The Secret of Coconut: Cellulose and Hard Work
Years ago, cardboard Christmas "Putz" house researcher "Papa" Ted Althoff was intrigued by several series of houses whose "glitter" looked "fuzzier" than most. The stuff reminded fellow collector Barbara Lovejoy of coconut, and Ted adopted that name immediately.
Collectors have used “coconut” ever since to describe both the houses that used it and the material itself. It wasn't real coconut, of course, so don't try eating any of those old structures. The shiny material on the roof of the structure to the right above gives an idea of what Ted and Barbara were trying to figure out.
Vintage coconut was usually tinted, but the individual flakes were relatively translucent. At some point, Ted wondered if it was shredded cellophane. But he couldn’t find a way to shred cellophane that would give the same texture.
Ever since Ted posed the original question to the putzing community, hobbyists have been doing their own experiments. Several readers have reported minor successes, but they all reported different materials and methods, so I waited until some "best practices" seemed to be emerging before I put this document together for the community at large.
In addition to the experimentation, I know of folks who have paid to have chemists analyze the original "coconut" from the Japanese houses.
The answer, whether by experimentation or chemical analysis always goes back to: cellulose, a chemical strand that makes up the cell walls of plants and is the major component in substances like dried straw. Ironically, Ted's guess of cellophane wasn't that far off, since it's made with cellulose (but so is rayon, and nobody yet has accused the original putz house builders of grinding up sweaters).
Not only have modern Putz house builders and restorers been experimenting with various cellulose-based materials for years, they've also been experimenting with different dyes, tools, and methods. One person who has been successful is putz researcher Pete Oehman, whose "coconut" matches the original close enough to be used alongside vintage coconut in putz house restorations. Pete offers his coconut as a commercial product. It is consistent and authentic enough that many folks who've made acceptable coconut in their own kitchen prefer to skip the work and the risk of a "bad batch" and order the completed product from Pete instead. To see a recent example of a reproduction that used Pete’s coconut to capture the original’s appearance as closely as possible, click here.
The consensus today is that the Japanese putz-builders used rice straw. Even today, it is available so cheaply in rice-producing countries that it costs more to transport than the cost of the material itself. Ironically, unprocessed rice straw is very difficult to get in parts of North America (unless you want to buy a container load). So Americans have experimented with similar cellulose-rich materials, including wheat straw, rice hulls (chaff), and corn silk. (Rice hulls are used by microbrewers, so they're easier to come by than you might think.) They’ve also had good results chopping up products that were probably made with rice straw in the first place, such as those imported straw wreath forms. (One alert reader has found a source for pre-ironed, pre-dyed or natural straw that apparently has very little waste and chops nicely with a variety of tools. To check out this source, click here.)
Whatever you use, the cost of raw materials is usually nominal. What isn't trivial is the amount of time it takes to convert the raw material into attractive, glittery, colored putz house topping.
This article is not a how-to, since I haven't come across one good, proven way that works for everybody. And not everybody has easy access to the same materials or kitchen utensils (yes, you heard me right, kitchen utensils). Instead it's a list of suggestions for people who want to try making their own "coconut" for putz house building or restoration, based on things other folks have tried with at least a measure of success.
Suggested Materials List
What you (might) need to try this experiment:
- Rice straw, wheat straw, rice hulls (chaff), or similar cellulose-based thin, dried material. Folks in some parts of California can apparently get unprocessed rice straw at their area feed stores. But most of us have to use other sources. For more detailed article about other sources that folks have tried with success please see our Coconut: Raw Materials and Pre-Processing article.
- A pepper mill, rotary grater, blender, food processor, or other product that will chop or mill the material. One reader has used paper punches that make tiny rectangles. Others are experimenting with a coffee bean grinder. For information about how folks are using kitchen blenders and similar devices to chop their pre-processed straw down to size, plese see our Coconut: Chopping to Size article.
- Two sifting screens, one with small holes for the dust to fall through and one with larger holes to catch oversize pieces. One hobbyist reports good results with the 30 and 70 mesh screens gold dusters use. You can buy prefabricated versions from Amazon , find household strainers or sifters that approximate those grades, or simply track down the screen and make your own very cheaply. For details about how some folks use commercial screens or make their own, please see our Coconut: Sifting and Sifters article.
- Dye, paint, ink, etc., to color the material. One reader uses watercolor paint that comes in tubes. One uses Rit-style fabric dyes extensively. One has even used "magic marker juice" to get a specific color. For details about how some folks use dye and bleach, check out our articles o Dyeing and Bleaching.
- Something to spread the material out to dry on, such as a drying screen or maybe wax paper and a cookie sheet. For details and other suggestions about drying, check out our article on Drying coconut.
- A small jar or something to use to sprinkle the coconut onto the surface to be treated.
- White, water-soluble glue, such as Elmer's. Alternatively, if you're familiar with gesso, a paint-like product you can texture, several people favor that. Folks who use gesso often tint it to a light version of the same color they're dying the coconut, so if some coconut comes loose, a white patch doesn't appear.
- Paint or something to color the surface that is to receive the coconut. If you’re going to use gesso, you can tint it. If you’re going to use glue, you might want to consider painting the surface a complementary color, in case coconut is knocked off or gets rubbed thin later.
Steps You'll Probably Need to Take (Though Not Necessarily in This Order)
The following steps may not always be necessary and they might not all occur in the same order, since they depend in part on the material you use.
- Pre-processing - Since most folks who are attempting to “roll their own” are using kitchen blenders or food processors to get the material down to size, they need to cut the straws to a length that their machinery can handle first. Different source of material are pre-processed in different ways, so we have combined source and pre-processing information into our Coconut Raw Materials and Pre-Processing article.
- Chopping - Most modern putzers chop the material before dyeing. Often they use kitchen devices that were designed for other products. (Think pepper mill or rotary grater, mini food processor with slicing blade, coffee bean grinder or?). Each batch actually goes back and forth between chopping and sifting until the pieces are a consistent size and dust is filtered out.
For details on how some folks have accomplished the chopping task, check out our Coconut: Chopping to Size article.
- Sifting - To get a consistent texture, many folks use sifting screens on the chopped or milled material. These are not much different than the kind they use to pan for gold. You'll need at least two grades, a "minimum" grade (30?) to get the dust-sized particles out and a "maximum" grade (70?) to keep the really big particles out. That doesn’t mean you have to buy equipment to get started - many folks use flower sifters or homemade strainers. For tips on the sifting part of this process, check out our article Coconut: Sifting and Sifters.
- Dyeing - It's likely that the Japanese used easily available natural dyes from things like boiled onion skins and crushed beetle wings. Modern putz builders have tried all kinds of coloring products, including clothing dye, food coloring, diluted ink or paint, and even "magic marker juice." If you have pre-chopped your material, you may try putting the product into little muslin "teabags" and suspending them in your dye solution. Some people work the color through the material by hand - now that's a messy process!
If you don’t need a specific color, you might have some luck with pre-dyed straw available here.
Note about color matching: By the way, if you're making "coconut" to match an existing structure, color matching is usually the hardest and most time-consuming part of the project. Pete Oehman, whom we mentioned before, is a printer by trade, long used to using Pantone(r) and other systems to get precise color into finished products. So he's especially equipped to match new coconut to existing buildings. That said, it takes literal hours, since the material must dry completely before Pete is certain he has the right final color. Click this link to see a house that Tom Hull has restored using color-matched coconut from Pete’s workbench (as well as die-punched windowframes that Pete provided).
For more details on dyeing chopped straw, check out our Coconut: Dyeing article.
- Whitening or Bleaching (Optional) - If you want your coconut to be white or very light in color you can use household bleach to do the job. (That said, one person who uses corn silk as source material reports that bleach dissolves it.) For a few tips folks have tried successfully check out our Coconut: Bleaching article.
- Softening - Very few people do this, but one reader suggests that if you want your end result to have a soft texture, you could put it into a “tea bag” made from cheese cloth or the like, and suspend it overnight in a glass of water and a little bit of fabric softener. Check your material for color-fastness first.
- Drying - Once your material has been dyed, you need to spread it out and leave it someplace where it can dry. If you dyed before you chopped, you'll need to get it very dry, then chop or mill, then sift. Some folks who chop or mill before they dye, sift again after the material has dried, just to ensure a more consistent texture. For more tips on drying, check out our Coconut: Drying article.
- Using - Once your coconut is ready to use,
- Put some into a cup or something that you can use to sprinkle it.
- Spread a big cloth or piece of paper under your building to catch and save "stragglers."
- If you're using gesso, tint a small container's worth and coat one area of your building with a smooth layer. Alternatively, you may use white glue (such as Elmer's). Usually you won't want to coat more than one wall or roof slope at a time.
- Sprinkle the coconut onto the gesso or glue, shaking the house to encourage it to settle. (Some people tamp the coconut lightly down then shake a little more on to be sure.)
- Collect the coconut that didn't stick and return it to your container.
- After that side has started to set, move to the next section.
I'm sure that two years from now, a new set of "best practices" will have emerged and folks will look back at this article and wonder why I was so "tentative" about the whole process. That's fine. The point of this article is to encourage inquiry and experimentation. And, frankly, if one of our readers really "nails it" and can prove me wrong on every point, or finds a shortcut that achieves identical results without most or all of these steps, I'll just be happy that we've advanced the community's knowledge on this once arcane topic.
Feel free to report your results on the Coconut page of our forums.
In the meantime, I look forward to hearing and seeing the results of your experiments, with this or any other aspects of putz collecting, displaying, restoring, or creating.