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Sculptors Ferrocement Manual - Chapter Eight - Biological Fiber Reinforcement

This chapter is a brief introduction to aquaint the sculptor with the material referred to as space-age mud and wattle in all ferrocement.com texts. Chapter nine contains some of the steps of actual sculptural examples in further detal. The complete manual includes expanded textual explanations with other ferrocement.com sculptural examples which utilize traditional ferrocement with a steel armature and plaster made from cement and sand, without acrylic, which does not bond well to steel.

Fibers mixed with cement and acrylic are a pleasing and fun combination for sculptural work. It is notable that anything done with biological fibers can also be done with woven or loose fiberglass. My preference for biological fibers has two distinct aspects: first, as a young surfer I repaired many fiberglass surfboards, while sanding these repairs, I acquired a lingering aversion to the itch of fiberglass under the collar, belt line and everywhere else the fine, glittering dust happens to to touch; second, the artist who sculpts with fibers and cement is acting in a dual role which includes the scientist exploring techniques which are suitable for the structural needs of the worlds poor and down trodden. I call this direction of thought space-age mud and wattle and discuss it more thoroughly in other manuals.

It is logical to wonder about the longevity of biological fibers as compared with steel or fiberglass reinforcement, especially for those artists who hope their work will survive for a few centuries, at least. This will of course have relation to where the sculpture is placed; outside in a tropical jungle versus inside a climate controlled museum mark the extremes.

Outside tests show no degradation after four complete winters. This is not a long period relative to paintings on canvas which have lasted for centuries but it does give solid, short-run confidence to the sculptor who is creating for outdoor use which is not necessarily permanent or which might be resurfaced and easily repaired sometime in the future. The sculptor who is placing their work inside large structures such as airports or government buildings may do so with complete confidence, at least for the life of the building and a few decades after that.

Plausible but unconfirmed verbal reports tell of burlap soaked in cement slurry and applied as siding while it was wet in Berkeley, California, circa 1910, supposedly, one can still see the weave of the fabric today, 2008. I have seen perfectly preserved horse hair used as reinforcement in lath and plaster of unknown age in a house which was built circa 1680. The point here is that longevity is attainable with biological fibers in a cement mix. Additionally, preservatives such as borax and chikusaku-eki, a byproduct from bamboo ash burners, add longevity which is probably far beyond the horizon of anyone alive today.*

The artist in this field is also a scientist performing valuable research some will use to construct long-lived housing using this space-age mud and wattle to help establish the as yet unknown new economy which will accompany a sustainable culture.

* “... Cellulose, best known as the tough material in trees, shrubs and grasses, is one of the most abundant biological materials on Earth..... Researchers have unearthed... microscopic bits of cellulose from 253 million-year-old salt deposits... under the right conditions, cellulose could last more than one billion years...” Science News, April 5, 2008, page 213, Salty Old Cellulose.

A plaster made up of fibers mixed into cement and acrylic is prepared by mixing the cement with emulsified acrylic and then adding fiber. The fibers in an easy to apply finishing mix are cut to lengths ranging from 50 to 100 mm (1/4 - 1/2”).

Pour a small amount of acrylic into the bowl and add cement if the sculpture is small or the work is so meticulous and time consuming that larger batches would solidify before being used. Larger quantities can be made by premixing cement and acrylic and pouring a small amount of the premixed material into a separate mixing bowl to add fibers. Cover the premixed cement and acrylic and keep it as cool as possible so it doesn’t harden too quickly and go to waste.

If a little too much has been made and there is need to thin it so the remainder is useful, do so with additional acrylic emulsion rather than water. It is a good idea to have a small container of acrylic for this purpose, for example; keep a one gallon container filled from a five gallon pail, an even smaller size, perhaps a pint or liter, can be filled from the gallon size. These smaller containers will tend to keep the size of mixed batches smaller and reduce waste. Learning to work with small amounts and paper cups introduces spontenaity and removes aversion due to clean-up effort associated with larger amounts of material. A stick and a paper cup makes it easy to start work.

Use this next series of photos as an introduction into the use of space-age mud and wattle. Start with two cups and a stick; one cup for a mold and another to mix the mud. This is meant to be quick and easy, a way to feel the media so that a creation dream may someday germinate.

Soak some fabric in water. Burlap is used in this example but muslin or an old pair of cotton pants is also okay. Allow the excess water to drip from the fabric, lay it on a piece of plastic and work the acrylic and cement mixture into the fabric with a stick, pallet knife or brush.

Stick the cement soaked fabric to the cup. It looks like fiberglass but there’s no itch.

Mix some acrylic with cement and pour it over fibers to make a plaster material. Cut up some burlap if you have no other fibers.

Use the plaster to finish your experiment as much as you wish. This plaster was made using low grade flax. The paper cup was pulled out of the test after a week or ten days.

No need to discard the introduction piece, keep it around to remind your innermost subconscious creative urges that space-age mud and wattle is a quick, easy and fun media to work with.

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