Time taken: 20 hours
Materials: 12mm wood dowelling, 5mm wood dowelling, piece of 2.5cm PVC pipe and joiner, PVC bathroom corner moulding 10mm, 2mm stainless bolts, expanding foam, 5mm superbright green LEDS, hookup wire, 100 ohm resistors, 2 x slide switches, 2 x 9v battery connectors, hot glue, table tennis balls, cardboard, velcro, 5mm eva foam, paper, wallpaper glue, acrylic paint in mars black, titanium silver, burnt umber, white, mod podge, wine fabric dye, unbleached calico.
Tools: craft knife, paintbrushes, soldering iron and solder, pliers, wire strippers, hot glue gun, drill.
Techniques: Fabrication, carving, electronics, modelling, dyeing, painting.
Difficulty level: Hard.
Death’s scythe is the most ridiculously large and overdone prop ever. Here’s the ref pic:
It stands as tall as me and the blade is 1.5m long, but it had to be light enough to wield and also have those glowing eyes, which meant circuitry and batteries and all those skulls embedded in it.. and yikes!
I decided to use Kamui’s expanding foam technique for this project, because it was the most lightweight material I could think of that would still have decent bulk and mass. But expanding foam is quite easy to break and this would have a lot of leverage on it so I wanted to give it a skeleton.
For that I used the smallest PVC bathroom corner moulding I could find in the hardware shop, bolted together to form a basic bow shape:
In this pic you can also see the attachment mechanism for the handle. It had to be able to be broken down for transport because of its size, which has been an ongoing theme for the engineering in this project, making everything just that bit more complex. To make a strong join where the handle fits into the blade, I bought a piece of PVC pipe and a sleeve joiner. The sleeve section went into the blade, and the pipe section was bolted to the dowelling I used for the skeleton of the handle.
To make the join stay together, I drilled a hole thorough both that was big enough to slide a small dowelling rod through (you can see this in the picture sticking up beside the red duct tape). Eventually I’ll replace this with something stronger, but as of writing the dowelling’s still doing the job just fine.
Once the skeleton was in place, it was time to go nuts with the expanding foam. As I recall it took 6 large cans of the stuff to make the blade and handle. I covered my table in gladwrap first and put a tarp on the floor because previous experience tells me this job is MESSY.
Now here’s the bit where like an idiot I forgot to take photos. Doh.
It took a couple of days for all the expanding foam to dry solid, then I spent a few hours carving it into shape. For the handle, I ended up adding a diagonal brace with dowelling, just to ensure the weight of the blade wouldn’t put too much angled stress on the joint and break it. I’m glad I did – it makes the whole thing more rigid.
Instead of trying to carve individual skulls into the main blade, I carved each one separately – there are 11 on each side – so that I’d be able to glue them on over the wiring that was needed for the LEDs, and thus hide it. Then I named them all after politicians.
Once they were carved, I plugged my details into this handy wizard, which provided me with a number of options for how to place the LEDs in an array. I wanted to use an array because with 44 LEDs in total, individually wiring each pair would just be silly (and heavy). Following the diagram recommended by the wizard, I got with the soldering and after a few hours ended up with what vaguely resembled a ladder – a positive and a negative wire, with 11 connecting wires each with a 100 ohm resistor and 2 LEDs on it, that could connect to a 9v battery, thus:
After making sure there were no exposed wires and testing all the connections* this was then laid along the scythe, and each individual mini skull glued in place with an LED poking through each eye socket. I also carved a hollow in the butt end of the blade for the batteries to sit in (one each side – I decided on separate circuits just to make them less unwieldy to handle). These were covered with eva foam covers held closed with velcro and reinforced with cardboard. Finally, I embedded the switches in an unobtrusive spot just behind the handle joint.
Once the circuitry was in place, I cut sections from table tennis balls and hot glued them in place over the eye sockets of each skull, to make the eyeballs and to diffuse the LED brightness. Then I carried on with Kamui’s technique by covering the whole blade (and handle) with paper strips dipped in wallpaper glue, to provide a ‘skin’ to cover the imperfections in the expanding foam, hide the wire, and carry the paint job. And look, it worked!
In fact, it worked almost too well. Those really are superbright LEDs and I wanted them slightly less superbright, so I added some mars black/burnt umber paint to the eyeball covers and smeared it around a bit. This had the bonus effect of covering any leftover white bits that were still visible around the eyes after the black undercoat.
Meanwhile, the handle had been getting coats of paint as well, starting with burnt umber and working gradually lighter to create an old wood grain effect, finishing with a lightly-rubbed coat of white to take the shiny newness off it. The blade got a similar treatment, working from mars black through silver and grey to white to try and achieve the look of being made from stone.
I admit that painting isn’t my strong suit and I’ve never tried to paint anything so large before, but it’s supposed to look a bit cartoonish and I’m pretty happy with the overall effect.
(not the final coat – there were another couple after this to add detail and lighten up the edges, and then I covered the whole lot with matte mod podge for a protective layer)
Once all that was done, the only remaining job was to put the reddish binding cloth thing on the handle. I’m sure I could’ve bought some reddish cloth, but that would be too simple, right? And also, he has them on his arms and hands as well, so I decided to tear long strips of unbleached calico and dye them.
Here is what 10 long strips of unhemmed (for authenticity, yo!) unbleached calico look like after going through a washing machine dye process:
That wasn’t quite the right colour so I ended up doing it (and untangling it) twice. They now look thoroughly old and authentic. It was a simple job using hot glue to bind the handle with two of the longer strips, and voila! Done!
This picture doesn’t really do it justice – I should have put something in there to show the scale. But it does show the finished product, which is both lightweight and fairly robust. I’m chuffed!