Category Projects

Makin Stuff: A Stranger Things Gingerbread House

Like everyone else on the planet, I enjoyed the heck out of Netflix’s Stranger Things. I spent some time thinking about how I could rig up a Christmas card with lights that blink out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” or “RUN” or “YOU’RE NEXT” but I couldn’t figure out a non-digital way that wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive both to make and ship out 100+, not to mention I’d probably  be working on them from now until Christmas 2037 at which point Stranger Things’ faux retro will look real retro and the post office will be replaced with directly thought-beaming cat pictures into each other’s brains . But still–those blinking Christmas lights made the holiday season an ideal time for an homage if I could just figure out a good angle.

Finally, inspiration struck. I could make a Stranger Things gingerbread house! With lights and a demogorgon coming through the wall and gingerbread furniture with little marshmallow pillows and a frosting shag carpet and a whole “upside down” spooky tree area outside and and…WHOA THERE, MELLY. Considering I’d never made a gingerbread house before (except for one half-assed attempt at these cute little bastards that turned into a big honking mess in my kitchen with no tangible results, certainly no tiny cup-perching houses) or even royal icing, I was probably in over my head on just the house, nevermind all the gingerbread dollhouse furniture that would make it next level. I already needed to make frosting look like wallpaper, I had plenty on my plate without making some a plan so grandiose that I’d never actually follow through on it.

To make my Stranger Things house, I used this recipe (doubled) and this template (altered a bit to make the house a little more like Joyce’s). I also fashioned some of the gingerbread dough into a lumpy protrusion and tried to thin the edges so I could glue it on with frosting and make it look like something is coming through the wall without there being a corresponding divot on the outside of the house.

The part that I was dreading turned out to be the easiest–I slathered on some pale yellow icing for the wallpaper and dotted it with a toothpick dipped in food coloring for the pattern, the idea being not to mimic it exactly (which would be maddening) but to get close  enough to convey the idea of wallpaper. I then mixed up some brown and added the wood paneling. The letters and light wiring were painted on with black food coloring and a small brush. If I were doing it again, I’d try to pipe on the wires with frosting for a more three dimensional look, maybe pipe on the molding for more evenness.

As far as challenges go, I don’t know what sucked more: mixing all of those freaking colors of frosting (8! Mostly for those tiny dots of frosting for the strung lights) or assembling it. My parts weren’t quite perfect, the icing took longer than I’d like to dry, and the roof was so heavy that it wanted to slide straight off. All in all, I think it was a success! The outside could look more like Joyce’s house, and in fact, I cut some support beams for her front porch, but ultimately that would have made it too difficult to see inside, so I left it off. 

I’ve got the gingerbread house, I’ve got the witch costume, all I need to do is lure in a plump child and Christmas dinner is settled. I mean, a ham. We’re having ham.

construction

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peeping-inside

Halloween 2016: Season of the Witch

Taking a week out of town during the month of October after two months of hyping myself up and working on projects was a good idea–it was a break, a reset, and a reason to get laser-focused as the big day was then almost upon me. I’d finished my costume before I hit the road, which meant that I only had about a bazillion small projects left on my list and one big one: a working Nightmare Before Christmas town fountain.

I already had the stuff I’d determined I needed to build it: a kiddie pool, giant sheets of home insulation foam, a fountain pump, a fountain hose, pvc plumbing pipe, chicken wire, and expanding foam, but I was also a little daunted by the build. I’d never made anything like this before, and it had the potential to go really rage-inducingly badly. Volcanically badly. But it was either buckle down and build it now or let all of these materials go to waste, because realistically, it’s not like I’d be more motivated to work on it in November. So I buckled down.

I used a hot wire to cut bricks out of the home insulation foam, which I glued together into a wishing well shape, and once the whole thing was dry, painted it gray and weathered it with black. I also half ass painted the kiddie pool edges–it’s something people mostly wouldn’t see at night or from a distance, but a bright yellow fish swimming on a purple pool tends to stand out and detract from the overall effect. I then eyeballed and cut the pvc pipe into roughly the shape and height I wanted, running the fountain hose through it as I built it because there would be no easy way (or potentially no way at all) to run it through the pipes when they were all assembled, owing to all of the sharp bends. I then shaped some chicken wire around the pipe to give the body some bulk. Then it was time for the part I was really dreading: filling the body out with expanding foam.

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If you’ve never used expanding foam for any home projects, it’s essentially a monkey’s paw in a can, twisting all of your hopes and wishes into a sticky nightmare. At some point after I moved into the house, I thought I’d be clever and fill some of the gaps in our downstairs doorways with expanding foam, and almost from the first spray, I knew I had made a huge mistake. But I kept at it and made it much, much worse. By the time I had determined I was finished, about ten minutes later, there was almost impossibly sticky goo everywhere. Cans of expanding foam say not to expect more than one use from it, as they claim that it tends to seal itself shut. I posit that a can only gets one use because it causes such frustration that a use is always immediately followed by the user attempting to throw the can into the sun. But there I was, clasping that blasted monkey paw all over again and swearing that this time, my wish wouldn’t be corrupted. I was right…sort of. The foam did cling to the chicken wire like I’d hoped. Not very evenly or very well in some spots, and it was impossible to get it to come out of the can at a consistent thickness, but it did mostly do what I wanted. There was a portion near the bottom of bare pipe that I’d hoped to fill out with foam–I really should have bought more chicken wire but really, really didn’t want to make yet another trip to the hardware store. The expanding foam didn’t want to bulk out, instead choosing to slop right off the pipe onto the ground below–thankfully I had learned from last time and laid down some protective barriers for just such a scenario. I ended up covering the bare area with fun foam to give the illusion of bulk.

Once the expanding foam had completely cured, I tried carving it down to an even surface with the hot wire tool, which I’d been led to believe was something that would cut through expansion foam, and of course, it didn’t. So, instead, I hugged it to me like a lover with one arm while hacking bits of it off with a knife with the other, which I quite enjoyed. Admitting to that online is probably the sort of thing that will get me put on a watchlist, but you know me, I’m committed to the truth and elaborate hilarious lies, whichever the situation calls for.

foam

After the body was reasonably even, the time had come to cover it with scales. If the hot wire tool had easily cut the expanding foam (why can’t it work more like a lightsaber and just lop off hands and whatever else I want it to?), I would have considered carving the scales out of the expanding foam, but as it was, I’d have to make them from something else and adhere them. I’d made scales of sorts for the shingles of my Zero tombstone out of pink home insulation foam and that was a complete and total pain in the ass and this was a MUCH larger surface area, so I decided to cut the scales out of fun foam and adhere them with hot glue. I started with about two hundred scales, figuring that’d probably cover most of it. Not even close. Every time I cut two hundred more out and brought them to the workshop I thought certainly it had to be the final two hundred, that there couldn’t possibly be any more surface area to cover, and I’d come up short. Some part of me is still cutting scales out of foam in foam purgatory, which is like hell only foamier. 

Once all the foam scales were on, it was time to carve the head. I’d adhered five rectangles of insulation foam together, and once they’d cured, I busted out the hot wired tool and started roughing out the shape. I’ve never carved material like this before and it turned out to be both satisfying and fun, taking away hunks of material until I had something wholly unlike the original starting material. And, bonus, it turned out pretty close to what I was trying to carve. Once the head shape was done, I cut teeth out of fun foam and glued them in as that was much easier than attempting to carve them out–I’m a foam dabbler, here, not a Renaissance artist. I also cut out a foam tongue and horns and attached both to the head before fitting the head onto the body. Once the head was attached, I made and attached the wings, tail, arms, and hands, and once it was all dried, it was ready for paint and weathering, and when THAT was dry, it was time to put the whole thing together, fill up the kiddie pool with water, and hope that it worked.

It did. By gum, it did. And I finished it in enough time to cross another thing off my decorating list–make monster silhouettes for the downstairs windows and back them with a bright shower curtain so they’d stand out, and also so people couldn’t see into the downstairs which is by far the least cute part of the house. AND I had time to make some food for the party as well. Some food, not all of it. I’m thankful for restaurants with same day catering to take some of the pressure off when it comes to feeding up to twenty people (which is my “small” game night, it is possible I’m struggling with the concept of “small”) plus getting the house and yard ready and me into a costume with a decent amount of makeup and answering the door for trick or treaters.

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halloween2016-6-of-8Speaking of trick or treaters, the candy wheel was a hit–I had some kids come to my door and say they’d heard about the wheel from their friends, and at least one parent told me that my house was on their “must stop” list because of my decorations. It’s exciting for me because I love spreading the Halloween spirit, and it’s nice to know that my hard work has been noticed and appreciated.

mantle

booze

Since it was a game night and I’d invited people over to “test their luck”, there were a few games of chance throughout the night, and the winners could choose from the gift cards arrayed on the table or one of two “mystery boxes”, because who can resist the allure of a mystery box? The contents of one of the boxes was the game in which my likeness appears, and the other contained two dog biscuits and a note letting the recipient know they’d chosen poorly. Hey, they can’t all be winners, right?

feastThat skull cakelet pan I bought made such awesome cornbread skulls, but damn were they ever beefy. ‘Cakelet’ implies mini cake but there wasn’t anything mini about this ish.

For my costume this year, I decided to revisit the witch, and ended up in a very different place from my swamp witch costume. I thought about doing a similar transfigured arm and nail claws, but since I was throwing a party and not just attending one, I figured I’d probably need that arm and hand for things like making food, so that idea went by the wayside. I used a dress, leggings, and boots I already had (why spend the time making something if I have something that already works for that purpose?), bought the mask on etsy,  the hat from amazon, and made the rest myself: the belt, the cloak, the necklace/cloak clasp, and the hat accessories. The time consuming part was definitely the feathers–I wanted the look of giant feathers to go with the giant bird skull, which meant making them. They were all individually cut out of (you guessed it!) fun foam, textured with an x-acto knife, given a rachis of hot glue, and then painted matte black. I spent hours cutting, texturizing, gluing, and painting feathers, and once I started sewing them on, I realized that I would need to spend the rest of forever making foam feathers if I was to cover the entire shoulder to floor cloak in overlapping feathers. (Sensing some sort of pattern, here?) Additionally, I realized that many flipping feathers would make the cloak ridiculously heavy, especially for the frail 80 year old me who would finally be donning it after making all those feathers, so I decided to do the front panels and call it a day, which meant I actually had a few feathers left over for things like tucking into the hat and keeping in a scrapbook to remind future me of why I’ve got arthritis. I sewed a wire into the neck of the cloak in the hopes that it would hold itself on, but with the weight and relative flexibility of the wire, that was a futile hope. Enter the cloak clasp, which is made of a base of floor mat foam for thickness and strength (not enough strength to keep from ripping on the day of the party, heyooo), with a decorative design in apoxie sculpt and a cabachon of resin. The apoxie sculpt was coated in rub n buff to give it a silvered appearance because I’m a one-trick pony. If I’d had more time, I would have considered making a woods-y staff with glowing purple crystals, but getting the fountain finished was my first priority as it would have far more impact than a costume prop that I’d have set aside for most of the night.

All in all, I’m super pleased with how it turned out, and I’d wear and swoop that cape around again anytime. Maybe around the house, just because.

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treatmaster

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…After the party broke up for the night, things got a little weird.

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Get in loser, we’re going shopping: A Halloween Costume Retrospective

I’m writing this in the past at a crossroads: either I went on vacation this week or I got mashed by a tree in STORMPOCALYPSE 2016. Or, I guess, I didn’t go and I didn’t get mashed but the power was out for a damn long while and updating my blog wasn’t my first priority. Regardless, I didn’t work on shit this week to reach my Halloween goals. So here’s a look at the costumes I built for last year. That’s right, last year. I’m nothing if not timely.

I’d had a bug up my butt for a while to make Jason a Thorin Oakenshield costume. I made his ring way the fuck back in November 2013, and then I hit a patch of severe depression and didn’t do anything for Halloween 2014. I’d had my traditional pumpkin carving party, but as far as a costume goes, I didn’t do shit. I stayed at home, handed out candy, and depressed myself further because it was my favorite holiday and I wasn’t doing anything. So I started working on his costume in earnest at some point during early 2015. First, I made a duct tape husband.

duct-tape-husband

This allowed me to fit a costume to him without him needing to be present and with a slightly lower risk of sticking him with pins. I also turned these santa boots:

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into these Thorin boots:

boots

I cut off the faux fur top, covered them in brown fur, and made boot caps and straps from fun foam. I don’t know why I had never really used cosplay resources before to figure out how to make stuff, but it turns out there’s a whole community of people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to making costumes and props, and they’re willing to share this information with people like me. Hurrah! It turns out this fun foam stuff that I’d seen a million times at craft stores and wondered what anyone would use it for is actually a miracle substance that I may end up using for everything. It’s pliable, you can heat mold it and it will hold its shape, and if you seal it with glue and paint it with metallic paint, it can resemble metal armor. It’s pretty astounding! Cosplayers are also all about thermoplastics like Worbla, which would have also worked for this application but it’s significantly more expensive, so I haven’t dipped my toes into that pool yet. I also used fun foam to make Thorin’s bracers, shown below before they were sealed and finished:

bracer

I also learned to do resin casting, which has turned out to be another useful tool in my arsenal. I needed to learn for this costume because Thorin wears a suit of brigandine armor under his cloak, and it’s one of the most visually striking aspects of his costume, so it’s not something I could skip out on. First I made a master in apoxie sculpt. I then made a silicone mold of the master, and then dusted that mold with aluminum powder, poured in resin with more aluminum powder mixed in, waited for it to cure, rubbed the new resin part with steel wool to make the aluminum shine, and then weathered it with black paint to give it dimension. This had to be done one hundred plus times, most of which was spent simultaneously cursing myself for having such big stupid plans that involve so much work. And most of that work was hidden by the cloak. Blargh.

brigandinel-r: master, fresh cast, steel wooled, weathered

tunic

Thorin’s jeweled belt buckle is also a pretty big visual point in his costume, so I wanted to hit that recognition point as well. This involved resin casting some gems (the backs of which are painted with metallic nail polish, which gives them a reflective sparkling quality) and socketing those gems into a belt buckle made from more foam, this time from one of those thicker foam floor mats. Cosplayers work wonders with floor mats, but so far, I haven’t managed to do as well. It’s harder to cut, takes more heat to shape, and I think ultimately the belt buckle turned out just OK.

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buckle  

I also sewed the tunic, the cloak, made leather patches for the knees of his pants, and repainted a plastic toy sword, and Thorin was complete!

thorin-front

thorin-side

My costume was a little more fraught. I vacillated between a number of options: lady bearded dwarf, Tauriel, Bilbo, and Thranduil, ultimately deciding to go with armored up party king Thranduil. The armor builds started off ok, with foam handguards and bracers, which flexed really well with my arm and hand movements. The raised portions were made with puff paint, and while it’s useful to make designs, I have determined it is also the devil’s paint, and this is never more evident than when you’re trying to paint a long, smooth, curving line with it. Three quarters of the way through and PFHT!!!!!!!!! Surprise air bubble! which will cause paint to spurt everywhere and/or come out in a horrendous lumpy mess. And then it takes a lifetime to dry and if you touch it even one second before it’s fully, fully, fully dry, it will wetly smear all over everything. My hands were silver for at least three weeks.

handguard

 

arm-armor

While waiting for armor to dry in various stages of puff paint and elmer’s glue, I started constructing the cloth portion of my costume. No pattern, just eyeballing it. It turned out surprisingly ok except the neckline which I hated and didn’t know how to fix. I figured it wasn’t all that important because the whole thing would be covered with chest and shoulder armor anyway. I made his complicated shoulder pauldrons and though they weren’t exactly identical, I felt they looked pretty cool.

thranduil-cloak

But then I started on the chest armor and the shit hit the fan. Because it’s such a large piece, I needed to make it out of the larger foam floor mats rather than the fun foam (which is generally about the size of a sheet of paper). That foam is thiiiiick, and a piece that size needed more heat to shape than my hair dryer could provide and some dumb part of me refused to buy a heat gun for this one thing. I’m already a fat person, and the additional thickness of armor that I couldn’t get to curve in anywhere made me look like a walking barrel. And THEN there was the complicated pattern on top that turned into a goddamn puff paint nightmare world. I needed to reassess.

breastplate

Could I made the costume work without the chest armor? Eeeeeeeeehhhh. The shoulder pauldrons were supposed to attach to the chest armor to keep the weight of the cloak from straight dragging the whole business off my shoulders, so that wasn’t working super well. The wig that I bought was way too long and thick, and at this point in the game, I hated the whole thing together but it was too late to change to something completely different.

armored-upThrilled. So thrilled. Ignore the PJ bottoms. And all the Halloween bins in the background. 

Soooo it was at this point that I decided to ditch all the armor I’d made. The handguards, the bracers, the boot armor, the pauldrons, and especially that fucking chestpiece. I cut and thinned the hell out of the wig. But with the armor chopped, it really needed something  else to make it more Thranduil. I determined that something else was his branch crown. I made the crown out of twisted wire:

crown

which I then coated in hot glue and painted brown. At this point, it looked like a crown of weird turds, but I kept at it:

glue-crown 

Thranduil’s crown in the movie just has leafy bits in it, but I felt like he was the sort of dude who would probably accessorize to the season, so I added in sprigs that had tiny pumpkin looking things. And with that, I was done! And not too soon, I think I wrapped the whole thing up the day before my Halloween party.

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king-thranduil    All hail your King under the Mountain and your Party King!

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