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Avery Island

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Last year I tutored a student in South Austin. His dad was a big Tabasco fan and had several Tabasco-related artworks around the house. One day, he was telling me about their visit to Avery Island, where Tabasco is produced. After seeing the circular shape of the island, I got an idea.

This work is by far the most complex piece I’ve ever created. I wanted to share some of the process.

The first step was getting the elevation data of Avery Island in order to make a 3D model that could be CNC milled. I was originally thinking about using a laser machine to make a topographic map more like this, but Avery Island’s topography isn’t really dramatic enough for this style.

After endless hours on the internet, I found this tutorial. It look me a long time to realize that the detail of the elevation data generated in the first step wasn’t going to be good enough for a CNC milled piece about 2ft x 2ft. The Louisiana State University was kind enough to email me some DEM data, but it wasn’t detailed enough. I eventually got the elevation data at the USGS website (I was confounded for some time because the 3rd oldest data for Avery Island was the most detailed at 1/9 arc second).

I could then get into the QGIS step of the tutorial. All this went relatively well, but I was soon challenged with the fact that I was aiming for a cutout of the island, not a square. At first, I made a vector in Adobe Illustrator from a Google Earth screen shot to cut out the island, only to (much) later discover that it was a different map projection than my QGIS file (so it was a bit off).

The 5th step of the tutorial is where I diverged the most as I was going to be using a CNC instead of a 3D printer. At this point, I really needed help. Fortunately, I got a scholarship from the Austin chapter of Emerging Arts Leaders to get a month membership and classes at ATXHackerspace. At this local makerspace, I got the guidance of a genius who built the CNC mill for the shop. Upon his recommendation, I used Vectric Aspire 8.0 to get this into a format the CNC could understand.

I exaggerated the scale of the topography a bit in Aspire so that it would fill up more of the 3/4 inch MDF I was using. After getting the map projection right, I was able to make a vector cutout in Adobe Illustrator that I could import directly into Aspire so that it would cut out what I wanted.

With this bit and this bit at the ready, we started trying it out on his machine. At first, we discovered that the collet wasn’t doing it’s job correctly, so we had to wait for a new one to get in. Then we found out that the bit was getting stuck on its return pass. To counter this, we had to do a pass of the outline wide enough so that the passes back and forth wouldn’t get stuck.

After sitting next to the machine for 6 hours from 9pm-3am with my goggles and breathing mask on (MDF dust is dangerous), the piece was finally done.

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The machine

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Pass to allow the back and forth to not get caught

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Kept in place with fiberglass nails

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Watching its progress in linuxcnc

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ATXHackerspace

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Finished

To get the piece ready for painting, I spent even more time on the internet to figure out how to get paint on MDF without it warping. In the end, I used drywall compound around the edges and a 50/50 water / wood glue mixture to paint on the surface. After a few coats of this stuff, the piece was ready for paint.

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Drywall compound around the edge. 3 coats with sanding between.

I used an Olympic semi-gloss Tabasco colored paint. It went on great and with no warping.

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By reaching out to facebook, I found that a friend had a membership to Restaurant Depot, where I could get 2 cases of Tabasco bottles for about $70, significantly cheaper than anywhere else. Yes, I asked friends, craigslist, restaurants, etc for bottles, but to no avail.

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The base under the island was tricky. I used a jigsaw to cut it out. Initially, the base was just a slightly shrunk version of the island, but I found out that wouldn’t work as the bottles would point in more extreme angles and cross. I considered a circle, but with the shape of the island, it would have to be so small as to conceal all the points where the base connects with the glass. After lots of redesigning and shaving off bits, the base is a curvy simplification of the island’s shape. It’s also 3/4 inch MDF, which is half of the width of the butt of a bottle. I decided that I would go this way, adding a smaller base on top of this base for the actual island to rest upon. Less MDF equals less weight and the cleat on the back allowed for me to have space on the back end for a quarter of the bottle’s butt.

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An idea I scrapped, using a square the same width as the bottle butt. Came up short on this sketch.

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I thought this would work. 1.5 inch strips that I could arrange to fit the shape. I didn’t end up needing this because the base shape changed.

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This would have been a great idea if it worked…

I cleaned the bottles using a syringe. I have no idea what I’ll do with tubs of hot sauce. Boy, did it burn the back of my throat just smelling it for hours. The bottles dried and then I put the caps back on.

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Yes, I tried a nasal spray thing. Didn’t work so well.

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This might have been boring if it wasn’t for the burning.

At first I thought that e6000 would be my best bet for gluing glass to the MDF base, but after a test on a scrap piece, I found that it worked, but wasn’t that strong. Hot glue worked better. I got the cleat (3/4 inch) on the back and glued the bottles on one by one by moving a scrap piece of wood as support under the bottle so I didn’t have to hold it the whole drying time. The caps had to be taken back off because the hot glue was making the minuscule amount of moisture still left in the bottles steam up the insides.

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This was done while baby napped.

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The smaller base was wood glued onto the larger base, and then the island was wood glued on top of that. I felt uncomfortable not being able to clamp it, but I’m sure it’s fine.

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Smaller base being glued (yes, a bottle got knocked off in the process)

To hang the piece, I came across a problem. The bottles prevent the sides from being held. My arm was too big to get behind it to hang the piece without knocking off several bottles on the top and bottom. I used a couple of D-hooks screwed into the base and heavy duty wire so that I could lift the whole piece without touching the sides. The wire was secured between an angling ruler. If you look closely at the photo, you can see where I lowered the piece as a practice before taping it up (the wires scratched up the wall). The wires are still behind the piece so that I can get it relatively easily for moving.

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Here you can see the metal ruler used to lift the piece by the wire

This project was a year in the making. I learned so much in the process. I can’t say that I’m rearing to make another one immediately, but I would like to make CNC maps of the places where I’ve lived. Apparently it’ll be tricky getting 1/9th arc second data of places overseas…

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