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For this year’s That Takes the Cake! show in Austin, TX – which had a theme of The Science of Cake – I decided to make a cookie version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Aerial Screw, sometimes called Da Vinci’s helicopter. Da Vinci drew this concept but never built it, and even if he had it never would have actually flown. But it was a very interesting concept for his day and part of his artistic contributions to science, so I thought it would be a great way to pay homage to the concept of science and art coming together.
I found a museum model kit made out of wood and cloth that comes together to make a working model of the Aerial Screw, and decided I’d make a cookie version of that entire thing. I’d long wanted to see if it was possible to make gears in gingerbread, and in fact my next choice of a Da Vinci homage would have been his Self-Propelled Cart, but I decided that would be less aesthetically interesting since it was flatter and many of the elements were hidden under each other.
The subject of making edible gears poses many challenging problems. First of all, gears need to be strong enough to push against each other under whatever weight they’re bearing, and edible media is generally very fragile, especially in small pieces. Secondly, gears require precision that is difficult to achieve in media that spread as they bake or shrink as they dry. If a gear train is even slightly off somewhere along the line, the entire thing can seize, slip, or otherwise fail.
So by having this wooden, working model to base everything on, I figured as long as I checked at every step to ensure my cookie pieces were precisely aligned with the wooden ones, it would work. And it did…mostly. Because things dried about a millimeter off in one piece, there’s a slip in the mechanism so it only works in reverse; as in, the top turns the handle and the slip fixes itself that way, but the handle doesn’t turn the top because then the slip turns into a sticking point. That goes to show just how difficult edible-media gears are! So if you’re going to attempt something like this, make sure you have tons of time to make and possibly re-make pieces, because as I learned the hard way, messing with semi-dried pieces will go badly for you, some things will need sanding, adjustment, or remaking, and it’s all very fiddly on a very fine level. It’s an exciting thing to attempt, but it’s not for a rush job!
Because I’d used Julia Usher’s “construction gingerbread” recipe from her book “Cookie Swap” for my sewing machine 3D cookie construction the year before, I knew I could use that again for the “wood” parts, and I considered using pastillage for the sails. I knew I could make a drying rig that would dry pastillage nice and flat as the taut cloth would look on the model. But I decided no, this is a cookie entry, so I should make as many elements out of cookies as possible. I’d seen Julia Usher’s videos about using tuile dough, and I knew fortune cookie dough is basically the same thing, so I found a UK recipe for fortune cookie dough (because as mentioned in other posts, UK plain flour is softer than US all-purpose flour, so it’s important when spread and strength are key to ensure your recipe matches your local ingredients). I made some actual fortune cookies for a Christmas event so that gave me a feel for how that dough spread, how to shape it, and most importantly how it performed for weeks afterwards. I saved two of the fortune cookies and placed one in a dry part of the house and the other in a humid part of the house, and every week or so I’d go check them for mould and poke them. I wanted to know how that dough held up after a long time out and exposed. But it grew no mould and stayed surprisingly hard, even in humidity, so I knew it was up to a week of construction, a flight, and then the actual show.
After a careful accounting of how all of the wooden kit’s parts went together, what was needed for where, and how I’d be translating all of that to cookie, I then realized that not only would I have to take this in two halves to be assembled in the US, but that one of the halves as per the kit would be slightly too tall to fit under an airline seat, which is where I’d need to put it on the flight to ensure nobody else smashed or crushed it. So I did a bunch of math to calculate where I could shave off a bit of width and height to keep the proportions of the outer bits but still keep the inner gears exactly sized to the model kit, because again, you can’t just shrink or expand gears without messing up the timing and then they won’t work.
In particular, I knew the length of the poles holding the sails needed to come in a bit, and I was dubious about being able to make the sails in two pieces as per the kit. So I decided to get the sail frame built first, then take its exact measurements, and then tailor the sails as needed to fit.
I also decided that since the rules for this category just said, “All types of cookies are allowed including 3-D designs. Any combination of techniques and/or media may be used,” that I didn’t have to cover everything with icing, so wherever possible I decided to keep the beautiful golden-brown hues of the gingerbread exposed. Da Vinci’s science art was frequently utilitarian in an age when many other things were heavily decorated, so I decided it was in keeping with Da Vinci’s spirit to concentrate on the beauty of the mechanism, not excessive decoration.
I initially used royal icing to affix pieces together, but soon found that the Renshaw premade royal icing I was using was just not setting up hard between the cookies as I needed (I have found this problem consistently and would never use this product again for anything, to be honest). So instead I looked around for a colour mix to make gingerbread-coloured gumpaste, but stumbled on some “Teddy Bear Brown” Squire’s Kitchen modelling paste I had because it came in one month’s Cake Bag. When I took it out and compared it to the gingerbread, I realized it was already an excellent match and that meant I could buy more and not have to worry about colour matching. I ended up using about a pack and a half in the end, so that was a good choice!
In fact at the show after judging, Mike McCarey asked me how I’d made the “paste” because he thought I’d ground up gingerbread and turned it into a matching paste of some kind. I told him it’s just regular Squire’s Kitchen modelling paste and he was surprised! I guess that means the colour really did match well.
I also decided that while 100% edibility would be great, there was just no way any edible medium at this scale was going to be hard enough to turn as gears without breaking. So I decided on pastillage over round cocktail sticks (toothpicks) for the gear bits, and pastillage on bamboo barbecue skewers for the sail poles.
Ultimately, this piece used 47 cookies, plus Polo candies (hard, dry white mints with holes in the middle, similar to Lifesavers mints for anyone looking for a US version), about 300 grams of modelling paste, a small amount of royal icing, and a small amount of pastillage.
Here’s a list of where all the cookies went:
Museum Model Rotating Assembly
Baseboard – 1 cookie
2 Narrow Pillars – 2 cookies each, affixed together with royal icing with exposed edges covered in modeling paste – 4 cookies total
2 Wide Pillars – 2 cookies each, affixed together with royal icing holding a Polo mint candy embedded between, with exposed edges covered in modeling paste – 4 cookies total
Horizontal Gear Mechanism – 1 end cap cookie covered in modeling paste, 1 large gear cookie embedded with pastillage-covered toothpicks held in place with modeling paste and covered with the same on the back, 1 spacer cookie covered in paste, and a handle comprised of 2 cookies held together and covered in modeling paste – 5 cookies total
Vertical Gear Mechanism – 2 Polo candies covered in modeling paste, 2 cookies embedded with pastillage-covered toothpicks held in place with modeling paste and covered with the same on the top of one – 2 cookies total
Top Platform for the base – 1 cookie
Total: 17 cookies
Aerial Screw Components
Support Disc – 1 cookie
Mast Base – 3 cookies held together with royal icing and covered in modeling paste
Central Mast – 15 very small cookies, some interspersed with pieces of Polo candies to facilitate strong holes, held together and covered with modeling paste, with pastillage-covered skewers affixed into the holes with modeling paste
Mast to Arm Support Ring – 1 cookie, covered in modeling paste
3 Angled Arms – 2 cookies each, held together with royal icing and covered in modeling paste – 6 cookies total
Base Ring – 1 cookie, covered in modeling paste
Sails – 3 fortune cookies
Total: 30 cookies
GRAND TOTAL: 47 cookies
Below are many photos showing how it came together and how I kept comparing it to the model to maintain the gear precision as much as possible.
First I rolled the gingerbread out to the same thickness as the wooden pieces, and then rolled once more gently to make them slightly thinner so they’d hopefully bake to about the right thickness (I also did the “ironing” method on each cookie as they came of the oven, which is taking a metal fondant smoother over the hot cookies gently but firmly to squish out any unwanted puffs). I cut a circle to the same size as the gear (erring on the slightly smaller side when matching to my circle cutters, again because of anticipated expanding during baking) I put the wooden gear right on top of the dough and used my needle tool to poke the location of every hole, making several pokes so I could clearly see where the hole was.
But I quickly realized that the very act of cutting the holes was pushing the dough out of shape ever so slightly, so I put the round cutter back around the dough to act as a support as I did the cutting.
I did likewise with the smaller gear cookies, and then after baking placed them on the actual wooden model (with the wooden gears pushed down so their rods poked up to test the cookies on) to make sure everything lined up.
For the inner mast, at first I tried to make it in all one piece. It was a challenge from the start to make holes that went crosswise through the dough because each new hole through wrecked previous ones. And then, as I pretty much expected, it didn’t cook well so not only did the holes bake closed, but the whole stick was split inside and along part of the outside.
For all four side supports on the base, I made two cookies each that would be glued together back to back for maximum flat surface matching. To provide strength inside for a rotating shaft, I reinforced these supports with a Polo candy embedded in the middle. This meant I had to carve out space for the candy to be embedded in between but still allow the cookie surfaces to come together flush.
Filing straight edges is fairly easy, as long as you take care to go slowly and evenly and are protecting the cookie against any stress that could break it. Filing perfect curved edges is not so easy, so given that I was making this piece to replicate wooden counterparts, I used those wooden parts to help me get a perfect edge.
Turning my attention back to the central mast, I needed to have a very strong way of supporting the arms for the sails that could also have a shaft going down into the gear assembly. Since the Polo candies had worked so well for the side supports of the gear mechanism, I decided to make them work for me in the mast as well. It wasn’t going to be stable to use them on their sides to use their actual holes, though, and they were slightly too wide compared to the cookies I’d made to stack in the mast, so I decided to cut each Polo candy in half and then file the cut edge down so they’d make a supportive insert on either side of the gaps between cookies, thus giving a lot of hard strength to the mast while still being edible and really within the spirit of gingerbread, which often comes with candies stuck onto it anyway.
Once that mast was definitely together, dried, and as needed, I filed it as a whole with the grater to smooth the sides, and covered it with the modelling paste. Filing the candies and the cookies at the same time was a bit tricky because of the different hardness between them, but I went slowly and carefully. This is pretty much why I listen to so many podcasts while I make my sugar art! (If you need one to listen to, start here!)
Once all of these bits were covered and tested, it was time to actually commit to assembling them!
Finally it was time to make the sails.
I mounted the base/gear box unit on a thin cakeboard, glued a ribbon around it all, and then it was done pending final assembly in Austin. The photo and video at the top of this post show it sitting in place but not actually glued together. Here are some more photos from that shoot:
Of course, then I needed to actually transport the thing in a cab, on a bus, on a 10-hour plane ride, and then in Kyla’s car to her house and then the actual venue. I know from past experience that my cabin bag fits under the seat in front of me on the plane, so at first I considered trying to build some kind of container within that bag, because it would also give me rain protection and handles, but as I worked on the piece it became clear that while the halves would actually fit in my bag, I wouldn’t be able to get them both in the narrow opening of my bag. So I decided to build a box instead, partially using some instructions shared with me from ICES friends, but tailored to materials available in the UK.
I bought some A3 sheets of 5mm foam core, measured out a base board that would fit both pieces including all of their bits sticking off to the side, and a cardboard one as well to be glued on the bottom as additional support. I placed the actual pieces on before cutting to be extra sure there was ample room. Then I cut a piece sized to the baseboard less 5mm on all sides to accommodate side walls, and placed the gingerbread pieces on that one to trace out their bases. I cut out their bases from this second piece and glued it down onto the baseboard. This gave me a perfect custom-fit recess into which each piece could sit, reducing the chance of them sliding around inside the box, as well as perfect grooves to line up the side walls.
I then measured the height of the pieces on that baseboard inside those recesses. The maximum height was 21.5cm, and I knew the official clearance for the under-seat carryon was 25cm, so to be sure of clearance on both sides I measured side walls to a total height (including the base board) of 23 cm. I knew I was going to be using a plexiglass lid, which would be less than 1 cm, so it would still come in under 24 cm total. I also cut a middle wall that was 5mm shorter than the side walls because it was to sit on top of the inner board with the recessed holes, but for strength I did not cut a recess for that middle wall.
Then I grabbed the old plexiglass I had on hand from my 2016 entry, which had actually ended up damaged on one corner in my kitchen so it was no longer useful as a full piece. I cut a lid to fit the outer dimensions of the box, and rounded the corners because plexiglass corners can be sharp and I didn’t want anyone to be hurt, including myself, or for airport security to have an issue with it. I then did a second one since I had enough spare plexiglass and mounted that to the bottom (on the cardboard under the foam core) as extra protection against water and to make it easier to slide on the carpet under the seat.
After assembling the first two walls, I took the taller piece and tested it, just to be sure that it would indeed have sufficient height clearance for the lid.
I knew I’d be using rolled-over packing tape under the cardboard baseboard under the base/gear box cookie unit to affix it down into the box, but I couldn’t tape the upper unit because tape doesn’t stick to the cookie at all, and I also was wary of damage anyway. So as I built the box, I cut scraps of foam core to make corner-strengthening units inside (taking care that they’d be nowhere near any elements protruding out beyond the boundaries of the recessed holes), and as I glued them into place I also glued in lengths of cheap but strong curling ribbon.
Then as I put the pieces in, I pulled those ribbons flat and taut over the base of each half and glued it down into the opposite corner on diagonals.
This created a very strong way of tying the cookies down in the box without actually touching them very much; it would stop them from going anywhere if the box was tipped, but it wasn’t putting any constant pressure on the cookies at all. It was a fail-safe that wasn’t needed, but it was very comforting during some of the bouncier bits of the journey to know that it was there. Plus, last year Heathrow security turned my bag with my sewing machine entry on its side to go through the x-ray, so even though this year I had the box exposed and asked that it not be turned (after all, it was built to the height clearance so it shouldn’t need it), if someone had turned it the pieces would probably be okay. They didn’t tip it, but having the extra security built in eased my mind throughout the trip.
Once I had the pieces in and strapped down, I was ready to add the final wall in place. But I also realized I didn’t like how much the gear mechanism was rattling around. I knew it would probably be fine to rattle but figured more security would be better, and I still had foam core scraps left. So I measured and cut an additional piece to slide down just above the base’s top, not touching it, but with a hole fairly narrow for that mast pole so it could only move by a few millimeters instead of jiggling widely.
I realized that in my cold kitchen, the hot glue was going to start setting up as I tried to cover all of the edges needed for the front panel to go on, so I started by putting down a large bead of the glue for the bottom edge. Then I could put that edge on and it would stay warm enough while I quickly put some hot glue up the three walls and the two angled supports I had in place. I didn’t worry about perfect coverage, because I also knew I’d be taping all of the seams; I went for careful speed instead of perfection at this point.
I then taped in some spare airbags around so they weren’t touching the entry, but once again would give an added fail-safe in the event of any other point of failure. I also had purchased some bags of silica desiccant, and taped in some of those around where they wouldn’t be at risk of damaging anything.
Next I glued on the plexiglass lid, and then ran clear packing tape around all edges. Once it was all secure, I compared it to the height of my regular carryon bag which I know fits under the British Airways seats.
I made signs for the two long sides of the box explaining the fragility and contents so the various transport staff would understand what was going on with this weirdness, and I taped that on running the tape all the way around the box in two stripes, giving added security to the entire construction. Finally, I used a long big of wire-edged ribbon leftover from a previous cake board and wrapped that around the entire box, taping it down separately so that if airport security had an issue with the wire, I would be able to remove the handle without taking the rest of the box apart. Again, they didn’t have an issue with it, but it’s always best to plan to be very accommodating of airport security!
It all worked! Here it is under the seat in front (well actually the middle seat’s spot, because nobody was in the middle seat and the man on the aisle seat was happy for me to use that entire space):
And here it is cut open at Kyla’s house, all intact!
The severe humidity we had at the show impacted a lot of pieces, including mine. The cookies got so soft inside – almost sponge-like – that the mechanism never did work very well. It looked good on the first day and worked enough that the judges could see that, barring such horrible humidity, it would have worked better. The wet winds blowing as I took the piece into the hall made the cake lace blow and stretch slightly, so what had been taut was now slack, which really bugged me. But I didn’t want to risk taking anything apart to repair, so I marked it as DAMAGED IN TRANSIT on the entry form and that, along with the sheets of in-progress photos I put beside the entry, had to suffice to show the judges that it had been fine before the weather got to it.
And the judges did like it! It won a Gold as an overall grade, and placed Second in Masters: Cookies. It also won Second place in the overall show award for matching the theme of science.
And then at the very end, since I couldn’t bring the assembled piece home, we decided to SMASH IT. Tien Bui recorded me dropping it, but because of the humidity and how much moisture the cookies had absorbed, it didn’t shatter so much as fwopped as it landed. If you listen in the video, it makes a wet-thunk noise, and the only breakage was the sails popping off and going flying.
So that was it for my experimental gear-based moving cookie. It was a fun challenge to make, and now let’s never do that again wheeeeeee….
Go to the show page for the full episode and lots of photos showing how bad knockoffs can be.
For my 2018 Cake International entry, I decided to enter the Small Decorative Exhibit category and present a story of a self-rescuing princess who has no cares to give for the patriarchal institutions trying to keep her at heel. This princess has a dragon friend and despite what her parents seem to think, she’s not the one in danger. She’s seen casually spinning her crown on her finger beside the chest of gold she and her dragon went and claimed for themselves instead of by some knight for separating her from her friend.
Every entry at Cake International is graded individually and can receive Gold, Silver, Bronze, Certificate of Merit, or nothing at all. I had really hoped for a Silver this year and my Bronzes in previous years are demonstrably rougher than this piece so I really thought a Silver was possible, but it turns out CI decided to award fewer top slots this year so everyone was downgraded. So another Bronze it is.
I started out with an 11″ board because this category requires everything to fit within a 12″ cube, so I figured with a board that size I was safe from disqualification even if something somehow was overhanging on an edge. I set the scale to my Body Kun artist model figure to help me really stay within scale for the figure, because I know it can be quite a challenge to ensure all limbs and other parts fit together properly.
Going with that scale, I began by making some gold pieces for the chest and to be scattered to the ground. I held up various Wilton tips to my Body Kun figure’s hand and decided the #6 tip made for a goodly sized piece of gold (about 3.5mm). I then used the tip to cut rounds out of thinly rolled Satin Ice gumpaste and I stamped each one with the O of a miniature letter stamp (Dovecraft Alpha Stamp DCVW0050) because the space of the O looked vaguely like a head and shoulders for the “heads” side of a coin.
Later I attempted to airbrush the coins gold, but as I somewhat expected even the lowest setting of the airbrush blew them around. I had them in a tub, which I hoped would contain them and it did, but even that tiny bit of moisture made such small pieces stick together after blowing around. So then I had to separate them all and dust them with edible gold dust instead. I reserved the best-looking ones with visible heads and put the rest in the chest, scattering those best ones around the base. I’m not sure if the judge even noticed, to be honest, but I was quite pleased with them.
For the base itself, I dug out a bunch of old fondant in various colours and then added more colour as needed to develop several distinct, marbled shades. I also added granulated sugar to the sandy tone because I find that gives it a sparkle like real sand.
Cave floors come in all sorts of shapes and colours, and I researched a lot of photos (including many taken by myself and my husband over the years) to get a feel for how the rocks look. Dripped floors have a different texture than flooded floors, and I decided I liked the look of a flooded floor best, as if this is an old cave where water used to flow in and out but now is secure enough for the dragon to take roost. I built up a foil cave wall on one corner and then set about covering it in patches of the fondant, taking care that the geological strata matched on the back and front of the wall. Given that the judge particularly mentioned not liking the colours and texture of the cave, I’m guessing she hasn’t seen this type of cave and wasn’t keen on my choices, but I stand by them, especially since I’d had my husband (who spent his younger years spelunking through Australia) approve the texture and colours from the kinds of caves he’d seen.
I also used old, dried chunks of fondant grated on a microplane grater to make extremely fine, multicoloured “dirt” that could be scattered around elements as needed.
To bump up the “magic” of the place – after all, there’s a dragon! – I decided to add some glowing crystals throughout the rocks. I used some Cake Play yellow isomalt nibs that had been in previous Austin cake show goody bags and Simicakes’ Geode Mold to make lots of little bright yellow crystals. With the mold, I chose various bits in a line each time and then broke them up into smaller chunks, so none of them looked like the mold itself. I also rubbed each of them with bits of the fondant to grind “dirt” into the grooves and make them look like natural protrusions.
To ensure they were bright, I backed them all with a light marble tone of grey rock colours, and then sealed all of that with Dinkydoodle Shell and Shine (otherwise the isomalt may have melted in humidity later). To take the shine back off any rock bits, I then immediately dusted those bits with a tiny brush dipped in corn starch and my ground-up fondant “dirt”. Once those chunks were all dry, I was able to embed them in any colour of the fondant rocks/dirt without losing the bright glow of the isomalt to a dark backing. In some cases I chose to let some of the grey backing show through as if this was an exposed vein of another kind of crystal-bearing rock. In other cases I fully buried the lighter background to give more contrast. Although the bits look random, they’re all actually very carefully considered and placed.
For any of the crystals on the cave floor, I used my torch to smooth out the geode mold’s edges, and also spent a lot longer rubbing the rougher fondant against them to smooth them out further. I figured if this dragon has been in this cave for awhile and there was water shaping the floor before the dragon even got there, any rocks on the floor would have been beaten down smooth over the years. I also made these dirtier because who sweeps a dragon’s cave?
I knew the dragon would be cuddling up with the princess and be slightly smiling at her, but I wanted to make it clear that this is no pacifist of a beast. To tell that part of the story, I made parts of three skeletons to have strewn about the back of the cave. I made most of a skeleton from one victim, a skull, ribs, hand, and foot from another, and then just a hand and broken skull from a third. They’re laid out as if the pieces had once all been together but smashed around over the years. All of them were also sized to the Body Kun figure for consistency, with the skulls slightly smaller than the tip of my pinky finger.
I used a slightly different palette to dust each one to imply differences in age, but again I don’t think the judge got that since she commented that I should be “taking care” with the skulls (I don’t know what that means because I did, perhaps she didn’t want them to be all broken up but I’m not sure).
Once the base was ready and the skeletons safely tucked in the back, I started work on the actual dragon, because then I knew what the contours of the rock would be and how to make it all work together. I made a foil centre for the dragon’s body and then covered that in some scrap old green flower paste to form the general shape of the body. I let that dry on the base but not attached, so it would droop into the indentations of the rock as needed. That also let me plan out the general size, shape, and number of other elements needed such as spines, horns, and claws. I made those and let them dry before dusting and painting as needed.
Next I made the dragon’s head, using Satin Ice gumpaste tinted green with Americolor Electric Green. I formed it in one piece with a split mouth, and inserted the pre-dried gumpaste teeth into the mouth as needed. I pushed the dried, painted, and sealed gumpaste eyes into place and then built eyelids over such that it would look like the dragon was half asleep but still looking at the princess.
While the head was drying, I placed all of the back spines down the body, taking care to ensure all of their points lined up on a single, curved line down the back.
Then I secured the head in place on the body with a toothpick and patched up the join, knowing I was going to cover that in scales later so I made it smooth but didn’t worry too much about colour matching. I then made a yellow belly and added brown dust to the indentations, keeping a brush handle under the chin to ensure the piece dried with a bit of a gap under the neck where I could later tuck the front limbs.
Next I formed the limbs, taking care at that scale to make any curves or folds ready to accommodate the forthcoming scales. The pre-dried claws were pushed into the soft gumpaste easily, and although one broke I had extras so it was okay.
The next step was to put the scales on. Individually cutting, rolling, and sticking hundreds of scales seemed like a lot better of an idea before I actually started it, heh. It took SO MANY HOURS to do this, especially because I kept rejecting any scale that wasn’t perfect, and spent so long placing each one, constantly telling myself, “This is for a Silver. This is for a Silver.” So it’s very disappointing that the scales weren’t even mentioned on the judging sheet and with the scores the way they are, I’m not sure the effort was really noticed. I would definitely recommend against this method unless you’re sure it’s worth it, because it’s long and tedious compared to the much easier straw method for making a faux scale texture. The straw thing takes minutes, the cut-and-rolled method takes hours over days.
But anyway, I began by making a gradient in the gumpaste, working from Americolor Electric Yellow on one end, blended with Electric Green towards the middle, and the pure Electric Green blended with a mix I made of Turquoise and Leaf Green towards the darker side.
Then I rolled it out very, very thin and cut each scale with a #3 Wilton tip for most of the coverage, but going up to a PME #3.5 tip for the middle of the body. This took a firm cut-and-twist motion to get a clean edge every time, and started to damage the tip, so every once in awhile I had to use my Kemper needle tool to straighten out the edge of the #3 tip. I pretty much trashed that tip over the course of making hundreds of scales, so while it’ll be fine for general flooding-type piping in the future I’ll mark it to remember to never use it again for anything where a perfect piping job is required.
Every scale was then rolled with a ball tool on a foam mat for making flowers, exactly as you’d do for a petal but on a tiny scale. I was using my old plastic Ateco ball tool but it has a seam that kept catching on this small scale, so I have since bought some seamless stainless steel ball tools to use should I ever try to roll things this small again.
I cut and rolled about 10 at a time on each go, collecting them in the tip, dumping them onto the foam mat, knocking them apart if they were stuck at all (a corn starch dusting on the surface of the gumpaste helped avoid that for the most part), rolling them, and then picking each one up with a lightly damp brush and sticking it into place on the model in rows, working up through the gradient as I went.
Meanwhile, I started the wings. I did a Google image search for “dragon wings” and found a front-view of a set that looked about the right kind of shape, then enlarged them in printing to about the right size for my model. I used the same darker shade of green Satin Ice gumpaste I’d used for the spines to make tapered sticks that lined up against a gumpaste-covered wire bent in the shape of the main bone of the wing.
Once all of those were dried, I used more of the matching gumpaste to affix them to the wired portion, positioning them as needed to look like the wings were more folded on the dragon’s back. I made one side of each wing sculpted nicely so the wings could dry on the not-so-nice sculpted side, and then when they were dry I flipped them over and did nice sculpting of the joins on the “backs” as well. That gave me an even, textured, strong framework for the wings with a wire back to support the weight going downward into the foil body of the dragon.
With the frames ready, I used some of the gradient colours to roll a gradient sheet for the wings.
I then rolled out segments of this gradient very, very thinly, cut them to the size needed for each gap of the frame but bigger so it could fold in and look like the wings weren’t fully extended, and then pressed that shape into a petal veiner to make veins all through this green, fleshy bit.
This is one of the things I love about Satin Ice gumpaste above others, that it stays creamy-soft for the longest time without forming cracks, but dries rock-hard. And no, they’re not paying me to say that (although this particular bucket was in my Austin show winnings so I didn’t pay for it, but they didn’t know it’d come to me when they donated it to the show). It’s my favourite gumpaste because it works the best for the kinds of miniatures I like to make, and I just ordered another bucket for full cost from a store here in the UK even though I can get other brands cheaper. I tried something similar with another brand of gumpaste in the past and it kept cracking as I was working, but the Satin Ice stuff stayed pliable while I worked. Of all of these segments, I only had to trash one where I’d rolled it too thin and the veiner had created actual cuts through. The rest stayed soft under a plastic sheet while I worked and made a very tricky task work well in the end.
Once they were done and dried overnight, I painted the bony bits in the same style as the spines and horns.
It’s important when making a piece like this to keep coming back to your original plan (even if that’s just in your head) and making sure the elements are coming together as expected, or adjusting if they’re not. So while the wings were drying, I cut out one of the paper bits I’d used as a rough template and folded it to get a sense of where the wings would end up and how the figure would fit along with the poster and the treasure chest.
I also began work on the princess at this point. I considered making her “not pretty”, possibly even with a scar on her face since the two characters had just been through a battle, but since I was going for top judging I decided to play it safe and go with “pretty”. This is because in the past when I’ve made figures for various shows that don’t conform to the mainstream concept of a “pretty” female face, I’ve had judges think I didn’t know what I was doing and mark me down for it. This is a sad, shameful fact about how misogyny pervades everything in our society, but the reality is judges are looking for perfection in modeling and don’t always understand when artists push beyond into statement pieces. You never know what judge you’re going to get so I decided not to risk it and just go for a dainty-faced, pretty princess with cute little freckles, hoping the incredibly tiny freckles themselves would get me some points. To make them, I had to put pin-prick dots on her cheeks and then use a magnifying glass and a needle tool to scrape most of the pin-prick away. The judge made no note of them so I don’t know if they counted for anything, but I’m very pleased with them nonetheless.
I also made her arms early on, with bulked-up shoulder armour narrowing down to tight leather sleeves laced with hand-rolled incredibly tiny black laces.
The hands were also made separately very early on and left to dry so they’d be very strong, especially the one with the outstretched finger. They were attached to the arms later by cutting out tiny, thin circles of white gumpaste, rolling those on the foam mat, and poking them into the ends of the arms as protruding sleeve cuffs. That gave me a squishy, sticky bit of paste in which to stick the hard-dried wrists.
Then when the wings had dried overnight, I put them in place with three graduated balls each of the dark green gumpaste, sinking the wire down into the hole and those balls so it would be a snug fit. Even then, the weight of the wings threatened to make them turn so while I was able to rest the dragon’s right wing tip on one of the rings around a spine to keep it in place as it dried, the left wing kept trying to rotate so I had to put a support in place while it dried for a full day.
I made some very dark green-gray gumpaste using Americolor Super Black and some of the dark green combo I’d made earlier to serve as the princess’ inner body and later her chainmail and leather skirt. I wasn’t too worried about the exact shape of the inner body as long as it was the right curved angle for her body leaning up against the dragon, and having the right shoulder and hip surfaces where I could later mount those limbs. At first I accidentally made her breasts way too big because it’s important to remember when making an underbody like this, that any covering on top will make it seem even bigger, so I had to hack her breasts back drastically so she’d be in the right proportions once I made the chainmail later.
I dried this torso form overnight at first with the arm loosely in place, and then the next day built the face onto a head with the first covering of hair, and then mounted all of that together with a toothpick. Then I made sure this assembly went well with her right arm that would be tucked under her head and up against her dragon.
I pre-made the boots out of some gumpaste made of a mix of brown and green tones, shaping the foot and then pulling up an ankle and leg shape. I flared out the top edge, then bent it down and trimmed it to make the cuff. I used a thin blade to indent a side seam and a needle tool to make holes for laces later. Then I made sure there was a good top edge pinched out with a hole I could later put a leg into. Once the boots were dried, I made soles out of the same colour I used for the treasure chest, although dusted differently so it looks like a different shade in the end. I also added the black laces up the sides.
The legs were made of gumpaste tinted with a mix of Americolor Ivory and Warm Brown to go for a buckskin type of colour. They were bent into place and pushed into the dried boots, then dried separately from the figure. Once they were hard and the figure was firmly in place, I mounted them to the hips using more of the matching leg colour to build the gusset of her breeches, just in case anybody looked up her skirt later. The legs were also dusted heavily so they’d look leathery but also as if she’d just been in a battle. I even dabbed some bits with water and re-dusted to make various levels of “dirt” in the creases and high points.
Once the legs were solidly in place, I rolled a very thin skirt and tucked it around the model. This was tricky with her already laying down, and I had considered putting the skirt on first, but then I would have risked breakage all over. It took a few goes to get the skirt cut to the right angles and sizes for tucking, especially while keeping that lower edge 100% perfect with no splits, but again the Satin Ice performed extremely well. I was so proud of that perfect skirt edge, although I’m not sure it was even noticed by the judge.
The chainmail was made with the same colour as the torso and skirt, using a technique that RPG mini makers use where you use a tiny ball tool (I used the one that comes with the PME miniature tool set) to push indentations down in a column one way, and then up in the opposite direction, and then paint over the top edge with silver. There are several videos on YouTube showing this, but here’s a link to one I used. I used Rainbow Dust Metallic Food Paint in Light Silver on top.
Once the chain mail was painted, I also finished making all of her loose hair bits and her braids. Those are real braids, braided with tiny strands of the hair colour. I made them very long so I could cut the looser top bit off of each, roll that top bit to a point, and insert that in holes I’d left in the hair on her head. Then I added extra loose tendrils here and there as needed until I felt like there were enough. I also made tiny bands for the ends of her braids and used the point of an X-acto knife to flare out the ends.
Then I mounted that last arm with its super-delicate outstretched finger, supporting it on an old Rolkem dust container now that we can’t use those recalled dusts for much other than supports!
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get that crown on her finger stably at first, because to be honest I’ve never had much luck with edible glues. But I happened to win some Rainbow Dust Edible Glue from a Cake Masters Magazine giveaway on Facebook in early October, and had found it to be useful for some of the other elements on this piece already. I was really impressed with its holding power, so I tried it with the crown on her finger and although it took awhile to dry into place, it did dry firmly overnight.
Meanwhile I put the extra dragee-jeweled crown I’d made (I’d made three styles, a thin one as seen on her finger, a bigger one with jewels I decided looked too gaudy, and an in-between one as a backup to take to the show in case the tiny one broke in transit) into the treasure chest and loaded in all of the gold coins except for the ones I’d reserved to be on the ground. I used the Rainbow dust glue again and although it was taking the gold dust/paint off of the pieces just because they were so small, if I was careful it stayed on enough to dry in place. Once the chest was full, I put it and the poster in place on the ground, using soft rock/dirt fondant as needed.
And with that, the piece was done!
Come over to the show page to listen to Trinity Chapman and I talk about cake TV, our own cake disasters, and the bazillion things you need to think about when preparing a class.
There may be a slight amount of Mike McCarey worship between Jesse Lesser and I in this episode...