One of my recent projects was a circus platform (though its more of a stool). It’s a very simple-looking shape, but it’s a little tricky to pull off. Think of the bottom half of a cone and that is what I had to build.
I started off making the structure for the platform. It had two circles of plywood, joined by a few lengths of plywood cut at a taper. The circles also had their edgers beveled to match the angles of the taper.
Adding the wiggle wood skin was one of the tricky parts. With a tapered shape like this, you can’t just wrap the wiggle wood straight around it. It actually requires a radiating arc shape like in the photograph above. I only rough cut the shape above, leaving a bit of extra all around that I can trim off once it is attached.
The top was easy to trim, as it wanted to be flush to the plywood circle seat. The bottom was a different matter; it needed to extend past the bottom circle, since it was getting castered, and the wiggle wood would hide the casters. I set up a horizontal routing jig so I could cut the wiggle wood to a consistent height all around its circumference.
I had cut four wholes in the bottom of the stool, and now that it was time to attach the casters, I had access to get my hand inside and bolt them on. That’s planning ahead!
And that’s my circus platform! The photo above already has some paint on it, though the final prop will have much more.
It is a little over a week since Elon University’s Wild Party closed, so I thought I would share some of the props I built while working as the props master on it. First is the sleek Art Deco bar. This production featured a lot of dancing and movement (in fact, the show was more of a dance piece with singing than a traditional musical) and the bar was key in a lot of the dancing. Actors jumped up and down off of it constantly and danced on top of it. Needless to say, it had to be sturdy.
The other hurdle was that I only had a bout a day to build the bar to a point that they could use it in rehearsal; it did not have to be finished, just usable. The bar had a sort of boomerang or banana shape to it. I knew it would take awhile to layout the shape, not to mention all the pieces I would need to cut that followed the shape but were inset or offset by varying amounts. Since the scenic designer, Natalie Taylor Hart, already had the footprint of the bar drafted in CAD, we decided to CNC these pieces and save some time.
The top was two layers of plywood. We were putting lights in the bar that would shine upward, so the top also had squares to hold three pieces of 3/4″ plexiglass; the squares on the top piece were large enough to fit the plexiglass, while the squares on the bottom piece were a touch smaller to create a lip for the plexiglass to sit on.
I also cut the footrest, a piece for a shelf in the middle, and some formers to nail the wiggle wood to. This pile of pieces would have taken awhile to draw and cut by hand, but with CAD, Natalie just had to copy the same shape over and over again, insetting the front curve by whatever measurement I gave. With this pile of pieces, I just had to cut a bunch of formers and uprights to connect them all together.
I decided I wanted some supports to run unbroken from the top to the bottom of the bar for strength, which meant I had to cut some notches and holes in the plywood that they could run through. If I had more time to figure the whole thing out ahead of time, I would have drawn these into the CAD. Since the pieces were already cut, I needed to measure and cut them by hand. See, even with fancy fabrication machines, you still need a solid grasp of traditional tools to build things.
I built the bar up one level at a time, marking carefully to keep the whole thing square and straight. I positioned the supports so they were nearly above the support below them; they were offset just a bit so I would be able to drive a nail in.
The supports along the front of the bar did double duty as formers, providing a nailing surface for the wiggle wood I would add later. I tried to keep the back as open as possible so it could be used as shelving to store all the props; the set was fairly open and skeletal, so the bar served as a place for a lot of the hand props to appear and disappear. The diagonal braces in the photograph above are just to keep the bar sturdy as they use it in rehearsal. Once the wiggle wood was added, I removed them, because the wiggle wood acted as one large piece of diagonal bracing.
I finished the bar onstage in between rehearsals. The curve was longer than eight feet, so I could not cover it with just one piece of wiggle wood. The center is relatively flat, so I placed a small piece directly in the center; I have found it easier to fill and sand seams between wiggle wood when they are on flat areas. The footrest also got a small strip of wiggle wood after the bar was secured to the wagon underneath it. All the faces got a thin coat of joint compound and a light sanding, and then it was on to painting.
You can see the bar is a bit rough around the edges in the photograph above since I did not have time to take a picture until after strike. The Art Deco design painted on the front was a great touch added by Natalie and her crew. As she also pointed out, despite all the climbing and dancing done on this bar, she never saw it sag or wobble.
We just closed and struck Cloud 9 here at Elon University. I was the prop master on the show and built a lot of the pieces. One of the fun (and funny) props I constructed was a grand Victorian-era wedding cake. It was meant to be a bit over-the-top, with a grand appearance at the end of Act One when the hastily-arranged wedding occurs. Part of the visual humor came from the cake toppers; the scenic designer (Natalie Taylor Hart) wanted the groom to be a detailed representation of a man striding atop of a Royal Orb, while the bride would be a much smaller and crudely-made figurine stuck in the cake as an afterthought (the play, for those unfamiliar, deals with gender politics in various degrees).
To make a sculpted figurine of the groom, I started off with bending a wire armature into the pose I wanted. This also let me establish the proportions of the limbs. It wasn’t anything fancy; I cut up a wire hanger and held it in place with plumber’s putty. Plumber’s putty is a type of epoxy putty which is soft and shape-able when you first mix it together, and becomes rock hard after a few minutes. I liked it on this project because I could build up the sculpture bit by bit, allowing the parts to become hard as I worked on other things. I could return to the sculpture later and add more bits without worrying about smooshing the parts I already made. It also did not need to be fired or coated to finish it. The putty I used was left over from another show, so I did not have to spend any more money on a show with a tight budget.
In the last frame of the picture above, you can see I added some clothes. The putty is not very good for getting fine details; you can machine and carve it after it has hardened, but I wanted a quicker way to get some semi-realistic clothing texture on top. I took muslin and soaked it in glue and water, than manipulated it over top until it “draped” like a shirt and pants. After the glue dried, it retained its shape.
The rest of the cake was pretty straightforward. The bottom base is a strip of wiggle wood wrapped around plywood formers, while the top is a solid chunk of white bead foam coated in joint compound. I used painter’s caulk for the icing details. Normally you want to use acrylic caulk rather than silicone caulk, because silicone caulk does not take paint. However, I found some newer stuff which is a mix of acrylic and silicone; the acrylic makes it paint-able, while the silicone keeps it a bit flexible and lets it dry a lot faster. I bought a few decorative cake icing tips, and just attached them to the end of the caulk tube so it would come out all fancy.
A few years ago, I was working on a show which had scenes inside a Starbucks. In the script, the characters talked about being in a Starbucks. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, Starbucks did not give permission for any of the props or scenery to show the Starbucks name or logo. I had to make letters for the sign, and it was decided that in some scenes, the sign would be far stage right and only the “ucks” would be visible, while in other scenes, the sign would be far stage left showing only the “Sta”.
Luckily, there is a Starbucks only a block away from the props shop. There is also one three blocks away. Unfortunately, the one that was two blocks away closed down last year. I blame all these independent coffee shops moving in the neighborhood for putting a number of Starbucks out of business. The point of all of this is that I was close to reference images for this prop.
I had the letters blown up to full scale in the computer and printed them out, using this as a template on lauan. As you can see in the photograph above, I added little wooden blocks on the back to give the sides something to attach to. As I write this, I wonder why I didn’t just cut the letters out of a thicker material, like three-quarter plywood. I guess it goes to show that you can always find a better way to build a prop in hindsight. Nonetheless, this method must have made sense for some reason at the time.
I cut the straight sides out of quarter-inch lauan (which is actually 3/16″ thick), while the curved sides were what we call “wiggle-wood”. I should mention that some of the work was divided up with the other artisans in the shop at the time, such as Michael Krikorian.
This project had one final hurdle. The interior loops of the “S” were too tight of a curve for the wiggle-wood to bend. I ended up laminating several sheets of cardboard together to match the thickness of the other sides. Lots of glue and lots of clamps kept all of this together.
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.
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.
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.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies