The Magic Behind Mardi Gras: Float Construction

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The revelry of Mardi Gras has passed for the year, but the wonder of the event remains throughout the year.  The celebrating, the parades, those amazing floats with the colors, the detail, and the animation…

Speaking of the amazing floats, do you ever wonder how they come to be each year?

For those of you who have not gotten over to Mardi Gras World, let us provide a brief explanation!

Floats in the official Mardi Gras Parade are created by New Orleans Krewes.  28 of these groups are responsible for the whole shebang – the parade itself, the theme, event guests, many of the parties… even the trinkets thrown out to the crowd.  Some Krewes have fairly simple floats.  But some, like the Bacchus and Endymion Krewes go over the top every year with design, complexity, and special effects on their floats.

Dates for Mardi Gras are obviously known years in advance, as it always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday.  While Mardi Gras itself never has an “official” theme, each Krewe selects their own float theme up to a year ahead of time.  This is because it can take an entire year for new, elaborate floats to be completed!

And now, without further ado, here are the “Six Easy Steps” used to make a Mardi Gras Float:

Step 1:  Choose a Theme and Design
Themes vary depending on a Krewe’s interests, their views, and even current events.  Once a theme is chosen, a design is created:  this can be a Krewe’s own design, or they may work with professional float-makers.

Step 2:  Build a Base Structure
The float needs to roll, so some sort of chassis must be created, followed by some sort of base to support the entire float.  This can be as simple as a pickup truck bed, and as complex as a motorized platform with up to two steering components.  Bases for self-contained or pulled floats are usually made of wood and metal, and are often plan “box-like” structures… although you seldom see this on the final float.

Step 3:  Create the Framing
No matter what the design, a basic frame structure must be assembled to support all details of the float.  Depending on the size of the final product, wood, metal, or even PVC (for larger creations) is used.  If seats are needed for riders, these are built directly into the framing.  If the float features moving parts, the cylinders, motors, hydraulic pumps, valves, controls, and any other necessary items for functioning are built into the float at this time.  If the float is complex and has movement, this step can often take quite a long time.

Step 4:  Create the Shapes
Planking may be added for seats on the float.  Steel framing, chicken wire, or other lightweight mesh screening can be used to create shapes.  Almost anything can be used to create shapes – use your imagination the next time you go through a department store, home improvement store, or toy store, and you’ll understand what we mean.  Usually, the size and use of an element will determine what will be used to create these shapes.

Step 5:  Sculpt
By “sculpt,” we mean build up the actual shape of the float’s elements.  For large elements, this can happen in a number of ways:

The “Paper Mache’” method uses strips of corrugated cardboard and water-based adhesive at first, allowing the builders to refine the shapes on the float even more.  Once the shapes are achieved, a sturdier layer of material is applied:  usually chipboard or other sturdy-but-pliable material, followed by butcher paper.

The “Plastics” method uses a polyvinyl plastic spray used directly onto the fine mesh underneath, which hardens into a durable surface and makes a very lightweight product.

The “Foam” method uses any type of foam to create shapes.  Rigid Styrofoam blocks (or sheets glued into blocks) can be used like a block of marble, allowing a lightweight statue to be created.  Spray-foam can also be used and carved.  But no matter what foam material is used, these pieces should be placed in areas away from riders who may accidentally damage them.  Of course, these can also be treated with either the Paper Mache’ adhesive or the Plastic spray to protect them even more…

Fiberglass can also be used for these elements.  Of course, this is the most expensive method:  custom molds are usually needed for this method, and large sculptures must be done in parts that are pieced together as a whole.  On a small scale, this can be relatively inexpensive, but on a grand scale, watch out!

Step 6:  Decorate
Paint, latex, faux coatings, and even plants can be used to add color and detail to the float.

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And that’s it!  Once these steps have been followed, one will have a finished Mardi Gras float.  Okay, so it’s not exactly simple and easy, but the end results are certainly beautiful and/or impressive.  Suffice it to say that new floats for the 2014 season are already being created, and consideration is being given to changes on any floats from this year that will reused next year.

So when you’re watching next year’s parade from the patio here at Avenue Inn, take a moment to consider the work behind the amazing floats rolling along St. Charles Street, and recognize the hard work needed to achieve such grand creations!

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