Tag Archives: vacuum forming

Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases

Vacuum Forming on Zero Dollars

I am currently working as props master on Crazy for You at Elon University. In one of the musical numbers, twelve showgirls dance around the main character while talking on the phone. The show is set in the early 1930s, so that is twelve candlestick phones needed (all of them painted pink). If you’ve ever had to get candlestick phones, you know that the real ones are prohibitively expensive, and even the replicas are too expensive when twelve are needed. I decided I would make them all (which is what most theatres do).

Most hand-built candlestick phones I’ve seen have a pretty simple base, and I wanted to try for something a bit more interesting and realistic. Since these were just being used during a dance number, the dial didn’t need to work. It looked like I could sculpt the base as a solid object and than just vacuum form twelve copies. The only problem? I don’t have a vacuum forming machine.

Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases
Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases

I ended up assembling a very small and fairly weak vacuum forming system out of tools I already had and scrap materials which were laying around. Other than my time, the cost was free. I was able to make all the phone bases I needed though the process was a bit inelegant at times. I like what vacuum forming can accomplish, and I think I may spend some more time (and maybe even some money) making a more usable vacuum former after this show opens, but it was nice to be up and running without too much investment on my part.

I have posted an Instructable on how I built my free vacuum forming machine if anyone else is interested in how this all works. I also have a video of how it works and what it looks like when it’s being used:

Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"

Costume Armour

This past weekend I made a trip up to Cornwall, NY, to visit Costume Armour. Brian Wolfe, the general manager, happily showed me around the shop, storage areas and all the pieces they have on display. Costume Armour was founded over 50 years ago by Peter and Katherine Feller, and later purchased by theatrical sculptor Nino Novellino in 1976, and has produced pieces for nearly every Broadway show since then.

Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"
Knight of the Mirrors from "Man of La Mancha"

The piece that kind of began Costume Armour is the armor from the original Broadway production of The Man of La Mancha. Before then, armor was either leather, felt or heavy metal. They solved many problems by vacuum forming a suit of armor from newly sculpted molds based off of historical research. Though the suit itself predates the company, Novellino made it while working with Peter Feller on the vacuum forming machines built by Feller to construct the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Costume Armour still has those machines, and they are part of what makes their company extraordinary. The vacuum tank is over 1000 gallons, and they can produce pieces from sheets of plastic as large as 52″ by 12′-0″.

Helmets
Helmets

The shop was in the midst of a big order for the Disney Jedi Training Academy, Star Wars Weekends and Celebration, which they have been doing since 2004.

Celastic
Celastic

I was interested to learn that the shop still uses Celastic quite a bit for many of their sculptures. The original brand-named Celastic has long ceased being manufactured, though they did have a few rolls stock-piled for those extra-special projects (pictured above). The modern equivalents are a bit thicker, but act the same; the cloth is saturated with acetone, than draped or molded over a form or sculpture, and when the acetone evaporates, you are left with a rigid and rock hard surface. Brian explained that it is unrivaled for making realistically-sculpted drapes and clothes on statues.

So I stand corrected on my earlier article on Celastic, in which I claimed that it is rarely used and that there are less toxic alternatives that can do the same thing. Of course, using it requires the proper safeguards for dealing with large buckets of acetone, but working with most materials in the props shop requires understanding and protecting yourself against any potential hazards and toxins.

Jesus and C-3PO
Jesus and C-3PO

While I saw something cool around every corner, I thought I would point out the above picture. They cast a head based off of a scan and model of the Shroud of Turin, so what you have here is what many believe to be the real head of Jesus. He is, of course, on a shelf next to a C-3PO mask.

See you later!
See you later!

The statue pictured above was produced was was sculpted in foam, molded in silicone and cast in fiberglass . Though larger than me, I could easily pick it up off the ground; most of the weight, in fact, came from the plywood base, and not the statue itself.

Novellino was featured in the American Theatre Wing’s In the Wings series; watch the video to learn more about the company and to see the vacuum forming machines in action.

Friday’s Rehearsal Notes

The Food Network gives some credit to the shows’ prop master (or design director). Wendy Waxman is responsible for decorating and accessorizing the sets of all the shows filmed at the Food Network’s studios at Chelsea Market.

Congressman Das Williams has introduced legislation to make flesh or proximity detection technology mandatory in all table saws sold in California after January 1, 2015. I have mixed feelings about this. I think safety is important, and I feel in a lot of situations, companies will put out unsafe products until forced otherwise; this is more true with chemicals and toxic substances. But this kind of feature on a table saw is expensive and unwieldy. The vast, vast majority of table saw accidents happen on untrained home hobbyists. 1 This law would make trained users pay for a safety feature that’s more needed for untrained users. Not only that, but job site saws and contractor saws are far too small and light to utilize this technology; I’m only guessing, but I would imagine these kinds of saws are more likely to be used by home hobbyists. Why stop at the table saw? Why not legislate these features on band saws, planers and circular saws? Is it just because a table saw is statistically more dangerous? Because if we’re looking at statistics, a door causes just as many finger amputations per year as a table saw; why not require flesh detection technology on all doors? Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

Speaking of dangerous tools, AnnMarie Thomas makes the case to let kids use real tools to build things, and not those cheap toy versions. She mentions how an engineering professor asked his class of 35 first-year students whether anyone had ever used a drill press before, and not a single hand was raised. Looks like props people are single-handedly preserving manual-arts training in higher education. Maybe if kids were taught to use tools, we wouldn’t have so many table saw accidents (the majority of which are sustained by men in their 50s; age does not make one safer, only training does).

I’ve wanted something like this for awhile, but never actually sat down to plan one out. But this adjustable sanding jig for a disc sander looks like it’s the perfect design.

The Studio Creations website has a nice tutorial on vacuum forming plastic. Don’t have a vacuum forming table? No, problem, they have a tutorial on how to build one of those as well.

Notes:

  1. Popular Woodworking analyzed the injury statistics for table saws put out by the CPSC last year.
War Horse puppet

Friday Link-topia

Here are seven short (under 10 minutes) films about obsolete occupations. I think as prop makers and prop masters, we are called on to do the work of each of these occupations at least once in our careers.

The TK560 discussion board is geared towards making stormtrooper armor from Star Wars, but they have a large section devoted to general tips and tricks for vacuum forming (including instructions for building vacuum forming machines of all different sizes and budgets), molding and casting, and working with plastics in general. There is a treasure trove of useful information here.

I’ve seen discussions of dying plastic in the past as an alternative to painting it, especially with plastics that refuse to take paint (such as polyethylene). Here is a good step-by-step description (with pictures) of dying the case to a MacBook computer.

CNN recently did a profile on Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine and the Maker Faire. You can watch a short companion video and read a brief column by Dale titled “How to make more ‘makers’ – and why it matters.”

Finally, here is an extremely cool infographic on how the War Horse puppets work.

War Horse puppet
infographic on how the War Horse puppets work.

Friday Props Links Roundup

The Guardian has a nice little article on How to Make a Haunted House. It details how the set dresser, prop master and other members of the art department use locations, architecture and props to create the mood of the upcoming ghost film, The Woman in Black. They purchased and borrowed tons (or “tonnes”, as this is a British film) of Victorian-era objects and paraphernalia to dress the sets.

Have you heard of the new show Prop Freaks? Because it’s a TV show about people who make and collect props. Well, it’s a show in development; you can watch short clips on the website until it finds an audience. But it looks pretty cool, and I can’t wait to see more.

Here is an interview with Russell Bobbitt on how he uses 3D printing technology to create many of his props. Russell Bobbitt is the film prop master who has made some fairly recognizable props, such as the glowing chest piece from Iron Man 2, or the wristband laser gun from Cowboys and Aliens.

Here is an interesting video on using a vacuum former to make masks. There’s a few things that make this especially intriguing: his rig is portable so he is able to take it to an event where other people can vacuum form their own masks, and he uses a bicycle pump to draw out the air rather than a vacuum cleaner. Also, the music playing in the background is a Nintendo beat version of MOP’s “Ante Up” with computers rapping (done by an artist named “Danny Drive Thru”), so that alone makes this worth watching.

While not prop-related, this last link is pretty fun. Watch this time-lapse video of stagehands from IATSE local 33 set up the orchestra pit at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s a pretty ambitious sounding project too; over 1,000 musicians will perform.