Tag Archives: knife

No Retractable Blades

What is a retractable knife? We have all seen them at novelty shops or with Halloween costumes. When you push the blade against a surface, it slides up into the handle. When you pull it back, a spring inside forces the blade back out of the handle. With enough speed, it appears that the knife blade is plunging into your body as someone stabs you.

The illusion they create gives many a director the idea to use them onstage in a fight scene. However, they are completely unsafe. Most larger theaters already ban them outright, but many smaller and temporary performing spaces are unaware of how these seemingly innocuous toys become deadly during a stage fight.

If the blade were to press ever so slightly against the opening in the handle, it will bind with enough pressure that the blade will not retract. When that happens, your actor is suddenly plunging a real knife into another actor with enough force to puncture their skin and even their organs. Even the knives with plastic blades will cause fatal damage.

This is an inevitable part of their design; you cannot fabricate a retractable dagger that does not bind, nor can you adapt an existing knife to avoid this problem.

In 1990 at Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, UK, Dr. Annabel Joyce used a plastic retractable knife while playing Lady Macduff. It failed to retract and she had to go to the hospital. She fortunately recovered.

In 1998, a production of I Pagliacci in Milwaukee saw David Rendall accidentally stab Kimm Julian with a knife that failed to retract. This happened during a day of rehearsal where they had already practiced the scene a dozen times, and were actually running the fight in slow motion with the fight director. Kimm did not realize he had been stabbed at first, but collapsed three or four minutes later. He was rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery and eventually recovered, though he had to be replaced for the remainder of the show’s run.

Also in 1998, Michael McElhatton was stabbed with a retractable during a performance. Before his famed role in Game of Thrones, he was performing in Twenty Grand at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin. His character was tied to a chair and stabbed multiple times by two other actors. He wore a padded vest for protection, and the whole scene was carefully choreographed by a fight director. The show ends with his death, and the actors untied him for curtain call. When he came off, he told one of the actors, “Ow, you really punched me with that last one.” He went on stage for a second bow, then returned to the wing to tell the stage manager, “I think he winded me. I don’t feel well.” He ran out for a third curtain call, then collapsed when he returned to the wings. The blade had jammed and missed the padding, plunging into his chest and missing his heart by an inch.

These are just some of the stories that have made it into the news. Countless other injuries are swept under the rug. You can see why most theaters ban retractable knives. Rick from “Weapons of Choice” even states that insurance carriers will not cover injury claims for a show in which a retractable is used. Even if the injury has nothing to do with the knife, the knife’s mere presence is proof of an unsafe work environment. He recommends destroying any retractable knife, plastic or metal, that you find in your stock.

The University of Michigan recently banned the use of them in performances after their local OSHA representative researched their inherent danger. They also consulted with Monona Rossol, the President of Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety, Inc., who agreed that retractable blades should be banned at schools of all levels. Perhaps the only type that could conceivably be safe is one with a flexible blade, like rubber, so when the mechanism fails, the blade can bend rather than plunge directly into your lung.

So ban and destroy your retractable knives.

Video: Blood Knife

The companion videos for The Prop Effects Guidebook just keep on coming. This week I demonstrate how to build the most basic type of blood knife you can. A blood knife is a specially-prepared knife that administers blood as it “cuts” an actor.

Blood knife

I will be releasing more of these companion videos as we draw closer to the book’s release. You can watch all of them on YouTube.

The Prop Effects Guidebook is available for pre-order now at most major retailers.

A Capital Idea

Last week I got a call from Triad Stage, a theatre over in Greensboro, NC, to do some carving for the scene shop. I had done some foam carving in the props shop last autumn, and when another project came up, they thought of me.

Layout on the blank
Layout on the blank

They already had a blank cut to size when I arrived at the shop. This blank was cut by the foam manufacturer, and was made of two pieces glued together (it looked like they used a 2-part polyurethane foam, or even just Gorilla Glue as the adhesive). This helped immensely in getting me started, since the piece was already symmetrical and scaled to the size they wanted. I started by dividing the piece into equal pie shapes and transferring the design from the research onto the foam.

Beginning the carving
Beginning the carving

The foam they gave me was a 3 lb EPS foam, which was a lot denser than anything I had ever used before. Basically, EPS foam comes in a variety of densities, with 1 lb, 2 lb and 3 lb being the most common. The numbers come from the weight of one cubic foot of foam. So 3lb foam has three times as much polystyrene packed into the same area as 1 lb foam. Of course, EPS is the beaded foam, so it is still trickier to get a smooth surface than it is with either blue or pink foam, but those are not readily available in large blocks like this.

Adding details
Adding details

The designs on this style of classical capital are very symmetrical and repetitive, so I really only had to draw out one half of one side, and then just trace and transfer it to the other seven halves. I carved the whole thing mainly with my snap-blade knife, surform, sandpaper, and a big ol’ half-round bastard rasp. I broke out a router a couple of times to clear out some of the deep pockets; the router also helped me cut to a consistent depth around the whole piece.


Since the capital was being placed on a column high above the set and was not going to move or be handled during the show, I opted for a simple coating of joint compound to keep the cost and time down. I basically applied just enough to give it a smooth coating and a nicer surface for paint.

Finished capital
Finished capital

The design on this capital was greatly simplified to allow it to be carved in about half a week. Because it was going to be painted black and be placed high above the set in the shadows, it just needed to hit the high points of the shape so the audience would go “oh, there’s a fancy thing up there.” Or at least, that’s what the audience in my head says after the show.



Monday Link-o-Rama

Welcome to the first full work week of September! I’ve been away all weekend, so enjoy these articles and sites:

The Art of Manliness has a nifty guide on sharpening your edged tools. It deals mainly with knives and axes, but it covers a lot of the basics.

Once you’re finished sharpening your tools, you can find out why your teenager can’t use a hammer. The decline of shop and industrial arts classes are leaving even the most basic of manual jobs with a dearth of skilled young workers.

Air and Space Magazine has a nice little gallery of Vietnam War—era Zippo lighters.

I recently came across The Clubhouse, an online community for model-builders, sculptors, and collectors. It seems to be a good resource for help and information on working with plastics and resins, as well as painting and weathering.