April 24, 2011

Getting Started with Animal Balloons

Filed under: 20-minute,balloons,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 3:59 am
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Poodle of light

Today I did my annual “make balloon animals at the First Lutheran Easter Egg Hunt”, which of course was fun. After posting a quick “did this. I’m tired. Nap time” status to facebook I got a message from one of my good friends from high school: “You HAVE to teach me how to do balloon animals. How did you get started doing this? Do you have an air pump? Where do you get your supplies?”

Back in the mists of time (1985 I think) I had picked up one of the Aaron Hsu-Flanders books from a local bookstore. It had 20 balloons, a little “ear squirter” pump that took at least 20 squeezes to inflate one balloon, and a Garfield-sized book of grainy black and white photos for making various creatures, starting with a dog and ending with a teddy bear. There were only about ten critters you could make from the book, but I was hooked. I found a place in town that sold the higher-quality balloons. Oddly enough, it was an oxygen supplier. I learned to mouth-inflate because I got very tired of the squeezy pump that came with the book. Since then I have acquired books, VHS tapes, DVDs, attended conferences, and generally had a good time making my little inflatable rubber friends. There are few hobbies that can elicit expressions of pure joy like this:


I get all my stuff from T.Myers Magic, at Good gear, good prices, good people. Check out TJam on the Road for their road show. If one comes close to you, go to it!

Avoid the kits you see in bookstores or from Wal-Mart. The balloons tend to be terrible and the instruction books only slightly less so. T.Myers has a starter kit of a pump, a basic intro book, and 100 “Qualatex 260Q” balloons which you should try first. 260 is the technical term for the common animal balloon, and Qualatex is the main brand. These babies are silky smooth and feel like professional tools, vs the junk you get at big box stores. These balloons can withstand a massive amount of abuse before going BOOM.

Even though I mouth inflate, I recommend starting with a good hand pump like the 260 Blaster that comes with the T.Myers intro kit. Two or three pumps will get you a full balloon. Otherwise you’ll incite carpal tunnel with the lame pumps. You can also get floor pumps that’ll inflate a balloon in one gesture, as well as electric dealies. Mouth-inflating is physically demanding and could lead to mouth or eye injuries. My years as a bass trombone player have given me chops of steel, so be smart and be careful.

Once you use up the 100 balloons in the starter kit and decide you’re having fun, the next thing is to acquire is Captain Visual’s Big Book of Balloon Art. This is an incredible compendium of single-balloon figures, as well as some multiple-balloon creations like a giant octopus, a little red wagon, and a number of cartoon characters. I find the diagrams to be very easy to read, although some friends found them less easy to follow. You can build quite a repertoire from this book.

If you’re into videos, the ones by David Bartlett, a.k.a. Mister Raiinbow, are exceptionally good. Twisted: A Balloonamentary is a documentary of some characters in the balloon twister community. You’ll laugh, cry, and have your faith in humanity restored. I’ve met, and learned at the feet of, about half the folks in this film.

If you’re into GodStuff, Ralph Dewey has a huge line of books for “Gospel Twisting.” John Holmes has an incredible “Christ on the Cross” figure as well. Even if you’re not into that kind of stuff, you can learn a huge amount of technique from Ralph and John.

BalloonHQ is the place for balloon twister and balloon decorator (a.k.a. “stacker”) discussion, and the site has a huge Guide to Ballooning. You can get lost in there for days on end.

Balloon twisting can be a slippery slope. Soon you’ll be getting more books and DVDs. Then getting balloons in single colors so you always have the perfect shade of blue available. There are special bags and aprons you can get for carrying them around. Smiley faces. Alien Faces. 260s. 160s. 350s. 321Bs, and on and on and on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

If you decide to start making balloons for other people, like at church, the flea market, Take Your Kid To Work Day, be sure to join the World Clown Association and get the Entertainer’s liability insurance. You don’t want to get financially wiped out if some kid chomps a poodle and gets injured or chokes to death.

If you take my Advanced Mac OS X Bootcamp from the Big Nerd Ranch, one of our mid-week activities is learning about balloons, as well as making your own. It has no relationship at all to programming, but a nice breather during an intense week of teaching and learning.

D31 2985


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