Why does everything have to be a balancing act (tutorial included)

Why does everything have to be a balancing act (tutorial included)


ATB Circus Cannon Tutorial Level of Difficulty: Advanced

Both of my kids are circus performers. Don’t get me wrong–they aren’t out on the road, performing in big tops across the country. Rather, instead of participating in youth soccer or baseball, they take classes and perform at a circus performing arts school.

They both walk the wire, known to non-circus folks at the tightrope, The Daughter™ rides unicycles tall and small, The Son™ performs aerial straps. They do lots of other circus stuff too. While they aren’t the star performers at this very competitive school–far from it–the fact that they undertake these acts of courage when they both have serious anxiety disorders is pretty amazing. When The Son™ started at this school as a six-year-old, he found playground slides too frightening. Now he walks the highwire.

Anyway, since this isn’t a mommy blog (really, no, really it isn’t!), I shared this to point out that with my kids doing all these daredevil acts, you would think I would know a thing or two about balance myself. Apparently not. I demonstrated this when I neared the final stages of completing my Artist Trading Block (ATB) Circus Cannon. There I was–cheerfully working away with everything going smoothly. Then I attached the cannon barrel to the block and watched in dismay as the barrel lurched into the ground. If this was a real circus cannon, the circus girl would be shot straight into the elephant poop.

Elephant poop expletive indeed. How could I possibly fix this? There’s a reason my siblings are scientists, construction engineers and mathematicians, while I am the writer and artist: my brain is allergic to both math and science. However, since I refused to start over, I resolutely put on my thinking cap and eventually realized that my solution was to create a counter-balance. Ha! Who’s the engineer now? Nanny-nanny-boo-boo, I’m calling Mom.

I will share more about this ingenious solution a little later in the tutorial, but for now, let’s go back to the beginning.

This is my second tour into the fabulously fun new Artist’s Trading Block (ATB) movement that is becoming the greatest show in town. For the base of this project, I used a matboard block made from the Eileen Hull Block Die. I was lucky enough to win this block from Eileen and Amy Bowerman at Plucking Daisies. However, I can’t wait to get my hands on my own copy of Eileen’s Die because I am hooked on ATBs.

On with the show tutorial

Step 1 After using Eileen Hull’s block die to cut the matboard, assemble the block by folding along each score line and forming two “U” shapes. Apply adhesive to the tabs and rotate them so they fit together forming a block.

Step 2 You will have to do this step in your own style, but here is what I did: Making sure the coast was clear from spies and dangerous thieves (except for the usual NSA, Google, Facebook and cellphone companies), I went into my secret-extra-special-craft-supplies and pulled out my stash of Graphic 45 Le Cirque paper. I love this collection so much that I stocked up on it before Graphic 45 retired it. Sadly, my supply is still dwindling much too quickly.

Step 3 Select two coordinating Le Cirque blue papers and cover the sides of the ATB with them.

Line the edges with washi tape.

Line the edges with washi tape.

Step 4 Using red washi tape, neatly line the edges of the block, centering the tape on each edge.

Step 5 To make the human cannonball, find an image of an aerialist from one of the many public domain circus images available on the web. Two places you can try are the Library of Congress and Project Gutenberg. Use a photo editing program, e.g. Photoshop, to remove distracting elements. Then duplicate the the man or woman (my human cannonball is female) and make a mirror image of her. If you use Windows Photoshop, you can use the “Flip Horizontal” command under the Transform > Rotate option.

Step 6 Print both copies of the woman onto white cardstock and fussy-cut one copy. Then, fussy-cut the feet and legs of the mirror copy. Align the two copies back to back and fussy-cut the remainder of the second copy to perfectly match the first.

Step 7 To glam up the human cannonball, apply red glitter glue to her bodice and straps and glue a small section of gold pipe cleaner to her waist. Repeat this on the other side of the woman.


Cut sturdy clear plastic

Cut sturdy clear plastic

Step 8 To enable the human cannonball to fly, you will need some clear plastic. For similar situations, such as the pop up butterflies in the Drab Daisies ATB, I use transparency film. However, in this project, the film is not strong enough to lift the woman up and away. Instead, use sturdy clear plastic packaging (such as a clear plastic box) and cut strips of it, taking advantage of the pre-made 90 degree angles so you can place the woman on one end of the angle. Measure the width of the woman and use a paper trimmer to cut a few different widths of plastic around 3/4″ to find the best combination of appearance and strength. Glue one copy of the woman to each side of the plastic strip that you select.

Step 9 Select a 5-6″ strip of the striped and starred Graphic 45 Le Cirque paper, “color” the rust stripes with a tone of red glitter glue that matches the faucet handles and let dry.


Step 10 To make the cannon barrel, you will need to obtain a large tapered cork. Furthermore, because the cork is tapered you will need to play around with paper placement to ensure the end of the barrel is straight cannon. Trace a pattern onto a sheet of paper because you might find yourself having to redo this more than once to get your human cannonball “just right”. The wide end of the cork will be flush against the block and the paper will extend beyond the narrow end of the cork by about two inches. Use your judgment to get a good proportion of block to barrel. Also, trace a circle around the small end of the cork onto dark crafting paper. Cut this circle out and glue onto the end of the cork.

Step 11 Determine a good length for the human cannonball plastic strip. Attach the clear plastic strip to the top of the cork with clear duct tape. Don’t forget to make sure your human cannonball is facing up (of course, no one here could possibly be speaking from experience).


Step 12 Use the cannon barrel pattern to cut the coordinating Graphic 45 paper. Adhere this paper over the plastic strip/cork fabrication, lining it up flush with the wide end of the cork and extending it beyond the tapered end of the cork. Make sure the narrow end of the barrel is straight. Attach the newly-made red striped paper around the narrow end of the barrel.


Step 13 Use red outdoor faucet handles to make the wheels. News flash–you can purchase the handles without the faucet! Originally, I tried to remove the handle from the faucet using every wrench in the house. Elephant poop–it didn’t budge. Luckily, a trip to the hardware store led to the discovery that I could buy the handles without the faucet. Problem solved! Later that night The Husband™ informed me that I should have used a vice grip to remove the handle. Well, if he had answered any one of the 17 texts I had sent him, then maybe I would have found that out in time. Pffft.


Step 14 Decorate the “spokes” of the wheels. You will have to come up with your own solution here. I ripped little yellow wooden stars off some miniature clothes pins I had. Yes, the clothespins were cute, but they had been sitting unused in my stash for at least three years and they were perfect for my wheels. I attached the stars with E-6000 at the end of each “spoke” and then attached baby blue gems to the stars.



Letting the axle dry. As you can see, I actually added my washi tape later in the process.

Step 15 In true circus style, the ATB has a red and white striped axle made from a sturdy straw. Carefully measure (about 17 times) where to make the holes for the axle and then use an X-acto knife to do the deed.You will want to place the axle near the front of the ATB because the closer your wheels are to the front of the ATB, the less chance there will be for the ATB to tip forward. Affix each wheel to the axle with a translucent blue thumbtack and E-6000 glue. I found it easier to attach the first wheel and thumbtack to the axle before I inserted the axle into the block. I let this dry overnight before I proceeded to the second wheel.


Step 16 Using a sharp object, “drill” a narrow hole into the wide end of the cork. Break off the fuzzy ends of a Q-tip. Using a hot glue gun, squeeze glue into this hole and place the Q-tip into the hole. About half the Q-tip should go into the hole.

Step 17 Determine the placement of the cannon barrel. The center (Q-tip) of it should be horizontally centered and located about three-fourths of the way up vertically. Mark this location. Use a sharp object to make a small hole. Spread hot glue onto the wide end of the cork and quickly insert the Q-tip into the ATB hole. Again, make sure your human cannonball faces up. Hold the barrel in place until the glue dries.

Why I had you skip Step 15

Remember at the beginning of the post when I talked about balance? Here is where balance is key. You want your ATB to rest on the wheels so that the ATB tilts slightly backward, thus helping send the human cannonball upward.  When I added the cannon barrel to my ATB, the balance point of the ATB shifted. Just do your best to place the axle so that the ATB does not tip forward. Maybe you are smarter than me and can figure out the engineering behind this. In which case, could you please come over to my house and repair my broken chair…and closet light..and…snowblower? Oh and while you are at it, could you do my taxes? But if you are not the next Einstein and you still end up with a nose dive, don’t fret. You  can solve the problem with a little counter-balance.

Little did I know, elephant poop was about to hit the fan.

Little did I know, elephant poop was about to hit the fan.

Now you can go back to Step 15. See! I will do anything for you. Even sacrifice my art so your project works out. You are very welcome.

My amazing ingenuity–or why I am a well-balanced person after all

The trick to stopping my cannon from pummeling the poor circus girl into the ground was to find something heavy enough, yet small enough, to fit under the box. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but I eventually found some washers that I had lovingly rusted for a future project. Well, I hated to give these up, but it couldn’t be helped. The alternative was to get off my butt and go all the way to the basement and look for new washers. Not gonna happen.

MacGyver would be proud.

MacGyver would be proud.

My next challenge was to calculate how many washers to use to counterbalance the cannon barrel. I roughly judged the weight in my hands, but then, in another spark of sheer genius, I MacGyvered a scale to get a precise measurement. Yep, you can totally get scientifically precise readings from a jar of Carmex and a ruler.

After completing this scientific investigation, I hot glued two sets of three washers together and glued them to the bottom and far back of the ATB. I then cut out two circles of Le Cirque paper and adhered the paper over the washers. Success! When I set the ATB down, the cannon now shot my human cannonball into space.

Ladies and gentleman, direct your attention back to the tutorial

Step 18 Cut out the Death Defying and Le Cirque graphics from the Graphic 45 papers. Fussy cut the Le Cirque banner  and adhere to the Le Cirrque red-and-yellow-check paper. Cut this grouping into a small rectangle and layer it atop the Le Cirque yellow-dot-on-black paper. Then, cut the entire combination to that it is the same size as the Death Defying rectangle.

Step 19 Loosely twist red and gold wire together. Then, holding both wires in one hand, tightly wrap them around a small round object, such as a pencil, to create a coil approximately 2″ long. Adhere the Le Cirque and Death Defying graphics to each side of one end of the coil. On the other end, wrap the wires around and through a gold bead. Punch a small hole in the top of the ATB. Place a small drop of hot glue in the hole and insert the wires into the hole until the bead is flush with the ATB. Hold the wires in place until the glue is dry.

Paper Calliope Circus Human Cannonball ATB

Step 20 Hold gold pipe cleaners against the ATB and bend them at 90 degree angles at each corner of the block. Using a hot glue gun, glue the pipe cleaners along the edges of the block.

Take a bow

Congratulations! You have completed a Human Cannonball ATB! You are now prepared to take on just about any ATB with the greatest of ease.

Paper Calliope Circus Girl




  • Block made from Eileen Hull Sizzix Die
  • Graphic 45 Le Cirque paper collection
  • Large tapered cork
  • Clear plastic packaging
  • Hero Arts Baby Blue Gemstones
  • Target Brands  5 1/2″ Printed Paper Straws
  • Recollections Cherry Glitter Glue
  • Translucent blue thumbtacks
  • Gold pipe cleaners
  • Red and gold wire
  • Gold colored  plastic bead
  • Yellow wooden stars
  • Public domain vintage circus girl image
  • Inkjet cardstock
  • Red faucet handles (available at hardware store)
  • Six large washers
  • Red washi tape
  • Clear duct tape
  • Adtech glue runner
  • E-6000 glue
  • Hot glue gun


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