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Building Killer Pillars
By C. J. Cluster

 

For months, I'd return to that issue of HA to stare at this beautiful, gothic set piece.

Building a project of this scope requires planning and the breaking down elements into basic components. Then by applying some favorite amateur "technologies", like Terror Syndicate's Monster Mud and a Bucky skeleton from Anatomical Chart Company, I knew that I could put together something for my annual (and completely non-profit) haunt that would blow away the neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

Putting pencil to paper, I started to draft up a plan. My typical California subdivision home includes a double front door, with two steps leading up into the front portico that surrounds the door. I wanted to create a portico, with the appearance of a long forgotten dungeon. The design was ancient pillars on each side of the entry, from which two skeletal souls would gaze down upon my visitors as they worked up the nerve to continue to the door. The height of the portico entry at the steps is about eight feet, and would would have to have to modify mine because the base would have to allow for them to sit on the steps..... they could not sit flat on the ground.

Materials

  • 70' one inch redwood lathe (four pieces must be at least 8' long)
  • 20' of 1 1/2" by 2 1/2" white pine or similar
  • Assorted "L" and elbow brackets
  • 2 4' x 8' Styrofoam insulating board
  • 20' of one-inch mesh chicken wire
  • 2 gal. joint compound
  • Latex exterior paint for base color
  • 1 Bucky skeleton
  • 1 Bag loose bone parts
  • Bucky skulls
  • 2 "J" hooks, approx. 8" long
  • 1 can Great Stuff aerosol insulating foam
  • 1 can Gel Stain
  • 2 bathroom towel rings (6" - 8" diam.)
  • 1 Silk flame torch
  • 6' of plastic chain
  • Acrylic craft paint for pillar detail
  • (optional) Talking Boris skull

NOTE: This list is for ONE pillar. Double everything here to build two

 

I also decided to graft a "Talking through Boris" skull onto one of the Bucky skeletons, so that I could run the Boris microphone wire into my house and have one of these spectral prisoners speak to the trick-or- treaters as they approached the door.

Basically, I saw three major elements to the project. First, build the frame that would provide enough support for Bucky and give the pillar the right shape. Next, use a combination of foamboard and Monster Mud to give the pillar its texture and stone look. Finally, hang Bucky and mount the Boris talking head.


The Frame
The frame had to be lightweight yet strong. I did not know if I would have help putting the pillars in place for Halloween, and I did not want to complete the first one only to find out I'd need a forklift to move it from the garage! I settled on using 1x3's (3/4" X 2 1/2") white pine for the base pieces of the frame (the portion on the ground and encasing the stair steps), with very light 1 1/2" redwood lathe strips for all of the uprights and cross pieces. The pine gave me the sturdiness required for the base, and the lathe kept the rest as light as possible.

The pieces forming the base were put together using metal "L" brackets, both flat and corner types. I could have just nailed the base pieces together but, again, this was to give the base greater strength and ensure it would last through the years. Use screws no more than 1/2" in length. Once the base was complete, the long lathe uprights and connecting framework was assembled using 1" "Wire Brads" (finishing nails) and Liquid Nails type glue. It's important to use the smallest possible nails and wood screws because the lathe will split if you don't. In fact if you feel the lathe may split, a little ordinary auto wax rubbed on the nail should keep that from happening. The wood structure is simply a skeleton for the foamboard and Monster Mud that will be seen by your public. Think of it as a tall, narrow rectangle (much like a coffin, actually!) with boxes, like apple crates, attached at top and bottom. Since apple crates would have flat front faces and we need the front of each to be rounded, we'll later attach cardboard semi-circles to the front of the "apple crates" and let those cardboard pieces guide the chicken wire that will form those rounded front areas, both top and bottom. Refer to the exploded view of the pillar to see the measurements I used and how things went together, as you read these instructions. You can change the measurements to fit your needs, but remember the pillar has to be at least tall enough for the Bucky skeleton to stand with arms stretched up over his head. After the basic structure is complete, I cut two semi-circular shapes from sturdy cardboard. These were attached with a hand-staple gun to the upper and lower front edge of the overhangs; overhangs being the top and bottom curved areas of the column, where the skeleton's manacles will attach above, and the pile of bones will go under his feet down below. Regular 1" mesh chicken wire was then wrapped around, conforming to the curve of the cardboard, and staple gunned to the lathe on the sides and wired to the cardboard itself.


Foamboard and Monster Mud
At this point, you are ready to start adding some real texture to this creation. At this point, you are ready to start adding some real texture to this creation. First, 3/4" extruded polystyrene sheet was cut to fit along the sides of the column. This is the very common white insulating foamboard you will find at outlets such as Home Depot. One 4' x 8' sheet will take care of both sides of one pillar. Once cut to shape with a box cutter or a Wonder Cutter foam cutter, these were glued in place with "Liquid Nails". Make sure it's the Liquid Nails for "foamboard and projects" - you want it to glue your foamboard, not eat it away. Lay the whole structure on it's side on the ground, put your glue on the lathe, then lay the foamboard piece in place and set some tools or other weight on top of it to hold it down tight till the glue sets. Turn the whole piece over and repeat the process for the opposite side. With the foamboard sides glued securely in place, grab your Dremel - type tool and use a router tip to create the recessed area at the top. This is the big triangle shaped area where the metal rings in the dungeon wall are mounted. Router out the foam to a depth of close to a half inch, but be careful not to puncture your foamboard. This recessed area is great for the three dimensional appearance of the pillar. Now pull out the soldering iron and start to create the stone wall look by "melting" the mortar lines into the foam sidewalls (as always, do this in a well ventilated area - those burning styrofoam vapors are not good for our health!). Also add as much detail and "weathering" as you'd like - with pits, scratches, cracks, and chunks gouged out of these old dungeon walls.

Next was my first venture into the use of "Monster Mud", or burlap dipped in joint compound. Generally, the formula for Monster Mud is one gallon of latex paint, for color, mixed into a five gallon tub of joint compound. In my case, there was no need to color the compound, since the white foamboard would need to be painted anyway; I'd paint both at the same time. I used the Monster Mud to cover the circular front overhangs and base, and the curved wall area which is the area behind the skeleton. To begin, let gravity be your friend - lie the column on the floor, face up. If you try to hang a big strip of Monster Mud vertically and expect it to stay in place, you'll end up real frustrated. Cut a length of chicken wire wide enough to cover from the pillar from side to side, and long enough to stretch from the top curved overhang to the curved base. Ideally, the chicken wire will end just where the cardboard semi-circle begins, at the front edge of your wooden structure. Fasten the chicken wire to the wood structure with the staple gun and/or pieces of wire when necessary. Now, cut one long strip of burlap the length and width of the column from the overhang to the front edge of the base (add about 4 extra inches so you can trim it to fit). Dip it in your tub of joint compound and use your hands to thoroughly saturate the strip. Then squeeze out the excess compound, and lay the strip in place from top to bottom. Trim off the excess burlap with a large scissors or a sharp box cutter, and use your hands to rub the Monster Mud into place and get good adhesion to the wood, foamboard and cardboard. While we're working with the Monster Mud, cut two more strips of burlap to go around the curved chicken wire that forms the front of the overhang and the base. Blend these pieces in with the Mud from the long back wall piece. I must say I was even more impressed with Monster Mud than I thought I would be.... the stuff is just fantastic for it's hardness, paintability and molding to any shape. Keep the structure on the floor, face up, to do this step. Allow the Mud to harden.

Your foam board is on, the Monster Mud is dry and you've basically got the pillar shape you're going for. Time to get artistic! An overall coat of your base color goes first - latex paint applied with a roller. I imitated the light beige or tan color I had seen in the catalogs, mostly because it would nearly match the stucco of my house. I had wondered why the catalog pillars weren't done in "castle" gray but later, as I airbrushed the stone crevices and details in a dark reddish-brown color, I realized that it gave the overall effect of blood oozing from between each separate stone! Perfect. I used a Paasche H-1 airbrush loaded with Ceramcoat "Burnt Sienna" acrylic paint. As you airbrush the detail onto the stones near the front edge of the pillar, make sure you "turn the corner".... in other words, spray the mortar line on the foamboard and then continue the mortar line onto the Monster Mud wall so that the stones along the front edge appear three- dimensional and look about four inches thick. After coloring all the mortar joint lines, cracks, pits, and what-not, I backed off and just widely misted some shaded areas on the stones, to give the impression that these were very crude stones, with high points and depressions in them.

Then comes the time to go wild with your weathering effects. I used both ground charcoal and black tempera in it's powdered form (both from your local crafts store) to do the shadowing and "aging" of the stone and to shadow and "dirty up" the area behind Bucky as he hangs in manacles. The older and more gothic looking, the better. Later, after you've glued the pile of random bones and skulls in place at the skeleton's feet, you'll want to do this again around the bones. This dungeon has been collecting dust for centuries.... dust and grime would have fallen heavily at the floor of the pillar, so heap it on! As a southern Californian, I don't worry much about rain in October. For that reason I did nothing in the way of waterproofing. If you live in one of the country's wetter climes, I strongly recommend over-coating the entire pillar with a good spray-on waterproofer like Thompson's Water Seal or some type of art store final finish spray. The paints I've recommended are all water based, and would not hold up well in heavy moisture.

During my breaks, I had been aging the Bucky as well, using Minwax Gel Stain to get that gnarly rotted bone look we all love so much. Just use a rag to wipe the gel on liberally, then another dry cloth to remove the excess gel. The manacles were fashioned from aluminum "flashing"; a very thin metal you'll find on a roll at Home Depot or equivalent. It is normally used on homes around gutter areas or to protect against moisture where wood is located. Just cut a strip to size (I used my own wrist to measure how long a piece would be needed to go around a living wrist), bend it half-over to give it more thickness, then hammer the heck out of it to make it look old and beat up. The chain on the manacles is a plastic one from my local hardware store, painted flat black and weathered with gray and silver, dry-brushed on.

At the other end of the chain are the two metal rings set in the dungeon wall which hold the victims captive forever. These are nothing more than inexpensive bathroom towel rings, painted flat black and again dry brushed with some gray and silver to age them. Then use the hardware provided to attach them, passing the metal screw through the foamboard and attaching the nut at the back. Choose ones that are lightweight and you won't even have to reinforce the foamboard.... they'll stay attached just fine.

Before we put the skeleton in place, we need to create the pile of disjointed bones he'll be standing on. Order a bag of bone parts from Anatomical Chart Co., and a few of their fourth class skulls. Age them with the Minwax gel and arrange them in a hap-hazard heap on the base of the pillar. I used Great Stuff insulating foam to attach them, both to look like rubble in and around the bones, and as my adhesive to hold it all in place. Apply it from the spray can, remembering that it expands at least by double, then press your bone parts into place. Use more foam where you want to fill in any gaps. The skulls are heavier and I'd advise you to also wire them in place for extra security. Just pass the wire through the Monster Mud wall and twist the wire secure on the back side of the pillar.


Hanging Bucky
If your Bucky and his manacles are ready, it's time to mount him to the dungeon wall. I tried at first to use a "U"-bolt, but had trouble finding one large enough to go around the spine, through the back wall of the pillar and the mounting cross-piece, and attach to the nut at the back. I decided to go with two "J" hooks, hooking each one around the base of a thick rib, just on either side of the spinal column. Drill two holes in the cross-piece so that the J-hook comes straight through from the ribs, through the cross-piece and then fasten the nut down tight. They worked great, and I just tightened down the nut until he felt securely hoisted into position. Attach your manacle rings, wire the manacles firmly to the ceiling overhead and put Bucky's tortured wrists through. If they want to slide out, just wire them to the manacles. Done!

As I mentioned, I added the feature of replacing the Bucky skull with a "Talking through Boris" model. Be careful when you modify Bucky. You'll find you may " have to remove the top five or six vertebra from his backbone, and saw off about 6 inches of the metal rod going to his head in order for the Boris to fit on at the correct height. You can use a Dremel-type tool and cutting wheel to cut through the rod. When you do this, the spinal column may want to start slipping out through the bottom (pelvis) since the anchor nut at the top is gone. I used wire at the bottom of the pelvis to prevent this and hold everything in place.

Position the Boris skull the way you need it. In my case I angled it to be looking roughly at someone ten years old or so, coming up my walkway. Use an anchor screw into the back of the skull from behind the dungeon wall if you need to, to hold the skull at the correct angle.

Just as I thought I had finished this project, I got the idea of adding two faux- flame silk torches to the pillars. I removed the chain hangers from the two flame pots and, using two long pieces of one inch wide perforated metal strap iron spray painted flat black, I formed two large U shaped brackets. Turning the U upside down, I attached one side of it to the flame pot with a small bolt and nut, and inserted the other side into the foamboard side of the pillar. On the inside of the pillar wall, I then put in a lathe cross-piece to which I could use a wood screw to secure the bracket. These faux flames added incredibly to the effect at night, because of the way the "torch" light would flicker and bounce off of the pillars and especially the skeletons.

The entrance to your attraction and the impression that it makes on sets the for The looksoundthe can be used to increase excitement and tweak the unease of your patronsA r,some low lying ground fog through a fog chiller, blue graveyard lighting and the appropriate background music and you hajust turned the clock back 400 years and put your audience in an ancient, rotting dungeon.

 

C. J. Cluster is an amateur home-haunter who has been haunting his house and/or hosting Halloween parties for the past 14 years. He lives in southern California and works for FedEx. He can be reached on the Halloween-L mailing list. The dungeon pillars, and other creations of his Dreadnight haunt, may be seen on his website at www.idealcreation.com/dreadnight

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