Tag Archives: How-to

Coating Foam

My wife and I are currently working on a project for a new show which is essentially a Styrofoam sculpture. It got me thinking about the various ways to treat and coat foam.

You need to coat foam with something. If you tried to paint raw foam, it will eat all the paint up. If you tried to use anything with a solvent, such as spray paint, it will dissolve the foam. Finally, uncoated foam is just too fragile for many uses, especially in theatre.

Coating the foam with Gesso or joint compound will smooth it out and give it a paintable surface. If you mix the joint compound with glue, it will make give it a little more flexibility, as joint compound tends to crack and flake off. Though your Styrofoam will look nice with these kinds of coatings, they will still be fairly fragile.

At the display company I’ve worked at in the past, we made a lot of sculpted pieces out of foam. For the most part, we used Rosco Foamcoat on top of our pieces. Foamcoat goes on a little like joint compound, and creates a hard but flexible coating. It can be sanded and painted, but it doesn’t fall apart like joint compound. It gives a good amount of protection, though it will still dent if you hit it or drop it.

Another product we use at the display company is Aqua Resin. This takes a lot more time, but you are left with a very hard and very smooth surface.

You can use other types of resin on Styrofoam. Polyester resins will eat through the foam, but epoxy resins will give you a very hard, very smooth surface. These are normally used in conjunction with fiberglass or other composite fibers. You can use fiberglass or carbon fiber over foam to give it a lot of strength; this is how some surfboards and skateboards are made. At this point though, are you making a Styrofoam prop, or are you just using it as a form for the fiberglass?

For the project we’re currently working on, we’ve decided on the following compromise; we are going to cover the foam in muslin strips soaked in glue. After this dries, it will create a hard outer shell which can be painted. With a fibrous coating, the piece will resist cracking or crumbling. We will then coat the piece in Foamcoat to smooth it out and hide the texture of the muslin. Finally, we will cover the whole thing in epoxy resin to make it smooth, waterproof, and even stronger. I did a few tests, and this gave the best result for our timeframe and budget.

Finding out this kind of information online can be difficult, so most of what I’ve written here is based on my experience, experimentation, and some research. If anyone else out there ever sculpts in foam, I’d love to hear how you finish it off.

How to Make Stage Blood

Asking how to make fake blood is kind of like asking how to make food. Sometimes you need a light breakfast, sometimes a heavy dinner. You need to ask yourself what the blood needs to do. While trying out new recipes can be fun, it is not terribly useful unless you know what you are trying to achieve. So when dealing with making stage blood, I will first look at the preparation you must do, than introduce some of the basic chemistry which can lead to some blood recipes for you to try.


The three aspects of preparation are research, planning, and experimentation. You need to research what the effect will look like. Even if you are not going for a realistic effect, you want a reference image or images which you’ve shared with the director and the rest of the production team so you are all on the same page. The last thing you want is to show the director the results of your hard work and have her go, “That’s not what I was picturing at all.”

Planning is also vital. There are hundreds of blood recipes with countless variations, all designed for specific needs. What does your blood need to do? Does it get in the actor’s mouth? Does it need to be washed out of the costumes? Does it run freely or pool up into puddles? Is it just a liquid or does it have chunks in it? If you can plan out what the blood needs to do, you may find that you can use different recipes for different effects, or fake some parts with less expensive paint or dye. Do a break down of all the effects in the show and determine what each needs to do individually.

The final step is to experiment. No matter how great your blood recipe is, there are just too many variables in a show to not test out a number of options. The stage lights will affect the color of your blood; it may look great in the shop, only to appear purple once on stage. The color of the costumes or set may also require some tweaking to the blood’s color. As with any prop, you often want to present your director with a number of options to choose from.


There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for stage blood. Many theatres and prop people have developed their own formulas and keep their secrets jealously guarded. There are a number of recipes you can find to use as a starting point. With a bit of knowledge of chemistry, you are armed with a repertoire of techniques which can be expanded as you gain more experience.

Essentially what you need is a thick, gooey base with a colorant added. The most basic recipe is corn syrup (Karo Syrup in the USA, or Golden Syrup in the UK) and red food coloring. You can add a bit of blue or even green food coloring to refine the color. This recipe is edible, which is good if the blood is used around an actor’s mouth, but since it is organic, it can attract insects and vermin, and will rot after a time. It is also sticky, messy, and will stain clothes and skin.

If you want to avoid stains, you will need to add some form of soap to the blood mixture. This will help limit the colorant from attaching to the fibers of the clothing. Liquid color-safe bleach or dish soap work well. You can use a “no-tears” baby shampoo if the blood has the possibility of getting near anyone’s eyes. You can experiment with colored soaps too. Green or blue dish soap, or Simple Green, can be used to tint the red food coloring. It is essential to work with your costume department whenever the blood is coming into contact with costumes. They can scotch guard the areas that will receive blood beforehand. They can also throw the costume into a bath of cold water with lots of stain remover as soon as it gets off stage. You may still need two or three backup costumes. The other problem with any soap-based blood is that it will lather if you rub it too much.

If you want to limit the potential for staining further, you need to look at your colorant. Different brands and types of food coloring have different staining potentials. As an alternative, you can substitute children’s non-toxic poster paint, or other washable art products.

Powdered gelatin, instant pudding, or cocoa powder can be used as thickening agents in lieu of or in addition to corn syrup. Corn starch or flour will also thicken your mix. Creamy peanut butter will both thicken and darken your mix. Interestingly, the protein in the peanut butter makes it easier to wash out.

If you want your blood to congeal or clot during the scene, there are a number of ways to do that. The instant pudding mentioned above will coagulate like real blood. KY jelly will make it clot after a period of time as well. If you thin the blood with cheap vodka or other alcohol-based products, it will congeal over time. A little unflavored gelatin will turn your blood into scabs.

A touch of mineral oil will give it some sheen and help catch the lights. Adding glycerin on top will also give it a fresh and shiny appearance and improve the surface tension.

Further Reading

There is a lot more reading to be found across the internet, with recipes utilizing any number of ingredients for various effects. As long as you do your homework beforehand, you should have no problem coming up with the right recipe for your effect.

Monday Link-O-Rama

I didn’t do a Friday link-o-rama, so here’s one for Monday. Hopefully I will be back to writing more better articles once we get out of tech for Bacchae.

  • Flower Power – The McCarter Theatre has to clean the uncleanable. Read about their solution.
  • Theatre on a Shoestring – A number of how-to articles on prop making, such as fake cigars, hefty chain, and sugar glass.
  • Model-Making Techniques – David Neat discusses tips and techniques for making scene design models. A lot of this info is also great for prop making.
  • Master of the Movie Prop – An interview with Kevin Hughes, the prop master for films such as Borat, Freddy Got Fingered and Boogie Nights.

Taking photographs of your work

If you really want your portfolio to shine, you need good photographs of your props. Taking photographs during a rehearsal or show is another topic entirely; in this article, I’ll be talking about taking photographs either in the shop or backstage.

Blurry and Grainy Pictures

The biggest problem and complaint about bad portfolio pictures are blurry and grainy photographs. Though caused by different things, they are both symptoms of not enough light.

Your camera determines the correct exposure in three ways: shutter speed, aperture, and film or chip sensitivity. With a fast shutter speed, moving objects are frozen in place. As the shutter speed slows down, moving objects become blurred in the photograph. At a slow enough shutter speed, the slight shaking of your hands as you hold the camera will blur the entire picture.

If your pictures are blurry, you need to steady the camera. A tripod is the usual solution. Expensive tripods are made for heavier cameras and able to withstand wind and rain. For smaller cameras used indoors, almost any tripod will help steady your pictures. You can even get table-top tripods, or funky ones like this: Continue reading Taking photographs of your work

How to make a wooden ratchet

I published my first Instructable. It’s for a wooden ratchet noise maker I made for the upcoming production of Twelfth Night at the Public Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park.”

Here is the research image I was given to work from. The tutorial follows below. Don’t worry, it’s not a movie; sound isn’t going to start blaring if you push “play”.

Wooden Ratchet Noise MakerMore DIY How To Projects

Instructables just began allowing you to embed your projects in other websites. You can look at the whole thing above. Personally, I think it looks weird, but you can follow the link to the actual page for the best experience. Once there, you can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

If you’ve never been to Instructables before, now’s a great time to check it out. If you’ve never made an Instructable before, I highly recommend it; it’s such a great and intuitive way to share tutorials. Finally, if you’ve made an Instructable you think would be of interest to props people, let me know and I’ll share it on this blog.