Usually, I am building props for a show or production I am working on. I rarely have time to work on my own projects. However, someone was interested to see if I could replicate a chest from the television show Game of Thrones. Now, I have nothing to do with the show itself, but it sounded like an interesting challenge to see if I could match something I could only see on screen. There wasn’t anything particularly tricky about this chest; it just had a lot of pieces and parts made of an assortment of materials, and some very time-consuming detail. For those who watch the show, this is the chest given to Daenerys in season one, which held her petrified dragon eggs.
I shot video of most of the build along the way and somehow edited several months of work into seven and a half minutes of video, giving an overview of the process.
If you are interested in more detail and photographs, read on!
The first part was the box itself. I worked out a quick mock-up of the whole piece in SketchUp to figure out the sizes and proportions of all the parts. I decided to use ash on this because it is hard and strong like oak, but I really hate working with oak. The grain pattern of ash was also a better match to the real chest than oak. We have a great local hardwood store that I visited, and I was able to find boards wide enough that I could build every side (except the top) from a single width of wood. The bottom was a piece of oak plywood.
The chest has a number of areas covered in metal. I bought a sheet of 22 gauge steel and cut it up by hand with my airplane snips. I used my sheet metal bending brake on the corner pieces, while the rolled-over edges of the top pieces were bent by hand with sheet metal tools and pliers. Although I could have saved time by making these out of plastic and painting them to look like metal, the “roll over” parts would have ended up too fragile; on the very corners, you can see how thin the metal is, and any plastic that thin would flex whenever you touch it. The hasp on this chest also rests against a metal section, so it gives that solid metal-to-metal sound every time you open and close the lid.
The most time-intensive part was the applied decoration. I used styrene plastic for this because using actual brass would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and a cheaper metal would have required just as much paint to match the appearance that the added labor was not worth it. I began by going through all the scenes in the TV show where the chest appeared and pulling out as many clear screen shots as I could, and then manipulating them in Photoshop to get a straight-on view. I scaled them up to full-size, printed them out and cut the pieces into patterns to trace on the styrene. Some parts of the design needed to be extrapolated slightly because I never got a clear view, but because it was symmetrical, repetitive and followed a certain logic, I was pretty confidant with how well my version matched the original.
Nearly every element was made of at least two layers of styrene, so after cutting the several hundred pieces out, I began gluing them together using model airplane glue. I did not attach them to the box just yet, but I did lay them out to test fit everything.
With all the pieces ready, I began painting. They received a base coat of hammered silver spray paint, followed by a heavy dusting of hammered bronze spray paint. They would receive more paint later on, but at this point I began attaching them. Working on one side at a time, I first laid every piece out and used careful measurements to make sure everything was symmetrical and evenly-spaced. I then traced every single piece in place and labeled them by number before taking them off. I did some tests and found contact cement gave the strongest bond, though that meant I had to apply it to both the plastic piece and the box, and I could not apply it to the parts of the box where the wood was visible, so I had to carefully paint it within the traced outlines I had made. Luckily, the contact cement bonds almost instantly, so I could begin working on another side after one was completed.
The inside of the chest was leather, though I went with a slightly-more processed version which was already finished and could fit through my sewing machine. I stitched all the pieces together first, and then attached them in as a single unit. I used a bit of spray adhesive to keep them from shifting around, but they are mostly held in place with the visible upholstery tacks. I pre-drilled holes for the tacks so I could make sure the spacing was even, and also because the ash was too hard to just hammer the tacks straight in.
I found hinges online that were so close to the ones on the real chest that I wouldn’t be surprised if the prop makers bought theirs from the same supplier. I could not source the hasp though, so I had to fabricate it from scratch. I started with a basic hardware store hasp and cut notches in the edges. The tip was cut from another decorative gate hinge. I cut a bar of steel to length and bent a curl in the edge, than plug welded the whole thing together from behind and ground the welds flush to the surface.
With all the pieces in place, all that was left was some painting and sealing. The top layers of all the decoration were sponged with a lighter brass color to set them off, and the whole chest was washed down with some dark browns and blacks to age and weather it. Finally, everything was coated in a clear satin Polycryclic.
One of my recent projects was a circus platform (though its more of a stool). It’s a very simple-looking shape, but it’s a little tricky to pull off. Think of the bottom half of a cone and that is what I had to build.
I started off making the structure for the platform. It had two circles of plywood, joined by a few lengths of plywood cut at a taper. The circles also had their edgers beveled to match the angles of the taper.
Adding the wiggle wood skin was one of the tricky parts. With a tapered shape like this, you can’t just wrap the wiggle wood straight around it. It actually requires a radiating arc shape like in the photograph above. I only rough cut the shape above, leaving a bit of extra all around that I can trim off once it is attached.
The top was easy to trim, as it wanted to be flush to the plywood circle seat. The bottom was a different matter; it needed to extend past the bottom circle, since it was getting castered, and the wiggle wood would hide the casters. I set up a horizontal routing jig so I could cut the wiggle wood to a consistent height all around its circumference.
I had cut four wholes in the bottom of the stool, and now that it was time to attach the casters, I had access to get my hand inside and bolt them on. That’s planning ahead!
And that’s my circus platform! The photo above already has some paint on it, though the final prop will have much more.
It is a little over a week since Elon University’s Wild Party closed, so I thought I would share some of the props I built while working as the props master on it. First is the sleek Art Deco bar. This production featured a lot of dancing and movement (in fact, the show was more of a dance piece with singing than a traditional musical) and the bar was key in a lot of the dancing. Actors jumped up and down off of it constantly and danced on top of it. Needless to say, it had to be sturdy.
The other hurdle was that I only had a bout a day to build the bar to a point that they could use it in rehearsal; it did not have to be finished, just usable. The bar had a sort of boomerang or banana shape to it. I knew it would take awhile to layout the shape, not to mention all the pieces I would need to cut that followed the shape but were inset or offset by varying amounts. Since the scenic designer, Natalie Taylor Hart, already had the footprint of the bar drafted in CAD, we decided to CNC these pieces and save some time.
The top was two layers of plywood. We were putting lights in the bar that would shine upward, so the top also had squares to hold three pieces of 3/4″ plexiglass; the squares on the top piece were large enough to fit the plexiglass, while the squares on the bottom piece were a touch smaller to create a lip for the plexiglass to sit on.
I also cut the footrest, a piece for a shelf in the middle, and some formers to nail the wiggle wood to. This pile of pieces would have taken awhile to draw and cut by hand, but with CAD, Natalie just had to copy the same shape over and over again, insetting the front curve by whatever measurement I gave. With this pile of pieces, I just had to cut a bunch of formers and uprights to connect them all together.
I decided I wanted some supports to run unbroken from the top to the bottom of the bar for strength, which meant I had to cut some notches and holes in the plywood that they could run through. If I had more time to figure the whole thing out ahead of time, I would have drawn these into the CAD. Since the pieces were already cut, I needed to measure and cut them by hand. See, even with fancy fabrication machines, you still need a solid grasp of traditional tools to build things.
I built the bar up one level at a time, marking carefully to keep the whole thing square and straight. I positioned the supports so they were nearly above the support below them; they were offset just a bit so I would be able to drive a nail in.
The supports along the front of the bar did double duty as formers, providing a nailing surface for the wiggle wood I would add later. I tried to keep the back as open as possible so it could be used as shelving to store all the props; the set was fairly open and skeletal, so the bar served as a place for a lot of the hand props to appear and disappear. The diagonal braces in the photograph above are just to keep the bar sturdy as they use it in rehearsal. Once the wiggle wood was added, I removed them, because the wiggle wood acted as one large piece of diagonal bracing.
I finished the bar onstage in between rehearsals. The curve was longer than eight feet, so I could not cover it with just one piece of wiggle wood. The center is relatively flat, so I placed a small piece directly in the center; I have found it easier to fill and sand seams between wiggle wood when they are on flat areas. The footrest also got a small strip of wiggle wood after the bar was secured to the wagon underneath it. All the faces got a thin coat of joint compound and a light sanding, and then it was on to painting.
You can see the bar is a bit rough around the edges in the photograph above since I did not have time to take a picture until after strike. The Art Deco design painted on the front was a great touch added by Natalie and her crew. As she also pointed out, despite all the climbing and dancing done on this bar, she never saw it sag or wobble.
We just closed and struck Cloud 9 here at Elon University. I was the prop master on the show and built a lot of the pieces. One of the fun (and funny) props I constructed was a grand Victorian-era wedding cake. It was meant to be a bit over-the-top, with a grand appearance at the end of Act One when the hastily-arranged wedding occurs. Part of the visual humor came from the cake toppers; the scenic designer (Natalie Taylor Hart) wanted the groom to be a detailed representation of a man striding atop of a Royal Orb, while the bride would be a much smaller and crudely-made figurine stuck in the cake as an afterthought (the play, for those unfamiliar, deals with gender politics in various degrees).
To make a sculpted figurine of the groom, I started off with bending a wire armature into the pose I wanted. This also let me establish the proportions of the limbs. It wasn’t anything fancy; I cut up a wire hanger and held it in place with plumber’s putty. Plumber’s putty is a type of epoxy putty which is soft and shape-able when you first mix it together, and becomes rock hard after a few minutes. I liked it on this project because I could build up the sculpture bit by bit, allowing the parts to become hard as I worked on other things. I could return to the sculpture later and add more bits without worrying about smooshing the parts I already made. It also did not need to be fired or coated to finish it. The putty I used was left over from another show, so I did not have to spend any more money on a show with a tight budget.
In the last frame of the picture above, you can see I added some clothes. The putty is not very good for getting fine details; you can machine and carve it after it has hardened, but I wanted a quicker way to get some semi-realistic clothing texture on top. I took muslin and soaked it in glue and water, than manipulated it over top until it “draped” like a shirt and pants. After the glue dried, it retained its shape.
The rest of the cake was pretty straightforward. The bottom base is a strip of wiggle wood wrapped around plywood formers, while the top is a solid chunk of white bead foam coated in joint compound. I used painter’s caulk for the icing details. Normally you want to use acrylic caulk rather than silicone caulk, because silicone caulk does not take paint. However, I found some newer stuff which is a mix of acrylic and silicone; the acrylic makes it paint-able, while the silicone keeps it a bit flexible and lets it dry a lot faster. I bought a few decorative cake icing tips, and just attached them to the end of the caulk tube so it would come out all fancy.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies