Introduction: Upcycled Dragon Head Mask

About: I am a multimedia maker and STEAM educator living in Los Angeles. There are few things more satisfying to me than acquiring and exploring a new skillset, so you'll find a wide variety of materials in my projec…

A friend made a Halloween Challenge to create some kind of costume or prop for no more than $50, and I decided to try for a build where I didn't have to buy anything at all. All recycled and things I had. The materials were all free, but I admit I did go through a hefty amount of hot glue and regular glue.

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  • Corrugated cardboard (a LOT of it) - Whatever kind you've got. This can be found for free if you don't have any kicking around your home already. Ask your neighbors, ask your local businesses. Look for something fairly clean, but it doesn't need to be pristine.
  • Paperboard - Think cereal boxes. This kind of cardboard is very bendy, easily cut with scissors, and great for prototyping.
  • Butcher-type paper or newspaper - Some kind of thin paper. This is generally a bit thinner than printer paper, but thicker than tissue paper. This is used often as packaging, so if you see some come in, roll it up and save it. It's very useful.
  • Old magazines, junk mail, wrapping paper, tissue paper - All those things that come in your mailbox and usually get tossed tend to have a lot of color to catch your attention. Make use of it! Gift wrapping also tends to be very colorful. I hope you're not just throwing that stuff away!
  • Glue - School glue works great for collaging onto your mask. I grabbed an empty container and made a glue/water mixture about the consistency of runny pancake batter.
  • Hot glue gun and glue sticks - I went through a LOT of hot glue for this project
  • Masking tape - for prototyping and holding things in place while they dry
  • Craft knife/utility knife/cardboard cutter/Scissors - Whatever you've got for cutting. I honestly used pretty much all of these in this project, they're all useful in different situations.


  • Battery powered fairy lights or LEDs + translucent paper (if you want it to glow)
  • Heavyish wire and some strong objects like soda can tabs or washers (if you want joints)
    • Note: there are SO many things you could use for this. I just stumbled upon wire first.
  • Very optional: paint. I could have done paper collage on the teeth, but I bailed and took the easy way out. (THE SHAME!)

Step 1: Planning & Prototyping

Making a mask based on a simple box is easy enough, but I wanted a more complex shape of my own geometric design, and I knew well enough that I needed to figure out a plan. Tinkered tiny prototype it is!

I did a whole lot of gathering of photos in a Pinterest board. Interestingly, in terms of design, I found guides for how to draw a dragon were most useful, particularly one using a wireframe of a polygon not too far off of a rectangular prism. This gave me a starting point.

I assembled a basic shape out of cereal box paperboard and masking tape, then added, removed, and replaced parts for an hour or two until I had something I liked. I knew I wanted a mouth that would open, so when I had it in a sufficient state of completion, I added holes and brass fasteners to make my prototype move.

Yes, my prototype looks like a nightmare of hacked-together tape, but it's not here to look pretty. It's here to help me figure out shapes and it does that admirably. (It's also not here to last, so if you want your prototype to stick around after you've gotten your pattern, add some glue eventually or something. Mine has absolutely fallen to pieces and I haven't the faintest idea how to reassemble it.)

I used a small ball as a stand in for my head to create an opening, and to figure out how much I needed to scale it.

When I was happy with it, I traced the different flat panels onto a piece of paper to make my patterns (some type of grid is helpful) and labeled it all.

Step 2: Basic Assembly

I used my pattern and trusty ruler to sketch out the pieces I would need on large sheets of cardboard. Fortunately, I get cat food and litter in the mail.

It's important to pay attention to the direction of the flutes when you're layout out your panels.If you have a section that you want to curve, like I did for the cheeks and under the jaw, you will make your life SO much easier if you make sure that the flutes (those long holes that go through the cardboard) are going the correct way. Look at the comments in my photos to get a better idea.

I started at one end and hot glued the two pieces together a few inches at a time, letting the glue dry enough that I knew it was secure before moving onto the next. When it was nearly dry, I stuck a piece of masking tape on the outside to give it just a bit more support while I moved onto gluing the next few inches.

You'll kick yourself if you rush the glue job and then have it falling apart on you. Put on the Great British Baking Show in the background. Listen to a Stacy Abrams audiobook. Take your time.

Most of these had a hard edge connected at the hard edge of another panel. This is not terribly secure as there's not a lot of surface contact, so I used both a lot of hot glue and a significant number of L-brackets (L-shaped pieces that can be glued to both panels).

To ensure the shapes I wanted, I also added additional bracing inside. Take a look at the pictures to see where I put that.

Now, Adam Savage and other cosplayers will tell you that you never want to make your neck take the weight of a costume, but being made out of cardboard, this is seriously light. If I had a more delicate neck, if it were any heavier, or if I planned to wear it for a significant length of time, I'd probably make something to carry the weight of it elsewhere. But it's the pandemic, and I'm not wearing this a whole lot in Zoom calls. So I made a headband with a strip of cardboard bent along the flutes and attached to the top of the mask with yet more L-brackets, and it works perfectly well for me. If you need support, you could probably make yourself a cardboard belt with cardboard suspenders and make the weight from the head rest mostly on that.

Step 3: Not-So-Basic Assembly

In my prototype, I used a brass fastener to make my jaw pivot, but the full size mask would eat brass fasteners for breakfast, so I needed a different solution.

You could use a super industrial brass fastener, you could use a bolt and nut, I happened upon some heavy wire and soda can tabs, so I looped the wire through a tab on the inside, pushed the wire through the holes I marked from my pattern (Remember the pattern? It's still useful), and then looped it through another tab and tightened it a bit. The nice thing with this is that you can use pliers to tighten the wire as much as you need to for adjusting the length.

I'd eventually like to rig something up so that I can open and close the jaw with my mouth, but it's a crazy time I think you can agree and I didn't get to that part.

The horns may be my favorite part to make. They're just so fun to mess with, and you get such interesting shapes so easily once you understand how to do it. (Take a look at the pictures.) The easiest way to start is to think about what you want it to look like from the side and cut that shape with the flutes going the short way. Then make yourself the alternating piece, which can be straight or wavy, but ultimately needs to go from wide and taper down to a point. Once again, cut this with the flutes going the short way. Then pre-bend your pieces a little bit along the flutes, and do the same attachment as in the last step to attach edges together. Poof! Horn!

The other nice thing about these is that they're so quick to make, that you can try a whole bunch until you find shapes that you like, and then make ones in reverse for the opposite side of the head. The best way to attach these is to strip down the non-pointed end to just a single wall of the card board and then glue that onto the head. See the pictures to get a better idea of how to do this.

I wanted to cover my soda can joint but still have access to it, so I placed one of my horns over the exterior side.

Step 4: Smoothing the Surface With Paper Mache

If you like what your shape looks like after the last step, and if you've done super sturdy construction, you can skip most of this if you really want, but to make it extra strong and make it NOT look like cardboard with the grooves from the flutes and the edges and all, this step is useful.

When I say "paper mache" here, I mean glue and water and paper. You really don't need anything more fancy than that, though if you're doing a big mask like this, you're gonna need a LOT of glue.

Look for spots that show a surface texture you don't like, and cover them up. For both of the below techniques, tearing and feathering the edges of your patch material makes them easier to blend in.

  • For hard edges (where I attached pieces in the assembly) and spots that showed big cardboard creases, I tore off one wall of a piece of corrugated cardboard and used glue straight from the bottle to attach it. This is also a good way to cover and reinforce full on gaps in your cardboard surface. You've gotta make sure there's enough glue and that you hold it in place long enough for it to adhere.
  • For surfaces that were only mildly rough, or to cover up the seams from heavier pieces like I mention above, I used butcher-type paper, which I get as packing material in the mail all the time. I tore small to medium sized pieces, painted the back with my glue/water mixture ALL the way off the edges and then pressed it to the spot I wanted to cover. This is not the time to worry about getting your hands messy. Your hands WILL get messy, just own it. I used my glue brush to apply a little more glue mixture over the edges to ensure that they'd stay down. Sometimes I would use my fingers to help smooth out this paper.

Move onto another spot and let things dry when you need to.

Step 5: Adding Color

The step of adding color is much like the smoothing paper mache step from before. As with the butcher-type paper, you want to add the glue/water mixture to the entire back of any thin magazine pages, getting the edges well and painting on a bit more once it's in place.

It's quite fun choosing and placing your pieces all over. Think about where you want there to be shadows and highlights and choose patterns accordingly. I had some handmade paper that I'd acquired years ago, so I used that in some places. Soft papers like that do really well in adhering and taking the shape of the surface you're covering. For less flexible papers, you may want to cut slits or use smaller pieces when covering curves. Heavier magazine pages (like covers) may need glue that hasn't been diluted by water. Just pay attention to what the paper is telling you and adjust as needed.

Once I'd gotten all of my base layer of pages in place, I decided to make the red sections a bit more unified by pasting tissue paper over all of the very visible patterned pages. For attaching paper this thin, I found the best way was to paint the glue mixture directly onto the mask and then place the tissue over, using the brush and sometimes more glue mixture to spread it out. Using your hands for something as soft as that can cause it to tear.

Step 6: Lighting It Up

This is a very optional step, and one that can be done in a lot of ways. The way my dragon head was constructed, there was a narrow pocket between the roof of the mouth and the top of the head, behind where the eyes were, so I decided to light them up.

I happened to have some vellum to cover the eye openings, but you could do it just as well with tissue paper or even regular printer paper. As long as light will pass through it, it should work. Glue or tape them inside (if you want to make it easier on yourself, I'd suggest doing this BEFORE making the space super difficult to access). :)

For lighting, I did the simplest messy circuit ever, sticking LEDs, resistor, and power into a solderless breadboard and taping it inside. You could also use some battery powered fairy lights, which would probably be a lot easier, but you could also go nuts and add LEDs that look like flames! EvilMadScientist has flickering kits, and even just simple candle flicker LEDs, which I would have used for this if I hadn't run out!

Step 7: Fin!

And that's the finished dragon head. I'm very happy with how it looks, and it's fascinating to me how much can be made with a cardboard base. I may do more cardboard write ups if people think they would be of interest.

As I said before, I would like to eventually rig up a pulley system inside so that I can talk and control the mouth movement from inside. I'd also like to add bottom teeth, and maybe get some lights inside that flicker like fire. I definitely need to create something that I can use to hang this on my wall.

If I were to go REALLY crazy, I'd get a vape pen or something and have it blow steam out of the mouth or nostrils, but then I'd need to account for what the steam would do to the cardboard/paper. I'm inclined to stick to Photoshop for smoke effects.

If you make a cardboard mask or head and this write up has helped you at all, please let me know! I'd love to see your builds! Thanks for reading!

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