This SKILL post is all about improvising and throwing something together out of whatever you have at your disposal. Many times I find myself in need of a prop for a costume or a part for a project, but don’t have the time or money to spend on making or buying a high quality version. This is one of my favorite kind of challenges. At times like this, hot glue, cheap plastic goods and spray paint will be your best friends.
But just like drawing, Making on the fly is a skill that involves studying a subject, breaking it down to its constituent parts and working from the abstract to bring things into greater and greater resolution, until they are recognizable. To show you what I mean, let’s look at a few examples of times I kludged some crap together and ended up with a passable version of what I needed.
Harry potter and the can of Krylon
As I mentioned in the post about making Dumbledore’s Podium, I hosted a Harry Potter Trivia Night for several years while in college. I wanted to give all the members of the winning house some sort of prize to take home and thought golden snitches would be cool. You can buy snitches online, but there was no way I could afford over a dozen of them. Luckily, I found a mixed bag with several sizes of used plastic Easter eggs. The bottoms of two different types fit together to make a perfect sphere. I hot glued designs on them all, stuck some wings on the side, and sprayed it all gold. This was time consuming, but the overall, the result was very satisfying and as an added bonus I was able to hide further little prizes inside the snitches.
I made all the decorations for the event by hand, including a shield made to look like the award for special services granted to Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter books. I wanted more stuff to put on the walls and the shield seemed like a good idea, but wasn’t sure how to go about making it without spending too much time or budget, both of which were stretched incredibly thin. While I was rummaging through the supply closet I found an old disc sled and knew that with just a little bit of hot glue and a coat of gold spray paint, it could look exactly like as described in Chamber of Secrets.
I free-handed the design directly onto the sled with pencil and simply traced over with hot glue. It still took a good bit of time, but it was well worth it for how official-looking it came out. Even the custom emblem and year on the random old trophy seen above were made by gluing and gilding a piece of milk jug plastic.
One other quick aesthetic touch were the candles. I gathered a bunch of Gatorade lids from a recycle bin because they fit perfectly in toilet paper and paper towel roll tubes. I cut the edges of the tube to be uneven, glued the Gatorade lid inside about an inch below the lowest level of the rim, painted the TP tube with white acrylic (just because spray paint wont stick well to raw cardboard), drizzled hot glue down from the rim, and sprayed the hot glue white. Finally I set a battery candle down into it where it rested on the Gatorade lid (not fully set in the picture). No, it doesn’t look very authentic, but it was quick, cheap and easy to produce a lot of in a short amount of time.
More recently I made a Hufflepuff Cup replica for a drinking game. I studied pictures of the prop long enough to be familiar with it, and slowly started to compile the pieces. The bottom is a glass candle holder, the dimpled portion a ceramic tea candle dish, then a clear acrylic party cup. Shower curtain rings make the handle and the badger was drawn on with hot glue. I masked it to make sure no paint was on the inside of the cup and –you guessed it– sprayed it gold.
Not dishwasher safe, but considering I spent less than five bucks and one hour to construct it, not bad.
Another example from my career as a Community Assistant in the dorms was this YouTube Roulette bulletin board.
I had the idea to make a display full of QR codes with links to cool videos. You wouldn’t know what you were getting until you scanned it, so there was an element of randomness to it. Roulette was a logical theme, but I couldn’t exactly go buy a roulette wheel and bolt it to the wall just for the sake of a bulletin board, so I had to throw one together. If you look closely you can see that the wheel was made of a serving platter, some black and red paper, an upside down plate, the top of a Vitamin Water bottle, soda straws with marbles glued on the ends for the handles, and a ping pong ball.
As with a lot of what you see in this post, it looked like a pile of trash before the spray paint transformed it into exactly what I needed.
A real set of Pipes
Around the same time as the Roullette board, I signed myself and a friend up for the Warrior Dash 5K fun run/obstacle course. The event is also a fundraiser for St. Judes. My friend and I both set a goal and made a plan to go door to door asking for donations. This strategy is normally only a good idea for adorable little kids in scout uniforms and not so much for two dudes in their 20’s, but we had two factors on our side. First, we were fundraising for a wonderful and well-known organization. Second, we weren’t afraid to be goofy.
To help our credibility we made some T-shirts, stuck together instead of knocking solo, and offered to send an email with pre race and post race (covered in mud) photos.
But I think what really set off our vibe of strictly good intentions were the costumes. We planned to run the Warrior Dash dressed like Scottish Highlanders, so we already had the kilt costumes ready for the race. Going door to door though, I wanted something cool to collect cash in: a bagpipe.
Once again, this is not the kind of thing I would even know where to get, let alone have the money to buy one just to gut itand use it for collection. Instead, I masked an old pillow case, sprayed it with varying strengths of bleach and drew some lines with a sharpie until I got a nice Plaid pattern. This could have definitely just been purchased at a fabric store, but I wanted brown plaid and couldn’t find it anywhere on short notice. After studying the anatomy of a bagpipe I glued the pillowcase around a milk jug with one side removed and went to the dollar store across the street to look for more parts. They happened to have some giant syringe-like squirt toys that were perfect for the drones.
The inside pieces looked about right for the uppermost ends and the outside tubes got cut and spraypainted to fit the rest of the profile. A plastic recorder got slapped on the front and if memory serves, the mouthpiece was a chopstick wrapped in electrical tape. A few pieces of masking tape and yarn filled in the details to make it pretty undeniably bagpipe-ish. The final touch was to put a bagpipe song on my phone, set to repeat and nestle that at the bottom of the milk jug.
It was a bold strategy and still a lot of hard work, but we each raised over $200 for the cause and had fun doing it. A lot of people who answered their door were confused at first, but no one seemed suspicious. In fact, one person even made a comment about how they would have thought it possible that this was a scam except that we looked so ridiculous.
Ridiculous? Sure. But also very Scottish. A surprising amount of people asked how long it took me to learn to play bagpipe until I opened it up to reveal our precious cancer-fighting cash. If nothing else, at least my last-minute collection bag looked pretty serious.
May the 4th Be with you
This wasn’t the last time I used dollar store water toys in a last minute costume prop. This time last year, as May the 4th came around, I was invited to a Jedi Knights and Corona Lights party. It was a crossover Star Wars Day and Cinco De Mayo party. This is the exact situation where this skill really gets put to use. I had almost no notice, but a brilliant idea for a cosplay.
I wanted to pull off a Han Solo costume at work, where there was a contest, then go to the party that night as Juan Cholo. The pants and shirt were already in my closet and the boots I borrowed from a friend, but I had only about a day of notice to throw together a few critical components. The holster was just two belts zip tied together with a little bit of leather. I even made a more Hispanic hairpiece and mustache out of some faux fur I had laying around.
The big obstacle is the iconic blaster. I know what kind of miracles cheap plastic toys and spraypaint can work, but I have to admit my hopes weren’t high when I walked into the dollar store to start the search for parts.
By chance, I found a squirt gun that has almost the exact body style of the blaster, so most of the work was already done! I knew I would need to modify the barrel and add a sight, so I started browsing for other objects with the needed components. Those syringe squirters had a few parts that would come in handy too.
I broke down the toys and threw in a few other bits of plastic hardware from the junk drawer, then glued it all together.
After some careful masking and spraying, I was amazed at what I came up with for $2 and about the same number of hours.
It’s a long way off from the real thing, but the point is, anyone who knows much about Han Solo could easily recognize it for what it’s supposed to be.
I even helped a friend with her costume. I had already made us a pair of “Corona Lightsabers” by spraying silver paint into empty bottles and jamming some glow sticks in them. She wanted a bandoleer to go with her hat, so in about 15 min I cut up some extra large plastic drinking straws, sprayed them gold, sprayed some auxiliary pencil eraser caps silver, jammed those into the straws and glued them all on a belt.
It worked well enough, but she slowly shed ammunition over the night.
The whole day was an absolute “blast.”
What Have we Learned?
Knowing the basic qualities helps to narrow down what kind of materials you can use. Think about limiting factors like the time glues or paints will need to dry, or whether you have access to tools or materials by the time you need it. Running through the whole build in your head will help you avoid roadblocks once you’ve started.
Like I said earlier, break the project down into basic forms. Look at source material or examples of what you want to make. Disregarding all the features that are generally easy to change like color, what does it look like? What shape is it? What does that shape remind you of? Cast your mind about for other things with the same shapes or qualities. Don’t limit yourself to objects you’ve used or that are typically used in this kind of project. Think about anything and everything you use, throw away or have seen at a store. Before you know it, you’ll find components that are a perfect fit. Just keep trying and learning as you go. Not every project will come out how you want, but you’ll learn from everything you try and sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with what you manage to produce.