Tag Archives: Ethafoam

Completed headboard

The Making of the Props for The Making of a King

I recently finished my first major gig down here in North Carolina. I was building props for the productions of Henry IV and Henry V at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It was a lot of fun, and also an interesting change of pace to return to a job where I am building all day without any managerial duties.

base of a chaise lounge
base of a chaise lounge

The base for this chaise lounge was fairly straightforward. I began by building a nice sturdy frame out of oak. The design evolved later to a piece which was completely covered in moulding. The oak ended up being completely obscured by all the moulding. Ah, well.

CNC routed headboard design
CNC routed headboard design

The king’s headboard had a fairly intricate cut-out design, so the props shop sent a piece of 3/4″ plywood to the scene shop to be CNC routed.

Completed headboard
Completed headboard

When I got the CNC’d piece back, I cleaned it up and attached some other layers, moulding, posts and finials to make the full headboard.

Trestle table base
Trestle table base

Above is a nice trestle table base I built for the tavern scene. The feet and the pieces on top of the legs are made of solid wood; I had to laminate a few pieces together to get those thicknesses. The legs themselves are actually boxed out, with a two-by-four hidden inside for strength. The wedged tenons on the sides of the legs are just fake pieces glued on the outside.

Finished table
Finished table

The table top had already been built for the rehearsal piece, so I just had to attach it. The scene shop also added some metal diagonal braces, which were needed to keep the table from collapsing under horizontal forces.

Papier-mache tub
Papier-mache tub

Finally, the props shop was building a hammered copper bath tub out of some good old-fashioned papier-mâché. I jumped on this project in the middle, adding a few layers to what was already started and attaching the large Ethafoam rod along the top. The initial layers were done with an ordinary flour and water paste. The next few layers were done with strips of paper and a product called “Aqua Form” to make it harder and more water-proof. Aqua Form markets itself as a nontoxic water-based polymer which replaces resins for use in laminates; it worked great with the paper, but it also claims it can be used in lieu of resin for fiberglass. I certainly look forward to learning more about it.

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.

Ethafoam on a decorative arm

Using soft materials to mimic hard details

Every once in a while you come across some curved or otherwise intricate detail on a prop you wish to recreate that seems far too intense and labor-intensive to undertake by hand. Take, for instance, the curved ridges running along the front of the arm in the picture below (the parts in grey).

Ethafoam on a decorative arm
Ethafoam on a decorative arm

Rather than spending two weeks carving these out by hand, I made them out of Ethafoam. Ethafoam is a actually a trademark of DOW Chemical for their spongy, cushiony polyethylene foam used for packaging and wrapping pipes. It’s great for theatre because it also comes in rods, which can be cut in half to make flexible half-round molding.

Ethafoam rod
Ethafoam Rod

Now, this is not an article about the wonders of Ethafoam, but rather the idea of using soft and flexible materials to simulate hard and rigid objects. Ethafoam is just one of the many materials used in theatre for such purposes. You can see another example in the photograph below.

Closeup of cast iron bench
Closeup of cast iron bench

You can also see yarn used at the very bottom. This was a replica of a cast iron bench I made for the Santa Fe Opera a few years back. The research called for a very ornate and detailed-looking bench, and the short time-frame I had to build it meant I had to use a lot of found objects and unconventional materials to pull off the look.

painted cast iron bench
painted cast iron bench

On closer inspection, you can see more materials, such as fabric fringe were used. Once it was artfully painted, the illusion was pretty convincing, especially under stage lighting and seen from a distance. The painting of soft materials like Ethafoam or fabric can be one of the trickiest parts of this process. Either they soak up all the paint or the paint simply will not stick to it. You usually need to coat it with something first, though that can be tricky as well; because the material is flexible, you need to use a coating which also remains flexible, otherwise it may chip and flake away. Brushing on watered-down PVA glue or a coating of something like Jaxsan is usually sufficient.

When you look through older texts dealing with props, you can find numerous examples of using industrial felt, upholstery trim, or any number of other fabrics and soft materials to mimic solid decorations. If you ask prop artisans about it, you will get some mixed responses. Some love the versatility it gives them, especially on a budget. Others abhor it as an amateurish “proppy-prop” trick. In my own opinion, I try to avoid it if I am making a prop that gets handled by an actor. Nothing looks sillier than when an actor picks up a supposedly marble vase only to have the decorative ridges squish under his hands. It also threatens to break the actor out of character even if it is not noticeable by the audience. If, on the other hand, you need to add ornamentation on set dressing or on the parts of a prop that are unlikely to be touched during the performance, than it’s a great trick to use, especially when you are on a tight budget or tight deadline.