the light which would be coming through the bird eyes. Worbla is an amazing thermoplastic which is easily moldable when exposed to heat. It adhered easily to the leather and provides a nice warm textured diffusion to the light.

If you don't have worbla handy parchment paper will give a similar look.

Step 9: Create the Battery Pouch

In planning out how to access the battery and electronics, all paths seemed to lead towards having the access through the bottom of the piece. It was the easiest solution that gave good access to the electronics and didn't constrain choices for how to build the headpiece up from here.

I decided to put the battery in the center top of my head as it seemed that would be the most balanced place to put the majority of the weight. As the battery was the largest item to accommodate, I used it as the base for tracing the trapdoor. I cut out three sides leaving the 4th as the hinge, and trimmed the edges of the door to make it easier to open and close. Because the leather is stiff it held its form pretty well, and it didn't need any closure or latch to stay closed.

Once the shape was cut, I put the electronics which would be housed in place, and created a simple pattern for the leather piece which would hold the electronics. I made the pattern with the intention of having the corners be open, as I knew I'd need to feed wires in from the outside. You can see the pattern I ended up with in the next step.

Step 10: Sew Battery Pouch

Once the pattern was tested to fit, it was time to attach it to the base. I thought about using glue as it would have been faster, but as accessing this innermost part of the headpiece once everything else was built on top of it would be very difficult, I decided to sew it down for longevity.

I used an awl to poke holes in both leather pieces, and sewed it down with thick waxed thread. As I only needed to keep the cover in place, I kept the stitches long to make the whole process quicker.

Once the cover was sewn down, I put in the electronics components, and filled the remaining space with some very soft foam to cushion and protect the microcontroller and future solder connections.

Step 11: Add Central Foam Structure

EVA foam time. Now that the electronics had a home, I could start in on the structure of the headpiece itself.

I planned to run the neopixel strip down the middle of the mohawk, so this was designed to support that and feathers on either side. It needed to be tall enough to allow enough space to easily glue down the pheasant feathers, and low enough in the front for the light to shine through the bird eyes easily with room for diffusion.

Pattern making for this was a matter of trial and error. EVA foam has some flexibility so it didn't have to be perfect, but I wanted a good fit around the battery pack. One piece alone seemed a little flimsy, so I doubled it to give more strength to this central structural element. I used a glue gun to glue the two foam pieces together, and sanded down the side to be glued for best contact with the leather base. While a glue gun holds foam to foam well, I didn't trust it for glueing to leather, so I broke out the serious stuff and used contact cement for very firm hold. Contact cement is nasty stuff, be sure to use proper ventilation, outside is ideal!

If you want to learn more about glue, try our Glue Class! (Shameless plug I know, but I used Audrey's class a bunch during this build)

Step 12: Testing the Code

This is the first arduino project I've built, so this part of the process took me the longest to figure out. If you are already familiar with Arduino, this step will be trivial. However for me it took lots of cursing and amazing help from audreyobscura, scottkildall, and bekathwia. Thanks guys!

If you are new to Arduino, there are many resources better than what I can explain here. Randofo has a great starter guide here.

Once you have your Arduino IDE up and running, I used an Arduino Uno for testing the strip and tweaking the pattern, as it was easier than uploading to the Gemma each time. As I don't know how to code for Arduino yet, once I had things set up to test code on the Uno, I spent my time searching out existing code that would work for my application. After trying out a few which were too subtle when placed under lots of feathers, I ended up using this sketch by Lon Koenig from this Adafruit tutorial. The code attached here has small changes so it will work with the length of strip I had (vs a neopixel ring) and work with a Gemma, plus I commented out the blue flicker (I preferred the warm tones). Thanks Lon Koenig for writing something which worked so well for my project, and to Becky and Audrey for helping me tweak the code!

Step 13: Prepping and Testing the Circuit

I was intimidated by every electronics step of this process, figuring out the circuit being one of them. But it was so simple (with more help from Audrey that is)! I don't know how to draw real circuit diagrams, but you can see from the graphic I created how straightforward the connections are. One thing of note that is not obvious from this diagram is that you should be connecting to the DI side of the neopixel strip (the arrows should be pointing away from the side you are connecting). I tested it out with alligator clips to make sure everything worked before soldering, and voila, success! I decided to add a 3 pin connector to make it easy to detach the Gemma to load a new pattern, or switch it out for any reason.

Next piece of prep is to cut the neopixel strip to an appropriate length for the central structural piece of the headdress. The code is written to apply to pixels in sets of three, so when cutting the strip, cut to the highest multiple of 3 that will fit. I did not do this and cut to a length of 20 before fine tuning the code, not realizing that this meant two pixels at the end would be wasted as the code won't work unless all the pixels it specifies are present. Now you all can learn from my mistake :)

Step 14: Solder

Once I knew the circuit worked, it was time to solder. As you can see in the first photo, the wires did not quite reach the battery pouch. I wanted the 3 pin connector to be on the inside of the pouch, so I extended those three wires a couple of inches. Don't forget to thread on a piece of heatshrink for those connections before soldering them to the connector!

You can see everything laid out to solder in the second photo. From there, it was only 6 solder joints to complete the circuit. Test your connections along the way with a multimeter, and when finished plug in the battery and cross your fingers it works!

Step 15: Secure the LED Strip

Now that the electronics are complete, we can get on with crafting! I found that hot glue did not stick to the silicon casing of the led strip at all, so opted for tiny zip ties. They held the strip securely and won't be visible in the end, so I was fine with this rather inelegant attachment method.

Step 16: Secondary Foam Supports

Throughout this build process I spent a lot of time to thinking and fiddling with various ideas for how to achieve the final shape of headpiece I wanted. I knew that the center would support the majority of the feathers on a plane perpendicular to the headpiece base, but I also needed a way to create a nice transition between that central plane and the edges of the headpiece base. That is where the shape of this piece evolved. I angled it to provide a base for feathers to be at a good angle spanning from the base to the center. I glued them down with contact cement, and with that I had enough structure to start the fun part, FEATHERS!

Step 17: Strap Fix

Well, almost feather time.

Now that all the electronics and base structure was complete, I tried it on and realized that the stretchy strap I had was not sufficient support at all to keep this thing in place. It fell immediately to either side, and needed a fix if it were to stay centered on my head. I replaced the stretchy strap with a leather strap I had lying around for more stability, and added a side strap to keep it from flopping to either side. To allow myself the same ability to pull the straps tight, I added a spandex tie to the end of the leather strap which would be tied in back.

The result is quite secure. As I discuss in step 7, there are other options which may have allowed me to get away without the additional side strap, but it did the job. Also, this should have been done much earlier in the build before I added anything on top of the headpiece.

But moving on, feathers!

Step 18: Attach Bird Head

Seriously, still not feather time? It's really almost time, I swear. I was about to glue feathers when I realized I should start with the bird face.

Attaching the bird face wasn't as easy as I thought. I could have attached it with a giant blob of hot glue, but I doubt that would have held for long and I want this piece to last. So I made two small foam wedges and attached them to the bird face with hot glue, and then to the leather base with contact cement. It left a bit of a gap under the which I knew I'd need to tidy up later, but it felt secure.

Step 19: Feather Time!

Finally, feathers! After a week of battling with Arduino and building up the structure people were starting to wonder what I was making. This part of the process was probably less than 10% of the total time invested, but visually was where all the change happened and was by far the most fun.

There was some trial and error here, but for the most part I knew that the center and therefore first layer of feathers would be the tall pheasant feathers. The most difficult part was getting the angle sketched out. I wanted them to point backwards like a bird's plumage rather than straight up like a mohawk, so I angled them accordingly. Once the initial feathers were in place, I filled in the other side with a slight offset for a better side silhouette. Next I filled in another layer in between on both sides for a total of about 20 feathers.

Having done some experimentation with how the lights diffused through feathers, I knew that too many layers of feathers would dampen the light more than ideal. To keep the path for light open I trimmed the bottom of each pheasant feather as shown which helped a lot.

Step 20: More Feathers

Once the tall feathers were in place, I added several layers of shorter feathers to diffuse the light and span the distance from the center plane to the side foam supports. I wanted to create a gradient effect within these feathers so I started with the light orange color along the central support on top of the pheasant feathers. As a general note the fluffy feather texture is what really catches light more than the flat end of the feathers, so I attached the layer of light orange rooster feathers at a height where the fluffy part was right next to the LED strip.

After the initial layer of feathers, I should have added the medium orange ones, but I had left those at home. You can see in the last two photos that I added these after the next step :)

I added the last layer of red feather trim along the angled side supports, which bridged the gap between the sides of the headpiece and the center.

Step 21: Leather Detail

This last piece of ornamentation was designed to hide the messy bottom of the feather trim, and fill out the piece flush to the edge of the leather base.

Because this was a pretty dramatic curve and my strips of leather were flat, I sketched the angle of the curve and spent some time stretching the leather as best I could to that angle. I used the rivets both as an accent detail, and as a way to solidify the curve. First I punched holes in only the black leather, then worked my way attaching to the red leather with rivets using the curve as a guide. The double layer was able to allow some gathering of the red strip that kept the curve nice and flat.

Note that the strips run from the front down the side, and back up again as one piece. Because they were all one piece, I worked from the center outwards, one side at a time. When complete, both sides mirrored each other with the same curve, and formed a near circle.

Step 22: Glue Down Leather Detail

Last construction step! I carefully glued down the leather strips, working from the center of the strips (bottom of the headpiece) back up to the top of the headpiece on either side. The thickness of the strips perfectly matched with the edge of the leather base as planned, so I laid down a line of glue right at the edge for a seamless edge first, then glued along the top of the leather strips as well to secure it further.

Once finished, it was looking pretty slick, except that the transition to the bird head looked a little rough by comparison. To fill in the gap and bring it inline with the look of the rest of the piece, I glued in a small folded strip of leather to finish the headpiece completely.

Step 23: Done!

Horray! All that work is worth it when you get to put this on and feel like a rockstar phoenix rising from the ashes! Go out and play this halloween looking fierce!

Halloween Costume Contest 2016

Participated in the
Halloween Costume Contest 2016