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Dragon Tail Tutorial 
6th-Feb-2010 10:12 pm
One of the most common questions I get while performing as Scabrous the dragon is, “How did you get the tail to move?” A lot of folks expect servos and technical stuff, but it’s all just gravity.

This is still incomplete, but I wanted to get the ball rolling. There are parts shown of two different tails in progress, and a few steps are lacking photographs. My camera also just crapped out again, so I filled in some gaps with poor-quality cell phone snapshots. I’ll come back to this and fill in the blanks as time permits. In the interim, most of the information is here, if a bit sloppy. Please let me know of any errors or glaring omissions, and I’ll refine this.

You can see the tail in action in this video of Scabrous at the 2008 Maker Faire in San Mateo, California:

The tail design was inspired by these toy snakes I’d seen in Chinatown. Unlike the usual plastic-jointed ones, here a strip of leather down the middle provides the flexing motion. The otherwise-rigid structure of the snake is such that it can only bend on one axis (horizontally) - it doesn’t bend vertically nor does it twist. It doesn’t sag or go flaccid…it can only wag:


So there’s a spine of sorts inside Scab’s tail. It’s made from a strong and lightweight plastic material called Sintra or foamed PVC; this is both lighter and much less prone to cracking under stress than other sheet plastics like acrylic. I used the 1/8" thick sheets. Comes in many colors, though of course nobody’s going to see it inside the tail. A good sign fabrication shop will sell this stuff. Found mine at Tap Plastics, or there’s also a local independent plastics & sign fab shop near me called Tri-City Plastics. Usually I’ll buy scratch-and-dents or smaller pieces out of their scrap bins to save a few bucks.

A note regarding PVC: while essentially harmless and inert in solid sheets and in the finished product here, care should be taken to avoid breathing or ingesting the dust that results from cutting and sanding this material. Goggles and a respirator (or at the very least, a good-fitting dust mask) are highly recommended. Work outside or in a garage, thoroughly vacuum your workspace after cutting, and wash the dust from your hands and arms (if you really go to town and get the dust all over yourself, have a shower and change of clothes afterward).

The flexible parts of the tail are made from 2-inch nylon webbing…the heavy-duty sort of stuff used for mountaineering backpacks and belts and the like. I usually get this at REI, but a well-equipped hardware store or fabric store may have something suitable. Be sure to get the 2" width though, the narrower stuff won’t do. (To do: add photo of webbing here.)


There are a few different ways to cut the foamed PVC. Score-and-snap, if you have a plastic scoring tool…but I much prefer the control of a scroll saw. (To do: add photo of scroll saw here.) A small hand saw will also do, if you're patient. Or a bandsaw, if you’re impatient.

After cutting, the edges of the PVC (Sintra) should be sanded smooth of all burrs, etc. Fairly coarse (like 180 grit) sandpaper works for this. I try to avoid power tools for this step because of the PVC dust. The hot tip here is to use wet-or-dry sandpaper, and work under a trickle of running water. This avoids the problem of dust and also keeps the sandpaper from clogging up. (To do: add photo of wet-or-dry sandpaper here.)

Most of the PVC will remain flat, but there are a few spots where some curves may be desirable. The best tool for this is a heat gun (a hair dryer will not get hot enough). If you come up with a design that requires tight, 90-degree bends, you’ll need something that can deliver a fine jet of hot air…a butane-powered soldering iron with a hot blower attachment works, or a reflow soldering station. If you don’t have any of these tools, the plastic can also be softened in very hot boiling water. Again, because of chemical concerns, I’d suggest getting a nasty old pot at Goodwill for this, and of course you’ll want some beefy gloves (or at least some oven mitts) to avoid getting burned.

Electric drill. (To do: add photo of drill here.)

Lighter. (To do: add photo of lighter here.)

Finally, a rivet tool is used to join the various parts together. Avoid the temptation to use small nuts and bolts, because these will come apart! A basic rivet tool can be had for about $20, and if you’re prone to making crafty stuff you’ll be finding all kinds of uses for it down the road anyway.

I can’t claim credit for the insights into Sintra, heat-bending or riveted construction…much of this was learned from the legendary Legend the Gryphon!

Here’s a couple of test pieces I made using heat-bent Sintra, 2" nylon webbing, and rivets. I was experimenting with some two-axis flexy ideas here…these are not like what’s inside Scab’s tail! But you can see the various bend types and how things are attached with rivets:


There’s a strong temptation to fasten a tail firmly to a belt around one’s waist. That works fine for most fuzzy creatures, but for an anthro-lizard with a stout tail, it looks all wrong…the tail will sit too high, and will form an unlikely and uncomfortable-looking angle from the wearer’s spine to the tail’s spine. Scab’s tail actually hangs pretty low off the butt, in order to look a bit more like a continuation of the wearer’s own body, and not something just bolted onto the side:

The shape of the tail was sketched in Adobe Illustrator. Once the size and basic outline of the tail was determined, I added several perpendicular cuts down its length to provide the flex points. This is not the actual pattern, just a sketch of the idea:

The pieces were then separated and rearranged as necessary to fit on two 8.5x11 pages that I could print. Note that because we’re going to be making a PVC sandwich, two copies of each part are needed. An easy way to do this is to weakly glue two layers of PVC sheet together using rubber cement, then rubber cement the pattern sheet on top of this, then cut along the lines. The rubber cement lets it all peel apart easily later. If you plan to be making a lot of tails, you can stack up as many sheets as needed, whatever will fit through your saw (again, just remember to double up so there’s two copies of every part).

There’s one additional piece not shown on the pattern, because it was just eyeballed and cut by hand: there is a “butt plate” that sits perpendicular to the tail where it connects to the body, so the tail spine doesn’t end up in your butt crack. You’ll thank me later. This is one of the parts that gets heat-bent, in order to match the curve of one’s rump.

Lengths of nylon webbing are then cut to fit the gaps where these pieces join. Note that the webbing runs in strips perpendicular to the length of the tail. It does not run from base to tip! Each hinge gets a length of webbing, and we’re flexing it width-wise to get the tail movement. You can see this on the blue test piece previously shown. After cutting the webbing, use a lighter to clean up the frayed edge and keep the material from unweaving.

You might notice two different belt arrangements in the photos below. First tail I made (and the one I’m still currently using) used 1" webbing for the belt, and a length of Delrin rod to provide some structure between the belt and tail itself. After a few hours, this gets really painful! It’s too prone to “digging in.” The second version (the red tail) uses a much wider belt to distribute the weight more comfortably. And to reiterate the initial design point: the body support structure you see there (again, red tail) does not fasten tight around the waist…rather, the two rounded ends will be drilled and riveted to a wide belt. The belt is worn firmly around one’s waist, but the tail itself is allowed to hang down lower on the butt for a more natural shape. (To do: add pictures for this.)


“And then a miracle occurs.” But seriously, I don’t have any photos of the assembly process right now. (To do: add some build progress photos!) What happens is that the pieces of webbing are sandwiched between pairs of PVC sheet. Holes are drilled for the rivets (usually a 1/8" bit or so) through both the plastic and the webbing. Rivets are fed through these holes, a backing washer is installed, and the rivets are fastened into place. It can help immensely to lightly join everything first with a bit of Barge cement or hot glue so that parts won't shift around. Here’s a picture of a completed tail spine, if that helps:

That may look like an excessive number of rivets, but trust me, it’s not. People cannot resist the temptation to pull your tail. They will pull it, and pull it hard. Especially drunk people at Renaissance faires. Always have a handler. Armor helps, too.

Here you can get an impression of how flexy it is, and a bit of that sandwich construction is visible here:

Some of those tight, right-angle bends (needing the butane torch or reflow solder gun) are used between the first segment of the tail and the butt plate. Again, because of the tail-pulling factor, a strong mechanical connection is required, so rivets are used here; don’t use PVC glue.

So that’s the spine. The “meat” of the tail is made from polyurethane upholstery foam. I don’t recall the exact type used (they usually just have these meaningless inventory codes with no correlation to the material’s properties). What I did is go to Bob’s Foam Factory and ask for a 4 inch thick slab of “the softest of the polyurethane foams that you have.” Latex foam is even more flexy, but it costs a fortune and has a much more limited lifespan. Stick with polyurethane.

Foam can be cut with an electric turkey knife, a disposable snap-blade knife, scissors that you want to kill, or sometimes even pinching off little bits with your fingers. Standard costume-making stuff, so I hope you won’t be put off if I gloss over that; it’s already covered in a lot of detail elsewhere.

Here’s a tail that’s had just its coarse shape cut:

Because this is going to be covered with a spandex “skin” rather than fur, it was necessary that the foam surface be especially smooth…spandex leaves nothing to the imagination! A Surform shaver helped smooth out all the little peaks and valleys. This makes an incredible mess and is best done outdoors!

Something I did that really helped with the sway of Scab’s tail is to scoop out little gaps on the inside of the tail, right along the joints. This keeps the tail from being too springy and rigid…yet the outside skin is still smooth and contiguous, and you don’t see bumps in the material. In addition, a couple of very short but hefty bolts were added (one midway, one near the tip) to add a little weight and help create a pendulous motion. Some folks swear there’s animatronics involved, but it’s simply a bit of weight and a little swing of the hips.

The foam was then attached to the spine using Super 77 spray…but rubber cement or even hot glue would work just fine.


With all the mechanical stuff out of the way, it’s time to do the more traditional costumey sewing and detailing work.

The skin of the tail is 4-way stretch wet-look spandex. It’s simply two pieces, basically a sock, sewn inside-out and then inverted as it’s pulled over the tail form. Nothing fancy.

Sexay beast!

The scale dots are real easy; same technique as I used on the hands. It’s simply t-shirt puff paint. Rather than going for realism and attempting to add every last scale on the character, I was judiciously applying “the fifteen foot rule” and aiming for just a reasonable texture representation.

Puff paint normally takes a full day to dry. I was doing this in the late summer, and found if I put this all-black tail out in the hot sun to dry, it only took an hour or so.

The color stripes were then added using airbrushed fabric paint. If you don’t have an airbrush, don’t fret. I’ve since found that stippling the fabric paint on with a sponge is a lot easier and looks just as good at any reasonable distance.

7th-Feb-2010 07:20 am (UTC)
ohh :o this is awesome ^-^ im so ganna try this :>
7th-Feb-2010 08:43 am (UTC)
Brilliant. Scabrous has the best tail evar, everyone wants a piece.
7th-Feb-2010 09:26 am (UTC)
Ohhhh man, thank you so much! <3 <3 <3
7th-Feb-2010 09:36 am (UTC)
This is awesome, how much would it be to commission just the "spine?" If that is even a option. That is awesome and i would love to have one but don't have all those nifty tools i think my parents do but they wouldn't let me touch them lol! and i live in a apartment x.x
7th-Feb-2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Dude, this is perfect for a tail I want to do! I never would have thought of using this sort of method (so thanks for sharing :3)
7th-Feb-2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
Ah! Thanks for sharing :)
7th-Feb-2010 02:46 pm (UTC)
thank you sooo much for writing this out, screenshot+saved
7th-Feb-2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you, exceedingly, for the tutorial. If Bugs/Bugger is ever going to come to life, the last thing I want to do is a sorry excuse for a tail.

I had theories as to how you did the tail texture as well (which would go over a head sock, too) and was pleased with the simplicity.

Thank you for sharing this. So many people in the costuming community are staunch jerks with holding on to their secrets. Sharing just makes it a better, more creative place.
7th-Feb-2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
FANTASTIC! IF you havent, please post this in LJ Fursuit
7th-Feb-2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
Your costume is spectacular, and so is this tutorial. :o
7th-Feb-2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
By the way, do you have a gallery or anything? I REALLY want to see more of your costume, from the mask to the armor to... everything. But I can't find any links. :o
7th-Feb-2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Aw, thanks!

Unfortunately, no, I don't have one canonical repository with pictures of all the parts, but a Google image search for "Scabrous Vermicelli" will turn up countless action shots. Let me know if you have any specific requests and I might be able to find something.
7th-Feb-2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
Do you think this method could be used for something really skinny, like a rat tail? I'm making a costume which requires a really slender tail, and am worried that the tail would need to be larger like yours to work in all the riveting...
7th-Feb-2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
As made, probably not...the spine-and-riveting thing does seem to lend itself toward big honkin' tails. Something closer to the original snake toy that inspired this might work really well though (it's simply leather and wood).

Most rat suits I've seen do just fine with a simple polyfill tail. Or did you need something that specifically only flexes on one axis?
7th-Feb-2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Clever way of using materials =)
7th-Feb-2010 09:13 pm (UTC)
YOU are awesome for posting this. thankyou so much :D :D
7th-Feb-2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
Wow. This is very cool. Thank you for posting.
8th-Feb-2010 12:34 am (UTC) - Great Tutorial.
Love the problem solving. Scabrous is a awesome character.
8th-Feb-2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for this. Just what I needed.
8th-Feb-2010 01:37 am (UTC)
video of this in action would be epic.
8th-Feb-2010 02:52 am (UTC)
You can see a bit of it here:
8th-Feb-2010 03:19 am (UTC)
Nice tutorial! Would be great if you could add the video link you posted in the comments to the main post, I think. ^_^

Though it's funny - the wooden snakes are the originals, I had loads of them as a kid in the 80s. The crummy plastic ones are just cheaper, less impressive versions. I've got a tail in the works based on one of those wooden snakes, and this post helps a lot!
8th-Feb-2010 03:24 am (UTC)
Thanks much! Good point, I'll add the video to the meat of the post.
8th-Feb-2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
As I've said elsewhere, this is my favorite tail ever! I love how smooth you got the foam and the finishing with the puff-paint: wonderful. The whole thing looks so simple in use, but I'm not surprised at the complexity underneath-- I've found that achieving the simplest effects sometimes requires a mountain of R&D/construction.

Your tutorial is just as meticulous: detailed and so wonderfully organized! I particularly love the tip about carving out the foam around the joint from the -inside-. Brilliant.

And while I'm at it heaping praise on you, you do a great job of bringing this conglomeration of resin and foam and leather to life! It's always fun to see you out and about!
8th-Feb-2010 11:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much!

I was able to smooth out the foam by using a Surform tool. Wow, what a mess that made! But it was a necessary evil because spandex leaves nothing to the imagination. (Thanks for reminding me, I need to put that in the text!)

And it's nice to hear that the performance is making a favorable impression. I always try to drive that point home when folks are obsessing solely over materials...it doesn't matter what tech you're using or in what quantity, no amount of materials wizardry can ever save a weak presentation!
10th-Feb-2010 01:53 am (UTC)
This is awesome, thanks for posting :} I might have to try building one someday, heh. (from the terror bird-guy at FC2010)

PS what's "the fifteen foot rule"?
15th-Feb-2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
Hi! Thanks! Sorry, meant to reply to this ages ago...

The "fifteen foot rule" (though the number may vary, sometimes more, sometimes less) refers to the idea that most people won't be seeing a costume or prop up close, so it's usually okay to take some short cuts and not fuss over every little detail...at a distance, it all looks the same. If you've seen certain movie props up close, or especially opera costumes and props, they often appear pretty rough...but look fantastic under theatrical lighting and seen at the audience's distance.
12th-Mar-2010 05:05 am (UTC)
Oh, awesome! That's looking perfect, I can't wait to see the whole thing.

Regarding the butt plate connection: there's no nylon strap there. Unfortunately I don't have any photos of it unassembled, but you can kinda see it in the pic of the red tail spine flexing: the butt plate is made from two separate halves, each of which has a few alternating 'fingers' that get bent out 90 degrees, then riveted between the two layers of the tail bones.
10th-Aug-2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
awesome tail tutorial!

by a rough estimate: how long would it take to make one of these? (not including the time to gather the materials)

also, is there any way to cute the PVC without any type of saw? ;_; i don't have one and i don't think i'd be aloud to buy one either.....if there isn't a way to cut if without a saw, is there any replacement recommendation material that you would have that's easier to cut?

i've been searching of a way to my a tail for my Halloween costume, and i really wanna try this method out.
13th-Aug-2010 04:11 am (UTC)
Time wise, I'm not exactly sure...if you can stay focused on it for 3-4 hours at a stretch, then it could maybe be done in a week. The part with the rivets is really time-consuming and annoying, and I've been trying to come up with simpler construction schemes. (Actually, EVERY part is annoying, the rivets are just EXTRA annoying.)

A saw really is the best tool for cutting the PVC. It's possible to use an acrylic scoring tool (along with a metal straightedge) and then snap it along the score line, but this is sub-optimal...the PVC is just a tad too mooshy to really score well.
8th-Apr-2011 12:39 pm (UTC)
Great, I never knew this, thanks.

19th-Jan-2012 01:50 am (UTC)
I read thru the tutorial and I am intrigued by the bi-directional flex design. Was it rejected as not workable, too prone to just hanging or just too hard to make? I want to make a similar tail (in construction, but looking different, different kind of dragon) and I like the idea of two axis movement if it can work.
19th-Jan-2012 02:45 am (UTC)

No technical reason...it simply wasn't a feature I needed for the particular costume I was working on.
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