How to Build Dragon Skeletons: Armatures

One of the most daunting things for me when I first started making dragons nearly six years ago was the idea of an armature. It’s such a big serious-art word. Also, it seemed simply like a pain in the butt.

And, surprise surprise, when I first started doing armatures, they were a pain in the butt. I had dragons with drooping limbs, dragons falling over, and all manner of dragon chaos. There’s nothing more sad (to a dragon maker, at least) than making a beautiful critter only to have it be ruined when it tips over or moves out of place when it’s being baked. 🙁

Recently, I was forced to find a new way of doing armatures as I got more requests for standing dragons. So, here, I’ve decided to give you guys my tried and tested methods of making dragon skeletons. It does take a little bit of time, but it shouldn’t be too much more than an hour of work. You will have to make adjustments outside of the ones I mention here to get your armature to work, but that’s just the nature of the beast (or, in this case, dragon 🙂 ).

This is a basic armature for a dragon with four legs and one set of typical squarish wings.

Now, without further ado:

How to Build an Armature for Your Dragon

What You’ll Need:

  • Spool of wire (more on this in just a minute)
  • At least 1 pair of cutting pliers, needle-nose preferred. I’ve got a second pair shown here. Having another pair to manipulate the wire in a specific place can be useful, so I’d still recommend having a second pair even if you don’t use it. In the case of this armature, I didn’t have to use it.
  • Tin foil. I use regular foil, but any kind (heavy duty and such) should work. It may be easier to crush the slightly lighter foil, however.

That’s all you need! Now, onto the wire.

The Wire:

IMPORTANT: You DO NOT have to buy your armature wire at a fancy art store. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s often far more expensive for a smaller amount. This spool that I have here was about 164 feet (50 meters) for about $7, and no more than $10. I got it in the gardening section of the hardware store. I don’t remember the gauge, but the wire you use depends upon what you want to do. Stiffer wire should be used for larger sculptures, while lighter wire is better for smaller stuff. Since I mostly make small stuff, I go by a general rule of thumb: if you can bend it relatively easily with your fingers, but it still holds its shape very well afterwards, it should work.

Here’s a test you can use on your wire. In the store, you can try and bend the end. If you can’t move it with just your hands, it’s too thick. At home, twist or bend a small piece around itself like you would a wire tie around a vegetable bag at the grocery store. If you can do that without tools (or excessive force and painful fingers) and it stays twisted after, it’ll probably work just fine. Like this:

Now that your wire is all sorted, you can start on your armature.

Step 1-The “Spine”

Before you do anything else, you need to have a strong, continuous center wire for your armature. Cut the wire to the length you want your dragon to be, and then straighten it out as best you can. This straightening isn’t totally essential, but it does make it a little easier to get the wire the way you want it.

Keep in mind, this is the total span of the dragon, from nose to tail. Choose one end to be your nose, and one to be your tail. This will make it easier to keep your dragon parts straight, initially.

Now, it’s time to decide on the length of your dragon’s neck. Go from  your “nose” end of the wire until you reach what you think is a good neck length. At that point, make an upward bend, like so:

After that, make a second bend at the length you want the head to be:

Kinda looks like the beginnings of a Loch Ness monster, doesn’t it? 😀

Now you need to move the “tail” end of your wire. Make another bend at the length you want the tail, in a downwards direction opposite the neck.

The head of your dragon in this picture is on the right, and the tail is on the left.

The next part of this process was hard to get a picture of, and is a bit difficult to describe, so bear with me here. You’ve got to make your spine more naturally curved and flowing, otherwise your dragon will look much stiffer and more artificial. Add curve to the tail and the neck, and make bends at the base of the neck and the top of the tail.

This is also when you determine the semi-final stance of your dragon, so position your head and tail well. You can change the armature a little once it’s finished, but it can cause some problems with the foil arrangements, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

This is what I ended up with, as an example:

The neck is more snake-like, and the tail has a nice curve to it.

Step 2- Bulking out the Spine

The next thing we’ve got to do is add the basic body shape to the armature. While your final dragon will be bigger and rounder than this, it gives you a foundation to work off of.

First, take a sheet of tin foil and wrap it loosely around your dragon.

If it looks like your critter’s run into a giant shiny cloud, you’re doing it right:

Press your fingers evenly around the neck to crush the tinfoil down tightly. Make this surface round, like the final neck would be.

Now, crush down the body foil in the shape you want your dragon to be.

*IMPORTANT* If you’re only using a thin layer of clay to cover your armature (which I usually do because too thick the dragon doesn’t look right) this shape will determine roughly what your final product looks like.

If you want a deep-chested dragon, crush your foil more forwards on your dragon. If not, make it a more even body shape. I’d recommend that you make the main body slightly flattened; it’s easier to find space to stick the legs through that way.

Step 3- The Leg & Wing Wires

Now, you’ve got to cut the wire for the legs. Make a rough estimate of your leg length like this, and then cut a piece that is a little more that twice that length:

Repeat for the back leg.

This step determines how tall your dragon will stand.

For the wings, make another wire estimate and again, cut a length a little longer than double your estimated amount.

Don’t worry about any of these wires being too long; you can always cut them down. It is frustrating, however, when your leg wires are too short, so give yourself some space when cutting them.

At this point, straighten out your leg and wing wires. Unlike with the spine, it does make a big difference here. A bend or curve at the wrong place in the leg wire may keep your dragon from standing properly, and the wings may not look right.

Here’s a comparison shot. Left is not straightened, right is straightened:

Step 4- Attaching and Shaping the Wing & Leg Wires

There are three points (two for the legs, one for the wings) where you are going to have to poke a wire through the tinfoil body:

These are just roughly where you want your legs and wings to be for a good stance.

First, insert the front leg wire halfway through the front of the body and bend the wire on each side so the ends are pointing down.

They should look a bit like this. I find the easiest way to do this process is to put your thumb and forefinger on each end of the wire (just below the sharp tip) and pinch together, like you’re squashing a bug. At the same time, pinch the top of the legs to the body of the dragon. This will keep them still while you’re bending them into place. If the legs are held stiffly in place, great. If not, don’t worry. We’ll get to that later.

Pro Tip: Don’t just use use force to push the wire through the armature. This is a good way to a) cut your fingers and b) warp the spine of your dragon. Instead, spin the wire on one spot (like the way cartoon people do when they’re trying to start a fire with a twig on a log) until the sharp wire end cuts through the foil to the other side. If you do it this way, it should go through the foil fairly easily.

Add a bend at any place on the front legs where you want a joint. If the pose of your legs is identical, make the same bends on both sides:

This is the basic shape of your legs. Repeat this process (of attaching, bending, and then shaping the legs) with the back legs.

At this point, I usually trim off any excess wire on the feet, and test to see if the dragon can stand. It won’t be terribly steady, but you should be able to position it so that it stays upright. It takes a little bit of work, but it’s a good way to see if your legs are well shaped and if the feet touch the ground. In this picture, I’ve done a little trimming on both the tail and the feet.

In this picture, the tail is finally touching the ground. Your dragon’s tail is a great “fifth leg” and an easy way to get an extra support point. If you’re not used to making dragons and armatures, I’d recommend you use the tail support. Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I still try and use the tail to support the dragon if I can!

Step 5 (Almost there!)- Bulking out & Securing the Legs

For each leg set on your dragon, take a piece of tin foil (smaller than the one you used for the body) and loosely fold it in half. Then, place it between the gap in the legs, like so:

Crumple and wrap this around the legs and the main body until the legs don’t move freely any more. Do this for both leg sets. It won’t look too different when it’s finished, but the dragon shouldn’t have any trouble standing at this point. Make sure to adjust the legs so all four feet are on the ground, and the dragon is standing the way you want it to.

Step 6 (Last one, promise!)- Attaching and Securing the Wings

Now, punch the wing wire halfway through the upper shoulder of the dragon, just behind the neck but above where you’ve attached the front leg.

Bend the end of the wires upwards, the same way as the legs.

Now, make a bend at where you want the joints to be. In this case, I just kept it at one bend at about neck-height.

To finish off the wings, repeat the folded-tinfoil addition that you did on the legs. Wrap it around the base of the wings and the body. I also like to add small bits of tinfoil to the corner joint I made. it makes it easier to attach the spines of the wing at a later date:

I also added some tinfoil to the head to give me more to build off of when I add clay to the dragon.

Finishing Touches (It isn’t *officially* another step, right?)

You can call your armature done right now if you wanted to. It should stand on its own with four feet on the ground and the limbs should all stay in place.

Here are a few things you may want to do/try before you declare your armature done:

  • Add more tinfoil. This will reduce the amount of clay you have to use, and gives you an even better base to work off of. Beware, though, that new pieces of tin foil don’t always like to stay in place. You may have trouble with your initial clay coat if not all of your tinfoil is properly secured.
  • Add small tinfoil pads to the feet to prevent the wires from poking through.
  • Make sure your your position is correct. Check your critter out from all angles to prevent unwanted leaning or instability.

And that’s it! You’ve got one dragon armature all ready to use! In the future (when I actually get around to making the rest of this dragon), I’ll try to remember to take pictures so I can show you guys how to get the best possible base clay coating.

In the meantime though, good luck with your armature, and happy dragoning!


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