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Doc Brown Mind Reading Helmet from Back to the Future

imageBut first, a note:  I set out to make a Doc Brown Mind Reading Helmet that was doable to the novice costume crafter.  I also wanted it to be light enough for a 12 year old to wear without breaking his neck.  To that end, you won’t find any sheet metal or welding required in this tutorial.  The ones that use those materials are AWESOME looking and will probably last well into the future (<—- see what I just did there?).  I like to think that what mine lacks in authenticity and ruggedness, it more than makes up for in cost, weight and ease of construction.  So, on to the tutorial…

As a woman who spent her formative years (high school and college) in the 80s, I could not have been more proud than this year, when my kids went out for Halloween dressed as Marty McFly and Doc Brown.


Even more so because my eldest son Michael wanted me to make him be Doc Brown circa 1955 when he first meets Marty and is wearing the rediculous brain wave reading helmet.  It’s the moment when we start to truly understand what a nut, er, I mean visionary Doctor Emmet Brown really is.

First, let’s take a look at what we are dealing with here.

imageThe way I saw it, there’s a black helmet with chin strap, covered with some lighted cylendar shaped things (let’s call them electrodes), that are interconnected with metal bars.  I knew that I had a plain black bike helmet somewhere in the garage, and had Michael try it on – it fit, yay!

Ok, so now that I had my base, I wanted to get to work on the electrodes.  You will need 11 of them.  Here is what I sketched out.


When the drawing was done, I showed it to my kids and said “See – you WILL need to use math in real life.”  My electrodes are about 5″ overall in length.  I think if I were to do it all over again, I might make them each an inch longer, but that’s your call.

The electrodes consist of 6 different materials:

1/2″ pvc pipe

1/2″ x 2″ flexible pipe insulation (this is shown on the drawing as the shaded area)

Shiny silver cardstock

Red Duck Tape

Wire Stars (I’ll show you how to make those in a bit)

A 4″ yellow glow stick

For right now, we will just concentrate on the first four items.  Cut your PVC into (11) 4-1/2″ lengths.  I used a hack saw for mine.


Cut your pipe insulation.  The kind I bought was squishy and self-adhesive.


I cut it with a scissors which worked great.  You will need (11) pieces cut to 3/4″ and (11) pieces cut to 1-3/4″.

Here is the (totally awesome) card stock I found at Hobby Lobby.  To me it’s a total fake-out for sheet metal.


I love it!  Cut this into strips, (6) 12″ x 2″ strips and (6) 12″ x 3/4″ strips.  Cut each strip in half so you have (12) 6″ long of each width.  Now for each electrode gather the following:


One piece of PVC, one piece of each size of pipe insulation, one piece of each size of cardstock, your red Duck Tape and fire up the hot glue gun.

First, take the smaller piece and adhere it so that it lines up with one end of the PVC pipe (this will be the bottom of your electrode). Right next to the insulation piece, wrap the pipe with a short length of 2″ wide Duck Tape.


Next, line up the remaining (bigger) piece of insulation with the other end of the pipe and adhere it into place.  I you find that the red tape doesn’t completely cover the white pipe, color in any white space with a red Sharpie.

Ok, now wrap the smaller piece of insulation with the thinner strip of cardstock, cut it to fit and hot glue the ends together.


Do the same thing with the bigger insulation/taller piece of cardstock, but with this one, you will line up the cardstock even with the bottom (the end that touches the red tape) of the insulation so that it sticks out 1/4″ at the top of the electrode.


Repeat until you have 11 of these.


I made 12 because I’m an over-achiever and forgot to stop at 11 because I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

OK now, time to attach those bad boys to your helmet.  So here is how to place them on the helmet.


There’s five running right down the middle, front to back with one centered in the middle top of your helmet. then there’s two that run horizontally on either side of the center post.  Finally, the last four run around the outer sides of the helmet.

I used Gorilla Glue to attach myelectrodes and it worked like a dream.  The only issues I had were that my bike helmet isn’t perfectly flat and actually has some major holes built into the design of it.  I plugged up some of the holes with leftover bits of insulation so that the glue would have something to “grab onto” when it hit one of the holes.


I laid out my positions with little yellow stickies.


Then adhered them with the Gorilla glue following the manufacturer’s instructions.  HINT:  I also ran a bead of hot glue around the outer edge of each electrode since I had no way to clamp them into place while the Gorilla Glue dried.  This temporarily held them in place, but would never have lasted if I had only used the hot glue.  The best part about the Gorilla Glue is that it expands as it dries so it channels up into the PVC pipe, giving you a really good bond.  I let that dry for a few days since I was doing this early (True Confessions: it was August?) and I wanted to make sure it was really good to go.

If your Gorilla Glue is the white kind like mine and it has seeped out from under the electrode, also like mine, go back and color over the exposed glue with a black sharpie.

imageimageNow you should have something that is beginning to look pretty awesome, like so…

imageYeah baby!

So, now is when you should put in the strips that connect the electrodes right on the helmet.  For this I used a metallic Duck Tape that is 3/4″ wide.  In the category of “Don’t Do What I Did”, I will suggest that you put these on NOW, not after you have all of the criss-crossing bars in place.  It made a rather simple step into a much more painful one.

imageHere the red lines show you where I put the tape.


I did contemplate putting this tape in place first, even before the electrodes but was concerned that the glue would be affixed to the tape, not to the helmet which would make them more likely to fall off.  It would however have given a much cleaner look.  In the end I erred on the side of stability.


OK, now ready for those metal bars.  As I said earlier, I wanted to keep the helmet as lightweight as I could to keep my kid from breaking his neck during trick or treating time.  Also, I didn’t want to hear the inevitable whine “This thing is too heavy…can you hold it for me?”.

Anyway, to that end, the material that I used for the cross bars is good old Lowe’s paint stirrers.  Cheap (free!), lightweight, sturdy, easy to cut and as a bonus, a perfect width for my project.


You will need about 20-25 of them, so if your local store is unwilling to just hand you that many, you may need to make a few trips until you’ve got all you need, or find someone who is happy to help a parent trying to make a costume dream (mine) come true.

Paint your stirrers metallic silver.  I chose craft paint, but it may have been easier to just spray paint them all.  Do whichever you prefer.



Once these have dried, you can start cutting them to fit in between your electrodes.  I attached mine to the top 2″ section of the electrode, pretty much centered top to bottom.  These bars should go where I’ve drawn them here in green.


It looks a little confusing and believe me when I say it’s even more so in 3 dimensions.  My advice is that you put the ones in that go around the edge, then the ones that go up and over the top front to back, then add in the mess in the middle.  Now for our second lesson in the category of “Don’t Do What I Did”.  When I put in the bars that go around the edge, I attached them with the bars laying horizontally, not vertically, which is 100% incorrect.  By the time I realized my error, it was too late to un-do them, so I just left them that way, then put all of the other ones in correctly like so.


I cut the paint stirrers using what I believe are metal snippers (?) that I found in the ‘ole tool kit.


I just held each bar up to where it was going to go and eyeballed a general size of the thing then cut it with a little extra “just in case”.  I continued snipping off little bits until it was pretty close, then took out my Dremmel with a sanding bit and sanded it down until it was a nice fit at both ends.image

I glued them each in place with hot glue.  Before the glue dries, clean up any extra using an extra piece of paint stirrer.  After you’ve got them all in it should look something like this…


Now we’re getting somewhere!  Ok, now to add the wires.  I bought a spool of 16 gauge red wire at Lowe’s.


The 25 feet was plenty.  I cut off lengths of it to fit along the same lines as the connecting bars.  I started off having them be nice and straight fitting exactly, but found that I prefered them when they looked a little wackier when they were twisted and a bit too long.  Just bend them a bit then attach them at each end with more hot glue.


That’s what I’m talking about.  Ok, now to make those “stars” that I mentioned earlier.  If you look at the end of each electrode in Doc’s helmet, there’s a little black star shaped guard at the top.  I think the fictional Doc would have installed them to keep from touching what was surely a very hot 1955 era lightbulb.  I made mine with crafters wire using this super cool wire bending tool.


The kit comes with a perferated metal stand and various sized pegs.  You stick the pegs into the holes in whatever shape you need for your design then wrap your wire around the pegs.  I did mine like this.


The kit only came with two of the bigger sized posts, so I started them in the 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions then moved them to the 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions when I got there.  If you don’t want to invest the $20 in this kit (I did since I knew that I would use it again in the future), you can make your own by hammering nails into a spare board.  You want the stars to be about 2-1/4″ across and the middle needs to have at least 1/2″ space for your glow stick to pass in and out of.

Once you’ve bent it to shape, clip the ends to just meet each other then – you guessed it – a little hot glue will hold it together.


You need 11 of these suckers.  Center each at the end of an electrode and hot glue them in place.  The star will be slightly wider than the end of the electrode.


I chose at this point to give the helmet a long wire “tail” coming off the back of his helmet with a large suction cup at the end.  This was at the request of the costume wearer as he really wanted to smack it onto his little brother’s head.  If he hadn’t asked for it, I would not have added it, but do what you choose.  I basically took all of my remaining red wire, grouped it together in a bundle and attached one end to the back of the helmet with floral wire, and put a big suction cup on the other end.


And there’s the money shot.

Next, I glued his wig into the helmet, but this is not really necessarily.  To do so I cut the crown (top of the head) part out of the wig then glued it around the inside edge.  Be careful of your chin straps when you’re doing this, as you don’t want to get them caught up in any way.

After contemplating many different lighting options (Battery operated Christmas string lights, mini faux-votive candles), I decided that glow sticks were probably my easiest, most “authentic” looking option.  I bought mine on Ebay for 60 cents apiece.  I needed 11 for Halloween night, so I got 25 – enough for two separate events plus a few spares.  The ones that fit the best are sold as 4″ but the glowing part is only 3″ long which fits perfectly into the PVC pipe.  I got yellow ones (which for some reason photographed as green) but looked yellow in real life.

imageYou’ll want to use a pair of scissors to cut off the little plastic hanger part at the end.

Once it’s like this, it should fit really well into the center of each electrode.  I stuck mine in fat side first.  It was a little loose so I wrapped the fat end in a layer of masking tape which allowed me to maneuver it so that about 1/2″ of each glow stick stuck out the top.image

And there you have it.  He looked quite cool out there on Halloween night.  In the dark all you could see were these spots of light bobbing along in the distance.  With his best accessory, his younger brother dressed as Marty McFly at his side, they were a big hit.


image image

I love these guys!  No one told me that having kids gave you such great costume-creating opportunities!  They make all the hard work so worth it in the end.

Happy Halloween from us!  Can’t wait until next year!

3 responses »

  1. Absolutely love this. I’m going to try to build it myself this year.

    Can I ask where you got that silver robe? It’s perfect.

    • I had to go back to the pic to remember but I’m pretty sure I found a ladies robe at Salvation Army or Good Will, then just hot glued or sewed some black velvet trim onto it. You’ve got plenty of time, so just keep poking around your local stores or looking online (EBay?) and you can find something I’m sure. Good luck and post your pic when you’re done!

  2. Pingback: Building Doc Brown’s Mind Reading Helmet • Vomitron

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