Tag Archives: software

CNC Cast Iron Park Bench

Yes, I built this exact same cast iron park bench seven years ago. I even used the same research image you see in the link. I couldn’t build it the same way, though. The first time around, I used a lot of found pieces and details which I did not possess this time. I also needed to build three matching benches, which warranted a different approach then building a single one. I was building and buying all the props for Elon University’s production of Cloud 9, and the whole second act takes place in an English park; the director was keen on basing it off of Kensington Park. We decided to cut and carve the ends on the scene shop’s CNC router.

Rehearsal bench
Rehearsal bench

First I built the seats themselves with some stand-in legs and arms. I arranged some slats I had cut into a shape that was comfortable to sit in, than I screwed them together onto supports which kept the whole thing sturdy. The stand-in legs held it all up at the correct height so they could rehearse with the benches while we worked on the real ends. The idea was that when the real ends were ready, we would just unscrew the fake legs and pop on the real ones without having to take apart and reattach all the original slats. This also ensured that the curve and depth of the seat they were using in rehearsal would be exactly the same on the performance benches.

I began by making a line drawing of the bench in Inkscape, an open source vector graphics editor. I drew three layers; the first was a line showing where all the inside “holes” should be cut and the second showing where the outermost profile should be cut. The third layer showed where all the engraving would go. Rather than cutting all the way through the plywood, the router would only cut partway down, and it would use a v-shaped cutting bit (this technique is known as “v-carving”).

Primed bench end
Primed bench end

With the drawings finished, I gave them to the Natalie Hart, the scene designer (also my wife), to import into AutoCAD. I’m sure you can use the Inkscape drawings directly, but I have no experience with CNC file formats, and Natalie has already successfully used her CAD drawings on the CNC machine. The curves I drew in Inkscape turned into a series of many tiny lines in AutoCAD; this meant when they printed, they looked like many tiny lines rather than a single smooth curve. The curves she redrew in AutoCAD printed as smooth curves, however. I’m not sure I will use Inkscape again to draw for a CNC; if I find myself using the CNC a lot in the future, I may just spring for one of the less-expensive CAD drawing programs out there.

Closeup of CNC V-carving
Closeup of CNC V-carving

The final piece of the puzzle was getting the drawings into PartWorks, which is the CNC machine’s software that generates the instructions it uses in cutting. Our production manager/lighting designer Bill Webb happily took that on, since the machine is second-nature to him by now. In about three hours, we had all the pieces we needed for all three benches.

You can see in the photograph above that the CNC left a lot of cleanup work to do. I experimented with a number of abrasive flap and wire wheels to see if there was a quick way to sand the whole thing, but it ended up requiring hitting every nook and cranny with a Dremel tool.

Inside of bench end
Inside of bench end

We had taken measurements off the rehearsal benches and put them into AutoCAD so the CNC parts would line up exactly with the existing structure. For the inside of the end, we only printed the bottom half and attached it to the outside part. This gave a bit of a lip for the existing bench seat to rest on, while also providing a lot of surface area to screw into from the side. It also helped line up the bench seat to the ends at the correct height.

The faux-verdigris paint treatment was developed by one of the students (good job, Vee Bland!). Natalie and I painted them up, and I quickly assembled them so they would be ready mere minutes before photo call.

Finished bench
Finished bench

Naturally, I would have loved to play around with the software and the drawing to develop a more realistic carving, as well as spend some time learning to run the CNC machine on my own. The time frame on this production was just too intense; 15 days between the first day of rehearsal and opening night, and these benches were but a small part of all the props and furniture I had to build and acquire. Still, it gave me a good idea of how I can integrate CNC fabrication into my prop work when it can come in handy.

Stagebitz and Opera Australia

Stagebitz is an online project management software which first began beta-testing back in 2010. It’s designed to streamline all the tasks you handle when propping a show (or when working on scenery, costumes, etc.). They have recently secured a hefty investment that will allow the development of the software to really take off over the next few years; they will be at USITT this year where you can play around with the software and ask them any questions you wish.

But that’s not what this post is about. They have also brought on Mat Lawrence, who, up until now, was the head of props manufacturing at Opera Australia (whose home is the Sydney Opera House). The video below shows them working on the props and puppets for Julie Taymor’s 2012 Magic Flute. It looks like some pretty intense work there, and it is the kind of props shop many of us dream of working in.

TGI Links

This is from a few years ago, but it should provide a lengthy diversion: The New York Stagehand Glossary. It has a lot of terms which should be familiar to many of us, along with many I have heard for the first time (which is understandable, because I only did a bit of work as a stagehand while living in New York City).

Back in the old days, inventors who applied for a patent also had to submit a model of their invention. These models ranged from simple craft attempts to miniature marvels of engineering. The Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum houses one of the largest collections of these models, most dating from the 18th and 19th century. You can also view this set of photographs showing more of the models and exhibits.

Prosthesis by bjepson, on Flickr

Most props people are familiar with Mortite and floral putty for temporarily securing props to shelves, trays and tables. Sometimes, though, you want something a little stronger; you may even need something clear, such as when you need to secure crystal to a glass surface. Quakehold! has a whole bunch of products intended for securing your collectibles and valuables to shelves at home in case of earthquakes. Materials such as Museum Wax, Museum Putty and Museum Gel should keep your props from tipping or falling, and can be cleanly removed when the show is finished.

I like this tutorial for repairing broken plastic items with solvent welding with one caveat: you need to wear the proper gloves and skin protection as well as provide adequate ventilation and respiratory protection.

At the Props Summit a few weeks ago, they mentioned InFlow, an inventory management software program which can be used to catalog and track inventory. It was suggested that it might be useful for maintaining a photographic database of your stock. I haven’t used it, but the website offers a free download (you are limited to 100 items in your database) in case anyone was interested in trying it out.

Elevenses Links

Happy October 29th! Or for those of you on the Gregorian calendar, happy 11/11/11!

From Ryan Voss comes this fantastic-looking blood recipe based off of Crayola washable markers. They said they used it in a production where a character in a white wedding dress was covered in blood every night. (h/t to Propnomicon)

So Field & Stream, of all places, has a behind-the-scenes look at the props of AMC’s upcoming western show, Hell on Wheels. They focus a lot on the guns used and how they achieved the many gun effects in the show, but be sure to make it to the bottom of the article, where they have a video on building an entire train. That’s right, an historically-accurate steam locomotive made of styrofoam, wood and a fog machine. I thought my cannon was cool, but this is simply amazing.

You’ve seen some of this before on my blog, but Rosco shared a more in-depth look at how we made the portraits for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

This looks strange and promising. Autodesk has a free preview of their 123D Make software, which will turn a 3D computer file into something you can print out, cut apart, and assemble into a three-dimensional object. They have a video which does a better job explaining it. The software is only available for Mac, and it is only free until February, so if anyone with a Mac tries it out, let me know how it goes.

Mantle Studios has a very well-made tutorial on sculpting with wax. I’ve done a bit of wax sculpting, but nothing approaching the level of detail in this tutorial.

Top Prop News of 2010

With the end of 2010 fast approaching, I thought I would take a look back on some of the major news stories which have affected the world of props. The world of props is not really a fast-changing industry, so changes in the world are slow to impact all of us working in props. Still, a few stories this year have enough of an impact to be worth mentioning here.

SPAM website relaunches – The Society of Properties Artisan Managers is the largest organization of props masters and directors in the United States, with members from most of the major regional and educational theatres and operas. In the past, information about them or how to contact them seemed shrouded in mystery (though not on purpose). That changed in March with the launching of a new website, www.propmasters.org, which is more geared to props people seeking information on them and how they can get involved.

StageBitz software enters beta testing – This story just squeezed into this past year, and I don’t have much to report on it. StageBitz is a new (and possibly the first) online tool for professional props management. We’ve seen several minor attempts at software aimed toward the props master, though many of us end up adapting more general software, such as Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, or Google Docs for our needs. I’ll be beta-testing StageBitz through next March, and letting you all know how it is.

E-cigarettes – E-cigarettes continue to be in the news. As one of the few viable alternatives for on-stage cigarettes in many venues, prop masters and directors should be interested in the current legal state of using them. This past year, I summarized their current situation, which began with a July, 2009, report by the FDA on the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes. They were attempting to classify them as a drug-delivery device, which would allow them to enact a ban and prevent their importation, as opposed to a tobacco product, which would be regulated similarly to regular cigarettes (and not banned). Last January, the FDA attempted to block the shipment of e-cigarettes into the US, but a federal judge ruled against it. In September, they again attempted to classify e-cigarettes as a drug-delivery device rather than a tobacco product; a drug-delivery device, such as nicotine patches or gum, needs to be “proven safe and effective”, and so e-cigarettes can be effectively banned unless they underwent rigorous (and costly) testing to prove their efficacy as a stop-smoking aid. As a tobacco product, they are subject to far less regulation (a major problem is that many e-cigarette manufacturers insist on marketing their products as “safe alternatives to smoking” and helpful in quitting cigarettes, yet argue in court that they are merely recreational tobacco products. They’re trying to have it both ways). The court stopped the FDA from banning e-cigarettes. Finally, this past December, an appellate court withheld this ruling, and as of the end of this year, e-cigarettes remain legal in the US and most likely will be regulated as a tobacco product.
What’s most frustrating in all of this is that, as a prop, we are only interested in the zero-nicotine versions of e-cigarettes. In other words, we don’t need either a drug-delivery device or a tobacco product; what we want is something more akin to a mini–theatrical fogger.

Donmar Warehouse actor shot in face – David Birrell, an actor in a West End production of Sondheim’s Passion, was injured in his eye when a blank-firing replica flintlock rifle misfired, and taken to the hospital. He nearly lost his eye. This incident reinforced to prop masters and directors everywhere that when it comes to blank-firing weapons onstage, you can never be too safe.

Original Stargate auctioned off – Now, props from television and movies are constantly being auctioned off, so I’ll admit this one is included in the list due to my own personal excitement. Still, it does have some more significance than your average prop auction. Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running American sci-fi series, and when it ended, they began auctioning off most of the props and scenery. This past September, the actual Stargate used on location (not the one used on set) came up for sale. It had been created for the pilot episode and was used throughout the entire ten-year run of the show.

Reoccurring prop newspaper – This wasn’t so much a 2010 “event” as it was a thrilling series of investigative journalism that broke this past June. Starting with a compilation of images from TV and film that showed characters reading the same newspaper, the following day, an article in Slashfilm expanded on this and went viral. A few days later, Slate Magazine had tracked down not only the source—the Earl Hays Press in California—but also the reason: getting clearance to use real newspapers takes time and money.

My list ends here. I’ve covered all of these stories on either this blog or on my Twitter, so if you follow each, you’ll always be up-to-date on news that affects you as a props person. I’m sure many other stories happened in 2010 which are relevant to the props practitioner, so I leave it up to you: what are your favorite events, tools, materials or anecdotes that came out of the past year?