Recreating 16th century appodiments
When building a structure it is important to know the limitations of various materials, and work to compensate for them. Sugar is a temperamental material, prone to many problems. When added to an armature structure, these problems can be compounded.
- Sugar is heavy. The larger the piece, the more it needs an internal structure for support.
- Sugar is very porous and extremely hygroscopic. In certain areas of the world, it should be sealed against humidity in order to prevent cracking and rehydration.
- Metal can add significant weight to the overall piece. Depending on the material used, it can rust and is difficult to seal.
- Paper, wood, and other plant-based materials (pasteboard) are hygroscopic. This can cause an armature to warp and rot if kept in moist conditions for too long. It is also highly flammable if working with a subtlety, which will be employing fire.
When selecting a material for armature, finding a lightweight, transportable and still structurally sound was critical.
Craft grade aluminum mesh is a good modern armature material. It is rust resistant, very pliable and can be formed easily without the need for specialized tools. Most grades of mesh is “porous” and sugar does not adhere well. Sugar has to be pushed deeper into the structure and this adds significant weight to armature. To prevent this, a secondary layer is applied to the general shape. A shape can be formed and bound with wire, however, once the secondary layer is applied, the wire has a tendency to rust. Silk beading floss is a better option for binding shapes. It can be noted, that plaster mesh can also be used to create a base armature. Though it takes a significant amount of the base material to get a shape formed. This adds to drying time and over all weight to the final piece.
There are several materials that work well over metal armatures. When paper maché/pasteboard is used asthe second layer, it creates a good barrier between metal and sugar. The paper mache’s rough texture is ideal for grabbing sugar paste. The clean white paper pulp does not have a binder and is “activated” with water. It is starch free, which means that it is safe for people with starch/gluten allergies. It is white, which reduces potential ink bleed through to the sugar. The down side to this secondary layer is time. It takes a very long time for the paper to dry completely.
A better material is plaster mesh. The plaster mesh also has a rough texture and is white. It has several advantages over paper. It can be used to create small stand a lone structures hat do not need a metal foundation. It is closer to plaster of paris in behavior than the paper. It has a better bond when securing irregularly shaped pieces of armature together. The fabric nature of the mesh allows it to be freely applied around corners and rounded edges. The dry time for the plaster mesh is roughly 10 hours. The dry time for paper mache is roughly 28 hours. This time difference allows for faster creation of a structurally sound armature.
Plaster of Paris would be the best choice for a more medieval armature. However, the combination of metal mesh and paper maché/plaster mesh does not have the heat or toxicity of plaster of Paris. Plaster of Paris when mixed with water causes an exothermic reaction and can cause severe burns. Chemicals in plaster are considered to be irritants to the skin, lungs, eyes and stomach (if ingested). These hazards make Plaster of Paris dangerous for a re-creationist to use safely.
Paper and pasteboard
Paste board is a type of medieval cardboard. It is a by product of the paper industry. It can be soaked in water and allowed to form a shape. This shape can then be covered in sugar paste. The paste dries rock hard, but is difficult to get to adhere to the paper. This armature is not for strong structures as it has to sit undisturbed while the paste dries.
When these materials are used as armatures, they need t be sized. Sizing is a material that prepares paper or other porous surfaces like terracotta for painting. It reduces the surface’s tendency to absorb liquids. The secondary layer between the armature and the sugar must be sized or the paper will leech the liquid out of the sugar too fast. Paper will pull moisture from the environment, which will cause the sugar to crack and the armature to warp. Both of these things would be catastrophic to the overall piece. A simple solution of glare prevents the paper from moisture exposure, warping and has the added benefit of being food safe.
Bees wax was used as a base. It was hard to get the sugar paste to adhere to the wax. The paste had to be wet on one side, and then stuck to itself to seal. Of all the medium, this one was one of the easiest to work with. Though it would be very heavy if used to create a large free standing structure.
Plaster mesh is a great armature surface for working with sugar paste once it has been cured, roughed and sealed. This gives the sugar a surface to grip and avoids the leeching problem caused by the porous plaster. It is ideal to use with metal and creates the lightest structure of all the bases. It takes the lease amount of time to dry.
Plaster mesh when allowed to be compacted and used as a stand-a-lone base gains a lot of weight. On a large-scale structure this would require a number of people to move.
The first attempt at sugar application was directly to the sanded wood. The sugar would not stick. There was not enough grip to the under surface for the sugar to make a solid bind. It peeled off the form, like bad paint peels from a wall that has not been properly primed.
The second attempt came after priming the surface with paper mache. I knew that sugar could grip the paper form my earlier attempts with the metal armatures. However, the paper mache would not stick to the surface either.
The third attempt came after a rasp was taken to the entire form. This process created an uneven surface in the wood. The sugar stuck, but when it was dry it would not stay in position. It slid off the form.
The fourth attempt was a combination of priming the surface with a tempera paint, a layer of paper mache sealed with glare, followed by the sugar paste. The surface of the sugar was a bit bumpy than it normal would be as there was only one layer of sugar. The sugar was “smoothed” by burnishing it with water while it was still pliable.
As a final experimentation, wood was sanded with rough grit paper. It was sealed with glare and allowed to dry to a semi-tacky state. Sugar paste was rolled thin and water was brushed onto the surface to create a semi-tacky surface. These two tacky surfaces were then pressed together to create a bond. The sugar stayed in place to dry against the form. The dried sugar has bonded to the surface and remains in tact. The form was allowed to dry in position and sugar has created a hard shell and was able to be sanded. This could be further decorated with an additional layer of thin paste to create intricate details.
Pure paste, the control
The final display is ½” thick pure paste. It was molded in a form and has been allowed to dry. Each of the armature experiments brought to this event were started 4 days ago. The pure paste is still soft in the middle. This takes the longest to dry and uses the most amount of paste of all the options. There is more paste in this shape than there is on the wood form. The paste on the other armatures has been rolled thin enough to see my kitchen counter through. Sugar in the 16th century was an expensive commodity. I try to use as little as possible.
At the end of the experimentation, my preferred armature configuration for large structures is wire mesh, tied with silk floss, covered in plaster mesh and sized with glare. It gives me the lightest and most stable of base materials. For smaller molded pieces, I like the bees wax.
“MSDS :: Calcium Sulfate (Plaster of Paris).” Educational Science Supplies, Toys, Games and Kits. Science Stuff, Inc., 1 Sept. 2006. Web. 26 Jan. 2012