Box Turtle Build Journal

This build was commissioned by a good friend and is definitely among the most complex projects I’ve undertaken. This was originally requested some time before I actually began working; I explained to the customer I wanted to wait until my skills had developed to the point I’d be happy with the end result. Additional completed photos follow the build.

The build began by first drawing the carapace (upper shell) profile on graph paper, and creating a wooden mold for the internal structure supporting the shell scales. Several layers of plywood were then glued together.

The profile was transferred to the plywood, and the mold shaped with a saw rasp.

Carapace mold completed.

Thick cowhide was soaked in water, then formed around the mold and tacked into place to dry. Once fully dried, the leather becomes stiff and retains the mold shape; this technique is called wet-forming. It was tricky to get the leather shaped smoothly around the mold, without bunching up.

The carapace flares out around the edges, and I wasn’t confident I could achieve this all with one piece. So, I chose to create these flares with separate leather strips, which were first patterned out using craft foam sheet.

Once I was happy with the pattern, the carapace was trimmed, the patterns transferred to leather, then cut out and skived (thinned) on the edges.

These were then tacked to the carapace and wet-formed.

Once dried, the carapace edges were attached using Barge cement.

Next, scales were drawn on the carapace using box turtle photos as a reference.

I used tracing paper to copy the individual scale patterns from the carapace, and transferred them to leather to be cut and edge beveled. I’d originally planned to cut these all at once, but realized each scale should be cut, shaped, and cemented one at a time to ensure the best fit possible. Scale edges were steeply beveled to help give depth. The three scales along the top of the shell needed central ridges as well; I cut a deep groove from the underside to thin it out and allow for better shaping, then wet formed these ridges.

Fitting, shaping, and cementing each scale was probably the most time consuming stage of the project. For added realism, I lightly scribed growth rings around each scale as well. I got one scale finished before I realized the plastron (lower shell) needed to be completed and attached before scales could be done, since the edge scales wrap around and attach to the plastron.

So, it was time to make the plastron. I initially planned to do this as one piece, but this would soon lead to problems, not to mention lack the characteristic hinge.

I needed to attach the carapace to the plastron while leaving a gap at the front and back, as well as create some recessed structure allowing me to cement the head, legs, and tail. This step proved frustrating, and I sidelined the entire project for weeks after multiple failed attempts.

At last, I came up with some ideas that allowed me to move forward. I cut the plastron along the proper hinge line, and cemented a strip of thin, flexible pigskin on the back. This gave me more wiggle room to get the pieces to fit properly.

I cut deep notches in the backing for cementing the extremities, to help it create the tight shape inside the shell.

Two of these were cut for front and back, and cemented in. Even still, getting it to fit right took five or six more attempts.

Finally, I was successful in getting the two shell pieces attached properly, and I could go ahead and finish the scales. To shape smaller pieces such as scales, support structures, and head, I use a process I call “accelerated wet-forming”. For this technique, I use a heat gun to quickly dry the leather so I don’t have to wait days between each piece. This method has become crucial to all my sculpture building.

Though tedious, creating the scales moved along quickly, as I was excited to finally be able to resume the project.

Top scales completed, time to move on to the edges.

Patterning out edge scales with tracing paper, using previous scales as a guide to ensure proper fit.

The scales are now complete. Making the edge scales was the only part of the project when I paid attention to time; edges took 18 hours to finish.

Underside showing edge scales wrapping around the plastron. I wasn’t happy with my first try at dyeing this piece, and chose to redo it later.

It was a good day to dye. First yellow was airbrushed on, then masks applied where I wanted it to stay yellow.

Next came orange, then the masks removed.

To create the detailed shell pattern, I mixed up some mahogany, black, and oxblood dyes to achieve the right color, then applied this by hand with a fine brush. First, patterns were outlined…

then filled in, and lightly dry-brushed over the lighter colors.

Shell dyeing completed, and a couple coats of resolene airbrushed on. This gives the shell a nice sheen, and helps prevent me from smudging it as I continued the build.

Next, I began working on the front legs and head. Above are the internal structures supporting the turtle’s neck and upper front legs.

These were wet-formed and cemented in place.

The turtles skin was created from pigskin, which is thin and flexible and had a texture I felt did a good job of representing the subject.

These were first airbrushed and hand-brushed…

then cemented in place.

The head turned out to be pretty easy to pattern; I basically just imagined the shape unfolded, then drew it on tracing paper, transferred to leather, cut it out…

Then wet-formed and scribed details. The beak was completed as a separate piece.

The upper head and beak were cemented…

then lower jaw…

and tongue created, then dyed.

The head was then cemented to the internal structure supporting the neck.

Eyes were made using two different size hole punches, then dyed and cemented in place.

Eyelids were added by cutting tiny pieces of very thinly skived pigskin. I used clear nail polish over the eyes to create a more lifelike effect, but ultimately wasn’t happy with this and later remade the eyes.

Front legs were built using a flat piece of thick leather for internal support, adding claws, and working my way from toes on up. If I were to build another turtle, I’d use cylindrical pieces instead of flat.

I cut scalloped strips of leather, dyed them, and wrapped them around the internal support.

Leg scales were cut and applied individually from very thin leather dyed yellow.

Making individual scales was a tedious thing, but I think it was worth it, and I liked the final result. Once the lower portions of the front legs were completed, these were cemented in place. I then cut a strip of pigskin, skived it thin, dyed it, and used that to cover the joint between upper and lower. More yellow scales were added to help conceal this transition.

Moving on to the rear legs and tail, it took a couple tries to create a proper pattern for the internal supports.

These were then wet-formed with the aid of a heat gun, and I added very thick, small strips of leather inside to help reinforce weak joints.

Legs and tail shaped and cemented in place, and claws made and attached.

Adding skin to the rear legs was another fairly difficult process, given the odd shape. I used paper towels to help pattern these out. They were then dyed…

and carefully cemented in stages around the supports.

Once cemented, the skin was trimmed and touch-up dye applied, then resolene.

There remained some small gaps in between the carapace scales which I felt needed addressing. I created a pile of leather dust, mixed it with Elmer’s glue, and smushed it into the gaps. There were still some very tiny divots here and there afterwards; to fix this, I applied warmed beeswax, hit it with a heat gun to melt it in, and wiped off the excess. This turned out well, and completed the build.

Scratch that. Almost completed the build. I still wasn’t happy with those eyes; the nail polish flattened out and developed air bubbles. I remade them and used UV reactive resin for a better effect.

Way better.

The customer also requested a leather chanterelle mushroom to accompany this little guy, to help create a mount for the piece. I think he’ll be happy.

Thanks for reading!

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