What's all this, then?

Each Halloween season, when the Greenwood Reaper inhabits my yard, people ask me “How did you make it?” and “What is it made from?”.

Since I’m making a bigger and better reaper I figured I’d make this blog to answer those questions. This is also a way for interested parties to ask questions and see the progress of the project.

The only regular time I spend building is on the week-ends, so it’s likely posts will appear early in the week.

The posts appear with the newest on top, so if you're new to the sight scroll to the bottom to read the beginning.


Monday, March 31, 2008

The Lantern

The lantern for the original reaper was (see the picture in the very first entry) a candle-holder lamp thing that I found at Costco on clearance for $10. It worked well enough, but it was a bit heavier than I wanted it to be and it used actual glass for the panes. I always hesitate using any glass in my outdoor projects since Fall can get pretty windy in Seattle.
I did some research (on-line) trying to find a classic ye oldee lantern that wouldn’t be too difficult to scale up and fabricate.

This is what I decided on.

Simple, basic lines that are immediately recognized as a lamp or lantern.

My two goals for the construction of the new lamp (after picking the style) were low weight and high strength. I figured if this thing is going to be 18 feet in the air that a flimsy, heavy object flapping around in the wind was not a good plan.
A steel frame made of ¼” round-stock, blanketed with aluminum angle ought to do the trick.

I was going to need about 50 linear feet of round-stock and aluminum angle each. Doing the math in my head at Lowe’s while standing in front of their metals section, it turned out that it was going to be waaay out of budget buy raw materials in the standard way.
Time for plan ‘b’.
Plan ‘b’ happens a lot. It’s not very often that I just go out and buy raw materials, I almost always need to find less expensive way.
First, I spent about an hour in the lighting section hoping to find a porch-light or something similar that would work. There were a few promising candidates but they were either too expensive, too heavy or the wrong scale. Next, I went to the ‘storage’ area hoping to find a tall, wire laundry basket that was about the size of the lamp. No go. While in the roofing section I found some drip flashing (used to protect the bottom edge of a roof from drips). It was like aluminum angle but steel, thinner, ten feet long and far cheaper. After a second pass by the lighting section (and a second time talking myself out of spending $100 on a lantern) I found some ¼” all-thread that is normally used to hang lighting in commercial construction. It was 10 feet long and $2.44 each. They were threaded and galvanized, but I could live with that. $40 later I was on my way. Bonus! I got a $10 off coupon attached to my receipt.

Making a rectangular box out of round-stock isn’t all that hard, particularly when it’s going to be covered with flashing. Once I got done with the basic shape I took a long hard look from different distances. The shape was just ‘ok’ and the structure was a bit wobbly. Using the flashing, I made the bottom part and one of the corners of the lamp and temporarily attached them to the frame then had another look… still just ‘ok’. I took the flashing off and went back over all of the joints of the frame with big, thick welds… Or that was the plan anyway until I ran out of welding wire. I was sure I had a second roll… dang it. Back to Lowe’s…

I got two rolls of welding wire and some sheet-metal screws to attach the flashing together. In addition I was going to use some construction adhesive to glue the whole thing together, but for some reason instead of getting Liquid Nails I ended up back in the dang lighting section. Lo and behold, a lamp appears. I’m sure I had seen it before, but dismissed it due to its price. But there was something that I didn’t notice before, it was on sale…
and I have a coupon…hmmm.
After doing more mental math exercises, adding up the rest of the supplies I’d need to fabricate the lamp I took the easy way out and just bought dang lamp.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Spine

The original Reaper had a frame that was bent at the back to mimic a spinal column. It worked ‘ok’ but it was a lot of effort for not much pay-off. It took hours to get the bends right and to weld it all together.
Since the shape of the new frame does not lend its self to the lines of a human skeleton I need to add some non-structural parts so that the costume hangs right.
I started off with a 10 foot long, 4 inch diameter piece of ABS (black plastic) pipe.
To get a decent bend I applied heat, first with a small space heater, then with a heat gun.*

Once it was hot to the touch (and my work space had a very vague odor of plastic) I used a ratcheting tie-down strap to apply compressive force on one side (in other words I put one hook on each end and ratcheted away). I only used as much force as I was able to using one hand.
Over the next few hours I moved the heater and heat gun around to various places and tightened the tie-down strap enough to get a nice gentle, spine-like bend.

I used the same method to un-bend the base of the spine (the lumbar curve).

I made the individual vertebrae using some cheap irrigation pipe (white).

After consulting my friend Deb (a licensed massage therapist, who has forgotten more about anatomy than I will ever know) I used more of the cheap irrigation pipe to make the Spinous Process and the Transverse Process.

I used ¾” drywall screws to attach all of the vertebrae pieces directly to the ABS.

*IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: Do not, under ANY circumstances, use an open flame to heat plastic pipes. ABS, in particular, catches on fire quite readily. Nothing will ruin your day faster than a ten foot chunk of blazing plastic in your workspace. Such a dramatic event didn't happen to me, but I did set a 1 foot section on fire a few years back (I was trying to smooth out a badly drilled hole by using a MAPP gas torch) ...dumb.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Maquette

When I was in college taking fine-art classes and pretending that I was a sculptor I frequently heard the term ‘maquette’. I had no idea what it meant, but since it came from ‘the art community’ it immediately became mysterious and enigmatic.

Could it be a new form of art?
Maybe it’s an eccentric painting method like Raku or sfumato…
Perhaps it’s a secret society of master artisans…

Turns out that ‘maquette’ just the French word for ‘scale model’. Yawn.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that scale models were pretty cool, but I didn’t really understand the value until I actually made one. Turns out that a scale model is pretty darn useful, and in large scale pieces, it is essential.

It’s much better to make an error on a 12 inch project than on a 12 foot project.
Here is the scale model of the frame for the new reaper. It’s made out of 1/8 inch wooden dowel and high-temp hot glue. I got the head from a cheap Halloween decoration (it just happened to be pretty close in scale).

This is a 1:12 scale model. Most of the models I do are 1:12 because the math is easy. One scale inch equals one real-life foot.

I call it the ‘simple’ scale.

That is French word, it means… uh… ‘simple’.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Sanding and painting

Once the resin cured thoroughly (I waited a week), I used an angle grinder, with a cutting wheel, to trim off the stray bits of hardened fiber.
I changed to a sanding disk and smoothed out a lot of the really rough spots.

I probably don't need to mention the potential health risks when sanding fiberglass...
none the less, I used painter's plastic the isolate an area in my workshop and used head-to-toe Tyvex cover-alls, latex gloves, a bandanna and, of course, a respirator.

Once the skull was adequately quaffed I sprayed the whole thing flat black.

When the flat-black was dry I used a foam paint roller to apply some slightly tinted, flat-white enamel paint. I tinted the white paint with some brownish-yellow paint that I got for $1 in the 'oops' paint at Lowe's.

No self respecting grim reaper would be seen with a skull that was too bright white.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Fiberglass

When I made the skull for the first reaper I used basically the same foam method as described below and when I was done I just painted it with some outdoor paint. This worked well enough, but over the years of Seattle rain and being banged the basement...
Death started to look like Death-warmed-over.
I decided that the new reaper was going to need something a little more resilient.

I have tried to use fiberglass in the past and learned a lot.

~ The first lesson I learned was: Do not mix all of the resin at once.

~ The second lesson: If you’re going to be dumb enough to mix all of the resin at once, cut the fiber into strips beforehand.

~ The third lesson: Things get top-heavy when fiberglassing from top to bottom.

~ The fourth lesson: Spherical items that are top-heavy tend to roll away unexpectedly.

Needless to say, that project did not go well.

This time was different. Not only did I do some more reading on fiberglass technique and prepare the materials in advance,
...but I did a test patch on a hidden part of the skull and I enlisted help.

The second set of hands ended up being invaluable.

With Connie wielding the paintbrush and resin
and me applying the fiber things went pretty smoothly.
The method was simple:
Mix the resin,
slather on a base coat (about as big as a small pizza),
lay on some fiber (smaller than the pizza)
and daub more resin over it.

Things got a little tricky when rounding edges and when we needed to get into tight spaces, but all in all I was pretty happy with the results.

The fumes: I’ve worked with plenty of stinky chemicals… epoxy, autobody filler, lacquers, thinners, solvents and of course spray-paint, but nothing was as pervasive as fiberglass resin. I not only had adequate ventilation, I had good ventilation
and the vapors still invaded the house and remained for days.

Carving the foam

Carving polyurethane foam is pretty easy (compared to other carving mediums like wood or stone). I started off using a keyhole saw to open up the nasal passage and eliminate the obvious globs. That done, I used the scale drawings to guide me. I actually taped the drawings directly to the piece and lifted them long enough to carve and cut.

After a short time I realized that I had not built up the foam thick enough in many places. Simple enough to resolve, just add more foam.

Once the second coat of foam had cured I went back to the cutting and carving. When I needed to shave down areas I’d use a wood rasp/shaver-thing. Turns out that many tools made for woodworking work well on foam.

When I got the main lines of the skull formed I removed the scale drawings and used a realistic-looking plastic skull as reference and carved in as many small details as I could.

Tip: Another tool that came in very handy for carving the foam was a cheap butcher’s knife that I got from a thrift store.

The mess: The worst part of the carving part of the project was the mess and the clean-up. The bits of foam from the carving were light and wisped around very easily. Additionally the little bits were very static-ey, they stuck to everything. I regularly left a very clear trail of foam bits leading from my workshop, up the basement stairs, into the hallway, across the dining room…

My wife was none too happy about it.

Applying the foam

Foam. What can I say about foam? I could dedicate a whole website just to the artistic application of polyurethane foam… and I just might. Anyway, applying the foam to the screened frame went more or less as expected. Knowing that uncured foam has the viscosity of cheap whipped-cream, I maneuvered the frame so that the place that I was going to apply the foam was more or less horizontal. I worked as unhurriedly and patiently as my personality would allow (which isn’t terribly unhurried OR patient).

The complete application of the foam took about one man-hour, but that was stretched over about eight total hours. This was because I had to apply the foam to as many horizontal surfaces as possible, then wait for it to cure long enough to support it’s own weight and not gloop off on to the floor, then re-maneuver the frame and apply more foam.

Once the frame was adequately covered and the foam had cured (I let it set overnight), I pulled out the irrigation pipe leaving more-or-less perfectly round eye holes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Screen: It's not just for windows

Knowing that the main material of the skull is going to be expanding polyurethane foam I needed a bit more surface area to support it.

I wrapped the wire frame with aluminium window screen. Most of the time I was able to simply fold the screen into place, but some areas needed to be 'sewed' into place with thin wire.

After pricking my fingers a few hundred times with the sharp ends of the cut screen, I put on some gloves.

I also used some scrap plastic irrigation pipe in the eye sockets to keep the foam from getting out of control.

The Frame

Starting with a piece of electrical conduit and using measurements from the scale drawing I created a frame.

The majority of the wire I used were from wire clothes hangars.

A few scale drawings

Using a few simple tools (calipers, tape measure, ruler) I made two scale drawings of the skull. One of the front and one of the side.

The scale for the over all project is 3:1. In other words, it will be three times bigger than an adult person.

The drawings are exactly as big as the finished product.


Since I'm a very visual thinker I spend a lot of time sketching my projects.

Very often the sketches serve to rule out an idea rather than admit it.

Here a few of the sketches I did for the reaper.

...and yes I do have a lot of notebooks, and I do use all of them.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Basic Basics

OK, so here's my two-cents on how to get started:

Schedules: I can’t tell you when to start your project but I can tell you when NOT to start it: The week-end before Halloween.
Typically I’ll try to figure out how long it’ll take me to do a project then triple it. It’s nearly impossible to factor in all of the got’chas, all of the trips to the hardware store, all of the lost build time due to having to mow the lawn, so overestimate as liberally as you can.
True statement: I started the initial sketches of my current Halloween project on November 2nd of last year

Sketches: Once I get an idea in my head I'll usually obsess on it for weeks. A manifestation of these obsession are the numerous sketches I do. Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't works of art at all, they're chicken scratchings of the images rolling around in my head. The vast majority of these are totally useless and often serve to show me what is not right as opposed to what is right.

Feasibility: Pencil-in-hand it's really easy to go a little creative-crazy and start designing things that, in the end, just won't work. I try to keep in mind that: just because a task is possible doesn't mean that it's a good idea. Sure, it's possible to make a 100 foot tall Halloween creature that waves to passing cars and talks to joggers, but I'd likely end up divorced, bankrupt, and sued. My rule-of-thumb is to figure out what I know I can do and then take it just one step further. (that way I'm forced to struggle and learn)

Budget: Although I don't hire a full-time accountant to keep track of my building budget, I do allot myself a weekly budget. It's too, too easy to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on holiday projects. I cut corners and economize whenever possible. I have no issue with hopping into a dumpster to rescue a potential treasure. As well, I have almost an obsession with figuring out how to do a task less expensively.
Here’s an example: I had a project that required stringing aircraft cable. I found the cable and connectors at a local industrial supply warehouse at a fraction of the cost of a hardware store. The problem was the tool used to crimp the connectors. It cost $120.
I don’t mind paying a fair price for a good tool, but I was hardly going to use this thing.
After examining the crimper for a while it struck me that it wasn’t all that different from a pair of bolt cutters with a hole cut in them. I found a pair of bolt cutters for $14.95, took them home and used my Dremmel tool to grind a hole in the cutting surfaces.
It worked close to perfectly. True enough, it took a bit more effort than the $120 version and I'm sure my crimps weren't 100% as strong as the professional tool's would have been, but with the limited amount crimps that I needed to make and the limited application... it was worth it.

Necessary skills: This is a hard one. You’ve done your sketches, you’ve figured the best design, you’ve gathered the materials but…
You don’t know how to weld, or make moulds or work with fiberglass… Now what?
This is sort of a catch twenty-two. If I don’t have any experience how can I get the skill? …and if I don’t have the skill how can I get the experience?
Well, there are a few routes here: take a class, read a book, have a friend show you, look it up on the Internet… Where there’s a will there’s a way.
I do, however, recommend that if you are going to try a new tool or technique or material that you don’t try it on the full-scale project until you get a little experience. Experiment, practice, screw around with it. It’s actually very liberating doing a project that you are 99% sure is going to fail. Eventually, with enough practice and patience and luck you’ll have an “ah-HA” moment and it’ll just make sense.

Story of the original Greenwood Reaper

A few years ago my wife showed me a Halloween decoration in one of those kitchy catalogs that invade our mailbox every year. What she showed me was a "6 foot tall Grim Reaper!".

I examined it carefully looking at the price and replied:
"Fifty bucks? Pshaw! I could make one twice that size for fifty bucks!"
She said "Oh yea?"

For the next few months I sketched and sketched.
I made models with my K'nex and sketched some more.
...And finally started making my version of that woefully inadequate Grim reaper I had seen in the catalog.

Using the human skeleton as an engineering guide, I welded together about fifty (total) feet of rebar and steel water pipe into a rough body shape.

Wrapped in the finest black painter's plastic that $4 could buy, the Greenwood Reaper made his first appearance.