On April 18th, I gave a presentation for the monthly webinar series given by S*P*A*M. “Props You Can Make at Home” was all about building props when you have no shop and few tools, and it uses mostly locally purchased materials.
We are once again requesting pay-what-you-can donations to support this S*P*A*Minar programming. All money collected will be used to offset webinar operation costs with additional funds going to our annual grant program for early-career prop people. The suggested donation amount is $3.
For Triad Stage’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few months ago, I needed to find a very specific bar cart. The scenic designer, Anya Klepikov, provided me with a research image of a stunning midcentury piece that was uncomfortably out of our price range. It had some challenging aspects to it, but I knew I could build it myself for a fraction of the cost.
I built the table out of a mix of oak boards and oak plywood. For the thicker pieces of oak, I laminated several pieces together.
In the research image, the table of the cart splits in the middle, and a black melamine leaf is added to make it longer. Ours didn’t need to do that, so I just built the top as a single piece. It was a single sheet of plywood covered in two thin pieces of nice plywood, with a piece of melamine in the middle. The edges were strips of hardwood to cover the plywood edges. I couldn’t find black melamine, so I used white that I spray painted black.
Each end had a curved breadboard with a raised lip. It took a bit of finessing to cut the end of the plywood and the breadboard so they fit together perfectly.
I cut and shaped the raised lip as a separate piece before attaching it. I routed all the edges, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to fit the router on if the lip was attached. Once it was glued on, I did some hefty belt sanding on the end to smooth everything and make it appear to be one solid piece of wood.
I clamped a rail on the bottom so I could round over that edge as well, with the rounded edge fading out gradually.
Because the legs were both round and tapered, they needed a flat surface to attach the apron and shelf to. I built a jig for the router to mill a flat area perpendicular to the ground. The apron pieces could then be doweled securely to the legs.
Before gluing, I fit everything together dry to make sure my measurements were all correct. When you have round tapered legs, it is very easy to make a mistake between the length of the top apron pieces and the shelf apron pieces; everything needs to be exact to keep the whole piece square and sturdy. Once everything was fit properly, I disassembled it, added glue to all the joints, and clamped it all back together.
After one final sanding over the whole table, it was ready for staining. I used a tint from Minwax called “Gunstock.” I sealed it with a coat of amber shellac. When it dried, I rubbed it down with #000 steel wool, then added a second coat of amber shellac, which was also sanded with steel wool. The whole table was then wiped down with Pledge Furniture Polish. This not only removes the finest dust particles, but it imparts a thin layer of wax that helps give the surface a bit more shine.
The photo above shows off the sweet curves which the piece has.
When I shared images of the completed bar cart with Anya the designer, she realized she wanted brass leg caps added to the bottom. I wasn’t able to find an exact cap to fit the legs, so I coated them with a thin layer of epoxy and painted it with brass spray paint. It gave the same effect as brass caps, but with far less work.
The bar cart was the only piece of furniture on the whole stage, so the extra work to make it perfect was justified. It was a nice piece to build for my last show as the full-time props master at Triad Stage.
Earlier this year, I was the props master on August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Triad Stage. The set, designed by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, was a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. Among the various components were thirteen matching diner stools, the kind that spin and are bolted to the floor. It proved impossible to source that many stools within our budget, so I decided to build them.
I designed the main support in two parts: an inner post made of steel that would hold the seat and be bolted to the floor, and an outer post that would sleeve over and appear to be chrome. I welded the inner post out of box tube and quarter-inch plate. I added a small length of pipe to the top so the seat could spin freely.
I cut the outer posts out of PVC pipe and wrapped them with silver Mylar.
The flange at the base was a plastic bowl I found. I drilled a hole through it and wrapped it in Mylar as well. The bowl and PVC both slipped right over the steel posts, and I cut some wood spacers to hold them in place.
I built the seat in two parts which could be screwed together after upholstering it. The top part had a block underneath that slipped onto the pipe base and allowed it to spin freely. The side part masked this block and provided a place to attach the vinyl fabric to.
Once upholstered, the seat could slip right onto the steel post. The underside of the seat had a piece of UHMW that the steel rested on, so it could spin with as little friction as possible.
A good portion of the upholstery was accomplished by Keri Dumka, one of my artisans on the show. My apprentice, Victoria Ross, also did some upholstery and aging on these stools.
Here is one of the stools; twelve to go!
Though it was very time-consuming constructing all thirteen of these stools from scratch, the end result was pretty stunning. It looked like we plucked a diner straight from the Hill District and plopped it down in the middle of our theater.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Bottom finds his head transformed into that of a donkey, courtesy of the mischievous fairy, Puck. The donkey head is among Shakespeare’s most distinctive props, and has been on my bucket list of famous props to build. Recently, Triad Stage mounted a production.
The mask was designed by our costume designer, Hannah Chalman. She designed masks for all the fairies as well, so we split the fabrication of the masks between the props and costume departments.