Dia de Los Muertos!!!!! Sugar Skull Tutorial

So my buddies at the Someday Lounge and I have been thinking about fun artsy/community things to do this year, and if there was ever a holiday screaming for a good party, this is it! The city is being super slow about stepping up to the plate with a parade permit, which is too bad since the Portland Hearse Club would like to lead our procession through Old Town and the Pearl District. We will have the Lions of Batucada a 25 piece Samba marching band, a few performance artists and my buddy Jacob and his troupe of stilts walkers, so I expect a good time will be had by all, even if we get rain, rain and more rain. I think I love Dia de Los Muertos even more than Halloween- I love the idea of inviting the dead to come party with us and community remembrances- it is a comforting ritual for an atheist who’s not looking forward to the release of this mortal coil. We’ll be hosting a community alter at the Someday- not sure how it’s all going to look- but I’ve got high hopes. We’ve been decorating sugar skulls for weeks, which is a delight. I’m including a tutorial- the most important thing is a good mold and using a dried meringue mix. I ordered the supplies on line from Mexican Sugar Skull. Next year we hope to order the custom designed papel banners made by a 76 year old designer from Oaxaca.

UPDATE!!!!!!!!! We’re having the celebration again (for the 3rd year running) in ’09 in Portland! Click here for more details!

bend-of-the-dead-016.jpg So along with the skull mold you’ll need sugar- if you’re doing large skulls go for the 10# bags, you can get about 6 large skulls and 20 smaller ones, and dried meringue mix.  Mexican Sugar Skull sells this also. They recommend not making on a rainy or humid day, but hey this is Oregon, there’s no such thing. You might notice the cheap wine in the photo, which is turning out like Hitchcock’s stomach, slowly making a cameo into the occasional craft photos- the wine is optional, use your best judgment.

bend-of-the-dead-021.jpg Mix the dry ingredients first, then slowly sprinkle in the water. When it feels the consistency of moist beach sand, you’re there. Put the sugar into the mold and press down hard, then flip over onto a small hard surface. I covered cardboard squares with tin foil. If the sugar sticks to the inside of the mold, you’ve used too much water, dump it back into the bowl, add more sugar and a pinch of the meringue powder. If it crumbles or breaks, it’s too dry, also dump it back in the bowl, this time try a bit more water. You’ll want to wash out the molds every five or six skulls, they get a bit sticky and the sugar tends to pull, make sure to dry the insides well before starting the next round.

bend-of-the-dead-023.jpg Let the skulls dry over night- If you’re making a larger two piece skull, you’ll want to hollow out the insides with a spoon after about 12 hours, leave about 3/4 of an inch boarder and don’t scoop down into the jaw. You can use the scooped sugar to make more big skulls or smaller ones, though you may need to sprinkle a small bit of water again.

The two piece skulls can be fit together using royal icing, unless you’ve got no patience- then go for the glue gun. Traditionally the skulls are decorated with royal icing, foil, beads, feathers and sequins- at our house anything is fair game. Buttons work great, little army men and lizards,check stubs- you’ll also want to write the name of the person you’re remembering on the skull.

bend-of-the-dead-002.jpg Xander is pictured here making a skull for Moka- the recently expired Guinea Pig from the preschool. Our icing was a bit of a mess- we used the dried meringue mix with powdered sugar and water and mixed on a high speed as directed for about nine minutes- we didn’t have dried food coloring and used tempera paint instead, which made the icing too moist and the pink looked like Pepto Bismal- A later experiment with dried tempera powder worked very well and is a great budget choice over something from the cake decorating specialty store. A friend tried to decorate the skulls with store bought icing which was also a disaster- it didn’t harden and ate into the skull, the water from the icing basically melted their hard work. Glitter glue also works well for decorating, but it does seep in a bit, so the embellishments tend to have a tattooed look rather than something raised. Here’s a few shots of the end results- they’re all going on the alters on November 1st and probably dug out again next year, though they are so much fun I know we’ll want to make more.

(Yet another update!  based on wonderful comments, I’ve tried substituting egg whites for the meringue powder and it works great. I don’t have precise measurements,  I add beaten whites along with a couple teaspoons of water to the sugar slowly until the mix takes on beach sand consistency. Seems to work just fine and is much cheaper!)




About Shawn

Shawn Bowman teaches kids film production at the Pacific College of Northwest Arts in Portland Oregon and consults on hybrid web/arts/events projects Bowman is co-founder of Indiekid Films, folks who believe everyone around the world, regardless of age should see and create great movies.

Posted on October 25, 2007, in Super Crafty and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    As a mexican, I can just say that I had no idea how this was done before. In a few days I will go to the mexico city, they have hundreds of these sugar skulls. They are made in chocolate also. Nice blog!

  2. curioussnippets


    Fun blog! The parade sounds great. Would you mind dropping me a note with some more details (when/where). It could be a worthwhle day trip for us. (we are in WA)

    Thanks for the blog– Good luck with your future projects–

  3. Papel picado is fun and easy to make. I learned at a workshop for teachers just before Dia de los muertos, years ago. I’ve taught a number of people to make it too.

    Dia de los muertos is a wonderful holiday to celebrate with the community.

    Years ago, I used to but on a presentation at my kids’ middle school. The day before, the kids would get a handout with things they could bring to construct our own class altar. It also had a bit of historical and cultural background for parents. The day of the event, the kids would come with all sorts of things to add to the altar.

    One of the best things about it is that they were invited to bring pictures of departed loved ones then on the actual day I would give them small skull cutouts for them to write a note to their departed loved ones to add to the altar. It was a cleansing experience for many of them. Some had never faced the deaths of parents. siblings, grandparents, etc.

    I hope you’ll write aboaut it afterwards and include lots of pictures.

  4. Hi there Shawn!

    I really like the idea about the sugar skulls, it looks like fun!

    I posted a link on Xomba to your article, I hope that is okay for you, now more people can come and read it 🙂

    Good luck,


  5. Those look highly cool. I may have to steal this recipe!

  6. Sorry to hear about Moka. Your blog is so fun. Keep up the solid writing and good work. A company called Reynold’s Advanced Materials sells some neat stuff that can be used to make a food mold.


    Again, keep up the good work.

  7. chocolateshavings

    What a great idea for Halloween!

  8. what a thrill to see your glitter laden sugar skulls. they are gorgeous! you will not be disappointed by the papels from mexican sugar skulls shop. angela and everyone else there are a wealth of knowledge and good will!

  9. Wow what a great thing to do with kids. When will you do a youtube video? Your blog mirrors my life.

  10. Love it! even though I’m part Colombian and not Mexican, my family and i always celebrated this holiday (actually we celebrated any macabre holiday we could think of, like we turned valentines day into bleeding heart day). My grandmother and i would go buy these from a local Mexican grocery store. She and i always wondered how to make them and tried to but they never set. I’m going to make one in honor of her this year.

    Cheers- Ang

  11. Thanks so much for the tutorial!! I am of Mexican descent and am also hosting an El Dia de los Muertos party this year along with another latina friend.
    This is our first year, and we would like to make it a tradition. This tutorial has come in handy already for our preparations! 🙂

  12. I’ll have to try this next year. Thanks for the link for supplies (although their server seems to be overwhelmed at the moment).

  13. Love this idea… totally stealing it and having a Sugar Skull party next year! I was wondering what I was going to do to top my Haunted Gingerbread House Party from last year:

  14. I got my sugar skulls to work with egg whites 6 cups of sugar to 2 egg whites, no water needed.

  15. Greetings! Thanks for setting up the walk and the beautiful sugar skulls and altars. Our little group had a great time!

    I hope this is an annual event.

    We’d love to see pictures if anyone has them… My teenage son and his friend were carrying the “requeros” (sp?) banner.

    BTW those Day of the Dead cartoons were incredible!

  16. this is a great help but if would be INCREDIBLE if it would tell why sugar skulls are important thank very much though

  17. I ran across this page doing research on the Day of Dead. We are not Mexican but we have visited Mexico and simply adore the country and the people. My 21 yr old daughter is getting married and has chosen Nov. 1 partly because it IS the Day of the Dead and she says that way her Grandparents and uncle and all her departed family can attend. The theme for the reception will be The Day of Dead and we are researching sugar skulls to use for decoration. You should see people’s faces when you say that the wedding decorations will be skulls… We think it will be GREAT! Not your typical wedding reception! This is a great page… and I have been to many. The recipe sounds simple and straight forward so I will attempt making some. I had hoped to find pre-made skulls but so far not much luck. I am still looking though.

  18. I just started to do my calaveritas and it was so easy
    But I didn’t use the merengue powder as I didn’t find it
    What I use is

    6 cups of sugar
    2 egg whites

    I mix those up, put them on the mold put them on a pan that goes on my oven that I had preheated at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. I put them there so they dry fast, left them around 20-30min, took them off and I am letting them store in a room for 1-2 days and will start decorating them.

    I have made 15 so far and they are not crumbling or falling apart, they look awesome, but you have to make sure to press the sugar into the mold so they don’t break.

    Hope this helps someone 🙂

  19. thank you for this tutorial

  20. Argh, I hate those molds, they don’t look right.

  21. What an awesome tutorial! As a New Orleanian, I can see myself making these at Mardi Gras!

  22. I was thinking of making these for our halloween wedding for those who want to have sugar in their coffee or tea. Would the meringue change the flavor at all?

  23. Also, where does one find the molds?

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  27. Are these like Regular Sugar cubes, or do they behave differently? I’m asking because I’ll need to have them like regular cubes for a present. They’re going to be used for Absinthe including setting them on fire and having them drip into the drink.

  28. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. kudos

  29. My brother suggested I might like this web site. He was totally right.
    This post actually made my day. You cann’t imagine just how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  30. Hello every one, here every person is sharing these know-how,
    so it’s good to read this blog, and I used to pay a visit this website every day.

  31. Reblogged this on Sweet Bonz and commented:
    Great tutorial on making your own sugar skulls! I got a cavity just reading it. 😉 Going to try it this weekend.

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