The Making of a Robot & Dinosaur Cake Topper

When I saw this cake topper on my friends’ wedding cake, I assumed they found some cake topper maker who specialized in robot and dinosaur figures. It seemed the most likely explanation for the adorable and professional-looking figurines. Turns out, bride Kara and groom Brandon had a friend make it, Rob Saccenti, who does not make cake toppers for a living. He is, however, a freelance production designer and art director for TV shows, so he knows his way around building and sculpting things.

Rob took photos of the toppers throughout the process and kindly provided step by step instructions below. It would be an ambitious project for the uncrafty likes of me, but those of you who are more crafty should find it really helpful. And even if you have no desire to make a cake topper, it’s interesting to watch the process unfold. Personally, I had no idea how involved making cake toppers could be!

Here’s a detailed description from Rob on what he did.

1. Months before the wedding, Kara and Brandon asked me to design a cake topper with a robot (because Brandon loves robots) and a dinosaur (because Kara loves dinosaurs). Drawing inspiration from Brandon’s vintage tin toy robot collection and Kara’s sketches of dinosaurs, I put together a concept for the piece that I felt represented the both of them pretty well.  Luckily, they loved the idea, so now the hard part was bringing the sketch to life.

2. I started with the dinosaur.  The first — and most important — step was to create an internal support structure (or dinosaur skeleton!) out of aluminum armature wire, available at any craft or art supply store.  I took my time here because the skeleton determines the overall shape and proportion of the finished sculpture.

3. I decided to use Super Sculpey (also available at craft or art supply stores) to flesh out the dinosaur for several reasons: It doesn’t harden until you bake it, which was important, since the majority of my sculpting would happen over the course of several nights for a couple hours each night after work.  It’s also a polymer-based clay (think of something with a consistency like Poster Putty, only firmer) and not messy like water-based clays, which meant an easy cleanup.  I softened up the clay by rolling it out into sticks, then folding it back on itself, kneaded it, then packed it onto the armature, roughing out my shapes.

4. Once I was happy with the proportions, I began the process of smoothing it out — first using just my fingertips, then a sable brush for some of the harder-to-get-to surfaces.

5. I started adding details using professional sculpting tools — but honestly, you can use anything with a point.  Leftover armature wire and toothpicks are as good a tool as any.

6. Lastly, I added the spikes on back using a small bit of wire on each one, stuck on some extra Sculpey as toenails, and sculpted the heart carved out of rock.  Ready for baking, I just put it on a cookie sheet and baked it for about 20 minutes at 275ºF. (The rule is 15 minutes at 275ºF for every 1/4 inch of thickness.)  When it cools, it’s completely sandable and ready for painting.

7. I built the robot a lot faster than the dino. For the most part, he’s styrene sheet cut into squares and glued together into boxes using a medium CA glue. (Both the styrene sheet and the glue can be found at hobby shops.)  To cut the styrene, I just used a hobby knife to score it, then folded the sheet back and forth until it snapped. For the more complex shapes, like the heart cutouts, I used a Dremel tool.  The robot’s hands are actually two of the wrenches that come with the Dremel for adjusting the tightness of the bit. The arms and legs are styrene tubing I found at the hobby shop, wrapped in a thin styrene strip for that ribbed look.  The different size half-domes for the eyes, around the head and shoulders, were also plastic bits I found at the hobby shop.

8. Priming the pieces is so important — not only does it give you a good base for the paint to grab onto, but it also shows you any imperfections in your sculpture.  The dino had so many fingerprints and smudges, which I didn’t see until I primed. So I wet-sanded, using a couple drops of water between the sandpaper and the surface, working up from 80 to 200 grit sandpaper to get a really smooth finish.  Once satisfied, I primed it again, and now they were both ready for paint.

9. Kara had a specific color theme for the wedding and I wanted to make sure I tied those colors in with the cake topper.  The blue of the robot, the hot pink and gold on the dino, and the orange base are all pretty close matches to Kara’s color chart.

10. It fits perfectly on top of the cake!  Kara (and maybe Brandon) cried when she saw the topper, and for me, that was the biggest compliment I could have ever received.

Be on the lookout for this entire wedding featured soon!

Photos by Sireno Photography & Rob Saccenti

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