When starting our “upcycling” assignment, I decided that it would be important for me to source materials that are truly being reused, rather than thrown away. Moreover, I set a goal that I didn’t want to purchase anything for this project (I thought it would be bending the theme of upcycling a bit). When I came across a couple of boxes of packing peanuts at work, I was drawn to this medium – especially when I learned that they were the corn starch type of packing peanut, that gets sticky with moisture. I imagine that they are designed to completely dissolve in water (for environmental reasons), but by only
licking exposing particular areas to moisture, they stick together wonderfully with a completely natural bond! Now, to decide what to construct…
Originally, I wanted to build something stupidly huge with the packing peanuts, to prove that with the right ingenuity and perseverance, ginormous structures can be made out of small pieces (a la toothpick towers or card houses). Looking at the number of packing peanuts that I actually had, however, helped me realize that I didn’t really have the ability to make something all that tall. When I turned to the internet for inspiration, I was grossly unimpressed:
Nevertheless I began experimenting with connecting pieces together and ended up making a jagged-y looking stick of packing peanuts. Having a bit of an overactive imagination, this piece reminded me of an antler of some sort. This is where the idea of making a mounted deer head trophy came into play – it would be tough enough to construct, with suspended antlers and nose, yet would be instantly recognizable. I did try to develop some other ideas, but this one stuck like a wet packing peanut (sorry).
Developing my Idea
Upon settling on a mounted deer head, I looked into if/why it would fit into some aesthetic. I determined that mounted animals in general have their own aesthetic, as they are an icon of certain ways of life and regions of the country. If you were asked to think of a mounted animal head, I imagine that most people would picture the elk or deer head (with large antlers) hanging in the lodge at your favorite ski resort or your uncle’s cool but kind of creepy cabin. It is probably showcased on a wooden plaque shaped sort of like a shield, and the creature’s head is at some characteristic angle, cut off at the neck. The fact that there exists such a unanimous image of these trophies convinced me that this project would certainly be exploring an aesthetic, if not poking a bit of fun at it.
I think that the piece also lends a bit of commentary to the idea/aesthetic of additive manufacturing. 3D printing has become super popular in its many forms, and this is basically a similar process, with new layers being deposited one at a time, piece by piece. I used a sponge to wet each piece before adding it to the structure, which is only slightly less cool than laser sintering or extruding plastic.
Construction and Design Process
Since I picked such an iconic thing to construct, there wasn’t a whole lot of design needing to be done. However, I did need to think about where to start the model, how to mount it, how to structure the insides, etc. I firmly believe in an iterative design process, and my group’s design cycle brainstorming created what I view as the widely-accepted design loop. In the context of this project, I jumped right in with gluing peanuts together (ideation), and started to shape them in a way to build up a base for my model (beginning to prototype).
I began by forming the neck portion, and once it was about 3-4 inches in diameter I fastened it to a cardboard base (turns out that the packing peanuts stick to cardboard too!). Piece by piece, I added bulk to fill in a neck shape and begin to form its head. This is where the testing/evaluation phase came in, as I constantly needed to look at how the model was coming together, and whether it looked like my goal. This helped me tweak the angle of the neck and bulk up the model appropriately, which is where I left my model overnight (below, right).
To my surprise, the model shrunk considerably overnight! The moisture leftover in the packing peanuts sunk further and further into each piece, essentially eating my model from the outside. While I was pretty disappointed that it lost so much volume, I was pleased that in the process it became super solid. I wasn’t remotely worried about the structure not being solid enough anymore, and actually felt better about being able to add more volume on top without compromising stability.
To prevent the shrinkage from happening again, I needed to better control the moisture content in each bond. Rather than using a wet sponge, I simply gave each piece a good lick to provide just enough
spit moisture for a solid bond line. A whole lot of licking later, I had a head and neck completed and was ready for features: ears and antlers.
The ears I made from a few packing peanuts fastened together in a flat shape, which I then very carefully attached to the top of the head. These were pretty fragile for a few hours until it dried. The antlers I created by gluing peanuts on-end to make several short segments, which I then glued together and finally onto the top of the head between the ears. These were nerve-wracking because they didn’t dry very quick, and would flex at the bond areas. To keep them from collapsing or sagging overnight while they dried, I made supports (out of packing peanuts) to hold them up as the head was lying on the table.
Here is a time-lapse video of the construction process:
I’m pretty pleased with my piece, while I do wish I could have made it bigger. After the shrinking and sagging, It became a bit difficult to add on more while keeping the shape appropriate, so I was a bit limited in that respect. Regardless, I’m satisfied that the model does look like its inspiration, and viewers can immediately tell not only what it is, but what it is made out of. That was my goal, and hopefully people will say “wow, he made that out of packing peanuts?” Especially with the shaped cardboard baseboard, I think it looks pretty accurate on a wall!
What’s next? I’m going to hang it in my living room, of course! I think I’ll need to make a packing peanut fireplace for it to hang over…