Float Building Guide

Creating Your Float Construction
Haywagons Basic Framework
Decorating Techniques 
Finishing Touches 
Safety Guidelines                      Suggested Safety Equipment List


Creating Your Float

Have a brainstorming session. Kick around the theme and have everyone share their own ideas. Remember: No ideas are thrown out here. That’s the concept of brainstorming. Everyone will feed off the thoughts of everyone else. Before you know it, a great idea will begin to emerge. 

Be sure that your float concept is in someway consistent with the announced theme of the parade. “Appropriateness to Theme” is a major category in judging, as is “Creativity.” Try to design a float concept that will be uniquely yours. Look for variations on shapes, materials, special effects and anything else that will make your float stand out from the pack.


Before you begin, you need to identify a place where you can actually build your float. Be certain you have good outside access to electricity.

You are also going to need a variety of tools. Here are a few you may want to plan for:

  • a table saw or circular saw
  • sabre saw
  • handsaws
  • hammers
  • staple guns
  • a well stocked tool box with screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, utility knife, etc.
  • a long tape measure and carpenter’s square

Others will certainly be needed if you’re going to add animation or special effects to your float or other more sophisticated features. 

Also, plan for protection from the weather, especially in the later stages of construction. A few large sheets of plastic that can be carefully placed over your float and fastened securely will be needed as stand by items once you get into the decorating phase. 

Floats can be built on a variety of beds: haywagons, semi-trailers or any number of things.


Haywagons do make great float beds. They are sturdy, just the right size and adapt easily to most float building designs you might create. 

The wagons are either 14, 16, or 18 feet long. All lengths are 7 feet wide and 3 feet high. 

The grander you float ideas, the more limiting you may find the haywagon to be. They always have the appearance of being “Haywagon high.” Secondly. if you want to build a very long float you will find them difficult to adapt. Your option is to obtain a second type of farm wagon that has telescoping center pipe. These are still available from farm implement suppliers. However, you will have to locate these and negotiate price yourself.

Basic Framework

The first step after you have your wagon is to build the basic framework. You have to decide just how elaborate your float frame must be based on its use. You will need more floor strength if you plan to have riders on the float them of you do not. Also, floats with large structures of the wagon will also need extra strength. 

Many floats will require that you build a frame over the existing wagon. Other designs simply use the wagon bed as is and add the superstructure needed for you design. 

If you are going to build a new floor over the wagon, is 2x6’s or 2x8s on edge for the outer framework and then run 2x4s between the, side by side. In general, place these stringers no more than 16” apart for strength if you are going to actually stand on the floor. The edges of the wagons are protected with steel bands, so you’ll have to plan your frame to fasten solidly to the wagon bed. You can toenail the frame to the wagon bed. 

Take note of any areas that seem to need extra support and add any braces you think are necessary. You can probably is 1x2s or something lighter for this purpose. This part of the float should be very solid. 

Now you’ll begin to construct the part of your float that is more for show. At this point you’ll definitely start working with lumber in areas that won’t be supporting much weight. This superstructure will generally be used to support chickenwire, cardboard or other decorating items. 

Depending on the type of design you have planned, you may now add a framework around the side of the wagon to flare out and down. This can help to hide the fact that you are building on a haywagon. This can be built from 2x2s and 1x2s. Be certain that you allow for free movement of the wagon tongue and wheels. The front wheels move quite a bit when you turn, so be particularly careful there. 

Now is the time to add lattice to the floor. These are easily ripped from cheap 2x4s. They can be made more flexible for bending around curves by soaking them in water prior to installation.

Decorating Techniques

Now that the main float structure is complete, you will start the decorating process.  The traditional technique for final decorating is of the pomps. 

Pomps are simply pre-cut squared of colored tissue paper. They give a very rich and consistent appearance and come in a wide range of colors. They also lend themselves to very elaborate decorating patterns. A single package or pomps, used in every other hole in chicken wire can cover 4 sq. ft. The disadvantage is that they require quite a bit of time to stuff in place. Here are two methods of using pomps in float building. 

Method A - Using Chicken Wire 
For this method, you’ll need to buy an adequate supply of chicken wire. This can be easily cut with tinsnips and molded over the wooden superstructure in to a wide variety of flexible shapes. You will find that it won’t take long to understand how to cut the wire and then join the pieces with other short lengths of wire. Another option is to buy a “hog ringer” at a hardware store. This tool crimps an open ring and clamps the two adjacent pieces of wire together. Fasten the wire to the wooden framework with staples wherever it crosses a brace. 

Once the float is covered with wire, layout your design areas where different colors are to go. You can mark them with spray paint or paintbrushes. 

There are two techniques used for stuffing pomps. For large areas of general coverage you can place a pomp in every other opening. For dense detail use every hole. 

Working with a small area, spray the chicken wire lightly with spray adhesive. This is available at discount stores, building centers and Yankee Trader. Then take a single pomp, form it quickly into a cone over the tip of your index finger and place into the wire. You’ll catch on to this technique quickly. 

Because pomp stuffing is very time consuming, float builders have sometimes devised plans that allow-for the chicken wire sections to be distributed to a number of teams. Each team then completes their own area and the sections are joined together on the float. It is defiantly more difficult to lay out the wire this way, but it does help to eliminate the last minute rush. 

Method B - Using Corrugated Cardboard 
This method combines the use of pomps, spray adhesive and corrugated cardboard. Work within small sections so that the adhesive remains tacky. As described in Method A, form a cone over your index finger with a simple pomp and simply touch the point to the tacky cardboard. Continue attaching pomps approximately 3” to 4” apart for general coverage and closer for detailed work or combinations of colors. When covering large areas, you can reduce pomp use by painting the cardboard to match the pomp color so that no brown cardboard shows through. 

The Cardboard is usually fastened to the frame with ½” to ¾” staples. The larger the sheets of cardboard, the better the result will be. 

Here are some tips for installing the cardboard:

  1. Don’t overlap the cardboard. Make certain the edges butt together.
  2. Cut the cardboard so that the edges end up on a piece of the wood frame for extra stability.
  3. The cardboard will sage and droop if it is humid, so plan to add cardboard only a few days before the parade.
  4. If the cardboard gets wet, take is off and replace it with a dry panel.

Corrugated Cardboard Sources
Thanks to recycling awareness, large sheets of corrugated cardboard may be obtained from appliance and furniture stores, bicycle dealers and others. Call in advance to have them save cartons well before you need them.

Other Techniques

Papier-mâché is normally used for areas on your float that require great detail in shape, or for contrast against the softer look of pomps or petal paper. 

The papier-mâché process involves creating a chicken wire frame and then covering it with several layers of newspaper soaked in a mixture of flour and water. Be sure to plan ahead because it takes several days before it will dry enough for you to paint it. 

When the papier-mâché has dried, it’s a good idea to use a primer before your final coat. A gloss or semi-gloss will help to make papier-mâché more water-resistant.

Finishing Touches

There are many products available to help give your float that finished look. These are only a few suggestions. 

This is a paper product that comes in long rolls and looks much like the Hawaiian lei. It is great to cover seams, flaws, or to blend areas where two colors or surfaces come together. It is especially helpful when using petal paper or applying skirting or fringe to the bottom of your float. Festooning is also available in foil and plastic. This is a product for which you will discover many original uses. Attach it with 3/8” to 5/8” staples. 

Fringe and Skirting
These two products are commonly used to decorate the bottom of floats. Skirting comes in 30” lengths while fringe is 15” long. Keep the bottom edge approximately 2” above the street to prevent it from becoming soiled. Attach skirting and fringe through the narrow band at the top using medium length staples. Complete the installation by overlaying the band with a row of festooning. Skirting is available in plastic only while fringe is sold in both paper and plastic. 

Spray Paint
One of the greatest tools you can use in the pursuit of a true professional look is spray paint. In the hands of a person with some artistic talent, spray paint can be used to ass shading, shadowing and highlights and to add color that might not be available in other float building products. Note: Be certain the paint is compatible with the materials in your float. Standard aerosol paints will actually melt plastic and Styrofoam. Special paints are available at craft stores. 

Letters are almost always used in some form on floats. You can choose from ready made letting, or others that must be made from paper, Styrofoam or wood. Some general considerations for lettering include:

  1. Contrast between the letter color and the background color
  2. Size/viewing distance-make all lettering as large as possible. Will a parade specter be able to read it from 20’ away?
  3. Font/typeface-keep it simple and legible. Script lettering is rarely used in informational signage for good reason.

Ready-made letters and paper letters are 2-dimensional, but they can be quite effective when used on the proper background. 

Styrofoam letters are cut from sheets of building insulating materials that can be inexpensively obtained from many lumber yards and building supply centers. It is available in several thicknesses and produces letters that are 3-dimensional and can be mounted on a wide variety of surfaces. In addition, the Styrofoam is light in weight and very easy to cut. Crafts stores carry a number of paints, which are safe for Styrofoam. You can install the letters with drywall ring shanker nails by simply pushing them through the chicken wire or cardboard and into the back of the letters. 

Sound-either music or sound effects-is another great dimension that you should consider for your float. Best of all, it can be added with little investment in either time or money. 

The best source is either a cassette tape, or perhaps a portable CD player. Many of these CD players will allow you to program a REPEAT function to re-play a selection track again and again. This might be perfect if you are using a straight song and it’s available on CD. 

If you plan to build a custom soundtrack then a cassette will work best. You can shorten or lengthen songs, add sound effects and even narration if you want. 

There are two options for cassettes. The standard cassette will require that you record the soundtrack back-to-back again and again. If you don’t have a self-reversing player you’ll have to plan for rewinding. 

The second option is to use an endless loop cassette. These are available at Radio Shack as outgoing message tapes. They are very limited in terms of length, so check them out before you plan your soundtrack. The tape operates in a loop and will play over and over. Some machines will not play these because the cassette supply reel does not turn. Also, they work best when they are used in a flat position rather than on edge. We recommend that you purchase and record two tapes if you want to use endless loop. They can self-destruct without warning, but two tapes should see you through. 

Once you have selected your sound source, you’ll need to obtain a playback system with amplifier and speakers. Boom boxes are rarely a good solution. They won’t supply the sound power or quality you will need on the parade route. 

Instead, consider a stereo amplifier or receiver with several bookshelf-type speakers placed on both sides of the float. Position them behind your chicken wore frame or other surfaces that will allow the sound to penetrate. You will probably need a small generator, which can often be used to power a limited number of lights or other accessories. The difference a quality system will make in your sound is dramatic. 

Odds and Ends
Just a few final thoughts.

  • Have plastic available to cover your float “just in case”. The further you get into decorating the more important this will be. A good sheet of 6 mil plastic will do the job.
  • Once decorating is completed (probably the night before the parade) keep two or three people with it all night. Vandals can strike and ruin your work. A small security detail will eliminate that possibility.
  • Towing vehicles- cars, trucks and vans-Check out everything to be sure you are ready. Tank full? Tires checked? Cooling system in top shape? The parade moves at only 4 or 5 miles an hour for the two-mile route. Overheating can be a problem if you’re not prepared.
  • Plan your route to the parade carefully. Be certain you won’t have to pass under any low hanging trees or other obstacles. Also, try to travel side streets and travel slowly. The wind can really damage a fragile float.
  • Be on time to the staging area. The parade is very well organized and we are counting on you to arrive at your assigned time to make the assembly and coordination as smooth as possible. Estimate the travel time you need, and double it!
  • Bring a last minute repair kit. Include extra pomps to replace any that blew away, spray adhesive, staple guns, duct tape, a roll of patching wire, a good mechanic’s tool set and anything else you can think of that would be needed to make a last minute repair. Also, buy a “flat repair in a can.” It might keep you in the parade if a flat occurs on either the float or towing vehicle.

Safety Guidelines:

  • Entry may not contain fireworks or explosives.
  • The materials for floats must be non-combustible or fire retardant treated
  • Nothing can hang down over the side of the floats as it could get caught in the wheels/tires (only build up) – nothing can cover or block the tires
  • Floats cannot use any open flames
  • Hay/straw on the back of a flatbed trailer shouldn’t be a problem
  • Floats must be safe to drive – nothing can obscure the drivers vision, or affect the ability to stop, steer, etc.
  • People riding the floats need to have some protection from falling off
  • Do not move doors or railings up and down on floats, leave them as is.
  • Smoking is prohibited on or near any of the floats.
  • A fire retardant must be applied to any wooden structure or wooden decorations used in the entry. This can be found at any building supply store.
  • IMPORTANT! Alcoholic beverages on the float or in the automobiles are a violation of Code. Anyone violating these codes will be disqualified immediately.

Suggested Safety Equipment List:

  • Safety glasses
  • Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)
  • Extension cords
  • Hammers
  • Saws (hand and power)
  • Drills (hand and power)
  • Gloves
  • Wire cutters
  • Screw drivers (Phillips and standard)
  • Wrenches and pliers
  • Staple gun
  • Ladder

Safety Glasses:
  • Must be worn by person(s) using hand and power tools, as well as person(s) holding materials to be cut, drilled, or hammered.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI):
  • Must be used in conjunction with extension cords and power tools.
  • Make sure the third ground prong is attached to the plug on both ends.

Extension Cords:
  • Check to see if the insulation is intact and does not show signs of being cut or having exposed wires (replace if necessary.)
  • Check to see if the plug has its third prong for ground (replace if necessary.)
  • Do not route power cord on wet surfaces.

  • Always wear safety glasses when hammering nails.
  • Hold nail with your hand until it is driven in far enough to support itself.

Saws (Hand and Power):
  • Always wear safety glasses when using hand and power saws.
  • Check power cord for cuts or exposed wires in the insulation, and make sure that it has its third prong for ground (do not use if inappropriate.)
  • Use a GFCI.
  • Make sure that the blade on your power tool is secure and any guards are in place (check this prior to plugging into a power source.)
  • Make sure that the material you are cutting is secure and will not move while the cut is being made.
  • Make sure that your blade is clear of any obstacles underneath and will not cut into the power cord or other items.
  • Always cut on the outside of your line when cutting material.

Drills (Hand and Power)
  • Always wear safety glasses when using hand and power drills.
  • Check power cord for cuts or exposed wires in the insulation, and make sure that it has its third prong for ground (do not use if inappropriate.)
  • Use a GFCI.
  • Secure bit in the chuck prior to plugging it into a power source. Unplug power cord when changing bits.
  • Use a punch or counter sink to mark and start a hole prior to drilling.
  • Make sure that the underneath of the material to be drilled is free and clear of obstacles.

Wire Cutters and Staple Guns:
  • Always wear safety glasses when using these tools.

  • Always place a ladder on a flat, level surface without touching or coming near power lines.
  • Make sure that you have a spotter located at the base of the ladder to hold it down