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Building an Elephant from the Ground Up - One Day Workshop

Aesthetic Challenge, Direct Provocation, Mechanical, NarrativeEvan BarnesComment

Watching David Attenborough's new series Africa inspired the collaborators to propose building an elephant as today's one day workshop project! The tinkerers were also stoked on this idea, so today we tried to build the eponymous Attenborough's San Francisco Gray Elephant (Loxodonta attenboria sub. sanfrancisca). 

Before building could begin, we had some tool training in the use of drills and the chop saws, during which some old hands and some new ones alike learned and demonstrated the safe use of the tools. Here, an old friend provides an excellent example of the kind of focus that is necessary when using power tools - his entire world clearly consists of himself and the cut he is making. 

After tool training, we got straight into design. The more we thought about it, the more challenging this particular project seemed. One goal we had was to make the trunk highly articulate, capable of twisting and moving just like a flesh and blood elephant's trunk. Recreating the shape of an elephant also promised to be a unique challenge.  

Below, some members of the head and trunk team talk through their fourth or fifth round of ideas about how to build the head and trunk.

After a solid design period, full of ideas, discussion, and design iterations, we got started building! We decided to build the head by creating a truncated (get it? trunk-ated?) pyramid out of wood as a frame. We planned to attach wire to this internal frame and sculpt it into the shape of an elephant's head, while also using the frame as a solid attachment point for the neck and trunk. However, it turned out that building a small truncated pyramid from 1x2s is a more complex task than we initially thought, and this took longer than planned. That's great, though! We learned something about how hard it is to accurately estimate task completion times. 

Below, two tinkerers conceptually test our trunk design:

We decided to make the trunk from small blocks of wood with ball and socket joints. This required end boring those tiny blocks on the drill press to create the sockets for the steel ball bearings. The team took to this precision task with great ability, and quickly produced all the parts we needed to make our trunk. We originally planned to join the trunk segments with rubber bands that would act like ligaments, holding the sections together across the joints while allowing free movement, but when we couldn't find any rubber bands, we got creative and used wire instead. 

Overall, the day went by quickly, and we were out of build time sooner than we would have liked. The body team also faced some unique design challenges in trying to recreate the shape of an elephant, and after much discussion eventually settled on a design that used an internal frame of wood and rope that was going to support a paper skin. 

The head team also ran out of time, but managed to get a first iteration developed. If we had had more time, we think we could have made a really lifelike elephant with a fully articulated trunk! As it was, though, this was an awesome day full of incredibly creative ideas and excellent collaborative development. We think we did David Attenborough proud! 

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