Category Archives: How-to

Guides to building props or using certain techniques and materials

Props You Can Make at Home

Header image which summarizes the information as blog post.

How do you build props when you have no shop, few tools, and basic materials?

In this month’s S*P*A*Minar, I will show you some tips and techniques to build props cheaply and safely right in your home, with materials you can buy locally.

When: Sunday, April 18th at 8pm EST
Where: From the comfort of your home!
REGISTER here: http://bit.ly/PYCMAHregistration

With this S*P*A*Minar, we’re also doing our first-ever giveaway! One lucky attendee* will win a copy of my new book: Prop Building for Beginners: Twenty Props for Stage and Screen.

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.

Donations can be made via PayPal Money Pool here: https://bit.ly/SPAMinarMoneyPool

Registration will remain open until 6PM EST on April 18th and a link to the Zoom S*P*A*Minar session will be sent out to all registered attendees 1 hour before the start of the webinar.

All S*P*A*Minars will be recorded, and a video will be shared on the S*P*A*M Youtube page the week following the event. You can watch all previous S*P*A*Minars there for free.

*Attendee must be present at the S*P*A*Minar to win.

Midcentury Bar Cart

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.

Clamping the pieces
Clamping the pieces

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.

Assembling the top
Assembling the top

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.

Attaching the lip
Attaching the lip

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.

Attaching the lip
Attaching the lip

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.

Rounding the edge with a router
Rounding the edge with a router

I clamped a rail on the bottom so I could round over that edge as well, with the rounded edge fading out gradually.

Milling the joints
Milling the joints

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.

Glue assembly
Glue assembly

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.

Preparing to stain
Preparing to stain

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.

With stain and shellac
With stain and shellac

The photo above shows off the sweet curves which the piece has.

Completed bar cart
Completed bar cart

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.

Bar cart on stage
Bar cart on stage

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.

Diner Stools

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.

Welding the structure
Welding the structure

I cut the outer posts out of PVC pipe and wrapped them with silver Mylar.

Wrapping chrome onto PVC
Wrapping chrome onto PVC

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.

Installing the poles
Installing the poles

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.

Seat prior to fabric
Seat prior to fabric

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!

Single stool
Single stool

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.

Stools around the bar
Stools around the bar

Donkey Mask from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream", Triad Stage, with Rebecca Hirota and E.E. Williams. Photo by Bert Vanderveen.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Triad Stage, with Rebecca Hirota and E.E. Williams. Photo by Bert Vanderveen.

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.

Continue reading Donkey Mask from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Art Deco Liquor Cabinet

The set for Triad Stage’s And Then There Were None called for a posh, but stark, Art Deco design. One of the key furniture pieces is a liquor cabinet, since each of the ten characters has at least three drinks through the course of the play.

I had no luck sourcing an Art Deco liquor cabinet in this part of the country, so I decided to build it. Having a very distinctly Deco piece on stage would help the other less-distinctly Deco pieces feel at home in the period. Robin Vest (the scenic designer), and I passed around some research images and landed on a piece that had all the right elements but was still achievable with my equipment and time.

Making the cuts
Making the cuts

One defining element for this style of furniture is the bold, sweeping curves. These were traditionally made by bending thin sheets of wood and laminating them together to create a curved piece of plywood, then adding a highly-figured veneer on top. That was beyond my budget, but I had previously bent plywood by cutting kerfs, and thought I could do it again. The design of the cabinet was specifically chosen to easily hide the kerf cuts.

I chose some nice maple plywood from the big box store. The back of the cabinet and the doors would establish the curves, so I taped them together when gang-cutting them on the band saw.

Assembling the carcass
Assembling the carcass

When all the flat, fixed pieces were cut, I assembled it together without glue to make sure everything was measured correctly. The cabinet was basically two parts with a door on each side.

Cutting the kerfs
Cutting the kerfs

To cut the kerfs, I first measured where the curve would begin and where, roughly, it would end. I left the piece a bit long, intending to trim it to the exact size once the kerfs were all cut. You can never calculate exactly how long a piece should be when you add a curve to it; the material behaves differently than how the math predicts.

I set the blade height on the table saw so it would cut through all but the last layer of ply on my plywood. I used a sled to cross cut the groove through the length of the wood. I had a marking on the table saw so that after each cut, I could slide the wood down to make the next cut, and each cut would be evenly spaced.

I’m sure there is some formula to calculate how far apart each cut should be, but I just used a test piece of wood to make sure I was achieving the curve I needed.

Attaching the curved pieces
Attaching the curved pieces

When all the kerfs were cut, I was ready to attach the bent pieces to the frame. They were glued to the back of the cabinet, while the front would be open for the doors. I clamped the doors in place so the plywood was held in the correct shape while the glue dried.

While everything was still clamped, I filled the kerf cuts with a mix of sawdust and wood glue to sort of “lock” it in place. A curved piece of wood like this can move if it is not fully supported.

The cabinet body
The cabinet body

The curved pieces were a bit springy without any front supports, so I added an oak frame. It was inset so the doors would still be flush with the front when mounted; it also helped serve as a door jamb to prevent the doors from swinging inside.

Stained and shellacked
Stained and shellacked

I stained the outside of the cabinet with one coat of English Chestnut stain. All the plywood edges were sanded smooth and filled, then painted black. The curved edges needed a lot of filling to close the gaps from the kerfs. Everything then got two coats of amber shellac, sanded down with some #000 steel wool after each coat.

Painted interior
Painted interior

For the sides of the interior, I laid in some thick mirrored mylar I had left over from another project. A lot of liquor cabinets in this style had mirrored interiors. It also allowed me to cover the kerfs on the inside of the curves, which would have taken forever to sand smooth. The remaining interior surfaces were painted with some bright yellow I had gotten for another 1930s-inspired piece.

I also added some molding to the bottom and two more panels to the top to create the stepped design that is another characteristic of this style.

Art Deco Cabinet
Art Deco Cabinet

After mounting the doors, the final step was adding the handles. I cut and shaped some basic handles out of a piece of two-by-four. I added them after the doors were mounted because they all needed to line up visually with each other, even if the doors were not precisely straight and even.

Cabinet front view
Cabinet front view

I was very proud of this piece. Even though its flaws and theatrical construction were apparent up close, it looked stunning from only a few feet away.