Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Balloonatic Lunatic

Are you ready for the latest spot of craziness going on here in my little lunatic asylum I call an art studio? It's time to take one of the creative risks I was talking about earlier where the potential for failure is high. Drum roll please... the soup du jour art project is a miniature hot air balloon project. Yep, you read that right, my art project is building a homemade miniature hot air balloon. Oh man, what kind of catnip did I get into when I decided to tackle this one? Must have been some good stuff because this requires some effort.

The seed idea.
So what triggered my interest? Well, like always, long drawn out chain of events led down this particular road of destruction. The initial seed idea for the project was sewn when I was over at school in the art building and encountered a set of wire art sculptures in the hallway. A large tornado was the centerpiece attraction and it was pretty spiffy. But over to the side, a more colorful but subtle piece drew my eye - the balloon you see in the photo on the left. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to take the idea in my own direction but I couldn't figure out how. So there the idea sat waiting for something to kick my thought-percolator into gear.

The next event in the chain happened a few days ago when one of my neighbors stopped to talk to me as he walked by the house. The conversation drifted from subject to subject as it usually does. We talked about things like how much city hall bugs us or the fact that the weather is slowly turning from winter to spring. In the midst of all this, my neighbor mentioned buying a sewing machine for something he was working on. My mind stopped and turned over the thought a few times as I wondered whether or not a sewing machine would be useful tool as I've never sewn anything in my life. It's one of the few skills I've never tried to acquire. Not that I didn't have the need but I never seemed to have the interest. Another gear tried to start turning, but wasn't enough to kick the juggernaut of my curiosity into motion yet.

The next day, I was browsing through photos on the web looking for seed ideas to use for an art project. One of my common watering holes to visit is Trend Hunter, a site focused on providing artistic inspiration for anyone who has an insatiable appetite for pop culture as well as emerging trends. When I need a creative art fix or an idea, I hop over to Trend Hunger to see if I can find someone who is making art with Styrofoam cups or sculptures from kitchen utensils. It just so happened that I stumbled across several photos of hot air balloons. The photo was a night scene and the balloons were lined up in a row and brightly lit. "Sweet!" I thought to myself. I liked the looks of the brightly color fabrics being back-lit, giving them a glowing appearance. The gears finally started turning and I took off like a rabbit thinking about every angle I could on how to make a miniature hot air balloon.

I hunted around the web and found a few sites talking about cloudhoppers which are one man, er, one person balloons. Nice, but not small enough yet. I'm thinking more like three foot diameter at most or maybe a two feet give or take a little. I find the other end of the spectrum of hot air balloon models, the garbage bag and tissue paper projects. The garbage bags are not aesthetically pleasing because, well, they look like garbage bags. The tissue paper version are nice but quite delicate. Being like a bull in a china shop, I'm not exactly good with delicate things. All the twitching I have would mean certain doom for a tissue balloon.

Time to think independently then and break from the wolf pack with their quick but clever garbage bag balloons What if I tried to use a thin fabric? Perhaps something like the ripstop material kites are made of. A quick searched indicated nylon and polyester fabrics are used for kites. Okay, so if tissue paper or garbage bags are the most commonly used materials rather than nylon, the weight might be the issue. Hopefully, a deeper search would turn up the necessary weight details about tissue paper and nylon. But first, I had to learn some terminology like what gsm (grams per square meter) means and what the difference between a sailmaker's yard, a running yard and a square yard is. I had no problem on the finding the definitions. A sailmaker's yard is roughly 28.5 inches wide and 36 inches long. A running yard is 36 inches long while its width is that of the fabric roll it is on which comes in a variety of fixed widths between 32 to 60 inches. And the more obvious being the square yard which is three feet by three feet. Verstehen Sie? Cool.

My searches indicated tissue paper can weigh anywhere between 10 to 35 gsm (grams per square meter) while the lightest polycarbonates like Icarex weighs about 31 gsm and 3/4 oz. nylon is heavier weighing in at 42 gsm. I'll assume most people who made tissue paper balloons used the lighter weight tissues weighing in at 10 gsm. That's a pretty big difference but with sufficient internal volume to a balloon, it can certainly be overcome. If I were mathematically inclined, I'd figure out the minimum necessary ratio of fabric to hot air to achieve lift. But with me being away from calculus for so many years, my skills with integration are toast. And physics, well I never took the subject so unless my chemistry classes covered enough details about gas laws and thermodynamics, I wouldn't have been exposed to necessary calculations. Okay, so I will do what any clever backyard schemer would do, prepare for some trial and error. That along with a side order of failures and I should be doing pretty good.

Fortunately, I found a pdf document to use as a guideline about calculating a balloons lift. The document was authored by a fella named Bo Gardmark who generously shared his calculations for the lifting potential of the no longer available Banana Bending Companies 100 cm hot air balloon. The balloon in his example was roughly one meter in height and weighed approximately 108 grams. The Banana Balloon was fairly light to be certain, but now I have a reference weight to use as a baseline and some rough sizing details. Very helpful indeed. Oh, and one more thing, I will also need to verify nylon materials I"m looking a can withstand the heat involved but I'll get to that test later.

Ah, but we aren't ready to start work yet. If I'm going to work with rectangular panels of ripstop nylon, I'll need to bond the panels together somehow. Off to do more research. Learning more terminology was in order. My term of "panel" is what a balloonist maker would call a gore. Getting tired of this yet? Fortunately, I'm not so I dug deeper into bonding techniques. Human carrying balloons seemed to use parallel sewn stitches for durability and reliability while glues were used for tissue paper balloons. Seems like sewing would be in order for what I'm working with. Hah! And that is where the connection exists with the initial conversation my neighbor started when he mentioned buying a sewing machine. So off I dashed to research sewing machines.

I'll skip the boring details on my hunt for Red October, but it looks like Craigs List will be my friend for acquiring a used sewing machine. One of the basic models from the 70's should do the job like an old metal Kenmore like a 12 stitch model should do. It might be tough to find it in the cheapskate price range I'm after though since I'm after a ballpark range of about thirty dollars. The more reliable used models I found were running around 100 to 150 dollars with the "needs-repairs" machines coming in at 40 to 60 dollars. Well, it's a hiccup I'll solve later. For now, I can continue to track down other things I need while I search for a bargain at the thrift stores.

I also spent some time looking for patterns to assemble the different panels (gores) that are used to make a balloon from flat sheets of material. After sifting through a few YouTube videos, I found a hot air balloon video by Animaplates that proved quite helpful in showing how she assembled the different panels of her balloons. Even though my design uses different materials, I can still use the same technique for cutting the nylon panels. Update: I found another potential source of balloon gore panel patterns. The book is "Playing with paper : illuminating, engineering, and reimagining paper art," Hiebert, Helen, 1965. The wait queue at the library for this book has kept me from being able to read its contents. It will likely be at least another two to four weeks before my turn to check out the book arrives. I'll make another post about the usefulness of the book after I've had a chance to read through it.

One last thing I need to point out. Since this is an art project, the entire process will be free-form and will have a life of its own. I'll let the material and subject tell me where it wants to go. In other words, what the project starts out as may not be what it ends up as.

Well, enough of my babble for now. One of my next tasks is to acquire tissue paper for a prototype test as I need to iron out the technique for assembling the balloon. Once I have a pattern and can assemble the patterns, I'll move on to the second phase. But not before I try to see if the tissue paper prototype will fly. We'll see if this bull in a china shop can keep from tearing the paper. I better not drink any coffee or tea when I try to assemble this project or I'll be known as Sir Shakes-A-Lot, the destroyer of balloons.

As I make progress on the "Balloonatic Lunatic" project, I'll create more posts.