Neil's Blaze the Dragon on the University of Alabama-Birmingham's campus features a smoke machine to make it look like the dragon is breathing smoke.
Pouring the base concrete into the rebar reinforcement. The rebar is bent and covered with wire lath to create the sculpture's shape.
Neil's Loch Ness monster. For larger sculptures like this Neil rents a lift to reach high areas such as working on the head of this sculpture.
Neil created a manatee sculpture that shoots water like a fountain.
Anyone who says concrete is not art has never met T.J. Neil or seen one of his concrete sculptures before. Neil, who has become known as the "Concrete Sculptor," has been doing concrete sculpting for more than 35 years. Prior to his sculpting he worked in the construction business, which became the basis for his trade.
Neil, whose sculpting business T.J. Neil's, Homosassa, Fla., creates all his sculptures free hand. "We do not use molds," Neil says. "In my opinion, that is the difference between sculpting (free hand) and manufacturing (using molds). What we do is totally different than most people's concepts of what you can make with concrete," he adds. Neil's son, T.J. Neil Jr., is also getting into the act, helping his father create these one-of-a-kind sculptures.
Constructing the sculptures
Although Neil's sculptures can be quite whimsical when finished, Neil knows the most important element is the structure of the sculpture. "As far as I'm concerned, the structural end of things is as important as what the sculpture looks like in the end," he says. These sculptures are often up to 9 feet tall, can weigh tons, and need to be transported and delivered by truck all over the country. So having a structurally sound sculpture for transport is essential.
Since these sculptures are very large, Neil usually makes them hollow with the exception of a few solid concrete pieces. Most of his sculptures have a solid concrete base to give them a bottom weight to help hold the sculpture on the trailer. "We strap them down, but I want them heavy enough and center weighted so they don't tip over on the trailer," Neil says.
Concrete is usually poured into the bottom at 8 inches thick, Neil says. He then places, bends and ties rebar to create the sculpture's shape. Once the rebar is finished, Neil attaches wire lathe to the rebar to finish the structure of the piece.
Neil uses cranes to load these sculptures onto the trailer and to place them at the site. In order to lift these pieces straps need to be attached. This is a major concern at the very start of a project, Neil says. "You have to consider where you are going to put the nylon straps to pick up the sculpture without it breaking. As I'm building, I look wherever I'm going to put those straps and then put 8 inches of concrete inside the sculpture wherever those straps will be," Neil says.
Once the structure is finished, Neil uses Portland cement and sand to create a stucco layer for the sculpture's finishing coats. Using a trowel, Neil applies the stucco finish in multiple layers starting with coarse sand in the beginning and working to a fine sand for the final, smooth finish.
After the layers of stucco dry, Neil paints the sculptures using Sherwin-Williams exterior Acrylic Latex and Krylon Crystal Clear Acrylic, which is sprayed on top of the acrylic paint to protect the colors. Neil has tried many different types of paints on his sculptures, and has found these products to be the best choice for him.
Like all concrete, the concrete and stucco finish of these sculptures expands and cracks in the sun which affects the paint. Lead paint often peels in these conditions, which is why Neil prefers the acrylic. Plus the sprayable clear coat is easy to reapply when the paint needs to be retouched, he adds.
As if Neil's sculptures aren't unique enough, he has found a way to add yet another creative, and sometimes functional, aspect to his sculptures. Because these pieces are hollow, Neil is able to incorporate items inside the sculptures. For example, Neil has sculpted a dolphin that "spits" water like a fountain. He sculpted another dolphin that shoots water out to irrigate the lawn. He has also created a dragon with a smoke machine allowing the dragon to breathe smoke.
Once a sculpture is completed, it is loaded onto a trailer and transported to its final destination. But transporting these mammoth pieces is not that simple. "I am restricted with hauling this stuff," Neil says. There are rules and laws on how tall your hauling load can be. Plus, there are bridge heights to consider, he adds.
Neil rents all of the equipment he needs including the cranes required for loading and unloading. If he is working on a tall sculpture he will also rent a lift so he can reach the top of the sculpture to add the stucco and paint.
The importance of marketing
Like many contractors, Neil knows the importance of getting his name out there. Neil says the Internet is a huge part of his business. Aside from his website, www.tjneil.com, he also has several pictures and articles on sites such as CNN and Google. Neil has also created a few YouTube videos to get his business and sculptures out to the general public.
He is also the author of two books on concrete sculpting, one he says is for beginners and the other geared more toward contractors with concrete experience. And Neil isn't shy when it comes to talking to other contractors interested in concrete sculpting. In fact, Neil encourages contractors to call him with questions. "People call me all the time for advice, and I answer all of their questions," Neil says.
Neil is an established name in the concrete sculpting business, but he isn't afraid of a little competition. In fact, he welcomes it. "I encourage people to do this type of work," he says. But if a contractor is going to get into concrete sculpting, Neil has some advice. First, do your research. Neil says to read books, watch videos, search the Internet and any other type of research you can find. Then, maybe do some test sculptures before you start doing full scale ones for customers. "There's no magic here. You have to try things yourself to accomplish and learn them yourself," Neil says.
Concrete sculpting can be a very creative field, and the concrete artisans involved are only limited by their imaginations. With that said, Neil reminds us that it is a business and the customer always comes first. "You need to do what the customer wants," Neil says. Even if it is something you wouldn't necessarily choose to do on your own or in a certain way.
Like many decorative concrete contractors, Neil has done a few sculptures he didn't necessarily like, but in the end he loves his work and his reputation as the Concrete Sculptor.