Chrix Designs shows how she made a staff of Kraken; it’s a staff with an orb surrounded by octopus tentacles. I found her technique for making the sculpted tentacles pretty interesting.
Kris Compas shows how to turn on a drill press in this two-part tutorial (see part 1 and part 2). Now, a drill press motor isn’t made to withstand the lateral pressure from full-scale turning of hardwoods , but Compas is turning doll-house furniture pieces out of basswood. This seems like a fine technique for all that small-scale kind of stuff you might need to do.
Last week, I showed off some giant champagne bottles I made, and mentioned that they would act as the barrels of some cannons I was also building at the Santa Fe Opera. Today, I will show you the actual cannon barrels I made. We needed four cannons, so that meant four barrels.
I made the barrels out of foam to keep them lightweight; the Santa Fe Opera runs their shows in repertory, so any savings in weight is much appreciated by the running crew, who have to move all the props from the basement to the stage on a daily basis. I whipped up a quick jig for the bandsaw to cut the corners from the blocks of foam I got. This meant less time turning, less dust, and it allowed the foam to actually fit on the lathe.
I designed a full-size template of the shape of the barrels based on the designer’s sketches and my own research. I could also use this template as a pattern on the lathe to make all four barrels exactly the same as each other. Turning foam on the lathe is fun and easy, but it makes a gigantic mess.
After the barrels were taken off the lathe, I began the long and laborious process of coating and sanding them. The designer wanted them to look like smooth brass without any distressing, so they needed to be absolutely flawless. I used Aqua Resin, which provided a sandable hard coat with far less toxicity than Bondo. I spent nearly a week just coating and sanding all these guys.
I built a jig so I could hold the barrel and a cordless drill perpendicular to each other. This provided a pilot hole for the trunnion I would add; the trunnion would be a piece of PVC pipe which would hold the cannon on the carriage and allow it to pivot up and down.
With the pilot hole drilled, I switched to a hole saw that was closer to the size of the PVC pipe. You can see in the photo above that I have an extra long pilot bit on the hole saw. This bit was long enough to pop out the other side of the barrel so I could be sure that the hole saw would exit in exactly the right place.
I pushed the sections of PVC pipe through the hole and capped off the ends to make them look like a solid bar. I also added some lauan rings to the ends of the barrels to help reinforce them when they were standing up.
With the barrels finished, I handed them off to the painters, who gave them the great brass paint treatment that you see above. In a few days, I’ll post about how I built the carriages to these cannons, and you can see pictures of the final piece.
With this summer’s season at the Santa Fe Opera at an end, I can begin to show off some of the props I’ve built there. First up is a giant champagne bottle.
We needed four champagne bottles of a very specific size; they were going to be the barrels of cannons that I would also build. Nobody manufactures champagne bottles that large, so we had to make them. Since we would vacuum-form them from plastic, I began by making a solid foam bottle.
I drew out half the shape at full-scale on a piece of plexiglass. We have a duplicator on our lathe, which allows us to rough out the shape by directly following a pattern like this. I also got the block of foam ready. This piece was so wide, it barely fit on the lathe; I had to take most of the attachments off and round off the foam by hand before there was enough room to put the attachments back on.
As you can imagine, turning a block of foam this large creates quite a bit of debris. I am still finding bits of foam in my clothes to this day.
To vacuum form this piece, I only needed half of the bottle. I built a box so I could hold the bottle straight. The top of the box reached the exact middle point of the bottle, so when I ran a hot wire along it, it sliced the foam bottle directly in half.
I mounted the foam onto a board and drilled holes all around the circumference, as well as holes in the concave portions to ensure the plastic would be sucked all the way down. I also coated the foam with Aqua Resin and sanded it smooth. I posted a video a few weeks ago showing the vacuum forming machine in action; check it out if you want to see how I made the piece in the photo above.
With a successful pull on the vacuum former, this project was turned over to the crafting department, and my work on it ended. They began manufacturing clear plastic halves like you see above, and spraying them down with green dye to match the color of a real champagne bottle.
They glued the halves together and added some labels and gold foil to complete the look. The final bottles were over four feet tall.
One of the props I built for our production of La Donna del Lago was a quaich. A quaich is a two-handled drinking vessel from Scotland; you can find out more on the Wikipedia page, which incidentally, has the research photograph I worked from.
I began by adapting the research photograph to a full-scale drawing of the profile I would make. This was fit to the measurements that they wanted to use, shown to the designer, then refined some more based on his feedback. When my drawing was approved, I cut a turning blank from a piece of poplar we had laying around.
This was the first time I have ever turned a bowl on a lathe. Our lathe is not actually set up to turn on the outboard side, so I had to turn the whole bowl on the inboard side. I began by turning the profile of the outside, leaving a large foot on the bottom that I could hold on to when it came time to turn the inside.
I flipped the bowl around and started hollowing out the inside. One of the other carpenters told me a trick where you first use a drill bit to remove as much of the material on the inside as you can. I grabbed the largest Forstner bit we had, stuck it in the drill bit chuck on the tailstock, and drilled out the center of my bowl.
Hollowing out the rest of the center was straightforward once I got used to how the tools acted. The tricky part about turning a bowl, compared to turning spindles, is the way the grain faces. The curve brings you from face grain to end grain, so your tool cuts differently as you move along the curve.
After the bowl itself was complete, I added the handles. I chiseled and Dremeled a square notch in each side of the bowl that the handles could fit into, and epoxied them in place. I also took a grinder and carved the outside so it looked like it was hand-carved with gouges.
The painting and faux metal strip along the top was handled by the rest of the props team. It was sealed with a food-safe sealer since the artists drank actual liquid from it every performance. It was a simple prop, but it turned out nicely and allowed me to learn some new skills in the process.
One of the first projects I worked on when arriving in Santa Fe was actually for a scenic element. One of the shows has a number of decorative balustrades way upstage, and they wanted to vacuum form them. I was tasked with turning the wooden master.
The first step was gluing up a number of poplar boards. This was going to be a fairly thick piece. I made two, so I could split them down the middle and give them four halves to vacuum form on a single sheet of plastic.
The lathe in our props shop has a duplicater set up. This allows you to cut out the profile of what you want to turn in a thin sheet of plexiglas, and the blade can follow that shape. You still need to finish it up by hand to make sharp corners and smooth it out, but it helps keep your shapes and sizes consistent across multiple pieces.
Above are the two balustrades, ready to go!
Next I had to split them directly in half. Luckily, we have a massive bandsaw, and I could build an oversized dowel-splitting jig to cut the whole baluster in half in one pass.
The next step included a new technique for me. I had to drill holes throughout the wooden mold for the vacuum to pull air through, paying particular attention to the undercuts. They also asked me to mount the molds on a sheet of plywood with a gap underneath, and drill holes all along the periphery. Since the vacuum form platen only has holes at regularly-spaced intervals, it would not suck the plastic tight against the bottom of the mold; this technique was like creating a custom platen to sit on top of the regular platen.
That was actually the end of my part. The scenery department took my molds and began running them through the vacuum former. I don’t have any pictures of that, but I do have a video of the machine in action. Above is a photo of the resulting pieces as they get mounted to the scenic piece.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies