Our final opera at this past season of the Santa Fe Opera was “Oscar”, a world premiere based on Oscar Wilde. I made a bench for it. It was a simple bench, and the legs were purchased rather than made by us, but it was all solid alder wood, and the end result was quite attractive.
I picked up a truckload of alder from the local lumber store, and planed and jointed some boards for the seat. The seat was a full inch thick, so it was quite hefty. After gluing them together, I rounded off the corners and routed a round-over along the whole circumference.
The trickiest part were the bars on either side which stood on top of the seat. I turned them out of the same alder I had bought. I then constructed a jig for drilling the holes. The jig allowed me to drill the hole exactly perpendicular to the bar, as well as to place the hole directly in the center (width-wise) of the bar. I also marked the bars so I could drill both holes along the same line.
Next, I had to line up the holes on the bars with the holes on the seat. The dowels connecting the bars to the bench were also turned by me out of alder. They ran through the top into the legs, so you could pick the bench up by the bars very securely.
For an extra touch, I fabricated the half-round molding along the bottom of the apron from the same alder I used on the rest of the bench. Since the legs we bought were also alder, this meant the entire bench was solid alder, and it would have a consistent appearance when stained.
The final bench was stained by our paint department; I had actually constructed two (the one above and a much longer one), but the second one was cut. Again, it was fairly simple, and the legs were not turned by me, but working in solid wood is always fun and interesting.
Yes, I built this exact same cast iron park bench seven years ago. I even used the same research image you see in the link. I couldn’t build it the same way, though. The first time around, I used a lot of found pieces and details which I did not possess this time. I also needed to build three matching benches, which warranted a different approach then building a single one. I was building and buying all the props for Elon University’s production of Cloud 9, and the whole second act takes place in an English park; the director was keen on basing it off of Kensington Park. We decided to cut and carve the ends on the scene shop’s CNC router.
First I built the seats themselves with some stand-in legs and arms. I arranged some slats I had cut into a shape that was comfortable to sit in, than I screwed them together onto supports which kept the whole thing sturdy. The stand-in legs held it all up at the correct height so they could rehearse with the benches while we worked on the real ends. The idea was that when the real ends were ready, we would just unscrew the fake legs and pop on the real ones without having to take apart and reattach all the original slats. This also ensured that the curve and depth of the seat they were using in rehearsal would be exactly the same on the performance benches.
I began by making a line drawing of the bench in Inkscape, an open source vector graphics editor. I drew three layers; the first was a line showing where all the inside “holes” should be cut and the second showing where the outermost profile should be cut. The third layer showed where all the engraving would go. Rather than cutting all the way through the plywood, the router would only cut partway down, and it would use a v-shaped cutting bit (this technique is known as “v-carving”).
With the drawings finished, I gave them to the Natalie Hart, the scene designer (also my wife), to import into AutoCAD. I’m sure you can use the Inkscape drawings directly, but I have no experience with CNC file formats, and Natalie has already successfully used her CAD drawings on the CNC machine. The curves I drew in Inkscape turned into a series of many tiny lines in AutoCAD; this meant when they printed, they looked like many tiny lines rather than a single smooth curve. The curves she redrew in AutoCAD printed as smooth curves, however. I’m not sure I will use Inkscape again to draw for a CNC; if I find myself using the CNC a lot in the future, I may just spring for one of the less-expensive CAD drawing programs out there.
The final piece of the puzzle was getting the drawings into PartWorks, which is the CNC machine’s software that generates the instructions it uses in cutting. Our production manager/lighting designer Bill Webb happily took that on, since the machine is second-nature to him by now. In about three hours, we had all the pieces we needed for all three benches.
You can see in the photograph above that the CNC left a lot of cleanup work to do. I experimented with a number of abrasive flap and wire wheels to see if there was a quick way to sand the whole thing, but it ended up requiring hitting every nook and cranny with a Dremel tool.
We had taken measurements off the rehearsal benches and put them into AutoCAD so the CNC parts would line up exactly with the existing structure. For the inside of the end, we only printed the bottom half and attached it to the outside part. This gave a bit of a lip for the existing bench seat to rest on, while also providing a lot of surface area to screw into from the side. It also helped line up the bench seat to the ends at the correct height.
The faux-verdigris paint treatment was developed by one of the students (good job, Vee Bland!). Natalie and I painted them up, and I quickly assembled them so they would be ready mere minutes before photo call.
Naturally, I would have loved to play around with the software and the drawing to develop a more realistic carving, as well as spend some time learning to run the CNC machine on my own. The time frame on this production was just too intense; 15 days between the first day of rehearsal and opening night, and these benches were but a small part of all the props and furniture I had to build and acquire. Still, it gave me a good idea of how I can integrate CNC fabrication into my prop work when it can come in handy.
First, I wanted to mention that I have redone and updated my online portfolio; it was in desperate need of an overhaul, especially now that I am freelancing again. I went with a free site at CarbonMade.com, because the thought of designing and coding yet another portfolio site was making me tired just thinking about it. I’ve seen some other prop makers who use that site to show their work, and so far, it seems to be working well. Let me know what you think!
Now then, let’s take a look at a bench I made back in 2006 at the Santa Fe Opera. I basically had to build the whole thing from scratch in less than a week, so it’s a bit rough.
They wanted a cast iron park bench. The only real requirements were the size, so I had to find my own research image. I showed the above photograph to Randy Lutz, the prop master, and he agreed it was a good bench to duplicate.
I drew a full-scale layout of the side on a piece of paper and spray-glued it to a sheet of plywood. You’ll notice the decorative parts do not match the photograph exactly. What I decided to do was pull some decorative resin castings and carved wood pieces from stock—the opera has quite a good collection of these. I then arranged them to match the research as closely as possible. I traced them and cut away the extra plywood. You’ll see in a bit when I start gluing them on, it’ll all make sense.
I cut out and added some support runners on the insides of the two ends and began to attach the slats which would make up the back and the seat. It needed some extra support, so I ran a rod along the bottom; you can see it in the next photograph.
Now I began attaching the decorative resin bits. I also used some Ethafoam rod cut in half to make some curved half-round molding. I found a strip of upholstery fringe which added more texture.
Here’s a closeup showing some of the resin bits and Ethafoam, as well as some rosettes and even bits of yarn. If you look really close, you can even make out a bit of hot glue design work; though it’s practically invisible here, once the paint goes on, it will add just that extra little bit of texture that will make the whole thing seem like a single piece of cast iron from the audience.
The paint job is what really helped marry all the different materials together and bring the whole thing to life. The painter of this bench worked as one of the other props carpenters for the beginning of the summer, so none of us knew how good he was at scenic art until he did this bench.
So here it is, ready to go on stage. I even added some round bolt heads running down the middle so it looked like the slats were bolted to the legs. Overall, it was a fun piece for the short time frame I had to build it in.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies