This tutorial shows the process I used to build the human-sized articulated wings (as well as support harness) I made for my Archangel Michael costume. These wings are slightly over six feet from top to tip, and extend to a wingspan of a little under 14 feet. Although the wings shown here are bird/angel wings, the basic form and construction could be used for almost any kind of wing or prosthetic, and the body harness could similarly be used to support large weapons or props.
NOTE: These wings are not anatomically correct –- not even close! I designed them to resemble the (frankly mediocre) video game character art, rather than an actual bird’s wing.
Here are the wings in action:
Materials & Tools
Exact quantity of materials required will depend on size and shape of wings. I recommend that you trace out a paper or fabric mock-up to gauge the size of your wings, and measure that to calculate exactly what length PVC, etc. you will need. Also, the materials here are what I used, but much of that was because the items were convenient or I already owned them. There is certainly room for substitution and experimentation, so if you have something similar lying around the house already, use it instead! (Don’t spend money on new materials when you can recycle.)
- PVC pipe (1.25″ recommended for vertical supports, 1″ for extended outer wings)
- 1/8 turn PVC joints x 2
- clevis pins x 2
- screw eyelets x 2
- pipe straps x 2
- wall hooks x 2 (or 1 2-hook piece)
- 1/8″ diameter steel cable
- handles (for end of cable)
- wire mesh (enough to cover both wings)
- weight-lifting support belt
- board, approx. 1″ x 6″ (size may vary — measure on your body!)
- 1″ nylon web strap (enough to wrap around your torso in a figure-8, plus a yard or so extra)
- 1″ D-rings x 4
- a large square of poly fleece or other thick fabric (for padding)
- feathers (approx. 500 for 6′ wings)
- large-diameter upholstery piping filler
- craft or boa marabou
- paddle, floral or other lightweight wire
- heavy-gauge wire (something that will hold its shape well)
- hot glue & glue gun
- power drill
- wire cutters
- tin snips or other metal-cutters
- table or circular saw (for cutting board & PVC)
- miscellaneous hardware (screws, etc.)
- work gloves (optional, but recommended)
- eye protection (optional, but recommended)
- a large, flat, clean surface on which to work!
Body Support Harness
The support harness consists of a padded weight-lifting belt attached to a 1” x 6” board that is equipped with metal brackets and hooks for mounting the wings. (A power drill is required for assembly… use caution, and don’t drill your fingers!) The board is additionally supported by adjustable 1″ nylon straps that cross in front and fasten with D-rings.
For heavier wing designs, a horizontal stabilizing strap around the front is also recommended, as the weight of the wings can pull the board out of alignment. This can result in sore shoulders, bruised kidneys or any number of other unpleasant side effects. Also, you may want to make some kind of padding for the nylon straps where they run over your shoulders (a long tube made of folded fleece fabric works well).
Before bolting the board to the weight belt, try the belt on and find a comfortable fit with the belt low on your waist, above your hips. Remember, the belt needs to support weight, so make sure that it is neither too tight nor too loose. Press down on the top of the belt and make sure that it doesn’t pinch or dig into your hip bones. You may need to drill another hole between existing holes in the belt to make it fit perfectly. Once you’ve found a comfortable fit, mark the center back and use that as a guide to place the board. (Depending on the length of the belt, it may or may not be in the
exact center of the belt.)
When you attach the board to the belt, make sure that a) the board is on the OUTSIDE of the belt, not against your kidneys, and b) the screws are short enough that they won’t poke all the way through the board and snag the fabric of your costume. If you do end up with screw tips poking through the wood anywhere, use bolt cutters to snip the tips off and cover the xposed screw with layers of thick tape or epoxy to prevent sharp edges.
The brackets should be placed near the top of the board, oriented horizontally; this is where the PVC wing pipe drops into the harness. If your board is not wide enough to accommodate both brackets side-by-side, you may have to stagger them slightly, or overlap the screw holes so that they fit together.
The wall hooks are placed near the bottom of the board. This is what will “catch” the PVC pipe and hold it in place, and also what will keep the pipe from rotating after you cut notches into the bottom edge. Make sure the hooks line up with the brackets. Test the alignment with a piece of pipe before you permanently attach the hardware.
The nylon straps should be attached at the top and bottom of the board. (For heavier loads, you may also want an additional set of straps just below the top.) To measure the length of strap you’ll need, put on the weight belt and, holding or taping a measuring tape to the top corner of the board, measure how much you will need to wrap over one shoulder and down to your waist on the opposite side. Repeat on the other side to make sure that the board is centered and your straps are even. Then place the tape at the bottom corner of the board and bring it around your waist and up to your breastbone, or about six inches above your solar plexis. Repeat on the other side. After you cut the nylon web, melt the raw edges with a match or lighter to keep the straps from fraying.
Before you attach the straps, sew two D-rings at one end of each of the upper straps. Run the strap through the flat side of the D-rings and fold it back to make a loop around the rings, then sew the loop closed. Repeat on the other upper strap.
The end of the upper strap that does not have the D-rings should be screwed into the top corner of the board (leaving the D-rings to hang forward over your shoulders when you put on the belt). Also screw one end of each lower strap to the bottom corners. Put on the belt and pull the upper straps across your body to make an X in front. Each upper strap should overlap with the lower straps at the bottom. Feed the lower straps through the D-rings and tighten them down. (If you didn’t live through the ’80s, when belts like this were really common, this is how it works: Pull the end of the lower strap up through both D-rings. Then fold it over and run the end of the strap back through only the lower D-ring. Pull down on the end of the strap, and it should tighten like a backpack strap.)
If your lower straps are too long, you can trim them, but make sure you leave enough strap to adjust if the harness becomes uncomfortable.
Note that all the costume layers that fit over this harness must have slits in the back to allow the wings to drop down into the brackets, so they can be mounted or removed without affecting the rest of the costume. The slits can be reinforced with stitching around the edges, much like buttonholes, so they don’t tear or fray.
The basic wing frame is constructed of 1 1/4” (vertical supports) and 1″ PVC (outer piece beyond pivot point) pipe, with metal clevis pins for hinge hardware and 1/8” steel cable for the “tendons” that operate the hinges. The cables run through screw eyes mounted on the pipe, and have handles at the end (I used carved wooden grips from some old jewelers’ saws, but any conveniently hand-shaped object should work, provided you can mount the cable to it securely).
I started working with a basic two-piece lever system (see diagram at left), but soon realized that if I wanted the wings to fit close together on my back, there needed to be room for the curved upper portion of the wing to rotate. The second design added a 45-degree extension to the top of the wing mount to separate the hinges by a couple of feet. This was simply a matter of cutting the PVC pipes in half and fitting them into 1/8 turn pipe joints.
After you determine how long you want your wings to be and cut the pipe to the proper length, drill holes for the clevis pins and fit them through the pipes to form a joint. Leave a few extra inches above the joint on the upper piece of the frame, because you will also need to drill a small hole for the steel cable at the top edge. To get the best leverage, make sure the cable hole is on the side of the pipe that will face the floor when the wings are extended. Ultimately, the cable should be fed through an eyelet on the central part of the frame and run down to waist-level, where you will attach the handles. (Once you’ve completed the basic frame, it’s a good idea to test the frame articulation and extension before you start adding anything else to the wings. Make sure everything works smoothly.)
At left, you can see the basic skeleton of the wing. (This is version 2 of the left wing, which was remade just before ACEN to correct problems I had at Ohayocon. You may notice some variation in wing shape between photos, depending on which version is shown.) Underneath the wire mesh “skin” of the wing, you can see the two pieces of PVC pinned together at the top, with the steel cable (the thin grey arch) attached at the top edge of the pipe.
Once you have finished the frame, it’s time to add the wire mesh. Before you start cutting, decide exactly what shape you want your wings to be. I recommend drawing a pattern on a large piece of paper or fabric so that the shape of both wings will match. On my wings, there is a little bit of overlap in back, which is intentional. Extending the curve at the base of the wings makes them look deeper and more bird-like when extended. The back side of each wing is slightly deeper than the front, which must be kept shorter to avoid catching on the wig or costume. The four layers (front and back of each wing) nest so that the feathers do not collide or get caught in the hinge mechanism.
Once you have designed a basic pattern for the shape of the wing, it can be cut out of wire mesh using tin snips or wire cutters. There are two sides to each wing (one on each side of the PVC frame), so you will need four layers total. They can be rolled together at the edge or sewn together with paddle wire. Together, the front and back should form a pocket with the PVC frame in between. Make sure you attach the frame securely to the wire mesh with lightweight wire and/or glue so that the mesh does not slide off the frame!
A note on materials: My right wing is largely 1/8” sculpture mesh, with some 1/4” diamond wire mesh at the bottom. The left wing (pictured at left) is a mixture of 1/4” diamond and 1/2″ square hardware cloth. I much prefer the sculpture mesh, which is aluminum (lightweight!), extremely flexible, and very easy to cut, but it costs about $25 per roll. When I ran out of sculpture mesh on version 2 of the left wing, I substituted with the steel hardware cloth, which is only about $8 per roll – but it is heavy, hard to cut, resistant to bending, and VERY sharp along the cut edges. (What you save in money, you sacrifice in blood. Wear sturdy work gloves if you use it.)
When stored flat or packed for travel, the pocket made by the two sides of the upper part of the wing tends to collapse. Besides causing the wings to look flat, this can bind up the cable and interfere with the hinge action. To prevent the wing collapsing, we installed two sets of wire ribs inside each of the pockets to brace the wing open. That way, even if the wing is flattened, the ribs can be bent and re-shaped as necessary to hold the wire mesh open.
The ribs are long U-shaped wire braces fed through holes drilled in the PVC frame, with the bottom of the U toward the open side of the wing. The two long sides of the U are then bent backward toward the open side to support the wire mesh. The wire used to make the braces must be heavy enough to hold its own shape and be somewhat resistant to bending. After each rib is installed, it is wired to the mesh with paddle wire to hold it (and the PVC frame) in place.
Once you have completed the full wing structure, it’s time to cover the mesh with feathers! My feathers (turkey hen wing rounds) were sorted into right and left wings based on curvature, and every feather was trimmed to a point before being attached.
At first I tried sewing and hand-tying the feathers onto the mesh… but I quickly resorted to hot glue, which was not only faster, but also allowed me to control the angle and overlap of each feather. (It also made for quick fixes at the con, when my wings took hallway damage.) Be aware that hot glue does add some additional weight to the wings, though probably not more than two pounds per wing.
Before you start attaching the feathers, you should have an idea of how you want them laid out. Look at your reference images and at real birds’ wings to get an idea of where the feathers should go. Start with the bottommost layer of feathers (this is usually along the bottom edge of the wing) and layer the feathers on top as you go, so each layer of feathers hides the quills of the lower layer.
After both sides of the wing were feathered, I sewed upholstery piping filler along the spine of each wing. This created padding along the (extremely sharp) cut wire edges, and also matched the rounded wing edge shown in the source art. The gap where the wire mesh showed between the piping filler and feathers was covered with white craft marabou for a downy look. If you want your wings to look really fluffy, you can fill in with marabou all over the wing.
To control wing angle, notches were cut into the bottom of each PVC pipe. When rotated to the correct angle, the hooks slip into the notches and hold the pipes in place.
In the first version, the wings were mounted parallel to my body, so that when extended they pointed straight out to the sides. Although they were balanced very evenly, it made my body several feet wide (hard to get through doors!), and I didn’t like the flat appearance of the extended wings in photographs.
In the next construction (after remaking the left wing), we rotated the wings to mount and extend at a 45-degree angle away from my body. Although this made fitting through crowds and doors easier and looked much better in photos, the weight distribution was uneven and tended to overbalance backwards (I nearly fell over the first time I tested the new wing set). Adjustments also had to be made to keep the upper part of the wings from rotating on the support, as shown in the image at left.
Ultimately, the wings were allowed to rotate semi-freely on the vertical support pipes (meaning that if someone ran into me, the wings would simply swing backward instead of breaking loose at the joint). This required me to lean forward and brace myself before extending the wings, but gave me more mobility for navigating at conventions.
Just as an additional note, it is a really good idea to spend a lot of time testing your wings BEFORE taking them to a convention. Practice walking and going through doorways. Practice extending your wings (it looks best if both wings extend at an equal rate and to an even height), and know how much clearance you’ll need to avoid hitting people, walls or objects with them. Also, beware of wind if you must walk outside. Even a slight breeze can snap the wings out behind you or blow you over backwards, and it’s very easy for feathers to be knocked loose or torn off.
So, now that you know how it’s done, go have fun making your own wings! ^_^