Building a Pepakura helmet for Denver Comic Con

DSC_1273At this year’s Denver Comic Con, I spent one day cosplaying as Cadavre from Broodhollow. (If you don’t know what Broodhollow is, I’m not surprised. Exactly one person recognized the character. But if you like Lovecraftian horror and quirky fun characters, and really clever jokes you should check it out.)
Anyway, this post is not about my almost creepy obsession with Broodhollow. This post is about how I built the mask that’s the heart and soul of the costume. (Warning: this post is really long.)
At first, I didn’t want to make a pepakura helmet. (Btw, pepakura is both a computer program for turning 3D models into instructions on how to make that shape out of folded cardstock, it’s a general term for anything built out of paper. All of this will make sense if you read on.)  As obsessed as I was about reading build threads on the Replica Prop Forum, it all seemed too daunting. Besides, I didn’t need to take on yet another time-consuming and expensive hobby. But I’d already been doing paper-craft as a means of trying out my burgeoning interest in automata and kinetic sculptures. But I’d been distracted from that by more general woodworking projects, which had since been put on hold while I get into model making. During which I, for reasons that remain fuzzy, was also doing an online course in Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. You get the picture. I’m in the midst of a hobby storm. I did not need another project.
But then I ran across a cool looking paper craft skull on Etsy. And it only took about an hour to build it out of regular paper. And, hey, would you look at that, it fits on my head. So then I built another one out of cardstock. I naively bought a color that I thought would match the color of a skull. That was when I thought I could just strengthen the cardstock and wear it like that. If only it had been that easy.
Here’s the cardstock skull. Just paper, glue and tape.

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The traditional next step in a pepakura build would be to coat the cardstock with a couple of coats of polyester resin. But since I was taking the “let’s not buy too much stuff if we don’t have to” approach to this, I chose to eschew the resin, which is a bit expensive, and requires an expensive and clunky mask. Instead I used wood glue thinned with water. Knowing that adding all that water would soften the paper and make it prone to losing its shape, I tried to prop it up with a couple of pieces of cardboard. Which kind of worked, but not really. I still had a slightly lopsided shape, and the point of the jaw flared out wildly at one jaw. On the second through fourth coats, I used bits of foam jammed into the mouth, and thin strips of wood glued to the jaw to try to reshape it. It mostly worked, though the nose remains a bit off-kilter.

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Next, I added fiberglass cloth to the inside of the skull. Again, traditionally, this would be done with more resin, but again, I chose to use wood glue. I know that if I ever do this again, I will use the resin for these steps. It’s not all that hard to work with. (Though my results with it were not good. See below for my tale of woe.) Either way, though, this step is pretty much guaranteed to be a sticky mess. You wipe down an area with wood glue thinned with water, then stick down a small swatch of fiberglass cloth, then stick it down with more glue. Cover the whole inside, let it dry for a day, then come back and add another layer. I honestly don’t remember if I did two or three coats of fiberglass. Whichever it was, it gave the mask plenty of strength. I wouldn’t try to stand on it or anything, but I have no fear of it collapsing under normal conditions.

DSC_0196 DSC_0197 DSC_0199By now it had become clear to me that the cardstock had warped and wrinkled too much for me to ever be happy with it as the final surface of the mask. I would have to inch one step closer to full-on pepakura technique and coat the outside with Bondo (aka body filler). There was a bit of a financial investment, since I had to get a bona-fide vapor mask. A basic dust mask (which I usually wear when sanding or sawing) is not good enough. Bondo and resin (which can be used to thin Bondo and by extension ruin your day (see below)) both give off harmful fumes. With mask, safety goggles, rubber gloves and a very old, sacrificial sweatshirt, I was ready to (safely) proceed.
I also covered part of the workbench with wax paper, just to minimize the mess. I used a layer of blue painter’s tape directly on the workbench to mix the Bondo with its hardener paste. The little rubber spatulas are also made by Bondo. They’re cheap, and you know you have enough hardener when the Bondo matches the color of the spatula. Not that mine ever did. But the first coat cured well.

The first few patches I did went on pretty smoothly. Later, I got sloppier, figuring I was going too slowly and that I’d have to sand it all down later anyway. I long to be skilled enough to lay down a perfectly smooth surface in one pass, like I’ve seen on YouTube, but alas what you get instead resembles the surface of a lemon meringue pie.

One common theme I remember seeing in post after post online about how to do pepakura is how much sanding there is to be done. Heavens to Murgatroyd, so much sanding. This was only the the beginning, but already it seemed interminable. I spent a couple of hours sanding this first layer down. Oh how I wish I’d had my random orbital sander then. Bondo chews through sandpaper in a hurry, clogging it after only a few minutes. It’s a pain.












I came back and added a thin rim of bondo around the inside of all the holes in the mask, just to add some strength and give it a clean edge. Well, clean once I’d sanded it.



Next up was a bit of pre-planning for how to secure the beret, so it would stay on top of the mask while I’m wearing it, but no interfere with putting on or taking off the mask. I decided to do this with some rare earth magnets. By sewing some washers to the beret, and using epoxy to stick the magnets to the inside of the mask, I could just slap the beret on top, and feel confident it would stay in place. (Spoiler alert: it did exactly that. It never moved unless I moved it.)


Showing the placement of the washer, and an initial strength test. The magnet easily held up the weight of the beret.
Here’s what the magnet looks like.
The next two moments of importance are sadly without corroborating photographic evidence. I’m not too surprised, though, as each of them was traumatizing in their own way, leaving me apparently forgetful of the camera.
The first event was the second layer of Bondo. Feeling confident after my first, relatively successful layer, head filled with new techniques gleaned from YouTube tutorials, and in full grips of the Dunning Kruger Effect, I decided to thin out this coat of Bondo with some resin. The idea is to create a less viscous mixture that can be manipulated more easily. It’s called Rondo (ha! get it?) and it’s often used to “slush coat” the inside of a helmet. (A task I decided, probably wisely, to skip.) Anyway, my goal was to make a thinner, more easily spread mixture that would be easy to get smooth.
Instead what I got was a thin, too-gray mixture that spread easily, but never cured fully. Normally Bondo cures to a rock-hard, sandable consistency in only 20 minutes. This coat was rubbery and tacky after an entire day. After spending a couple of days in denial, I did the only thing I could do: sand the entire coat off and start over. I thought that sanding normal Bondo was difficult, but this stuff was much worse. It gummed up sandpaper at a startling rate. Sometimes I’d get fed up and attack it with a file instead. At one point, I tried scrubbing with a rag and some acetone. In the end it was just a lot of sanding. I spent an hour or two a night for about a week to get it off. I spent a lot of that time on the phone with my girlfriend, or listening to podcasts.
Once it was finally gone, I (again without photos) added a fresh coat of non-thinned Bondo to the whole skull, and sanded and sanded and sanded it until it was more or less smooth.
The next momentous event was much more successful, but much more nerve-wracking. It had become clear shortly after the fiberglass stage that the mask would no longer fit on my head. I mean, it would, if I could get my ears through the opening on the bottom, which I couldn’t. Meaning the only way to make the mask useable was to cut it in half. I had to create a hinge in the mask, so I could fit my big melon inside. I measured and planned, and looked up stuff on the internet, and stalled, and measured again, and stalled, and admitted  to myself that no matter how many times I measured, I couldn’t be sure that it would actually fit on my head, and I stalled some more, and then finally I cut it in half. I used a disc cutter on my Dremel tool, which cut through the Bondo and fiberglass and glue with frightful ease. I got a couple of knicks in the edge, but otherwise it was a clean cut.
Here are some pictures of the two halves. I added more Bondo to the edges here, again for strength. I also built up a little platform to give me a nice surface to epoxy the hinge to.
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Given the hinged top, and the fact that I was going to secure the back flaps with magnets again, I couldn’t trust that the mask would just stay sitting on my head. I needed to fasten it more securely. I ended up getting a scuba mask strap off of Amazon; one of the cushioned neoprene kind that are really comfortable. I cut some plastic D-rings and attached straps off of an old backpack that I no longer use because of a broken strap. (Which is actually not a healthy development, because it only encourages me to keep more stuff on the off-chance it might prove useful some day. (No, *you’re* a hoarder!)) Anyway, I secured the D-ring to the inside of the mask with epoxy, and also epoxied in the magnets for holding the beret on.
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I also attached some metal L-brackets that I’d bent nearly straight to the back of the front half of the mask. They’d match up with magnets on the flap section, to hold it in place.
Allow me to pause here for a quick moment of thanksgiving. I found in amongst all the pictures of the mask, a picture of my shop stool. I suppose I was grateful to have it that day; I honestly don’t remember why I took that picture. But here it is, my bad-ass shop stool. (Because why *wouldn’t* I get the one with flames on it?)
I spent a lot of time sanding down my final coat of Bondo until it had a nice smooth surface. Which is not to say that there weren’t scratches and pits and other flaws. I used wood filler to fill in some of the most egregious of these, especially those along edges.
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Then I put two coats of primer on the mask, followed by two coats of a flat white spray paint.


Next, I masked off the interior with painter’s tape and used some acrylic craft paint to cover the whole exterior. I was looking for kind of a parchment, old bone color.


I knew that I wanted to have multiple layers of paint, and multiple colors. I wanted the mask to look like old, dusty bone. I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and and about painting and weathering and I bravely embarked on a strategy of applying a layer of color, immediately panicking, and blending like mad to try to take off as much paint as I could. By repeating this process over and over (and over (and over)) I somehow managed to stumble my way to a paint job that I actually liked. But I’m fairly convinced it was pure luck.





I put a couple of coats of clear coat over the outside to protect the paint job.
I thought about a lot of possible solutions for covering the eye holes but still being able to see out. In the end I just took some cheesecloth, painted it black (though it ended up looking kind of gray), and glued it in. I used a darker, thicker cloth to cover the nose and mouth. I couldn’t wear my glasses under the mask, and had to wear contacts, but otherwise it was fairly comfortable. It could get kind of stuffy in there, though. My next full-head mask might have a battery-powered fan.
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It was finally time to re-assemble the two halves. I used three different hinges, epoxied together, then secured to each half. The resulting joint has an enormous amount of play, allowing the back flap to rotate more than one hundred and eighty degrees. This makes it easy to put on and take off. But, it also meant that there wasn’t enough keeping the two halves together at the top. They would sag apart, leaving an ugly gap. I had to add another magnet and metal bracket right next to the hinge to keep everything together. In the following pictures you can also see the foam padding I added to the inside to cushion my head and keep the mask riding where I could comfortably see out of the eye holes. The pad on the cheekbones were just a comfort thing: fiberglass can be scratchy.
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Finally completed! Here are the first pictures of me wearing the mask, and trying it out with the shirt.
As I mentioned earlier, only one person at Denver Comic Con knew who Cadavre was. But that didn’t mean I didn’t get comments on the costume. There were a couple of characters from animes I’d never heard of that people kept asking me about. A couple of people just came up and asked me who I was. I kind of wish I’d slips of paper with the Broodhollow url to hand out. A few kids asked to have their pictures taken with me, which of course I was happy to oblige.
The best part of the day came near then end, when my friend goaded me into doing a mime routine in the middle of an aisle. Not ten seconds went by before one of the ten million people dressed as Deadpool (seriously, they were *everywhere*) came up and started playing along. He played the other side of the wall I was exploring, then crouched down to the ground as I pressed in the top of a box above him. Then he shook my hand and walked off. It was spontaneous non-verbal improvisation and it was a joyful, playful, hilarious moment.
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And, finally, the cherry on top of the whole sundae. That night, I posted a couple of pictures on Twitter, and mentioned Kris Straub, the creator of Broodhollow. And he tweeted back at me, and it just kind of made the whole project seem that much cooler.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this. My assumption is that only my girlfriend and my mom will actually read the whole thing. So, hi sweetie, hi Mom, thanks for reading. 🙂
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On Robin Williams and Depression

I never intended to write this post. It feels like everything I have to say on the subject of Robin Williams’ suicide has already been said, and said better than I could say it. And there are lots of big and important subjects that I’m going to brush by glancingly, or dodge altogether.
But a post from a friend on Facebook today, and a conversation with my therapist changed my mind. Because I have a perspective that is uniquely my own, and I have a voice. And choosing to use that voice and share that perspective — choosing to be vulnerable  — that to me is right at the heart of this whole issue.
I just gave away my thesis too soon. (Spoiler alert!) Let me back up and give some context. The things that have been the most upsetting to me in the debate following this tragedy (and every suicide is tragic) have been people saying that it was selfish to commit suicide. That Robin had to have known that people loved him.
Yes and no.
It’s been said many times before: depression lies.
But the trick is it sounds like the truth. Not an objective truth, not necessarily even something that can stand up to the scrutiny of logic. Depression manifests in your own thoughts, your own feelings. Imagine your brain is a computer infected by a virus. Most of the time your thought processes are normal. But every so often the virus pops up a message on the screen: “You’re worthless”. Like a perverse memento mori, it reminds you of your own faults. It exaggerates and catastrophizes them. And when it’s really got hold of you, the virus consumes nearly all of your processing power. Normal thought can grind to a halt, starved for resources as malicious code rampages through your head.
At the deepest depths, you may know that you are loved, but the lie that says you aren’t feels more like the truth.
This can be helped; it can be fixed. But it is not easy. It usually takes professional help and a lot of effort. Very rarely can a depressed person “just snap out of it” or “just choose to be happy”. Trust me on this one: unless you have battled depression, you have no idea how hard it is.
Okay, so here’s something important. If any good can come out of Robin’s death and the media furor that’s followed it, it’s this: we, as a society, must stop stigmatizing mental illness in general and depression specifically. I’ve seen figures that say up to one quarter of Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness or addiction. (Citation needed.) Think about your family and your friends, your co-workers, anyone you feel you know well. Chances are at least one of them suffers from depression. I’m sure I know people who do, and don’t talk about it.
Which is exactly the problem.
I spent most of my adult life believing (in that depression-y “it feels true” kind of way) that being depressed was a character flaw. That it was not only my fault that I felt the way I did, but that I had to hide it. That I could be happy if only I would buck up. Or change my attitude. Or get more exercise. Or, or, or. The possible solutions are endless, and most of them are useless. What I didn’t do was talk to anyone about it. Because people didn’t want to hear it. Or so my depression told me. I know my family and friends are there for me, but I was ashamed.
Shame is worth talking about. Shame is the whip that depression uses to keep you down. Depression says “you’re worthless” and you believe it. Which creates a disincentive to open up to people, because (in the warped logic of depression) only scorn and rejection could possibly follow.
Imagine you’ve broken your leg. You can only move around on crutches and it hurts like hell all the time. Think about what the next few weeks would be like, how hard it would be to move around, to keep up with house-work. Think about getting to and from work, and sitting in uncomfortable conference room chairs. Without help from friends and family, (and painkillers, don’t forget the painkillers) you would be miserable and stressed and overwhelmed.
Now imagine that you’ve got a broken leg but you feel compelled to hide it. No crutches, no help from anyone, no acknowledgement at all of the constant pain and difficulty. You struggle through on your own because you couldn’t bear the shame if anyone found out that you had a broken leg, that you were injured.
That’s what it’s like to live with depression but try to hide it. It hurts all the time, but you feel like you can’t ask for help. We feel no shame for an injury. We shouldn’t feel any for an illness either, which is what depression is.
For those who aren’t afflicted with depression, the single most important piece of advice I have is to not minimize it. Don’t dismiss it, don’t trivialize it, don’t stigmatize it. Treat it like the illness it is. Give the afflicted love and support and understanding. Advice on how to get better, though well-meaning, is often not helpful, and may even be counter-productive. (For a much better explanation about this subject, read this. Especially the part about the fish.) I’m a fan of counseling, and I would advise anyone living with depression to get help. Beyond that, I think that empathy is your best bet.
For those of us with depression, the way we can meet our loved ones halfway is vulnerability. Vulnerability is like kryptonite to shame. (Don’t take my word for it. Watch this and this. (I know they’re long. They’re still worth watching.)) And depression without shame as a tool is largely defanged.
Which brings me (finally) back to why I decided to write this post. It’s kind of dual purpose. Choosing to share this, to be vulnerable in this way, can help me to combat my own depression. And if enough people do the same, and are met with compassion and acceptance, then maybe we can remove the stigma from depression. And then more people may feel comfortable getting help.
And maybe we’ll remember Robin Williams’ death as not just a tragedy, but as a turning point.

Whistling Past the Whorehouse

Anyone who has hung around me for any length of time will likely have noticed that I’m usually pretty good at spotting jokes. I have a sharp wit, and I’m very good at spotting obscure references and insinuated humor.

There is however, one notable exception to this ability: I very often miss double entendres and other salacious humor completely. I’ll blow right by them as if they never happened, completely unaware of their existence. During a conversation with friend of mine a few weeks ago, we coined a phrase to describe this trait:

Whistling Past the Whorehouse.


Our hero, enters, whistling.

Lady of the Evening: “Hey, baby”

Me: “Why hello there ma’am.”

Lady of the Evening: “Do you want to have a good time?”

Me: “Yes. Yes I believe that I do.” (pause) “Well, see ya.”

Exits, whistling.

… And scene.

Aunt Peggye Does the Hula

Last week I was in Boston for my great aunt Peggye’s 100th birthday. (Peggye is my maternal grandmother’s sister, and yes it’s spelled right. She added the terminal ‘e’ when she was fifteen and she insists that it be spelled that way.) She’s in incredible shape for her age, and still amazingly sharp mentally.

At one point during the day I was trying to explain to Aunt Peggye what I do for a living. She understands that  computers exist but knows basically nothing about how they work and has zero understanding of email. My attempts to explain led he to talk about her days in a secretarial pool and her manual typewriter. She retired at age 65 in 1977 (when I was five) and never used a computer in her life.

Her expectations for a relaxing retirement were crushed when her husband suffered a massive stroke about two years later. He never walked again and spent the next twelve years in a nursing home. Aunt Peggye never learned to drive, so she took a bus to see him every day. When Uncle Fred finally passed away, she told me she “got real active again”.

She joined a singing group (with her church I think) and went to nursing homes and the like to entertain. This while at the young age of 77. She told me that once they sang at a convent for a group of nuns.

What follows is (as nearly as I can remember it) what she said next:

After we sang, this little nun came up to talk to me. She was young and just cute as a button and shorter than me if you can believe it. (Aunt Peggye is five feet tall, if that.) She said she liked the way I rolled my eyes during one of the songs. I said that I would normally roll my hips but I didn’t feel right. There was a big crucifix, life-size. Six feet tall. As tall as you. How tall are you? Six feet. I said I didn’t feel right in front of the crucifix to move my hips. (Here Aunt Peggye shifted her hips back in forth in her chair in what I can only describe as the cutest imitation of a hula dancer I’ve ever seen.)

And the nun said to me “I think he would like it.”

I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

Impending Greatness

I’ve been reading blogs for a while now, and if one thing has become clear to me it’s that starting a blog is the first step on the road to greatness. Given that this blog has been up for over a week, and this is my third post, I’m expecting to have a best-selling book in a matter of days. Three weeks, tops.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to elucidate the many ways in which I am similar to other bloggers turned best-selling authors.

Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess)

  • Incredibly snarky sense of humor. Check.
  • Propensity for swearing inappropriately. Check.
  • Grew up in rural West Texas. I grew up in suburban Southwest Denver. I’m going to count it.
  • Struggles with anxiety and depression. Check.
  • Vast collection of creepily taxidermied animals. No, but nobody’s perfect.
  • Fascination with vaginas. Best not to comment on that one.

Wil Wheaton (

  • Huge sci-fi nerd. Check.
  • Semi-professional actor who is less successful than his talent warrants. Check. (No really. I was paid to act on at least two separate occasions.)
  • Super awesome facial hair. Check.
  • Has met Felicia Day. No, but not from lack of trying.

Pamela Ribon (aka

  • Okay, so I don’t really have anything in common with Pamie (though I am a fan of roller derby) but I still feel kind of bad for being disappointed by her latest novel, so I’m taking every opportunity I can to compliment her. (I guess I’m assuming that being on this list will be taken as a compliment. It’s certainly intended that way.)
  • This is the lamest bulleted list. Ever. I’m pretty sure that’s the sign of a great blogger. It’s ironic, people. Look it up. (Check.)

I could go on and list lots of other bloggers with whom I share many important commonalities (where “lots” means “zero”), but I have to go back to refreshing my inbox.

I’m expecting an email from a publisher.

Origin Story

So, what’s up with the name of this blog, you ask? Well, pull up a chair and let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, I worked for a time at a company that was a subsidiary of an Israeli company. At one point I found myself working on a project that integrated some of our local code with code from the home office in Tel Aviv. I don’t remember a whole bunch about the project, except that it went poorly and was perpetually behind schedule. The main programmer in Israel and I exchanged many frustrated emails typified by our inability to communicate effectively. The language barrier was a palbable, living thing; a great wall that stood between us and understanding.

Finally, one night, in a desperate effort to move things forward, I stayed at the office really, really late so that we could talk on the phone. I don’t remember how late exactly, but it was a serious inconvenience for me. As far as I can remember part of the conversation went down like this:

Me: Okay, I understand that there’s a problem. Can you tell me what the error message says, exactly, so that I can debug it?

Him: No is workee. Your code is suck.

Me: Huh.

… and scene.

(Quick note: It is not my intent to mock anyone for whom English is a second language. It’s more to acknowledge that language difference occasionally give rise to funny moments. Heck, he spoke at least some English. I spoke no Hebrew. Then again, I don’t get super warm fuzzies towards this guy either, because, no matter how poorly we communicated, it was clear that he was deliberately trying to insult me, or at least my code.)

As I recall I took a couple of deep breaths and tried again. In the end we got it to work, and I don’t really remember whose code was at fault. It certainly could have been mine, though I like to believe that my code generally is not suck.

Through the years since I’ve told this story to many of my co-workers and programmer type friends. Back when I was part of a two-man consulting business, we used to tease each other with the phrase all the time. People have even told me I should get t-shirts made. (If you agree, let me know. I just might do it. I gotta save for retirement somehow, you know.)

Just recently, when I finally decided to get off my butt and start writing a blog, of all the names that I came up with, was the one that stuck. (Though “Crateful of Charientisms” will always hold a special place in my heart.)

So, welcome to my humble blog. I hope you like it. It will not all be about programming and computer things, but I am a huge nerd, so expect some nerding out.