Spinning Tornado Costume

Once I finally accepted that my Tank Man costume wasn't physically possible, I gave up on that idea and reset my imagination with a blank slate.

My best costumes have had these two properties:
1) Some character or essence that people already love
2) Use some unexpected engineering

Inspired by oversized costumes I've been seeing lately, I decided to try a tornado costume. The engineering feat would be to get it to spin around like a top, with me inside.

Adding a motor into a costume has never been my strong point. I have had some experience with small motors, tying the motions of a display to the tiny rotating shaft of an electric motor. But I wasn't confident that a battery-powered motor was the right choice.

Almost a year before the costume needed to be finished, I was dying to know if it could be done. Could I build a costume which spins?

In November, my plumbing got clogged.

Sitting near an open sewer pipe, feeding a 50' plumbing snake into the ground, I realized I could easily transfer the twisting power from my own hand to the spinning axle above my head. I'd use an auger.


Building the Harness
I began with my usual Pvc pipe shoulder harness. For this one I built a wooden template, so my pipe bends would be even.

I heat pvc pipe with a heat gun until it becomes soft, then I bend it around a radius. When it cools, the bend stays in the pipe. This had to be a sturdy support for my tornado, so I overbuilt it a bit, ensuring that the pipes fit snugly around my body.

The goal of this harness was to support an open ring (a collar) directly above my head. This is where a bearing of some kind would allow the tornado support to spin around above me, like the blades of a helicopter.
I used a $8 toilet auger, turned upside down. It seemed to be the exact right size to power my spinning contraption.

My harness had four tubes extending upwards, nearly meeting above my head. In that spot I added a 2" collar, which would hold a shaft in place. The shaft was another piece of pvc, ending in a four-way cross at the top.

At this stage there was no bearing, the turning part would just rub along the top of the harness collar.
I attached the auger with duct tape for a test spin. It worked! All I needed now was a ring around the top and a conic curtain of fabric to hang down from it. I didn't actually know how to make a cone of fabric, so I dissected a party hat to see how it was made.

Using the height and radius of the top and bottom rings, calculated the circumfrence of the rings, then using the desired height, projected where the imaginary apex of his cone would fall. Then I laid out three wide strips of gardening fabric and taped them together with black duct tape. The shape I needed could be described as a fat arc.


I tied a string to a stick and stuck one end of the stick into the ground on the edge of my field of fabric. This point was my imaginary apex. Now all I had to do was to draw two curved lines on the fabric, one with a four-foot string and one with a nine-foot string, defining the top and bottom of my tornado storm cloud.
My rough sketch had a storm cone with an eight-foot diameter at the top.


I wanted the costume to be gigantic, but not SO gigantic that I had to rent a truck to get it to the contest. I also needed to be able to squeeze through regular 36" wide doors.

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