This article is a guest post from Ari Kahn. It was originally posted as a comment on another page. Ari has helped to create the fabulous Mardi Gras floats that appear each year in Mobile, Alabama. (Did you know that’s where Mardi Gras actually started? I didn’t.)
Purely by coincidence, Ari’s comment appeared just a few days after I read 3-D Wizardry: Design in Paper Mache, Plaster and Foam, by George Wolfe. (The book is now out of print, but I managed to snag a reasonably-priced copy on amazon.com). In Wolfe’s book, he mentioned the process of making floats and large paper mache beasts, like dragons, using cardboard and contact cement. I searched everywhere online to learn more about this process, but I couldn’t find anything. Then Ari’s comment showed up, almost like magic.
Unfortunately, the designs of the floats are guarded like state secrets, so Ari couldn’t send photos showing how the process is really done. And I can’t show you the photos from Wolfe’s book because they’re copyrighted. So we just have to use our imagination. If anyone knows any more about making big, hollow paper mache sculptures using this contact cement process, please let us know.
I’m just now finishing up my second video about the wolf’s head sculpture, showing the sculpting of the eyes and nose. I’ll post it later today.
And now, here’s Ari:
I am an artist living on the Gulf Coast of Alabama who used to work on building Mardi Gras floats. You may not be aware of it but Alabama, specifically Mobile, was the birthplace of Mardi Gras. (Sorry, New Orleans. Better luck next time.)
The floats in Mobile parades tend to be larger than those used in New Orleans, and change radically each year according to the theme of the parade. This means a constant flow of large papier mache sculptures to attach to the float. I thought that the way we built them would be of interest to the folks here.
First we start with a simple wooden or PVC pipe armature. Over this we build up the shape of the sculpture with torn strips of corrugated cardboard, saturated with a latex water-based contact adhesive. (I don’t remember the brand name right offhand, but it’s a pale green in colour and it might have been 3-M.)
We would coat each side of the cardboard and allow it to dry before tearing it into strips or sections. One nice thing about this adhesive is that it’s waterproof. (You can use the old-fashioned brown contact adhesive, but it requires solvent clean up, takes longer to dry and the fumes are toxic.) Don’t use the cardboard from waxed cartons as it won’t work. Thin single-ply corrugated is better than double-corrugated or double-layer as it’s easier to shape.
Once the general shape is achieved we would smooth out the surface with torn sections of thin chipboard also coated on either side with contact adhesive. The best type of chipboard to use for this is the flimsy, cheap stuff. The nice thing about using the contact adhesive is that there is no drying time in the sculpture itself. Once you apply the dry cardboard and chipboard to the surfaces, they’re ready to go.
Over this we would apply a layer of torn white butcher paper that we would adhere with either wallpaper paste or wheat paste. This is to give that surface a final smoothing and a surface for painting, and paint doesn’t stick to contact adhesive very well. For paint we used ordinary exterior-grade latex that we would custom tint with powdered pigments.
These sculptures were very strong and durable. After the parade we would remove the sculpture and store it so it could be reworked next year. Some of the pieces we were using were many years old and were still going strong. I’ve seen these sculptures come through storms with flying colours. You can use this method to make very large sculptures, or smaller ones. I’ve also made smaller ones and covered them with layers of blended papier mache that I made from recipes I found on the Internet. (Sorry, I didn’t know about your site back then.)
I used to have a life-sized classic Grecian-style statue in my garden made this way, covered in my own blend of artificial stone. I made this from paper pulp mixed with cement and silica powder (also called flowers of silica). Silica powder is basically an extremely finely ground sand used mostly in iron smelting. This mixture makes a very nice ‘stone’ facing that I finished to look like marble. After sealing it with a standard concrete sealer (and regular applications thereof as needed) it stood for 5 years without any cracking or deterioration, internally or externally. Well that’s about all. If anyone has any questions, drop me a line.
… Some of the societies Ari has worked for are the Infant Mystics, the Mystic Stripers, the Knights of Revelry, the Order of the Polka Dots, the Order of LaShe’s. You can find out more about the Mobile Mardi Gras here.
And back to Jonni…
Thank you, Ari, for giving us so much timely information about how Mardi Gras floats are made. And the comment about your garden sculpture is also really interesting – the “stone” coating sounds very similar to the rather expensive foam coat I’ve been thinking about trying lately. Your recipe sounds better, actually.