Introduction: ANtistic Design

As much as I'd like to take full credit for this idea I can not (though i can claim most of it ).and being a person of ethics .I must give credit where credit is do .I was watching discovery channel one day and saw this professor (Walter R. Tschinkel if you'd like to google him) down in flordia .he was studying the tunneling habits of ants and would find abandoned nests and pour in molten zinc .then ,after waiting for it to cool ,he would dig it up and would end up with these amazing pieces that would spiral up to eight feet high

after having seen that months before I was laying in bed staring into the dark above me and I was hit with a flash .it's a feeling not easily described ,though it is how I get most of my ideas

so i set out to build a coffee table designed by ants .useing left over, unused, and unwated things .a jigsaw found in the trash, aluminum cans, warped wood and salvaged glass. just to name a few

I hope you enjoy

Step 1: Tools and Materials


-skill saw
-table saw
-jig/scroll saw
-compound radial arm mater saw
-orbital palm sander
-cordless screw driver
-drill bit (1/8 of an inch)
-counter sink bit
-philips drill bit
-drywall square
-tape measure
-assortment of clamps


-MIG welder
-port a band
-electric drill
-wire brush
-tape measure
-right angle clamp


-4'x8' sheet of fourth inch ply wood
-1x1 pieces of wood roughly 10-20 feet
-3/4 screws
-1 screws
-wood glue
-silicon caulk
-wood filler
-KILZ latex primer
-generic red spray paint
-blue painters masking tape


-angle iron
-metal ring
-some sort of metal object to make into a hinge
-3 long 1/2 bolt ,nut and washer
-KILZ original spray paint
-rust-oleum flat black spray paint


-eye/face shield
-ear protection
-leather work gloves
-welding leathers
-welding mask
-leather shoes


-small buckets with water tight lids
-insect spray
-wet dry shop vacuum
-large bin or tub that will hold water
-piece of glass for the top of the form to contain the ants
-portable awning
-weather stripping
-spring clamps
-zinc and aluminum (melted soda cans work great for the aluminum)
-fire bricks
-propane torch
-paint brush
-pressure washer

Step 2: Design

before you even know what materials you need you first need to figure out the design you want .I went with a simple box 23x13 and 17 high and a 3 gap in between for the ants to tunnel .I built a test ant farm mainly to see how fast the ants tunneled but ended up finding it more fascinating then I had thought .the fire ants had reached the bottom of the ant farm (18 inches) in about 2 days .once I knew that I decided to tweak my design making it more contemporary as well as getting rid of a fair amount of area (tunneling area) .I also narrowed the thickness between the inner and outer form so there would again be less sand for the ants to have in which to tunnel .my new design took trapezoidal shapes out and would leave defined legs for the table .once I had it all sketched out with measurements it was time to build

Step 3: Construction

Once my design was how I liked it I needed to get all my materials .I started with a standard sheet of 1/4 inch thick plywood .I then transferred rough measurements to it .leaving about one inch at the bottom and the edges for the width spacers (the wood that would determine how thick the tunneling area would be) .as well as leaving a slightly larger excess of wood on the sides for bracing .and last but not least extra wood at the top so the ants would have room to place the sand they excavated

Now that all of my reference lines have been marked it was time to cut .I didn't have on hand any purpose built saw horses but I did have some metal boxes that would do the trick .I made sure I wasn't going to cut into any material other then the ply wood .clamped my drywall square in place (taking the saw guide width into consideration) .then slowly and precisely made each of my cuts

once i had the plywood in much more manageable sizes .I continued marking were the 1x1 spacers would sit and were the trapezoidal piece would be cut out .then cut that out with a jig/scroll saw

The wood I used for the spacers was wood that lowe's culled and sold in bulk along with other slightly damaged wood .the 1x1s weren't so much damaged as warped .they were of no use in the 8 foot lengths they came in ,but in 1 to 10 inch sections they were just fine .once I had all of the shorter straighter sections of the boards ripped to the same thickness (they had each varied slightly in thickness) .I started laying them in place and marking where I needed to cut (and at what angle) .after cutting I glued the piece and then clamped it in place .then I would pre drill and counter sink each screw head to keep from cracking or splitting the wood

Now its time to make the inner form .I decided to make mine in one piece which turned out to maybe not be the best idea .though it worked .after I poured the metal ,the inner form became entrapped in it .and I had to cut the inner form to free the casting .it was a small price to pay for the end result but I intentionally built my forms for reuse .so I will have to make a new inner form section when I decide to make another table .but I digress .I assembled my outer form and carefully measured for my pieces ,as even a 1mm gap is enough for a fire ant to pass threw .once I had all of the plywood pieces cut I needed to reinforce the corners ,so I cut four pieces of scrap 2x2 .glued ,clamped ,pre drilled ,counter sank ,and then screwed the ply wood and bracing to one another .once the inner four pieces were fixed together I needed to make a top rail not only for added support of the plywood but also for an area to place a seal so the ants couldn't escape

All of the plywood that would be facing inward (toward the sand) received wood filler (the main reason for countersinking) so that when I poured the metal I wouldn't get any screw head impressions or knot holes in the casting .making sure only to fill the screw holes of the screws that would not need to be removed to release the casting

Step 4: Painting

This step may not have been totally necessary but I plan to reuse this form so having it protected from the weather was important .I decided on white paint to allow me to more easily detect any ants that might have absconded (and they did abscond) .once I had all of the screw and knot holes filled and sanded smooth I applied 3 coats of paint (just to be on the safe side) .I went with an indoor outdoor latex primer made by KILZ ,which is a maker of great protective/cover up paint .once that had time to cure I taped off a 4 inch section all the way around the inner and outer form with the top edge of said section measuring 17 inches from the bottom of the width spacers .I then painted it red with some cheapo spray paint I had laying around .the reason for doing this was that of reference .I knew I wanted my table 17 inches tall .not only was the red line the reference for packing the sand .but also the stop line when I started removing sand tunneled out by the ants

Step 5: Assemble and Filling

Now that he form is painted and ready for use its time to assemble it .I left the screw holes needed for assemble (and disassemble) free of wood filler (duh) .and then screwed the three sections together to make the final form

Once that is done its time to play in the sand .or just fill the form with it .rather then using green sand (casting sand that's not actually green ,just called that) I used regular play sand .I had moved several 50lb. Bags out of the weather and up onto our back porch so they would hopefully drain .they didn't .but it ended up to be a blessing in disguise .not only did the moist sand allow for tighter compaction ,it also allowed me to pour the metal in without having the tunnels collapse which was my major concern .I was also worried about pouring too soon (not letting the ants have enough to time reach the bottom of all the corners .after about a week (the week prior to filling the form with sand) of thought I was hit with the idea (this time while showering) to mix blue chalk line chalk with some sand and place it in only the bottom of each leg so that when I saw blue (blue for the contrast) sand on the top I would know the ants had made it to the bottom

Starting with the blue sand placed in the corners I packed the sand .then I would place about 3-4 more inches of sand i only put about 1/2 inch of blue sand) and pack it down repeating this till the packed sand reached the top of my red marker stripe (17 inches high) .I placed the form filled with sand up on tiny scrap pieces of wood and allowed excess water to drain out tiny cracks in the bottom for about three days .once the water stopped draining I placed a large amount of silicon caulk onto four of the trapezoidal pieces of plywood I had cut off and placed one under each corner .after filling and packing the sand you will need to put the weather stripping on the top of the inner and outer forms so the glass top will seal and contain the ants

Step 6: Ants Ants Everywhere!

Now that my form is built and filled its time to get some ants .if you wanted to buy ants online with a queen I say go for it .but i just went down to the park at the end of the street where there were plenty of ant hills .I got my shovel and a bucket (one with a water tight is best) and I was off .i would recommend spraying some type of insect spray on your hands to discourage any ants that find their way on you from biting

unfortunately the majority of ants we have around here are fire ants (red imported fire ants) .they not only bit but they have a stinger since they evolved from the wasp .another unfortunate trait of the fire ant is that they are extremely temperamental and defensive .so if their nest is disturbed they swarm .its important to act fast and precise to limit the contact with the ants .once again its a good idea to spray with insect repellant to discourage the ants from biting

have your bucket open ,ready and close to the mound .if the mound has grass growing up threw it you will need to pierce the mound multiple times to cut the grass and allow you to scoop the dirt into the bucket .get as many shovels full as possible into your bucket and quickly place the lid back on .depending on how many ants you want you many need to go to more then one nest .though I would try not to as ants from different mounds act like the jets and sharks .minus the singing and dancing

the easiest way to separate the ants from the dirt of their mound is to get a large bucket or tub .fill it with some water and pour in the entire contents of the bucket .dirt ,grass ,ants and all .wait and you will start seeing the ants float to the top and then start to gather together into "ant rafts" .with a spoon or something like it push the small rafts together to make a larger and larger ant raft .once you're satisfied with the amount of ants floating on top .scoop them up and place them back into the bucket they just came out of .to let them dry off some before placing them into the form

Step 7: Location Location Location

You will need to put this form in a place out of the way .but not in an inconvenient place as you will need to tend to it daily .I choose the back portion of my back yard .the area is mainly unused other then brick storage and weed cultivation (not marijuana ,weeds such as dandelions)

I decided to use my propane torch (bought at harbor freight) to torch the area so that the weeds and grass wouldn't become an issue a month into my project .you want to be very careful when doing this and be mindful of anything that posses a fire hazard .and when your torch is putting out a 3000F degree flame ,that's just about everything

Once I had the grass and weeds taken care of I moved two concrete blocks (my dad had made for whatever reason) in place so that the form would be up off of the ground .the concrete blocks were not wide enough to span the distance I needed so I put each one on a diagonal .they turned out to be just wide enough to hold the form

Since this form would be out in the weather for several months ,I knew I needed to cover it somehow .I asked my dad (who usually has anything you could ever need) if he had a collapsible awning .and of coarse since I needed one ,he didn't .so then I was planning on building a small housing over the ants .a few days later my dad came in and asked if I still needed the awning because he had gotten one for me at a garage sale .it is about 5x5 feet and when the legs aren't fully erected it stands about 2-3 feet about the form which was perfect

Step 8: Getting the Metal and Something to Pour It With

As much as I hated to ,I had to buy the zinc I used .I bought about 17lbs. For about $50 ,shipping included .the zinc was found online and is 99.9% pure .even if I had found scrap zinc I'm sure the purity wouldn't compare .I also decided to melt and mix some aluminum from old cans as well as cuttings I had from a street sign I made into my TV table and even used discarded aluminum foil .it took me a while to get the aluminum to a state in which I could pour .not having a proper furnace ,I used an old stainless steel serving dish and some channel locks ,and with my trusty harbor freight torch I was able to get the job done .I ended up with a nice 2 pound ingot that measured roughly 5 inches in diameter and 2 and a half inches thick

With all the metal I was going to use and need to pour fairly quickly .using a couple pairs of channel locks wouldn't be to easy .not to mention rather dicey from a safety standpoint .so I decided I needed to build some crucible tongs .there are many types out there ,but I decided on a one person clamp design

I had found a flower pot holder someone was throwing away and at the time I picked it up had no use for it .but I knew it was going to come in handy .it was made up of these metal rings I think were some sort of valve seals used in refineries (which surround me) but whatever they were initially intended for they had been welded together into the structure pictured below .with one of the rings ,some rebar ,and a shackle type thing I found along the rail road track .I had what I needed to make my crucible clamp

Before I began building I had to know what I was using for my crucible so I could use a ring of a corresponding diameter .on one my trips to wal-mart I saw a stainless steel cylinder marketed for storing utensils .it was a perfect height and diameter .and turned out to fit perfectly in the smallest of the rings .so 5 bucks later and it was mine

I wanted the clamp only to be on the crucible when I was ready to pour .that way it wouldn't heat up and I'd be able to hold it long enough to pour .so knowing that I knew I had to make a hinge .this is where the shackle I found at the railroad track came in to play it already had holes in it for the pin (1/2 inch bolt) and forked so that I'd have a two out side and one inside sandwich configuration .rather then the less stable one on one hinge setup

I started by cutting the shackle into the pieces I would need .bolting them together to keep the hole aligned properly ,and welding them into place on the still intact ring (still intact to keep the ring from distorting) .once I had the hinge welded and how I wanted .I made my first cut into the ring in between the hinge sections .then I made my second cut in the front allowing me to test my hinge action .it worked great

Now came time to attach the handles .I welded a section of rebar to each side of the half ring .one piece of the rebar had a curve in it which did two things I needed .first thing the curve did was give me some leverage action for a tighter holding clamp .second it gave me a wider hand hold away from the crucible which made it easier to tilt the crucible and pour

Step 9: Something Smelts Funny

WARNING--- Although zinc can be handled in its solid form without risk of poisoning .zinc fumes are toxic and of coarse should not be inhaled (sit up wind of the fumes or have a fan blowing from behind you) .not to mention in the molten state at 786F and aluminum melting at 1218F .proper safety gear such as face shield, leather work gloves under welding gloves, welding leathers, leather shoes and long cotton jeans should all be worn ---END WARNING

Now that safety is out of the way .its time to make an alloy .the simple definition of an alloy is a substance that is a mixture of two or more metals, or of a metal with a nonmetallic material .in this instance my alloy would be zinc aluminum know as a ZA alloy .ZA alloys were designed for gravity casting (which is the type of casting I'll be doing) .although unsure of the exact percentages of zinc to aluminum my guess would be it was about ZA4 or ZA12 which means 4% or 12% aluminum .when making an alloy with one metals melting point being 432F higher then the other .it will bring down the melting point of the aluminum and raise the melting point of the zinc

The sand excavated by the ants and placed on top was just sitting loosely .the slightest disturbance of the form could cause sand to rush back into the tunnels .I noticed that even the ants walking on the sand could be enough to cause a cascade to start .my initial plan was to remove the sand with a scoop I made from an old spoon .but that turned out to be problematic .not only did I cause sand to tumble back down the tunnels it also flattened the surface making it unsuitable for the ZA to properly flow .so my next option was to use a shop vac and a crevasse tool .I drilled holes in the top of the crevasse tool to limit the amount of suction at the tip .which also allowed for fine tuning by simple placing a thumb over the drilled holes

To ensure I had enough metal to cast all of the ants tunnels .I poured the sand I had vacuumed(down till I saw the red line) off the top into the crucible and that told me how much ZA was needed .when I melted my zinc I was just shy of the amount needed .when I added the aluminum I reached the required amount .I also found out something interesting .that was that ,if you have molten zinc .and a solid hunk of aluminum .the aluminum will float on top of the zinc .it makes sense now since zinc is much more dense then aluminum but it was something I'd just never though about outside of this situation

I built a small floor and two partial walls out of fire brick to help hold in and reflect the heat (and to keep from burning anything down) .making sure to leave room for the tongs to be able to fit around the crucible .I should have melted my aluminum first since it has the higher melting point but I was able to melt the aluminum after the zinc without any issues .once my alloy was melted and thoroughly mixed (stirred with a spare piece of rebar) it was time to pour .I made sure I had all obstructions away from the area I was to be walking to get to the form and from all around the form .you need to make sure you pour quickly but in thin streams so you don't overwhelm the tunnels causing collapse or clogs .sadly I had no way of taking pictures of myself pouring the ZA since my hands and focus were elsewhere

Step 10: Unmoulding

Now that my metal was cast I had to wait on it to cool .I ended up only waiting about an hour and a half (though with the anticipation it felt much longer) .I could feel heat on the outside of the inner and outer forms .I checked with my IR thermometer and it read about 165F .I waited for that to go down to the 90s before I decided to pry apart the forms and unveil two months worth of time and effort

Although there was blue sand on the top in all four corners .the ants didn't tunnel all the way down in all four corners .I went into plan B mode immediately trying to think of ways to use the casting .I thought of making some sort of funky light fixture or just abstract wall art .luckily I'm dating a great woman who suggested just making an inner support frame work to hold the casting .so that's what I did .she also suggested putting different colored sand in each corner next time I try this

Step 11: Inner Frame Work

My first thought was using wood .then I decided making it out of metal would not only be faster but it would also not distract you from the tunnels .my dad happened to (imagine that) have some angle iron that is1/4 inch thick .since the blade on my port-a-band wasn't sharp and it was about 10pm .I used my angle grinder ,first cutting the top pieces at 45 degree angles .then using a c-clamp to hold the parallel pieces together .I ground them to an even length .then clamped two pieces at a time in the right angle jig ,and welded them together .once I had the top welded I needed to give it legs to stand on .I wanted the table to stand 17 inches tall when I was finished and since the angle iron was 1 and a half inches wide ,it meant I needed to cut the legs 15 and a half inches long .I lined them up nice and plum in the corners and welded them on .then finished by grinding my welds smooth .i wanted only simple lines as not to distract the eye from the casting

The last thing I needed to weld on were some pegs to hold the zinc .after weighing the options I went with some nails .I placed the inner frame work upside down in zinc frame which was also upside down .and then marked on the frame were the supports needed to go .I then drilled a forth of an inch hole in frame and placed a nail threw each (four total) and welded then on .ground off the excess and bent them as necessary to hold the tunnels slightly below the top of the metal frame work

Step 12: Painting Part 2

One more way I decided to try to and keep the inner frame work from distracting from the ants tunnels was by painting it a flat black .the angle iron had been outside for who knows how long and was looking pretty rough with pot holes from rust I wanted a smooth finish ,and had tried my hand with bondo before ,only to have mixed results .then I tried regular elmer's wood filler (turns out that it works on metal too) .once all the holes and imperfections were filled and then sanded smooth .I sprayed on the flat black paint only to find out that the wood filler soaked it up leaving a splotchy look .to combat that I sprayed some KILZ original spray paint on as my priming coat .it not only blocked the filler from soaking up the flat black paint .more over it smoothed the tiny imperfections the wood filler couldn't .once I painted the entire thing with the KILZ and lightly sanded it .I sprayed on the finishing coat of flat black in thin coats to make sure for a nice smooth even finish

Step 13: Finishing Touches

Although I tried not to kill any ants since they did make this project possible .it was unavoidable .the fire ants I used (known more specifically as red imported fire ants) are not native to the USA .they have done some good thing like eating fleas and the lone star tick .though the bad things they have done include making it impossible for ground nesting birds to thrive in their own native habitat .so when it comes down to it the ants are pests

When I poured the zinc ,the ants that were still in the tunnels were torched instantly .they unfortunately stayed in the zinc and wouldn't come out with a light brushing from an old tooth brush .a wire brush did take them out but it wouldn't have been practical to use since I have a pressure washer .the pressure washer was able to wash the dead ants and any remaining sand off and did it quickly .I had to steady some of the tunnels that weren't connected as well as the others and accidentally pressure washed some skin off my hand .so be cautious when using ANYTHING that's pressurized

Carefully put the zinc tunnels on to the inner frame .careful being paramount so you don't break off any of the weaker tunnels .I then obtain some clear bumper pads to act as a buffer between the glass top and the steel inner frame .once again wal-mart saved the day .not only was I able to get the clear buffer pads I needed ,but also got some grey foam ones for the feet in one value pack .the last and final object needed was a piece of salvaged glass my dad found and had laying around .once it is placed on top it's ready for magazines ,coffee cups and conversation

NOTE-all the pictures of the table show the table without the glass top due to the glare that it created

as always constructive criticism welcomed .thank you

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