Tag Archives: recipe

Scenic Dope and Monster Mud

Scenic dope is a general term for a number of materials used for a number of techniques. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a ceiling paint known as calcimine was popular. It was essentially whiting mixed with animal glue and a bit of water. Whiting is powdered and washed white chalk, aka calcium carbonate. Set builders used it to prime flats for painting, or a thicker form to adhere muslin to flats. Along the way, it evolved into recipes and formulations which could be used for all sorts of texturing.

If you add linseed oil to whiting, you can make a simple caulk. If you mix whiting with casein (milk protein used as a binder in casein paint) and water (and borax if you want anti-fungal qualities) you can also make a simple joint compound. With the introduction of latex paint (really, acrylic paint, as it contains no actual latex), we now have the modern equivalents for the building blocks of scenic dope.

As it is a material which undergoes frequent experimentation and improvisation, no set recipe exists. A good place to begin your own experimenting is with a gallon of latex paint, 2–5 tubes of painter’s latex caulk, and 1–2 cups of joint compound. The thinner recipes (more paint, less caulk and joint compound) make good coatings for foam, while the thicker recipes (some push the ratio to equal parts paint and joint compound) can hold some heavy texture as it dries, almost to the point of being sculpt-able.

Note that the recipe calls for latex caulk and not silicone caulk. Silicone caulk is more common and easier to find in hardware and home improvement stores, but silicone does not bond with anything, which makes it impossible to mix into a recipe.

For a more flexible recipe, you can mix joint compound with glue (animal, or PVA). This is especially helpful when you are coating surfaces that have a bit of “give”. The harder dope recipes may crack under strain, whereas this one will bend.

You can add any number of additives to your recipe. Water putty and plaster allows it to dry harder but more brittle. Paper pulp really thickens the mix, and it can become almost like a thin clay, which is great for sculpting bark or rough stone on your surfaces. Sand can be added for a, well, sandy surface. Really, if you want a chunky texture, you can add almost anything chunky that you have laying around. In addition to mixing materials like sand into the mix, you can also sprinkle or dust it onto the surface while the dope is still wet. This will give it a coating, or crust, that you may find to your liking.

Theatrical suppliers make any number of products which mimic scenic dope, each with slightly different properties, but formulated to give consistent results. Rosco’s Foamcoat and Sculptural Arts’ Sculpt or Coat are just a few.

Because the recipe consists of latex paint and joint compound, both of which are water soluble, the resulting surface needs to be water-proofed if it will be outside or around moisture.

The properties of dope are similar to the wheatpaste used in papier-mache, and it is frequently used in conjunction with fabric. Strips of fabric are coated with dope and lain over a surface to create textures.

“Monster mud” is a term which began to appear in the late twentieth century to describe a mixture used frequently in the haunted house industry. You mix five gallons of joint compound with one gallon of latex paint. You can then submerge cloth—a large weave like burlap works best, though clothing or other fabric works as well—into the mixture, squeeze the excess mud out, and shape it. You may also spread the mud on straight to add texture. It may take up to several days to dry, but it becomes rock-hard (though not water-proof). It’s a clever way to mimic sculpted fabric, though any kind of flowing surface lends itself to this technique.


Every winter, many performing arts institutions put on some kind of winter or holiday show. From a traditional Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker Suite, to the more modern A Christmas Story and The Santaland Diaries, many of these shows involve snow to some extant. Now, depending on the context of the snow and the traditions of the theater you work at, snow can be the responsibility of one or more departments: props, scenery, sometimes even lighting. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the many ways snow is recreated, whether or not it ends up being the prop department’s responsibility.

For the 1936 Broadway production of Ethan Frome, scenic designer Jo Mielziner was very specific about the properties of the snow which covered most of the stage. It fell to Joe Lynn, the property master, to come up with a recipe. After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes. As Mielziner himelf explains:

The cornmeal provided the right consistency, the quartz gave the crunching sound and the mica simulated the sparkling surface of snow in moonlight.

(from Designing for the theatre: a memoir and a portfolio, by Jo Mielziner; Atheneum, 1965, pg. 90)

Joe Lynn also added some rat poison to the mix to keep vermin away, which is probably not the safest solution available to today’s theatres. Also, using particles and powders as a floor covering—this is true of sand as well—can trigger issues with your fire marshal and even Actor’s Equity; you want to make sure you involve them as soon as possible so that you don’t end up using something which is not allowed.

For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.

Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.

If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snow flakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.

A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snow flakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.

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.

A bar for Torture

I recently finished building props for Why Torture is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them, at the Public Theatre. It’s the world premiere and is written by Christopher Durang.

A bar for Why Torture is Wrong...
A bar for Why Torture is Wrong...

One of the more complicated and interesting pieces I had to make was this bar. The top is kidney-shaped, and the whole base has an elliptical footprint.

Interior structure of the bar
Interior structure of the bar

You can get a better picture of the overall shape of the piece in the picture above. You can also see how I framed it out.

A closeup of the strips which run the length of the bar
A closeup of the strips which run the length of the bar

Above is a closeup of one of the three strips which run across the center of the bar. They stuck out an inch and a half, so I built up strips of wiggle-wood and lauan. I used lauan because it was cheaper than the wiggle-wood, and the front of the bar had a gentle enough curve for the lauan to handle.

If you’ve ever worked with wiggle-wood, you know that it leaves a rough surface. There are any number of ways to make it smooth, from covering it with some kind of laminate or veneer to coating it with some kind of filler. For this piece, Jay, the prop master, told me an easy recipe for a coating. I mixed about 4 parts of joint compound to about 1 part white glue, and added a touch of water until I got an easily spreadable consistency that wouldn’t drip or run. Joint compound can be sanded very smooth, and is easy to work with, but it tends to crack and flake off over time. The addition of the glue helps give it enough flexibility to keep that from happening.