DIY Dinosaurs, Part 1: papier mache

April 26, 2013

Rexy skeleton

Earlier this spring London and I got on a building dinosaurs kick, inspired by this post at Tumblehome Learning. I used a few of these photos as filler in this post, but I haven’t talked much about what we did and what we learned.

Above is my first attempt at a wire skeleton for a papier mache dinosaur. Yes, despite being a dino-geek from the age of three on, I had never made a papier mache dinosaur before this spring. The thicker white wires are from a hanger, and the thin ones are from a reel of wire I found in the hardware section at Wal-Mart. It’s held together with masking tape, and the thick wires running down the legs of the dino are going into holes I drilled in that piece of scrap wood.

Wire jaw

Here’s part of the wireframe for my first skull. At this point I was still thinking of Alioramus. Notice the sections of drinking straw, split and popped onto the wires to bulk out the wireframe and give the papier mache more than a 2D plane to bite on.

Wire skull

Here’s that lower jaw with the rest, a skull of some kind of predatory coelurosaur. Fairly early on I abandoned the strict Alioramus plan and followed in the footsteps in Barnas Monteith at Tumblehome Learning (who posted the instructions linked above) in going for a sort of generic critter instead of any particular real-life taxon. Therefore, I was free to freewheel without having to worry too much about accuracy (Robert Frost would have said I was playing tennis with the net down). As you can see here, this is another wire job held together with duck tape, and the lower jaw already has the first layer of papier mache on.

Papier mache is pretty hard to screw up: put some water in a bowl, add flour until it gets thick, stick pieces of torn-up newspaper in the mix and put them on whatever you’re making. Anything more than that, you should learn on your own by experimentation.

Raptor skull in cardboard

Progress on “Rexy” and my skull was going too slow for London, so I knocked out a crude Velociraptor skull in cardboard for him to work on at his own pace. This became “Rapty”.

The Three Machesketeers

An early family portrait: “Rapty”, “Rexy”, and my “Uglioramus” skull. You can see the Wedel method for not messing up the dining room table: first, put down a layer of plastic trash bags taped together, then a layer of newspapers taped together. For Rexy, we put down a layer of cling wrap to keep the papier mache drips off the wood base, which was a huge win in the long run. Rapty and Ulgioramus are sitting on foil-covered pizza-baking sheets. Those turned out to be useful for…

Baking theropods

…baking skulls. Papier mache dries  s  l  o  w  l  y  in cool, wet weather. But if it will fit, you can pop your thing in the oven on low heat for 15-20 minutes and get’er done quickly. This worked for both skulls, but it worked better for Rapty. On Uglioramus, the metal expanded enough to keep poking its way out of the papier mache, so I did a lot of patching. Still probably faster than waiting for the whole thing to air-dry.

Putting in teeth

Teeth. I went a little nuts with these in terms of size (I know, those teeth won’t fit into that maxilla, but it looks rad if you switch your brain off, kind of like Jurassic Park). They’re made up of flat cardboard from a cheap box (not corrugated) layered together with wood glue to give them some thickness, and coated with more wood glue and papier mache goo to soften the contour lines.

Sealing with Titebond

Before painting I sealed the whole thing with a thin layer of Titebond wood glue. That probably wasn’t 100% necessary, given what went on next, but I knew it would get the job done and strengthen the structure.

London and Rapty

Back to “Rapty”: he got a set of teeth–one layer of thin cardboard this time–entirely speculative nasal and parietal horns courtesy of London, and a couple of coats of Kilz2 white latex primer left over from a telescope-making project. Then he was off to school for show-and-tell. Since then he’s gotten one thin coat of brown watercolor paint. Some of the holes in the skull just about closed up during papier-macheing, but since the impetus for the project was to have fun, it doesn’t trouble me.

Uglioramus in paint box

Here’s Uglioramus, also dressed in Kilz, awaiting his first coat of paint in my expensive, professional paint box. Leaving a freshly-painted object without overhead protection in this neighborhood is just asking for it to be hit by falling vegetation.

Uglioramus first coat

And here we are after the first coat. I use Krylon because it’s cheap, tough, and dries fast, but with the Kilz on I could probably use just about anything.

And that brings us up to the present. I have some ideas on how to finish Uglioramus to make it look more like a fossil skull and less like some cast-off from a flea market, but those will have to wait for another post.

The upshot of all of this is that I am not an expert on either theropod skulls or papier mache, and if a doofus like me can do this well the first time out, you can probably do as well or better yourself. And it’s cheap, messy fun. Highly recommended.

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4 Responses to “DIY Dinosaurs, Part 1: papier mache”

  1. Teresa White Says:

    Super cool! I’m going to do this with my niece the next time she visits.

  2. KILZ Brands Says:

    Hey Matt! Great project! My name is Katy and I am the social media coordinator for KILZ Brand products. We would love to spotlight this on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/KILZBrand. Please send me an email giving me permission to do so at kwillenbrink@masterchem.com. Thanks!

  3. paleomanuel Says:

    I usually play form and function with these paper-maché skulls and bones as raw models. Is good to see (and feel) how simple thin cardboard layers become a functional skull, with solid and flexible parts.

  4. John Scanlon, FCD Says:

    My only papier mache dinosaur was a prosauropoddy-thing about a metre long, based around a previously p-m covered balloon, a tree branch with an interesting triple curve (distinct cervical, dorsal and caudal regions), coathangers, various bits of cardboard as well as the newspaper and flour-n-water goop, bamboo pedal claws, glass teddy-bear eyes, and a colour scheme based on the Plateosaurus in “Dinosaurs of the Earth”. Unfortunately the tree branch must have been inhabited by borers, and the dinosaur gradually developed a severely pock-marked and ragged appearance, and (after a last photo-shoot with the kids) he was retired a couple of years ago during another interstate move. It’ll be skulls next time!


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