Intro: How to Build an Artboat!
The most common question I get about Artemiid (pronounced Art-im-ee-id), our interactive kinetic sculpture artboat, is some variation of 'okay but why?!'
Dear reader, the motivation for building an artboat comes from within! While I can't speak for what might drive you to do this with your life, I can say it's pretty much for sure about fun.
In this instructable I want to teach you the fundamentals of building a mutant vessel artboat, describe how we built Artemiid, and share the lessons we learned. We really want to see artboats become more of a thing and are happy to help you in whatever ways we can.
Artemiid was built on a 22' pontoon boat, has a custom fabricated steel frame with 24 fluttering steel and PVC wings that are controlled by swinging on swings that hang down in the middle. She has 3500 individually addressable LEDs, two different types of fire effects, a gold glitter anchor, a DJ booth and 2500W sound system, and is powered by an outboard motor. Iteration 1 had a gorgeous mosaic floor made out of DVDs, but it died really fast in about ten different ways - not recommended, though insanely cool.
We built and funded iteration 1 in about 6 weeks with a core crew of about 20 and an extended crew of about 45. Even with that many people, the deadline was hard to make! But, none of us had ever made something like this and our first few weeks were spent experimenting a LOT with different components and systems.
One of our crew refers to Artemiid as an 'emodynamic battery'...she sucks all the life out of you, stores it, and then releases it back to you in a big rush when she's out on the water. For I think everyone on the crew, some of the best days of our lives so far were with this utterly bonkers creation of ours.
This instructable will take you through the basics of how to make any artboat, using ours as an example. Everyone's needs and constraints will be different so please feel free to reach out with any questions you have for your project!
Step 1: Figure Out What You Want to Make
Our design was conceived on scrap paper over tea with myself and a friend who became the lead artist. I had casually asked if he wanted to brainstorm with me about artboats, a compelling subject. We based our design around aesthetic elements of movement we like: fluttering/crawling, the up and down movement resembling a carousel, and interactivity.
Your imagination is the limit but general constraints related to artboats include:
: Height and weight in the air can be an issue for toppling if there is not enough weight down low, the movement of water can magnify that risk
: Salt/UV degradation of structural and artistic materials
: Weight to flotation distribution
I talk about these in greater detail later but I don't want you to get your heart set on a 15' tall climbable tower artboat now and then have those dreams or your friends crushed.
The more modular and easy to assemble/disassemble your artboat it, the happier you will be. Keep that in mind during design and fabrication. If your boat has to be transported by trailer, make sure it isn't too tall or wide for roads and doors to workspaces or storage.
Once we had the basic concept sketched, which you definitely want to actually sketch, it was full steam ahead getting the crew together.
Step 2: Assemble the Crew
Our core crew was about 20 and the full crew was about 45 people! That might sound big to you (it is), but given other people having jobs and grown-up responsibilities and whatnot, that number of people ensures that at least 5 people showed up to each work day.
This project was only possible because I had access to the right human resources to make it happen. People who are amazing at what they do, and loved this idea as much as I did. There was little to no drama, genuine support of each other and the big vision, deep collaboration and all that goodness meant that when it was finally time to play, we had the very best time with each other. You will go hard with your crew, make sure they are cooperative people above all else.
If you have a deadline of any kind to meet, skill and knowledge redundancy is critical. For obvious reasons, like when our lead metal fabricator got in a motorcycle accident (he was okay) and we were able to keep working.
We had serious hobbyists/semi-pros covering each system, a bunch of non-technical helpers and me as the project lead. The worker bee breakdown looked something like this (some overlapping people):
Artistic design: 2
Engineering design: 3
Boat/Trailer stuff: 3
Random Helpers: ~5
It might be hard to anticipate how much labor you will need, but depending on the scale of your project and work ethic/commitment to the vision, you will probably still need double what you think you will. Even at their simplest, artboats are extremely logistically complicated objects and so dedication is another fundamental trait you will need in your labor. You will almost certainly want at least one person with boating experience involved no matter what form your boat takes, boats are much more dynamical creatures than other vehicles and they have all the same hazards as the others plus sinking.
Otherwise, just get your friends who will show up together and see what happens!
Step 3: Find a Workspace
Hopefully you have an awesome yard or driveway where you can build your crazy boat. It is very unlikely that you will want to build your boat on the water because of access issues of the underside, so plan to have a trailer and launch it somewhere where it can be towed or drive itself to where you want to play with it.
Here in the bay we have amazing resources for working on large scale art and there are collaborative work spaces where you can pay for a spot and to use tools for wood and metal fabrication. We also have tool lending libraries for a variety of tools so they don't need to be purchased. Check your area for these resources but chances are if you live in the country, those won't be available to you but you'll already know how to find a workspace.
Neighbors generally won't appreciate your artboat construction as much as you, especially when you take up parking spaces. We resorted to bribes and it worked well.
Keep metal and wood fabrication separate because burning it all to the ground without intent is a bummer.
Never underestimate the power of UV damage to pretty things and make anything you can indoors, and then protect it with UV sealant or whatever you can once its outside.
Step 4: Project Planning and Management
A project of the scale of ours needed project management and a project manager in order to be completed on time, budget and in keeping with the vision. Yours may or may not need that, but I'm told planning usually makes things turn out better. I'm undecided.
The first project management step was to create a spreadsheet, which has these parts:
- a roster
- a budget
- a to do list with dependencies (and priorities, if you're on a short time frame)
- a shopping list
- an expenses list with sanity tallies to make sure everything is adding up correctly
- a schedule
- crowdfunding incentive ideas
- a wish list for borrowing/receiving items
- a pack list for events
The more your team uses this doc, the more redundant knowledge about the project is and the more smoothly things will run! It's pretty tough to get technical people to get on board with planning, so I ended up translating conversations into the doc a lot.
To stay on time and budget, you need to use at least 20% buffers for each, and possibly more depending on your personality.
If you don't need formalized planning, definitely at least draw a sketch of your artboat from a few different angles in detail so you'll know ahead of time when your brain concept will be intercepted by physics.
The team will be made up of many individuals who each have their own motivation for being there. Make sure the project manager knows what these are so that people can be engaged in the way that excites them, which will keep things plugging along when morale is low.
Work parties that are both social and creative are fun and don't feel like work! I found that certain combinations of people tended to work less when together, others created a boisterous but productive environment, and others were boring but relentlessly productive. This depends entirely on the crew, and are one of many reasons why time buffers are necessary. Providing food, alcohol and music actually keeps people happy. We had probably a dozen work party days, and that is where most of the repetitive and annoying tasks were done, but the bulk of the overall work was done by individuals or small groups blazing through long tasks.
I highly recommend having a set of benevolent dictators who know all about the project and approve all, and make sure all project decisions are passed through those people. That will help avoid catastrophic mistakes by someone with incomplete information about the project - this happened to us, you'll read about it later!
Volunteer projects really are tough to manage, especially with time and finance constraints. Everything you ask people to do has to be in service of the big, shared, super exciting vision that benefits everyone. Everyone really needs to be genuinely excited about the project or you will run into big management problems early, and the project leader needs to be enthusiastic about the big picture and all the little details as they're happening simultaneously. I spent quite a bit of time and effort just convincing people to stay engaged, finish stuff on time, and keep going when exhausted. Having a cheerleader for those harder moments that can be pushy without pissing people off (too much) is essential for large, complex projects with deadlines.
Step 5: Funding and Marketing
Once you have decided approximately how much your project will cost and buffered it by at least 20%, you can start fundraising.
Ideally you will have a wealthy benefactor, but if you don't and are making something other people get to play with, crowdfunding is a wonderful solution.
Our 'economy' version of the boat had a budget of $5800, and we were able to fundraise $6100 through a Kickstarter campaign. We had a professional social marketing person on our crew, and she did an amazing job creating an incredible campaign for us. She made a gorgeous logo, a wonderful video, wrote all the language, came up with all of the incentive ideas, made bunches of graphics out of our project sketches, setup facebook pages, twitter accounts and more. A kickstarter campaign is an ENORMOUS amount of work, but it's the reason we were able to do what we wanted to do.
You can see our campaign archived here:
There is lots of advice about crowdfunding campaigns online, and you will want to become familiar with the general tips of how to make a good one, but some of the lessons we learned were:
- We received little to no money from strangers, and all but a few donations came after reaching out to individuals. Groups emails, texts, messages, facebook posts - none of that worked very well. Sending personal messages had a high success rate.
- Save money for taxes from your campaign
- Choose incentives that are easy and inexpensive for you to create, most people are supporting your vision, not buying knick-knacks and this can eat into your funds
- Give yourself a long delivery window
- Make frequent project updates to keep people aware of the project and how it's developing
Other methods of fundraising that worked for us were asking for donations after lots of fun was had, particularly after one large event using the crowdfunding platform Tilt, which is easy and fast and let's you keep all your money. My experience has been Tilt achieves all the same objectives as easily as Kickstarter, without any of the work or money loss, so I will only be using that platform in the future.
This may not be an option in all areas, but in bay area we have been able to get some funding to bring the boat to art and music festivals through art grants. If there is a public space or event that has water in it, try searching the public agency responsible's website, local art organizations, and art or music events for art funding. There is usually a simple application process and in the bay area at least, there is a lot of funding available.
Our awesome marketing person made stickers and t-shirts for us, as well as created a vast social network for the artboat itself. This type of community support is hard to value because it's effects are indirect, but the excitement and love we get keeps us and the project going. Not to mention will hopefully provide little sparks of inspiration for others to create and build stuff for the community!
Step 6: The Boat and Trailer (flotation and Transportation)
Now to the boat parts!
A boat structurally is, at its simplest, something floaty with another thing on top and some form of propulsion.
Our team was so incredibly fortunate to be gifted a pontoon boat and trailer. Both were in pretty borderline shape, but we believed they were usable and were right!..ish...
Calculating flotation on an artboat is very important, because most boats are not designed to have the weight of lots of humans and structures on top of them in addition to the boat parts. Pontoon boats are ideal for artboating, but friends have also made use of renegade flotation to build their own floating base. Things that provide flotation are any things that hold air, whether little bits of air like foam, or large bits of air like water barrels.
A floating object displaces water, and that amount of water weight is the (very) approximate flotation when its fully submerged. So each 55 gallon water barrel for example, provides 55 gallons of water weight, or 55 x 8.6 (~weight of seawater) or 473 lbs. However, this very rough calculation assumes the barrel will be completely underwater (it won't be) and also ignores the density of the material, and also approximates neutral buoyancy when really you want to be positively buoyant at the surface. You can do a quick and dirty buffer of subtracting 30% from that number, or you can do more precise calculations, but having enough flotation for whatever you're planning to build is really important.
In fact, we made mistakes in our calculation with our boat, and when we put the steel structure on it with just a few humans, the boat sat dangerously low in the water. From then on, we installed dunnage bags, the inflatable bags that go in between shipping containers, in between the pontoons on the boat. This was a cheap way to add thousands of pounds of flotation, and was still the only reason we didn't sink until we recently installed dock floats underneath.
Flotation comes in a diversity of forms and includes just about anything that traps air. I once saw a boat whose only flotation was bananas. Objects like foam often provide lots of flotation, at the expense of not being able to estimate how much flotation it provides as easily. Plastic bottles, water barrels, retired dock floats, old pieces of foam that are sealed, inner tubes, floaties, military pontoons and all kinds of other objects provide flotation.
Once you have flotation, you need to think about the other physical forces at play on a boat like drag in the water, and in the air, weight distribution from top to bottom and side to side that contribute to stability, maneuverability, transportation and more. This will likely require someone who knows things about boats, or a particularly practical-minded physicist, or reckless experimentation.
You need some way to wrangle and attach the flotation to the structure, and there is a lot flexibility there. You can net a bunch of soda bottles together, you can lash inner tubes to plywood, you can bolt dock floats to plywood, you can build a wooden frame for water barrels that traps them in place, or anything else you can come up with.
The most stable flotation frames I've seen are trapped water barrels, so a 2x4' frame is built to the exact dimensions of the water barrel, and the water barrel is squished into it. Once it is flipped over, the weight of the people and structure on top hold it very firmly in place, and plywood is placed over the top of the barrels.
If you're going to use a boat as a base, be very careful about flotation because boats are rarely designed for the weight load of an artboat. They can be bolstered like ours was with extra flotation installed along the sides or underneath or wherever you can get some more trapped air in.
All boats must have an anchor! Your anchor is an emergency brake in case something terrible happens, make sure you have an anchor on board at all times that can hold your boat!
Trailers have made my life very difficult a lot of times now because ours was deadly. Get a good one, that's designed for boats so you don't destroy the electrical when you launch it in water, and use the heaviest duty ratchet straps you can afford to tie your load down in all dimensions. Don't get a rusted busted trailer like we had, with broken wheel axles and lost structural integrity from rust and a borderline coupling and broken lights. We had to have our mechanic friends fix all of that stuff and pay for new lights and we still almost killed ourselves and others. Just get a good trailer.
Step 7: Fabricating the Structure
You can build artboats out of whatever you want of course, but you're probably going to use wood somewhere. Wood next to water needs to be sealed with protective paint or coating but other than that, you should attempt to budget for stainless steel hardware if you can to protect from the water. Use power tools. Don't build too tall for the amount of weight you have below, and cross brace everything to account for weird flexing forces of the water movement.
Our structure was primarily built from square mild steel tubing, with 3/8" bolts connecting tubing. We also had aircraft cable with tighteners bolt to the structure to help stabilize it. The wings were welded into shape out of the same tubing, supported by 2" mild steel pipe with custom fabricated swivel bolts that allow the wings to move up and down. Having access to metal shop made a metal structure possible, and it was preferable only because it weighed significantly less than comparably robust wood. The entire structure was bolted to the aluminum struts on the pontoon boat using enormous bolts. Our floor was made out of 1/4" plywood, bolted down into the aluminum. Keep in mind that boat floors flex, as do things subjected to high winds, so having some give in the structure will keep it from snapping in tough conditions.
PVC is ugly, but an ideal artboat building material because it's strength and flexibility. If you don't need to support huge amounts of weight like we did, PVC makes great framing for holding pretty things.
Have people with experience building things that have to withstand tough conditions review your engineering design, but the most important thing is that the vertical and horizontal weights are distributed evenly so the boat doesn't topple or tip sideways.
The more modular and easy to assemble/disassemble your artboat it, the happier you will be. Keep that in mind during design and fabrication.
Step 8: Power, Electrical, Lighting and Sound Systems
Assuming your artboat is going to be mobile, you will need a power source, power storage, and power distribution to your electrical system. For us this meant:
: a 2000w generator with power strip
: a battery charger connecting the generator to battery bank
: 3x marine batteries
You can use the vast online resources about power consumption to make some calculations about what your power and storage needs will while operating your system.
Our setup looks like:
: speakers plugged directly into the generator
: a master switch at the battery bank
: a switch for the lighting
: 12v power bus distribution
: 5v converters for the LED strips
: 5v LED strips
: bilge pump hard wired to the batteries with auto/manual switch
We had custom lighting with individually addressable LEDs that required us to manufacture our distribution system from scratch, but if LEDs aren't a key component of your aesthetic, off-the-shelf lights often look similarly beautiful and are much easier to deal with. You just plug them in.
If you have anything that traps large volumes of air, make sure you have bilge pumps installed that will remove water when it inevitably comes in. If you don't and your flotation is marginal or concentrated in a small number of objects as with our pontoon boat, you will sink. You should also have a manual bilge pump on board with access to the pontoons to remove water in case the automatic bilge pumps fail.
Step 9: Fire Effects
We have two different types of fire effects, or three if you count our friend dragging a fire bowl behind us sometimes. They are a MAPP 'pop gun', and a fire poofer.
There is a great tutorial for how to make the pop guns here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Propane-Pop-Gun/ and they are the easiest way blow everyone's minds I've ever come across. Buy special blow torch with igniter and swirl flame, attach vinyl tubing to the blow torch tip, secure with a zip tie, and duct tape a water bottle with the end cut off onto the other end. It produces a gorgeous blue fireball the flies through the coiled up vinyl tubing and pops out the end. We have one running along each side of the artboat with a 30' length of tubing (the longest we've found that will work reliably) and everyone gets to play with them all night. They are basically fool proof and almost impossible to light anything on fire with. Highly recommend as an effect for any artboat! They're impossible to photograph unfortunately.
The fire poofer requires a bit more technical knowledge and can be very dangerous. There are fire poofer supply companies online, and I recommend you talk to them about your needs. Fire poofers are basically made up of propane, a regulator, an accumulator, a pilot and a valve to set it off. They're almost always a bad idea on boats. Keep a fire extinguisher handy, keep the operators sober, be careful of winds blowing the fire where you don't want it to go, and have fun!
Step 10: Propulsion
Propulsion is up to you, but if your artboat is going to mobile, chances are you will be propelled by outboard motor, and chances are that outboards will provide you with a fire of hatred you will not know before or after. You can also be propelled by paddles and oars, an inboard engine if your boat has one, or any kind of weird human interactive motion like pedals.
If you’re buying an outboard, make sure the transom (the outboard holdy bit) can hold an outboard of the size you need for your boat, because some of them are majorly restricted. If your boat doesn’t have an outboard mount, you may need to buy an outboard motor mount that mounts onto any flat surface of your boat, namely the back. Outboards are surprisingly strong, our 6hp four stroke outboard easily propels 30 people in minor winds with all of the fabric and wings going (which create a lot of windage, or surface area for wind to catch and push the boat with). Please have someone on your team that knows how to troubleshoot the basic problems an outboard would have, because it will likely be the most unreliable mechanical object you’ve ever met. After every trip, disconnect the fuel and run the engine until it’s out of fuel to spare yourself the heartache of carburetor and fuel line issues from old fuel. Always flush it after every use. If you do that it might work sometimes, and you will be happy.
Keep a spare paddle or other backup form of propulsion even if you have an outboard! Just in case!
Step 11: Logistics, Laws and Safety
I recommend keeping a packing list, and checking items in and out so you don't drive yourself insane because there are a lot of things to keep track of on an artboat. Assembling a structure is always easier from land, but sometimes that's not an option and so you will need to have support vessels or docks or something stable to work from.
Our typical protocol looks like: trailer boat to location, launch boat, assemble boat, drive boat with boat motor to final destination and around and around :)
You have to be prepared for everything to break. We keep a spares and repairs kit on board that contains:
: a few of each hardware type
: duct tape
: zip ties
: quick setting epoxy
: underwater epoxy putty
: a few of each electrical components, connectors, fuses, etc.
: electrical tape
: the outboard repair kit that comes with spare oil, spark plugs, and wrench
: a hammer, an electrical multi-tool, a general multi-tool, screwdriver set, a ratchet set
Ideally you would also have people on board at all times who know how to fix motors, deal with electrical issues, and stop a sinking boat from sinking.
You must, at a minimum, have the following safety equipment on board:
: A life jacket for every person on board
: Red and green running lights for the front of the boat to tell other boats what direction you're traveling
: Fire extinguishers
: Flares and airhorns to alert others in an emergency
: a marine VHF radio to communicate with other boaters and emergency folk in an emergency
If your artboat is mobile like ours, it's not a bad idea to have a support dinghy that ties on in case you need stuff while you're out, or your motor fails and you need to get towed, or the boat is sinking and you need a life raft, etc. As a general rule of thumb, someone should be captain, and someone should be on safety watching for obstacles, observing for any malfunctioning systems, or weight distribution or sinking issues. The captain and safety person should be able to easily communicate with each other over the ridiculously loud sound system. I recommend a micro/megaphone. And of course, a functioning marine radio.
Apparently laws are there to keep you safe but it usually feels like they're to take fun away. Be mindful of sound ordinances (my most hated thing in the cosmos), registration laws (where I live boats with propulsion need to be registered at the DMV - don't tell them it's an artboat ever), and occasionally on-water authority figures will come and make sure you have the appropriate documentation, but almost always they just want to make sure you have the safety equipment on board. Don't dump anything in the water ever. Make sure you look up and know the laws related to boating on your local waterways.
Step 12: Maintenance
Maintaining an artboat is going to be a lot of work. Water and sun damage wreak havoc on just about every element that you would want on one. Hopefully you will be playing with your artboat often, and chances are every time you show up something new will be broken. Plan for this with your crew. Electrical systems left outdoors are particularly vulnerable, so anything you can do to reinforce and protect connections, like covering each solder joint with epoxy, is a worthwhile investment.
Choose colorfast decorations so they don’t get nasty when left alone for a little while.
If you can rinse and cover your boat after every use, that would be ideal, but if it’s weird enough like ours, that isn’t an option.
Make sure you inspect the structure for weaknesses regardless of what fabrication material you used before every time you go out.
One thing to note is enthusiasm by crew for these projects often fades over time, and repairs are way less exciting than bringing something to life for the first time. Storage is expensive, and incessant repairs on something that doesn’t feel novel anymore can become a huge burden and take the magic away from the fact that you have an artboat for the good dark lord’s sake! Be prepared to let it go one day. Unless it’s small, it will have a limited lifespan, and its ephemerality is part of its beauty.
Step 14: That Fun Tho!
We hope you get weird and experimental and build your own artboat. There is a surrealism, beauty, and freedom to playing with your friends in a piece of art on the water that can't be communicated, and that's what we want to share with you.
Join our loose band of vagabonds, the League of Mutant Vessels by searching the intertubes for us if you want to build or ride on artboats.
Dear reader, go use those brains and hands of yours to bring your own ideas into physical reality like the amazing human that you are! Please tell us about what you make and ask us questions! Even if we can't answer them we can almost certainly direct you to people who can.
First Prize in the
Summer Fun Contest 2016