Tag Archives: featured

Umbrella Gun

The umbrella gun scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most visually memorable in the play. George, tired of his wife Martha’s insults in front of their guests, exits offstage. He sneaks back wielding a shotgun aimed at her head. The guests see him and scream as he pulls the trigger. Instead of the loud report of a bullet, though, a brightly-colored umbrella emerges from the barrel. Hilarious, right?

The original production was written to use a trick umbrella they already had in stock, but every production since has given the props master a headache as they try to figure out the gag. I initially checked with other theaters who had done this show, but theirs had either broken or been disassembled. The rental options out there were either too expensive or looked unrealistic. I decided I needed to build my own.

Drawing the stock and fore-end
Drawing the stock and fore-end

I needed a pretty thick barrel to fit an umbrella inside. It would look out-of-proportion if I just stuck it on a regular shotgun body. I scaled up the stock and fore-end to cut and shape out of oak.

Chainsaw disc shaping the wood
Chainsaw disc shaping the wood

I bought a chainsaw grinding disc for this project because I had always wanted to try one. It was amazing; it acted like a wood eraser. I just pointed it to the wood I didn’t need and it made it disappear. I will never attempt wood carving without one of these again.

Scaling the receiver to match the stock
Scaling the receiver to match the stock

The receiver would need to hold all the parts of the shotgun together and hide all the mechanisms inside of it I cut out several pieces of flat steel stock to weld a hollow container.

Welding the receiver from steel
Welding the receiver from steel

With just a welder, angle grinder, and belt sander, I was able to fabricate a decent looking receiver.

Spring mechanism for umbrella
Spring mechanism for umbrella

I took an existing umbrella from stock which had its own spring mechanism to make it pop open. I cut off the handle but left the hollow shaft in place. I welded a steel rod to the shotgun that the umbrella could sleeve onto and travel back and forth. To minimize binding, I put a bit of UHMW rod on the end of the umbrella that was slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the copper tube I was using for the barrel. I used copper tube because it was the most rigid tube I could find with the thinnest walls.

Pieces of the trigger mechanism
Pieces of the trigger mechanism

I drew up a full scale trigger mechanism in cardstock to figure out what would fit within what I had built. It was just two pieces: a trigger that rotated on a pin, and a long lever with a latch on the end that held the umbrella against a spring until the trigger was pulled. I traced the pieces to steel and cut them out. I slipped a small piece of spring into the fore-end to return the trigger after it is pulled. I slid a long spring over the metal rod in the barrel to actually propel the umbrella after the trigger is pulled.

Finished trick shotgun
Finished trick shotgun

I painted the barrel to match the receiver and stained the wood pieces darker before sealing them. I coated all the static pieces of interior and exterior steel with shellac to prevent rust. Any pieces of steel which moved against another part was coated with dry lube. I built the gun for easy disassembly in case any future users needed to fix or replace a part.

Umbrella Gun

I have a video which shows all the parts as they are assembled. You can see the various inner mechanisms in more detail if you are interested in how it all works, and if you wanted to see it actually fire.

 

 

 

 

Donkey Mask from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Bottom finds his head transformed into that of a donkey, courtesy of the mischievous fairy, Puck. The donkey head is among Shakespeare’s most distinctive props, and has been on my bucket list of famous props to build. Recently, Triad Stage mounted a production.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream", Triad Stage, with Rebecca Hirota and E.E. Williams. Photo by Bert Vanderveen.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Triad Stage, with Rebecca Hirota and E.E. Williams. Photo by Bert Vanderveen.

The mask was designed by our costume designer, Hannah Chalman. She designed masks for all the fairies as well, so we split the fabrication of the masks between the props and costume departments.

Continue reading Donkey Mask from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Art Deco Liquor Cabinet

The set for Triad Stage’s And Then There Were None called for a posh, but stark, Art Deco design. One of the key furniture pieces is a liquor cabinet, since each of the ten characters has at least three drinks through the course of the play.

I had no luck sourcing an Art Deco liquor cabinet in this part of the country, so I decided to build it. Having a very distinctly Deco piece on stage would help the other less-distinctly Deco pieces feel at home in the period. Robin Vest (the scenic designer), and I passed around some research images and landed on a piece that had all the right elements but was still achievable with my equipment and time.

Making the cuts
Making the cuts

One defining element for this style of furniture is the bold, sweeping curves. These were traditionally made by bending thin sheets of wood and laminating them together to create a curved piece of plywood, then adding a highly-figured veneer on top. That was beyond my budget, but I had previously bent plywood by cutting kerfs, and thought I could do it again. The design of the cabinet was specifically chosen to easily hide the kerf cuts.

I chose some nice maple plywood from the big box store. The back of the cabinet and the doors would establish the curves, so I taped them together when gang-cutting them on the band saw.

Assembling the carcass
Assembling the carcass

When all the flat, fixed pieces were cut, I assembled it together without glue to make sure everything was measured correctly. The cabinet was basically two parts with a door on each side.

Cutting the kerfs
Cutting the kerfs

To cut the kerfs, I first measured where the curve would begin and where, roughly, it would end. I left the piece a bit long, intending to trim it to the exact size once the kerfs were all cut. You can never calculate exactly how long a piece should be when you add a curve to it; the material behaves differently than how the math predicts.

I set the blade height on the table saw so it would cut through all but the last layer of ply on my plywood. I used a sled to cross cut the groove through the length of the wood. I had a marking on the table saw so that after each cut, I could slide the wood down to make the next cut, and each cut would be evenly spaced.

I’m sure there is some formula to calculate how far apart each cut should be, but I just used a test piece of wood to make sure I was achieving the curve I needed.

Attaching the curved pieces
Attaching the curved pieces

When all the kerfs were cut, I was ready to attach the bent pieces to the frame. They were glued to the back of the cabinet, while the front would be open for the doors. I clamped the doors in place so the plywood was held in the correct shape while the glue dried.

While everything was still clamped, I filled the kerf cuts with a mix of sawdust and wood glue to sort of “lock” it in place. A curved piece of wood like this can move if it is not fully supported.

The cabinet body
The cabinet body

The curved pieces were a bit springy without any front supports, so I added an oak frame. It was inset so the doors would still be flush with the front when mounted; it also helped serve as a door jamb to prevent the doors from swinging inside.

Stained and shellacked
Stained and shellacked

I stained the outside of the cabinet with one coat of English Chestnut stain. All the plywood edges were sanded smooth and filled, then painted black. The curved edges needed a lot of filling to close the gaps from the kerfs. Everything then got two coats of amber shellac, sanded down with some #000 steel wool after each coat.

Painted interior
Painted interior

For the sides of the interior, I laid in some thick mirrored mylar I had left over from another project. A lot of liquor cabinets in this style had mirrored interiors. It also allowed me to cover the kerfs on the inside of the curves, which would have taken forever to sand smooth. The remaining interior surfaces were painted with some bright yellow I had gotten for another 1930s-inspired piece.

I also added some molding to the bottom and two more panels to the top to create the stepped design that is another characteristic of this style.

Art Deco Cabinet
Art Deco Cabinet

After mounting the doors, the final step was adding the handles. I cut and shaped some basic handles out of a piece of two-by-four. I added them after the doors were mounted because they all needed to line up visually with each other, even if the doors were not precisely straight and even.

Cabinet front view
Cabinet front view

I was very proud of this piece. Even though its flaws and theatrical construction were apparent up close, it looked stunning from only a few feet away.

Bubble Blowing Automaton

If you’ve ever seen the play Buyer and Cellar, you know that a key scene revolves around the description of “Fifi”, an antique bubble blowing automaton. An automaton is a mechanical device that repeats a series of predetermined motions; think of a wind-up toy, or a cuckoo clock. They were really in vogue in the 16th through 18th centuries, when clock makers made all sorts of intricate moving automata in the shape of humans and animals playing out various whimsical scenes.

Most productions of Buyer and Cellar imply the existence of Fifi. The whole set is usually quite minimal, and the props are limited to a chaise and a book. For Triad Stage’s production, the director wanted to know if we could actually have a doll that dipped a wand into soap and blew bubbles out of it. She felt the audience, like herself, may not know what an automaton was, and this pivotal scene would be confusing without some visual reference.

I told the team it would be no problem to make an automated doll that moved by itself, and then I feverishly racked my brain as to how I was going to pull this off. I have been reading The Automata Blog for years, so I had a good mental catalog of potential solutions (anyone interested in automata should definitely dig through the archives on that site).

I put together a  video that describes how the final mechanisms work and that show the doll in motion.

Bubble Blowing Automata

My apprentice, Shay, started off by sculpting the head and arms. The head was foam, while the arms were made of wire wrapped in tape. Everything was coated in Apoxie Sculpt. She mounted them to a “birdhouse” which would contain the mechanism.

Sculpting the doll parts
Sculpting the doll parts

As explained in the video, all the movement was driven by a single crank shaft run by a motor. We prototyped the crank shaft with some bent wire, then transferred the measurements to a full scale drawing which I used to fabricate a more robust shaft from steel.

Laying out the crank shaft
Laying out the crank shaft

I used nylon spacers which were free to spin around the pieces of quarter-inch rod on the crankshaft. I cut a small groove around the center of the spacers to keep the string from slipping side to side. Everything was welded together to make a single piece.

Crank shaft near completion
Crank shaft near completion

I began by using string to connect the crank shaft to the arms and head. It would frequently get caught by the spinning crank shaft, causing Fifi to stop working. I tried a number of ways to prevent the string from wandering far enough to the side to get caught, but nothing worked one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to use stiff wire, but the distance between the shaft and the doll’s arm changed as it spun, so I needed the string’s ability to go slack. Eventually, I realized I could use a piece of wire that was long enough to clear the crank shaft, and then attach it to a piece of string for the rest of the distance to the arm.

Motor and crank shaft
Motor and crank shaft

The motor was a basic hobby motor with an attached gear box that slowed it down to 12 revolutions per minute. The crank shaft was not perfectly straight, so the motor was mounted loosely, allowing it to “float” a little bit. The pneumatic portion of the prop is explained in the video; Fifi was attached to an air compressor backstage, with tubing running up her arm and aimed at the bubble wand. A solenoid valve was triggered by the crank shaft whenever her arm was raised, causing air to rush out for a brief moment.

Fifi, the bubble blowing automaton
Fifi, the bubble blowing automaton

Though Fifi had a lot of challenges, once we got her working, she worked pretty flawlessly throughout the entire run.

Ancient Cherokee Box

Our final production of the season at Triad Stage was a new piece called And So We Walked. Written and performed by DeLanna Studi, it recounts her journey to walk the Trail of Tears with her father and rediscover her Cherokee roots. The show itself is traveling around the country for the next few weeks before another full production at Portland Center Stage next spring.

The show takes place in both the real world and a theatrical dream world, and one of the props I built was an ancient burned box which held secrets. We determined the size and shape in various devising sessions and rehearsals, so I simply made another box out of nice materials to match a rehearsal version I had already made.

Constructing the box
Constructing the box

The carcass was constructed from half-inch poplar I bought at Home Depot (my planer was broke), with a piece of plywood for the bottom. The top wanted to be vaulted, so I ripped a number of slats from quarter-inch poplar, beveled the edges, and glued them together to make the vault shape.

Attaching the hardware
Attaching the hardware

Once the top was all glued together, I ran a belt sander over it to transform the faceted surface into a smooth curve.

The hardware was a mix of stuff from the hobby store and pieces I had in stock from other boxes I had built. A lot of this decorative brass box hardware comes straight from China, so you have to wait a few weeks or even months to get it shipped. Whenever I order some, I get several options and extras so that I slowly build up a stock to use on projects that have too tight of a deadline to wait for the shipping.

Burning the outside
Burning the outside

The box is described as “burnt”, so my next step was to burn it. I used a basic propane torch you can get at the hardware store. I charred the whole outside of the box, and allowed the flames to go to town on a few areas to really break up the surface.

Once it was cool, I removed all the charcoal with a wire brush. I sealed it with shellac to keep any charcoal remnants from staining the actress’ hands or white costume.

In the areas which burned away the most, I applied some grey crackle paint to simulate the charcoal I had just brushed away. The box is also described as having deep scratches, as if some mythical being had been trying to claw it open, so I added those with a grinder and Dremel.

Painting the inside
Painting the inside

The inside received a wet blend of various acrylics to give it a deep red aged appearance that suggested blood. I dry brushed a few other colors, including some metallics, over the outside to help accentuate the imperfections and texture.

Ancient carved box
Ancient carved box

During tech, the director really liked the way the scratches looked on the box and wanted some more. She asked for some Cherokee patterns to be engraved around the edges as if some primitive creature had carved them in by hand. Once I added those, the box was complete.