Alternate Materials 2: Squishy Stuff

by Chuck Holcomb

"What the heck does he mean, 'Squishy Stuff?'" Well, you know, the stuff you mold, mush, bend, sculpt and fill holes with. Now, I'm sure all of you would immediately think of using polymer clay to make things that you might want, and even bread dough, made from white glue and white bread. But how about using bathtub calk? Or Mexican Pottery Clay? How about spackling compound? Or make your own filler or "dough" from sawdust and glue.

You can make your own concrete, stucco, adobe, asphalt (blacktop), tar, terra cotta garden decorations and so on. Here's some ideas:

Concrete: use powdered or pre-mixed spackling compound (I _know_ there are pre-mixed formulas to make concrete and the like, but we want to use *alternative* materials here!) The next step depends on whether you are going to simulate portland cement, like you would make a sidewalk or curb out of (also concrete lawn ornaments, bird baths and large planters) or masonary cement.

If you're making portland, you want your dried product to be somewhat gritty, and a light (or dark, depending on age) gray in color. Concrete takes on a lighter or darker shade of gray, depending on the environment. In a dry environment it will get very light colored, but still be gray. In a wet, or damp environment, it will be fairly dark gray.

To get the shade you want, take some pre-mixed or powdered spackle, mix according to directions and add some powdered artist's tempera, some sanded, gray chalk, or leave it white and paint it when it dries. I'd prefer mixing it, myself. Anyhow, don't forget the grit. For this, you'll want some VERY fine sand, to keep it in scale, as well as a small amount of coarser sand, if you want to simulate a rougher texture, like a sidewalk, stone wall, or a foundation. Mix your sand in, (check out the sands that they have in craft shops for doing sand painting) starting with about 1/4 of the volume of your spackle. Mix thoroughly, and look at the appearance of it. Does it *look* like your sidewalk outside? If not, add a little more.

Edging and Broom Finish: For an authentic sidewalk, you will want to edge your concrete, put expansion joints in it, and give it a nice, broom finish, for good traction.

First the broom finish. Like the name says, concrete with a broom finish has had a broom dragged across it, after it is floated (smoothed) and is partially set up. In this case, you'll want to smooth it, which you can do with a piece of smooth, pliable plastic, like a rectangle cut from the top of a margarine tub or a milk jug. Careful you don't scrape all your spackle off, though! Okay, when it's smoothed, take a fine, fairly stiff brush, (a child's toothbrush will work, but a stiff, fine, paintbrush would be best) and lightly drag it across the sidewalk or floor, from side to side, making a uniform series of scratches in the wet spackle. Once you've got it all broomed, it's time to edge and joint.

For an edger and jointer, take your Ex-acto knife or razor saw and cut one of the edges from a plastic box, like a Tic-Tac box, so you have a piece of plastic, about 1/2" long, with a 90-degree angle in it, like this: L You'll need a handle, though. Take another flat piece, and use super glue to fasten it to the outside of one of the legs of the L. This is your edger. Now for the jointer. It is possible to do your joints with an edger, but for purists, you might want to go to the trouble of making a T-shaped edger. About the easiest way to do it is to cut two L-shaped pieces and glue them back to back. Make sure all three legs of the T are the same length, though, about 1/8".

*TIP* Don't spread your spackle on too thick, (maybe 1/8" or so at a time) or it will crack! Better to use it as a coating, on a wooden base, or to use several thinner layers, allowing each one to dry completely, before you apply the next.

For masonary cement, leave your spackle white, but still add a small amount of sand. You'll want about half as much as you put in the portland mix, because you want to be able to get it fairly smooth, when you put it in between your bricks, stones, or wherever you are going to use it.

For stucco, you can either dye your mix, leave it white, or paint it. The secret really is in the application or patterning after it is applied. You want to get the swirls that plasterers get when they apply stucco, and the way to do it is the same way they do it. Use a trowel! 'Course you'll have to improvise, unless you have some miniature plasterer's tools. I'd go back to the trusty Tic-Tac box again, and cut out a piece about an inch long and a quarter inch wide, and glue a handle to the top. Put your "plaster" on so it's about the consistency of toothpaste, and use your little trowel to make overlapping, semicircular swirls in it. It should give you a pretty fair imitation of stucco when it dries.

For adobe, add even more sand than with the cement, so you have a very gritty texture, about like sugar cookie dough. You' will want to tint it so it is a very light tan, for adobe with a natural finish, or else you can leave it white for the look of painted adobe. It's best to put on several layers of this, or else make a form to put it over that is rounded, so you don't have any really square edges. Not only will this look more like true adobe, but it will also prevent your spackle from cracking and flaking off.

Blacktop or asphalt: Using spackle again as your base, use a coarser sand than with the cement mixture, to simulate gine gravel. For the color, your best bet is to go outside and look at the road. It's not really BLACKtop, unless it has just been freshly put on the road or driveway, but more like "slate-bluetop." I would reproduce the color on a pallette before trying to mix it into the spackle. Once you have it, just mix it in and spread it on the surface you want to coat. You will want to make it smooth, though. so use a trowel made of a piece of pliable plastic, as with smoothing the concrete. For realism, after it dries, use some darker stain for the center of the lane or driveway, to simulate the oil stains that darken the road. For the road, apply lightly with a paintbrush, and for a drive way, dip the tip of your paintbrush handle in the dark wash and let it drip onto the surface.

Tar: Bathtub calk, painted or stained black. You could use this for the seams in your roof, the "cracks" in the road, or as a base for a tar and gravel roof. Heck, you could even make your own little La Brea Tar Pit, if you wanted. Anyhow, I like the water-based, acrylic caulk, because before it dries, you can smooth and shape it with a damp finger, brush, or sponge. It gives a nice, slick surface that will accept some glossy black paint and give you just the effect that you're looking for. Of course, you can always use just about anything for your tar, if you're going to cover it with paint, but the caulk seems to give just the right consistency so you can get the little swirls and "mushy" spots that you see in real tar.

Chuck Holcomb

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Last updated on: Friday, March 28, 1997.