Introduction: Unicorn Taxidermy
When I first started day dreaming about fantastical animal taxidermies, a unicorn was a clear front runner. Unicorns have really been having a moment in the last few years, and between the costumes, art, and décor it's practically become a culture at this point. I grew up having a mild obsession with unicorns(thanks very much to "The Last Unicorn" and "Legend"), but Medieval tapestries and Arthurian legend brought a different influence to my vision of this creature. The 'full grown, white horse with a sparkly horn and flowing mane' is a nice concept; classic even. I have to say, I much more prefer the 'goat-like, cloven hooved, shabby maned, lion tailed' version. So, that's what I was aiming for when I finally got down to the business of creating my very own unicorn head. I'm not 100% sure I got there, but I hope you enjoy my process none the less. Let's gather some supplies and get fantastical!
TL;DR: I love unicorns. Here's how I made one.
- Base Model Form - I used a premade white tail deer form, but you can use other forms or even make your own
- Horn Material - I used a large stick, but you can model your own out of almost any medium
- Eyes - I cast my own, but you can easily buy some or even make them from clay
- Skin - I used a thin foam packing material, but I think faux fur would be a more obvious choice
- Ears - I used a very thin metal to form my ears, but, again, there are many other materials that could be used
- Mounting Plaque - I used very thin ply wood I had laying around
- Some sort of Styrofoam
- Glue - I used a lot of glue in many different types: hot glue, E600, liquid cement, and Loctite 2 part apoxy
- Wood Stain
- Bondo and/or ApoxySculpt
- Black Silicone
- A Couple Screws
- Sand Paper
- Scissors and/or Razor blade
- Tin Snips
Step 1: Prepare the Form
I used a premade white tail deer form because it seemed to be about the size I was going for, and I liked the stance(which I believe was called "alert" or "startled" or some such). I definitely needed to alter the form a bit, as I found it a bit more stringy and muscular looking than I cared for. Which also meant I would be venturing into the wonderful world of Bondo to fill out the body a bit; more on that later. There was also a large seem from the casting mold which ran straight down the center.
I began by mounting the form to a scrap piece of wood. This would make handling it easier, and counter balance any extra weight that would be placed on the head. I started with the Dremel, sanding off the large seem and taking down any harsh angles I didn't like. Next, I widened the nostrils out a bit to give them a more round, equine appearance, rather than the very small deer nostrils. We'll get back to this area in a later step when we build up the upper portion.
Before we start bulking out the form, we need a horn.
Step 2: Horn and Eyes
For my horn I decided to go with a large stick that was roughly the diameter and length I was looking for. I used a hacksaw to get a flat edge on one side, and a sharp knife to whittle the other end to a dull point. I then took some smaller, very flexible twigs and hot glued them on to the stick, starting at the flat base and twisting them up to achieve the organic, viney effect I wanted. Next, I drilled a hole in the base, about an inch or so in depth, so that I could slide the horn over a bolt threaded through a piece of scrap wood. The reason for that was to suspend the horn above the surface of the wood so that I could put on a thick coat of varnish/sealant and not worry about the runoff. This predrilled hole will also be used for permanent mounting to the form later on. Once the varnish is dry, the horn is basically done and can be set aside for a while.
Keep in mind, there are numerous other options for horn material. You could fashion one from clay, or wire, or use a wooden dowel. You can cover it in glitter, or moss, or paint it to look like bone, or rock. Have fun with it! If you're real fancy, you could make a mold for a resin cast. Or probably buy one online if you want the easy route.
Speaking of resin casting, that is how I chose to get my eyeballs. I could have sworn I took pictures of this process, but alas, I apparently did not. Hopefully, my word-smithing will be enough to help you visualize. I started with some Plastalina (a wax based clay that doesn't harden) and modelled the eyeball right on my form. Once I was happy with the roundness and projection, I put the clay at the bottom of a solo cup and poured a rubber silicone over it to create my mold. After the silicone mold had cured, I removed the it from the cup, cleaned the mold out, and mixed and poured some clear resin into it. I was super excited to see how the first cast came out, because this was my first venture into mold making and casting. It was terrible! Even though I thought the model I had made was nice a smooth, the resin cast showed just how wrong I was. I wound up with something looking like a golf ball. It was completely pitted all over the place and you could see every finger print! I learned the hard way, that molds will pickup up every fine detail and exacerbate it. On to round two, lol.
This time I decided to wear gloves and make sure my working surface was super smooth and clean. I rolled a ball to what I hoped was about the correct diameter, then took a length of dental floss to cut it in half. I did this by looping the floss around the approximate center of the as-smooth-as-I-could-make-it ball, then slowly pulled the floss tight, letting it slice neatly through the center. Then I carefully separated the two halves and repeated my molding and casting process. I had a much better result this time, and even if I didn't wind up with marble smooth, crystal clear eyes, I at least had something I found to be serviceable for my standards. So, if you want to have beautiful eyes but are a total mold making noob like myself, you can save yourself a WHOLE lot of trouble by just buying some glass blanks online. Sad, but true.
Step 3: Build Up the Crown
In hindsight, buying a doe form would have saved me this step, but I clearly had no forethought when I ventured into this project. This buck form is missing the crown of the head in order to mount antlers. That is pretty unnecessary for a unicorn, so I had to make up the missing parts. To do this I used some Styrofoam I had laying around, and carved it into the rough shape I needed using a knife and hacksaw.
But before I got carving, I had to set an area for where the horn would lay and build my foam crown around that. I laid the horn on the form in there area I thought it seemed most organic, then outlined the base with a sharpie. Luckily, I had a drill bit that was just a little larger than the horn diameter. I used that bit to drill a little bit of the form out. The idea there is to set the plane for the angle of the horn, so just use your judgement on what angle to hold the drill at. I didn't want to drill too far into the form, because I would be building up around the horn, so I didn't need to set it deeper into the head. Once I had the horn base area marked and planed, I started cutting the Styrofoam into the rough shapes I would need. I hot glued everything into place, and dry fit the horn several times to identify any areas that needed adjusting. To do the adjustments I used the Dremel. Once everything looked alright, it was time for my first foray into Bondo...
Step 4: Some Light Bondo and Setting the Ears and Horn
Ultimately, I wound up doing several layers of Bondo to refine the form to my liking. I did a minimal amount of research on working with this medium before flying by the seat of my pants(best way for me to learn). What I read led me to believe that: 1-laying it on too thick would lead to poor curing and possible soft spots-bad for sanding; 2-laying it on too thin would lead to layers flaking off while sanding-also bad for sanding!; 3-mixing the two components in the correct ratios was paramount; and 4-this stuff has a pretty narrow working window, so mix several small batches as you need them rather than one large batch. Also, unless you're familiar with how to work with this material and how to clean it off your tools, don't use anything with it you don't want to throw away. I mixed mine on a large piece of glass shelving that was headed for the garbage anyway, so I didn't worry one bit about trying to clean and reuse it. I didn't buy any trowels or the like to mix/apply because I knew I'd be throwing them out afterwards. Instead I used expired credit cards, which worked out well for me. Also, wear gloves! This stuff sticks to everything!
My first layer or three of Bondo was aimed mainly at filling in some of the deep crevices between the neck muscles and adding some bulk to the face. I'm not sure how much of this anatomy will show through a faux fur skin, but I had planned to used a very thin foam for skin that would definitely not be forgiving to flaws or disparities in the underlying structure. So basically, I mixed a small batch, then applied it until it was either gone, or too gummy to spread. Then I'd let it dry for a couple hours and repeat.
During the down time for Bondo drying, I fashioned and set ears on my form, as well as setting the horn into it's final place. Using paper, I drew a rough ear shape, then held it up in the general area I planned to insert it. I did all my tweaking on this paper pattern, because I only wanted to cut and bend the metal once. I got the paper ear looking about right, then traced that onto thin gauge metal, and cut them out using tin snips. I gave the metal a slight curve with my hands. Once they were in the shape I liked, I held them in the area they would be mounted and firmly pressed them down into the Styrofoam. After I was happy with the placement, I ran a small bead of hot glue along the bottom edge of the metal and set them into the grooves I had made for them.
To mount my horn, I decided to use a length of wooden dowel to strengthen the connection between the form and the horn. To do that I simply chose a drill bit slightly larger than the dowel I was going to use and drilled into the bottom of the horn(which already had a pilot hole from earlier) and a (hopefully) matching hole in the form. If your holes wind up not quite matching up as far as placement and angle, you can always drill more material out of the form to allow for the correction and fill in any voiding with hot glue or epoxy. I got lucky in that my holes matched really well, so no tweaking for me. Next, I glued the dowel into the form, then covered the tip of the dowel and the surrounding form in glue before sliding the horn into place. Ta Da! It'll poke your eye out!
Step 5: More Bondo!
Now that the ears and horn are mounted, it's time to make all that weird foam look like it's part of the team. Aside from smoothing the crown of the head into form, I was also trying to bulk out certain areas of the face. I didn't want my unicorn to look too scrawny, so I largely focused on filling out the cheek area under the eyes, and smoothing the sides of the face heading down towards the nose. I admit I was quite sloppy in my application here, because I thought I'd surely smooth it all out with sanding. That turned out to not really be the case, simply because I got lazy. I could have sanded it all nice and smooth, and paid more attention to the transition edges, but I knew my skin would cover these imperfections.
You'll Notice in my pictures that the eye socket is now black. I originally used a high gloss model paint for this because I wanted a high sheen. The model paint was just not keeping the gloss I wanted and kept coming out looking very matte despite doing 2 or 3 coats. In the end, I used black nail polish and was much happier with the look of it.
Step 6: Nostrils and Ear Transitions
Now the form is almost done, but I still had to build up the upper ridge of the nostrils and do something to soften the hard transition between the ears and head. To do this I used one of my absolute favorite mediums: Apoxie Sculpt!! If you're unfamiliar with this product, it's a two part epoxy clay. You mix parts A and B together, which results in a clay like substance. You work and sculpt it just like you would with clay, and I believe it's got about a 30 minute working time before it begins to cure. After a solid day of curing the Apoxie Sculpt hardens into a much more plastic like material. It's sandable, drillable, paintable, and it adheres well to nearly anything you stick it to before curing. Enough about that.
I began with the nostrils, building up the upper ridge and using clay sculpting tools and a little water to smooth them into the form. Then, nearly the same process for behind the ears. I finished up by sanding everything to a general levelness with the Dremel and some medium grit sand paper by hand. Things are now ready for a darker turn.
Step 7: Base Coat
I wanted my piece to have a dark undertone to it so I painted the base black, knowing it would slightly show through the skin(sort of like a polar bear, or a white horse). I decided to use chalk paint, because it covers well with less coats and I had a lot of different colors and mediums composing the form. (This wasn't chalkboard paint, but rather a paint that dries with a chalky, matte finish.) I did 2 coats and got a nice and even, matte black finish. Perfecto.
Next, I glued the eyes into place. Originally, I had painted a galaxy background on the eyes, but it really wasn't reading well through the resin. So, I removed the paint and glued them in without any additional paint. This was the next best thing to the look I had wanted. If you want your eyes to have color, or look like real animal eyes, you can paint your own at this stage, or use prepainted eyes.
My last step before tackling the skin, was to mark out where I would be placing hair. I cut my strips of faux fur, and held them in place while I traced around them with a chalk pencil(from my sewing box). I use chalk to mark projects quiet often, as it's easier to completely erase than pencil. I wanted to try and have the edges of both the skin and hair on the same level to help hide the rough edge of each. That is why I didn't just cover the whole thing and glue hair on top, but rather ran each material edge to edge for a cleaner look.
Step 8: Skin!
For the skin I wanted something with a slight amount of sheen to it that would be slightly transparent. I settled on this very thin foam packing material because it seemed like it would be interesting and it was free(I work in a warehouse). I thought the process of putting the skin on was going to be a breeze. Slap on some liquid cement, lay a piece down, then kind of work along in that manor stretching and gluing as I moved along. Not so. Soooo not so.
Liquid cement was not my friend. It really had no bonding power whatsoever. I guess I was giving it too much credit, but it's probably my fault for expecting more than it could do in this application. Next I tried E600....BUT it took way too long to get a firm enough hold for me to move to the next area. So, I gave the hot glue gun a try. It worked pretty well, but it was tedious. So I unpacked my patience and attention to detail and got to work with the glue gun. All in all, it took about 12 hours to cover my form. I had to be careful not to let the glue gun tip actually touch my skin material because it melted through it straight away. You can see a spot on one of the jowls where I figured that out, but I managed to patch it pretty successfully. I also had to be mindful of how much stretching I was doing with my material, because it did want to tear fairly easily. There were several areas where I just couldn't work the material into where I need it to go, or wound up with a weird fold/crease. To remedy these issues, I called upon my amateur sewing skills and made up techniques. I used the concepts of darts and gussets to remove and fill in material as needed, trying my best to hide the seems in the natural creases of the form. It worked out alright, but I did have a few ugly seems I wanted to soften.
Step 9: Softening the Seams
The worst seams I had were around the base of the ears, down each side of the neck, and across the breast bone. To hide these a little bit I cut a strip of foam sheeting that was a little thinner than the sheeting I used for the rest of the body. I used E600 to glue these strips on, because I was too worried about burning through the material with the hot glue gun. There are also two seams running down the face from eye corner to nostril, but I didn't try to hide these as I felt that trying to cover them would actually make them more noticeable. Likewise, for two areas above each shoulder.
With the seam issue addressed, it was time to button up a few other details. Nearly done.
Step 10: Filling in the Ears
I originally thought I would shave some faux fur and lay that into the ear to finish it off, but when I dry fit a piece it looked really weird. So, I tried out several things to see what would look best. I laid more foam sheeting in the ears, but it really just washed out the area, and gave no depth. I tried putting uncut faux fur in and scissoring the length down to get the right look, but that really wasn't working at all. I've given Barbies better hair cuts than what that scissored fur looked like. Next, I tried some craft felt with adhesive backing. It looked alright, and I knew I could add a little paint to it to make it look better, so I rolled with it.
Maybe that really was my best option, but maybe there are better things out there, or at least better techniques. Play around with it, and see what feels right to you.
Step 11: Muzzle and Eyelids
When I first thought of using silicone to bring the muzzle and eyelids some realism, I had no idea if it would even work. I had used this silicone on automotive fixes before, and I like the final texture and color it produced so I figured - why not give it a go? I also know this stuff sticks to everything, so spreading it evenly would be a challenge. I thought that if I could keep my fingertips lubricated with some oil, that might work. Then I had the thought that getting this onto the form to begin with would also be a bit of a challenge. Here's how I overcame those issues.
I began by squeezing a bunch of silicone into a plastic sandwich bag. I got as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing it shut. Then I squished all the silicone into one corner and snipped off the corner to make my own piping bag. Next, I piped the silicone onto the form in much the same manor as you would with cake decorating. Making sure to keep a coating of oil on my finger tips (vegetable oil in this case) I began to gently smooth the silicone out and contour it to the areas I was working in. I also did the area where the horn emerged from the forehead.
After it dried, I noticed a few areas where I had worked the silicone too much and really thinned it out. So I wiped any remaining oil off, and did a second coat in those areas. I let the silicone dry over night, and finished it off by adding a little bit of black paint to transition the silicone into the skin.
Step 12: Hair
I was pretty happy with how things were looking but laying hair down really brought the piece to life. Since I had already cut my fur, all I had to do was glue it down into place. After some minor trimming of the beard, I was ready to create the mounting plate.
Step 13: Mounting Plate
I originally had wanted to find a live edge round for my backplate, but I wanted it to be oblong, not circular, and that was going to be a pain in the a** to find. Also, most live edge rounds are pretty thick(1-2 inches) which would have been kind of heavy.
Instead I got some really thin plywood from the garage and stained it to make it a little more interesting. I wasn't too worried about the wood being a little warpy, or having stains on it. I was looking for a section that had some interesting grain and/or knots, and that had a large enough area for my cut that wasn't delaminating (the piece of wood I got was pretty gnarly. It was warped, and stained, and delaminating).
I started off by laying the bust on a decent enough section of ply, and drawing the basic shape of the backplate around the form. Then, I marked the center at the top and bottom of the bust (where the center of the mane and the center of the chest landed on the wood). After moving the bust aside, I lightly drew my center line with a straight edge. I turned my yard stick perpendicular to my center line, and made sure each side of my backplate outline was the same distance from the center line. I wasn't going for perfection here; if the mark was within an 8th of an inch of the same measurement, I left well enough alone. My jigsaw skills were going to create their own variances in the cut, so I didn't sweat it if my shape didn't turn out exactly symmetrical.
Next, I put said jigsaw skills to the test and got to cutting. Then, I sanded my rough edges with a hand rasp and sand paper. I also gave the front and back side a quick sanding by hand, starting with 80 grit, then 120, then 200; just because that's what I had laying around. That's probably not the proper way to go about it, but I wouldn't know, I have no patience for sanding. Besides, I already used all my patience on this project when I put the skin on lol.
I used two different stains. I applied a natural colored stain to the entire backplate using a clean rag. I didn't wait for it to dry, I moved right on the applying a walnut colored stain with a chip brush. I put some stain on my brush, then pulled the stain down from the top/bottom edge until there was no substantial stain left in my brush. I let the stains dry for about five minutes, then took a clean rag and wiped any excess from the top and bottom edges towards the center. Then, I let it dry overnight.
The next day I sealed both sides of the backplate using an acrylic epoxy sealer(but you can use whatever you prefer). One coat on the back, because who cares, and two coats on the front, because I care. Done.
Step 14: Mount!
Last step! I wanted to use the same holes I drilled in the form to mount it to the scrap wood. How I did this was to cut the tips off of a q-tip, and insert them into the holes on the back of the bust, leaving about two to three eighths sticking out. I liberally applied some black paint to the tips then laid my bust down on the mounting plate. If you didn't stick the landing in the right spot, no worries. The bust is going to hide any marks here, so you can just wipe off the bad marks, then choose a new color and have another go.
Once the marks are in the right spots, just drill them out with a bit slightly smaller than the girth of the screws you will use to mount. For some extra bonding power, I put a good amount of Power Grab (similar to Liquid Nails) on the back of the form before screwing it together with the back plate. In order to hang this on a wall, I used several strips of Command Picture Hanging Strips, because I hate putting holes in my walls. All in all this thing probably weighs between fifteen and twenty pounds, but I've had it hanging on a bead board wall for over a month now with no issue. If you like putting holes in your walls, you can always attach a picture hanging cleat to the back of the piece, or attach hanging wire, or even screw it right onto the wall. Whatever floats your boat!
So that's it! It's ready for dust collecting! If any parts of this project seemed out of your scope of ability, rest assured, they are probably not. If you've got enough patience and a long enough attention span, anyone can put their own spin on this project. And I hope you do! Like the old saying goes; there's a million different ways to skin a unicorn! Cheers!