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How to build a life size whale


Hello, my name is Mike Fuller and I have a vision of making a family of seven life-sized Humpback Whales, swimming as a pod. 

These whales will ultimately be cast 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 overall pod, along with 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 modelling clay) .

The finished whale can then be smoothed out using a blowtorch and the fine 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 place the whales in a formation that gives sweeping dynamics from the top to the bottom, giving the appearance that each whale is aware of another and that they swim in total synchronised harmony.

I want to take into consideration the natural elements in which the sculpture will sit in such as prevailing wind, rain and sunrise and set. 

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 entire sculpture sits. 

Sunrise and Sunset 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 lagoon of water to act as a reflective surface to complement the composition.

This water will be entrapped holding ponds designed as reticulation storage and part of the revitalising and sustaining of the greater Wharimuku Stream project.

Hopefully, I would like to see this public area under the sculpture designed to be used as an amphitheater where a family can have a summer picnic, watch a quartet, where shows, bands and pantomimes are preformed, seating and staging part of the design. 

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. 

Aeolian harp (also wind harp) is a musical instrument that is 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 (small-scale model or rough draft of a sculpture).

The Maquette is used to view, analyse and critique the potential sculpture before we move into the next stage. 

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 its neighbour and sculpture as a whole. 


Each whale is then individually scanned three dimensionally into a digital OBJ File  (object file) that is recognised by computer software such as CAD (Computer-aided Design) or Zbrush, a three dimensional sculpting tool.

We have now ended up with electronic files of the whales that allows me to rotate in the computer and shows a complete whale in detail, fully textured and ready to be made into reality.


The program allows for adaption of shape and form, as well as adding / subtracting detail and texture.


Now I have the seven complete and perfected whales in the electronic format, the next stage is to proof the design by printing each in a 3D printer.

By printing each at 1/24th scale and re-assembling the composition we achieve a anatomically corrected reproduction of the original Marquette for proofing and display.


Green light with the budget achieved, its time to go into full-scale production. Computer files have been reproduced into a CAD format and 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 millimetres 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 casting boxes, and on the volume of their crucible. 

(A Crucible is a vessel that withstands very high temperatures and what is used to melt the bronze) 

We then feed these electronic CAD files into a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Router machine to start making the moulds 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, bronze.


The foundry is where we melt ingots or blocks of bronze 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.

We have placed our polystyrene patterns into a steel box of sand as the moulding material, not just ordinary sand but a special casting sand called ‘Furan resin sand’ which has special properties of being able to withstand sudden heat without deteriorating.

Our individual pattern is buried in this sand and heated to a high temperature. This melts or burns out the polystyrene from the centre of the box of resin sand leaving a cavity exactly representing the polystyrene block in the middle. This is our negative mould. 

Now our crucible of molten bronze is to temperature, and our resin sand mould ready, we pour the molten metal into the sand box to fill the cavity and produce one of the 100 panels required to make the skin exterior of our whale. This is our positive mould.

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 to be carefully fitted together over a pre-made stainless-steel skeleton for each whale.

The skeleton or armature consisting of a spinal pole, 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. 


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 whales 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.


Finishing touches such as colorisation or patina with acids will give a greenish colour to the whales and a final spray-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 sketchmatics seen here are the pulmonary drawings on the engineering required to support a whale at eighteen meters and have been


The The Engineer has taken into account the weight, windage and weather but no allowances have been made at this stage as to ground quality, as the site area selected has not been fully tested. 

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.

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