Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tsantsa: the finishing touches

Well, hello again to the three people who still read this blog!

Today, we will start where we left yesterday, and transform the yellowish latex skin into someting worthy of being called a shrunken head. If you just stumbled upon this one blog post, I strongly recommend reading Part One first.

If you're too artistically challenged to sculpt a head and would like to try your hand at painting & decorating one, or if you just have trouble finding the necessary materials, I may be able to sell you a blank latex copy; contact me if you're interested and I'll try to work something out.

Now, onto the "tutorial"!

First of all, you'll want to clean up the cured latex cast using something like a toothbrush. Just remove the excess baby powder and bits of plaster that have adhered. Do so gently, and don't worry if you can't get it all off, it's just a matter of removing the stuff that was already loose.

Afterwards, you'll want to take a razor blade or a very sharp x-acto knife to remove the "flashing"; that fine line of latex that seeped throught the seams of the mold. Once that's done, you're ready for painting.

Now, the "industry standard" way to go about this is by putting a coat of Pros-Aide prosthetic adhesive on the latex and then paint on that with acrylic inks, using preferably an airbrush. But we're cheap, so we'll use something much simpler. I mixed two parts liquid latex to three parts acrylic craft paints, with a few drop of water to make it less thick. That will do just fine.

You can use a brush if you want to paint on some details, but in this case, I used a makeup sponge to stipple on the paint in an uniform coat, making sure to get some in every pore and wrinkle. That prevents the formation of brush strokes, making the final product look more natural. Afterwards, while it was still wet, I rubbed off some of the excess paint from the raised areas of the head, so that the surface detail appeared darker. Just like dry brushing, only the opposite. I repeated the process a few times until I was satisfied with the color. Be aware that the Jivaro used to rub charcoal onto the skin of the tsantsas, which means that for a more traditional look, it has to be very dark brown, almost black.

Now the paint, since it contains latex, is still a bit tacky, so I mixed charcoal dust with baby powder until I had a nice light gray powder, and covered the head with it.

It was then only a matter of brushing off the excess, applying a coat of sealant (I used my ghetto-ass hairspray), and it should be done. The powder that had settled in the cracks and pores will help giving the head an ancient, dusty look.

Next logical step would be to sew shut those lips & eyes and the back of the head. Now, you could use sewing thread, or something like that, but it wouldn't look the part much. You have to think of a kind of string that could be made in the jungle, without bleach or synthetic materials.

Butcher Twine, meet mr. Coffee Cup.

By letting the twine soak up very strong coffee, it will get a bit plumper and gain a nice yellowish color, perfect for what we have to do with it. I let the string dry, slipped it in the eye of a large needle, and went to work. You can stitch your head very simply, or you can get a bit more creative. In many pictures of authentic shrunken heads that I have seen, the lip stitches often hang down in long fringes. I like the look of that, so that's what I went for. 

I also added a small loop of string to the top of the head, to provide a way to hang the tsantsa afterwards.

The next step in the finishing process would be to add hair to the head. For that purpose, I used two shades of dark brown kanekalon hair, which can be found in beauty salons, mostly those dealing with ethnic customers, since it is used more often than not to lenghten african braids and to make dreadlock extentions.

The hair needs to be punched into the head, which is a simple process, but it takes quite some time, doing that in front of the tv could be a good idea. Make at least sure to have some good music playing.

To create the hair punch, I started with size 20 tapestry needles. I choose those for their large eyes and short points.
I then simply inserted the needle, point size down, in an x-acto knife handle. I then cut off the tip of the eye to create two prongs, followed by cutting one of those a bit shorter, and bending the longer one a bit.

That's when the fun part starts; Pulling out a fine strand of hair from the package, folding it in half in the eye of the hook, and punching it through the latex.

The hook shape of the needle means that while the hair will follow inside the skin pretty easily, it will stay in there and won't follow the needle out.

Since KK hair is quite thick and wooly, I didn't need to punch some over the whole head. I did about three tightly placed rows of hair along the hair line, and a single row behind the ears, and along the nape. That way, I ended up with thick enough hair for the size of the head, without having to go through the labour-intensive process of punching the whole scalp.

The problem, with punched hair, is that the loops located inside the head have nothing to hang on to, so they can be pulled out incredibly easily.

This can be easily corrected by applying a coat of latex to the hair inside the head.

Once dry, the hair strands will be fused together, and to the latex skin. Strong stuff.

The next step would be to groom the head, because if you're lazy like me, you didn't cut the hair first, and now it's ridiculously long.

I don't think you need any explanation for that. Cut it and thin it down as you see fit. If you get a sideshow bob kind of look and you want to smooth it down, KK hair reacts really well to steam. NOT to direct heat such as with an iron, though, that will just make it melt. The best way to form it thus is to  put some water in a kettle and style the hair while holding it a short while at a time over the steam jet coming from the kettle.

Feel free to add beads, feathers, bones, piercings and other decorations to your head. I didn't because I'm a cheap bastard who doesn't have feathers and beads hanging around.
I do have some darn fancy shoes & socks though

To finish, here's some pictures of my head hanging out in my local graveyard:

Life's good


  1. I LOVE your blog and often "pin" many of your tutorials (I hope you don't mind). You're also in my reader so I don't know that I register on your follower list, but I wanted to pipe in to let you know that I LOVE your instructions and blog entries! :) Thanks for sharing such a wonderful art.

  2. That is such an awesome shrunken head! I'd love to try my hand at working latex, but I've got too many damn hobbies as it is :P

  3. Nice! That is a very impressive tsantsa.

  4. Thanks folks! it's a pleasure to share that with you guys. taniasaurusrex: pin all you like, be my guest!

  5. chased you from craftster, here still love it and the way you talk about your process. and you are close to my neck of the woods! i live in montreal :)

    1. Hey there Jenny! It's nice to see I've got a Québecois reader! (although it's always nice to learn about my readers, no matter where they come from!) I'm glad you enjoyed it, thanks for reading!

  6. Holy crap, this is awesome!!
    Found you by accident but will now trawl all over your site : )
    Love the 'ghetto' alternatives, here in Australia craft supplies are outrageously expensive, halloween props almost unheard of and everything has to be done from scratch. Ghetto works for me baby!
    Cheers, and keep up the awesome work.

  7. Amazing. I don't know if this is still active as I see last comment here was 2016 haha. But just know that you've been a great resource for me. Openning my own Shrunken Head themed bar and gotta do some serious homework on how to make them. If you are available for possible talking about buying a mould or for any tips then please hit me up at nathanjamesbiggs@me.copm