Balloons Being Built

Big Projects, Beginning to End, Dirty, Filthy Fun, Exploring New Techniques, Lift, News from the Shop

It’s been a wild January and my shop is teeming with materials, in all stages of configuration. I’ve dragged my feet on updating you until I had some really good photos to share. Of course I wish I was sharing some “Hey look! I put it all together and it fits just like I thought it would!” pictures, but I’m not quite there yet. Instead, here’s what’s been going on as I create the large suspended balloon forms.

I started out by drawing pictures of the piece and will use these images to calculate a lot about the real sculpture.

In the past I’ve always drawn my ideas in a sketchbook, but have done most of the decision making while building the piece. In the past few years I’ve adjusted my process to allow for way more planning time. Because I’m working with clients I need to accurately show what I plan to do to the piece before ever stepping foot in the shop. Now my sketchbooks are full of drawings covered in math!

My drawings typically use a 1 inch on paper = 1 foot in real life ratio. Once I’ve drawn the piece I can use those calculations to make decisions about the piece. First, I have to decide if the material is going to be strong enough to deal with being outdoors and take abuse from the public. A wise public artist, Peter Hapney, once informed me of the drunk frat boy test (a test all public art must pass). If a large inebriated man launched himself from the benches to swing Tarzan style off the balloons would they crumple? I hope not, but to be safe I raised them a little further off the ground. That boy better have a good jump!

– All inebriated people reading this right now, that was not a dare!-

By using my drawings I can then calculate how much metal I’ll need to order. I can also figure out how much it will cost. I always order at least 1/3 more material than what I think I’ll need. And I always use it. My dad, who has been a General Contractor for over 30 years, taught me this and it’s really come in handy.

I can also calculate the weight of the piece. This is a must know for many reasons. For one the install site in Scottsdale can only support so much suspended weight and because aluminum weighs around 1/3 as much at steel using this material makes it possible to meet the weight requirements for this site. Also, in order to have a transportation budget I need the weight to compare prices on freight shipping the piece or transporting it myself. When a call for art requires a budget- all of these steps and many others have to be completed to begin formulating a budget.

Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and order material!

For the balloons I’m using 1/2 inch solid round aluminum bars that come in 20 foot long pieces. One of my local sponsors, Gainesville Ironworks, really came through by helping me acquire the materials at a good price and even donated the stainless steel cable that will hang the balloons. A huge score!

Gainesville Ironworks helped me roll the bars into big hoops. So when I brought them back to my shop I only needed to tweak them a little to get the specific diameters for each hoop. This knocked my bending time down from around 1 hour per hoop to only 15 minutes a piece!

Once the hoops were bent to the right size I was able to weld the connection. Years ago I’d bought a used welding rig – A Miller 210 MIG welder, which came equipped with 4 different tanks of gas for welding different metals, and a spool gun for welding aluminum. I found the deal on Craigslist and drove out into the woods near Ocala, FL to meet the guy, who upon discovering I was a female Leslie, not a male Leslie, exclaimed in a thick southern drawl “You’re getting a smoking hot deal here girl.”

Indeed I was.

And when my pal Eric Bushnell helped me get the spool gun hooked up for the first time last week I was pretty delighted I’d jumped on the deal when I’d had the chance!

I welded each hoop for the small balloon first. This way if anything went wrong I’d wasted the least amount of time and materials solving the problem than I would if I’d started with the largest balloon.

Once the welds cooled I used an angle grinder to smooth down the welds. Aluminum will heat up and clog the abrasive teeth in the grinding disks, and saws, so the abrasives have to be coated in wax before using. I have a block of bees wax in my shop and I occasionally tap my grinder to it and then go back to grinding the rings. It’s kinda fun, because my shop smells like honey while I work. If I needed to weld back over an area I’d just cut or ground I need to wipe it down with Acetone so the area is clean when I weld on it to avoid a getting a crummy weld.

Now it’s time to drill holes! 8 holes per hoop. 15 hoops per balloon. 3 balloons makes 360 holes. Thankfully I have a drill press now and holy wow does it make things better than hand drilling all these holes!

I’ve drawn out a guide on my work table so I know where each hole goes. After marking the metal with a Sharpie for where the holes will be I hammer a center punch at each marking so when I go to drill it my drill bit won’t “walk” around, it will dig right in where I put my mark. I then drill a guide hole- that’s 360 guide holes and use oil to lubricated the drill bit.

Not a lot of people know that you can use the same drill bits to drill through metal that you use to drill through wood and other materials. You just need to keep them from heating up so they don’t dull or work harden your material on accident- this is done by keeping them lubricated and drilling guide holes before drilling the large holes.

So once the guide holes are drilled, I will go back over them with the large drill bit and end up with the hole size I need. So, that’s 360 more times over the hoops before I have the holes I need. My cable is 3/16″ thick and after the powdercoating goes on the metal the hole will be a little smaller than the original hole I put in it, so I’ll need to drill something larger than 3/16″.

Once I get all the issues worked out with the small balloon I’ll move on to the other balloons and eventually send everything off to Powdercoating of Gainesville to be finished before I string the cable through. I may need to reward myself before sending everything off by hanging the balloons from rope temporarily just so I can see how great they look!

Note: Powdercoating is a baked on finish for metal that looks a lot like paint but is super durable and requires a really unique process. I’ll be posting details about our local powdercoater’s shop and show you how it works when it’s time for the piece to get it’s finish!

That’s all for today folks! Thanks for your wonderful support and I can’t wait to show you how things are coming together soon!

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I create large metal sculptures for public art, smaller items for you and your home, and teach hands on metal workshops in Gainesville, FL. Visit