How to Make a Plywood Dinosaur Skeleton

Billy Ulmer Riding a Dinosaur

Photo: Jesse Levitt

It took me one year and two days to make a giant triceratops skeleton out of plywood. The construction only took two days.  So what did I spend a year on?

Update: Google keeps sending people here for literal instructions on how to do this, not philosophical musings, and I hate to disappoint. Skip to the bottom for no-frills instructions on how to create a giant plywood dinosaur skeleton.

Goofing Off, Defined

I set goals for myself. I usually have three or four projects going at any given time – something I’m making, fixing, learning about or some skill I’m trying to develop. Right now, for instance, I’m making a coffee table, reading about patio roofs, and learning to play fiddle. This isn’t for everybody, but it provides a structure that usually works for me. If I feel like I’m getting enough done on my goals then I’m entitled to goof off with zero guilt. Without concrete goals, I’m prone to stressing out during free time that should be fun or relaxing.

The hard part is that the categories of “goal activity” versus “goof off activity” are actually arbitrary. Is it productive to read a book about patio roofs, but unproductive to read a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald? My goal system as of a year ago would say yes, because reading F. Scott Fitzgerald serves no immediate need on my list of goals. Meanwhile, my patio needs a roof something awful, because it’s draining water into my basement. So F. Scott would go into the fun pile, which I can defer for a pretty long time.

For example: I found this link about how to make an amazing giant dinosaur skeleton and just thought, “This is so cool, but I don’t see when I would ever have time to make it.” I bookmarked the page and forgot about it.

Making Yourself Miserable in 3 Easy Steps

At the time I was about to bite off a really big goal: to start a slightly different version of the lamp business I’m just starting now. It seemed like a great idea at the time. But it was slow going, because every time I got into my shop or worked on a web design, I’d stress out and give up. Then I’d waste my “goof off” time quietly freaking out about why I didn’t want to spend any time on this thing I was supposedly excited to do.

In short:

  1. I set a goal.
  2. I was miserable when I was working on it.
  3. I used the time I wasn’t working on it to anxiously wonder why I was miserable.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that I wasn’t invested in this goal at the time. I could go into detail about what I overlooked and misunderstood, but it boils down to number two on that list: I was miserable when I was working on it, so maybe I didn’t actually want to do it. And this was something I chose. You might not love getting a cavity filled, but that’s what’s required if you want your teeth to stay in your mouth. There are challenges in life you can’t choose, but when it’s your call, you should probably enjoy the process.

Mission: Delight

In April I reached a wonderful turning point with my ill-chosen goal: I admitted defeat, set it aside, and chose a new goal that I called “Pursuit of Joy.” I did whatever I wanted, even if it didn’t seem to contribute to any larger project. And I remembered the dinosaur skeleton.

Which, as I said, took only two days. On day one I bought a dino skeleton model and two sheets of plywood, digitally project the model bones onto the wood, and traced the outlines. On day two I used a jig saw to cut out all the pieces, and then fit them together. Viola: one 3 foot high, 7 foot long triceratops lawn ornament. It was ridiculously easy for the amount of joy it brought me and the people around me. If I charted out how much time I’ve spent doing different things, versus how much the world seemed to appreciate them, it would be about here:

Chart of time spent on doing things versus how much the world appreciated them

A far better time/value balance than, say, attending junior high, which took years and didn’t impress anybody. For me it is only competitive with making lamps, and with cooking specialty items like pies or salad rolls, which people always react to like I have climbed Everest.

It makes all the difference in the world when you want to work on something. You enter that flow state everyone’s always talking about, and time flies. When you’re goofing off and someone asks you what you’re up to, you have something to talk about that lights you up. And as you talk about it, you can see other people light up thinking about whatever they’ve been meaning to do, and all of a sudden they want to do it right now. My “pursuing joy” goal kicked off a number of other fun projects and skills, and even, when the time was right, led me back to lamps. So though it took an entire year (or 29, depending on how you’re counting) I now have a pretty visible reminder of which goals are worth pursuing: the ones I actually like.

 

Dino skeleton with little friend/model

Literal, Non-philosophical Instructions for How To Make a Giant Plywood Dinosaur Skeleton

I discovered this concept from this great how-to on Tool Monger, but encountered some surprises along the way, so I’ll contribute my own instructions to the world pool of knowledge.  You can use my scanned images if you want to make a triceratops, or repeat the process with anything in the miniature wood skeleton family, available at toy and hobby stores everywhere.   I’m not kidding when I say that people love these things deeply and immediately – people are going to fawn over it.  If it’s in your front yard, they will knock on your door to talk about it.  There’s something about things that are really big or really small that people can’t help but love, and when you add that to the general cultural excitement about dinosaurs, you get a lawn ornament that tugs at a lot of heartstrings.

Materials needed:

  • Digital projector
  • Jig saw, and an extra blade if you want to be safe
  • Saw horses, or some other waist high thing you can prop large sheets of plywood on while you cut them
  • Marker or pencil
  • One sheet of plywood per sheet of wood skeleton pieces.  For mine, I used 3/4 inch plywood for stability because I wanted to ride my dinosaur, and the triceratops model bones came in two sheets, which translated to two sheets of plywood.  The rest of the instructions will presume one plywood sheet for one model bones sheet.

A note on sizing:   The size of your skeleton will be limited by the projection of the longest bone across the maximum dimension of one sheet of plywood.  I wanted to my dino to be larger than it turned out, but the spine was the longest piece and went across the whole eight foot sheet.  The dino bone scans I used will create a triceratops about three feet high by eight feet long.  If you’re really committed, you could make the spine span two sheets and join them together somehow.  Since I wanted to ride mine, I didn’t want to deal with joining two sheets well enough to carry the weight.  The size is totally up to you, in the end.  You could project two sheets of model bones onto one sheet of plywood for a lapdog sized dino.  You could also use thinner plywood for a smaller product.

Steps:

1.  Select your model, or use these two photos I took of my triceratops bones and skip buying a model altogether.

Giant Dinosaur Skeleton Model Bones for Triceratops One

Projection for sheet one. Click for full size

Giant Dinosaur Skeleton Model Bones for Triceratops Two

Projection for sheet two. Click for full size.


 

If you use your own, you can make a larger dinosaur by popping the model bones out of the forms and re-arranging them on a piece of paper with a 1:2 aspect ratio, because that’s the size of the plywood: 4’x8’.   It’s a little more work, but creates a larger end result.  The form that the model bones come in has a different aspect ratio.  If you project them straight from that shape you’ll be wasting some plywood, like when you watch a widescreen movie on a television. Just draw out a 6”x12” box on a piece of paper, and arrange the pieces in it until they fit. The more tightly you arrange the pieces, you more you’ll maximize your plywood space.  Take a digital photo of each of your new, 1:2 aspect ratio model bones.

2.  Load the photo on a computer that’s hooked up to a digital projector in a garage, outside, or anywhere else that you can display the projection directly on your plywood.  Fiddle with the distance until the projection covers the entire sheet of plywood.  It should go without saying that it’s easier to do this in the dark or near dark.  If you use my triceratops photos, write the number next to the joint on your plywood so you know how to put it together at the end.

3.  Use a marker or pencil to trace the shapes of the bones onto the plywood.  Repeat with however many sheets you have.

4.  Set up your sawhorses or sawhorse replacements where you intend to cut up the wood, and prop the first plywood sheet up on them.  Now grab your jig saw, pick a spot, and start cutting up the bones!  Cut as close to the lines as you can, but perfection isn’t required.  My line following was pretty impressionistic, but it still holds together well. When deciding which side to err on, think of it this way:  if the joints are a little loose, they’re just loose, but if they’re a little too tight, you have to recut them.  Some curves will be too tight to cut in one pass, but that’s okay.  Cutting in at an odd angle and taking multiple passes will get the job done eventually, and it’s faster to do that than to drive to a hardware store when you break your blade trying to cut an impossibly tight curve.

5.  When you’ve cut out all the bones, it’s time to assemble!  If you used my triceratops model photos, use the numbered joints to assemble it, matching joint 1 to joint 1, 2 to 2, et cetera.  If you’re using your own model, use the package instructions or your model as a reference.  If something doesn’t fit, try recutting the joint.  If you want to take it apart and put it back together again, you’ll want a little joint give.  You can knock the pieces together with a hammer if you’re impatient, but they’re going to be pretty tough to pull apart.  If the skeleton seems rickety or isn’t balancing, try swapping pieces that look almost identical.  In the case of the triceratops, I sometimes have to switch the legs from left to right before it sits properly.

6.  Add any flourishes that you want, which in my case were sunglasses and a seat.

7.  Invite friends over to fawn over your new toy, place it in easy viewing of your neighbors as a conversation starter, or bring it to a lucky child’s birthday party to show them that some adults still like fun when they grow up.

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