Introduction: Preparing and Gilding a Real Insect

About: I'm an animation director by day and Queen of the monsters by night. I picked up most of my costume and prop building skills through hands on experimentation with materials. Experimentation led to addiction,…

Frequent forum-goers may have seen a post I made asking for materials/ process advice. I was interested in gilding an item from my childhood insect collection so that it could be worn as a pendant, but wasn't sure about the best way to achieve this. Without the equipment to 3D print a replica (a good suggestion) and nervous about damaging the original, I decided to experiment with a new specimen I wasn't emotionally invested in to get a feel for the gilding medium and experiment with fortifying insects for use in jewelry.

In this Ible I'll be showing you how to relax a dried insect specimen and re-pose it to your liking, then show you the process I used to prepare and gild it for jewelry use.There's good info here for those interested in both true entomology and craft, so feel free to page through the steps to find the processes most relevant to you.

Step 1: Choosing Your Specimen

If you plan to this process all the way through gilding, I recommend working with an insect that is primarily made of a hard exoskeleton. Beetles will provide you with the most structurally sound surface area. Some wasps and spiders may be suitable, though their delicate limbs could be problematic. Squishy, meaty things like caterpillars are definitely not going to be a good fit for this project, as they do not leave an exoskeleton behind when they dry. Very hairy specimens are also not a good fit for gilding ( tarantula jewelry)

While you can definitely use the relaxing and drying techniques for moths and butterflies, I do not recommend trying to guild them because they're too delicate to remain intact during the process.

Purchased specimens --I went to a local entomology shop and chose this rhino beetle (exact species unknown) for it's size and durability. If you're looking for a good mail order source, a friend of mine recommended this place highly. They have a huge selection and very fair pricing.

FYI, even though purchased specimens are commercially prepared, they may be a little dirty and will almost definitely stink (this beetle STUNK). I mean, it is a dead thing. Delicate cleaning can be achieved with a moistened Q tip. That smell is not going to go away until we coat the insect with something.

Collected Specimens -- Collecting insects is a fun hobby that I really enjoyed as a kid. As an adult, however, I guess my views about life have changed and I would never catch something and kill it in a jar anymore. Not judging anyone who does use a kill jar --I totally get it, I just choose not to do it anymore and thus would only use things I find that are already dead.

If you prefer to work with found post mortem specimens, scout your environment for insect that have already passed and dried. Remember to look underneath objects in your garden or garage. Praying mantises in particular seem to favor hanging upside down from low places (like under a dumpster or fence gate) right before they die. Be delicate with any specimens you find as they are likely to be brittle.

NOTE: Before bringing outdoor insects into your home, make sure they are free of smaller pests (ants, maggots, mites) that may have been feeding on the organic material left inside the exoskeleton).

Step 2: Relaxing the Specimen

Whether you've purchased a specimen or found a dried insect outside, chances are that it isn't posed with the perfect symmetry you'd like.If the insect has recently died or it was cold outside, there's a chance it will be soft enough for you to pose it without the relaxing process. "Relaxing" infuses moisture back into the exoskeleton, allowing you to carefully make pose adjustments before re-drying the insect.

Now, when I say "re-posing", don't expect that you'll be able to make a line of grasshoppers spell out YMCA with their arms. Any repositioning you do needs to be within the natural range of the joints to avoid breakage, and is generally only done to create symmetry for display or bring overextended limbs into a more relaxed place.

You Will Need:

A wide mouth mason jar with tight fitting lid

Sawdust, sand, or cotton --the purpose it to create a light substrate that will hold moisture

Piece of cardboard trimmed to fit inside the jar.

Spray Bottle of Water

Disinfectant Spray --think kitchen counter top cleaners like 409 or Lysol

Test the fit of your cardboard. It needs to fit inside the jar and also support the size of your insect.

Spritz your cotton (or other substrate) with water. You want it damp, but NOT dripping wet.

Next, spritz it with a little of the disinfectant spray. This chemical addition will inhibit the chances of mold growing in the jar while your insect softens. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that it eliminated the awful stink.

Place the cotton inside the jar and then lay your cardboard on top.

Add you insect to the top of the stack and close the jar.

Put the jar in a windowsill or other sunny place so that the liquid inside will create humidity. This is what will infuse or exoskeleton with moisture and allow you to move it around again. Check on the specimen every day. Ideally, relaxing will only take 2-3 days. Be very gentle when you test the flexibility to see whether progress has been made.

Step 3: Fill Ports (for Jewelry Only)

Since I want to wear this beetle as a pendant, I want to make him as durable as possible. In order to do that, I'm going to fill the hollow exoskeleton with Mod Podge.I've chosen that material because it is liquid and can be injected through a small hole, but drys hard and solid. Resin would also be a good choice but I didn't want to deal with the added odor and reduced working time. In addition to making it more durable, the fill should add a nice "real metal" weight to what is presently a very light piece.

Once the insect is relaxed and softened, flip it over and examine the underside. Find gaps in the armor of the exoskeleton.

Use a large needle on thick pin to pierce holes in these locations.Be gentle and deliberate with your force so as not to crack the specimen. If a spot does not give way easily, try a different spot. This beetle was very tough even after relaxing, so I ended up only piercing the abdomen once between plates.

Once your holes are made, move on to pinning and posing. You will fill the insect later after it has re-dried.

Step 4: Posing and Pinning

You Will Need:

Piece of thick foam -- a scrap from a foam mat works great

Stick pins or proper entomology pins

Strips of paper --think like the fortune in a fortune cookie

When your specimen is flexible enough to reposition (this beetle took 2 days to relax), you'll use a combination of stick pins and paper strips to hold that new position to dry.

To minimize damage to your specimen, you're going to be sparing with the pins you actually push through the insect. It is usually helpful to push one pin through the thorax or abdomen to hold the insect in place while you work, but my guy was so heavily armored I couldn't find a good place to do that.

Leg positions can be guided with pins stuck directly into the foam. Not going through the actual leg eliminates the risk of breaking it. For the ultimate purpose of the jewelry composition, I bowed the front legs inward as though the front "hands" are clasped. If you are pinning for true entomological display you would want the limbs extended.

Limbs that need to be pressed flat to the foam can be restrained with thin paper strips tacked in place with pins. NEVER use tape to position and insect specimen! Tape may leave sticky residue and will almost certainly rip away delicate pieces when you remove it.

I slide one of my paper strips between the abdomen and the rear legs. Securing this paper to the foam with pins makes the legs lay flush with the foam.

When your specimen is all pinned, leave it to dry for several days. Placing it under a lamp can help speed the process. Insects that were found dry, were relaxed, and then re-dried will tighten up faster than a fresh insect that did not require relaxing.

*NOTE* If your desired display pose involves spread wings, you can do one of two things.

--You can buy or build a proper mounting board. Mounting boards have a recessed channel down the middle where the body of the insect goes. This way the body is a level below your pinned wings, allowing for an easy spread and proper angling of the wings for display.

--If you have to improvise, some specimens can be successfully pinned by laying them on their backs. I found this monarch in my garden while it was still soft and wanted to pin it quickly. Laying it on its back and making sure the paper strips held the wings flush with the foam will give me a nice flat wing spread for display. The angle may be just short of technically correct, but if you're a casual collector it can work.

Step 5: Fill (for Jewelry)

Once the specimen has re-dried into your preferred pose, you can fill it with a varnish or resin to add weight and structural support to the otherwise hollow exoskeleton. This is best done with a precision tipped syringe, like you might use for gluing rhinestones in place.

Remove the plunger from your syringe.

Fill syringe with the amount of liquid that is appropriate for your insect size. For this large beetle, I guesstimated about half a syringe of mod podge.

When you replace the plunger, do so over a sink or over a piece of scrap paper. The force of re-installing the syringe is likely to force a little liquid out of the end and you don't want to squirt that on yourself or your specimen.

Insert the metal syringe tip into the hole you made in the underside of the insect.

Slowly press the plunger to fill the hollow of the insect with liquid. When liquid starts to erupt back up out of the hole, you know it is full.

Be quick with clean up. Wipe excess liquid away from the fill port with your finger or a Q-tip. If you used a water soluble fill liquid like Mod Podge, you can also save your metal tip and syringe by washing them out immediately. Use a small piece of wire to make sure you've cleared the fine metal tip all the way through.

Leave the insect on its back to dry overnight. The filler will solidify inside, thus fortifying the form.

*If your insect's back is very domed and it will not lay flat without help, support either side with pins stuck into the foam. You want the filler to dry as level as possible so you don't have jewelry piece that hangs off to one side.

Step 6: Quick Clean

You Will Need...

Rubbing Alcohol


To prep the surface for resin and gilding, we want to clean any remaining traces of dirt and debris from the insect.

A quick wipe down with an alcohol soaked Q-tip is all you need. I was surprised how much rust colored dust was actually on my beetle, unseen because of its coloration.

The last photo is just a nice close up so we can take a moment to appreciate all that detail--so cool!

Step 7: Fiberglass Resin Coating

To further protect and fortify the more fragile parts of the beetle, I did a very light brush on coating of fiberglass resin. Bondo fiberglass boat resin is amazing for adding durability and is often used to turn pepakura projects into durable props.

You Will Need:

Bondo Fiberglass Resin and hardener it comes with

Plastic spoon --this can also serve as your measuring spoon for this project

Disposable mixing bowl --an old cottage cheese tub is great

Small paintbrush you don't mind sacrificing.

Wax paper or other surface protector

A well ventilated work area, preferably outdoors -- this stuff has heavy fumes and is permanent when dry, so this should not be done in your kitchen or bathroomeven though it is a "small" project.

Place your insect on your wax paper or other work surface.

Mix a very small batch of fiberglass resin, combining elements in your disposable container. The instructions on the Bondo jug tell you how to make a workable small batch using 2 Tbsp bond + 4 drops of the hardener it comes with. This is still going to be way more than you need to coat an insect. I cut the recipe in half (1 Tbsp + 2-3 drops hardener) and still had plenty left over.

Mix the ingredients with your plastic spoon. Be aware that the spoon, container, and brush you use are all going to be ruined by the resin and are unwashable.

Use your paintbrush to apply a light coat of resin to the insect.Be sparing --you don't want resin to pool in all the crevices and eliminate the beautiful, natural details. That said, if your insect has rather spiky legs like mine does, a little resin rounding over those pokey parts isn't the worst thing in the world. Be especially delicate applying the resin to thin limbs or wings.

You will want to work fairly quickly and be uninterrupted, as fiberglass resin starts to gel in under 20 minutes.

Allow the resin to dry several hours, overnight if need be. Flip and repeat steps on the other side of the insect when resin is no longer tacky to the touch. I chose to fortify only the underside and legs of my beetle, since the top is very durable to begin with.

Once the resin dried, all the beetle's legs were totally solid and locked in place, which should prevent damage during wear.

Step 8: Applying Gold Leaf

As a first time gilder, I knew paint on Liquid Leaf was going to be the easiest solution for this project. However, in the interest of medium exploration I decided to buy true gold leaf sheets as well, since I had a fair sized canvas to work with. I ended up using both products to achieve the final look.

*Note: If you've never worked with gold leaf before, it's fun but tricky. People use the expression "paper thin". Well, leaf is like if paper died and became a ghost, because it is beyond crazy thin! Be delicate and deliberate when handling so as not to crumple or tear it.

You Will Need...

Water based liquid adhesive

Gold Leaf sheet

Liquid Leaf

2 regular paintbrushes

1 soft paintbrush or makeup brush for applying leaf

Traditional Leaf

Begin by brushing a thin coat of water based adhesive onto the surface you wish to guild. Make sure to coat all crevices (i.e. make sure you get up in the beetle's armpits and all that).

Allow adhesive to dry until sticky, but no longer wet. Applying leaf to a wet surface increases the likelihood your leaf will tear. You can use this waiting time to very, VERY gently cut a small section of leaf to use.

Lay the leaf on the insect, gold side down, clear protective layer up.

Use your soft, dry brush to dab and stroke the protective sheeting, encouraging the gold leaf to transfer onto the insect's surface. Stroke in one direction so you don't lift up the leaf you just laid. Gently guide the leaf around curves and into crevices.

Lift away the protective sheeting. You may see some spots you missed, or small areas that became damaged from too much contact. These can easily be spot patched with just a dab of your adhesive and applying a leaf flake with the tip of your dry brush. The leaf is so thin that it will meld with the rest pretty seamlessly. *Avoid trying to place leaf with your fingers because even the slightest hint of moisture will cause the flake to want to stick to your skin instead.

Traditional sheet leaf was fun, but definitely suits larger projects with more consistent surface textures. It looks beautiful on the smooth, broad back of this beetle, but would probably not be the best option for most smaller insects. It was at this point I decided to use the Liquid Leaf on the bristly insect legs and small, complex areas like the face.

Liquid Leaf

This product came recommended by a friend and did not disappoint! Very easy to use and delivers a true metallic luster that blended well with the true leaf areas.

Use a paintbrush to apply a thin layer of liquid leaf to the insect surface. Liquid leaf was perfect for fine areas like the legs and face, and filled the gaps in the traditional leaf beautifully. Paint one side of the insect, allow 20minutes to completely dry (or until it no longer smells like paint thinner), flip the insect and repeat on the other side. When the second side has dried, do a quick check to make sure you got the sides and up under the legs.

Step 9: Finishing Touches

Clear Coat --to seal in the leaf and prevent lifting a chipping,most brands will suggest applying a top coat sealer. I opted for a quick spray on sealer to give a consistent finish and to eliminate the chance of me damaging the leaf with a brush-on method.

Put your insect on top of newspaper or other protective surface in your outdoor workspace.

Holding the spray can at least 6 inches away from the surface, spray clear coat. Do not get too close or your clear coat may pool and have trouble drying.

Allow 15-20 minutes dry time, or until the insect surface is no longer tacky. Flip and repeat.

*Note: I did find that the clear coat highlighted the differences between the real leaf and liquid leaf. The result was actually kind of a cool, organic looking shade variation that I didn't mind. Just something to think about as you paint with leaf.

Adding a Jump Ring --your jewelry project may differ, and this is the point at which you would apply whatever hardware you need to make your insect wearable. Since I'm going for a simple hanging pendant, I installed a basic jump ring.

Apply E-6000 to the surface of the insect where you want to attach the ring, preferably on the back so it doesn't call much attention. This is where my posing comes into play; I placed my jump ring on the back of the clasped hands so it is both disguised and pretty much centered. Ideally, you'll want a jump ring that matches your gilding, but you can easily match it with a touch of liquid leaf after the fact if you don't have the right color on hand.

Allow adequate drying time before installing on a chain.

Step 10: Done!

Keep it simple or embellish with rhinestones and beads. As built, this beetle can hang from a chain solo or piggyback existing costume jewelry using another jump ring. Any way you wear it, you have a completely one of a kind statement piece sure to be the envy or creepy crawly fans everywhere.

This Ible taught me a lot about the leafing process and definitely informed my approach to future, more delicate insect projects.

If you enjoyed this Ible, consider sending a vote in the Jewelry Contest or Before and After.

Jewelry Contest

First Prize in the
Jewelry Contest

Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016

Participated in the
Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016

Before and After Contest 2016

Participated in the
Before and After Contest 2016