Sunday, 13 May 2012

Elephant No. 224: Hammered Aluminum Can

Lately I've been noticing a lot of aluminum cans flattened on the road, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try hammering an aluminum can into an elephant shape.

Hammered aluminum was a highly popular material for housewares from the 1930s through the 1960s. In my own collection, I have a couple of hammered platters and colourful anodized aluminum drinking glasses. Touted as an easy-care alternative to silver, hammered aluminum eventually fell out of favour. Today, vintage aluminum ware is enjoying something of a resurgence, with pieces that sold for a dollar or so even a few years ago now going for anywhere from ten to 200 times that.

Typical hammered aluminum platter.

That was not the kind of aluminum I was looking to make today, and I was a bit surprised to discover that no one seems to be mashing aluminum cans into shapes. People appear to make only two kinds of art with aluminum cans: flat, hammered surfaces that are then painted, decorated or assembled; or opened and flattened cans that are cut into shapes.

Meanfish crushed and painted aluminum can.

Since I'd already done the opened-and-cut-into-shapes thing for my mobile a few months ago, I didn't feel like doing that again. And I didn't want to simply flatten an aluminum can and paint on it. What I really wanted to do was hammer an aluminum can into an elephant shape.

I'd saved four aluminum cans to play with, because I was sure I wasn't going to be successful the first time. I also didn't know yet if I was going to have troubles with the more rigid top and bottom, or if I'd need more than one aluminum can to make an elephant.

For hammers, I pulled out both a 16 oz. carpenter's hammer, and a chasing hammer for finer details. I thought briefly about using non-marking hammers, but then decided that chipped paint might add something to it.

Because I wanted to make this as much like an aluminum can smashed under a car's tires, I started hammering away at the first can without cutting the ends off.

I was pretty brutal about trying to crush one of the ends into the tip of a trunk, but the ends are very thick in comparison to the flimsy sides, so I wasn't entirely successful. There was no way this was going to get this much thinner, without some kind of major crushing machine.

The other thing I quickly discovered is that the thinner material that forms the body of the can is just plain weird. It's as if it's not metal at all. It doesn't smash down entirely flat, doesn't like to crumple very well, and becomes extremely brittle almost right away. I've hammered silver, steel and copper, but I've never seen anything quite like this.

Because of its brittleness, there's only so much hammering you can do before the metal actually starts falling apart. It tears along the smallest folds and splits under any kind of strain, so there comes a point at which you have to leave well enough alone.

For the ears, I started by hand-crimping a second aluminum can. Try as I might, however, I couldn't form ears as long as I had to contend with the thick round ends. If the body of the can had been a bit longer, I might have been able to fold the ends towards the centre, but the round ends were just a bit too large in diameter. After about 20 minutes of fiddling with it, folding, refolding and crimping, I gave in and cut the ends off with a pair of scissors.

This left me with a metal tube, which was relatively simple to hand-crimp and shape into ears and a forehead. I slotted this structure into a gap that had opened in the top of the trunk area, and squeezed things with my fingers to make it stay together. It doesn't stay together nicely—as it would if it were aluminum foil or tin or steel—but I could live with it.

To finish, I shaped a bit of a tusk and left it at that. I did try another elephant with the silver soda cans, this time cutting off the ends right away. Strangely, this was even less successful, and ended up looking a bit like an aluminum albatross. It was so unprepossessing that I didn't even bother to photograph it.

I didn't mind this activity, but I wish I'd known how uncooperative the material would be. It took me about 45 minutes to make the green elephant head, and if I actually decide to keep it, I'll have to add glue or rivets or something to attach it more securely. I don't dare hammer it any further: hammering would only make it more brittle and friable, without making it any more solid.

I was surprised that I didn't cut myself once, although it's certainly not an activity to try with children. I didn't really mind making this elephant, but it's not something I'd rush to try again, primarily because of the weirdness of the material. On the other hand, I am slightly tempted by the idea of running over a couple of soda cans with my car, just to see if it makes the metal any easier to work with.

Elephant Lore of the Day
It's Mother's Day today, so it seemed appropriate to write about elephant mothers.

As research continues to show, elephant mothers—like those of many other species—are no less devoted to their little ones than human mothers. They will fight off packs of predators, profoundly grieve the loss of a baby and, in one notable instance, even beat up a nasty old train.

Nor is this devotion limited to the mother alone. In the video below, a herd of female elephants works tirelessly to save a tiny calf from drowning. As the baby struggles helplessly, various elephants try to pull it out of the water, hold it above the surface, and push it up the banks of the waterhole.

When all of these efforts fail, a pair of elephants enter the water and, squeezing the calf between them, transport it to safety.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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