Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Make a Dragon

I had so much fun making a Hawkman helmet last year that I wanted to make something bigger this year. (Also, I love costumes but I can't use a sewing machine. I really need to learn.) Special thanks to my husband for being so very, very patient with how long this took me to complete. I missed you, too.

My concept is the Chinese zodiac Year of the Dragon. (Click the picture for a larger version.)

If you look close, in the photo on the right the dragon's whisker makes it look like I have a Fu Man Chu.

Body Construction
I started with some foam-wrapped heavy-duty wire and decently thick craft wire and made the skeleton.

To add thickness, I surrounded the wire with soda cans stuffed with paper and added a foam ball as a placeholder for the head.

Testing for size and wearability:

It wasn't as thick as I wanted it to be, so I added some stripes of packing peanuts and sheets of foam sold as padding for boxing dishes and glasses during a move. 

Pro tip: make this as smooth and even as possible. I thought I was going to smooth out the shape with cardboard rings but ended up scrapping that idea, so it's a little lumpy in some places. This is also where I should have worked out the harness system.

Legs are made from cardboard boxes, paper, and duct tape. More on those later.

The tail flourish was cut from paper, cut out of a yellow binder, and glued to a cardboard shape standing in for the end of the tail; later it was replaced with the same shape cut out of foam sheets and coated in yellow duct tape.

A foam egg adds the thickness I wanted for the end of the tail, packing peanuts or folded paper would work just as well.

I opted to start from the tail with adding scales for a couple reasons: the layering would look silly the other way, and I wanted to make sure the body was done before I put all the time into the head, because that's where the most detail work is.

It turns out that fake fingernails + hot glue gun = startlingly realistic scales.

I intended to repeat this for the toes and details on the face, but I didn't have time.

Most of the scales wouldn't be practical as fake fingernails, so I used tape.

I folded a length of duct tape over on itself, placed that along one edge of some wide blue electrical tape, traced a rounded edge to make a scalloped pattern, and cut it out.
Pro tip: near the end of the tail the scales were traced from a US dime, but scaled up through coins as the tail became the body.

I did my best to place the scales so that they didn't line up. Here's where using vinyl tape was extra awesome – it's very forgiving. If I put it down wrong once or twice or six times, it was easy to peel up and re-stick.

Pro tip: black duct tape blends better with the blue vinyl tape, but when I switched to white duct tape, it added a nice subtle edge and gave the scales some more visible depth.

Repeat this incredibly mindless and time-consuming process until the body is all scale-ified.

 Fun fact: Between the foam squishiness and the smoothness and overlap of the scales, it feels neat. I definitely encourage people to touch it. The vinyl tape also makes it rain-resistant, which is a nice bonus.

Scales covering the body just about to the head, time to start on the legs. I started with the back.

Back Legs
The basic shape is there from taking a cardboard box, flattening it into a large single sheet of cardboard, rolling it into a tapered tube, and slicing where the joints should be. Then I stuffed the open areas with crumpled paper and duct taped it into place.

The ankle joint has a styrofoam egg stuffed inside to keep the shape, but anything small and light will do the trick.

I decided how long I wanted the toes and shoved a doubled-over length of wide craft wire into the ankle joint on either side of my foam spacer. Putting the wire in from the ankle made it more sturdy than just trying to tape it on.

I smoothed out the shape of the knee with thin cardboard strips and wrapped it all in duct tape.

Then I jammed the third toe wire into the foam spacer. It felt pretty solid, plus it was taped in place.

More foam packing sheets, cut into strips about an inch wide, wrapped around each toe wire.

The claws are triangles of cardboard covered in black duct tape, the knee joint is made from paper cut into wide triangles and taped at each joint (same process as the spine scales later, I just didn't take pictures at this stage). This was a LOT easier than trying to get the right number of coin-sized scales to go around a bend that sharp.

Take a moment and be pleased with progress. Shortly after this picture, I ended up wrapping some tape-covered wire around the top of both back legs and under the belly to keep them from rotating around at an unnatural angle while I was wearing it.

Harness System
Another wearing test. The whole back leg area is a little bulky, but it still fits the original plan. This is where I worked out a harness system of a belt and shoulder strap, but I probably should have done that before the scales were added.

The belt is a regular belt, just looped around the wire keeping the back legs in place, buckled at my natural waist. The shoulder strap is something I found for holding school books or something. It's perfect - an adjustable loop at one end and a velcro strap meant to stick to itself at the other.

This enabled me to wrap it around the dragon's torso behind me, sling over my shoulder, tuck under the belt, and velcro to itself to stay in place. It almost looks like I'm wearing a seatbelt.

It was important to get the dragon as a whole to stay in place before I finished the front legs, because they are not structurally sound enough to support any weight by themselves.
Front Legs
The front legs followed the same process as the back legs, but were a little easier because they have one less joint and are shorter.

I started with the mouth. It seemed like the most logical feature to begin with, since it takes up the most real estate of the head. I stated with a folded cardboard shape and taped on some rolled-up foam sheet pieces.

I created the nose shape with strips of cardboard and taped them in place as well.

Then I realized the cardboard had the right idea but needed more flexibility, so I cut out most of it and replaced it with a wire outline, then taped all of it onto the foam head placeholder.

Wire wrapped in foam sheeting in similar dimensions to the top jaw, taped to the foam head.

Add tape! Red vinyl tape inside the mouth, blue outside. The teeth are doubled-over white duct tape, cut in a sawtooth pattern (measured and marked in pencil for maximum even-ness). 

Here the bottom teeth are taped to the inside, but later I moved it to the outside so it looked more like it belonged with the top jaw (also taped on the outside).

The brow ridge basic shape is half a foam egg and wire, wrapped in a foam sheet strip, to make a comma shape.

Two were taped to a flying-bird-shaped piece of cardboard to keep them even, then covered in more paper triangles covered in yellow tape. The wire ends reached the side of the head and were taped in place. Some strips of blue tape are keeping the middle section of the cardboard in place.

A foam egg cut in half became my eyeballs, hot glued in place under the brow ridges.

Antlers! I put sida can tabs in the loop of these lengths of wire, thinking they would act as a stabilizer for the wire, but once it was wrapped in foam sheet, I'm not sure it was necessary.

Antlers were wrapped in white tape and secured to the head with more blue vinyl tape.

I added jaw frills (paper cutout covered in tape, taped to more rolled foam so it sticks out a little, and taped in place), whiskers (pipe cleaner wrapped in strips of tape), and the rest of the neck scales. Most illustrations of Asian dragons also have a little mustache and beard, but I left those off.

Spine Scales
This is the same basic process, with different triangle dimensions, I used for all the joints and the eyebrows.

Triangles traced on paper...

...covered in tape...
...cut into individual shapes...
...folded lengthwise and taped together.

Apply to body as appropriate. A small strip of blue tape covers two of the three triangle corners; lots of little contact points makes it moderately secure.

When these are on the outside of a curve, it looks pretty awesome. Inside a curve, like in the middle of the back, is a little more challenging. I could do most in strips of 3-5 triangles, but the ones in the awkward parts had to be taped individually, points set to one side just a little.
Not bad!

When I put it on, I realized the head had a tendency to droop over time, so I taped a bottle cap under the chin and wrapped a drumstick in black tape. The stick isn't attached, and if I don't feel like holding it up, I tuck the stick between me and the belt under the back legs.

Answering Questions

How long did it take?
I couldn't tell other than "a really long time," but I started in June, slacked off for a month or so, ran into some setbacks, and finished just before Halloween.

What did you use?
I'm going to estimate 12 rolls of duct and vinyl tape, two packages of foam sheets, 4 rolls of 3-5mm craft wire, 3 of large foam-covered wire, a package of styrofoam eggs, a styrofoam sphere, fake nails, a hot glue gun and glue, a belt, and a velcro strap over the shoulder.

How much did the materials cost?
I got everything but the foam eggs at the ¥100 store, and I already had the belt. I think the eggs cost something like ¥700, which is pricey, but they were left over from last year, so I'm not counting them. I'm also not counting the belt that I've had for ten years, the empty soda cans, the crumpled paper (I used a lot of junk mail) or the hot glue gun and glue. Total about ¥2600, or $33 USD.

How much does it weigh?
About 5.5 lbs, or 2.5 kg.

Does it have a name?
Tatsu, I guess (Japanese for "dragon," "tatsudoshi" is the word for Year of the Dragon).

If you had more time, what else would have you done with it?
I would have added more detail and taken more time to smooth things out. Maybe add a rim of sparkly nail polish to each of the scales.
And/or I'd have made the whole thing a puppet.
And/or added a little box for a piece of dry ice.
And/or added LED lights.
Maybe another year!

What will you do with it after Halloween?
I have no idea, but I probably won't wear it for another Halloween. What do you think I should do with it?


  1. That is incredible and crazy. I can't believe how sleek the scales look. You were very creative in your use of materiels!