How I made my Paper Mache Monster, Frank!
Intro: I am honored that Jonni asked me to write a guest post about how I brought my Paper Mache Monster “Frank” to life and to be able to share my work with this community and be amongst this caliber of Artists.
It’s Alive! A monster begins.
My friend Frank started like many versions of the good doctor Frankenstein’s infamous experiments often do; with a curiosity. One that was too intriguing to ignore.
Frank’s torso began with a few scrap pieces of 1”X 6” cedar fencing boards rough cut to size to form a basic rectangle shape. I chose them because they gave me the strength I needed for the frame and for their light weight.
I wasn’t sure exactly what he would become at this point, so the first few steps to any build are really just me eyeballing, cutting/re-cutting and tacking a frame together until I have a rough outline I’m happy with. I added some cross bracing for additional strength. I have learned through trial and error to leave myself as much room to play around with as I can, to give me more options when I get into the details and mechanics later on. It is a very organic process, one that I enjoy very much. There is nothing like following a problem down the rabbit hole and seeing where you come out on the other side.
I had that classic monster/zombie pose in my head as far as what I wanted his posture to be. I didn’t want just a clunky prop for the yard. I wanted to incorporate motion to help bring him to life, even as a static prop. The pose is universal and instantly recognizable, and my way of paying homage to Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in the 1931 version of Frankenstein. I tried to add as many touches of Jack Pierce’s make-up effects as I could fit without overdoing it. More on that later.
His arms were created from mostly scrap 1”X 3” and 1”X 2”. I put screws where I wanted the joint bends to be, so I could pose the arms like a skeleton until I found the right amount of character to give him that ominous touch. It’s subtle but a few inches make a lot of difference. Once I found the pose, I added a few more screws to lock them into place. I attached the arms to the torso with some temporary screws, later replaced with lag bolts with washers and wing nuts for strength, durability and so that he can be disassembled for storage. Space in the shop is a luxury these days.
I attached two plastic hands at the end of the arms. I’m sure everyone has these laying around in the Halloween stuff (or should). I usually try to grab 10 or so of them and have them on hand year round for various uses. They only come in right handed poses, so, channeling doctor Frankenstein himself, I ended up slicing off most of the fingers, re-locating a thumb and re-structuring them until I found the pose I was looking for.
His arms were then wrapped in packing paper, in a few passes, bulking up places and giving my monster some flesh on his bones. The front of the torso frame was temporally covered with thick cardboard, which I replaced with wood later on in the build.
In true Frankenstein style, His head ended up being a series of experiments. In his infancy, he was originally going to just be a quick prop for the yard seeing that things have been crazy and for one reason or another, we didn’t get to celebrate Halloween in our usual style. Doing nothing is never an option, especially around Halloween time. I was determined to create something.
I have made, started rather, about 12 masks that I work on when time allows. I have had this image in my head for a long time of a mask that has a square jaw look to it that is used for candy storage instead of having a bucket or bag to carry around. So my train of thought was to make his jaw a candy bowl that we could pass out the candy from rather than just a bag or boring bowl.
After a little while of putting together the basic head shape and roughing in some details. A visitor to the shop commented on my monster, and didn’t believe it was just a static prop, perhaps assuming my tendencies to keep tinkering with things until they work great or break in style. “Yea, but what does he do?” they asked a few times, in disbelief of the fact that he was just going to be a giant candy bowl.
That got me thinking and within a few minutes I came up with the design for his head to become a candy dispenser. I didn’t want levers or anything foreign that you wouldn’t find on a face, monster or otherwise. So I essentially hollowed out his head and neck and roughed in the parts for the design to start to take shape.
The design consists of four basic parts. The Hopper, Candy Bowl, Neck Bolts which connect via a rod so that either bolt can distribute the candy with a 180* turn, and the Tongue, which carries the candy into the jaw where it rests until the ToT’s collect it. I put in a stop to support the candy bowl from tipping over when it’s loaded from the hopper.
Once everything was roughed in it was time to give Frank some flesh.
Over the past few years, I’ve tried to incorporate a new method or material in each new project I take on. At the very least, find a new use for something I was already familiar with. I’ve had really good results in using Great Stuff foam for a variety of uses.
First experimenting with it last Christmas when I made, as a gift for my Mother, a life-size, 6’ Snowman for the living room. (a few pics on IG of him) I’ve gotten into a habit of saving all of the scraps and leftovers to use in place of balling up paper for bulking out areas, if they’re there, I will find a use for them.
You can see in the above photo, center, a big block of foam that appears to have pissed Rambo off for some reason. I’ve carved different sized pieces off of the sides and top. This was a version of a giant Frank head I started about a year ago that I never had the chance to fully realize. I built a thin cardboard frame, sprayed a few inches of Great Stuff over the entire piece and left it to dry. A year later I found a use.
From the foam, I carved his teeth, extended his brow, built up the details around his scar and fleshed out around his eyes and jaw line. It gave it a really unique texture which I was happy with rather than having a big, flat, square jaw. I cut and drilled the holes in the small wood blocks where the rod goes through his head for the candy to distribute into the mouth.
Frank is now ready for his new skin.
As in most projects involving PM, I do a final layer of masking tape over the entire piece. This seals any exposed cardboard or foil and it also gives it an even, uniform look so I can give it one last once-over before applying the first layer of Paper Mache. Things can always be added on the second pass but it’s usually better to have the basics down by this step.
My PM Glue is pretty standard. Flour and Water base. I don’t measure exact amounts, I mix until the consistency is just a little bit thinner than pancake batter.
I make a batch of liquid cornstarch and slowly add it into the mix. I use a stick blender to make sure it’s nice and smooth. Lumps only cause trouble.
The only things I do different than most recipes are to add small amounts of PVA and Wood Glue. It stores for months at a time, I keep it in the fridge and add a small amount of salt to each batch before I use it rather than all at once. It has worked great for me for quite some time. Hopefully you’ll have a good experience should you choose to give it a try.
My PM process is pretty straight forward. I rarely use actual newspaper anymore; I use Blue Shop Towels because it gives you a starting strength in one coat that you’d only get after 3 or 4 layers of traditional paper. I tear them into a few basic sizes this way I can customize them as I go rather than having a bucket full of tiny towel pieces. Tearing off all of the straight edges as well. Most of this is not new to anyone here I’m sure.
I method in which I apply the PM is a way that is seen more in fiber glassing than traditional PM. I make up my glue and brush a small coat of glue on the area I’m working on, which also acts as a sealer on top of the masking tape. Then lay each piece one by one, various sizes depending on curves and open areas.
I brush more glue on top of the shop towel which soaks it right up. I use a chip brush to push any part of the towel around into creases and around bends. The edges blend nicely and the process is duplicated hundreds of times until a uniform light blue blankets the piece.
I don’t wet the towels like I’ve seen some people do before they PM over it, just a preference; I haven’t had any issues in not wetting them before hand. They do a nice shrink wrap effect around the shapes you lay them on and there is no cracking or warping. Getting the piece to dry quickly and thoroughly is the key to preventing mold in most cases. I try to keep them in a warm (humid-less) environment as best I can.
Then again, sometimes pieces are left outside for days and they turn out just as well, so “six in one, half a dozen in the other” as the saying goes.
For the hair, I did use the technique of soaking the shop towels in the glue mixture, I know that this method is preferred by some, forbidden by others, I find it works better for the flowing effect of the hair. I shaped it and moved it around until I was happy with the general look. I gave his hair a little more of a sweeping look versus the straight down look. I did this to showcase the scar and the metal plates that will be attached to his hairline. I didn’t have the heart to give my monster a bowl cut. Poor bastard’s been through enough already.
After the first coat of PM had dried, I cut an access panel in the back of Frank’s head. (a drill makes a great tool replacement when it’s 4am and your Dremel battery is dead) The PM process is repeated on the inside of his head and around the edges of the access panel. I then added the neck and gave the remaining and overlapping areas a quick coat of PM and let dry.
TIP: For areas requiring more strength, I often add more wood glue to the already made mix rather than waiting days to give it another coat. You have to be selective with this technique but it does work in small does. At times, the wood glue by itself with the shop towels will work great for repairs or adding strength to problem areas. I usually keep the working area to about a foot at a time for this process, for quality control purposes.
Frank’s arms then got 3 coats of PM, over the course of a few days. They hang to dry in my state-of-the-art drying faculty (small folding table out back). As they dry I prep the main torso and mark out rough clearance estimates for the foam to be sprayed onto the frame I build earlier.
In an interesting turn of events, Great Stuff spray foam does not stick to duct tape, at all. This turned out to be a happy accident as I ended up turning the foam slab around and using the back of it to build upon as I gave him some muscles and filled out some of the shallow areas with foil. I added some scraps of thin veneer plywood to the back, inside of the foam for strength and to give myself the option to screw or staple into later, depending on what I chose to do with that area.
I then carved some deep grooves into his chest that would become his trademark scars. I built the neck piece with about a 5/8” gap between the head and neck. This serves to hide the seam once the head is bolted on. The head can be removed for quick access, painting, and eventual storage or for the confused villager.
He then gets a coat of PM. I overlapped onto the wood on the side of the torso to blend where the foam meets wood. When the PM is dry, it sands and blends right into the wood.
Above you can see the sanded and prepped surface of Frank’s torso and body parts as he prepares for a coat of primer. I added a light coat of wood putty to smooth out the seams and give the flat wood a bit of texture. You can also see the bolts that replaced the screws so he can be assembled and disassembled without damage to any of the joints. I added some wood trim to the inside and sanded everything.
All of the pieces get a base coat of white primer and dry for a day or so. I used Kilz because that’s what I had around the shop. It’s less than $10gal and it has a thick quality to it. I was happy with the results.
Frank’s chest arc reactor was an addition I made to break up some of the green paint scheme and since he sits just a bit taller than the trick or treaters (ToT’s) kids height, I wanted there to be something interesting to look at while they’re getting the candy and entertain the ones in line behind them.
It’s made from milk jug plastic, a heat gun and a wet rag. I knew I wanted it to appear stitched together, almost in a Mad Max style. It had to retain it’s transparency at the same time appear rugged.
I used three pieces to make the main Arc. I repeated the process with smaller pieces using a bolt to do what is essentially poor-man’s vacuum forming. It worked better than I first thought and retained a lot of detail in the finished piece. If you’ve ever seen the milk jug skull effect, it’s essentially the same technique.
The skull is a second attempt, the first one that I did turned out good but I wanted a little more of a cartoony look so I stitched the second one over the original and found what I was looking for.
I added a very light dusting of black paint from the bottom, and a light dusting of white from the top, an old theater trick that added a lot of detail in a short amount of time. I then added additional, thinned down, spots of rust to some of the areas and his reactor was ready for a jolt of electricity.
I tinted the same paint I used for the primer with a few different shades of green to get a basic color to build upon. After a coat of green and some basic black for the hair, I added a few layers of yellow, light and dark green.
I used a few different painting techniques to get the skin texture I wanted. I’ve been experimenting with painting cartoon-ish monsters in a way you would paint a realistic creature. If that sounds confusing, I didn’t want just a bright green color, I wanted a skin like texture. I did stippling and other effects you normally wouldn’t do on a big monster, to give him a little more credibility. I’m happy with the results so far in the process.
Above you can see that he is painted, save for a few details. Put together and ready for some further details. I had to abandon my original plan for a sculpted jacket because of time. I found a nice jacket at a local thrift store that was $5, which I thought wasn’t bad considering I hadn’t spent much as far as materials go, so far on this guy. The lady gave it to me for .98cents. This made it an even better find.
I lightly attached it with some hot glue, and then began styling it to fit the classic look I was trying to emulate. I wanted it bunched up and shorter than the arms, Locked a few spots in place with CA glue (cyanoacrylate) and stapled the rest to give the back a flat surface, but still have a front and 3/4 view of the jacket look full and flowing.
I was careful not to overdue the hair. I did a few passes of dry brushing to give it some depth and some light shading. Nothing fancy.
Frank’s eyes are made from poster plastic that I sanded on both sides to defuse the light. Then lightly dusted the back of them with yellow spray paint, a few short bursts from a few feet away provides a soft but textured look for the light to shine through.
I added some orange string lights to a few places in the head. My original plan was to use LED’s but I did not have the time to order them and do the proper wiring. I picked up a few white and 5 or 6 orange, 20 light strands and used those to illuminate the inside of his head and body. I placed little flickering tea lights under his coat, by his eyes so that even when it’s dark he has an internal glow to him. I will eventually replace them with LED’s but they are safe and have served their purpose so far.
A quick test with the smoke and lights and he’s ready for his last few details.
To give Frank his famous scars, I used the Dremel to cut a thin, shallow recess around his wrist in a scattered pattern. The PM really holds up as far as cutting and burning into its surface. It doesn’t crack or tear apart. I was able to get fine, detailed cuts and it didn’t disintegrate when I hit it with the wire brush to knock some of the edges down. It really held up well.
For his staples; I cut various size pieces from thin cardboard, I believe the cardboard was from the cover to an old board game. It worked well. I cut them all out, about 80 of them, and then brushed them with mod podge to seal the edges. I hit them with a quick burst of Truck Bed Liner from a can, which will come into play on some later pieces on this build. It gave them a really good looking gritty texture, then finally hit them with a quick burst of silver/metallic spray paint and let them dry.
The same process was used for the scars that run along his hairline. I tried a method I have wanted to use for a while for simulating burns into flesh. I got an old flathead screwdriver, heated it up until it was glowing, then very lightly pressed it to his skin where I wanted it to look like the staple had popped out from the blast of electricity. In some of the holes, I turned the screwdriver a few degrees in either direction, others I went a little deeper. I tried to make it look as random as possible.
I took a mini torch and burned the edges of the freshly cut scars in random places, after a light wire brushing, it peeled back layers of the PM and gave it a very realistic look. I also moved the torch around in varying degrees to give the skin a blistered look. I’m very happy with how those effects came out. They add a nice level of detail.
The staples and scars on his head and face were done using the same process.
I wanted to pay homage to the original Jack Pierce make-up effects so I placed the staples (the two just right of his eye) in the same position he did on Karloff’s monster. There are a few other subtle details as well but I was aware that I was making my own version, not a replica. I just wanted to include those details for me and other fans of the monster creators that have come before us.
I wanted to try another realistic effect for his forehead. So I gave him some sweat on his brow, coming down his forehead and even a few drops on his nose and cheek. I let it pool in small places as well. I used Epoxy for this effect and even though it is dry and set up, He has a very realistic wet look to him that I love.
Frank’s bolts were made from thick and thin cardboard, hot glue and foil. After I sealed the raw cardboard, I used wood putty around the head of the bolts. Then lightly knocked it down and shaped them to give them an angled look but still have texture. I gave them a quick burst with the spray Truck Bed Liner. It gave it a nice texture without making them too gritty. I finished them with silver/metallic and a very light detailing of gold to catch the light. I put a very thin layer of epoxy around the edges where a hand would touch them the most as they turned it 180* to release the candy during the Trick or Treat rush hour.
To continue with the realistic effects I coated his teeth in a very thin coat of Epoxy. I mixed it in batches and applied it with a brush. It gives him a nice monster-y look without having to clear coat and make the entire thing look shiny, which would have ruined the effect, in my opinion.
On the left, you can see I put a very light skip coat of epoxy, just at the end of a small paint brush handle and skipped it along the end of the tongue and up the middle to give it a semi wet look when the light hits it.
Here is Frank in action on Halloween night. The picture on the left is what kids saw when they came up to get candy. We were at the top of a driveway so he looked even bigger as they came up the small hill. The middle pic is Frank’s internal glow. The picture far right is a look at the access hatch and finished hopper up top. The candy bowl has been removed to see inside the mouth and behind him are where the small smoke machine, fan and rest of the lighting go. The small, quite fan was used to make the thick smoke billow up through his head and out the top and through the open areas in his jaw. It also pushed smoke through open places in the arc reactor which appeared to be steam coming from within.
Upon completion, My Monster Frank stands just about 56” tall. A little over 2’ wide and has an arm reach of 32”.
His torso is 6” deep and the additional small platform that attaches to it measures 17”wide by 18” to the tip of the fingers.
His candy bowl jaw measures about 5X7”. Despite his appearance, Frank only weights about 10lbs. I place a 25lbs weight in the bottom of his torso to steady him as he delivers candy. He performed very well on Halloween. He was a LOT of work and a lot of fun to build. I look forward to creating friends for him in the near future to fill the rest of my lab. Thanks for hanging out with us.
“It is true, we shall be Monsters, cut off from the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”
-Mary Shelly, Frankenstein