When I was commissioned to construct a 14-foot 5-inch long alligator for the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pa., I immediately reviewed my files on alligators to see what images I had. An internet search yielded more reference photographs. Proportions and dimensions were established and scale drawings, where 1 inch is equivalent to 10 inches, were created in three angles—from top, side, and frontal views.
The thickness of the concrete was set at a uniform 2½ inches. The outline of the animal from the top view was set on paper to a grid and transferred to the plywood base, which was set on 1½-inch rollers for easy loading. Plywood guides were cut with a 2½-inch-thick concrete in mind based on the drawings. These were put on the plywood (but not attached) with a stabilizing 2x4-inch flange. Polystyrene was cut to fit in between the plywood guide pieces, again with the concrete thickness in mind. A layer of galvanized diamond lath (mesh) was cut to cover the wood and foam. Next #3 rebar were cut and bent to form a rough skeletal grid, with another layer of mesh connected to it.
Templates were cut from Luan board for the jawline and head. Some crucial proportion numbers were at hand for accuracy. Many photocopies were available for reference concerning the variable textures of the alligator.
The day of the actual sculpting, extra help was needed. These good folks were necessary because there were a lot of square inches and much texture to replicate. Ten to 12 hours was required to sculpt the great beast with a few breaks depending on the setting of the concrete.
The concrete we used was a seven-bag mix with fine sand as the only additive. Some pea stone was added on the first layer.
After sculpting, the pieces were wet (damp) cured for two weeks. Two days of drying followed, then three to four coats of latex house paint was painted on in a lifelike way. Many color reference photographs from books and magazines were used to make the painting accurate.
Next the alligator was rolled onto a truck and transported to its final location—in this case the Elmwood Park Zoo. Holes were cut in the plywood to tie off to the fork lift and the alligator slid off the plywood at a 45-degree angle onto the pea stone base. Pillows and bars came in handy here.
Now the alligator, which I call the “High Relief Sidewalk,” is ready for many kids to climb on and enjoy.
John P. Kennedy is a wildlife sculptor and concrete contractor based in Delphi Falls, N.Y., where he crafts his lifesize and lifelike creations. Learn more about the artist’s work at http://jpksculpture.com/.