I came out with a new book a few months ago, but I haven’t written about it here yet. It has been such a tumultuous year!
The book is called “Prop Building for Beginners: Twenty Props for Stage and Screen.” It is now on sale at Routledge.
I wrote this book because a lot of beginners want step-by-step instructions to build specific props. The world of prop building can be overwhelming, and sometimes you just want to know where to start.
I chose the kinds of items that people in theater or film often need to build. These are props that appear in a lot of stories and which are not always cheap or easy to buy.
I designed and built all these items to make sure I was only using materials which are readily available throughout the world, as well as a limited number of tools. In fact, if you complete each project in this book, you will end up with a good understanding of the basic skills that every props person needs, as well as a simple toolkit that you will use on a daily basis.
I wrote this book for anyone who wants to begin the wonderful journey of learning how to build props. It is useful for teachers who want to introduce their students to the materials and methods used in prop making. And it may be helpful to the theater practitioner who needs to build some props but does not know how.
The umbrella gun scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most visually memorable in the play. George, tired of his wife Martha’s insults in front of their guests, exits offstage. He sneaks back wielding a shotgun aimed at her head. The guests see him and scream as he pulls the trigger. Instead of the loud report of a bullet, though, a brightly-colored umbrella emerges from the barrel. Hilarious, right?
The original production was written to use a trick umbrella they already had in stock, but every production since has given the props master a headache as they try to figure out the gag. I initially checked with other theaters who had done this show, but theirs had either broken or been disassembled. The rental options out there were either too expensive or looked unrealistic. I decided I needed to build my own.
I needed a pretty thick barrel to fit an umbrella inside. It would look out-of-proportion if I just stuck it on a regular shotgun body. I scaled up the stock and fore-end to cut and shape out of oak.
I bought a chainsaw grinding disc for this project because I had always wanted to try one. It was amazing; it acted like a wood eraser. I just pointed it to the wood I didn’t need and it made it disappear. I will never attempt wood carving without one of these again.
The receiver would need to hold all the parts of the shotgun together and hide all the mechanisms inside of it I cut out several pieces of flat steel stock to weld a hollow container.
With just a welder, angle grinder, and belt sander, I was able to fabricate a decent looking receiver.
I took an existing umbrella from stock which had its own spring mechanism to make it pop open. I cut off the handle but left the hollow shaft in place. I welded a steel rod to the shotgun that the umbrella could sleeve onto and travel back and forth. To minimize binding, I put a bit of UHMW rod on the end of the umbrella that was slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the copper tube I was using for the barrel. I used copper tube because it was the most rigid tube I could find with the thinnest walls.
I drew up a full scale trigger mechanism in cardstock to figure out what would fit within what I had built. It was just two pieces: a trigger that rotated on a pin, and a long lever with a latch on the end that held the umbrella against a spring until the trigger was pulled. I traced the pieces to steel and cut them out. I slipped a small piece of spring into the fore-end to return the trigger after it is pulled. I slid a long spring over the metal rod in the barrel to actually propel the umbrella after the trigger is pulled.
I painted the barrel to match the receiver and stained the wood pieces darker before sealing them. I coated all the static pieces of interior and exterior steel with shellac to prevent rust. Any pieces of steel which moved against another part was coated with dry lube. I built the gun for easy disassembly in case any future users needed to fix or replace a part.
I have a video which shows all the parts as they are assembled. You can see the various inner mechanisms in more detail if you are interested in how it all works, and if you wanted to see it actually fire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever seen the play Buyer and Cellar, you know that a key scene revolves around the description of “Fifi”, an antique bubble blowing automaton. An automaton is a mechanical device that repeats a series of predetermined motions; think of a wind-up toy, or a cuckoo clock. They were really in vogue in the 16th through 18th centuries, when clock makers made all sorts of intricate moving automata in the shape of humans and animals playing out various whimsical scenes.
Most productions of Buyer and Cellar imply the existence of Fifi. The whole set is usually quite minimal, and the props are limited to a chaise and a book. For Triad Stage’s production, the director wanted to know if we could actually have a doll that dipped a wand into soap and blew bubbles out of it. She felt the audience, like herself, may not know what an automaton was, and this pivotal scene would be confusing without some visual reference.
I told the team it would be no problem to make an automated doll that moved by itself, and then I feverishly racked my brain as to how I was going to pull this off. I have been reading The Automata Blog for years, so I had a good mental catalog of potential solutions (anyone interested in automata should definitely dig through the archives on that site).
I put together a video that describes how the final mechanisms work and that show the doll in motion.
My apprentice, Shay, started off by sculpting the head and arms. The head was foam, while the arms were made of wire wrapped in tape. Everything was coated in Apoxie Sculpt. She mounted them to a “birdhouse” which would contain the mechanism.
As explained in the video, all the movement was driven by a single crank shaft run by a motor. We prototyped the crank shaft with some bent wire, then transferred the measurements to a full scale drawing which I used to fabricate a more robust shaft from steel.
I used nylon spacers which were free to spin around the pieces of quarter-inch rod on the crankshaft. I cut a small groove around the center of the spacers to keep the string from slipping side to side. Everything was welded together to make a single piece.
I began by using string to connect the crank shaft to the arms and head. It would frequently get caught by the spinning crank shaft, causing Fifi to stop working. I tried a number of ways to prevent the string from wandering far enough to the side to get caught, but nothing worked one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to use stiff wire, but the distance between the shaft and the doll’s arm changed as it spun, so I needed the string’s ability to go slack. Eventually, I realized I could use a piece of wire that was long enough to clear the crank shaft, and then attach it to a piece of string for the rest of the distance to the arm.
The motor was a basic hobby motor with an attached gear box that slowed it down to 12 revolutions per minute. The crank shaft was not perfectly straight, so the motor was mounted loosely, allowing it to “float” a little bit. The pneumatic portion of the prop is explained in the video; Fifi was attached to an air compressor backstage, with tubing running up her arm and aimed at the bubble wand. A solenoid valve was triggered by the crank shaft whenever her arm was raised, causing air to rush out for a brief moment.
Though Fifi had a lot of challenges, once we got her working, she worked pretty flawlessly throughout the entire run.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies