Howden’s Castle Halloween Field Trip

Perfect location for a castle on the cliff over the San Lorenzo River...Halloween 2016 is the return of Castle Brittahytta again, and I never turn down a chance at seeing a castle, especially only an hour from my house! Howden’s Castle originally built in 1927 was relisted this week for $1.3 million, after a $1.6 million price last year didn’t sell. I’d heard of it and They did add chess-style rook castles to the roof vents...cute!seen online photos as a weekly vacation rental but never seen it live, so since they were having an open house on Saturday, Ghoulish Glen & I took our chance to see it up close. There are some fabulous photos on the MLS listing including 3D walkthroughs and drone footage, but I took photos of the reality, Howden's Castle!including details odd and interesting, understanding why it hasn’t yet sold. Even if I could afford this price range, I would probably rather build my own vision from scratch with more trees and less close neighbors than retrofit this one.

You can click to enlarge any photo in the gallery below, and read the captions for our frank opinions. ;)

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D20 Cupcakes for Annual Game Night

A Dozen D20 CupcakesFor Christmas I received a fun silicone pan to make D20 dice! I’ve never played a game that uses this kind of dice, but I know it is used in Dungeons & Dragons, so I thought using it would be perfect for this year’s Annual Game night. I don’t think I’d do cupcakes again since there are probably better ways to take My D20 Cupcakes with Robin's Cheese Jenga and Cream Cheese Diceadvantage of the detail in the pan, but they arrived intact to the party, and looked fantastic next to Robin’s Cheese Jenga and Cream Cheese Dice!

D20 Silicone PanThe pan is food-grade silicone that snaps the two halves together to make a 3D dice shape you can pour into from the top face, which is 1 and meant to be the bottom when 20 is displayed on top. I used a fine crumb white cake mix Following instructions to fill almost to the top...silly me!hoping for the number detail in the mold to show in the cake itself. The pan instructions said to fill almost to the top, but that wasted so much cake batter as it exploded like a volcano in the oven! My next attempt when filling it less didn’t reach the top, so that was Cake volcano!almost half a cake already wasted…sheesh! For 17 successful dice, I ended up using 3 cake mixes, enough for 3 full 2-layer round cakes, but had two full containers of scraps from all the overflow…plus it took forever since the pan must Cake scraps to get 17 successful dice from 3 cake mixescool enough before removing the dice or they will deform, then wash the pan, dry it off, spray again with nonstick spray, then try baking another 4 cupcakes, hoping that the leftover batter hasn’t lost its rising ooomph too much from sitting for at least 45 minutes while the first 4 baked!

Trimming the face flush and uneven browningSince you can’t see anything inside the pan to know if the cake is done baking, I went by the volcano scraps on the surface being slightly brown. That was a good temperature since they remained moist in the middle without being underbaked…but even if the number detail Trimming the too-browned crusty bottom offhad been preserved, which wasn’t visible at all, the browning was completely uneven, so I would not want to serve these naked. The bottom was so much more browned than the top it was a hard crust, so I trimmed that off, plus you need to trim the top face flush to meet the other sides, resulting in even more cake scraps. ;) Now I knew I needed to cover the cupcakes somehow, but I was less than 24 hours to the event and really needed some sleep!

Spreading a flood coat of royal icing in hopes the corners will stay sharpI thought of trying some fondant or modeling chocolate, but I couldn’t figure out a quick way to line the pans to capture the number details without having weird seams that would be difficult to smooth. I ended up trying a flood coat of Icing the tops after all the sides were iced while handheldroyal icing spread over them in attempt to keep the crisp corners, icing around the sides up in the air, then smoothing the tops and sides after setting them on wax paper to dry, but I didn’t have overnight for royal icing to set completely.

Handwriting the numbers with black food coloring pen enhanced with extra black food coloringWhen the royal icing had just barely crusted over, I was able to use my black food coloring pens to write the numbers on, using the pan interior to get the numbers in the correct places and orientation. I did try to flip them to frost the bottom too, but since the rest I tried icing some of the bottoms, but they ruined the others sides since the icing wasn't dry enoughwasn’t dry enough, I ended up ruining a good side, so I gave up, drew only numbers that were visible when displayed on the serving plate, and finally arrived to the party a full hour late! So much for an entrance!

Playing Cheese Jenga!I was able to squeeze my plate near the brilliant Cheese Jenga and the Cream Cheese Dice that Robin had made, which made for a great photo…but the even better photo was Jen’s “critical bite!” haha! I had to have the joke Jen's Critical Bite!explained to me, but rolling a 20, the maximum score for this D20 dice, is a “critical hit” for Dungeons & Dragons!

Everyone at the party agreed they were a little too big as individual cupcakes, and I agree cake is not something I would try again in this pan since I really want to take advantage of the numbers in the mold. I already have some other ideas that I hope will be easier to execute, but we’ll see how they turn out first… ;)

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Delicious Dairy Dalahäst

Delicious Dairy Dalahäst with Wooden DalahästGod Jul! Many of my Christmas traditions are Scandinavian due to my family heritage, especially the food, but they don’t lend themselves to much original edible art…but this year for my Holiday Happy Hour I made Delicious Dairy Dalahäst with Jalapeño Jelly, handpainting cream cheese to look like traditional wooden dala horses!

IKEA had a pair of dala horse shaped baking pans a couple years ago, so I bought them for my edible art stash. Since I already have more than enough baked Scandinavian sweets for Christmas, I thought I could mold cream cheese in the pans, paint the traditional dala horse designs using food coloring, then cover with red jalapeño pepper jelly, a classic cracker topping flavor combination. The painting Filling the pans with cream cheesetook longer than expected, but I was very pleased with the result!

I know from my Sinister Skulls for Halloween that cream cheese needs plastic wrap or it will never release from the mold. I wish there was a medium Unmolding the large horsesize pan in this set, since the small one was too tiny for a large party, and the large one required 8 bricks of cream cheese to fill it completely!Smoothing the cream cheese before painting

After it chilled overnight in the fridge nice and solid, I unmolded it onto my largest glass serving tray, carefully peeled off the plastic wrap, then smoothed the cream cheese with an offset spreader. You need a very smooth surface or the painting will be even more difficult!

Painting the Delicious Dairy DalahästThe dala horses are painted using traditional rosemaling techniques, especially loading a wide brush with two colors of paint to get the fade strokes like all the scallops. Food coloring is too translucent for that technique, so I used my small watercolor brush reserved for food use, and I faded the colors myself with tiny strokes. I used my gel food colors with barely any water at all or the color would pool and run on the cheese surface. Using my mini wooden dala horse as a model, I started with the midrange color, faded into the white as the color faded from the brush, then I went back with straight gel for the darkest edges. This worked pretty well, but painting on plain cream cheese is even trickier than painting on cream cheese gelatin Eerie Eyeballs since it is too easy for your brush to dig into the cream cheese surface. Definitely use an extremely light touch with a nice soft Delicious Dairy Dalahäst with Jalapeño Jellypaintbrush. After the details were added, I painted red around them with the fine brush, then filled the large red areas with a larger brush. Just covering with the red pepper jelly wasn’t opaque enough to look like the proper design, and I needed to use one of my food brushes to ease the jelly into smaller areas of the red design. What we also learned was not to paint your cream cheese too many days in advance of serving because the color starts soaking into the cheese and the sharp edges start to blur.

One problem was covering the large horse before serving, since tight plastic wrap touched the painted surface and it would peel off the color, so I tented foil over it, but that wasn’t airtight enough to prevent the cream cheese from developing a few cracks overnight. I was also on the very last of my red pepper jelly, so even after thinning it with water, I only had barely enough to cover the red areas of the horse, and that wasn’t enough jelly compared to the amount of cream cheese. I opened some green pepper jelly for around the edges of the horse, and since I have often Painting the Mini Dalahästhad people refuse to eat my edible art because they say it’s too pretty, I added some free blobs of extra cream cheese for the green pepper jelly. It took a couple hours into the party, but finally a leg and the ear were gone! ;)

My mom loved my photos so much that she asked me to make one for her party the Safely stored in plasticfollowing week. I still had the small horse in its mold, but that took much longer to paint since the scale was so much smaller. Luckily it fit inside a plastic container, so I unmolded directly onto the container lid so that after painting I could just snap the base over the horse without touching any of the cream cheese surface. That worked great for transport and against cracking, even though people didn’t eat that one and ate the plain cream cheese to the side. ;)

I hope this inspires you to make your own Delicious Dairy Dalahäst with Jalapeño Jelly! God Jul and Happy Holidays!

Delicious Dairy Dalahäst Delicious Dairy Dalahäst Small Version

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Holiday Happy Hour 2015

HolidayHappyHour2015 - 26I took a break for 2014, so I was eager to have my Holiday Happy Hour again in 2015! This year had a theme…Crystals & Diamonds! Not only do they go well with ice and snow, but December 13th, 2015, was my crystal anniversary marking 10 years of HolidayHappyHour2015 - 25Brittahytta, and it is also the house’s diamond anniversary at 60 years old!

I think it was a new record for Christmas parties, since the grand total was 53 of us celebrating the 10th anniversary of Brittahytta and Lucia Day Swedish Festival of HolidayHappyHour2015 - 29Lights at my Holiday Happy Hour! Not much food was left, two batches each of hot cider and mulled wine, refills of cookie plates, and the absolute disaster of the cookie decorating station are all evidence of all the fun. I even had some new edible art this year with the Delicious Dairy Dalahäst cream cheese dala horse, so that will get its own post. Everyone enjoyed my special new outside decor too, especially the kids, and that is best shown by the video included here. :)

Please enjoy the full photo gallery below, and I hope everyone has a happy holiday season!

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gingerbread season!

It’s gingerbread season for sure! I was kindly asked to compete on a TV lifestyle show gingerbread baking contest that is filming today, but it was too short-notice for me to travel with no compensation…however, my Hogwarts gingerbread castle is featured in PopSugar along with other Harry Potter-inspired gingerbread creations! Nice that they even used mine for the front page…and called me a “creative genius!” :) You can click each image to enlarge or click to read the whole article.

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Halloween 2015 – The Party!

Halloween 2015 Scream Team with the full front show!Whew! My Halloween 2015 party was thankfully another grand success! Since people brought friends I didn’t know I’m not exactly sure, but I think it looks like our total this year was 67 people including 8 kids. Not an all-time record but not shabby at all! The weather cooperated this year, thankfully not raining until a couple days later, my new backyard canopies worked perfectly to spread out the crowd, I had international help for party prep this year, and I have one of my favorite Halloween Scream Team photos yet with my skeleton boys Scary Jerry and Ghoulish Glen standing with me as La Muerte in the ghostly graveyard next to the “live” skeleton mariachi band under the giant glowing harvest moon!

Glowing GraveyardThis year, we were inspired by the uniquely beautiful and creative Mexican traditions of Dia de los Muertos for our own Day of the Dead celebration! Our front show was the major effort this year, with a “live” skeleton mariachi band singing and playing for their ghostly ancestors in a joyous graveyard celebration lit by hundreds of flickering candles below a glowing harvest moon! Even though the show wasn’t fully ready for prime time until the wee hours of Friday morning, everyone at the party loved it! Some comments we enjoyed hearing were “your skeleton banter toed the line of too The Mariachis de Muerte have an audience!corny and succeeded” and “the graveyard looks just right and these stories are like the tall tales I heard at home in Oaxaca” plus “another amusement-park quality display!” Everyone said we outdid ourselves yet again, and even we aren’t sure how we can top this one! At 6am Friday morning when the skeletons were finally dressed and the multi-colored papel picado-style banners were hanging in the graveyard, Ghoulish Glen said to me, “I know we always try to plus it, but I think this time we multiplied it!” haha…

Skeleton Boys and Mariachi SeanSo many party guests took the Day of the Dead theme to heart, so we had so many painted skull faces and some fabulous outfits! I had my makeup on and was wearing a fun sugar skull tank top Carla & Erica with my front porch La Catrinawhile I was still performing the last party prep tasks as guests began arriving, but at least I was in full La Muerte costume out in the graveyard by 8:30pm!

Skull Sheila!The Calavera Cookie Contest decorating table was in use all night, so much that by morning there were only a couple cookies left of SEVEN DOZEN when the party started! The only quiz this year was Spot the The Calavera Cookie Contest table was in demand all night!Skeletons to find all the skeletons at the party (skulls-only didn’t count), but even though there were people sitting on the living room couch for quite a while, none of them ever looked up when they heard the knocking, so they missed the coolest skeleton of all, waving in the skylight to people below!

Partying people in the backyardPeople had already started leaving before 10pm, so I quickly tried gathering everyone in the backyard to Partying people in the backyardvote and award the prizes. You must be present to win, but I saved some edible medals for my favorite costumes and Creepy Cuisine!

Without further ado, here are the winners!

Creative Calavera Cookie: Ellie, Katie, Kian, Annalise
Creative Calavera Cookie winner Ellie! Creative Calavera Cookie winner Katie! Creative Calavera Cookie winners Kian & Annalise!
Spot the Skeleton: Supreme Skeleton Spotters Mari, Meghan, Nancy
Supreme Skeleton Spotter Mari! Supreme Skeleton Spotter Meghan! Supreme Skeleton Spotter Nancy!
Scariest Costume: Brock as Herman Munster
Scariest Costume winner Brock as Herman Munster!
Most Creative Costume: Katie as Jackie Kennedy, Robin & Charles’ outstanding paper masks
Most Creative Costume winner Katie as Jackie Kennedy! Most Creative Costume winners Robin & Charles for their outstanding paper masks!
Ultimate Costume: Brock & Shannon as Herman & Lily Munster, Gnome Family Cyd, Mike & Elias, Barbieri Mariachis with Piñata Ashlyn. Honorable mention in absentia for Jen the Pumpkin Boxtroll!
Ultimate Costume winners Brock & Shannon as Herman & Lily Munster! Ultimate Costume winners the Gnome Family Cyd, Mike & Sleepy Elias! Ultimate Costume winners the Barbieri Mariachis with Piñata Ashlyn! Ultimate Costume Honorable Mention in absentia for Jen the Pumpkin Boxtroll!
Creepy Cuisine: Scary Jerry’s Mexican Chocolate “Poo” cupcakes, Debi & daughters for their Puking Pumpkin. Honorable mentions in absentia: Erica’s adorable pretzel Skelly-Cakes & Kevin C’s delicious chicken wings
Creepy Cuisine winner Scary Jerry for his Mexican Chocolate "Poo" cupcakes! Creepy Cuisine winners Debi & daughters for their Puking Pumpkin! Erica's adorable pretzel skeleton cupcakes! Kevin C's delicious chicken wings
Ultimate Distance Award: all the Canadians! Not only did Shannon’s extended family travel the furthest to attend this year, but all of them helped immensely with party prep! I thanked them profusely in front of everyone, and I thank them again now!!!
Ultimate Distance Award: all the Canadians! Not only did Shannon's extended family travel the furthest to attend this year, but all of them helped immensely with party prep!

Party guests watching the front showAfter the awards were presented, everyone kept chatting, eating & drinking, sometimes going back out front to watch the show again, since it ran every 20 minutes. The last guests left around 3am, and I was so completely exhausted from only 4 hours sleep over The after-party...heh!2 days that I barely got the perishable food put away and some dishes soaking in the sink before I had a quick shower to get my makeup off, then crashed in bed at 4:30am…whew! What a fantastic night!

You can click to keep reading for my detailed party post-mortem, or skip to the end for the combined party gallery of ~300 photos from Cat, Kevin C. and me La Muerte in the Glowing Graveyardif you like, and you can also click over to Facebook or the professional album for all the photos taken by the fabulous Photography by Cat (aka Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy for this Halloween).

There will also be other posts coming soon of our public show run including Halloween night, and for other behind-the-scenes projects including my elaborate La Muerte costume with giant sombrero and flickering candles above and below! Hope everyone had a fun Halloween like we did!

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Day of the Dead – Full Show!

Happy Friday the 13th! I am still organizing all the photos and video from my big party and Halloween weekend, but I’ve finished the first video of Halloween 2015…the Day of the Dead full show in all its glory!

For Halloween 2015, Eerie Elegance was inspired by the uniquely beautiful and creative Mexican traditions of Dia de los Muertos for our own Day of the Dead celebration! See a “live” skeleton mariachi band sing and play for their ghostly ancestors in a joyous graveyard celebration lit by hundreds of flickering candles below a glowing harvest moon! Designed for children of all ages, this show will bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart.

Everything is original made by the Eerie Elegance Scream Team, from the names, stories, script, voice acting, gravestones, to the animatronic musical instruments, video editing, and all the programming to sync everything together!

Written by Jerry Diego, Britta Peterson & Glen Simon

Ricardo: Jerry Diego
Monty: Glen Simon
Ban: Britta Peterson
Halencio “Hal” Peño: Jerry Diego
Gallina P. Queño & Cielo: Tracia Barbieri & Pickles the Chicken
Cali Yente: Britta Peterson
Margarito T. Kilja: Glen Simon

Full behind-the-scenes details coming soon to Britta Blvd and Eerie Elegance

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a peek at Halloween 2015

This week has been a blur! Finishing my costume, food and decor, hosting my Halloween party, entertaining international guests, documenting the decor, advertising and running our front show for 4 nights collecting donations for UNICEF, then packing up about half of the show just in time before pouring rain hit last night! I’m on my way to Seattle this week for my grandma’s 101st birthday, so here’s just a taste of this Halloween to tide you over until I get the copious amounts of photos and HD video organized properly!

Eerie Elegance Presents Halloween 2015 - Day of the Dead

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Giant Gravestones!

More foam to make giant gravestones!My artistic vision for this Dia de los Muertos inspired Halloween has a secret plan that requires truly giant gravestones, larger than I have ever made before! Even though I recycled as much of the Spirit Materializer and other foam scraps as possible, those weren’t large enough for the main structures of the seven gravestones for this year, so I tied 6 big sheets of 2″ thick insulation foam to the top of my car and started designing.

Scary Jerry had given me a nice Day of the Dead coffeetable book for Christmas, the movie The Book of Life showed several designs I thought would be appropriate, plus I searched online for actual Mexican graveyard photos in hopes of adding some authenticity to the look. Those inspired my designs for shapes as well as colors. I’ll admit I never saw quite so many vividly-painted gravestones so close together without plain ones between, but I did see all my gravestone colors represented in real graveyard photos…yes, even the turquoise one! ;)

An extra-long jigsaw blade makes foam cutting a breeze, but leaves fuzz all over!In August, Scary Jerry & I worked on cutting and carving new giant gravestones. I had learned my lesson from previous foam cutting and purchased an extra-long jigsaw blade so I could cut all the way through the 2″ thick foam insulation sheets. I couldn’t find a smooth blade though, so the fine teeth spit fine foam dust everywhere! Sure glad I could use my back lawn for all this mess!

Adding levels for interest, including the old doorway archI had planned for levels and shelves to add interest as well as stability, so I used a lot of toothpicks toed in at angles along with glue to assemble all the shapes. For the shelves and brackets, I used scraps of old broken stone walls. Each gravestone also had an altar slab, with the gravestone sitting on the altar slab to hold them in place together. I Anchoring the glue with toothpicks toed in at angleswanted altars with stairstep levels that I had seen on so many authentic Mexican gravestones, but I didn’t want to double my foam cost, so I cut strips to make a vertical inset border that gave the impression of stairsteps. These strips also helped keep the vertical gravestones in position.

Gravestones with new sidepieces for stability and hiding effectsOnce I got them all standing, I realized that they were so tall that just rebar in the gravestones wouldn’t be enough, let alone too much of the secret setup in back would be revealed. Luckily I had enough large foam left to cut side panels for each tall gravestone which helped a lot with stability. I had tried drilling the rebar into the foam then inserting PVC, but this pellet foam will all of a sudden compress instead of drill cleanly through, ending up with giant PVC channels glued into the corners to slide over rebar pounded into the grass holds the Giant Gravestones in place even in wind!holes, cracks, or even complete breaks. After I repaired those, I used liquid nails to glue the PVC lengths into the inside corner of each side panel. Having that slide over the rebar plus tightly nested with the altar strips has held stable for all seven stones for a month now, even 7ft tall Señor Kilja only barely wiggling in some really gusty wind, so I’d call that a success! Whew!

Scary Jerry was using his own woodburning tool as our foam stone texture carver extraordinaireAs I finished carving the epitaphs and fine detail, Scary Jerry was using his own woodburning tool as our foam stone texture carver extraordinaire, “chipping” away Assembled giant gravestones hidden away looked pretty silly!at edges very artistically so they really looked like stone. I had to pack up for the last summer movie night then leave 9 hours later for a work trip to Brazil, so I crammed all the giant gravestones into my side yard to hide them and keep them safe, but it looked really silly! ;)

Yours truly spraying colorful Mexican-inspired basecoats on plain white foam gravestones...On Saturday of Labor Day weekend we went from plain white gravestones to painted and aged, thankfully using my handy sprayer with custom-mixed colorful Mexican-inspired basecoats from cheap acrylic craft paints. It was hot enough that the basecoats were dry quickly enough for Scary Jerry to try his hand at my water and spray paint aging technique. By Monday evening all the Front layout with test sombrerosgravestones AND skeletons were standing in place so we used some test sombreros to see how the full display might look…exciting to see the potential!

Scary Jerry aging gravestones with spray paint and dripping water after basecoats were quickly dry in the hot sunshine...The next weekend we were all working hard again. Scary Jerry was learning to accent paint gravestones Eerie Elegance-style, which means not so dark that it looks like cartoony like you drew with black marker, but dark I never thought I would need a stepladder to paint a gravestone!enough to read all the carvings at night. My previous gravestones have been table size at most, so I would accent paint them while I was sitting at my work table. I never thought I would need a stepladder to paint a gravestone!

First graveyard test of homemade PVC candles over custom-wired flicked LEDsI will save the complete candlemaking details for another post in case anyone else would like to try making some, but the short version is that I finally used all the rest of my old backyard sprinkler system pipe that I’ve been saving since 2006 chopped up into candle sizes. To get enough candles, we had to buy some new PVC, and make sure to get the thinner wall PVC for the best candle glow. We also discovered during our initial graveyard candle testing of the newly-wired flicker LEDs showed that the PVC glue drip candles work best without paint so the translucent glue drips refract the light better, plus that big blobs were best. For the rest of the candles, I sanded the lettering off (nothing else worked!), and since the old PVC was too grungy for sanding to get them clean, I only painted the bottoms, leaving the hot glue drips unpainted for best glow.

Ghoulish Glen at the soldering party assembly lineWe had a soldering party assembly line at my dining table to configure 80 flicker LEDs with pigtails long enough to run through the foam gravestones for custom-controllable candles. The soldering party assembly line continued until 2am, but we got all 80 flicker LEDs wired, soldered, heat-shrunk, tested & sanded!

Soldering such tiny wires together, but I did it all myself!The candles around the altars are battery strings of 10 small candles meant to clip onto Christmas tree branches. I found them as the perfect size for my La Muerte hat and our resident electrical expert Ghoulish Glen agreed it would be easier to solder strings together and change the power supply than to keep wiring individual LEDs. After a quick soldering lesson, I configured, tested, soldered, heat shrank and tested again for 200 candles on 20 battery strings to be Gravestone with candles alight, some decorations, still needs FLOWERS...ready to decorate the seven gravestones. Sure glad I can focus on such tiny work!

Some recalculations and a trip to Fry’s electronics store ended with Ghoulish Glen adding inline resistors to the top candles before wiring together with the battery strings. When he flipped the switch at dusk, I literally clapped my hands in joy as I saw all 273 candles flickering in the graveyard! :D

Gravestone decorating is underway with all the loaves of Pan de Muertos I made and sealed with varnish and so many skulls I decorated, and we finally got the graveyard lighting design settled Sunday evening, thanks to our resident lighting expert Scary Jerry! The graveyard is entirely lit by the new indoor-outdoor colored LED spotlights from Spirit, including a color-changing one placed in the tree for some overall light. The skeleton mariachi band is on their decorated all LED lighting for the graveyard, including the candles!stage in the driveway, ready for programming, hats and jackets! Unfortunately the moon screen fell off Sunday afternoon, so we are building a new one from 1/4″ plywood and hoping to get it hung tomorrow.

If you click to view the entire gallery of step-by-step photos, you might be able to guess at my secret plan why these are such Giant Gravestones. ;) I’m very glad I took the next three days off work since there is still too much costume work, decorating and food prep to do for any more posts until after my party is over! Wish us luck getting everything done by Saturday and staying working through Halloween night!

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modifying skeletons to move!

One of our major projects for Halloween 2015 is the Mariachis de Muerte, our skeleton mariachi band! We had already hacked one 3-axis skull kit to make Jack Skellington’s head for Halloween 2013, so Costco "poseable" skeletonswe felt pretty confident we could make the band talk and sing, but we also wanted them to play their instruments too.

The “poseable” skeletons that Costco has been selling the past few years won’t move in all the directions we need This shoulder only rotates on one axis nested inside the socketto play our musical instruments, so I’ve been working on modifying them all summer. The shoulders only move forwards and back, not a true rotation to get any angle to the arm, and the wrists only wave back and forth, no rotation either. Luckily I had one more expensive skeleton in my stash who had some better-designed joints, Better joint design on a more expensive skeleton from my stashso I used those as a model to modify my three cheaper matching skeletons.

The model skeleton had what looked like thin molded pipe straps, but the only molded pipe straps I could find at Cutting galvanized pipe strap tape for the new shoulder jointmy local hardware stores were the wrong sizes, plus were so thick I didn’t think my dremel would be able to make a decent hole through it. I found galvanized pipe strap tape instead that had predrilled holes and was easier to bend, so I used that for both the shoulders and the wrists.

Better designed wrist joint that waves and rotates vs. Costco wrist joint that only wavesThe wrists were fairly easy because the hand end and the arm ends were both solid enough to screw into. Make sure to screw the hand in first, or you can’t reach a screwdriver in the small gap after the arm ends are in place. If you need a servo to move the wrist, you might Completed and exploded new wrist assemblywant it a little looser than if you want to pose it to stay in position all season. I used metal washers between the metal and the plastic in hopes of not having the metal tape edges scrape away the plastic.

The shoulders were trickier because there was no actual socket to anchor the strap tape. These original shoulders removing the original shoulder showing the extra knob that nests insideare just an extra ball attached to the shoulder ball so that the tension of the socket New shoulder assemblyaround the thin junction between balls lets it rotate on one axis. I loosened the socket screws to let the whole shoulder knob out, cut off the extra ball joint with a box cutter, then used the extra ball piece as my anchor inside for the strap tape. This is not ideal since it wiggles around loose inside the shoulder, but at least we can get the proper angles for playing trumpet, guitar & violin!
New shoulder assembly exploded to show construction
I haven’t seen any skeletons with poseable fingers, but at least these hands weren’t molded mittens like some I have seen. Since the fingers needed to be poseable to play our instruments properly, I decided to try making not The finger bones were thin enough to cut apart with a box cutteronly poseable fingers for this year but articulated hands that could be controlled by servos in future years. Kids, do NOT try this at home! After all this frustration I didn’t think it was a coincidence that a couple skeleton hands were in a “certain” position! ;) A box cutter and elbow grease cut the hands apart well enough, however these finger bones are so thin and the plastic melts so quickly that drilling through them cleanly is nigh Finger frustration and failure! Kids, do NOT try this at home!impossible. If you want controllable finger joints, don’t even mess with this plastic and just sculpt your own bones around notched tubing like I did for Jack Skellington in 2013. Aren’t you glad I learned this hand lesson the hard way so you don’t have to waste your time? :/

So, since that plan failed miserably, I wired what I could through the few successful holes in the finger bones, which unfortunately still would spin freely around the wires. In desperation I finally resorted to using my own Using my fingers as clamps with cool melt hot ready for tender fingertips!fingers as clamps to secure the cool-melt glue between the finger bones and wires so they would stay in position. Do NOT try this with anything but cool-melt glue, and if you’re not an experienced glue gun shooter or have other reasons for calloused fingertips, be very very careful since it will smart like a minor sunburn.

At least I finally ended up with poseable fingers, albeit fragile!My hot glue hack is lasting okay, but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, since as we kept moving the skeletons to engineer how they need to move for the animatronics, finger bones kept falling off. Thankfully I found most of the pieces, so after getting the hands into final position, I reglued them in place, and now they will probably stay the season. I think an off-season project will be to sculpt my own finger bones around tubing for all these skeletons so I can change from wire to string inside depending on the effects we need for the next project. Maybe I’ll be able to make molds and sell skeleton hand kits next year? Hmmm…

Building stands for the skeletonsWe needed the skeletons to stand on their own, and I was planning ahead for future years where the skeletons most likely will not be standing together, so we mounted each on its own scrap plywood platform, using the Spider Hill PVC feet we had custom PVC skeleton stands being painted bone color to blend inpurchased for Jack Skellington for Halloween 2013 and the Spirit Materializer pipe for Halloween 2014. We used smaller heavy-duty PVC so it would hide behind the bones better, but we needed to find the 1″ to 1/2″ reducer bushings that fit inside the 1″ feet tightly, since you can’t use an external joint reducer.

Trumpet in position!Now that they could stand on their own, how could we engineer their arms to play their instruments? We tackled the trumpet first, since that seemed to be a simple fixed arm position with a lever to rotate the shoulders. Little did we know! I didn’t want any permanent modifications to the skeletons so we could use them again for other scenes, so I only used wire and hot glue that I could peel off later. I spent an entire afternoon wiring the elbows and fingers around the trumpet so that it could rotate up into proper playing position, but I finally got it to look good! Glen spent another few days engineering a PVC assembly where we could pull down in back to rotate the shoulders up, but it stayed as mechanical only for a couple weeks.

violin and guitar working on servos!The violin was next since we expected it would be the trickiest, and it was! I wired the right elbow at a decent angle and wired and glued the wrist in place with the hand around the bow, so only the shoulder needed to move. I worked on wiring and gluing the left shoulder in a decent violin position while Glen worked on engineering how to get the shoulder to move at the correct angle. After a lot of trial and error we got him playing well enough using the servo tester…our first moving instrument! I do apologize in advance to all my string musician friends for the improper posture, but he’s only a skeleton without tendons or muscles! ;)

Next was the guitar, another fixed arm with a moving arm. I commented that half the shoulder joints I painstakingly modified were being glued and wired into fixed positions…heh! Ah well, at least they’ll still work Can you tell this guitar is only papier-mâché, cardboard & paint? ;)better for future years. When I built the guitar in the spring, I didn’t decorate it because I expected we would have to cut into the structure to add the servo movement, so I expected more papier-mâché repair work as well before any painting could happen. Luckily we learned from the violin shoulder and decided we could mount the servo on the arm and drive the elbow directly, not cutting into the guitar at all! I figured out how to wire it Skull tuning head and skull fret marker on the guitarthrough the main hole to the spine, leaving the wire in place to remove the guitar for finishing. I had fun with woodgrain painting techniques, decorating the tuning head as a skull, and even adding tiny skull and bone fret markers. The neighborhood audience we acquired while testing outside didn’t believe it wasn’t a real guitar!

Shaving away the shoulder socket for smoother servo and lever movementWe had the violin and guitar working great on servos, but the trumpet took the largest hobby servo plus a lot more testing power from larger batteries to lift properly. Since this setup rotated the shoulders every movement, we adjusted everything we could to make sure nothing was rubbing or binding, including shaving away plastic from the shoulder socket so the metal hinge would stop scraping. Sounds like the shoulder surgery my parents have both had. ;)

Carefully cutting the thick plastic skulls accurately was trickyThe skull kits came without teeth installed, no hole for movement clearance, and very detailed instructions. Even with our combined arsenal of tools, we still had trouble cutting the large hole! The plastic just melts when drilled or sawed, so by the time you have continued cutting around the circle, it has melted back together in too many spots. It took my new multi-cutter tool with the smallest blade Glen had, then I made all the cuts so Glen wouldn’t be blamed for ruining anything. ;) Thankfully he agreed to be my vise at least! He drilled Ghoulish Glen working on the skull electronicsthe hole for the jaw rod, assembled and installed all the electronics, and even glued in the teeth for each skull, then they were finally ready to install on the skeletons. Now Glen thinks he has done enough skull engineering that he might be able to install the electronics in any plastic skull with a moving jaw, perhaps even the much lighter weight $5 ones from Target!

Adding JBWeld inside the neck pieces after spray foam insulation wasn't enough supportAnchoring the animatronic skulls to the skeletons was another challenge, since the skeleton neck pieces conveniently twisted off and on again, and the original skulls popped off a neck knob, but the neck piece itself was hollow, not enough to anchor the threaded shaft for the skull to stay firm while moving on its servos. I had a can of spray insulation foam left, so I cut off the knobs and filled the neck pieces to be solid, but the foam wasn’t tight enough to hold the necks on the skulls, ready for the skeletonsthreaded rod either. I tried filling with JB Weld down the center hole, which is solid for drilling, but it was too difficult to get enough JB Weld inside, so that still allowed the threaded rod to twist slightly…so it was back to my trusty friend hot glue for a big blob around the rod, neck, and nut to fix it in place. Sure hope it holds for all the shows but at least it’s easy to add more hot glue. ;)

painting the bright white animatronic skulls to match the skeleton patinaThe skull kits came with bright white skulls, so they needed to be painted to match the skeleton patina. I should have painted the skulls before mounting them to the skeletons, since that made for very awkward painting technique. Glen thought I looked like a mother wiping her child’s chin. Haha! We Hiding the mini controller board inside the skull...sneaky!did get the mini controller board hidden inside the skulls so only the CAT-5 cable ran down the back to the controller board, but we also should have planned to hide the control wires through the PVC before it was glued together, but Glen wasn’t convinced that was a good idea until afterwards. The spines hide the wires well enough until the hips, but I All three skeletons ready for jackets, hats and programming!drilled through the PVC feet and plywood bases then also through the top of the hip elbow joint so the wires can slide down one leg into the stage platform that will hide the speakers and controller board. Now all three skeletons are ready for their jackets, hats and programming!

Those of you who might want to try these modifications themselves can view all the step-by-step photos in the gallery below. Stay tuned for the rest of Halloween 2015!

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