If you’ve ever been to an aquarium or natural history museum and marveled at the life-size sculptures of enormous animals, you may have also wondered how it was built (or at least how they fit the thing through the door).
Sculptor Stephen Kesler recently shared the step-by-step process of sculpting and assembling a life-size humpback whale for a local aquarium. If you’ve worked with foam for small projects before, you’ll recognize the technique that Kesler applies to the 32 blocks of 4′×3’×8′ 1lb polystyrene foam seen below.
Kesler started with a 1:24 maquette (a rough scale model used by sculptors) which was digitally scanned with Autodesk’s 123D Catch app and sent to the aquarium’s structural engineer in order to build the needed supports. Next it was time to grid out the foam blocks into 1’×1′ squares and start cutting off all the extra material using hot wire and various carving tools. The discrete elements of polystyrene, or EPS foam, were glued together using an expandable polyurethane.
In addition to the external shape of the whale, Kesler carved a tunnel through the center of the sculpture to account for a 3’×3′ steel frame support structure, and also split the whale in half for transportation.*
Next came the task of assembling it all together. Foam pieces were placed around the steel frame, which was then welded together. Kesler advises that “This can be a little sketchy. We had fire extinguishers at the ready. Polyurethane foam can flame up pretty easily.”
After a few months of work, Kesler had finished most of the whale’s appendages, as well as an accompanying 19-foot humpback calf. Once the carving was completed, Kesler covered the foam with a mesh layer before adding a hard coat and textural details like the tubercles and barnacles.
The whales were painted, disassembled, and transported to the Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah, where it took an additional 10 days in the aquarium’s cafeteria to reassemble and smooth out the seams before hanging the 4,200-pound behemoth and her gentle offspring.
You can see more of Kesler’s work on his Instagram @stephenkesler_tusk.
*No whales were harmed in the making of this replica.