Since I took to Twitter or X or whatever it is nowadays with a couple of pictures of Victor the pelican (I will get to how he got his name some other time) there has been a bit of interest but social media has never been my thing, I tend to make a total hash of even the simplest tasks, though my youngest was thrilled to bits last week when I successfully ‘tagged her in a reel’ on Instagram. I thought I’d just sent her a short video but apparently the feat I pulled off was far more than that.
I may have managed that but I have no intention of trying it again or anything more ambitious but I used to really enjoy writing the diary for the Bluebird Project and still do enjoy writing so I thought, as we are quiet at the moment why not dig out all the old photos and write a series of mini diaries about where Victor came from and how he’s built. It’ll probably take a half a dozen chapters and hopefully you will enjoy them so here goes.
Victor’s story began in 2014.
When the girls were small we took them on cruise ships. It’s a safe environment, they couldn’t get off, there was always plenty for them to do, they could roam around all day doing their own thing and the whole family loved it and in 2014 when we were away, Lucy, the eldest, being nine years old, decided she wanted to have hear ears pierced. We had booked a two-week cruise to the Caribbean and such voyages were treated as two, one-week cruises with the ship returning to Ft. Lauderdale or Port Everglades at the end of the first week, so we decided we’d take Lucy to the mall and have the deed done as a surprise for her.
She didn’t enjoy the surgery too much but she was satisfied with the result and after it was done, Rachel and the kids went off to look at the shops leaving the typical bored dad to kick his heels and await their return. But I found something interesting.
Hanging from the ceiling, as though flying in through some large windows, was a flight of near life-size pelicans made from copper. I was captivated. I have always had a soft spot for pelicans. They are a real miracle of evolution. Ungainly on their big silly feet whilst walking around but incredibly graceful in flight and when they hunt they become ruthless killing machines, transforming into swept-wing missiles that spear headlong into the water in search of prey. They are huge too. Very impressive birds, are pelicans.
Of course, I viewed the installation as art for only an instant before pondering their construction. Copper is a heavy material and usually quite soft too so straight away I was thinking they must have had some sort of internal structure so they didn’t sag under their own weight. Maybe a steel frame. Yes, that would work.
Wire down the leading edges of the wings and extending to the tail. Three suspension points for extra redundancy. I thought to myself, when I get home I’ll make one of those. Not an entire flight, just the one, but I’m having a pelican.
The problem I had was that I wasn’t enamoured with the artist’s style. Art is obviously very subjective and the copper pelicans were magnificent in their own right but I just didn’t like how they were done and I don’t like copper very much either.
Aluminium, on the other hand, was my metal of choice back then. There was a lot going on with the big blue boat and we were having to do things with aluminium that people said just couldn’t be done so aluminium it would be.
First thing to do was to study up on pelicans. They’re enormous things, getting on for six feet across and that’s just the little Californian ones. The big white Pacific ones are even bigger!
The Californian variety seemed more than big enough so I spent many hours studying images, printing them off and scaling every dimension.
I have made a few metal bird sculptures, though nothing on this gigantic scale, and had previously built the whole thing completely from wood first to get my head around the shapes but I decided this was just going to be too big and unwieldy done that way so I went straight for a wire frame instead. It’s made of 6mm diameter steel, which is easily cut and shut and worked until it takes on the right dimensions and shapes and once that was somewhere near it was clothed in card to get an idea of the wings.
I decided to work inwards from the wingtips. Birds’ wings are built to a fairly standard design.
They have the primary flight feathers at the very end. Think of those as being the bird’ fingers so the wingtips are basically its hands and it uses those to claw its way into the air. Then the secondary flight feathers are lined up along the backs of its arms and these provide propulsion. Then, over the leading edge and extending back to provide a smooth aerodynamic covering over the roots of the flight feathers, are the coverts. I decided to build each set separately having taped the card to the frame and drawn on each feather. Primary flight feathers first. Big aluminium hands.
At this point they have some shape in that each feather is picked out using the bead roller and there’s a little shaping of the individual flight feathers to give them some curvature at the front. Notice there’s five primaries. The feathers would later be further stretched with a hammer and dolly to give them an aerofoil shape and more life.
Once they had taken on a little more shape they were fastened to the frame with skin pins for the moment, the final fixing to be done with flush rivets once the sections were all welded into one seamless piece from wingtip to wingtip. The wing skins are made from 1.5mm aluminium. Small sections of 1mm flat steel were welded into the frame for the purpose of affixing skin pins so Victor’s hands could be fastened on solidly, though temporarily, in preparation of making his secondary flight feathers and his back.
Apologies for the quality of the pictures, camera phones were not so good back then and at the time I wasn’t really fussed about documenting what was merely a whim. They get better, I promise.
The next aluminium sections covered from where the hands ended to the centreline of his back. They don’t appear too complicated at a glance but there’s a fair amount of shape going on if you look carefully. The flat pieces were shaped on the English Wheel to give both the outward curvature across the wingspan towards the tips and the aerofoil shape from front to back. The transition into the back of the body was done with hammer sandbag and dolly.
Below are the two inboard sections pinned in place. It’s vital to make them a good fit to one another to minimise distortion when they are all welded together. The closer the fit-up, the easier the welds and the less it all moves about when it’s heated.
At this point it’s all pinned down to the frame with 3/32” red pins. The flat steel pieces the pins go into were added and shaped as the build progressed to ensure everything went down neatly and the shapes flowed in a natural fashion.
By now I had departed a long way from the original inspiration of the copper pelicans. The detail was beginning to creep in. I’d told myself I wouldn’t do that because it’s perfectly possible to make something that looks like a pelican without having to recreate every last feather but it’s a terrible failing of mine. I’ll start something with the intention of keeping it simple then the kids will turn up, take one look and shake their heads sadly and assure me that I will soon design the simplicity out of it. They are right enough.
So once the primary flight feathers were made the die was cast and the secondaries had to be counted out and recreated too.
You can see here that both inboard sections are now welded together down the centreline of the back and the joint disappeared by finishing the metal. This involves dressing the weld until it is invisible and gently shaping the area so it all flows as though sculpted by nature over millennia. Doing this can absorb a great deal of time and is impossible to convey in pictures. The outboard weld to join the wingtip to the centre span hasn’t been made yet but the feathers all flow nicely across the joint. All that needs now is a weld.
The close fit meant that the weld could be kept nice and flat with minimal distortion. The pin holes are also redundant now so they can go too and once both wingtips are welded on and the welds dressed away it becomes one panel from wingtip to wingtip.
From beneath, the main wing panel riveted into the frame. The welds are invisible now and notice the flat steel sections that accept the rivets. Also worth noting is how the steel frame has been evolved to mimic the actual structure of a bird’s wing. That is important because the next phase was to make a pair of caps to replicate the leading edge, underwing bone structure and the upper and lower feathers.
The lower wire with the kink in it is how the wing bone is extended in flight, the kink is effectively the bird’s elbow. The upper wire is stretched skin and feathers to provide a leading edge. As the wing joint is flexed the properties of the leading edge are altered. It’s always useful to understand the underlying physiology when trying to make something lifelike.
This is the lower leading edge cap. It faithfully follows the shape of the underwing structures and the placement of all the feathers as well as hiding the steel frame. It was made in one piece and shaped with hammer and dolly, the feathers being rolled in with a bead roller. It doesn’t meet at the centreline like the upper panels because the breast of the bird extends further outboard and covers the inner end of the cap.
The upper cap is simpler in terms of shape. It doesn’t have to fit around bones, it’s a simple aerofoil shape, but there’s three separate layers of feathers at its outboard end so naturally I had to recreate that effect.
The aluminium version is welded to the lower cap along the leading edge and the weld dressed off to give the impression of it being a single piece. It then slots over the wire frame to hide it and the leading edge of the main wing panel, which has no feather shapes in it. Once assembled the wings looked pretty good.
There’s also a bit of mocking up going on around the head and back in this shot because having built the wings I soon realised that they were in fact the easy bit. Having committed to such exacting detail on the big expanse of wing I was going to have to match it on the head and the feet and the body and everything else. It was about this time that I realised I’d once again fallen headlong into my own trap of taking on something that could have been simple and made it all complicated.
Ah well, past the point of no return and all that…
End of Part 1.