Introduction: How to Make a Brass Bird Cage Dress in Twenty-five Easy Steps
This instructable will teach you how to wrangle brass sufficiently enough to create a flattering and practical dress that doubles as a functional bird cage.
It's perfect for casual Fridays at the office. Steer clear of cats, coal mines, ferrets and weasels.
Step 1: Beginnings...
Creating a functional birdcage dress was something I had wanted to do for quite a while. Most illustrations of the concept that I had seen lacked legs, which made the idea of creating the real thing quite appealing. It seemed like a fun challenge.
I began by scouring the mighty internet for birdcage and crinoline photos in order to consider potential shapes and see what might actually be feasible. I also started thinking about materials and researching how actual bird cages are built. Sketching helped to conceptualize the ideas that were running around in my head.
Step 2: Brass Is a Worthy Opponent (ie: Picking a Material)
I highly recommend picking a material that is near impossible to work with :)
I decided to go with brass because I loved how the antique brass cages had a bit of a sheen. I did not, however, realize that this decision would make the project a thousand times more difficult than working with steel.
After a bit of searching online, I was able to order a small quantity of different sized brass and copper rod and strap samples to see what options might work. Some of the online metal shops don't charge a cutting fee for small pieces, so it's worth tracking down one of those.
I opted to go with 1/16" brass round rod for the cage mesh and 1/8" x 1/2" brass strap for the majority of the dress. I also picked up some 1" strap for the belt so there would be a little more substance there. Industrial Metal Supply in LA was kind enough to order a bunch of 1/16" round rod for me, as it wasn't something they generally carry.
At this point, I went back to sketching. Once the materials are settled, it's generally easier to figure out what can and can't happen with the originally conceived idea.
Step 3: Attaching Shiny Bits
I played around with the samples quite a bit. Since brass was a new material to me, I spent some time researching its properties and just getting a feel for the metal.
I wanted to make sure that I could attach the 1/16" rod to the 1/2" strap before I got too far down the design road. I asked around and was told that brazing it would probably be the best bet. I tried simply welding the rod to the strap with an oxy-acetylene rig and just made a mess. Regular plumbers solder didn't stick at all. I took a sample of the materials to the welding store and asked the guys there. They set me up with some brazing rod that *seemed* to do the trick. Seemed is the key word here. I thought I was in the clear and had found something that worked, however, the attachment story does not stop there.
For any larger, structural joints I opted to drill holes and use brass rivets. I picked up some of the old-style rivets that you actually pound out, because they look really amazing when they're placed.
The design ended up working best split into two separate pieces. This would make it possible to actually get it out of my front door (a good thing) and worked as a perfect way to get the person inside of it.
Step 4: Bending Shiny Bits
Figuring out the outer shape of the skirt was next, since it seemed like the shape of the whole thing would stem from that.
I worked on measuring and bending a prototype of the belt and outer skeleton. The 1/2" brass strap turned out to be malleable enough to bend by hand with the help of a vice. Hurray! I was very thankful, because I had a ton of bending in my future. I wanted the circumference of the circle to be 16', so worked out the geometry from there [2 * (pi) * radius = (pi) * diameter] . The design morphed slightly and did affect the numbers, but that's at least where it started.
I cut and bent the waist band to try to get an idea of how many vertical lines the skirt would require, then drilled holes to attach pieces so that I could get a decent idea of how it would look.
Step 5: Cutting, Drilling and Bending Brassy Bits
After a bit of wrangling, I decided upon a swooping, bell-like shape for the skirt. It was inspired by some of the old Victorian birdcages from days of yore. Working from that size, I created the other components - the internal skeleton shape (so that birds would not peck at the wearers legs) and the bottom skeleton pieces so that both sections would (hopefully) meet appropriately.
I then proceeded to cut and drill individual pieces following the pattern. This was a leap of faith - I was counting on the fact that I did the math correctly. Brass is pretty pricey, so messing up on a grand scale wouldn't be cool at all.
I found it very helpful to use a metal punch to mark the spots I needed to drill. The devices are conveniently called 'metal punches' and will save you a lot of frustration by not letting the drill press wander all over the place.
After cutting and drilling the pieces, I used a bench grinder to smooth out the surface on each piece.
Be sure wear safety goggles because your eyes are important! Guaranteed, you're going to need your eyeballs throughout this entire project.
Step 6: More Bending of Brassy Bits
Thus began many, many days of bending. Though the brass is relatively malleable, getting consistent curves just takes time. Ironically, I am not a patient person. I think (hope) this project taught me in that regard, but it remains to be seen :)
So, the great bending phase continued...on and on and on and on...
It became remarkably apparent that this dress was going to consume A LOT of time.
Step 7: Still Bending Shiny Bits
And then - huzzah! The bending was complete!
Now it was time for hardware and actual attachment. This was exciting because the shape came to life with dimension and for the first time actually felt real. I was thrilled.
Step 8: Shiny Bits With Dimension!
It was really rewarding to attach everything and see the shape come to life.
I ended up needing to re-drill a lot of the holes to make them slightly larger to compensate for the hardware.
Attempting to drill some of the bent pieces was like playing an unruly game of Twister with the drill press as an opponent. Caution was of primary concern and I used a lot of clamps at some really weird angles to make sure that the ol' drill press and I were on an even playing field.
Step 9: Brassy Floor
After attaching all of the pieces, I measured, cut out and drilled the pieces that would compose the floor of the cage.
Step 10: Brassy Caster Bits
The dress was going to be quite heavy, so I decided to put it on casters. I found some small brass casters online and ordered a few to try them out.
As the dress grew, I kept ordering more and more so that it could actually hold the weight. A total of fourteen casters were used in the piece.
I ended up cutting off the metal attachment piece that came with the caster and using a bolt to attach them to the brass strap.
Step 11: Hammering Brassy Bits
I purchased a ton of brass rivets, thinking that I would rivet as much of the dress as possible. That was a mistake on my part, though, because after bending all of those pieces, it was impossible to wrangle them on or around the anvil to hammer appropriately.
I ended up using brass hardware (machine screws and acorn cap nuts) in all the spots I couldn't hammer. Just a good thing to note: riveting large, unruly things doesn't work. Some of the random positions I tried were pretty funny - a third arm would have been really helpful. If anyone has a suggestion as to how to pound rivets into unruly objects, I'd love to know.
Step 12: Frustrating Brassy Bits
Once the basic shape was formed, it was time to start bending and placing wire to make the actual cage. I had done some attachment testing earlier to make sure that I would be able to attach the metal properly, however, when it came down to actually doing it on the shape itself, some unforeseen problems arose - it wasn't working at all. Ack!
I tested and tried numerous brazing and soldering combinations in an attempt to find a solution. Alas, nothing was working. It was incredibly frustrating. Finally, a combination of Harris Stay-Clean flux and lead solder heated with a propane torch worked.
Hallelujah! .....and huge thanks to Syd and Steve for their help in figuring that out.
The successful process was as follows: I clamped the pieces together with c-clamps, then used a paint brush to apply the flux, heated the joints with the propane torch and applied the 60/40 lead solder.
Be sure that you're working with clean metal. If it's dirty, it just won't bond properly.
Thus began a multiple week adventure of clamping, fluxing and soldering.
*NOTE* Wear a respirator and gloves when dealing with this stuff. Wash your hands often. Lead in the lungs or anywhere on your skin is no good.
Step 13: Clamping Shiny Bits
Truth be known - I had not anticipated having to individually clamp down each of the nearly 2000 attachment points. It was a daunting task, but I had put so much work into it already that I decided to press on.
Finding a solution for clamping was more difficult than it seemed like it should be because the attachment points were so close to each other (15mm apart). I would have loved to have used spring clamps, but the heat from the propane torch was too much for the little guys. The solution ended up being some small 1" c-clamps. I replaced the turning apparatus on each of them with smaller screws since the attachment points were so close.
Ideally, I would have created a jig to make this process easier, however because all of the bends were different, I couldn't think of a jig option that would work. I resigned to the fact that I would be spending a lot of time clamping.
Step 14: Clamp, Flux, Solder, Repeat. Clamp, Flux, Solder, Repeat...
Thus the great soldering marathon began with the outside of the dress. The process was incredibly time consuming, but it was pretty thrilling to see it coming together.
Step 15: Flip It Over, Clamp, Flux, Solder, Repeat. Clamp, Flux, Solder, Repeat...
In order to be able to solder the bottom, the dress needed to be flipped over. I rigged up a contraption with a stool, an anvil and a few zip ties to hold it in place. It was fairly rickety, but did the trick.
Step 16: More Clamping, Fluxing, Soldering and Repeating...
Then it was time to start the internal cage so that the wearer would be safe from pecking critters.
Step 17: Then Came the Tricky Part...
Soldering the top of the cage was a real challenge due to the double layers. The heat from the propane torch would separate joints that were already soldered, so I had to clamp down completed joints and try to absorb some of the heat with a wet cloth. It was pretty painstaking and progress was slow.
Many a tiny spring clamp gave its life for this part of the process - the c-clamps were too large to use in the tight areas. The spring clamps just couldn't take the heat, but were thankfully strong enough to temporarily hold down the sections that were catching indirect fire.
Step 18: And the First Half Was Done!
Brief celebration, then onward to the second half...
Step 19: More Clamping, Fluxing, Soldering and Repeating...
Repeat steps 13 through 16. Take lots of breaks so you don't lose your mind.
This is a good break: http://www.lumeneclipse.com/gallery/19/smalllovestory/
Step 20: Voila! the Cage Portion of the Dress Is Nearly Complete!
'Twas a joyous moment indeed.
I recommend grinding off the edges of the wire to get rid of the poke-y bits. 226 individual brass wires circle the entire dress, so there are plenty of sharp pieces worth sanding down.
This is a good time to round up your hardware. I was able to order brass machine screws through smallparts.com for a much better price than I could find them locally. I also found some brass plated magnetic catch strips that I used as attachment pieces for holding the two sides of the dress together.
Casters were placed in their appropriate positions and I went through and made sure all of the hardware was where it needed to be.
I was amazed that I went through less than two propane canisters soldering this entire thing. I had no idea that they lasted that long!
Step 21: Sewing the Silky Under Dress
The dress design morphed quite a bit. I initially had wanted to use pieces of brass in the top section, but everything I tried just plain didn't look right. I opted to go with silk fabric instead and picked up a variety of silk fabric that would complement the brass.
I started by cutting fabric and fitting it to the dress form. For me, a large part of designing with fabric is trial and error. I had picked up a few different variations and hues of silk and wanted to mix them up in an organic way, so just started cutting and sewing. The results are pictured.
The lining of the dress is form fitting and the outer layer of silk is sewn to it by hand. Silk ribbons provide the final touch and wrap around the entire dress.
Step 22: Bejeweling
I wanted to create some jewelry to accent the piece, so tracked down some interesting stones and played around with bending and nesting the wire to create a necklace and bracelets.
Step 23: Creating Shiny Accessories
The cage needed perches and a door, so I messed around with different possibilities before deciding how I'd like them to look. I went with pretty simplistic designs for both.
I was exceptionally nervous about cutting the door. I put it off as long as possible. It became *very important* that I had a clean work area and that all my ducks were in a row.
I practiced soldering the brass wire together before doing it in place on the dress. It went fairly smoothly and the door turned out alright, albeit somewhat janky. It was a one-shot thing, so I am thankful that it turned out decently.
With the door in place, the bird cage is officially fully functional!
I'm thrilled to have found a place that will rent doves to put in it for the first show :)
Step 24: Add Birdy Bits
I really really really want to put chickens in the dress at some point, but for the first show, it's going to have four doves flying around in it. I can't wait :)
Step 25: Putting It All Together
Suzan and Kelly Jones were kind enough to photograph the dress.
Emmeline Chang looked amazing in it.
Juli Gudmundson handled hair and makeup and created the beautiful hairpieces for it.
Many thanks to all involved with the final shoot. It was so wonderful to see it come together :)
Thanks for stopping by!
The dress will be on display at the Brewery Artwalk April 18 & 19 in downtown Los Angeles.
*Care: Dry clean only. Polish regularly. Avoid cats, airborne avian viruses and fingerprints.
**This is a slightly condensed version of how to make the dress, simply because the process would take days to write out. If you'd really like to create one, drop me a line. I am more than happy to answer questions.
***Feel free to take a look at some of my other work here: http://www.atypicalart.com and if you'd like to follow my current projects, Facebook is a good place to find me --> https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695706252#/profile.php?id=695706252
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