Last year, one of my favorite YouTubers started making video game sprites from Perler beads. My first question was, “what the hell is a Perler bead?” My second question was, “how can I do this?”
Perler beads are fusible beads from my childhood, apparently. You arrange a picture or pattern on a pegboard and iron them together to create art. I certainly don’t remember them. Most of my art projects involved Crayola brand stuff. I didn’t usually go for the projects that required outside assistance, like the use of irons.
But after seeing video game sprites from Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy games made out of Perler beads, I’m pretty ashamed I never tried this sooner. ESPECIALLY as a kid. I’ve always loved game sprites. I’d even go so far as to say they fascinated me. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was because I was a super organized kid, and seeing pixels so perfectly arranged was appealing to me. Maybe it was because sprites were essentially the same as flip books, and if you put them all together they made a moving picture. Maybe it was because I was weird.
Even though I’m not really interested in modern video games, the old stuff still holds a special place in my heart. And after wanting to try making pixel art for a year, I finally bought some Perler beads and a pegboard. So naturally, after a few weeks of making stuff, I feel entitled to provide a tutorial to anyone willing to listen. Lucky you.
First, go get some Perler beads. I got mine at Michael’s. I’d assume any arts and crafts store would have them, but if they don’t, you can also go their website. I got a large pegboard for $15, and a container of 11,000 beads of various colors for another $15. They also sell smaller, interlocking pegboards for cheaper (the large pegboard doesn’t connect to other pegboards, so if I wanted to make something bigger, I’d have to buy a bunch of small ones to snap together), as well as packets of 1,000 beads of individual colors (pick up a packet of black beads if you want to make video game sprites). Also, if it doesn’t come with your pegboard or container, buy some ironing paper (it’s reusable, so you don’t need to buy a lot).
At first I started small, and sifting through the container of unsorted beads wasn’t a big deal. If you’re just trying this out with no goal in mind, this will be okay, but eventually it’s going to get really annoying to look through every bead for a certain color. It’s going to take a while, but if you don’t mind, buy some containers to organize your beads and separate all of them. It’ll really help out in the long run.
11,000 beads are a lot of beads. This isn’t even half of them.
Next, figure out what you want to make. A lot of people recreate sprites from video games. You don’t have to, though. Go through Google image search and type in something you think you’d want to make in Perler bead form. You’ll probably be able to find something you can copy directly. You can try to find sprite sheets, too. Open them in a program that allows you to zoom in and see if you can eyeball what colors you need to place where. You can also look for different websites that pixelize or place a grid on an existing picture.
After that, just start placing beads down. Depending on what you’re working with, it may be easier to start from the top or side of the picture and work your way over. Sometimes it’s better to make an outline and fill in as you go. Other times, you may just want to work on one section and work your way out. Play around with it and see what works best for you.
I started making the outline on this one first, mostly because I wasn’t sure if my pegboard was going to be big enough. I wanted to make sure there was enough room to work with.
Be careful not to bump whatever surface you’re working on. Try to work on a flat surface, too. You don’t want your beads popping up and scattering. You can place beads with your fingers, but since you’re working with something so small, you might want to use a pair of tweezers (or nail clippers in my case, because god forbid I can find the tweezers in my house when I actually need them). They also sell this tool for the sole purpose of picking up and moving Perler beads, so you might want to look into that, too.
I started filling in the rest color by color. If I ever run out, I can make a note of which color to pick up the next time I’m at Michael’s.
Sometimes you might question whether or not your project is working out. I’ve always had this problem with art of any kind. Sometimes I think the head’s too big, or the hands, or whatever else I’m working on. Keep working on it. Sometimes you need to see the whole picture before smaller parts of it start to look right. If you’re really hating it, you can always start over.
Finally done with Mega Man X! Hard to believe this SNES sprite had four shades of blue in it. You never know how detailed these things are until you look at them up close!
Now it’s time to iron. Ironing can be tricky. This is definitely the one aspect of making Perler bead art that requires the most trial and error. First, heat up your iron to a medium setting. Don’t put water in it. You don’t want steam. We’re just dry ironing here.
Position your ironing paper over your work. One sheet should do, but if you’re working on something really big, you might need more.
Some people use alternatives to ironing paper, for whatever reason. I’m not sure how well they work out, but ironing paper has always worked fine for me.
Once the iron’s heated up (please don’t put your hand on the iron side to test this; you should be able to feel the heat coming off if your hand’s sort of near it), it’s time to start ironing. Small projects should be easy. Iron in a circular motion over the project for 10-20 seconds and wait for it to cool a little. Bigger ones might need a little more practice. Individual beads tend to stick to the paper more often and come out of the pegboard when you move over to iron another area.
Ironing’s easier when you’re not holding a camera in one hand. Also, I have no idea why my hand looks so wrinkled here.
Also, put something heavy on top while it’s cooling. These things have the tendency to warp if they don’t remain flat.
I hope three encyclopedias from the 1960s will be enough.
How long should you wait? It depends on how big your project is. 5-10 minutes usually works for me. The directions that come with the Perler beads don’t mention anything about ironing again, but you might want to go over it another time or two. Sometimes the beads don’t fuse all the way…
… and then this happens.
You don’t want to have come all this way to find clumps of beads still stuck to the ironing paper when you finally peel it off. If this happens, put your beads back where they’re supposed to be and keep ironing. When you think you’re ready to iron the other side, slowly and carefully peel the ironing paper off. You might want to hold some of the art down while doing this.
It’s like opening up a treasure chest! So excited! ❤
Okay, the next part’s a little weird. You’re going to want to iron the other side so the beads fuse evenly and prevent any more warping. If you’re working on something small, you can usually flip the art over and fit it back onto the pegboard. The pegboard is great because the beads don’t move. However, I haven’t had any luck getting bigger projects back onto the pegboard. So you’re going to have to put it on the table as is and iron without having both the art and paper sliding around.
Also, use caution when removing bigger projects from the pegboard. With only one side ironed, they’re still a little flimsy. I feel like they’re ready to fall apart if I’m not careful.
Same procedure for the other side. Iron in circular motions, put something heavy on it to prevent warping, wait for it to cool, repeat until satisfied. If you can’t get it back on the pegboard, the big problem here is keeping everything still. The ironing paper slides around more than you’d think. I tried taping it down, but that didn’t work well. You can try weighing it down with something on the edges. This worked fairly well for me, but I’m still looking for a better way to keep everything still. Don’t get frustrated, keep trying until you finish!
If I made these when I was a kid, I would literally make every single character from everything and play with them nonstop.
It might take some getting used to, but this is really, really fun. I just put on a movie or some YouTube videos and lose myself all day in making stuff like this. It’s really great if you’re either looking for something to do for a day or wanting to try making more complicated pieces of art out of this unlikely medium. It’s also great for distracting yourself if you’re depressed or anxious and need something to do to take your mind off things.
Here are the other projects I’ve done so far:
The 1-Up Mushroom from Super Mario World. This was the first one I made. Pretty easy, only needed three colors.
The Fire Flower from the same game. This one’s cool because it looks like it has a shading effect.
One of the Metroids from… Metroid. You can’t tell from the picture, but there was a lot of warping with this one. It’s stuck in this raised state and feels like it’ll break if I bend it. This was before I started putting books down between ironing.
Samus from Super Metroid. This is arguably the most complex one I’ve done so far. There are a lot of different colors, and this is the only piece I’ve done without a black outline.
The ? block from Super Mario World. I made this to warm up before starting the Mega Man X piece.
Link obtaining the Master Sword from it’s pedestal from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. While I used just one picture from Google image search to make the previous projects, I used a few different ones for this. Link’s color scheme differed from image to image, so I mixed and matched until I was satisfied. Also, I don’t think the hilt is this detailed in the actual game. Someone got pretty cool and creative when they originally made this.
My smaller projects, placed next to a CD case for size comparison.
My larger projects, for the same purpose.
So obviously, I didn’t make these from my imagination. For now I’m just recreating game sprites from pictures I find online, put eventually I want to make more complicated pieces. I’d like to make the cover from one of my favorite books (A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore), as well as the hand holding up the soap from the DVD cover of Fight Club.
As to what you can do with these? I’ve seen some people turn these into magnets or keychains. Some other people decorate their walls with them. I don’t know if I want to put everything onto my wall, but we’ll see. Some people got really creative with decorating rooms. Check out Google image search for some ideas. They’re really fun to make, and honestly, that’s the most important thing to me right now. I’m sure I’ll want to find something to do with them once I have a box full of them, though. 🙂