For the upcoming production of “Broke-ology” at Lincoln Center, I was asked to build a three-foot garden gnome. They had a prop from the original production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but it was starting to break and crack in certain places. The gnome undergoes a lot of abuse during each performance, so they needed a new one with a better interior structure. So for the past two weeks, my wife and I have been gnome building.
The original gnome was a solid chunk of foam, with weights added in the base. Since it gets fairly thin around the ankles, it was beginning to separate at that point. My major concern with the interior skeleton was making sure there were no weak points on the gnome.
Additionally, while I had the original gnome with me, I took measurements and tracings directly off it to make several “slices” of the gnome’s shape to use as the structure. You can see what I mean in the photographs above. So the plywood would not only give me structure, it would also serve as a guide while adding and carving the foam.
We couldn’t keep the gnome forever, so I took pictures of all four sides, plus the four in-between sides, as well as various views from above. It never hurts to have too many reference pictures. To remove large pieces of foam, we used either a knife or sometimes a reciprocating saw. If we needed a large amount of foam sculpted down quickly, we used a wire brush wheel hooked up to a cordless drill. We did the more precise and final carving and sculpting with a variety of rasps, knives, and sandpaper. Sculpting and carving are very personal skills, so the best tools are often the ones you make yourself. Natalie made several tools just by gluing pieces of sandpaper to various shapes of wood.
You can see in the photograph above that we added auto-body filler (or Bondo) to fill in gaps, cover mistakes, or build up areas where we took too much off. You need a respirator when using it, but it hardens very quickly. You can use a rasp or knife on it after about ten minutes, and you can sand it after about an hour. We also used a Dremel tool for quickly carving out details.
I pontificated in an earlier post about various ways of coating foam. First, we wrapped the gnome in muslin strips which were soaked in glue. The process is very similar to papier-mache. We tore the muslin strips to give them a ragged edge which could be smoothed down over the previous pieces. After this dried, we covered the whole thing in Rosco Foamcoat, which we laid on like stucco to give it a bit of worn and weathered texture. After a light sanding, we painted on the various base coats.
The final step was coating it with epoxy resin. This gave it a very hard, smooth, and water-proof shell. It’s also fairly pricey, very toxic, and requires a lot of set-up. The exterior of the gnome was fairly solid with just the muslin and Foamcoat coverings, so for lower-budget shows and shorter runs, you may want to forego the epoxy resin. It’s a somewhat complex process, so I’ll address it in more detail in a future post.
After the epoxy had cured over night, we added the final paint layer. We used acrylic paint. We also dusted it with some black spray paint to weather and age it, as well as some dulling spray to get rid of the shininess from the epoxy.