Thursday, September 1, 2011


In the land of Birkenstocks, cheese curds and urban chicken coops a party themed around Hypertufaing fits right in to the Madison lifestyle.
Hypertufa is a combination of Portland cement and organic materials such as peat moss, rice hulls, even dry dog food (actually anything that originates as an organic substance). It's a manmade substance made to mimic tufa, a lightweight natural rock. The rock, although filled with voids, was somehow capable of containing water when hollowed out. Hypertufa's main characteristic and the thing that distinguishes it from other concretes is it must contain organic material that will eventually breakdown over time giving Hypertufa similar voids to what you'd find in tufa.
Our Hypertufa party started at Carla and Bob's home on the north side of Madison. You enter their home by a curved driveway shielded by a grove of trees hiding the house from the road. Stone paths wind their way up to the house and screened gazebo. The yard is a rain forest of ferns and exotic plants with leaves the size of hundred year-old sea turtles. The buildings and grounds make you think more of Big Sur than they do Wisconsin. A herd of golden retrievers rush to greet you once you've crossed the invisible fence that keeps them safely on Carla and Bob's property. Laid out between the house and gazebo were all of the materials and equipment we'd need for making our Hypertufa containers and leaf castings plus a good supply of local Wisconsin beer. We started with the Hypertufa containers. Because there were so many of us Rylan, Carla and Bob's son, began the mixing process in a big wheelless wheelbarrow.
Here's what you'll need to make a batch of Hypertufa:
One part Portland cement (It comes in 10 and 40lb bags)
One part Peat moss
One part Perlite or Vermiculite
And any other organic components you'd like to mix in.
You'll also need access to a water supply
Heavy-duty rubber gloves for everyone involved (this stuff is really messy and gets right under your fingernails)
A big container for mixing. We used a wheelbarrow
We found a handheld garden spade worked well for stirring the mixture
Forms/molds to hold the shape of your pot. For larger pieces you might want to find two forms, one for the exterior of your piece and one for the interior. The best forms are those with slightly sloping sides. This makes getting the piece out of the form a little easier.
Plastic to cover your piece while it sets
It's always best to know what you want to do before you start making the mixture.  Once you start to add water the chemical reaction begins and your Hypertufa mixture is beginning its cooking process. Mix your three parts first getting the cement, the perlite and the peat moss evenly distributed. Then slowly add your water to the mix. This step is purely by feel. Like certain plants, you can over water your mixture and mortally wound it. Adding a little more prelite or cement can revive some mixtures. When the texture beginnings to feel like cottage cheese you should be at the right consistency. You want the mixture to hold together but not squirt water out when you squeeze it. It should remind you of when you were a kid in a sand box building the perfect sand castle. You'd mix you sand with a little water stuff it into your tin beach pail, turn it over and there'd be a berfect sand block for your imaginary Camelot. Now you have to wait, not long, about 15 minutes before you start loading the Hypertufa into your form. Try to pack the mixture as tightly as you can into your form. Rick added live moss to his mixture as he was cramming it into his form. Any organic material you might want to add will only give your finished piece an added patina. You're going to want to have a wall thickness of anywhere from 3/4" to a couple of inches. Thin walls won't hold up with this mixture and it's its bulk that gives it that surreal alien rock form quality. Once you've packed your Hypertufa into the form your job is pretty much done. Now's the time to hoist that Wisconsin beer. Depending on the weather it takes anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for the Hypertufa to set to the point where you can slide it out of the form and admire your craftsmanship.
The second project some of us chose to undertake was Leaf Casting. The formula for this is a little different but the process is somewhat similar. The tools are the same but the materials here are a little different and a little less complicated:
Quikrete concrete
The first thing you want to do here is pick out your leaf. Carla had supplied us with a big bucket of Hosta leaves. Most of the leaves were between 12"-18" in length. Some people suggest you start out with smaller leaves but after the Hypertufa and a case of Burly Brown Point beer we were all ready to go full hog ahead.
Our fifteen year-old daughter was the only one sticking to root beer leaving her with a head on her shoulders and the ability to see the full foolishness of our task. Once you've picked your leaf you need to make a sand mold relatively similar to the shape of your leaf. Mold the sand by mixing it with a little water (here's that childhood memory popping up again). Keep fitting your leaf on top of your sand mold until you have a shape that will support your leaf. Some people suggest keeping a spray bottle filled with water at hand to keep the sand moist but not wet.
It always helps to have a big guy handy during this step so he can be mixing the concoction of Quickrete and water while you're sculpting your form. This way the mixture will be ready when you're ready to start applying the goop. The Quickrete and water mixture should have a slimier consistency than the Hypertufa. It's now playdough time. This mixture can be applied in a thinner layer than the Hypertufa. Because of its Plasticine quality it will pick up the fine veininess of your leaf when finally cast.
Start applying the mixture to the center of the leaf and then work the mixture out to the outside of the leaf. Thin it out as you reach the ends of the leaf. We all liked the natural color of the cement mixture but others have painted their leaves either realistically or in some of the bizarrest ways imaginable. We were more pure of heart. Now cover the casting with more plastic, go have another beer and forget about the leaf for another couple of days.
When you come too from your beer bender slowly peel away your form from your leaf and voila! You now have a concrete leaf. It's just like us Wisconsinites to find joy in making something so unnatural and relatively useless out of something so natural and organic, but we had a tremendous amount of fun.

Home decorating and home craft projects can be not only fun but rewarding as well. It is also a less expensive way to add uniqueness and individuality to your home or garden. However it can be time consuming and tiring. Why not take a clue from Huck Finn and make it more fun and less work by recruiting a few friends to help. Even better turn it into an event. Just add enough food and drink to dull the senses and you're sure to get by with a little help from your friends.
Make sure you are properly prepared. Research the techniques to be used. The day before collect all the tools and ingredients needed and make sure you have a proper workspace. 


Tufa towers Mono Lake, CA
Photographer unknown
Available free as a wallpaper from

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