Tag Archives: carpentry

Six foot tall microscope

Six Foot Tall Microscope

I just finished building a six foot tall microscope which resulted in some nice photographs. I guess at six feet tall, it’s not really “micro” any more; it should just be called a “scope”.

Base structure
Structure of the interior of the base

A company with a microscope as its logo wanted a giant microscope to bring to trade shows. They wanted the silhouette of the prop to match their logo (which was simply a drawing of the side view) but with some details added to make it look more like a real microscope. One of the challenges was in designing a prop that looked like a real microscope but still resembled the outline of their logo when looked at from the side.

Continue reading

Last Friday Sites

Just a reminder that tomorrow from 9am to 10pm at the Holly Hill Mall in Burlington, NC, is the first Burlington Mini Maker Faire. Check it out if you are in the area and you like making things. The mall parking lot will be hosting a D.A.R.E. carnival that day too, so after you look at the robots and wood lathes, you can ride a cocaine-free ferris wheel.

A career in theatre props” is a well written article about Antony Barnett, Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. It discusses what he does as the lead prop maker at a very busy shop. It is also interesting in telling how British prop makers learn their craft and get started in the business.

Sad news out of Brazil; Tiago Klimeck, an actor playing Judas in an Easter Passion play, died from an accidental hanging during a performance. The article, while light on details, does mention that authorities think “the knot may have been wrongly tied.” The only safe way to do a live hanging is with the rope attached in the back to a harness under the actor’s costume. The loop of rope in the front should be incapable of holding any weight, and should be able to break away when the slightest bit of weight is applied. In other words, there should not be a knot that can accidentally be “wrongly tied”; there should not be any knot. Though this story may remind you of the accidental hanging of an actress in a Halloween haunted house last year (the girl lived), in that case, the noose was never intended for live hangings. It was simply a prop “used for visual affect” (I am not sure why articles on accidental hangings all need grammatical errors).

I just came across this, though it is from 1996. Patrick Tatopoulos is the maker of monsters from Stargate (the film), Independence Day, the John Cusack Godzilla film, and many others. Visual Effects Headquarters has an interview with him and a look at how he got started and what he has accomplished.

I missed this on the first go-around, but in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Popular Woodworking Magazine has posted free plans and instructions to build the deck chairs used on that infamous ship. It’s a complicated and involved chair, but it looks like a fun project if you want to own a piece of history (or if you are doing the musical Titanic).

Christopher Schwartz has posted the first chapter from Bernard Jones’ “The Practical Woodworker” on building crates and packing boxes. Crates and boxes seem like an easy item to construct, but the endless varieties and methods to construct them make them a good first project for a budding carpenter. Besides that, we build a lot of boxes in props, and even complicated forms have elements of box construction somewhere in them. This chapter does a great job of showing some of the more popular standards for box and crate construction.

Out Like a Lion… with Links!

USITT is in full swing on the other coast, and I am only a few days away from the next deadline on my book. Things are hopping around here! Here are some interesting things from around the web:

Since I couldn’t make it to USITT, I’ve tried using Storify for the first time to cull together some news and tidbits about it. Tell me what you think.

Local man hopes for a leg up to career in the movies! This is the story of a 47 year old man from Northern Ireland who was laid off from his job and decided to switch gears and learn how to make props for movies. Even if you don’t want to read the story, the picture at the top of the page is definitely worth a glance.

Do you like giant woodshops? Do you like Ron Swanson? Nick Offerman, who plays Ron on TV’s Parks and Rec, has an enviable woodshop, which he shows off in this video. Nick learned carpentry by working as a theatrical set carpenter, so he has his shop set up like a scenery shop. The things he builds, though, are a far cry from flats and platforms.

In this interesting article called “The Tool Works at Both Ends“, we learn how your brain adapts and remodels itself depending on what tasks we do throughout the day. If you sit in front of a computer all day, your brain becomes better at absorbing large amounts of text and processing it while multitasking on other thoughts. If you work in a carpentry shop all day, your brain becomes more adept at guiding your hands to use tools and imagining how pieces of wood would look assembled in your head. The article proposes a “mental crossfit” program to condition all the portions of your brain throughout the day. As props people, we probably have one of the best jobs as far as maintaining a good brain balance goes, in that we are constantly switching between tasks such as research, collaborating with team members, hands-on building and crafting, and abstract problem-solving.

Top of the cart

La Boheme Crepe Cart

Today I thought I would go retro and show you a cart I built back in 2007. La Boheme at the Santa Fe Opera required a whole bunch of push carts during the outdoor scenes, so the other prop carpenter and I set to work constructing them.

Drafting for "La Boheme" crepe cart
Drafting for "La Boheme" crepe cart

The first one I built was a crepe cart. The structure was simple enough, but the wheels were all custom-sized, so the first thing I had to do was fabricate the wheels and the axle system.

Closeup of wheel
Closeup of wheel

I built the wheels out of metal because the diameter of the spokes and the rim in the drawing was small enough that I was afraid wood might not be strong enough. I TIG welded the rods to the hub to keep the welds as visually-unobtrusive as possible. The rim of the wheel was a length of bar stock bent into a circle and welded together. It also had a strip of rubber glued along the outside to cut down on noise and keep it from tearing up the stage floor.

Jig for positioning front wheel
Jig for positioning front wheel

The front wheel stuck way out to the front of the cart. I first assembled a jig to hold it in position. I then cut the four bars that held it in place and welded them to the axle while the wheel was in position. This ensured that the wheel was centered, at the correct height, and completely parallel with the direction the cart traveled. I thought I was very clever until it came time to remove the jig and I realized I had built the cart around it; I had to cut the jig apart to get it off.

Bottom of the cart
Bottom of the cart

Above is a picture showing the bottom of the cart with the front wheel in place and the axles for the back wheels. If you look close, you can see the back axle is actually separated in the middle; when the cart is turned, the wheel on the inside of the turn spins more slowly than the one on the outside, so they need to be able to spin independently of each other.

Adding the decorative hub
Adding the decorative hub

I added a circle of wood and a decorative rosette we had in stock to cap off the hub.

Top of the cart
Top of the cart

The top of the cart was pretty straightforward; it consisted of a plywood box, a thick “counter”, two handles I shaped out of solid alder, and a metal box to serve as the oven. There was also a braking system to lock the wheels in place to keep the cart from rolling into the audience when the artist walked away, but that is a post for another day (In opera, the singers are called “artists”, rather than “actors” or “singers”).

Finished cart prior to painting
Finished cart prior to painting

A number of accouterments completed the look. A box with a hinged lid was placed on front for artists to take crepes from. I welded a tube in position to hold an umbrella at a jaunty angle; the umbrella needed to be removable to facillitate storage backstage. Finally, I placed some molding around the edges to match what was in the drawing.

Crepe cart from "La Boheme"
Crepe cart from "La Boheme"

Here is the final cart after the paint shop finished with it and the props master dressed it. Bon appétit!

Completed bench

Making a Cast Iron Park Bench

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.

Research image
Research image

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.

Basic layout of sides
Basic layout of sides

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.

Adding the back and seat
Adding the back and seat

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.

Adding applied details
Adding applied details

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.

Closeup of details
Closeup of details

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.

Paint job
Paint job

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.

Completed bench
Completed 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.