How to build a creature cosplay/mascot/fursuit head with Varaform
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
I was contacted by CosplaySupplies, they wanted to sponsor me building a head with a material called Varaform and make a tutorial of the process. They supplied the Varaform and I had freedom to choose anything I'd like to build and I'll show you every step of how I'm building it. I chose to make a Female Worgen from the world of warcraft, but these same steps could be used to make just about any furred animal head. Let’s make some monsters!
What is Varaform?
“Varaform is a lightweight thermoplastic mesh. It has been used in the medical community as an alternative to plaster bandages for casts, and it's been used for stage costuming for years to create large, lightweight costume pieces, especially under-structures for mascots and monsters.”
“Varaform activates at 160 deg F (71 deg C) and can be activated with warm water or a heat gun. It is self adhesive, can be reheated endlessly, and incredibly lightweight: Varaform light is about 1/2 the weight of Black Worbla.” -according to www.cosplaysupplies.com
Start planning your build:
As with every build I like to start with a concept sculpt. For a female worgen, I wanted to give her a more fierce werewolf look with some feminine features. I tried to stay true to the feeling of warcraft rather than copy them from the game (especially since they look chihuahua like in the game.) After gathering some inspiration from around the internet and drawing a few sketches, I mocked up the face in small scale in clay. I sculpted it on top of a ¼ scale bust that I cast out of resin, but you can do it at any scale you’d like. I like to do this to help as a firm visual roadmap as well as have a fast way to test different shapes I could use. Here is my final clay concept sketch:
Building the Buck:
First thing to do for the build is to make a buck. This will be the shape that we will use to form the Varaform to give it the shape we want. A buck can be made out of a few different materials, like wood or air dry clay, but I decided to go with Styrofoam. You can find this in big sheets at home improvement stores and can be used in a variety of cosplay projects so it’s something many of you could already have on hand. I figured from my 1/4 scale clay sculpt and from measuring my own head that the base needed to be 8 inches wide, 11 inches long and 10 inches tall. I cut out four pieces of foam with at least 1 inch extra in each dimension to glue together. Then I used good old PVA glue and an old card to spread it around evenly, I glue each piece together. I weighted it down and let it sit for 24 hours before carving on it.
The next step was carving. I highly recommend using a hot wire cutter for this step if you have one. I managed to do it with my snap off blades and a rasp, but it was slow work. With patience I was able to push through. When carving something like this, it helps to make some paper templates and start with the silhouettes, then slowly whittling away until you get the shapes you want. Always keep your concept work and templates close by to make sure you’re shapes are symmetrical and looks like how you originally planned! It’s okay to step back from your carving for a hour, a day, or a couple days to then come back to it with fresh eyes so you can be sure you’re happy with your buck.
I was carving, I did notice that the inside wan't all the way dry, but if wasn't too aggressive in carving it didn’t slip. And I had taken away more material on the outside the inside was able to dry faster. Layers that had a thin even coat of glue stayed together the best.
Forming the Varaform base:
I was finally happy with the buck I had carved for my worgen, so it was then time to form the Varaform. It is a very sticky material when heated, so I knew I needed some way to release it from the buck after it had cooled. I decided to use aluminum foil because it’s good at holding its shape and won’t be affected by heat.
Learning how to form this stuff was tricky! I actually formed it twice while trying to get over my learning curve. Don't be afraid to just start over when learning a new material, it's much less frustrating even though you feel like you're wasting money. Plan for some degree of failure when you're budgeting out a cosplay that uses a new material.
Varaform is very sticky when it is heated up and can get all over your hands if you’re not careful. The easy solutions is to keep a cup of water nearby that you can dip your fingers into. If you keep your hands moist it will not stick to your skin.
The best way I found to heat up the Varaform is with a heat gun on top of a silicon baking mat. The mat lets me heat it up completely while not worrying about it sticking. It also helps to have a dedicated craft cookie sheet. The one I use was ruined in the dishwasher, so it’s not the prettiest thing, but does a great job while I’m heating thermoplastics.
I found that working with smaller pieces worked best for me. It was mostly due to the fact that I couldn't use the heatgun much while it was on the form - the Styrofoam melted if I held it on it too long. If I were to do this process again, I would make my buck out of a water based clay that I can let dry and firm up before putting the varaform on. Adam savage used a taxidermy form to form the Varaform base of his Bear build: <a href="https://youtu.be/0cQ91lO4pH0?t=4m53s">link text</a>
It's a good option, if you have the extra cash for a taxidermy form.
I did make the styrofoam work, I was able to form the Varaform without causing too much heat damage to the styrofoam buck. I ended up doing two large pieces on each half, split down the middle. It was difficult to handle large pieces of this material. I would recommend working with Varaform in small chunks, not much bigger than 5x5 inches, working each piece into position before getting the next one. I would overlap it by at least an inch and really smash it together for best results.
I didn’t start adding another layer until later in my build, but I recommend you add it here at this stage. When I wanted to add a piece to the Varaform that had been placed and cooled on the buck, I heated up the piece to be added all the way (so it was completely flexible) then when I heated the Varaform up that was on the styrofoam, I barely kissed it with the heat until it became a little shiney. Then when I added the next form I made sure to smash it very well.
You can also do this when you have the Varaform shape off of the styrofoam buck too just remember it is very important to work slowly. If you heat up the varaform completely, it will relax and try to lay flat again. It's really hard to try and hold it in the right position with your hands. So completely heat up the piece you want to add, then barely heat up the Varaform structure you want to add it to. It'll become a little shiney. (Again be careful as it heats up really fast) Then carefully place and smash the varaform together with your hands on both sides.
A note about scraps: I found the really small scraps to be useless, but anything above 3-4 square inches came in handy. Some scrap pieces cool all crumpled and folded, but when you heat it completely, the mesh relaxes and becomes flat again.
I removed my Varaform from the styrofoam form and cut eye and mouth holes
*I didn't add the 2nd layer of reinforcing at this stage, but I wish that I had. I was worried about added too much weight or blocking the ventilation holes, which was silly of me. It was still incredibly light and there are plenty of holes for ventilation after adding a second layer, Learn from my mistake and add it before this stage.
Making the Varaform base comfy to wear:
Now that we have the basic shape of a worgen face, we need to make it wearable and comfy (no one likes to wear uncomfortable costumes) I started with a large pad for my forehead, I simply took some upholstery foam and glued spandex around (raw foam on your skin is uncomfortable, but spandex or fleece feels nice) I just used hot glue to glue things in, but be aware that Hot glue will make your varaform relax and lose shape if it is on the h, especially if set at high temp. It helps to have something you can press from the other side with, like the silicone baking mat. Hot glue goes through the holes of the varaform and will burn you, so be extra careful as you glue things in.
I added a small piece of EVA foam as a chin stop. Then I took some 2mm fun foam and glued it over the edge and over the EVA chin stop to make that area comfy. I also glued fun 2mm fun foam all around the edge, it gives the edge strength and finishes it so the varaform won't poke or scratch me.
Next up I took some 2 in elastic and sewed it in a T configuration. and simply hot glued it to the Varaform. In my experience if you just leave enough surface area to glue a big area of the elastic, it'll hold strong enough (This depend on the final weight of the head, but for this build it will be more than sufficient)
I added some foam padding to the temple area as well- It's just the same foam and spandex method. Just keep trying it on over and over until it sits straight, snuggly and comfy. glued some fun foam to the bottom jaw as well for some extra stability and to be the inside surface of the mouth.
Teeth, Eyes Ears and Nose
Now comes the fun part of every build, starting to build up details. I started with the teeth, I used the molds I had made for my Genn Greymane cosplay build and cast up a bunch of teeth. I 'kit bashed' the front teeth, meaning I cut off the canines from the casts I made for greymane because they were far too big for a female worgen. It’s nice to have molds lying around to cast extra teeth out of, but if you don’t have that sculpting these teeth with a polymer clay is a nice option. Polymer clay can be baked hard in the oven and will take paint easily.
I used strips of EVA foam to create a ‘gum’ area, or a base to be able to glue the teeth to. Hot glue works great for all these steps- make sure to rough up the bottom of your teeth with sandpaper to make sure the hot glue will really bite into the tooth and hold it secure (eh, get it? because they're teeth!)
For the gums of the teeth I decided to use the same method I used on Hogger. I used super flex creature cast rubber in the 'white' color and added just a bit of red paint. Don't add too much paint, the creature cast goes yellow-y clear-ish when it's dried and the gums will darken significantly- do some tests to get your color just right. If you get the base color close to what you want, you can paint after it’s dried to get even more detail and color. The process to make the lips is to take the cotton balls, pull them apart, take the shreds and saturate it with rubber and then place it where you want it. Make sure to wrap it around each tooth and cover all the areas that will be visible in the final head.
It was a little hard to reach into the mouth while doing this, I should have masked off the teeth with tape to protect them. After the Creature Cast was cured I carefully peeled it off the teeth. Tools like a Xacto Blade and an eraser helped with that process.
Then I painted the cleaned teeth to be gross and yellow stained with a buildup of tartar around the gums. I started with an off white base coat, then did a wash of sickly greenish brown, and then some dry brushing on the tips of the teeth with white. I also took some time to paint the inside of the Varaform black. It’s helps to have the inside of a head like this black to keep light from bouncing around on the inside. It helps you to be able to better see out of the head better.
I decided that I wanted My female worgen to be a death Knight, so I needed some blue glowy eyes. I used dragon skin 10 and the a small amount of blue and white sil pig pigments to get this color. Only use a very small amount of pigment because you still need it to be translucent if you want the LED to be seen. I used my a clear plastic globe ornaments and just poured the silicone right in. after waiting about 10 mintues I placed some black felt on the back. It will block the light from going back in the head and give me a surface I can easily glue stuff too for mounting it in the head.
I had my Husband wire me a simple LEDs setup, two LEDs connected to a battery pack with an on off switch. It was easy to cut a slit through the felt and silicone to slip the LED inside. I like to place the LED in deeper to create a little hot spot that will help read as a pupil. Pictures have a hard time capturing how nicely the LED light diffuses through the silicone eye, which is the reason I decided to use silicone in the first place.
I mounted the eyes inside the head by using strips of felt to anchor it in place. I also added a black mesh material to the inner corner of the eye, this will be an area that the wearer can see out of.
My go to material for ears is Fosshape. It’s a thermoplastic fabric, it’s has the texture of felt before it’s heated up and will set to varying degrees of rigidity depending on how long you heat it. It’s fun to have ears that have a slight about of flex to them. I use paper to create the pattern and then transferred that to the Fosshape. It’s very easy to shape Fosshape, the material shrinks and hardens as you apply heat. I just hold the desired curve with my hand and use a heat gun on alternating side of the fabric until I get the shape and stiffness that I like.
To give the inside of the ears some shape and interest I like to add fleece. Cut out a peice of fleece larger than the area you want to cover. You can take a pet brush to the fleece to make the texture more smooth. I used hot glue to slowly start gluing the fleece down, but I pinched certain areas to create some ear folds. Look up some photo reference of animal ears to get an idea of where the fold should go. It’s a quick way to add some detail to your head.
For the nose I decided to carve some Eva foam. I made a paper pattern and beveled the middle seam to it would have a more nose like shape. Then I used the sanding drums of my Dremel to carve its shape. After shaping and heat sealing and I used more Creature cast rubber to seal the nose (you can also use plastidip!) and painted it. I stippled the rubber on the nose with some reticulated foam so that it would have a rough texture. The nose can be glued into place after the fur is glued to the face.
Using masking tape, I covered half the face in tape. Now if you're not confident if your symmetry you can tape the whole thing. I chose to tape half and flip the pattern.
you start first with the markings- any color or fur changes you want to make. Then when you take the fur off and cut those lines for the markings your goal is to make the pattern lay flat by cutting darts. I like to place cuts where there would be natural seams, like down muzzle from eye to nose, down the middle of the head. I knew I needed a cut around the eye because I had a sharp edge there. I had already decided to make this head out of all black fur, but I was going to use a shorter fur for the face and longer fur for the mane. Make sure when you have the tape on the head to carefully mark which piece is what and what the fur direction and type for each piece.
The neck I choose to drape. I take some muslin and use safety pins to find a good shape, Then test it out by sewing it together. doing a fabric pattern like this lets me try it on and move around to make sure it fits like I want it to.
Here’s what the tape pattern looks like after taking it off the head.
I like to use a clover chalk pen and a scalpel to mark and cut my fur. Remember to leave a seam allowance and to copy all registration marks. When cutting be sure to only cut the backing and not the pile!
Here's the face sewn together. On critters like this I like to leave the nose open as a place that I can cinch and pull stuff in and easily trim off excess.
I sewed the neck pattern all sewn together, I added a zipper in the back to help get on and off and to more easily access the inside of the head if needed. I also cut and sewed the long fur with the direction going the wrong way on purpose. It’s a trick that I like to use to help the fur have more volume and look more wild, a perfect look for a worgen!
When you first put the face on your head, it will look really fluffy. The next steps will be to glue the fur on the face to the Varaform and then to shave the fur down. I took my Andis with a 7FC blade and trimmed the short hair on the face shorter. I also trimmed and finished the edges of the mouth with the "roll over" method (more on that in a bit) I didn't worry too much about the bottom lip as I will be sculpting over that edge with apoxie sculpt later.
To sew on the neck I turned it inside out and over the face before hand stitching it to the face fur. In the picture you can see that I used Wonder Clips instead of pin. Wonder clips are great to use on fur because they are good at handling thick bundles of fabric. I highly recommend them!
I also added a simple pouch in the neck to hold the batter pack for the LED eyes
I mentioned above a ‘roll over’ method for finishing fur edges, here is I did that to add fur to the ears. Put a small amount of hot glue on the edge of the fur backing, then carefully roll the edge over into the glue. It is essentially hemming the fur, but with glue.
Attaching the ears to the head is a little tricky, I like to pin them in place and hand sew around them with the henson stitch or a ladder stitch. Using a curved needle really helps in this situation.
More details: Lips and Eyelids
Next I needed to sculpt the lips. I used apoxie sculpt to do this, it's a two part clay that you mix together, after 24 hours it cure solid and it can stick to pretty much anything. It comes in other colors, but I like black for dog lips. Use gloves when mixing it and be careful with how you place it, you can easily get black smudges over your nice teeth work if you're not careful.
I mixed enough Apoxie sculpt to make the whole lower lip at once, you can do it in smaller batches if you don't feel confident enough in your work. Practice will help you get the hang of it! I put a snake of it all around the lower lips and smashed it in good. It wasn't sticking very well in some places, so I used a little super glue on those parts to hold it in place.
It's important to have looked at some reference, from google or in real life at what dogs lips look like so you can get some ideas about how you want them to look. At this stage you can smooth the surface of the Apoxie with some water and your finger, though don't be afraid to leave some of it's awesome natural texture there, it looks really cool!
I started in the front and worked my way backward, using my tools to create a series of vertical lines. try to vary the width and depth to bring variety.
Sometimes dogs have these jagged structures called flews (seen here: http://d30nr4b2k915ua.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/20111402/do-dogs-smile-01-600x600.jpg ) so to start sculpting those I rolled up little balls of clay. you then smash around the edges with your sculpting tool and go to town added texture.
These are the tools I used in sculpting the lips. from left to right: rubber tipped clay Shaper (good at making soft indents) a metal spatula (good for deeper, sharper lines) a toothbrush (good for adding tons of really fine lines and evening out shapes) and on bottom is a (an old) beard stipple sponge (adds lots of random lines and neat texture when pressed in)
and here is the finished look of the lips!
I made a quick tongue out of the same color fleece as the ears and quickly made an easy tongue. Sew the outside 'U' shape first, flip it inside out and then sew a line down the middle. Then simply glue in!
For the eyelids I sculpted them out of worbla. I like it because I take just the eyelids off the eye and rework them if I need to. Apoxie sculpt would be a little unwieldy here, especially since the eyes are silicone and it wouldn't stick to them anyways. I didn't have as clear of guidelines as the lips, so I appreciate the ability to reheat the worbla to make adjustments. The last step is to paint them black and glue them in, I used hot glue on the outside edge(the edge that contacts the fur) I will be getting some black worbla to do this step in the future, I only had the regular brown on hand!
Airbrushing, The Final Touch
The last step is airbrushing. Painting adds a layer of depth and defines shapes. Cosplayers paint shadows and highlights into armor and put on makeup and contour to do the same thing, you can think of airbrushing as monster makeup.
I do my airbrushing in stages, starting with the lightest colors and then going darker. On the ears I built up the shades with black, and added a little mottling to break up the flatter areas.
I also did some airbrushing on the face, but how do you add shadows to black? This was my first time trying it, but really happy with the results! I airbrushed white onto the black fur. I usually think of painting with an airbrush in terms of shadows, but to paint the face, I had to think in terms of highlights instead.
And with that, the head is complete!