The Giant Gavel

Continuing my foray into the three dimensional world, I was recently asked to make an auctioneer's gavel for Country Property estate agents.

Why not, I said. A little light woodturning is always welcome.

It needs to be about 6 foot tall, they said. And to break down into 3 parts. Oh, and we want it lightweight but strong....


So, much headscratching on my part lead to a design that needed a lightweight steel armature with rod and socket joints at 2 points so that the whole thing could be disassembled, sculpted from high-density polystyrene and then coated in a double layer of fine-weave fibreglass. The original spec that the estate agents sent to me had the gavel lying on the soundblock, which I felt looked rather static, so I designed it to be standing on edge as if it had just been struck. As the finished piece was due to be installed in the Bristol Museum and Gallery, where the auctions are to be held, I thought that this made it look more like a proper sculpture as well.

The internal core I made out of vacuum cleaner tubes, as they provided the best lightweight rod and socket joints I could think of without having to dust off my pretty rusty welding skills. Hampshire Insulations kindly cut me 3 basic cylinders for the 3 parts of the gavel and sounblock, and split them for me so that I could inset the armature inside them, with additional bracing for strength.

Once I'd put the thing together in its 'styrene form, I could now see whether or not my design would actually stand upright as intended. Even though I'd been as careful as I could in the planning stage, it was still a bit nerve-wracking to assemble it and let go of it... but it worked, even better than I thought. It might not look it, but it's actually really stable!

Next up was a trip to Matrix in Bristol, where the peerless Whizz kindly gave me what amounted to a 2 hour tutorial on the best way to cover the form in fibreglass. I've done a fair amount of work with this frankly disgusting substance before, but this necessitated a few different chemicals and techniques than I was used to, and Whizz' advice was invaluable.

Essentially, it's like wallpapering, but instead of a wall, you are trying to cover a sculpture, and instead of paste, you're using epoxy resin. And yes, it is as smelly and as little fun as it sounds. Once this has gone off, you apply a fill layer of resin mixed with microscopic glass bubbles, which looks like very fine dust. At this point, I was able to get the texture of woodgrain into the sculpt, and to work in a few dinks and areas of wear so that the finished piece looked like a normal gavel that had been enlarged. Stuff like this can look a little 'engineered' if it is too flawless, so it was important to keep it looking nicely organic.

Then comes the primer, a high-build polyester paint. Wouldn't you know it, this stuff is incredibly stinky and disgusting as well. Hurrah for cartridge gas masks, that's what I say...

Finally, I got to the fun part- making it look like wood. After days of sticky goop, the smell of a pot of humble acrylic was like a breath of fresh air, and working in the different layers of the grain was really enjoyable.

To give you an idea of scale in the above picture, I stand 6 feet and 1 inch tall in my socks (which I'm glad to see had no holes in them when the pic was taken...).

On Wednesday 18th I went along to the Museum for the first of County Property's auctions to be held there, and was greeted by my gavel in the centre of the entrance hall. I have to say, I'm pretty chuffed with how it came out!

Tone Hitchcock


June said...

Amazing piece of work Tone. I shall try to get up to the museum to see this.

Frances Cony said...

Hi Tone

Well done. Very impressive. I just wanted to know, if you've now got a NEW vacuum cleaner?

Is it just in the middle of the entrance hall for the auctions (I like the way they tiled the floor specially in anticipation of your gavel!)? Is it to be seen elsewhere the rest of the time? Might have a look tomorrow.

F x