Old Glory an American flag created from over 20,000 Budweiser bottle caps for Stagecoach Festival

Old Glory is an American flag created from over 20,000 Budweiser bottle caps and was commissioned by Golden Voice and Budweiser for the 2015 Stagecoach Music Festival. Measuring ten feet tall by sixteen feet wide, for a total of 160 square feet, Old Glory is my largest bottle cap artwork to date.

The short documentary film shot by Stephen Blauweiss, above, shows how each cap was individually punched, crimped and then nailed to plywood to form the image. I love how he was able to really capture the process of making the artwork.

What inspired me in this project is how deeply iconic it is— You can't get more 'American Made' than a flag made from Budweiser caps. I also love that the artwork traveled coast to coast, from NY to CA, crossing the entire country it represents.

Whether people choose to see Old Glory as folk art or fine art, I feel the real beauty of the piece is how open it is to personal interpretation— whatever your idea of America is, I think this piece speaks to that. You can choose to view it as a monument to America, a critic of consumerism, a beautiful object or trash given new life. As an artist, my job is to make things worth talking about— I feel I've done that job best when there are a variety of meanings that are equally valid.

This quote from Jimmy Carter says it well: "We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams."

I'm very proud of how well this piece turned out. The time frame was very tight— I had about 24 hours to do the proposal, and then the bulk of the work needed to be done in about two months. Normally, I would want closer to a year to do a piece as large as this.

I'd like to thank the following people for their help with the project: Budweiser, for donating the caps and commissioning the work; Craig Bernstein of H&H Fab Works who built the custom trailer; My studio Assistant James Genito who helped assemble the flag on the trailer; My neighbor Ed Szafran for last minute wiring help; my step-son Don Gilberg and his wife Stacie who drove the flag to the festival and helped set it up on site; Stephen Blauweiss who shot the documentary; my wife Marcie Vargas who had to live with a giant project that took over a room of the house and did so with good cheer.

Below are some images and close-ups of the finished project.

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Me and Old Glory.

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Artist and artwork on tear down day after the festival.

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Old Glory.

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A close-up shot.

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Another close-up shot.

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Another close-up shot.

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Old Glory lit at night with the Stagecoach Ferris wheel in the background.

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Old Glory lit at night with the Stagecoach Ferris wheel in the background.

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Old Glory lit at night.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art at Stagecoach

Old Glory was a huge hit at the festival! Here's a little video of just some of the Instagram selfies taken with the flag.

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People lined up day and night to take their picture with Old Glory. One thing I really liked was how, as each person or couple or group climbed up on the trailer, they'd hand their phone to the people behind them to shoot the photo, and then reciprocate the favor.

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Me and my wife Marcie in front of the flag.

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At night when the festival was more packed for the bigger acts, there were even longer lines for selfies but I couldn't get a very good photo. I wish we'd had better lighting on the flag at night, but it still worked out pretty well.

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Here's the placard that Stagecoach put up in front of the flag. The DO NOT CLIMB rule worked for about the first hour or so… then one person climbed up anyway, and from there on, that's what everyone did.

Old Glory makes a brief appearance at the end of this clip from AXS TV. A lot of people called me or mentioned on Facebook that they'd seen Old Glory on TV. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down any significant footage.

Here's Stagecoach's Instagram video that features Old Glory.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: Stagecoach Festival Setup

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My step-son Don drove the flag out to Indio, CA and helped me assemble it when we got there. I'd been very worried that the flag might be damaged by the vibration of a long road trip but it arrived fully intact. If you look closely at the front board of the frame, you can see a continent's worth of splattered bugs!

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It took us forever to get through security and get to out spot on the festival grounds. Assembling the flag was quite quick, comparatively. Here, we've unpacked all the panel and laid them out.

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Up goes panel one!

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Panel two goes up, easy as pie.

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The fourth panel fits easily as well. Sure glad I did the practice assembly at home!

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We had to borrow a guy for the bottom panels so that we could both hold it in place while he shot the screws into the 4x4 behind the flag. It was a bit tricky to get these perfectly aligned because of the way the final rows of caps overlapped the seam, but it went nice and smooth.

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Here's the back of the flag, showing the overall structure and the big bolts that doubled as alignment tools.

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All done setting up! You can see the iconic Stagecoach Ferris Wheel in the background, as well as the very cool line of tents. After months of worrying about a deadline that should have been impossible, tomorrow I can kick back and watch people interact with the flag and see if it's as popular as I expect it to be.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: April 4-17

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

The trailer is here and it's install day! My studio assistant Jamie and I carry out the first of the big sections.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Laying all the panels out and hoping that they fit easily into the framework as planned.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

My plan was for the flag panels to mount to 4x4 posts that were attached horizontally across the steel framework. Ideally those would have had slotted attachments to allow a little give to the position of the 4x4s. When Craig Bernstein of H&H Fab Works built the trailer, he altered the design to make it stronger, but it's going to be a very precise and tight fit now. Will it work? The 2x4 frames of the flag panels have warped a little so I'm worried.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Lifting the first panel into place.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

That one went in pretty easy! Maybe this will all assemble as easily as I'd hoped!

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Lifting the second panel.

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Placing the second panel.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

It was a tight fit, but panel two went right in also. When we got to the third panel though, the frame was too tight and we realized we would have to make some modifications. There wasn't a lot we could do to alter the framework on the trailer, so the easiest way to fix it was to shave down the frames of the panels. After a few attempts to fit panel three, I called a break to make sure we took our time and got it right.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

This is now the second day of install. The third panel had to be shaved down to fit. The fourth panel required quite some finesse as well and we had to remove one of the vertical 4x4s and replace it with a 2x6. The lack of symmetry bugged me, but at this point we only had a couple days before the piece was due to leave for California.

 

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

The view of the structure from the back as we install the last big panel. For the most part, the panels are held in place by 3 inch drywall screws screwed into the 4x4s. Once we had it fully assembled I also added several 1/2 inch bolts to tie the panels together. The bolts served a double purpose— not only did they add strength, but they would help align the panels during final assembly. That turned out to be invaluable later and made final assembly go much faster.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Putting on the bottom stripes.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

All the panels are assembled and I can fill the last bits of the seam on the lower panels. It's a lot harder to nail the caps on when the surface is vertical! Look how the flag gleams in the sun though!

Marcie filmed me putting on the very last of the caps so we'd have footage of the beginning and end.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

A little more seam to fill, but I wanted a good shot before the light failed. The truck gives you a pretty good idea of how huge this flag is.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

And here it, Old Glory in all her glory, finally finished well within deadline. There's a cool glow to the caps on this photo.

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Old glory with sunset.

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Another look in different light.

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And her she is in bright sunlight.

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All packed up for the drive to California. I had intended to ship the piece fulled assembled but it's so high we were concerned about bridges and overpasses. Also, having the flag fully assembled would have been dangerous in high winds. So the final, final assemble will happen onsite at Stagecoach.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: March 22-28

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The four main panels are finally finished! I'll add a few fill caps to the seams once it is installed at the festival, but for now, it's ready to travel. Now onward to make the bottom two stripes.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

To minimize the seams, the bottom stripes are made of two long panels rather than four short ones. I used cardboard to make a template of the edges of the four main panels and then cut the bottom sections. There were two tricky aspects to this. One was matching the curves as closely as possible using a hand held jig saw. The other was making the template itself… the flag takes up so much space that there was only about two feet of room to stand in and draw the template!

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Mojo Cat inspects the work. The first bottom panel is nearly done.

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Filling in the second bottom panel. The edges where these meet each other and the main panels will be finished once it is on the trailer. I need to see how everything meshes together before filling in that last bit.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: March 18-21

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The stars are finished on panel two!

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

A close up shot of the caps. I love the way this thing looks when you get up close and look across it at a low angle. Note that even though the copper coated nail heads are tiny, they add color to the entire piece and transform the overall color tone slightly.

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Working on the last panel.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Another close up shot. Look how textured the bottle caps are. This is why I don't ever flatten them out completely. Once the flag is installed vertically, the slightly different angles of the cap's surfaces will make the work shimmer in the light.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

End of week five of applying caps. All four panels are done except one little strip on the last panel at the far end (look by the lamp). I like the way the red caps gleam in this photo.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

All four panels laid out side by side. The room feels a lot smaller now. There's just one little section of stripe left to do and a few bits of fill. I stayed up past dawn that night but couldn't quite finish the panel before I had to sleep.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: March 9-12

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Beginning the fourth panel. The first step is lining up the rows so that they match the edge of the last panel. This is slightly difficult because they're both 4 feet wide by 8 feet tall so it's quite a reach to get the caps nailed along the edge with the panels side by side. I work from both ends and then climb up on top of the panel for the last few caps in the middle. Once the edge has been nailed as seamlessly as possible, I can move the sawhorses apart to make it easier to reach.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Now that Stephen Blauweiss has visited to shoot footage for the documentary, I can return to panel two and finish that up. Since stars and stripes both present different difficulties, I divide my time between panel two and four to minimize repetitive stress.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Just a close up of the stripe's borders laid out on panel four because it's kind of pretty at that stage.

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Progress on all four panels. Once I've finished all four, they'll need to be laid out side by side so that I can finish the bottom two stripes.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

About a month into the assembly process, things are looking pretty good.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: March 4-8

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Week Three. The first panel is done and the stripes are finished on panel two. I moved on to the third panel partly to give my hand a rest from bending the stars and partly so I could get video footage of the second panel to show how the stars are done for the documentary film shot by Stephen Blauweiss.

You can see that I've marked the number and orientation of the middle panels on the sides.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

This photo gives a good sense of how and why the curves throw off the staggered rows of caps and why fill in caps need to be laid in over the gaps. I never entirely flatten a cap… at least some portion of the rim is always left intact. Keeping part of the rim does two things— it interlocks the caps more tightly to make a stronger piece and it preserves the feeling of depth that makes the overall look of the work much richer.

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Nearly finished with panel three. As I get deeper into the project, I realize that I can work fastest if I do all the parts that line up properly first, and then follow up to finish all the areas that need overlays. They key to getting a project this big done on such a short deadline is to batch process things as much as possible.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Very close now! Just small areas to fill in. These can be the most difficult part, really. Each overlay cap has to be crimped with the hammer and fit to a specific space. One difficulty can be figuring out exactly which space you modified a given cap for… with 1000's of caps on each panel, that all look a lot alike, you can lose your place when you turn your head to work on flattening the cap.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Overview of the work space. Panel one is done and leaned against a cabinet at the far wall. Panel two and three in partial states of completion.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Putting the last of the caps on Panel three.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: February 22-28

Marcie videotaped the first cap being nailed to the flag. Only 19,999 or so to go!

The first couple rows of caps go on

The first couple rows of caps have been applied. Usually, I partially crimp all the caps so that they overlap and have no space at all between them. Because this piece is so huge, 10 feet tall by 16 feet wide, I felt that I could allow minimum spaces by staggering each row. Like pixels, or pointillism, the colors will read fine from a reasonable viewing distance. Staggering each row allows the caps to be as close as possible without overlapping each one.

The curves in the design cause the caps not to mesh up quite as perfectly as I'd like, so in those areas I'll crimp the caps with the hammer and overlap any spaces that are too large.

designing stars in bottle caps

I knew that the stars would be the most difficult part of the piece… even though the flag itself is huge, the stars are still small enough to be difficult to render in detail. This photo shows how they would have looked without significant crimping and modification. This approach looked too much like a snowflake for me so I knew I'd have to find a better way. I also knew that the stars would throw off the rows of caps enough that it would require a lot of fill in caps lapped over the basic field of blue.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Here, the stripes are finished on the first panel and I've started filling in the blue. As much as possible, I tried to do large areas staggered in rows to minimize the areas that would need extra fill.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

This is how I eventually decided to do the stars— Start with five caps organized into a tight pentagon and then extend the point with a cap bent into a triangle. I used a US nickel as a spacer when laying out the pentagon (if you use a bottle cap, you'll end up with a nice tight hexagon) and then covered the center with a cap that was raised above the others. Those got a longer, stainless steel nail instead of the copper plated nails used everywhere else. The raised cap on top gave the stars a nice prominence that helped them stand out in the field of blue. Note that on most of the stars, the swoop of the logo is oriented to the point of the star.

I tried build a jig out of plywood to bend the caps into the point shapes but ultimately it had to be done by bending the caps by hand in my fingers. By the end of the fifty stars, both hands had serious callouses and lacerations.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

As predicted, because the stars were irregular to the rest of the piece, they left a lot of areas that required overlapping the caps to fill in the color around them. Overall, that was the most difficult and time consuming part of the project.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

I made all the stars first, and then filled in around them as efficiently as I could.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Here you can see how most of the blue field can be staggered caps, and how much space around the stars will require customized fill caps.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Almost done with the first panel!

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

A close up of the stripes. You can see a few filler caps crimped and laid over the top the rows, but not all that many… I count ten in the silver row in the photo above.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Because the flag took up the whole room and the ceiling is kind of low it was very difficult to stand back far enough to decide whether a space between caps was too wide. The best thing to do was to circle the panel and look at it from all angles. When finishing the blue area on this panel, I'd use red caps to cover any area I felt needed more fill (just as a place marker so I didn't lose the spot). After filling all those spaces, I'd repeat the process until satisfied that the color was solid enough.

Old Glory bottle cap flag art progress photo

Here's panel two with most of the stripes filled in. In order to get nice staggered rows and minimize the areas that needed fill, I decided to lay out the edges of each strip first, then work inwards from both sides so that most of the overlapping caps would land in the middle. That made it much easier to work a bit faster and to get cleaner fields of color.

You can see almost all the tools used in this photo— a tack hammer, a wooden block used as an anvil to smash the edges of the caps for overlay and a little pry bar. I also used needle nose pliers to pull nails on occasion if I wasn't happy with the placement of a cap. I saved all the bent nails because it was easier to count the nails used than the caps. By the time I was done, only 90 nails had been pulled and 76 caps rejected because they bent or smashed wrong. Out of 20,000 plus bottle caps used that's a pretty amazing accuracy rate!

I did some napkin math about midway through the project and my guess is that I swung that little tack hammer (punching, nailing and crimping) about 300,000 times on this project! Maybe even more.

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

Old Glory Bottle Cap Flag Art in Progress: February 12-21

28,000 Budweiser bottle caps

This is how 28,000 bottle caps arrived. The three boxes weighed 131.62 pounds altogether. I had no idea quite what to expect but rather thought the boxes might be a lot larger. It was fortunate that Budweiser donated the caps because there's no way I could have collected enough of them to do a project this large in such a short time frame.

28,000 Budweiser bottle caps for art project

And here is what the boxes look like open. 13,000 crowns of Bud Light Platinum, 10,000 crowns of Budweiser and 5,000 crows of Bud Light.

Projecting the source art onto plywood to sketch out the design in Sharpie

Projecting the source art onto plywood to sketch out the design in Sharpie.

If you look really closely, you'll see that two stripes fell on the floor but are nearly invisible in the dark (the projector only works in a dark room). I counted the stars to be sure I had the right number but I failed to count the stripes. That will come back to haunt me.

Because the flag was so large, I had to break the source art into two drawings— I didn't have enough space to line up all four sheets of plywood at once and a single sheet drawing didn't provide enough detail when projected. I scaled the drawings to the width of the plywood rather than the height, and that's how I missed the two bottom strips.

The first two panels of Olg Glory sketched out

The first two panels are sketched out. It took some work to line up the next two so that the remaining stripes would match up cleanly. Even a tiny change of angle in the board or the projector will throw the drawing off. It's vital to be precise when projecting a large image onto multiple pieces.

The third and fourth panels of Olg Glory sketched out

Here are panels three and four sketched out.

All four panels of Old Glory laid out on the floor

All four panels laid out on the floor to get a sense of the scale of what's ahead of me. Mojo Cat inspects my work. This is also so I can look at how well the second and third panel mesh up… You can see I'll need to finesse where the stripes line up a bit.

All four panels of Old Glory laid out on the floor

I'm about six feet tall. Even when splayed out on just the two middle panels there's a lot of white space around me.

Punching holes in bottle caps

Before I can start nailing the bottle caps to the plywood, every single one of them needs to have a hole punched through with a strong nail… I spent days just doing that. I punched about half of each color and left some whole in case I needed to put the holes in a location other than center.

Building the frame for Old Glory

Building the framework to hold the flag together. Because of the wavy edges, I recessed the frame about 12 inches on the top, bottom and the end edges. The frame needs to be built before I can start nailing caps both so that the screws are hidden behind the caps and to lend support when I begin nailing. The flat edges where the panels will meet have the frame flush with the edge so they can be bolted together.

(Side note: I'm not the only one who still hadn't noticed that two stripes were missing… It looked so large and flag-like it was easy to miss. It would have been easier to fix if I'd caught it before I sawed the bottom edge. Matching that curve was much more difficult than adding to a straight edge.)

Follow the creation of Old Glory from start to finish—

John T. Unger