Monday, 26 March 2012

Elephant No. 176: Upholstery Foam

While cleaning out some dead storage last week, I came across a thick slab of upholstery foam, left over from a cushion I made a couple of years ago. I was going to throw it out, then I decided it might be interesting to try carving an elephant shape of some sort.

Upholstery foam is made of polyurethane: a type of polymer used in the manufacture of everything from gaskets and skateboard wheels, to spandex and hard plastics. The earliest work on polyurethane polymers was done by Otto Bayer and his colleagues in 1937 at the I.G. Farben company in Germany. Initial work focused on producing flexible foam and fibres. This work was largely interrupted by the Second World War, and the first polyurethanes did not become commercially available until 1952, with polyurethane foam following in 1954.

In 1960, more than 45,000 metric tonnes of flexible polyurethane foams were produced by a range of companies. Over the ensuing decade, new types of foam were developed, with greater thermal stability and fire-resistance. Extensive use of polyurethane foam—including foam rubber and plastic panels—was made in the automotive industry during the 1960s, including entire vehicles made from various types of polyurethane materials.

Today, polyurethanes come in many different forms, for many different purposes, and are often combined with other substances such as ground glass, mica and mineral fibres. From coatings on wooden floors, to sofa cushions, to plastic electronics, polyurethanes have become an intrinsic part of daily life for many people around the world.

For today's elephant, I was pretty sure I was going to make a heck of a mess. Polyurethane foam likes to trail bits of itself all over the place. In the past, I've used an electric carving knife to slice polyurethane foam into various sizes. I thought a rotary tool might also work for finer details, and maybe scissors in a pinch.

I started out by cutting a piece of foam measuring about 7.5 cm by 9 cm (3 x 3.5 inches). For this, I used an electric carving knife (which I only use for cutting foam).

I thought briefly about drawing an elephant on the piece of foam, then decided I'd rather wing it.

I started by carving off the main corners of the original squared-off piece, also with the electric knife. This is about as delicate a process as using a chainsaw on wood, so the knife is best used just for the rough cuts.

I tried the rotary tool at this point, which was completely useless. It more or less catches on the foam and spins without actually removing anything. So resorted to scissors. This was a much better idea. I also discovered that tweezers are a pretty good tool for something like this. The eye and the lines around the trunk that you see below were created by plucking out small bits with tweezers.

After this, I just kept trimming various parts with scissors, pulling out little tufts with tweezers, and generally reshaping bit by bit. It's surprisingly fussy work, and sometimes it's a bit hard to see the bigger picture when you're trimming such small amounts at a time. The closest analogy for me is trimming hair.

This took me about an hour and a half, but I could have spent a lot longer. I like the final well enough, but this isn't something I'd be keen on doing often. Although, looking at the final piece, I can see how this technique might come in useful for creating foam stamps—as long as absolute precision isn't a must.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Contrary to surprisingly widespread belief, King Mongkut of Siam (today's Thailand) never gave an American president a herd of elephants.

There are two elephant-related stories about King Mongkut—coincidentally the king described in Anna and the King of Siam and played by Yul Brynner in the musical The King and I—and American presidents. The first suggests that King Mongkut offered a herd of war elephants to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The second says that he actually gave Lincoln's predecessor, President James Buchanan, a herd of elephants that ended up in the National Zoo. Neither of these stories is true.

The king did write a letter to President Buchanan on February 14, 1861—before the Civil War started—offering a gift of domesticated elephants to use as transportion and beasts of burden. By the time the letter arrived in Washington, D.C., however, Buchanan was out of office, and Lincoln was president.

When asked what the elephants could be used for, Lincoln is said to have jokingly replied that he wasn't sure, unless they could be used to "stamp out the rebellion." When framing a reply to King Mongkut on February 3, 1862, Lincoln said nothing about the Civil War. Instead, he politely declined the elephants, explaining that the American climate might not be the best place for elephants, and that locomotives were more conventional in America for the transportation of heavy loads.

Interestingly, when King Mongkut's great-grandson, King Bhumibol, visited the United States in 1960, he referred to the exchange in an address before the U.S. Congress. "My great-grandfather," he said, "offered to send the President and Congress elephants to be turned loose in the uncultivated land of America for breeding purposes. That offer was made with no other objective than to provide a friend with what he lacks."

King Mongkut of Siam in European dress, 1865–1866.
Photo: John Thompson
Collection of the National Library of Scotland

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