Thursday, May 8, 2014

DIY Dragon Pinata

As my son's fifth birthday approached, he was full of ideas concerning his party. While most of them changed, wildly, on a daily basis, one thing he was quite certain about was that he wanted a pinata. A Dragon pinata.
I know they sell such things at the grocery store or Wal-Mart, but I wasn't very excited about them - either their appearance or the thought of spending $15 or more on something designed to be beaten to pieces by stick-wielding children.
On the other hand, I also wasn't terribly excited about spending hours and hours of messy crafting time Making something with the same intended fate.
Nevertheless, monetary frugality won out and I finally decided to give it a try.

Before jumping into the project I decided several things:
1) Set my own expectations very low. This is not an heirloom: it is for an easily pleased 5-year-old to beat apart.
2) Try to make something sturdy enough to hold candy, but fragile enough to actually break apart after a few whacks. (My SIL made a paper bag pinata like this one when our kids were 3. Not only could they not break it: neither could the adults!)
3) Try to avoid paint. I hate paint. Nearly as much as I hate glue!

In support of goal #1, I did a little Googling and found this tutorial on making a dragon pinata. I decided that if I could make something about this good, I would be satisfied. I further decided that the neck and tail, while impressive, were overkill for my purposes: 2-dimensional card stock attached after the fact would suffice.

Here's what I used and how I went about it


1. Homemade paper mache paste. (See directions for recipe.)
2. A large balloon, inflated
3. Strips of phone book paper (or newsprint, or paper towels), anywhere from 1/2 inch to 2 inches wide.
4. Colored paper strips for outer layer. (See directions for specifics)
5. Light cardboard for head and tail (For instance, a cereal box)
6. Sea serpent wall sticker from the Dollar Tree. (See comments for alternatives) 

(If I'd purchased everything for this project - paper, balloons, corn starch, etc - my cost would have been $8-$10. Of course, many of my decisions were made based on what I had on hand, and I actually purchased only the sticker for a total of $1. Definitely Money - if not time - ahead here!)


1. Make the paper mache paste. 
After reading the tips from this site I went with 1 C of cornstarch mixed with enough cold water to make a paste, and then blended with 7-8 C of boiling water and some salt. This turned out to be WAY more than the project needed. Try 1/4 C cornstarch with 1.5 - 2 C water if you don't want leftovers. Oh, and be prepared to let it cool for a Long time if you made the whole batch.

2. Apply strips of newsprint / phone book paper to balloon. 
On a protected work surface (I just used our beat up picnic table outside!), prop your balloon up. Using your hands, scoop out some paste and apply it to the balloon, and additional paste to your strip of paper. Place the paper on the balloon, smoothing it around its contours.
(The last time I did mache, 20+ years ago, I used a much thinner paste into which you dipped the pieces of paper, or which was brushed onto the balloon. This won't work in this gel-like stuff. Just use your fingers.)
Apply the second strip overlapping the first by 15-25%.
Repeat until you have a layer completely covering the balloon. *Except for the neck near the knot.* Leave it bare so you can tie a string to it!
Use plenty of paste, but you don't want it dripping off the balloon: remember this has to be dry before you can complete it!
Do a second, lighter layer over the first using your phone book paper.
Don't go overboard, both because you need it to get dry before it gets moldy, and also because you aren't building Fort Knox here!

3. Apply colored paper to outer layer. 
I used this "Mala" paper from Ikea. It's heavier and less absorbent than construction paper, which was a double-edged sword on this project. It looked nicer when it dried, but it also did not mold to the balloon's shape as readily. I think cheap construction paper would have been easier to use, but with trade-offs in the appearance of the finished product. Also, it took 4-6 sheets of green, which was all my pad had - I had to supplement with blue at the end. Your pad from the Dollar Tree won't have enough of any given color.
I think that wrapping paper would also have worked nicely, although again if it were especially cheap I think there would have been bleed through from my phone book: paper towels as the bottom layer would be a better plan if you're going this route. 
Anyway, obviously this layer requires a lot more care because it is going to show. My stiff paper certainly had a few gaps and ripples, which I decided not to fret. Just try and keep things going in roughly the same direction.

4. Tie a string tightly to the exposed neck of the balloon and hang it somewhere to dry. 

5. Wait about 3 days. (We live in Oregon and it started raining hours after I did this step on a Friday afternoon. I hung it in the garage, and it was dry enough to use by Monday. If you're in a time crunch, point a fan at it or hang it over a heating vent.)

6. Cut a small access hole in the top of the pinata. 
Set your dry pinata on the counter and decide which side is up and which end is which. I used a cheap serrated kitchen knife to saw a three sides of an approx. three inch hole. *Leave it attached* so you can easily seal it again.

7. Fill pinata with loot, then attach a hanger and re-seal. 
I used a single hole punch to create a small hole as far away as the punch could reach from each edges of my access hole. I looped a piece of yarn through both holes and fastened it off, leaving plenty to hang it with. Clear packing tape closed the hole, but wasn't technically necessary.

8. Construct head, tail, and wings. 
As mentioned above, I used a Sea Serpent wall sticker I stumbled upon at the Dollar Tree. I won't kid you: this was a major part of why the project succeeded as well as it did. Unfortunately, Dollar Tree's inventory is notoriously transient so there's not much hope you'll be able to just run up an grab one. Had I not found such a thing, I was planning to do one of the following:
a. Go ahead and paint some cardboard green and then either paint or draw features on top of that.
b. (More likely) Cover cardstock or cardboard with paper matching the dragon's body and draw and/or paper-piece features

Since I had the stickers, though, I began by applying the head to my cardboard and then cutting around it, leaving a 2 inch "flap" at the bottom I could fold out and attach to the body. Using that piece as a template, I cut colored paper to glue to the other side of the head / neck. I left another 2 inch flap at the bottom which I folded out to attach.
I then repeated for the tail.
I also free-handed a wing on a piece of the colored paper (not card-stock) and cut two.

9. Put it all together! 
I used a combination of neon green duct tape and clear packing tape to fasten the head, wings, and tail to the body. Finally, I attached the two "humps" from my sticker set to either side.
They did Not conform to the shape very well. I didn't care! :)

All in all, this was a 2-3 hour project. Not as bad as I feared, and the end result was considerably better than my expectations - largely because of that useful little sticker I found. I'd have been happy even if I'd had to draw the head, though, and I'm Really glad that I didn't spring for a $15 store bought alternative. It was reasonably fun, there was no paint mess to clean up, the paper mache mess was pretty minimal - and outside! - and the kids enjoyed the project.

Speaking of which, here are some ways the kids helped:
1. Cutting the paper strips
2. Asking about a million questions
3. Using up the gallons of left-over cornstarch paste by finger painting with it in the bathtub. (I added a few drops of food coloring first!)
Certainly even 3 and 5 year old kids could have helped actually applying the strips, and they each did do one or two. However, my oldest really isn't happy getting his hands dirty and I was on too much of a mission to do much encouraging there!

Epilogue: How did it work? 

In a nutshell: it didn't work (that is, break!) in the way I imagined, but it broke never the less!

My poor daughter came down with hand, foot, and mouth disease two days before her brother's birthday, and his party ended up being postponed by two weeks. So this poor dragon languished in the garage for much longer than intended. When we finally brought him out to be bashed, his tail had already come half un-stuck, which I didn't even attempt to fix.

Our party of dragon slayers consisted of 6 kids between 3 and 6 years old. A fairly sturdy wooden sword was the weapon of choice. My son insisted that no-one be blindfolded.  We went through the line in reverse age order, and limited everyone to 3 blows. I used one of the smooth metal beams in our pop-up gazebo as a "pulley point:" I kept one end of the string in my hand and moved the dragon in and out of reach.  The first thing that broke - before even the first blow was struck, in fact - was the standard weight cotton yarn he was hanging from. I did an emergency replacement with some sturdy plastic twine. Next, one of the two holes the twine passed through tore out.  Again, I refastened it through the remaining hole and let them keep bashing, because all the actual damage was being done to the top of the dragon, near the access port / hanger point. Finally, when the oldest kid got his second turn, there was enough of a hole that I declared the dragon "broken" and tipped him upside down manually.  Much dashing for candy ensued and the game was declared a success!

What would I do differently next time? Well, I'd start out with the sturdier twine, I guess. I might punch four widely spaced holes and put two loops of twine through them in an attempt to distribute the load a little better, although I don't know how much good this would do. More importantly, I would probably hang the dragon just a little higher to encourage the bashers to concentrate on the bottom of the beast rather than the top. And lastly, if I was convinced the candy just Had to fall out of a hole on the bottom, I would probably pre-cut a slash along the belly to encourage it to break in the right place. This would, however, weaken it enough that you'd really have to either blindfold or do a lot of jerking the thing out of reach to avoid letting it take blows before everyone had a chance.
But really, it was fine. It lasted almost exactly as long as we needed it to: everyone got a chance to play, but it wasn't hard to kill to the point of frustration.  A great success, in other words!

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