You may have noticed a distinct lack of posts this week. Between tech, a minor flood at the theatre, and personal challenges, I did not have any time to write this week. But have no fear, the Internet is here, with stories about props of all shapes and sizes:
First off, the Chicago theatre community has an annual props, sets and costume give-away amongst all the professional theatre companies. The Sun-Times Media has a nice write-up, including video and photographs of some of the theatre’s storage spaces. It is also a great exploration on how local theatre communities share resources with each other.
Dave Lowe, the props master at Hallmark Channel’s “Home and Family”, makes custom trophies for the winner of a game segment on the show. When Florence Henderson guest-starred, he set out to create a replica of the cursed tiki from when the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii.
Usually, I am building props for a show or production I am working on. I rarely have time to work on my own projects. However, someone was interested to see if I could replicate a chest from the television show Game of Thrones. Now, I have nothing to do with the show itself, but it sounded like an interesting challenge to see if I could match something I could only see on screen. There wasn’t anything particularly tricky about this chest; it just had a lot of pieces and parts made of an assortment of materials, and some very time-consuming detail. For those who watch the show, this is the chest given to Daenerys in season one, which held her petrified dragon eggs.
I shot video of most of the build along the way and somehow edited several months of work into seven and a half minutes of video, giving an overview of the process.
If you are interested in more detail and photographs, read on!
The first part was the box itself. I worked out a quick mock-up of the whole piece in SketchUp to figure out the sizes and proportions of all the parts. I decided to use ash on this because it is hard and strong like oak, but I really hate working with oak. The grain pattern of ash was also a better match to the real chest than oak. We have a great local hardwood store that I visited, and I was able to find boards wide enough that I could build every side (except the top) from a single width of wood. The bottom was a piece of oak plywood.
The chest has a number of areas covered in metal. I bought a sheet of 22 gauge steel and cut it up by hand with my airplane snips. I used my sheet metal bending brake on the corner pieces, while the rolled-over edges of the top pieces were bent by hand with sheet metal tools and pliers. Although I could have saved time by making these out of plastic and painting them to look like metal, the “roll over” parts would have ended up too fragile; on the very corners, you can see how thin the metal is, and any plastic that thin would flex whenever you touch it. The hasp on this chest also rests against a metal section, so it gives that solid metal-to-metal sound every time you open and close the lid.
The most time-intensive part was the applied decoration. I used styrene plastic for this because using actual brass would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, and a cheaper metal would have required just as much paint to match the appearance that the added labor was not worth it. I began by going through all the scenes in the TV show where the chest appeared and pulling out as many clear screen shots as I could, and then manipulating them in Photoshop to get a straight-on view. I scaled them up to full-size, printed them out and cut the pieces into patterns to trace on the styrene. Some parts of the design needed to be extrapolated slightly because I never got a clear view, but because it was symmetrical, repetitive and followed a certain logic, I was pretty confidant with how well my version matched the original.
Nearly every element was made of at least two layers of styrene, so after cutting the several hundred pieces out, I began gluing them together using model airplane glue. I did not attach them to the box just yet, but I did lay them out to test fit everything.
With all the pieces ready, I began painting. They received a base coat of hammered silver spray paint, followed by a heavy dusting of hammered bronze spray paint. They would receive more paint later on, but at this point I began attaching them. Working on one side at a time, I first laid every piece out and used careful measurements to make sure everything was symmetrical and evenly-spaced. I then traced every single piece in place and labeled them by number before taking them off. I did some tests and found contact cement gave the strongest bond, though that meant I had to apply it to both the plastic piece and the box, and I could not apply it to the parts of the box where the wood was visible, so I had to carefully paint it within the traced outlines I had made. Luckily, the contact cement bonds almost instantly, so I could begin working on another side after one was completed.
The inside of the chest was leather, though I went with a slightly-more processed version which was already finished and could fit through my sewing machine. I stitched all the pieces together first, and then attached them in as a single unit. I used a bit of spray adhesive to keep them from shifting around, but they are mostly held in place with the visible upholstery tacks. I pre-drilled holes for the tacks so I could make sure the spacing was even, and also because the ash was too hard to just hammer the tacks straight in.
I found hinges online that were so close to the ones on the real chest that I wouldn’t be surprised if the prop makers bought theirs from the same supplier. I could not source the hasp though, so I had to fabricate it from scratch. I started with a basic hardware store hasp and cut notches in the edges. The tip was cut from another decorative gate hinge. I cut a bar of steel to length and bent a curl in the edge, than plug welded the whole thing together from behind and ground the welds flush to the surface.
With all the pieces in place, all that was left was some painting and sealing. The top layers of all the decoration were sponged with a lighter brass color to set them off, and the whole chest was washed down with some dark browns and blacks to age and weather it. Finally, everything was coated in a clear satin Polycryclic.
“Kill Phil” continues to be an interesting and informative little series over on the YouTube. The premise is simple; take a well-known prop maker and give them 3 days to recreate a prop from a film. In one of the latest episodes, they turn to Dragon Dronet of Renegade Effects, one of the top prop makers of Star Trek: The Next Generation and other sci-fi shows and movies from the 1990s onward. They task him with recreating Matt Damon’s gun from the film Elysium, which hadn’t come out yet when this was filmed.
He slams together this prop by hacking apart several toy guns and a vacuum cleaner, than refining all the details with pieces of styrene, jelutong wood and Bondo. It is also interesting to see that he works with little more than a band saw, belt and disc sander, Dremel and a drill gun.
On an unfortunate note, he does all this without any protective gear. You see him using Bondo and Zip Kicker without a respirator, sanding and cutting without a dust mask, and applying Bondo without gloves (even using his hands to smear it on!). With that in mind, watch the video for the techniques, but don’t forget about the safety.
Only 11 more days to enter the world’s greatest Prop Building Guidebook Contest! Don’t wait until the last minute! More importantly, starting this Monday (April 22), your friends, family and colleagues can vote for your entry. The prop with the most votes on April 30th will win $100 worth of Focal Press books. You can vote once a day, so be sure your friends know to vote early, and vote often. Now, onto the links:
Another replica prop maker, Bill Doran (of Punished Props fame) is doing a live Google Hangout tomorrow (Saturday, April 23rd, at 3:00pm EST) where he answers your prop-making questions. With a Google Hangout, you can watch live from your computer as it happens. You can also participate if you have a webcam and questions (Bill gives you the details in the post I linked to). Finally, the whole thing is recorded, so you can watch the whole thing on YouTube after it finishes (I’ll post the link in the comments once it goes up).
This short blog post up at Popular Woodworking taught me some interesting things about how British table saws are different from American ones, particularly in the safety features. I think the fence that stops at the blade is an interesting concept, and would love to try it out.
Have you heard about this? A team of people out in Tennessee are building a full-scale replica of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. That’s a 114 foot long spaceship for those who don’t know. What’s great is that if you look back through the blog, you can see that work began on this over six years ago, and now there is some hard-core construction going on nearly every single day. It looks fairly certain that they can pull this whole thing off.
I tweeted this earlier in the week, but if you missed it, NPR had a great story about faux food artisan Sandy Levins, who recreates historical dishes for display at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and many other museums and historical sites.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies