I have a new video up on the videos page of The Prop Building Guidebook website. This one deals with making a one-piece plaster box mold. Plaster is a cheap and relatively easy-to-work-with molding and casting material, and a one-piece box mold is one of the most basic types of molds to make. I feel a one-piece plaster box mold is one of the best introductions to mold making for those reasons. If you can pull it off, you’ll have more success as you move on to silicone rubber and other fancy mold-making materials.
So check out the video below, and don’t forget that I’ll have new videos up every week until my book comes out on February 26th.
The following article was originally published in the New York Times, November 25, 1906:
Situated in the storehouse and wharf district of the extreme west side, and running through the entire block from Twenty-seventh to Twenty-eighth Street, the casual observer would never imagine by a glance at its unpretentious exterior that a veritable fairy-land lurked within its four plain brick walls.
The person who is fortunate enough to gain admittance past its argus-eyed German watchman stationed at the main door will be amply repaid for the visit. Erected by Henry W. Savage, a theatrical manager, for the building of his plays, the play factory is capable of turning out even the largest productions complete without their leaving the building for anything whatever, and here one may watch the entire construction of a play underneath one roof. The greater part of the time there are 250 people at work in the factory. These include scene builders, painters, electricians, costumers, florists, and property men. Continue reading →
Our last show of this calendar year was Titus Andronicus, which, depending on the budget, could be a prop person’s dream or nightmare. Meghan Buchanan was the prop master on this show, and her company, Paper Mâché Monkey, was handling most of the acquiring and construction of the props. Since King Lear was winding down, I offered to lend a hand, and as luck would have it, they needed a hand. Jay O. Sanders hand, to be precise; after he cuts it off, it shows up in a later scene.
Life casting a hand is one of the easier parts to do; the only tricky part here was that they were rehearsing uptown at Second Stage Theatre and I only had an hour, so I had to prep everything beforehand so I could be in and out like a ninja hand caster before anyone knew what had happened.
I used alginate because it’s cheap, non-toxic, safe on the skin, and sets up quickly. It’s made from seaweed and used in dentistry to make molds of your teeth and gums. After mixing the powdered alginate with water and filling a hand-sized container, I asked Jay to pose his hand and submerge it. It doesn’t heat up like plaster; it just slowly thickens. In about ten minutes, it had solidified enough to where Jay could remove his hand. It’s stretchy enough that he could pull his hand out without breaking or tearing the mold (if done slowly), and it doesn’t really stick to anything (no mold release is needed). The little bit that does stick can be washed off with water.
The thing with alginate is that it starts shrinking right away as it loses water. You only have about two or three hours to make a cast before it has shrunk noticeably. I mixed up some plaster while still at Second Stage and poured it in. After it had hardened enough, I packed up my stuff and took the subway back down to the Public Theater.
Now I could just tear the alginate away until the plaster hand was free.
I decided to do a brush-on mold for this because of the shape of the hand. I had only attempted a brush-on mold once before and it didn’t go so well. This time around was only marginally better. I ended up making it work, but that’s about the only good thing I could say. After the rubber mold set, I built a two-piece plaster shell around it for support. I ended up having to cut open some of the silicone mold to remove the plaster hand inside.
I cast the hand itself out of Smooth-On Dragon Skin, which long-time readers may remember being used in both the deadbody and head for The Bacchae, as well as the deadlamb for Little Foxes. Dragon Skin itself cures fairly translucent and colorless, so I tinted the whole mix with a flesh color. I also embedded some dowels inside to cut down on the amount of silicone rubber I would need and to act as bones.
I “painted” more Dragon Skin over top, tinted with different colors. I rubbed some darker colors into the cracks and crevices to give it a bit of depth, and added a bluish tint onto the veins. I was using a fairly thick mix so it wouldn’t run. Silicone rubber is self-leveling unless it is thickened, and it can be pretty glossy if allowed to do that. I didn’t want that on the hand, but I took advantage of that for the fingernails, where I used a pretty thin mix and only a touch of color to get a shiny and translucent effect.
The hand has gone through some changes since I took these pictures; the bones on the back were cut down in length, and a lot more blood was painted on. All told, it only took about three days between them asking me to lend a hand making a cast of a hand to the cast having a hand in hand for rehearsal.
In Thurston James’ second book, he tackles the subject of molding and casting for prop makers in more detail. The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook guides you through the most common materials and methods used in many prop shops. Because of its specific focus (and better organization), this book is far more successful than his previous Theatre Props Handbook, which, as I mentioned in my review, meandered through disparate topics with no way to quickly find information.
Though written in 1989, the methods described in this book still hold true today. Though the range of materials we can use today have grown dramatically, they remain improvements and new formulations to older materials whose predecessors can be found in this book.
It remains one of the most widely recommended books for molding and casting props because of the unique niche it fills. It describes the most common materials and methods used in props shops and by hobbyists; these materials are used because of their cost, ease of use, availability, and proven results. Books on molding and casting for manufacturing and industry are more focused on specific or specialized materials, and they aim for a level of consistency and cost efficiency which the prop artisan would never possibly need. Shaving a tenth of a cent off the cost of a casting makes a difference if you are casting ten thousand pieces, but it will be impossible to notice if you are only making ten.
James seems to have had an epiphany in shop safety between this book and the last, as he now presents clear and accurate safety precautions in the beginning of the book, and continues to reiterate them throughout. In his Theatre Props Handbook, safety precautions were nearly nonexistent.
The book does a good job of covering the generalities of mold making and casting. It discusses the model and its preparation, and defines a number of necessary terms, such as undercuts, release agents, mother molds and the like. It describes the considerations of making a mold of your specific piece, and breaks the various molding materials and casting agents into categories. In a way, it describes the process of choosing your materials in an almost flowchart-like manner. If you know what your model looks like, and you know what kind of properties and appearance your castings need, then you can narrow your choices of mold material and casting material down to a few choices. In the book, he describes over thirty of these material choices.
The bulk of the book is used to guide you through the specifics of working with each of these materials. Specifically, he talks about plaster, alginate, latex rubber, and silicone rubber (RTV) mold-making. The casting materials he describes include latex, neoprene, papier-mâché, Celastic, fiberglass (GRP), hot melts (such as wax, plasticine, hot melt glue and hot melt rubber, breakaway glass, thermosets (specifically polyester resin), water-extendable polyester, and urethane. He also has a section on casting with hardware store products, like caulk, autobody filler, water putty, and several others. Finally, the last section of the book describes vacuum forming and how to construct a vacuum forming machine.
One of the trick props we needed for The Book of Grace was a phone which John Doman smashed during every performance. We decided that the phone receiver would remain real, but the part it hung on would be cast from plaster. It would all hang on a wooden base, and a collection of “phone innards” will be held inside the plaster part, so when it broke, an assortment of metal bells, chip-boards, and other electronic components would be left hanging on the wall.
We made a two-part silicone mold of the phone. Making a two-part silicone mold is beyond the scope of today’s post. However, I did get a photograph before the pouring of the first part. At this point, Natalie Taylor Hart took over the project.
Normally, the next step is to make the second half of the mold from the back of the phone. In this case, the shape of the back was far more complicated than what we needed, and we were worried the plaster cast would be too thin. So we took the first part of the mold and built up the thickness we wanted to achieve out of Klean Klay. The Klean Klay is the yellow substance in the photograph above, and remains flexible like plastiline. It also does not contain sulphur, which reacts with the silicone mold-making compound. The mold still needed some tweaking, so Natalie carved directly on the silicone to perfect it.
We wanted the color of the phone receiver to match the back part, which was the sort of taupe that most appliances from the late twentieth century came in. When the plaster phone gets smashed, the broken edges would show up white. Thus, we needed to dye the plaster while it was still in liquid form. Natalie found that a tablespoon of Rit tan dye in the mix made the best color match.
Natalie sifted the plaster into the water until tiny islands of plaster began to form on the surface. Once she had made a few phones, she had the exact measurements of both plaster and water marked down.
Next, she let the plaster sit in the water for about 30 seconds. “Wetting” the plaster allows it to mix more thoroughly.
With such a small amount, she mixed it by hand. This also gave her a tactile way to ensure all the lumps were worked out of the mix.
Natalie discovered the best way to pour this particular mold was to slosh plaster over the top half before putting it together. It was important to get plaster in all the cracks and crevices or the strength would be compromised.
The phones set up overnight, but they actually took two to three days to fully dry. We could not get any kind of adhesive to keep the plaster parts onto the bases until all the moisture was completely out. We ended up needing around 40-50 phones for the run of the show, but since we could cast more than one a day, we could make them throughout the run rather than all at once.
Finally, here’s a video showing the end result. This was taken earlier with a different phone model, before they changed it to the slimmer model.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies