Making a Hot Air Balloon Prop
Updated: Oct 3, 2022
What is the meaning of life? Are we alone in the universe? What’s the quickest, most cost-effective way to make a miniature hot air balloon? These, as we all know, are the burning questions of our age.
In today’s blog we’re going to be providing an answer to the third - and arguably most important - of those three, because the prop makers at PolyWood Studios recently found out that answer… the hard way.
First, some context: A friendly, family-run creative agency got in touch with us at the beginning of September with a novel request - could we build them a hot air balloon prop in rainbow colours? It was to be used to decorate a parade float at a Birmingham Pride Event (as in gay pride, not Brummie pride, although that would be a perfectly appropriate event also). The full piece, including the basket, needed to be roughly 60cm wide by 90cm tall.
The budget was tight, but not as tight as the deadline - apparently something had gone awry with another supplier and as a result they now had just over a week until the prop was required. Balanced with other projects, this in effect meant we only had around four days to conceptualise and complete the project. ‘’No problem!’’, we thought as we chomped on our cheese and pickle lunch (with bread). We love a challenge.
Our first attempt was with papier mâché. And not just because it’s a great sounding phrase. We decided it would be the most lightweight of all durable options; the balloon would be hanging from a thread, so lightweightness was an absolute necessity, but it also needed to be strong enough not to collapse on contact with things. Unfortunately, there was a downside to using papier mâché, which we had underestimated. More on that shortly.
We used a plastic wrap as a first layer so that we could remove the papier mâché structure from the ball once dry, then we applied four layers of papier (paper, for the uninitiated/unfrench). You have a number of options to choose from when it comes to the paper. Newspaper is classic, but we sourced paper of one tone, to make it easier to paint over. We opted for four layers (well, that's all we had time for), using a solution mix of 1 part glue to 1 part water.
Ideally, you want to give each layer of mâché (...mash?) 12-24 hours to dry naturally, but we just didn’t have the time. So, we whacked on the fan heater to speed things up. Et voilà! After extracting our mould, we had our balloon structure - completely smooth and spherical.
Unfortunately, that changed when we started painting it.
Applying two coats of paint and a coat of gloss had caused a couple of areas at the top of the balloon to crater ever so slightly. It wasn’t terrible; the overall structure was okay, it just wasn’t up to the standard required. The only remedy we could think of at this point was to fill the dents with polyfilla, sand down and repaint. This did improve the finish, but not by enough. Our gamble with a time-sensitive papier mâché operation had failed. More drying time and perhaps an extra layer or two would almost certainly have done the trick - but it was something we just had no time for.
As tempting as it always is to dwell on all the ‘what-ifs’, we knew we had no time for that. We needed to come up with a plan B. A very speedy plan B…
Plaster of Paris! Yes!
We hopped on a plane to the French capital before snapping out of it and zooming back to Birmingham. All of this French was clearly going to our heads…
We quickly got to work on a second attempt. For a 90x60cm balloon structure, we used three packs of plaster of Paris, which came to £30. More expensive than papier mâché, but hardly a bank breaker.
Et voilà! Again! This new technique had given us a single, perfectly-hot-air-balloon-shaped structure. Heavier than the papier mâché version, but still lightweight enough to hang, and much, much sturdier for applying the acrylic paint job (and gloss). The godsend here was the speed with which the plaster dried. We’d managed to create this second hot air balloon in one (admittedly long) day, from start to finish, as opposed to the three-day papier mâché attempt.
We created the basket, then used string (which looked like miniature rope) to attach the basket to the bottom rim of the balloon using four carefully placed attachment points. Et voilà! (last one) A beautiful, hand-painted and glossed hot air balloon prop, ready for the parade!
So, there you have it. Plaster of Paris is the winner. Or at least, it won for us.
‘’That’s all very well, but plaster of Paris isn’t a sustainable material’’, I imagine many of you thinking… Well, hold your horses there, because a few years ago some boffins over in India discovered a way to recycle Plaster of Paris waste. So, hurrah for POP!
By the way, have you ever wondered why plaster of Paris is called plaster of Paris? Well, I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that it was originally extensively mined from Montmartre... in Paris. But here's a funner fact: use of POP predates the industrial revolution and it has even been found on the insides of pyramids! I guess mummies break their arms too...
So, we ended up with two props - one a success and one less successful. Although slightly stressful in the moment, we’re glad we went through the papier mâché difficulty - we learned a lot from it. And we let the client take it for free, along with the POP version, just in case they could find a use for it.
As we were making the balloon we discussed the various other uses for it and it struck us that it would make a great decorative feature at a wedding. It could represent the fact that you and your loved one are ‘floating on air’ …or something. It could even be used functionally, using the basket to collect cards or messages of congratulations. In fact, why should you even have to justify it? If you want a hot air balloon, you have a hot air balloon! You wouldn’t have to have it in rainbow colours either.
If you’d like to hire or purchase your very own hot air balloon, or any other type of prop for that matter, get in touch for a free quote today. Remember, we love a challenge.