Everything You Need to Know About Making Atlas Stones. Why Stones? Many people have seen stone lifters on television in a strongman contest and wondered…why? A better question might be…why not? Stones have a rich history as test of strength. Europe is full of examples, from the Basque stone lifters of Spain to the Dinnie and Inver stones of Scotland to the famed Husafell stone of Iceland. I will not attempt to recount all of the historically siginficant stones here – if you want a list, google “manhood stone” or some similar term and you’ll see that there are many of them from all around the world. Clearly, lifting stones did not begin with the advent of the modern strongman contest – there is a rich history behind it. There is something primal about finding a stone in nature and lifting it to prove your strength. It connects you to those who passed the same way hundreds of years earlier who spotted the same rock and wondered if they might have what it takes to hoist it from the ground. There is nothing pretty, nothing polished, nothing pretentious about it – it is man and nature. There are no judges critiquing technique, no points to be awarded, and the only contest to be won is between you and the stone. But still – why would you lift a dirty stone that you probably have to knock the creepy-crawlies off of rather than a clean, shiny barbell? Well, aside from the above reasons, stones are far more useful for increasing functional strength – strength that matters in the real world. You may be able to deadlift 600 pounds on a bar, but if you can’t pick up the couch and move it to the other side of the living room, what good does it do you? Stones also have the benefit of being fairly widely available, and inexpensive. There is no need to drop a ton of money in a sporting goods store or a catalog – they can be found literally lying on the ground, waiting to be taken home, or just lifted and left where they lie (or just left, if the stone is greater than the man – or woman – trying to lift it). What do you do with stones? This gets us to what to do with the stones. There are three basic options – lift them, carry them, or press them. Obviously most people can lift more than they carry and carry more than they can press. Thus, each activity requires a different stone if your goal is a maximum effort. Probably the most famous modern day stone lifting exercise is loading Atlas stones, made so by modern strongman contests. The rest of this article is dedicated to how to make Atlas stones. Future articles will focus on how to lift Atlas stones, as well as using other types of stones. What are Atlas stones? Atlas stones, for those who don’t know (and for whatever reason are still reading this) are round stones which are generally lifted from the ground to a platform ranging in height from three to five feet or more. It is not uncommon for a good amateur lifter to be able to load a stone in excess of 400 pounds, and the best professionals can lift stones weighing more than 500. Some people swear by using tacky to lift them, others swear at it. Either way, there are no handles on the stones, so lifting them requires the use of nearly every muscle in the body either to grip and squeeze the stone or to apply upward force. Where do they come from? Obviously perfectly round stones of that size are not found in nature. There are two basic ways to make them – either make a mold yourself, or use a premade one. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, as described below. Or you can find someone who is skilled at stone making and buy some. There are sites on the internet which advertise them. However, they are not cheap, and you’d better find one on your neighborhood since shipping these things is uneconomical, to say the least. The best product (based on looks, anyway, since I’ve never met anyone who’s bought one) is from Atomic Athletic – they advertise granite Atlas stones. These are priced such that this isn’t really an option for most of, though. At any rate, making your own stones is not that complicated, and it gives you a connection to the stone you wouldn’t otherwise have. Making your own mold. The cheapest method is the plaster-and-a-beach-ball method. It is fairly straightforward – find an inflatable ball the size you want your stone to be (there is a chart at the end of this article about what size that might be). Mix up some plaster of paris. Put a patty of plaster a few inches thick on your working surface to serve as the base of the mold. Set the ball on this base with the air hole facing straight up (assuming you care about having the ball around for later use – if not, don’t worry about it). Start plastering up the ball, leaving about a six inch diameter hole around the ball’s air hole. It may take a few minutes for the plaster to set up enough to stick – just keep working with it. It’ll thicken up soon enough, and once it reaches the “right” consistency it’ll be easy to stick on the ball. The “right” consistency, to paraphrase Potter Stewart’s apt phrase about pornography, is difficult to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. I hadn’t used plaster since grade school art class when I first tried this, and I figured it out pretty quickly – it’s not that hard. Keep layering it on until it’s about 1/2” to 1” thick all around. Be sure you don’t leave any holes in the mold other than at the top. I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes small holes are hard to see until the mold is empty and otherwise ready to go. Also, don’t mix too much plaster at once – once it starts to set, it’s difficult to work with. Probably a quarter of a bag at a time is enough. Finally, don’t work too fast – I have several egg-shaped stones from having put too much plaster on at once, and the weight of the plaster weighed the ball down to the point that it was no longer round. If necessary, wait for one layer to harden before mixing the plaster for the next. The key is to take your time and do it right. Fortunately, plaster isn’t too expensive, so if you screw up just start over. It is easier on the psyche (not to mention the wallet and the back) to remake an empty mold than it is to notice halfway through pouring the concrete that you have a crack in the mold and then to see all the concrete gush out of that crack. Once the mold is sufficiently thick, let it set up overnight. It probably doesn’t really need that long (likely an hour or so would do), but it’s better to take an extra day and get it right than to rush things and have to do them over. Plus, after the work that goes in to making a mold, it’s probably a good idea to at least take a break and eat at this point. To remove the ball, stick an inflator needle in the air hole and release the air until it will fit through the hole. Just reach in the hole and push on the ball to get the air out. Don’t force the ball out, as you might crack the mold. Just keep squeezing it until it fits. Of course, if you don’t care about the ball, you can deflate it with a blade. One word of caution if you do reuse the same ball to make another mold – make sure to fill it to the same capacity with air as it was to begin with. I once made a 235 pound 17.5 inch stone with a new ball. I later made another mold with the same ball, but with about 80 pounds of steel weight in the center, planning to have a roughly 300 pound stone. Because I didn’t put enough air back in the ball, I ended up with a 265 pound 16.5 inch stone that is slightly egg-shaped. Lesson learned the hard way. Before filling the mold with concrete, put the mold on the ground or close to it – it makes removing the stone from the mold infinitely easier. The process of pouring the concrete into the mold is the same as with a premade mold and is described below. After the concrete cures (about a day or so) simply take a hammer and crack the plaster off. Just be careful not to whack the stone too much in the process. Actually, you only have to chip off the top half. Then you can simply turn the mold over and the stone will roll out. You can also make a reusable mold with fiberglass and some plywood. It’s a more complicated process, and one I haven’t personally tried, but the basic gist of it is to take a ball and apply fiberglass to it much the same way as you would plaster, except that you have a wooden (or metal, if you’re skilled with a cutting torch) lip at what will become the equator that you will later use to attach the two halves of the mold. As I said, I’ve never used this method, so I can’t personally speak to how good it is, but if you want more information, there is at least one website with a fairly detailed description of how to do it. (http://www.ontariostrongman.ca/Resources/stone/fibreglass_mold/fibreglass_mold_how-to.html) The advantage to this method is that you have a mold you can reuse. Buying or renting molds. The gold standard in Atlas stone molds are those made by Steve Slater and available from his hardware store (http://www.slatershardware.com/stonemolds.html). These aren’t the cheapest molds in the world, and if you are decent with plaster and are only making one or two stones (or are just broke) you might want to use that method. However, if you aren’t a skilled plasterer and/or you want several stones, it is definitely worth it to invest in a set of Slater’s molds. They can be reused nearly infinitely (I borrowed a set I’ve used to make several dozen stones and had been used to make several stones made before I got them, and they appear to be good for many more). Of course, if you know someone who has a mold the size you need that will let you borrow it, all the better for you. On occasion, Slater’s sells off used molds for a reduced price. Look them up on the internet and give them a call for more details on that. Alternatively, there are places which rent molds for a period of a couple of weeks. One can be found at http://www.vincesmuscleshop.com/Stone-molds.htm. I’ve never used any of the rental places and don’t know anyone else who has, so I can’t speak to their products or services from experience. Not to make this into a commercial (especially since I’m not being paid for it J), but I have used both methods (homemade and premade molds) and I whole-heartedly recommend using Slater’s molds. At one time, I’d have said to go with the beach ball and plaster method due to cost, but after having done both, using the premade molds are much easier and cleaner (no plaster chips to clean up) and the difference in the quality of the stones is like night and day. I originally had only homemade-mold stones, and thought they were fine. Then I moved and made some with Slater’s molds and became accustomed to them. While I vacationed at my old house and used my original stones, I realized that they were horrible compared to my new stones. I won’t use anything else ever again. Plus, once you get the hang of it, you can recoup your cost by selling stones to other folks. At any rate, one of the most important things to remember with Slater’s molds is to not skimp on the duct tape. Simply put the two halves of the mold together (which might take some finagling – it’s supposed to be a tight fit) and tape around the mold several times. Don’t use less than half a roll to a full mold of tape, depending on the size of the mold and the size of the roll. Make sure to cross the equator several times to make sure the halves don’t come apart. I have a few stones which are misshapen (some horribly disfigured) because the two halves came apart while I stuffed concrete in the mold. This is a frustrating occurrence, apt to make a strongman cry. Once the mold is “assembled,” before you fill it, apply some sort of release agent to the inside of the mold. One that has been recommended is Gunk Silicone Spray. You can do this prior to assembling the mold, but be careful to not get any on the outside of the mold, or else the tape won’t stick. Pouring the concrete You have to be sure that the mold is stable and properly supported. You can either put the mold in a hole in the ground (or in a barrel with dirt in it) the same size and shape as the bottom of the mold, or set the mold in a tire or two sitting on top of the ground. The advantage to the first is that so long as the hole is the right size, the bottom of the stone is essentially guaranteed to be properly round (just watch for roots – they can make a dent in the mold, and hence the stone). The disadvantage is that it is harder to vibrate the mold sufficiently and difficult to remove the full mold from the hole (think Romanian deadlifting with an Atlas stone). The advantage to the tires is ease of setup (just set the tires on the ground and go – no digging, etc.) and ease of vibrating the mold. The disadvantage is that you have to make sure the tires will support the full mold enough to keep it off the ground or else you’ll have a flat spot on the bottom. You also need to be sure there is enough give in the tires so you don’t end up with a ring around the stone where the mold sat in the tire. Also, be sure there is nothing under the mold. The first time I used the tire method I somehow failed to notice a brick on the ground in the center of the tire, and ended up with an otherwise nice 375 pound stone with a brick-shaped dent in it. Maddening stuff. Once you’ve set up your mold, it’s time to mix the concrete. I have used both the regular mix and the high strength mix and not noticed much difference other than that the high strength is more expensive. I generally use Quikrete product 1101 (the stuff in the yellow bag) or whatever equivalent is available (at one Lowe’s they apparently switched to carrying Sakrete instead. I did not notice a difference between the brands). It is possible for properly made stones to break (for example, it happened at a recent pro show in Connecticut and they actually duct taped the pieces together to complete the show), but I have never experienced it personally. Considering that I generally train outdoors and the stones only get dropped in sand, I likely won’t. That said, if you feel breakage is a possibility (for example, if you train on concrete or asphalt and the stones will be dropped on that surface) there is nothing wrong with the higher strength concrete. You can either mix the concrete by hand or with a mixer. If you’re making several stones at once, I’d rent a mixer. If you’re just making one (or two, if you’re ambitious) I’d mix it by hand (well, shovel or hoe, anyway). Just follow the instructions on the bag. It’s not rocket science. Either scoop the concrete into the hole at the top of the mold or pour it in with some sort of funnel. Once the concrete is up to the top of the mold, the hard part begins. You have to vibrate the mold to get the air bubbles and excess water out. If not, the stone will have air pockets and will not be as strong (or heavy) as it should be. You can either shake the mold (much easier if you use the tire method instead of the hole in the dirt method) or use some vibration device on it. I have used a palm sander with success in the past, but wouldn’t recommend this if you like your sander – after a dozen or so stones the sander crapped out from getting water and concrete mix in it, and the rubber pad on the bottom was shot after about 6 stones. Perhaps it would have been different if I’d been more careful or had applied the sander indirectly – such as by putting a board on the mold and the sander on the board. At any rate, vibrate the mold by whichever method until air bubbles stop coming up. This may take a while. Then add more concrete to the mold. Keep stuffing concrete in until no more will fit. Water and some mix will come out of the top hole when you do this – this is fine. I generally alternate one bit of wet mix and one bit of dry mix pushed into the mold as far as it will go, taking care to mix the dry mix in well enough to wet it sufficiently. When you think the mold is absolutely as full as it can possibly be, you’re probably about halfway done with this process. You will be amazed at how much more concrete mix will fit into an already full mold. The first time a buddy of mine made a stone, he called me after he thought the mold was full. He described the situation to me, and I told him to keep putting in more mix. He worked at it and called me back after 45 minutes or so, and asked the same question and got the same answer. Eventually he got it packed sufficiently and the stone came out beautifully. This is where using enough tape on the mold comes in to play. I once kept packing and packing and packing, for over an hour, then I notice that each time I pushed down, the top half of the mold came up a bit because the two halves were not connected. I ended up with a mutated chunk of concrete that resembled the Death Star’s deformed cousin. It had two decent but nonmatching semispheres, one of which had a flat spot with a pile of concrete in the center of it. It is heavy, and can be used for strength training of some sort, but good God it is ugly. It is much easier to justify spending two bucks on another roll of tape than it is to end up with some such monstrosity and have to repeat the whole process. Once you can do one-armed pushups with your hand on the hole in the mold, and not cause any change in the level of the mix, you’ve probably got enough concrete in it. At this point, form the concrete mix so it is as continuous with the shape of the mold as you can. In other words, try to make the entire thing spherical, rather than a sphere with a flat spot where the hole is. All that is left after that is to wait. If you’ve done this outdoors and there is a chance of rain, you’ll want to cover the hole in the mold. After the concrete has cured (I generally let them sit for 36-48 hours) it’s time to remove the stone from the mold. You’ll probably need a knife and almost definitely a hammer and a piece of scrap wood. If you’ve used the hole in the dirt method, this is the time to remove the filled mold from the hole. Remove the tape from the mold. This is where the knife comes in – just be careful not to slice a hole in the mold. After the tape is off, roll the mold so the seam is vertical. Place the board perpendicular to the mold, against the lip of the upper half. Then whack the board with the hammer. Rotate the mold a few inches and repeat the process until the top half of the mold comes off. Once that half is off, the bottom half should come off pretty easy. If you need to, use the board and hammer again. Hey, wait a minute – this thing is rough! Sometimes stones will have holes in the surface. These holes are from air pockets inside the mold. (That’s why it’s important to vibrate the mold /a lot/.) Generally they occur on the top half of the stone with the bottom half being pretty smooth, though I have made stones where the opposite is true. A few small holes is not a problem (actually, it’s somewhat expected). If they are such that lifting the stone is akin to sticking your forearms in a meat grinder, you might want to use some concrete patch to fill them. Just slather the stuff on, making sure to fill the holes as completely as possible (i.e., not just the surface). Later, after the patch has dried, use a brick to smooth it out. It is also not uncommon for there to be a small ridge where the seam in the mold was. If this doesn’t fall off on its own, use a brick to smooth it out. Bricks are kind of like sandpaper for stones. As tempting as it is to lift the thing right away, it’s safer to let it sit for another day or two before lifting it. Actually, lifting it isn’t really the problem – it’s dropping it. If it’s a weight you’re absolutely sure you can control the whole way and set down gently, especially if you’re on a hard surface, you’re probably ok to lift it right away. Otherwise, just be patient and wait a day or two rather than chancing it. Using the same size mold for different weight stones. You have probably seen contests where there are five stones, all the same size but each a different weight. The difference lies in what is inside the concrete. I have made five different weights of stones from one mold, and could (and very well might in the future) make more. To make a lighter stone, put styrofoam or something similar in the center of the mold. Some people say to tape the styrofoam to the bottom of the mold or use rods through it to prevent it from floating to the top of the mold. I have never had it move on me, so I can’t say from experience that this is necessary. Just check it toward the end of the packing process to be sure it’s in the center. With either this or with adding weight, if the weight-adjusting item is not centered, neither will the weight of the stone be. Off-centered stones are much harder to lift. For a heavier stone, put steel or lead in the center. You’ll need to suspend the weight in the center of the mold, or it will sink to the bottom This I have experienced personally. Essentially you need something stable from which to hang the weight at the proper height. When I first started making stones, I did it in a shed and suspended the weight by a cable hanging from the rafters. Later when I made stones outdoors, I stacked cinder blocks a few inches higher than the mold on either side and suspended the weights from a piece of pipe laid across the two cinder blocks. When you go to remove the stone from the mold, simply cut the cable (or rope, or whatever you used) right at the surface of the stone before the other steps. Each pound of steel added to the mold will add about .8 pounds to the final stone (due to displacement of some concrete). In other words, if you put 100 pounds of steel in a mold, you will have a stone which will weigh 80 pounds more than one made from the same mold without anything special in the center. Lead is more efficient, as it is denser than steel. When using either of these methods, it is easier to fill the bottom of the mold with concrete around the item in the center. If you just pour concrete on top of it, you’ll probably end up with lots of air pockets in the bottom half of the stone. Also, when you are doing your final packing, make sure the thing is still in the center and that the concrete mix has completely filled underneath it. What size mold do I need? This is a bit tricky. I asked Quikrete what the density of their product was, and they said 142-145 pounds per cubic foot. Using this measure and the volume of the mold, I thought I had made a set of stones weighing 260, 280, 300, and 320 pounds. Later, the heaviest of these stones weighed on a scale at 278 pounds. I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed, as I’d been telling people all the wonderful things I’d been doing with a 320 pound stone, not to mention having painted on the stone what I thought they weighed and having misled my crew not only about what I was able to do, but what they were able to do as well. It turns out that the true density is closer to 126 pounds per cubic foot. Making the stones your own. You can make your stones stand out from the others by a couple of methods of which I’m aware (there may also be others, but hey, I can’t think of everything!). You can mix in some concrete coloring compound to make certain weight stones a particular color (which might come in handy around Easter, too). This is a simple enough process – just buy the stuff (it should be near the concrete mix at the store) and follow the directions on the bottle when mixing your concrete. Another thing you can do is to really personalize your stones by putting your name or some other design in the stone itself. Do this by taping the inside of your mold before pouring the concrete in. Simply take some tape (the thinner the better, so you don’t end up altering the surface of the stone too much) and put a mirror image of what you want in the stone’s surface on the mold. You can put your name, your crew’s name, the stone’s name (yes, people do name their stones), the stone’s weight, or whatever you want and are artistic enough to design with tape. Just be sure the tape is stuck to the inside of the mold pretty solidly before you start to pour. Of course, the easiest way to do this is to just paint the stones after they come out of the mold. Often people simply spray paint the weight of the stone on the surface – this is especially handy if you have different weight stones of the same size. The only downside to this is that it isn’t permanent – the paint will eventually wear off after the stone is used. Conclusion I think this pretty much covers how to make a good stone. I don’t claim to be an expert stone maker, but I have made about 20 stones. Each time I make one I learn something new. If you come across something I’ve omitted, or if you have any questions about something, feel free to shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll do what I can to help. Good luck and lift strong!