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Special Report: Extreme Fabricating

Moving monuments

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Crews worked in 24-hour shifts to fabricate 170,000 components for British sculptor Wolfgang Buttress’ The Hive. Construction was limited to a 20 m by 100 m footprint and parts were delivered on site as needed. Photo: Stage One

Sculptors twist metal to mimic nature’s movement

November 2016 - Human history is comprised of stories, and representations of stories can be built to stand the test of time. Artists bend, cut, melt and manipulate alloys in an attempt to share a piece of themselves or voice a vital message.

Barcelona-based sculptor and fabricator Jordi Díez Fernández harnesses the strength of steel without sacrificing fluid movement. “Stainless steel’s absence of color gives each piece an unreal, archetypical character,” and the material gives an “otherwise classic sculpture a contemporary look that expresses movement that seems to float.

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Jordi Díez Fernández’s homage to  Catalan urban planner Ildefons Cerdà, who designed the 19th century “extension” of Barcelona. Photo: Jordi Díez Fernández

“In the world of sculpture, the material used directly influences the overall meaning of the work,” Díez continues. He chose stainless because it doesn’t require casting, like bronze does, for example. “In a sense, stainless steel symbolizes the ultimate union between the power of industry and that of the art world—this flowering union is at the forefront of a second Renaissance in world art.”

Sketching, followed by clay models, led Díez to create 3D frames out of steel rods. “My work is laborious,” Díez says. “I build a sculpture using trial and error. A human body 4 m tall can take seven or eight months—sometimes longer.” 

Unless a project is particularly grand, Díez works alone. Using MIG welding, but also shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), Díez welds using a hand-held torch. Some components require the use of larger machinery, such as laser cutting or tube bending. “Sometimes I use an anvil and hammer to get the shape I need, but I do not like to use it unless absolutely necessary,” he adds.

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Díez welded each piece by hand, careful to maintain consistent thickness while minimizing gaps. He devoted significant effort to the final polish to achieve a strong and elegant effect. Photos: Jordi Díez Fernández

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Depending on a sculpture’s dimensions, Díez uses smaller rods, ranging from 2 to 5 mm, as well as fragments of sheet and tube. For larger pieces, he uses rods ranging from 5 to 8 mm, sheet between 2- and 3-mm-thick as well as 40-mm-diameter tube and 2-mm-thick pre-curved fragments from circular pieces. “I find the concave and convex shapes very useful,” Díez says. 

Selecting a favorite among his works is difficult. “Each sculpture is an important adventure. I can say the head of Celia is an achievement in its portrayed steel lightness,” says Díez. “But Ildefons Cerdà, which will tower over La Plaza de Les Glories in Barcelona, [will be] a good example of a monumental sculpture that encompasses both explosive and lightweight elements with each gesture.”

Achieving the desired effects while maintaining a clean and penetrating weld is challenging, says Díez. Thickness must be consistent while minimizing gaps that could trap dirt. He spends a lot of time with the final polish. When trying to eliminate sharp edges, like with Cerdà, ensuring safe structural integrity involved a lot of planning, including using the legs as an anchored base to not only keep it steady but safe from potential vandalism.

Not leaving anything to chance, Díez frequently seeks out advice from professionals in the fabrication industry to answer any questions that may help the sculptor perfect his welding techniques.

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Per Berg’s Metal Man is an apt representation for a welding shop in Washington state, whose owner commissioned the piece. Photo: Dave Brasher

Making of Metal Man

For Per Berg in Sequim, Washington, his work as an illustrator unexpectedly segued into welding a sculpture. After finding work hard to come by during the Great Recession of 2008, Berg’s childhood soccer coach, Dave Brasher, commissioned Berg to do a sculpture for his explosive metal welding shop, High Energy Metals.

“Brasher’s guys set up explosives to bond two plates of different metals on the molecular level. The bond is stronger than [that] of the individual metals themselves,” Berg says. “They work on projects where you essentially need the qualities of two separate metals in one—including a piece that’s on the Mars Rover .”

Berg got to work to portray the relationship between energy and metal through abstract sculpture. The process took six months. He used 4-ft. by 8-ft. steel plates and  rods. “I was there working [sharing shop space with Brasher’s crew] on a big, gangly man with crevices and welding shell,” Berg says.

After sketching, then committing the model to clay, Berg created a skeleton of metal rods. He ran into a slew of challenges along the way.

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Engineering Metal Man's back proved especially challenging for Per Berg as he struggled to reinforce its 300-lb. frame. Photos: Dave Brasher

“The metal would fray,” Berg says. “I had to cut off his arms, legs and head, leaving a torso and tourniquet where I had removed the other parts so that it wouldn’t fall apart as I started building it together, welding one piece at a time.”

Adjusting as he went, Berg reinforced the shell by filling in the gaps until it was sturdy enough to continue. “The head was the most daunting challenge,” Berg says. “I had to make sure it would fit and stay on without cracking off. I torched the head to get it red hot and hammered it to get the egg-like shape I needed.”

Instead of defined features, the hammering left caverns and mounds resembling a human face. “He ended up looking bumpy and the metal [had] a dark, burnt patina,” Berg says. “If I had taken perfect measurements and got a clean, grinded, perfect shape, it would have gone quicker, welding-wise, but it wouldn’t have had the look and feel we wanted.”

Berg “eye-balled” a lot of his welds: “I’m not saying I’m a great welder,” he adds. Berg drew markings onto the metal, labeling different parts like biceps, upper triceps, etc., and welded each piece on without grinding or cleaning it, resulting in weld gaps.

The weld gaps ranged from smaller holes to “golf-ball sized holes—the idea was to grind it off later,” he says. Berg’s methods worked because, unlike a piece of wood where if too much is cut off, “you can’t really go back,” metal is more forgiving.

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Each piece applied to the steel rod frame had to curve gracefully to mimic facial features for Metal Man.

Once Metal Man started taking shape, it became a challenge to keep him reinforced as the weight of each piece and weld threatened its structural integrity. The weakest part was the back. “It looks strong but I had to mess around a lot to make it structurally sound,” he says. 

“By the end of the process, we had to bring in a forklift to move him around or bring pieces in,” says Berg. “He would hang off the forklift while I kept welding.” 

Metal Man’s feet were positioned, then reinforced with thick rod. “We didn’t want any shaking or movement to break him apart,” he says. “We had to get a 300-lb. chunk of metal to stand on a plate.”

Using a MIG welder, Berg fed thin wire to fill across any gaps, laying bead on bead. “Thicker wire would melt and the weld would drip into the gaps which I didn’t want. I also learned the hard way that refeeding wire can be a big task in itself. [I] had to restart my MIG about 200 times—I might have done that differently looking back now,” he says. “Human anatomy is hard to mimic with steel but it came out cool.”

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The Hive

Honeybees and honeycombs were the inspiration behind British artist Wolfgang Buttress’ creation, The Hive, designed for the Milan Expo 2015 and now installed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. “Structural loadings and forces build atop one another until the structure becomes the form,” Buttress says. 

Sponsored by the U.K. government, Buttress won the commission through an international competition among a select group of architects and designers. “We had to factor in how we would fabricate the piece, while minimizing costs and completing it within a year’s time,” he recalls. 

About a two-hour drive from Buttress’ studio in Nottingham, Stage One in York was selected by the same committee as the contractor for the project. Known for intricate work like the copper kinetic sculpture that served as the cauldron for the 2012 London Olympics, Stage One designs complex, engineered works. 

“With the help of structural engineer Tristan Simmons, the creative team worked together to complete the design of The Hive and pavilion as a whole,” Buttress says of the collaborative effort.

Pieces were cut using a waterjet and aluminum rods were machined on Stage One’s multi-axis machine. “If we added heat, it would have decreased the aluminum’s strength by 30 percent,” Buttress says. “Water negates that loss so we were able to move forward with our slim and elegant design.” 

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Stage One brought Buttress’ vision to life by engineering each of the 170,000 components that make up The Hive. Photos: Stage One

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From afar, Buttress wanted the structure to resemble a bee swarm. “It’s fairly rounded like a swarm leaving a beehive, but also chaotic,” he says. “And in that chaos, you can see the honeycomb and that sense of an order within the chaos.” 

To ensure the structure could be dismantled and rebuilt, the piece employs node connections. “Nodes allow for everything to be a mechanical fix rather than a welded fix—it can be taken apart and reassembled,” says Buttress. “And once it’s reached its lifespan, it can be recycled or reused.” 

The structure reaches 17 m high and resembles an erector set. “Hemispherical shapes were machined and bolted together on site,” explains Tim Leigh, sales and marketing director at Stage One. “I can’t impress upon you the real challenge of making sure that after the fabrication process, each component was labeled, bundled and packaged correctly.

“Lots of the parts were very similar but each node measured a couple of degrees different from the next so had the wrong part been bundled in the wrong group, it would not have worked,” Leigh continues. Such an error would mean desperately searching for a needle in a haystack amid hundreds of nearly identical looking parts. 

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Above and below: Using aluminum rod and node connections angled at varying degrees, workers wove in, out, over and under to create a spiraling movement reminiscent of a bee swarm. Photo: Mark Hadden

In the first assembly of The Hive, no two of the 170,000 components included were identical, says Buttress. “We knew we had to reduce it down to its essence,” Buttress says. “It was a Darwinian process in a lot of ways and we got it down to 200 slightly different-shaped components. While each layer exhibited rotational symmetry, each rotated 2.5 degrees relative to the next.” 

The fab shop tasked with producing the components worked overtime, cycling through 24-hour shifts to produce parts on an as-needed basis for each stage of the project. “Construction was limited within the boundaries of the 20 by 100 m site, so there was limited on-site storage space. We couldn’t deliver all the parts in one go,” Buttress recalls.

 Light and sound made the installment complete. Music and lighting effects emulates the ebb and flow of beehive activity. “Depending on the time of day, you might have a lull period, with gently strummed guitar or piano playing,” explains Buttress. “Whereas later on in the day you’ll listen and hear the fury of cellos, violins, pianos—the sound helps make sense of it.”

The Hive’s mission is to move around the world to make visitors aware of the necessity of preserving the natural habitats for bees. “Bees pollinate and are responsible for 30 percent of the food we eat,” Buttress says. “We wanted to bring this important message to a wide audience and keep the conversation going.” FFJ

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