HOW TO BUILD A LIFESIZE WHALE
Hello, my name is Mike Fuller and I have a vision of making seven life-sized Humpback Whales, swimming as a family pod.
These whales will ultimately be cast in recycled aluminum and then thermally coated in bronze, but before then I have a long way to go.
Although a magnificent ‘static’ display, I wish this pod to portray momentum, dynamics of composition while still purveying the nurturing aspects of the matriarch mother and calf.
I wish for these whales to be anatomically correct but still have character and individualism with emphases on their unique characteristics.
I wish the lower whales in the composition to be tactile so that children can touch and see up-close the eyes, nostrils, and wrinkled skin and for the higher whales to appear substantially elevated above, giving a massive and magnificent scale to the composition from both near and afar.
I started this project by producing a number of 1/32th scaled models of Humpback whales from a basic wire-frame body, interwoven and welded together. This is called an armature.
That frame is then wrapped in bandages and then built up into the basic proportions of the Humpback whales shape with plaster of paris.
From there, over the plaster the whales are hand formed with microcrystalline wax, slowly building up areas and carving out details such as eyes, two nostrils and fine skin details.
(Microcrystalline wax is produced by de-oiling petrolatum and when warmed is soft and malleable, a bit like the consistency of modeling clay)
The finished whale can then be smoothed out using a blowtorch and fine the details like the baleen lines, flukes and barnacles can be added to give a totally realistic, anatomical appearance.
Having now completed a number of these whales to select from, I now wish to design my composition using seven of them as a family pod.
I want to take into consideration the natural elements in which the sculpture will sit in such as wind, rain and sunshine.
Wind is very important when you are looking at an eighteen-meter long whale sitting on top of a sixteen-meter pole. The windage on such a large shape in the sky is formidable.
This has a direct relation to the foundation that the whales sit on, and in turn the quality of the ground that the whole sculpture sits.
Sunshine is also very important, as the placement of the sculpture needs to utilise the arcing sunlight of each day to its advantage in utilising both summer and winter light giving the optimum luminance possible.
I have envisaged these whales sitting above a pond of water to act as a reflective surface to complement the composition.
This water will be entrapped and recycled, running down in torrents between the whales to mimic ocean currents, and ending in a large reflective pond at the base of the sculpture to be collected before being pumped back up the top for recycling.
The large collecting pond at the base of the whales will be terraced to represent the continental shelf, and by controlling the water flow we can mimic the ocean tides. The ponds can retreat as if low tide, and then gently rise again to fill the ponds to high tide.
Ultimately, I would like to see this public area be used as an amphitheater where the terraced pond when low becomes seating and the small islands under the whales becomes a stage.
A picnic, a summer quartet, shows, bands and pantomimes could use the space for public entertainment.
It is also planned that the occasional whale will blow water from its blowhole such as a fountain of vaporised water and the males will provide a ‘whale song’ with the aid of internal speakers and Aeolian harp.
(An Aeolian harp (also wind harp) is a musical instrument that is played by the wind)
Low Tide showing terraced seating for an amphitheater
So, now I have my composition of seven whales.
This small-scaled composition represents the proposed larger sculpture and it is called a Maquette. (A maquette is a small-scale model or rough draft of an sculpture)
The Maquette is used to view, analyse and critique the potential sculpture before we move into the next stage.
Each whale is then individually scanned three dimensionally into a digital CAD format (Computer-aided Design) and then scaled up through the computer to a digital life size.
It is here that we can add the finishing touches to each whale, detailing and critiquing until I am happy with each and it’s relation to it’s neighbour and sculpture as a whole.
We have now ended up with electronic files that we can rotate in the computer that shows a complete whale in detail, fully textured and ready to be made into reality.
We now divide the whales into sections, each whale being divided into approximately 100 parts. Each of these parts will be around one meter square and about six to ten millimeters thick. (Depending on where the part is in the finished element).
This size of section is determined on ultimately what the casting foundry can handle in size for their sand casting boxes, and on how large their crucible is.
(A Crucible is a vessel that withstands very high temperatures and is what is used to melt the aluminum in).
We then feed these electronic CAD files into a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Router machine to start making the molds for the whales.
A CNC router is a fully automatic machine that consists of a complex computer driving a spinning machine-head that can have up to seven moving axis, holding a cutting blade.
This machine will automatically cut with precision up to very fine tolerances at very high speed. We set it the task of cutting out our 100 sections from polystyrene blocks for each whale. Each section needs to be numbered and like in a jigsaw puzzle each piece is unique and will only fit in one part of the whale to make up its entirety.
Yes, if we put all these polystyrene blocks together, we would end up with a life size whale. These blocks are called a ‘positive mould’ that we will now turn into metal.
So, once we have all our sections cut for each of the whales, we now need to get these ‘patterns’ cast into the finished product, aluminium. The foundry is where we melt ingots or blocks of aluminium in a large vessel called a crucible. The furnace heats the metal in the crucible to over 660 degrees Celsius (1220 degrees Fahrenheit)
Once the crucible is glowing orange, the foundry is hot enough to melt aluminium.
We have placed our polystyrene patterns into a box of sand.
Not just ordinary sand, but this is special casting sand called ‘Greensand’ a silica, which has special properties of being able to withstand sudden heat without deteriorating.
Half our pattern is buried in this sand, and then another box is placed on top and also filled with sand, allowing the mould to be in two halves. The sand is compacted and then the boxes split apart to allow the polystyrene block to be removed. We are left with two boxes of sand with a cavity exactly representing of the polystyrene bock removed from the middle. This is our negative mould.
Now our crucible of molten aluminium is to temperature, and our greensand mould ready, we pour the molten metal into the sand box to fill the cavity to produce one of the 100 panels required to make the skin exterior of our whale.
We repeat this process 100 times per whale, 700 times in total until we have our seven whales cast and ready to assemble.
Each part is numbered, has its place and is carefully fitted together over a pre-made skeleton for each whale.
This skeleton consisting of a spinal pole made from metal, with radiating spokes emitting, which represents the dynamic shape and proportions of each individual whale.
It looks a bit like a lot of bicycle wheels threaded down a pole, each wheel getting smaller as we get closer to the tail.
Each of our cast panels is placed over the skeleton and tack welded into place.
Once all the panels are in place and our whale skeleton has been filled in, then every section is ‘seam welded’ together and our whale is complete.
Now they need to be fettled.
(This is the means by which a crude casting is turned into a finished product by removing unwanted metal by grinding, chipping and shot- blasting etc.)
By hand each weld and panel needs to be ground back and smoothed off to the required finished texture. This is painstaking laborious work that takes patience and time.
The quality of the whale's skin surface is what we see in the end product, so care and finesse mast be taken.
Now we have our completed whales and they are now ready for their final coat and patina.
Each whale will be coated in a thin layer of Bronze. This is applied by heat, either electrically (plasma or arc) or chemical means (combustion flame) where a wire or powder of pure bronze is feed through a fierce heat and turned into liquid as it is being sprayed out
over our whale's skin. This is called thermal spraying.
It can be done by robot, but in our case it will be done by hand, and is comparable to one spray painting a car.
The Bronze thickness can be adjusted by the amount applied and the finished result will give the appearance of bronze cast whales.
This coating is durable and weather tight for many many years.
Finishing touches such as colourisation or patina with acids will give a greenish colour to the whales and a final polish with wax will give a wet and shiny look to add appeal.
Ultimately theses whales will be erected on individual spirally welded poles, around 500mm in diameter and up to eighteen meters high.
This is the same technology that is used very successfully in wind turbines and the pole is anchored into large concrete mushroom shaped foundations in the ground.
The foundation will need to be robust and withstand the natural elements of weather and time.
The sketch matics above are the preliminary drawings on the engineering required to support a whale at eighteen meters and have been drawn by SKM Engineering in Christchurch.
This image brings some scale to what is proposed with this being an example of how big the biggest of the seven whales will be.
Wondering why seven whales? Find out more here.