How to make a light-up robot costume for $15

February 18 2010 | Guest post by Kate Wharmby Seldman

For Halloween last year, my son, Owen, was a robot. I made his costume from duct tape, parts of old electronic equipment, LED Christmas lights, and dimmer switches. It was comfortable and safe for him to wear, it stood up to lots of abuse and monkey-like toddler behavior, and it only cost me about 15 bucks to make. Here's how I did it:

A friend who knew I was looking for costume ideas sent me a link to this felt robot costume. I thought it was perfect for an 18-month-old like Owen, because the felt would be nice and soft. I wanted something a bit shinier, though. The same friend suggested I make duct-tape fabric, and pointed me to a tutorial on the Duck Tape site.

I chose duct-tape fabric because I'd decided Owen was too young to wear the traditional unwieldy robot-costume cardboard box. I also skipped dryer-duct legs – too uncomfortable for a toddler. When Owen's old enough to enjoy wearing a costume, he'll also be able to understand that sometimes, as my mom used to say, "il faut souffrir pour ├¬tre belle." Right now, though, being uncomfortable would just ruin his Halloween experience. Something else that would put a damper on his good time? A hat. He hates them. I chose to forgo creating robotic headgear, because I knew I'd be fighting all night to keep it on his head.

I made two 8-by-11-inch sheets of duct-tape fabric and taped them together at the top to make a singlet with shoulder straps. A word of warning: duct-tape fabric is tricky to make. First, you have to join the strips with their adhesive sides facing up, which means sticking them to each other without also sticking them to you. I spent a lot of time peeling tape off my hands, and they were red and stinging by the time I started my second sheet.

Duct-tape fabric

Next I added Christmas lights. I arranged a string of 20 bluish-white LED lights in a rectangle and spaced them out evenly. I used an awl to poke holes in the duct-tape fabric, and then I pushed the lights through from the back so that the connecting wires would be concealed. The lights were kind of long and pointy, so I decided to insert them sideways: if they protruded too far from the costume, they might droop, and if I didn't push them all the way through, they would poke Owen in the chest. I used painter's tape to stick the wires to the back of the fabric.

Taping down the wires

I needed to hide the lights' battery pack and on/off switch from Owen so he wouldn't fiddle with it, but I also wanted to keep it accessible, so I could turn the lights on and off, and change the batteries if necessary. I made a little pocket from duct-tape fabric, and taped it to the back of the vest. I ran the wire up under one of the singlet's shoulder straps, taped it down, put the battery pack into the pocket, and tucked in the top flap.

Battery pack in pocket

The two circuit boards came from a dead cordless phone and a 14.4K internal modem. My husband and I had fun prying apart our old electronics and finding the coolest-looking robot-type innards. I tried hot-gluing the circuit boards to the singlet, but they just came right off. Plan B: I poked holes in the singlet with my awl, making sure I didn't accidentally pierce any of the wires from the LED lights, and screwed on the circuit boards, adding washers so they stayed put. (The guys at Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood, CA, gave me expert advice on which screws and washers I should use. Koontz rocks.)

Screws and circuit boards

I also used screws to attach the two knobs/dials, which are actually dimmer switches. You can turn them: the screws are long enough for the switches to sit loosely on top of the fabric without coming off. This feature helped satisfy Owen's urge to fiddle.

Lights going in sideways

I taped a piece of old towel to the back of the singlet's front, to prevent all the pointy ends of the screws from poking Owen, and to hold everything together just a little bit more.

Towel backing

His shoes are a pair of old Robeez soft-soled booties that his friend Ava kindly donated to him after she grew out of them. I covered them with duct tape to make silver robot feet.

Robot shoes

Owen wore the singlet over a heather-grey long-sleeved T-shirt I found at a thrift store. On the bottom, he wore grey sweatpants, also thrifted, with tinfoil bands around the knees to imitate bendy robot legs. I stapled the tinfoil to the fabric from the inside; that way, the pointed ends of the staples weren't directly against his skin. Tiny pieces of duct tape covered the staples so he wouldn't pick at them and hurt himself.

We gave the outfit a test run the day before Halloween, when there was a little party at Owen's day care. When I turned on the flashing LED lights, Owen was fascinated. He kept lifting the singlet up to his face and peering at it. He also couldn't stop playing with his tinfoil knees. They were made from recycled foil that I'd bought in an effort to be eco-conscious, but which turned out not to be the sturdiest of material. By the time we left the party, he'd shredded them. That night, I replaced them with strips made out of Reynolds tinfoil. I also shortened his shoulder straps, which made the singlet fit more snugly.

My favorite compliment on his outfit came from a little girl when we were trick-or-treating, although she didn't say it directly to me or Owen. "Oh my god, look at the baby!" she whispered to a friend as they passed us by. "He's a robot!" The awe and glee in her voice made me smile.

Happy robot!

  1. I am so happy to have found this! March 19th begins the Jewish holiday of Purim, and my son wants to be a robot. Although he isn't two, we want him to be able to move around. I am not going to wire him up, I think, but I was able to put the duct tape on both sides of a plastic shopping bag (reusing!), and so far I have glued on some used up tea light tins with regular glue for knobs. I will post on my blog with photos when I am done, with a link to this, of course! Thank you.

  2. Great Idea! I am making my older son the traditional cardboard box/dryer vent hose robot costume for halloween, and I wanted my toddler to match. This will be so much more comfortable for him. Thanks!

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