Hair Replacement the Right Way
Updated: Oct 2
There will come a time in the career of every embalmer / post-mortem reconstruction specialist where they will be called upon to replace missing areas of hair. Whether on an area of the head as a result of a gunshot wound, accident or disease, or facial hair for similar reasons, or the “shave mistake” that is likely to happen at some point.
In my years working in the SPFX cosmetic hobby field or in my post-mortem reconstructive practice, I have laid every conceivable type and location of hair. In this post I hope to give you a sound foundation that will help you perform a convincing hair replacement that will satisfy the pickiest family and further establish your credentials as the go-to professional.
First off, when I am speaking of hair replacement, I’m not talking about full heads of hair, although that can certainly be done. There are better methods when a full head of hair needs to be replaced. For instance, in the case a cancer patient who has lost all of their hair due to chemotherapy, it would make more sense for the family to purchase a quality wig. To hand lay an entire head of hair would be too time consuming and the skills required would be beyond most embalmers who seldom deal with such work. A high quality, human hair, hand knotted wig can be very expensive, depending on the style and quality, running into thousands of dollars. Many may choose a head covering, such as a turban.The options must be explained to the family in an informed but compassionate manner. Don’t bite off more than you can chew by taking on a job you can’t properly perform.
On the other hand, every embalmer / post-mortem reconstruction specialist should have basic knowledge and ability at laying patches of missing hair and re-creating missing facial hair and eyebrows. This post will get you started on the right path.
Hand tied human hair lace backed facial hair pieces
First off, today we are lucky. There are human hair hand tied, lace backed beards, mustaches, eyebrows, and sideburns in nearly every configuration that are pretty reasonably priced, easy and quick to apply, and easy to adjust the color. We carry a complete line, with new items coming in often so I advise any embalmer to purchase and have on hand some of these pieces for when the need arises. Just look at our web site store under Everything Hair to find what you need.
To apply a lace backed piece is simply a matter of choosing the correct piece in the best color, possibly trimming a bit of the excess lace off, if necessary, finding the correct position, and gluing them in place. The preferred glue for this is our PPI Spirits. You should apply it with a Bdellium Tools glue brush, wait about a minute, tap it with your finger or a small piece of nylon hosiery to cause it to “tack up” and apply the piece. Start by centering the piece where you want it and flatten your way out. A small piece of damp (not wet) chamois can be used to push the piece into the Spirits and insure a good hold. Make sure all the edges are secure. If you get a bit too much Spirits past the edge of the piece, it can be carefully removed with NecroActivator™ or 99% alcohol. Be sure to clean your glue brush thoroughly with Parian Spirit Brush cleaner after you are finished.
After the glue is completely dry (an hour or so), you can trim, style, and adjust the color of the piece as needed. To adjust colors, I recommend the Skin Illustrator Mortuary Hair Aging Palette and the Mortuary Scalp Palette. The colors must be activated with NecroActivator™. They can be mixed to get just the right shade and the streaks and adjustments can be applied with a soft brush or even a Q-Tip. If you get a bit too much in an area, a little NecroActivator™ on a cosmetic remover pad or a piece of paper towel can be used to remove or lighten it.
That’s pretty much the process for applying lace backed hair goods. They can be real time savers. Just beware of some of the cheap, machine made (some will even say “hand-made”; beware) pieces you can find at online costume stores. They are very low quality, do not look real, and will cause nothing but frustration.
Another note is the choice of adhesive. You may find suggestions on the internet about using liquid latex as an adhesive. DON’T DO IT. This is a very old-fashioned method of attachment and is extremely messy and unreliable. If you make a mistake, it will be un-repairable. So, avoid liquid latex, for pretty much everything. There are other good adhesives; Telesis Matt Lace Adhesive is a professional choice for live actors as it moves with the actor’s facial movements, bonds very well, is invisible, and is pretty easy to remove. It is also quite expensive. Some people use NecroTack™ to glue on hair and it works fine too. My choice is PPI Spirits, which is invisible when properly applied, has excellent gripping properties, and can be cleaned off pretty easily with NecroActivator™ or 99% Isopropyl alcohol if you get some on the wrong areas of the skin or make a mistake and need to start over.
The real art comes when you are called on to hand lay hair. Often you will need to do this along with a lace backed piece to “fill-in” certain areas or if a lace backed piece is simply not readily available. I’m going to start by giving you the necessities of a basic “hair kit” and then go into detail on preparation and application techniques.
The first thing you are going to need is hair. That might sound obvious but there a several considerations to make. Human hair is available. While it can be great for replacing missing patches of head hair from a wound, it can be expensive, and you have to get the right color blend. Of course, in these situations you can sometimes shave some hair from the back of the head to use as the replacement hair, if the deceased has enough.
The second choice for hand-laying head hair and my first choice for beards, mustaches, and sideburns is crepe hair. You will find a complete selection of crepe hair in our web store. It is a natural wool that comes in a braided (creped) length. It must be unbraided and straightened before use. This is not difficult but takes a little bit of time. Several colors can be blended together for a natural look. I will go into the details of preparing crepe hair in a moment.
You will also need a good pair of pointed barber shears, a rat-tail comb, a hackle (see our web store), a bottle of PPI Spirits (liquid or gel), a Bdellium Tools Glue Brush, a bottle of NecroActivator™ or 99% Isopropyl alcohol, a bottle of Parian Spirit Brush Cleaner, The Skin Illustrator Hair and Scalp Palettes if you wish to adjust color (you can also use the Skin Illustrator Liquids diluted with NecroActivator™), a soft brush or Q-Tips to apply colors, an electric beard trimmer, a small piece of chamois, a small piece of nylon hosiery, a small, pointed tip tweezer, a light eyebrow pencil to mark out your locations, hairspray, a microwave oven, a small microwave-safe container, paper towels, and a hair dryer.
To prepare crepe hair, first unbraid a short length as needed, usually about 3” – 4” for facial hair. Cut several pieces at a time. There will be a considerable amount that will be needed for most jobs, so cut a bit more than you think you will need. It can always be stored for later use. Many times, you will need to blend multiple colors together to get a close match to the natural color. It’s a good idea to keep numerous colors on hand.
Place the cut pieces into your microwave safe container, fill with enough water to completely cover the pieces by a few inches. Place in the microwave and microwave on high for one minute. Remove the container from the microwave (be careful, it will be hot) and lay the strands out on a bed of paper towels (they will be hot too so use forceps to remove them from the water). Straighten them out as best you can and blot with dry paper towels to remove as much moisture as possible. Allow the pieces to dry completely.
When the hair is dry, pull the hair apart by gently pulling on one end of the pile while holding the other end. Pull several strands of each of the colors you want to blend until you have piles of hair in the color you want. Continue to pull the hair and put it back into bundles and repeat until you have a fluffy bundle that looks even in color and length.
The next step is to run the hair through the hackle. Be very careful when using a hackle. The pins are razor sharp and its very easy to stick yourself. Keep some Band-Aids and Neosporin handy! I cover the pins on my hackle with a piece of Styrofoam when not in use to keep from accidentally getting stuck. Clamp the hackle to the edge of a table or other work surface. I like to use the small wood clamps you can get at Lowes or Home Depot.
Carefully place a small amount of hair about an inch into the hackle. Hold it firmly and pull it toward you. Repeat this process, adding an inch or so of the length of hair as you pull it through the hackle. Repeat the process with the other end of the hair bundle you just pulled through. Repeat this process with all the hair you will be using.
As you pull hair through the hackle, short pieces of hair and wads of tangled hair will build up in the pins. When this buildup begins to interfere with your process, carefully remove the hair from the pins with a small tool or the handle of a small brush. Set this hair tangle aside. You can pull and separate it and pull it through the hackle again if you wish.
Next, take a small bundle of the prepared hair and hold it between your thumb and forefinger. Don’t try to use too much at once. The hair needs to stand on end. Only the ends of the hair should be stuck in the adhesive. When applying facial hair, it is especially important not to go too thick. A little daylight between hairs is preferred. Hair should be thickest under the chin and get thinner as you work toward the sides of the cheeks. The hair bundle should be trimmed on the end to mimic the direction the hair will lay as it normally grows in.
Following the patterns of the diagrams, do a position test before you begin applying the Spirits adhesive to make certain the bundle looks correct. You will lay the hair in in small sections. Take your time and observe the flow as you go. The hair will naturally be longer than needed at first. We will trim and style later.
Apply a thin coat of the PPI Spirits or NecroTack™ to the area you are going to start with. Allow about a minute and lightly tap the Spirits with your finger or a small piece of nylon hosiery to get it to “tack up” (if using NecroTack™, allow it to dry until clear. DO NOT tap NecroTack™).
Press the tips of the small bundle of hair into the adhesive and hold it a few seconds until it grips. I necessary, use the edge of your hair scissors to help hold it I place. Try to keep just the tips in the adhesive. (On this case I started with a lace backed mustache).
Once the first hair is held in place, add more adhesive slightly in front of the last section you just finished. Be careful not to get adhesive into the area you just finished. Continue to repeat the process, keeping in mind that each section should be fairly thin. Make sure the hair looks like it’s growing out of the skin and not just lying on the surface. Continue until all the hair is laid in place. Allow some time for the adhesive to set, an hour or so, and then, very gently, pick through the hair to remove any loose hairs. There will be some.
Once everything is in place, trim the hair to create the desired look. Take your time and refer to photos of the deceased for reference. You can use the small tweezers to pluck any unruly hairs. Once properly trimmed, you can adjust areas of color if needed, using the Skin Illustrator Mortuary Scalp and Hair Palettes. Be careful not to overdo the coloring. If you have blended the hair correctly, you should be pretty close to begin with.
That is a basic primer on the right way to hand lay hair. The method I have described here is the professional standard method of hand laying hair. It does require patience and a bit of practice to become really good at, but it is a necessary skill for the restoration professional.
Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP is the embalmer liaison for NecroMetics®, a three-state licensed embalmer, funeral director, post-mortem reconstruction specialist, and a SPFX cosmetics enthusiast. He has written many articles for nearly every major funeral profession publication and is a public speaker and educator on topics of embalming, restoration, and mortuary SPFX cosmetics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org