Don't be fooled. Inside this thin coating of sweetness is a fiery core of total insanity.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Hypertufa Projects -- Part Two and Beyond

Have you been waiting with bated breath to see how my hypertufa projects came out?

On Sunday, this is what happened when I tried to unmold the birdbath.

Total Structural Discontinuity!

I don't know what went wrong. It didn't break, it just crumbled to pieces, looking much more like just plain damp peat moss than anything else. I was a bit worried that I had used too much water. I've read that less water is better, it makes for a stronger bond with the Portland cement. However, it is also true that I ordered this mix ready-made, so I don't really know what the proportions of Portland cement to peat moss and vermiculite were. All of the others crumbled in exactly the same way, so into the trash they went!

Aw -- pause here so you can all make a sad face with me...

Anyway, I immediately roped my husband Nigel into accompanying me to Lowe's, where he very kindly hoisted a 50-lb. bag of Quikrete concrete into the car and then into the garage for me. I swear there were about 10 or 20 different kinds of concrete, all in different colored bags and all saying fast-setting. I couldn't figure out what the differences were, and I didn't want to stand there in Lowe's reading each bag to figure it out. I like red so I picked that one.

Here's the problem with getting a 50-lb. bag -- the instructions say to add a half-gallon of water to the entire contents and mix. But how much can you make with 50 lbs of concrete? A lot! I didn't really want to mix all of it up, but I couldn't figure out how much water to add to, say, 4 measuring cups of mix. Have I mentioned that math is not my strong suit?

So I gathered up all the molds I could, and mixed up the entire bag. I redid the birdbath.

A few days ago at the thrift store I found a cute little glass bowl shaped like a leaf, with the veins on the outside of the bowl. Perfect for making a deep leaf impression!

Then I made a concrete bowl. I put a layer on the bottom and then put that smaller bowl inside the larger one, and then tried to smush the concrete in around it. It ended up a little off-center, and was very messy work. You know how much of a mess you make when you repot a plant, and have to try to fill all around the root ball of the plant with new soil? And it gets all over whatever surface you're working on?

Does it look dry to you?

The mix seemed very dry to me. It was more like wet gravel than the concrete that I think of as pouring out of a concrete truck or in a mixer. But I left it as it was in those three molds, and added a little more water to the rest that was in the bin where I had mixed it up.

Unfortunately, at this point I think I added too much water. It ended up very runny.

I made this, which will hopefully turn out to be a cute pot with a square center.

And then I made a big brick with a votive in it.

My plan originally was to use letter blocks to make words in the brick. I wanted to use a quote from a Dylan Thomas poem.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower."

But when I pushed the letters into the mix, and pulled them out, the mix just slumped back into the space. So I gave up on that, and just made bricks. I had originally planned to break up the poetry quote into chunks, and put them on each brick.

A big brick

And a small brick

And another small brick

And I still hadn't used all the concrete. So I made a lump in a pizza box.

I went back a little while later and pressed a Brugmansia leaf into the lump.

I'm feeling a little discouraged. All the websites with cool concrete projects make it look so easy. It hasn't been, at least for me. It takes some learning, and refining.

In another two days, I'll know how successful today's experiments were. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Here's the entire Dylan Thomas poem.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever. 

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks. 

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime. 

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.

And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars. 

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm. 

It's a bit morbid, isn't it? It suits my pessimistic feelings about today's concrete endeavors.


  1. I'm SO relieved to know you recognised how morbid this poem is :) You had me a little worried!

    Oh, I am so disappointed for you, that all your hard work last week came to naught :( I really admire your willingness to press ahead, regardless. Your determination not to be beaten is enviable, as I know for a fact that I would have been far too miserable to try anything similar ever again!

    Please visit Sue Langley's marvellous blog
    She and a friend demonstrate exactly how to make garden crafts from hypertufa and theirs were very successful.

    Holding thumbs your latest attempt has a far happier outcome :)

  2. Definitely making sad faces for you, Alison. I've been hankering to being some concrete/hypertufa projects, as you might know. So I'll expect failure, at least at first, so as not to be disappointed.

    I don't know about morbid -- although it's definitely about death. Or, rather, about time and human impermanence. But I think he's conflicted, awed as well as horrified. The last two couplets reflect that conflict like a distorted mirror. Let's focus on the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. We'd be dumb not to.

    And thanks to Desiree for the hypertufa link.

  3. I hope to make some outdoor concrete wall hangings for my Etsy shop inspired by a 1960s Sunset Magazine Garden Art Book I have and I've been watching you too as you went through this process. It sounds a bit discouraging, but keep at it. I'd heard it was a bit tricky, and the only attempt I ever made also crumbled apart but I was just throwing things together to get rid of a bag of cement we had sitting around.

    PS I love how you picked your bag of concrete. I like red too and even thought of complimenting you on your lovely red tarp.

  4. Bummer! But you're not the only one to have failures with hypertufa. I hope this batch turns out well.

    I've been thinking that for the stepping stones I want to make for my garden I will just use the redi-krete. After all, weight isn't an issue with stepping stones.

  5. Alison, oh, phooey! I'm sorry to see this, I thought for sure it was going to work. I have never made anything tufa, so it's hard to say what went wrong. It sure looked good to me! I went and watched Leo's video again, and if you'd ever want to email him with questions, I know he'd be happy to help.

    You'd be surprised if you saw how dry we mix the mortar for Castle Aaargh, but again, that's mortar and not tufa mix. And I know just how many bags and 'flavors' of cement are out there, trust me, I know, and they're all different. We use a special type of mortar that is only sold at Home Depot and only because we mix our own mortar with sand we haul from a nearby quarry. Even making humble mortar can be an exercise in frustration, depending on the weather and humidity levels in the air, the dampness or dryness of the sand, the air temperature, ack, the list goes on and will all affect the end product. Carl's freaking out because some of our newer mortar work is a slightly different shade from the previous work we've done. I'm not worried, all I care is it holds the rocks together.

    I'll tell you this, I admire you SO much for going out and trying again. I know how frustrating this must be. My first stained glass window was nearly my last, it turned out awful! (Not to mention the money-angle too, stained glass is not cheap and I felt terrible about it.) But everything has a learning curve and I just know you will be successful!

  6. Hang in there. I really like the leaf bowl. I can't wait to see wha that one looks like. Sorry the first ones didn't turn out, but second time has to be a charm.

  7. I think it takes practice. To make something with words, type out what you want in some fancy script in big letters, then flip. I think we used plain ol' Microsoft Paint to make words once.
    Print the words all backwards, then put the printed paper underneath heavy plastic like a new blanket comes in. Use liquid weld from a tube to trace over the backwards letters in thick lines. Let dry.

    Put that in the bottom of whatever box or something you are using a mold.

    The concrete goes on top of the backwards words. When you turn it out after it cures, peel off the plastic and JB weld. You will have WORDS etched in your concrete.

  8. don't be discouraged!!! I have used that stuff at length...and it is not a perfect science. adding more water will only make it take a bit longer to dry is all. not enough water will make it crumble like sand...i think you did a good job...keep's cheap and easy to play me...177 bags of that stuff have passed through my hot little hands over the last two or three years...and I suspect there will be a few hundred more now that I am moving! lol

  9. Alison, don't be are just in the trial / learning part of this fun new hobby. I've heard that working with cement/concrete is an acquired chin up! You are on the road to success!

  10. I applaud you for sharing your hypertufa first failure and second attempt. I have not done it and after seeing your problems, I am not sure. Others make it sound sooooooo easy. I like red too, so glad that was the bag you chose. :-) hahahaha
    Your poem does have a dark side...good thing I am watching Colbert Report. good balance.
    Look forward to seeing a successful story when you unmold your hypertufas.

  11. I'm hoping that these ones turn out. How disappointing that the others didn't. It's frustrating to put time and money into something and have it not work out.

  12. As soon as I looked at your post I knew what the problem was. Hopefully, by now you've already figured it out. The problem is that you used Quickrete or Concrete. You have to specifically use plain old "Portland Cement". It usually comes in plain old gray and you can sometimes find it in white. I can't remember how long before unmolding them, either, but it seems like it was longer than 2 days.

    I haven't made any hypertufa in many years, but I still have a few of my planters I made 10 or more years ago and they still look great. Plus I had fun making them! There might be people out there using other stuff these days, but the original recipes all said Portland Cement. Portland Cement is the base for the concrete mixes, which means they have other stuff mixed into them. That doesn't work so well for this purpose. I hope this helps and hopefully you will make some more stuff and post it. I look forward to seeing more of your projects.

  13. I've just started my hypertufa journey, next on my list is the large leaf castings. I love them and also want to make other random shapes.. like a garden mushroom large enough to sit and rest.


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