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.
While in New York City this summer, I got word from the Santa Fe Opera that they needed an extra props carpenter for a few weeks. Though I had a lot of editing on my book to do, I jumped at the chance to head out there.
One of the main projects I worked on was a throne for King Roger, a Polish(!) opera from 1926. The throne was meant to look like it was carved out of stone. It was also going to be on stage the entire show and the artists would be climbing and leaning all over it, so it needed to be strong.
Perhaps the trickiest challenge was the back. The whole back had a curve to it, and the top of the back was also shaped in a curve. To top it off, the top surface was also beveled. A bevel on a compound curve is not really something you can do on a machine. I measured, marked and cut what I could, but most of it needed to be shaped by eye with a portable belt sander.
All the sculpted and textured bits were going to be applied after the throne was built. I constructed it so everything had a surface to be attached to, than applied strips of different thicknesses to build up all the framing and molding.
The photograph above has some of the textured panels as they are fit in. I had to cut all the pieces before hand so they could be painted separately from the throne itself. The larger panels would receive custom sculpted pieces, which were being made by Anna Warren (who runs the Fake ‘n Bake blog).
Some of the panels were switched to pieces of stiffened lace to add variety. I also attached some cast resin balls to the tops of the front legs.
I actually had to leave Santa Fe before King Roger opened, but Michael Chemycz, one of the other prop carpenters, snapped some great photos of the throne on stage during the dress rehearsal. Jest to dość ozdobny tron!
Today I thought I would go retro and show you a cart I built back in 2007. La Boheme at the Santa Fe Opera required a whole bunch of push carts during the outdoor scenes, so the other prop carpenter and I set to work constructing them.
The first one I built was a crepe cart. The structure was simple enough, but the wheels were all custom-sized, so the first thing I had to do was fabricate the wheels and the axle system.
I built the wheels out of metal because the diameter of the spokes and the rim in the drawing was small enough that I was afraid wood might not be strong enough. I TIG welded the rods to the hub to keep the welds as visually-unobtrusive as possible. The rim of the wheel was a length of bar stock bent into a circle and welded together. It also had a strip of rubber glued along the outside to cut down on noise and keep it from tearing up the stage floor.
The front wheel stuck way out to the front of the cart. I first assembled a jig to hold it in position. I then cut the four bars that held it in place and welded them to the axle while the wheel was in position. This ensured that the wheel was centered, at the correct height, and completely parallel with the direction the cart traveled. I thought I was very clever until it came time to remove the jig and I realized I had built the cart around it; I had to cut the jig apart to get it off.
Above is a picture showing the bottom of the cart with the front wheel in place and the axles for the back wheels. If you look close, you can see the back axle is actually separated in the middle; when the cart is turned, the wheel on the inside of the turn spins more slowly than the one on the outside, so they need to be able to spin independently of each other.
I added a circle of wood and a decorative rosette we had in stock to cap off the hub.
The top of the cart was pretty straightforward; it consisted of a plywood box, a thick “counter”, two handles I shaped out of solid alder, and a metal box to serve as the oven. There was also a braking system to lock the wheels in place to keep the cart from rolling into the audience when the artist walked away, but that is a post for another day (In opera, the singers are called “artists”, rather than “actors” or “singers”).
A number of accouterments completed the look. A box with a hinged lid was placed on front for artists to take crepes from. I welded a tube in position to hold an umbrella at a jaunty angle; the umbrella needed to be removable to facillitate storage backstage. Finally, I placed some molding around the edges to match what was in the drawing.
Here is the final cart after the paint shop finished with it and the props master dressed it. Bon appétit!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in 2007 when I was working at the Santa Fe Opera, we were mounting a new opera called Tea: A Mirror of Soul. It had a heavy Asian influence, with scenes taking place both in Japan and in China. I was given a drawing of a chair, which they needed nine copies of.
If you study the drawing, you’d notice a few things. First, it’s rather small. Normally, a chair is eighteen inches off the ground; this is only twelve. Second, the back stiles for the circular back are offset from the back legs (if you don’t know what a stile is, check out my “parts of a chair” diagram). Wooden chairs usually have a single piece of wood running from top to bottom in the back for strength. Where the back meets the seat is the point where a lot of stress is placed on the chair, so relying on the strength of a joint rather than a solid length of wood is inviting trouble. Finally, you may notice that the back has pieces floating in the air. That’s always an engineering challenge.
The seat of the chair was two and a quarter inches thick. I decided to skin the top with a piece of quarter-inch plywood and the bottom with eighth-inch lauan, so the interior frame had to be one and seven-eighths inches thick. That gave me a nice big chunk in the back to attach my back stiles to. I also added some bolts through the joint for extra reinforcement.
The rest of the joints were glued and doweled.
Next came the fun part: the back. We (the props master, master carpenter, and I) needed to figure out a way to make the back pieces appear to be floating. As I mentioned above, I was making nine of these chairs, so the process had to be repeatable as well. The master carpenter was also making a throne with this same cut-out design in it, so he began developing a jig so we could rout the design out of a solid piece of wood. We had discussed using plexiglass in the middle so the pieces would actually look like they were floating, but that would not be strong enough. Instead, we would hide a steel frame inside and have small pieces of steel connecting the pieces. Between the distance of the audience, the sightlines, and the smallness of the gaps, a few pieces of quarter-inch rod steel painted black would be as close to invisible as we could make it.
The photograph above shows David Levine, the master carpenter, working out the jig. Note that he’s not actually cutting yet, which is why his dust mask and goggles are off. It was a complicated, multi-piece jig with several steps involved, but the results were beautiful and consistent.
For the back ring, I sandwiched poplar boards on either side of a piece of quarter-inch plywood, with the grain of each side running perpendicularly to the other. In other words, I made a giant Oreo cookie out of poplar, with a creamy plywood center. The interior back pieces were cut out of a solid piece of poplar, made by gluing several boards together. I put this in the jig and cut my design out.
Before I had cut out the back pieces, I had routed the channels in where I would hide the steel rod. The channels were as deep as the diameter of the rod, so once they were in, the whole back could get a coat of Bondo and be sanded smooth, and no one would be the wiser. The steel rod continued sown into the stiles and up into the “horn” at the top so the whole back could be tied together with the same steel structure.
I cut the top horn piece out of a solid chunk of poplar, which I made by laminating two boards with their grains running in different directions.
Looking back, even as I write this article, I see a number of things I would do differently, or at least experiment with to see the results. As with any complicated prop, you learn a lot just by building it, but because you will never build the exact same prop again, it can be hard to assimilate that learning into your overall experience. As it turned out with this prop, I had only finished three of the nine chairs by the time they were cut from the show. It seems the stage was getting too cluttered, and the chairs were one of the more extraneous elements, so away they went.
That meant I got to keep two of the chairs, which let me test just how long my construction would actually hold up. The back on one of them did eventually break away from the seat, though not where I thought it would. I contemplated building more of a steel structure, but worried that the extra weight would either make it too heavy to carry, or even make it more likely to break; picture using a crowbar versus a stick of wood. The crowbar is extremely good at separating two pieces of wood from each other, where a stick of wood is just as likely to break itself before pulling the wood apart. Now look at a chair. The point where the back meets the seat is the focal point of a lever formed by somebody leaning back in the chair. If the stiles were metal (like a crowbar), it might tear the seat apart if you leaned back too hard.
But I digress and ruminate too much. Enjoy the pictures of the chair.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies