Introduction: Wheelchair in Camouflage

About: I re*make mobility devices and materials and give them new lives. I re*use often. And sometimes I staple drape.

And now for something completely different: a wheelchair in camouflage!

My last big artwork was the Jazzy Peacock Scooter, which took about a year to make. This piece took maybe 2 days. Sure, I had a well-stocked prop storage, a good tool kit and the help of an excellent scenic painter. Even so, this project is a lot easier than the Peacock and much faster! You can make this happen without prop storage or a TV crew. Access to a good military surplus store, thrift store or even a junk-filled garage will help.

I made this as a gift for one of the producers on my TV day gig. The techniques are pretty simple.

Here's the materials:

An old standard wheelchair with a non-standard cow-catcher attached to the front. (No idea why. The day gig is a sitcom for 9-11 year old boys, and there's a whole lot of silly stuff in storage.)

2 military surplus camo print soft carry-on bags

1 camo print uniform jacket

1 nylon duffel bag

2 pillow forms (1 cushion and one bed pillow)

1 small canvas backpack

1 canteen in a canvas carry case

1 canvas carry bag

And here's the tools:

Razor blade for opening seams

Sharp scissors

Sewing machine with a size 16 universal needle and black polyester thread

Heavy duty black thread

A curved upholstery needle and milliner's needles

A rotary hole punch

Boot laces

AND the help of an awesome painter. Thanks, Derek!

Step 1: Camo Covered Cowcatcher

I started out by cleaning off the wheelchair with soapy water, a sponge and a bunch of rags. Wheelchair wheels get FILTHY. This one was sitting in storage for a while, and the grease in the spokes was all tangles up with cobwebs, hair and I don't know what all else. It took a few buckets of soapy water before it was clean enough to work on.

Then I held up one of the camo carry-on bags to see if it would work over the cow catcher. The bottom of the bag had rubber traction pads that looked good, so I used the bottom for the front. It was a good size, but there was no way to rig it over the cow catcher without opening up some seams. I used a razor blade to open the side seams and to take out the top zipper. This opened the bag enough so I could shove it over the cow catcher.

Pro tip: razor blades are great for ripping out seams. A lot of professionals prefer a safety razor blade (the kind with a metal sleeve on one edge) over plastic seam rippers, since they're much sharper and faster. They are really sharp, though, and it's easy to cut yourself if you're not careful.

I turned the wheelchair over on its back and pinned the carry-on bag over the cowcatcher with safety pins. The bag was made of heavy Cordura, like the fabric you see in backpacks. It's great stuff and very durable, but hard to pin and sew. Big safety pins were necessary. When it was pinned and fitting pretty snugly, I took out the heavy duty thread, scissors, a pair of needle nosed pliers and a curved upholstery needle. I threaded the needle, knotted the thread ends and used pliers to help me sew. This was slow going, since I used the pliers to shove the needle into the fabric, then re-positioned the pliers to pull the needle out of the fabric. Luckily, this wheelchair wasn't supposed to look delicate, so it didn't matter if my seams were beautiful!

I whipstitched both sides down, flipped the wheelchair seat up over a chair and pinned the top edge of the camo fabric over the top of the cow catcher. That edge was tricky, since I had to work around the metal bars holding it to the wheelchair frame, but eventually I was able to whip stitch it down. I took a little break to rest my hands before moving on to the next step.

Step 2: Shirt for the Back

I took out the camo uniform jacket, unzipped the front and fitted it around the back of the wheelchair seat. The shirt fit loosely, but that wasn't a problem. I wanted to pad out the back to make it more comfortable and there was plenty of room to shove a pillow form in between the seat and the jacket's front. I zipped it up, closed the buttons and voila! A finished seat back!

I cut the sleeves open at the underarm seams and wrapped them around the arms of the wheelchair. Then I folded the cut edges underneath and pinned the folds so the arms fit pretty snugly. At first, I planned on hand sewing the fold down, but that fabric was tough! Luckily, my trusty rotary hole punch was nearby. I set the punch to a small hole and used it to punch holes in the sleeves on both sides of my pinned folds, then laced the sleeves to each other using boot laces. I tied the laces into a knot at the back and snipped off the extra lace ends with scissors.

Pro tip: when punching a hole in any kind of material, put a piece of thick leather or vinyl over the bottom plate on the hole punch. This keeps the metal punches (the round cutting tubes on the rotary wheel) from hitting the plate, so they don't get dull nearly so fast. Dull punches are a lot harder to use than sharp ones. A good rotary hole punch has screw-in punches, so you can replace them if the break or wear out, but they usually have to be special ordered. Keeping spare punches on hand is a good idea, but I wasn't being that clever. Oops. Luckily, the punches hold up for a long time.

Step 3: Accessories Are Key

Now it was time to accessorize the wheelchair! The props department at my TV gig had a huge collection of military surplus bags, packs and such. There were lots of options to play with.

By the way, the props department takes care of everything from bags, pillows, toys, weapons and stuffed animals. Their job overlaps sometimes with set decorators. The main difference is that props people are in charge of all the stuff the actors touch. Set decorators are in charge of what a room or set looks like, so they're in charge of things like furniture, lamps, wall art and hanging cobwebs. Thanks to Steve Fronczek of Galactiguise for the definition!

I strapped a canvas bag to the front of the cow catcher, using its adjustable strap to snug it into place. I pulled the strap of the camo carry-on bag on top to help hold the canvas bag down. There was a great little khaki canvas backpack I put over the back of the chair's seat, over the shoulders and under the arms of the uniform jacket. The straps had clips and were adjustable, so it was easy to fit it snugly to the seat back. All that activity pulled the sleeves out of place in back and exposed the cut seams, so I re-pinned them together to cover the holes. Then I punched a couple of new holes on either side of the pinned areas and used my scraps of boot lacing to tie the sleeves in place.

The seat bottom needed a little love, so I used a nylon duffel bag as a pillowcase for a seat cushion. I cut the duffel bag down the center and cut off the bottom so I could use it as fabric. I folded the fabric in half, put a plain seat cushion on top and drew around it with a Sharpie to mark my edges. I pinned the sides and machine sewed them on the lines with a straight stitch. I turned the fabric right side out and shoved the seat cushion inside. Then I folded the top edges under, pinned them together and shoved them under the sewing machine to sew shut with a zig-zag stitch. I sewed laces to both corners of this edge so I could tie them to the back of the seat's frame.

On the front, folded edge of the cushion, I machine sewed the duffel bag's strap to one corner. I sewed a folded over piece of strap to the opposite corner and then sewed a 2" square of velcro (the prickly side) to the flap, using a zig-zag stitch. I test fitted the cushion on the seat and pulled the long strap under the front of the seat. I marked where the strap met the velcro flap with a pin. Then I machine sewed fuzzy velcro to the strap on my mark, trimmed off the excess strap and zig-zagged the cut edge so it wouldn't fray. I put my new cushion on the seat, tied the laces on the back corners around the frame and fitted the front velcro strap under the front of the seat. Sorry there's no pictures of me making the pillow, but hopefully my descriptions will give you a good idea.

As a final touch, I strapped a canteen holder and canteen to the cow catcher. It was ready to go to the painter!

Step 4: Yay, Paint and More Design Ideas

I got the wheelchair as far as I could and was done for the day, so I went home. In the meantime, the props people handed the wheelchair over to our scenic painter, Derek. He did a stellar job.

He painted the wheel rims and the lower arms of the chair with a camo finish that was just perfect. The colors are a blend of the camo on the uniform jacket and the very different camo print on the cow catcher. There's even a hint of metallic gold in there to jazz it up a little. I wasn't there when he painted the chair, so I have no idea what techniques he used. But it looks like it's acrylic paint with a sponge painted base and hand painted finishing touches.

At any rate, the paint made it perfect. And it was a great surprise to come back the next day and find it done! Our producer loved it and keeps it in a place of honor in his office.

This is a pretty simple project, even if you don't have a TV crew or prop storage to dig through. It's also a fun way to work. Collaborating on projects makes the workload lighter and you can focus on the areas you like best. Maybe you're better at painting and have a friend or partner who's better at sewing or vice versa. Share the work and enjoy!

I used a military theme for this chair, but there's a ton of other options. A wheelchair is a great base for dolling up anyway you like. It can become a fire engine, a back hoe, a pirate ship, rocket ship or a dragon. (There's some fun wheelchair costumes online.) Maybe you prefer fun fur, glittery fabrics, sequins or feathers. Anything goes! Dig through closets, the attic or storage or take a friend to the local thrift store to find supplies. I guarantee you'll find inspiration. Hey, zip-tying plush animals to the frame means you don't have to sew a thing.

Give it a whirl! I'd love to see what you come up with.