How to make a Fake Turkey

Posted in Crew
December 29th, 2009 by Ian Strandberg (S/VFX Mastermind)

reference-turkey-01Whatever your circumstances is life, it’s pretty likely that at some point you’ll need to construct a fake  turkey from scratch.  Here’s how you do it:

Get yourself a block of foam.  You can buy insulation foam from the hardware store and laminate it together with some kind of non-solvent, non-aerosol adhesive, the film-ey double stick tape (as in, NOT mounting tape) or some kinds of spray glue (3M makes some specifically for bonding foam).  If you decide to laminate you need to remove any backing or coating from the foam before you start.  Pink or blue foam (the kind NOT made up of little beads of foam) is best.  You can work with the beady stuff but be prepared to yell “FUCK” a lot.

Alternatively you can also steal, or ask nicely for a block of foam from an RV lot, mobile home manufacturer or the like.  They often use good sized blocks of the beaded foam to rest their products on.  It may smell funny but it will get the job done.  For my turkey I had one block of foam that was just a bit bigger than needed.

turkey-00There was limited time but I had little experience with subtractive sculpture so I actually went a bit overboard in my prep.  After gathering reference, an essential step in any sculpture project, I went to the trouble of sculpting a turkey in ZBrush to get a feel for the form.  This may sound like an extreme step to you but I’m quite handy in ZBrush.  In under an hour I not only had a good handle on the bird’s form but I also had a 3D model from which I could generate orthographics from any angle.  These benefits were well worth the effort.  If this isn’t an option for you, two reasonable alternatives would be some drawing studies if you are a competent drafts-person (ugh), or a small clay sculpture.

When it came time to carve the turkey I went overboard in yet another step:  I cut a scale block off of my foam and did a test sculpt.  For the test and the finished sculpt I used a set of hot wire tools from the HotWire Foam Factory (  I like these tools quite a bit – I got a filmmaker to buy them for me in exchange for making some props.  In the future I’d probably just make all of my tools custom using one of the tutorials over at

turkey-03There’s not too much I can say about carving foam specifically.  Take precautions – the fumes are nasty.  I worked outside with an organic filter respirator on.  They only cost about 30 bucks and if you’re routinely undertaking projects of this nature you should absolutely own one and keep the filters in good standing.

Take your time as it’s more costly to fill gouges than to cut carefully in the first place.  Work from large general forms to small details and try to keep all areas of the sculpt at the same basic level of detail.  For me this is very important because I get antsy and it’d be easy for me to half-ass one side of a symmetrical sculpture if I let them get too out of sync.

After I learned the basic working characteristics of the foam from the test sculpt I tackled the real thing.  I measured the overall dimensions of a bird at the store.  I cut the block to those dimensions with a little wiggle room using a cordless reciprocating saw (I fucking love these things).  I also used my 3D model to create full size front, top and side “plans” which I then cut out and traced onto the block in stages so that I could saw the excess foam away up front.  This is a key time saver as the hot wire tools are much slower and fiddlier.

Again, there’s not a lot of detail I can go into on the actual carving of the bird that’s not covered under the heading of sculpting or carving in general.  Work conservatively, work general to specific, yada yada yada.  The foam held up pretty well in thin areas like the wings (even in the small sculpt) but don’t take this for granted – these bits are still pretty vulnerable and it will cost you time to reattach them.  Fortunately your finished piece will likely be no worse for the ware.

When the bird is looking like a bird and the surfaces are as even and smooth as you can get them with the wire tool you can get out some 80 grit sandpaper (a sponge would be even nicer) and lightly bring down the edges of the planes to give the piece a more organic look.  If you’ve got nicely laminated pink or blue foam you can really get a nice finish this way.  I was using beaded foam (desperate times) and therefore had to use a very light touch to just round things out.


Once all of the sculpting was completed I sealed the whole thing with a thin coat of liquid latex.  I did this to create a base for the next step – patching.  To patch up cracks and rough areas I used liquid latex mixed with cabosil (which makes a nice liquid rubber paste).  Cabosil is flumed silica and is used as a thickener by make-up and effects artists in various applications.

After making the surface reasonably even I set to work texturing the bird.  Since I was making it for a stage play I knew that I didn’t need to go overboard but I like to push the boundaries of what is necessary, for myself, if there’s not a lot of cost or time constraint to be concerned about.  To texture the surface I used a plastic mesh orange (the fruit) bag and experimented with pressing it onto a layer of thickened latex, painting latex over it and pulling it out and various, similar scenarios.  I can’t recommend one over the other – they have different effects.  Try it out for yourself as the working time of thickened latex is pretty generous.  Sometimes the result was too “spikey” so I wanted until the rubber was firm but not set and patted it down to smooth things outn.  Keep in mind that the texture of a cooked turkey is not very regular – I used plenty of reference.

Painting started with an airbrush. I use a dual action Paache but any reliable airbrush that gives you pretty wide coverage should suffice.  I like to use transparent paints so I started with yellow and added successive layers of red, orange, and brown.  Turkey’s get pretty dark when cooking but overall retain a considerable amount of saturation in their coloring – chances are they are more orange in reality than in your memory.  The cooking direction of the heat in the oven means that the turkey tends to be darker on top but this isn’t an absoluate rule.  Use reference.

turkey-01After airbrushing I used a wadded up paper towel to stipple on some mottled dark brown here and there to break up the “gradient” quality of the surface color.  I considered painting or gluing on some charred “spices” but at this point, time was running out (in fact, it was really only a few hours till the final tech and dress rehearsal).

For finishing touches I sealed the piece with Krylon Crystal Clear which gave it a nice greasy look.  Perma-wet might have been an even better choice but would have been too much work.  I also tied some twine around the ends of the drumsticks and used some ink give it a “cooked” look.

So that’s what I’ve got for you.  On a scale of hungry, but ultimately disappointed Dickensian orphans, I’d give this project four out of five.

UPDATE: A few people have asked about buying fake turkeys. This turkey was a one-off but I’ll make more if the price is right. The price for a custom made, hand sculpted and painted fake turkey is $250. Contact me at my website

2 Responses to “How to make a Fake Turkey”

  1. Thanks for this. I want to make a really off-the-wall, life-like Turkey Christmas hat for a competition. I don’t suppose you want to sell me your fake turkey?

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi — this is a fantastic job! Do you happen to still have this turkey? I am doing a charity project and not sure i have the time or skills to do one frome scratch. I wondered if you would consider donating it to the cause?

    Kind Regards,


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