Introduction: TALL-O’Ween: BIG Yard Art From Scrap Plywood
Inspired by spectacular Halloween Instructables, I wanted to make and display a giant wood version of my original Halloween character Cosmo Squash.
My dream for a 7-foot-tall character was full-size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups huge, and my budget candy corn small, but I was determined to go as big as I could with what I had.
I couldn’t spring for or transport a 4 foot by 8 foot 5/8” thick piece of plywood, but I did have a couple 20” wide and five feet-ish long pieces in my garage. If I cut carefully and put the pieces together like a puzzle, it was enough plywood to make a tall, pumpkin, and handsome yard decoration that could be easily disassembled and stored after the holiday. Armed with a blown-up image of my art, I went on a journey of sawdust and paint.
This ‘ible calls for some specific supplies, because I’ve gotten great results with them, they make the work easier, and they enhance the finished product.
-Your enlarged image, divided into as many sections as you need/want. My enlarged drawing was about 6 feet tall, and I chose to divide it Into four sections to fit my plywood.
(Let’s pretend my foot is in there for scale.)
-Enough 5/8” plywood in roughly 2 foot x 3-4 foot pieces. (I used plywood I had in my garage. You can also hit lumber yards and the lumber section of Home Lows for big scraps, or check sites the Craigslist for freebies. Don’t worry too much about dirt or paint on them.)
-Alcohol for wiping down dirty or stained wood
-120 and 220 grit sandpaper
-Primer (I like Zinsser, it can cover dark paint and grease stains!)
-Large sheet of graphite paper (Either tape together your own from smaller sheets you can find at a craft store, or get a single large sheet.)
-Carpenter’s pencil for tracing pattern (This is the wide, flat pencil you find at hardware stores.)
-A ruler at least 18” long
-A long straight edge, such as a piece of rail, a level, or a ruler (I used a piece of IKEA rail!)
-A large triangle, or other object with a perfect right angle (I used a drawer front!)
-Jigsaw with scrolling blade
-Posca paint pens (At least the medium nib sizes in black and white and a large chisel nib size in black. I recommend Posca because they’re opaque, stick to everything, and make outlining and details dead easy! )
-Craft store acrylics like Ceramcoat, Americana, or liquid acrylics like Liquitex and Blick brand
-Softer synthetic paint brushes from 1/2”-1” to 2” wide for filling various areas (The 2” synthetic brush is also for applying sealer. Avoid foam brushes and stiff “chip” brushes—foam soaks up paint, chip brushes shed bristles and leave marks. Use coupons at JoAnn (which lets you use multiple coupons per transaction) to get a few nice brushes.)
-Minwax Polycrylic for sealing your finished piece (I recommend Polycrylic in particular because it’s water-based and doesn’t yellow.)
-Drill with 3/32 drill bit and Phillips head bit
-#8 5/8” screws (Spax brand recommended.)
-1/2” metal conduit, the height of your art plus 12 inches to hammer into the ground (I used two 7-foot pieces: 6 feet + 12 inches)
-1 foot scrap of metal conduit, to help make pilot holes in the ground and to use as a guide when you tighten down the conduit straps
-1/2” conduit straps (4 per every 20”-30” height)
-Sledgehammer or similar for driving the conduit into the ground
-Gloves strong enough to repel splinters
Step 1: Prep and Prime
If your plywood is grungy, put on gloves and wipe it down with alcohol and a rag. If it’s not sanded plywood, go over it with 120 grit paper to knock down the texture.
Prime your wood on both sides with two coats of primer, letting it dry between coats, then let it fully dry for a day.
These steps make every step after so much easier, and the results so much better, so take your time here.
Take a nap so you’re fresh because the next step is getting your art onto these boards!
Step 2: Plan and Transfer Your Art!
Take time to consider very thin pieces of your figure, like arms, floaty parts, hair, etc. I wanted Cosmo to have an interesting outline, but not thin pieces that could break easily. You’ll notice that Cosmo has a moon and fog behind him so he doesn’t have delicate bits like his coat sticking out, but the side of his head and stem, which are simple and solid, stick out from the moon.
(You’ll also notice that the moon is oblong. Shhhhhh.)
Since I was using irregular pieces of plywood, I had to plan how I was going to transfer my art so everything would fit.
I divided my art into four sections that were roughy 20 x 30 inches, with straight lines at the top and bottom. I added a border all around Cosmo for a cutting line, so I had room for mistakes!
I printed the art out using the tiling option in my graphics program, and taped the sheets together. Then, I laid them on the wood, scooting and nesting them as needed so that they fit, with at least the top or bottom straight line on a straight edge of the wood. This way, I only had to cut one fairly straight edge instead of two.
Once the pattern pieces were where I wanted them, I taped them to the wood on one edge, and slipped the graphite paper underneath. I used a carpenter’s pencil, which is fat and sturdy, to trace over all the lines on my art. In large areas of black, I made X’s so I knew they needed to be filled in, instead of shading the whole area.
I used a straight piece of railing to trace along for the straight line that would have to be cut.
These lines only have to be as “perfect” as you need them to be to cut along them and ink them with your paint pens. I went fast, and kinda dirty. You may need to go slow. Take as much time as you need here.
Rest your arms after this. Seriously. Using a jigsaw requires your full attention.
Take another nap, maybe.
Step 3: Getting Jigsaw With It
A brief aside about power tools:
Speaking as that clown who had minor horror-movie accidents with power tools, don’t move on to this step if you’re even a little tired, hungry, thirsty, mad, or in a hurry.
Power tools are awesome, but they play for keeps. The look on people’s faces when this soft lady said “Yes,” to “Have you ever had metal in your eye?” at a pre-MRI appointment is funny but really not worth that pain.
Always use your eye protection and a dust mask. $10 will save you $$$ in urgent care.
Wearing eye protection and a dust mask, and using a jigsaw with a scrolling blade, cut out your pieces. Let the jigsaw do the work, let it pull itself through the wood, don’t push it. Like the priming step, patience pays off. That wood ain’t going anywhere!
Since a jigsaw blade can’t turn, cut fiddly parts by cutting close to them, cutting your lines from various angles, until the piece is free.
Use sandpaper on rough edges. If you’re like me, you had some splintery bits. Sand ‘em down, and forget about them. No one will know.
Guess what? It’s time to paint, you boss!
Step 4: Ink and Paint and Seal
This part is where you ink and paint how YOU want to and here’s my two BEST TIPS regarding it:
1: No one knows what you meant for your piece to look like. Most people will only see it from the sidewalk and the curb.
2: Go easy on yourself. People are pretty jazzed to see holiday yard art, and will be impressed. Kids will be in awe.
Speaking of seeing the art from the curb, I went for a graphic, comic art style that would look good and “read” from five and more feet away.
I started by ”inking” the heaviest lines with the chisel point black Posca pen. (This pen laid down a dreamy, opaque line on my primed wood on the first stroke.) I used Posca medium nib pens to add the craters to the moon, draw the swirling lines of the fog, and ink finer details.
To match lines across panels, push them together and draw across. Did I mention taking your time? That’s good here.
When I’d completely outlined my art, I began coloring it in with acrylic paint. The black Liquitex I used covered in one coat, but craft acrylics usually take more coats. For instance, Cosmo’s purple pants took three coats the first time, and five more when I changed my mind about his pants being plaid. Don’t sweat covering up your black lines a little, you can easily re-ink them.
The inking-painting process will probably go a lot like: ink, paint, ink, change mind, re-paint, re-ink, re-paint. That’s cool. That’s how the pros do it.
Note: Cosmo’s bony fingers are a pale yellow, instead of white. It’s a subtle difference in contrast between his fingers and the white outline, but I think it helps.
I put a white outline the whole way around Cosmo with the white Posca pen, so he’ll stand out against a dark background.
Once I’d gotten him inked and painted (and painted, and inked, and painted), I added sparkles with a white Posca marker.
I thought Cosmo’s cost and pants were an awful lot of solid color with no texture, so I used some coppery paint and rubber stamps to add a random pattern to the inside of his coat.
I colored the straight edges of the panels with black Posca pen to help them blend together, and painted the cut edges white.
Lastly, protect all your hard work with 2-3 coats of Polycrylic. Follow the directions on the can, and be absolutely sure to use a synthetic brush.
TIP: start the sealing process with the back of your panels. First, you get practice for doing the front. Second, If the coating on the back gets a little dinged while you baby the front, who will know?
Be sure to seal all the edges of your panels, too, It’ll keep moisture out.
Except for the final coat, when a coat is dry, very lightly sand it (so you don’t scratch your paint) with 220 sandpaper, and wipe the dust off with a clean rag before putting on the next coat.
Depending on your weather, this step can take at least a couple days. Have some cocoa. Watch some British Bake Off to gird you for the next steps, which involve measuring and drilling.
Step 5: Conduit and Straps 1: Measuring and Marking
These are steps where you have to pay extra attention so your art will stand up straight and you’ll be able to take it apart again for storage if you want to. Read them as many times as you need to to get it.
IMPORTANT: the conduit has to be the same distance apart and at right angles to the bottom the whole height of your piece, or your your pieces assembled won’t match up and won’t be able to get the conduit into the ground. (Imagine trying to put in a pole at an angle, and you’ll understand.)
Assemble your finished art face-down on a table with a blanket to protect your hard work from scratches. Make sure your panels match up!
Take your two pieces of 1/2” conduit (which you already cut to length, right?), snap a strap on each of them, at the same place on both pieces, and lay them down on your art.
(NOTE: You want to mark WITH THE STRAPS ON THE CONDUIT because the straps add 1/2” inch on each side of the conduit.)
See where the narrowest part of your art is, and lay the conduits parallel to each other at that point. Slide the straps down to this narrow part to be sure you have space to attach them to the wood. Leave yourself at least an inch from the outside edge of the conduit strap to the edge of your art. Make marks at the inside edges of your straps and measure the distance between those marks.
Here’s where you use your square of wood with the perfect right angle, or your triangle: set one edge of it on the straightest edge of the piece and draw a line from that edge to the nearest mark for a strap, then repeat it for the other mark.
You should now have your panel with the narrowest part marked with two parallel lines that are an equal distance apart the whole length, and at right angles to the top and bottom edges.
If they’re not, adjust them until they are.
Next, make sure your panels are matched up correctly, and using a long ruler or straight edge (like the straight edge you used when you were tracing your art), extend these two lines you drew on the panel the height of your whole piece, across all the panels.
Re-check at each panel that the lines are the same distance apart and at a right angle.
Phew. The next step is easier to understand and execute, I promise.
Step 6: Conduit and Straps 2: Drilling and Driving
I have good news! In the next part of this ‘ible, you get to hit conduit with a sledgehammer! Isn’t that nice?
You should still have your art face down and correctly assembled for this step.
Conduit straps are made to snap onto conduit, and even though we’re using conduit straps that are slightly bigger than our conduit, they may have to be adjusted if you want yard art that can slip on and off the conduit. (I do!)
Take the conduit straps and bend them open just a little bit. Check them on your scrap piece of conduit to see if they’re still tight, or if they are loose. You want slightly loose.
Lay your conduit back down on your art if you moved it, and lay it alongside the lines you drew in the last step. Lay the straps on the conduit, two on each piece of conduit, four per panel. Put them 2 inches from the top and bottom edges.
The straps aren’t going to make much contact with the back up f the wood, don’t sweat that.
Keeping the conduit parallel to the lines, and making sure the outside edges of the straps are 1 inch in from the edges of your art, make marks through the holes in the straps. Put the straps and conduit aside.
Use a 3/32 drill bit to drill your pilot holes. Before you begin, put a piece of tape 1/4” from the pointy end of your bit as a depth guide. You want a hole just deep enough to give the screw a head start, and avoid accidentally drilling through your work! Check the tape every few holes to make sure it’s still at 1/4”.
Drill all your pilot holes. Start screwing in the straps one at a time, but stop before you get flat against the wood. Use the scrap of conduit to test the strap. If it slides in and out easily, but not loosely, you’re good. Otherwise, adjust the screws in or out for a good fit. Test the fit of the conduit with every strap. It can be tedious, but it beats tearing out a screw because a strap was too tight!
(Yes, I tore out two screws. Shhhh.)
We have finally finished what I think was the scariest step since using the jigsaw! It’s time to move on to assembly and installation!
Step 7: Brag Time: Assembly, Installation, Final Thoughts
Before I carried out fully-assembled Cosmo out of my studio, I took my 12 inch cut of conduit to the part of the yard where I was going to put my giant orange boy and banged the conduit about 8 inches straight into the ground to make a pilot hole for the art.
It was terribly satisfying.
With your art face down (still) slip the long conduit pieces into the straps and you’ve finally assembled your magnificent work! I was so stoked to get to this point because I really liked how Cosmo turned out and I was ready for other people to see him.
With a helper, carry your assembled art to your installation spot. Set one of the pieces of conduit into the hole you already made, and have your helper hold it steady and upright.
Since Cosmo was over six feet tall, and I was using a heavy hammer, I used a step stool so I could easily drive the conduit into the ground. I swung carefully so I didn’t accidentally hit my art instead of the conduit. I drove the conduit to just below the top of my art so it was hidden.
Darnit, I love the way Cosmo Squash turned out! He’s big and gorgeous. I learned how to use a jigsaw better. (My previous jigsaw technique was pretty bad.)
Taking the time to problem-solve a limitation of lumber size, to do each step as good as possible so my work lasts, and learning from small frustrations on the way made for great feeling of accomplishment.
Now what shall I do for Christmas?
Participated in the
Halloween Contest 2019