Thursday, 9 February 2012

Elephant No. 130: Glue-Gun Sculpture

A few weeks ago, at a fibre arts guild meeting, Frances showed us some small pieces she had made with hot glue. One used a mould, if I remember correctly, and one or two were done free-form. Between the sparkly materials she had added, and the bluish glow of the glue, I found them quite fascinating. Hence, today's elephant.

The first known use of an adhesive comes from a 200,000-year-old spear discovered in central Italy, glued with birchbark tar. Interestingly, Ötzi the Iceman, the famous Tyrolean mummy dated to about 3300 B.C., had weapons glued with birchbark tar.  

Adhesives have obviously been used for tens of thousands of years, and were originally based on locally-available materials. Evidence from South Africa suggests, for example, that compound glues made of plant gum and red ochre were used as far back as 70,000 B.C. Ceramics from approximately 4000 B.C. bear residues of animal glues, and in Babylon around 3000 B.C. a tar-like glue was used to repair statues. 

The Ancient Egyptians used animal glues for centuries to bond furniture, ivory, and papyrus, and the Mongols used adhesives in bowmaking. To caulk their birchbark canoes, First Peoples of North America developed a sophisticated compound glue made of spruce gum and fat. And in medieval Europe, egg whites were used to glue gold leaf to parchment.

The first glue factory was founded in Holland in the early eighteenth century, and science advanced, new glues were developed, and old forms of glue were resurrected. In the 1750s, the English introduced fish-based glue for use in veneering, based on old recipes used by the Greeks and Romans. Glue made of from animal bones also became highly popular for general use, although animal glues had been known among various cultures for millennia. Other adhesives based on natural materials included glues made of starch, casein (milk protein) and isinglass—a substance more conventionally used in making jellied desserts. The main difference was that now glue formulae were patented, and their secrets jealously guarded. 

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, discoveries in chemistry—and particularly the advent of plastics—considerably advanced the science of adhesives. Modern glues are far more durable, flexible, resistant to chemicals, waterproof, and fast-drying than ever before. Adhesives have also become highly specific, with a glue for every conceivable purpose.

Hot glue—also known as "thermoplastic" glue, meaning it becomes plastic/flexible when heated—is thought to have been invented around 1940 by the U.S. company Procter & Gamble. Hot glue was originally developed as an alternative to the water-based glues then commonly used in packaging: glues that tended to fail in humid climates, causing the packages to open and spill their contents.

The glue I'll be using today is made of something called ethylene-vinyl acetate, and is the most common type of hot glue for craft purposes. Hot glue becomes liquid anywhere from 65˚ to 195˚C (150˚ to 380˚F)—which would probably explain why I tend to burn myself whenever I use hot glue.

Neglect by Carlyle Miklus, 2007.

When it cools, hot glue produces a very strong bond—particularly between porous materials—and, in addition to crafts, is used for glueing paper-based packaging, electronics, manufacturing, and even disposable diapers. There are also both low- and high-temperature guns. Low-temperature guns, which operate around 120˚C (250˚F) are used for gluing things like lace and cloth, and in applications where too much heat is undesirable. High-temperature guns operate closer to 195˚C (380˚F), and produce a stronger bond.

I have no idea what temperatures I'm working with today, but it's probably somewhere between the two ranges above.

Chandelier by Esma Paçal Turam, made with hot glue and paper.

Glue-gun sculpture in its purest form seems to be relatively rare, although many artists use hot glue in various sculptural ways. Some certainly use hot glue alone; many combine it with other materials such as wire, paper and fabric; one artist has even attempted lost-glue casting, which is pretty gutsy, in my book.

Hot glue tree by Mike, from the entertaining Mike is Bored blog.

Fair warning: I don't like glue guns (in case it isn't already obvious). I tend to burn myself on both glue and glue-gun tip. I make a mess. I don't like the thready glue-gun lines I generally get. But, most of all, when I'm making something, I feel guilty using a glue gun when I could be using thread, or wire, or some other kind of glue.

All that being said, on to today's elephant. My main fear, other than the prospect of burns and mess, was that I wouldn't actually be able to form an elephant. Not having tried anything sculptural before, and reading other people's experiences, I thought the first layers of glue might melt when they came into contact with the second layers, and that I'd end up with a gooey mess. Still, no guts, no glory—well, not glory exactly; but no guts, no elephant, anyway.

I decided to use the smaller of the two glue guns I have, mostly because it's a lot lighter than the professional one I own, and also because it seems to extrude a smaller amount of glue at a time, which I thought might give me more control. 

For glue, I used these inexpensive clear glue sticks. I didn't care for the yellowish undertone, but since I didn't know what I was doing anyway, it didn't really matter. 

A word to the wise before you start: if you expect to be at this for a couple of hours, like I was, make sure your space is well ventilated. The fumes won't make you high (for those of you tempted to make jokes about sniffing glue), but they might give you a bit of a headache and a sore throat. And, yes, I foolishly speak yet again from personal experience.

Working on a sheet of glass, I started by making some little pads for the feet. My idea was to build up the legs from these four unprepossessing blobs. To create these, I touched the tip of the glue gun to the glass, then pressed the trigger on the glue gun very gently, and swirled the glue upwards, keeping the tip attached to the glue until the very end. This seems to help when you're trying to build up the structure vertically.

Below you can see the legs at the second stage, using the same technique. I discovered that, if I didn't leave the tip too close to the previous layer of glue, and didn't use too much glue at a time, the first layer stayed more or less intact.

Once I had the legs done, I started creating the body. This is where it got a little tricky. I started by touching the tip of the glue gun to the top of the leg. From there, while pressing the trigger very delicately, I teased out a thread of glue, which I then attached to the facing leg by simply touching down with the tip. This worked fairly well between the two front legs, and between the two back legs.

It didn't work as well working from front to back. The gap is larger here, so the glue wants to sag and fall into the gap. What I found worked best, after a bit of trial and error, was to make really thin threads of glue by moving the gun back and forth between front and back quickly but steadily.

Having built up a few layers between the two pairs of legs, I got a bit over-confident at one point, and added a blob of hot glue. This was a bad idea, as the volume of hot glue melted through all of my fine threads, and fell to the bottom.

Luckily, the tip of the glue gun functions quite well as a smoothing tool, so I could pull up the glue as it was falling and sort of reattach it.

I reformed the sides of the body, then started creating the middle of the body using the same threading technique. Once I felt that the body was made of enough threads that it was strong enough to hold more substantial amounts of glue—at this point, it looked a bit like a nest made by an addled bird—I filled in the body cavity I had created. 

I figured it was now ready for me to add the neck and head. Thinking that the body was fairly solid, I added a medium-sized blob of glue for the neck. I went to answer the door to a courier, and came back to find that the entire blob had disappeared into the body, and had smoothed out the body as well. Sigh.

I went back to the coiling technique I had used on the legs to build up the neck, and then the head. This was a better idea, because the glue never sits in a large, hot blob. This allows the heat to dissipate relatively quickly, meaning that it hardens and sets before it has a chance to do anything evil and stupid.

Once I was reasonably happy with the size and shape of the head, I added ears, then the trunk. The ears were added with the threading technique, running thin lines of glue around the outside of small nubs I had added on each side of the head. The trunk was created using the coiling technique, pulling the coil out as I worked to keep the coil small, and the trunk thin.

Finally, I added a tiny tail at the back by gently squeezing out a very small drop of glue, then touching it to the elephant and pulling it out, while giving it a bit of a kink. To set the kink, I had to remove the glue gun to allow the glue to cool, supporting the kink with the blade of a pair of scissors (anything non-porous will do) as it set. It only takes about ten seconds for it to set enough that you can let go.

I thought briefly about using the tip of the glue gun to shape and smooth the elephant, but I feared I'd do more harm than good, since this is not a tool with which I'm very familiar. I also decided not to attempt tusks, for the same reason. Maybe if it were bigger, I'd be brave enough to try it, but it's small, As you can see, it's got many fine threads of glue attached—looking a little like Gulliver pinned to the ground by Lilliputians, if you ask me. I did allow myself to pull those off; otherwise, it's exactly as moulded.

I'm surprised that this turned out at all, to be honest. I expected some blobby wreck with pointy bits sticking out all over the place, but it actually looks like an elephant. 

It's not a work of art, by any means, but it's kind of cute, and not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Long the winter home for many American circuses, the state of Florida still has a law on its books stating that, if an elephant is left tied to a parking meter—and the meter has expired—parking fines must be paid, just as if the elephant were a wheeled vehicle.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 
Elephants Without Borders
Save the Elephants