Category Archives: How To

Upstairs, Downstairs

Every set I think I’ve ever played with for the last several years had stairs.  Let me just say this about stairs, I hate stairs.  I love how they look, I love the fact it breaks up a set and they give it a feel of realism but… I hate stairs.  Even when you don’t see them… you have to build them it seems.  Actors need to come in, out and down in every play and stairs weigh a ton and are hard to move.

Worse, every play seems to need some kind of grand stair case and for high schools and small sets, it’s a pain to try to accommodate them in the build because you can’t just go down to home depot or Lowes and buy curved stingers.  I guess maybe in some places you might, but for the most part … if they’re curved you have to custom build.  Custom build always means time, and or, money. 

So… how to deal with them.  I know for a lot of people this may seem to be a lot of obvious information, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to make curved stairs, or worse are intimidated by them.  Or others, like me, just hate having to build stairs – even if, like me, they love seeing them in a set when it’s built.  Okay, so I don’t ‘hate’ them, I’m a big fan.  I just don’t like having to be the guy building them.

The easiest way to build curved stairs is to start with a normal staircase build design, and work from there.  If you look at how they did the sets for this smaller scale production of Phantom of the Opera…  this is where they started…

And then they added the curve design…


Which works very well.  Now, a curved stair case is really nothing more than just cutting curved boards from plywood, and then attaching them to your stringers.  Normally, a stringer – the saw shaped boards which the steps are attached to, will be a straight board.  Naturally that’s not going to work on something that’s curved.

For that you need to create stairs without a stringer.  At least, not a standard stringer.  The easiest way is to build a supporting frame under curved sections of stairs.  You need to know where they’ll start, and where they’ll end and then curve 

So plan out your shape, and then work from there.  In the illustrations below (from David R. Whitney’s web blog on A Midsummer’s Night Dream production – you can see that the steps aren’t really curved.  If you look on the plans – they’re really made instead by instead of having rectangle shapes – a series of quadrilaterals – rectangles which are wider on one side, than the other. 

The runners – the treads of the steps, are cut on the ends to match your curve, and assembled by screwing into a frame.  As you can see, the stringers here are replaced by an infrastructure of supporting rectangle frames with upright support boards.  In the image below I’ve highlighted these with red lines the verticals – shown in blue, and horizontal supports – shown in green (this is just a side view – it does not show the connecting boards.  The actual view is somewhat of a rectangle with the step supported by a the horizontal boards).  As you build each step, the backing of the current step extends up past the horizontal support – which makes the front of the next step.


As you create each step, the vertical boards become not only the support for the tread (are of the step you step on) but also for the rise, by screwing them together this provides additional stability for the step and stairs as they tend to brace each other with each step added. 

Once assembled, the steps themselves may not be a perfect curve, and may actually have a series of straights angles.  If you can tack a piece of 1/8th or even 1/4 inch luan sheeting on them, this will curve to the general shape.  If you use a hot air gun on the luann while gluing and tacking to these you’ll find it curves easily.  It’s not completely necessary except on tight curves but it will help a lot on them.  Once you do this, you’ll find it will provide you with a very nice curved surface toward the audience any other small imperfections can be hidden with trim, the stair rail and the newel. 


Posted by on July 3, 2013 in How To



Bars and Selling the illusion …

I just did a bar for Cascadia Community College’s “A Peace In Our Time”, which was, a ton of fun and really easy.


Here’s the finished bar.  Pretty simple.  A 2 ft by 3 ft by 8 ft frame made out of 1×3’s, 1/4” luan and some trim.  For an authentic ‘bar’ we added table legs attached to hinges with a bit of elastic to them to give them a ‘pull back’ like actual taps, and then hid that behind a left over chunk of trim from the base.

As you can see it looks very nice once it’s stained, and it’s the stain and wood grain that give it the illusion that it’s actually more of a bar than it really is.  This is pretty painfully visible from the side which isn’t facing the audience. 

WP_000489When we built the bar, there was some concern about coverage – but since it’s placed on stage the way it is in the top photo, we really don’t need the weight or work that an extra side would bring.  What is needed is bracing.  Bracing, and some decent weight, allows the actors to lean on the bar without it rocking or falling over. 

The actors from there – also have to sell the fact that it’s a real bar by leaning on it from time to time, and pulling items from a small table placed under it which holds props.  image


The trim, can either be a crown moulding which is, generally more expensive but for small projects like this – where appearance is more important it’s a wise choice; or chair rail moulding. 

HomeDepot or Lowes, will have several styles to choose from.   imageYour upper bar trim, should be as ornate as you can pull off, and generally 3 1/2 to 4 inches in width.  Use a 2 1/2 to 3 inch baseboard across the bottom, which should be grooved, now you can go with plain but I don’t recommend it.  Grooved lines, will look better under the lights but it’s your call. 

Measuring down 4-5 inches from the bottom of the top trim piece, add a piece of half round moulding, or rope trim moulding, and then again up from the bottom a similar distance another bit of trim.

This provides the illusion that the bar is made in pieces and paneled as opposed to one big sheet of luan that you stapled on there.

Speaking of staples… let’s talk about them.  There’s a real love of them for speed and ease of use, but they tend to leave these very shiny backs visible.  So instead of staples consider using either paneling nails, or long brads.   Personally, I’m a brad lover.  They become almost invisible, and they pull out of the wood in some cases easier than staples when it comes to tear down.  Some people use brads available for staple guns, and these can be fine but they don’t have the grip often that a real brad does. 

The reason for the staple gun type brad popularity is largely due to the convenience of them.  Here’s a very cool (very cheap) tool everyone should have in their tool box.  You’ll probably not find it at the local home depot but they can order one for you.  It’s called a Brad Pusher.  Finish carpenters have used these for years and they’re invaluable for hanging pictures, or anything related to small nails that are hard to hold and nail into things. 

imageHere’s a link to various places you can order them online, and a picture of what they look like.  They range anywhere from $3 to $25 or so, and I got mine by ordering it at my local true value hardware store – I got 2 of them because I’m always giving one of them away to people once they see one in action.

Pretty simple, slide the brad into the tip, put it against the wood and push.  (Push hard for some woods, and occasionally you’ll need to grab a hammer and give it a tap or two.)

You’ll also find them called “Brad Drivers” or “Wire brad tool” depending on which catalog you’re looking at.  Trust me, once you use them on a project, you’ll keep one always in your tool box.  Nothing hides a nail or a brad better with wood.  And that’s the key to faking a solid object is – to look as real as possible.  Sure we can faux grain it to look almost like anything, but when your audience is going to be say… (as they were in this case) 15-20 feet away, you want the extra level of detail.  So real wood, actual stain.  That’s the key.  

The big thing is since we’ll be using real stain on the wood – we want to use real wood trim, using form molding with white that you can ‘faux stain’ will make it stand out.  So its detail, detail, detail – and the real wood really sells the look. 

Cut corners obviously with a miter saw and miter box if you don’t have a radial saw or chop saw for clean cuts.  Since there’s the ‘40 foot rule’ don’t worry too much about perfectly matching – at 40 feet, no one can see that you’re an 1/8th or a 1/16th off or there’s a small gap.  If it’s really bad, apply some inexpensive wood filler and then stain. 

The bottom of your bar, should have a small grooved baseboard, as I mentioned because of lighting.  Things near the floor of the stage – will tend to reflect the floor light, and also the heavy key light you’ll find on stages.  This means the lights coming in at a 30 to 50 degree angle vertically most likely – so it’ll wash out flat surfaces and those grooves will allow the baseboard to stand out.  Smooth baseboards, will just reflect the light so aside from where they jut out from the board they’ll tend to blend. 

Illusion dictates that you want people to think this is a large heavy object, and large heavy objects have baseboard trim – so make it noticeable but not too noticeable.  For this reason avoid using ornate trim on the base so grooved lines work well.  Add the corner round or rope trim, heck even faux panel by making them into rectangles so they look like paneled segments to break up larger bars or back rails and you should be good.

imageIf you really want to go the extra distance.  Pickup  a few corbels, like the imageone shown here.  Make an Angle Cut on the back of them so they and be screwed into the frame of the bar at a 45-50 degree angle. 

Or simply grab some 3/4 plywood, and cut out some “wrought iron’” frame shapes like this one.  Since it’s going to be black, you might get away with just painting it a flat black.  If you’re concerned about getting it closer on the detail level, grab some bondo and fill in the wood groves, and add a bit of shaping to the sides for them.  Once that’s done…

Attach a 2 1/2 to 3 inch PVC pipe to them, and paint it bronze or copper colored… or alternately, maybe wrap it in a length of copper or bronze/gold colored mylar wrapping from a party supply store.  Attach this to the corbels which are mounted just above the base board and you’ll have an instant bar foot rail.  (Make sure you remind the actors it’s a prop… and will not actually support their full weight.)

Details like trim and panels sell the illusion of a few pieces of thin wood being a very large, heavy bar. 

When all these elements come together, placement, stability and ‘selling the effect’ the audience is completely drawn into the effect.  People are extremely visual creatures, $15 worth of wood trim a bit of stain and a couple hours and you have a very solid illusion. 

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Posted by on June 13, 2013 in How To


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Rockin’ the Foam

I was looking up some info on making, buying and otherwise getting great looking corbels and pilasters (which I’ll be posting soon) and ran into these videos, which show some awesome things you can do in foam.

Now, for those (like me) who have all the sculpting skills of a rock – foam really seems intimidating.  The reality is it’s not, it just takes preparation, thought, patience, thought, patience, thought, patience… which probably is why a lot of us in high school theatre and small town theatre don’t use it as much as we should, and probably more importantly in the ways we should.

The fact is foam is cheap and it’s readily available and when it comes to making rock or stone it’s a great help.  A 4×8 sheet and a few minutes with a drill and a grinding wheel to sand in the shapes or grout lines – you paint and you’re ready.  For complex pieces it takes a bit more thought, but results are well worth it.

Really, a while back I was tasked with putting together a fountain for a set piece and we did it out of sheets of pink insulation foam we cut with saber saws and it yielded some very nice results.  If I knew then, what I know now… how to shape and sculpt with nothing but a few sanding blocks, some files and or a wire brush, well,  those results could have been really amazing.  In fact, I’m now going back in my head to reexamine any set pieces which require rock, trees, columns, any odd shape, in all new ways after seeing how after getting the basic cut out look accomplished it just takes a couple of extra very small steps to go much further.

A lot of designs I’d have had to not consider or price out a cost to have custom created, I’m now looking at – – large wall sconces, frescos, freizes, door and wall panels… now are something I’ll consider.image

Basically for foam – and you can get great results with the 3-4” 4×8 sheets you find at your local Lowes or Home depot, you just need the right glue, sanding blocks, a few files, a bit of paste (drywall compound, pulp paste, VSSD) to give it the texture you need and you can do amazing stuff you might ordinarily shy away from trying. 

The process with Foam sculpting is simple, you cut to shape, form and then form it some more.  There are a variety of types of foam – EPS – Expanded Polystyrene comes in a lot sizes and shapes and costs.  A very common form is, as I mentioned found and your local HomeDepot or Lowes – and you just cut your 4×8 sheets into the shapes you need – bond them with GreatStuff or Fabric/Plastic glues, cut shape and seal it or paint it.

One thing that will help with your look and costs is the sealer – if you’re using one other than just a good latex paint.  A lot of companies from Smooth-On to Rosco and Rosebrand have sealers.  Here’s a tip that’s cost effective.  VSSD. 

What’s VSSD??   VSSD, or Van’s Super Secret Dope as found in the Control Booth Forums (if you don’t know what those are… you’re missing out – here’s a link) .  This miracle of set building has about 101 uses for sets – and can save you a lot of cash as opposed to other sealers which are designed for architectural purposes.  You can use this stuff on Foam, Luan, you name it… it’s a wonder product for sets. 

Here’s a link… and the basic formula…

Quote Originally Posted by Van View Post

Vans Super Secret Scenic Dope
For those who don’t know it’s my favorite concoction for treating scenic elements that need a bit of texture. If you’re low on budget and can’t afford “Sculpt or Coat” this is a really good alternative.
about 1 quart of latex paint ( this can be pretinted, neutral base, or a “waste” paint, as long as it’s latex.

About 4 tubes of Latex caulk. Do not use Silcone caulk. Some Latex caulk are called ‘siliconized’ and those are ok to use as they are still latex based.

About 2 cups of drywall mud. Adds thickness and aids in setup time and helps leave a harder finish when dope is cured.

This is all you really need. Throw it in a 5 gallon bucket, and mix it all up with a drill motor paint mixer. Add more drywall mud to thicken it up, but not too much or it will get “cracky” when it drys, although the cracks can be very useful for some texture treatments.

For Rock I like to carve poly-styrene, then coat it with VSSSD that has been tinted to a grey or whatever base color rock I’m using. After the Dope has dried <usually 4 or so hours depending on how thick ou laid it on> you can recoat or drybrush / spatter / airbrush details ontothe rock.
Cement, Mix some sand < “playsand” availible at most hardware stores works great. White “ashtray” sand works well for finer finishes like sandstone etc.> Leave the dope a whitish, beige color, keep mixing as you are brushing it on the surface as the sand will tend to settle. You can brush or roll on the cement texture. Let it dry then treat with a clear coat, Flat or Semi-gloss are best for cement. there are many brands availible. Here in the Northwest Miller Paint sells a product called Acri-clear. It’s perfect.

Wood, This is a new one for me I just got worked out. Start the dope according the recipe then grab a trashed blender or food processor pour in a cup of water turn it on and start feeding strips of newspaper in. No “slicks” like the adverts or magazine sections just good old news paper. when the blender starts to bog down or it’s full pour the pulp into a nylon stocking or paint strainer. Continue making pulp ’till you have enough to cover the surface you’re treating. Ok Really Important Squeeze the heck out of the nylon and get as much water as possible out of the pulp. If you don’t get the water out it will thin down the dope and make it hard to work with. Ok add the pulp to the dope, SLOWLY, while your running the mixer. Make sure you get the lumps out. Play with amounts ’till youget the thickness your’e looking for. For Bark I like to use latex gloaves and put it on by hand, dragging your fingertips through the mix as you slop it on will give a really realistic bark look to the finish. You can put on an even coat then use a stylus to “draw” bark chunks on for a pine tree look.

There are a ton of uses. play with these recipes and post your discoveries here. Be sure to e-mail me any really good thing you come up with . I think of VSSSD as an Open-source operating system, It’ll only get better if every shares their own unique recipes.

Now… here’s a whole slew of videos to wet your appetites on ways to sculpt, create and do amazing things …


Posted by on May 8, 2013 in How To, Resources, Theatre, Tips


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Getting it on paper…

It doesn’t matter what you’re building – whether it’s a set or a prop or a costume, you’re probably not gonna do it alone.  This is theatre, and even a ‘one man show’ takes about 30 people to pull it off.  You’re going to have to share your vision with someone to make it happen.

If you’re still (like me) drawing things on napkins and handing them to people or scrawling things on the back of a sheet of plywood and saying “Here’s my vision…”, you know that your results vary.  If you’re with people that know you well and can read your chicken scratching it’s not so bad.  But the fact is, a solid diagram will get more (and better) work accomplished for you.  There’s a lot of free software out there that can help you get your vision out there, and it’s easy to just dive in and start grabbing walls and flats and dragging them around to see what you can do.  But using an old fashioned pen and paper to start with is still your best way to go, get the ideas down there and then move them to design software to print out and share. 

But… before you can just start drawing – you need to do your homework.  If this is your first time doing a play, here’s a good set of steps I like to follow:

First… Play Analysis
1) Read
2) Annotate
3) Research

Yup… Research… before I do a set design – the first thing I have to do is to read the play.  When I do – I try to ignore the stage directions, ignore the notes – actually read and understand the play itself.  Know what it’s about. Get a feel for the actual play.  If you ignore the notes for the play  – the stage directions you don’t limit yourself by thinking, “Okay, I’ve only got 20 feet of space to put in 3 doors, stairs and a ramp…”.  Then you can actually get a feel for the play itself.  Some plays are dark.  Others are light.  Some are very fast paced – others are very slow and brooding … all of these descriptions have certain colors and emotions associated with them in our minds.  That helps me get an idea for color schemes and if I want to see shadows or bright colors or whatever in my head when I look at things. 

It also keeps me from putting limits on what I can and can’t do.  It’s important to know your limitations, but it’s also important not to be confined by them.  Just because the play says, “Henry exits through kitchen door beneath stairs stage left”, does not mean you will have a kitchen door stage left, let alone one under stairs.  Read it through first – get a feel for what the writer had in mind, not visually – but for the play over all.  You may not have a stage which can even accommodate that set of directions.  So all in all… ignore them the first pass on your reading. 

Then, go back through after your first pass – and make your notes.  Don’t apply these to your stage limitations yet – just be aware of them.  Now, go look at how other people have done this play.  Get some ideas. 

The first thing I’ll use is search engines.  Not just Google, but I’ll hit Google, Bing, Youtube, Deviantart – and do searches for the play you’re doing, and make sure you swap keywords for the searches – do them a couple of times with “sets” or “stage”  or “theatre” and look at Images. When I do this I want to see what others have done, and this is also a good way to get an idea of what is available for props and drops for the play. 

For example if I’m looking up Noel Coward’s “Peace In Our Time”, I’ll do a search for “Peace In Our Time Sets”… click on search and somewhere in the hundreds of photos, I’m bound to get a few like this one…+


And from these – I can move on to the second round of design, where I get my vision and meet with the director and the build crew and we get an idea of what we can actually do. 

Second …. Do the Pre-Design & Vision
1) Design : More Research, consider other plays that have similar elements (you might be able to reuse your set pieces if you do things right!)
2) Design : Resource Assessment
3) Design : Draft
4) Design : Walk Through
5) Design : Build Team Assessment / Review
6) Design : Approved

From this, as you can see on my list…  we’ll get some ideas.  And it’s at this point having software you can print up stuff for everyone is really important.  Why?  Because it keeps you from showing your research.  All those ideas you looked at to get ideas?  Yah, don’t share that.  Let me tell you why. 

You’ll go meet with the Director.  He’ll say he wants it to look just like your pictures… you’ll say… “I will never show the director pictures again!  You were right!!  Don’t ever show him research pictures!!  Now I have to try to build this stuff!!!”.    Because if you show the director pictures – that’s what he’s going to expect.  Most likely you’re a small school.  You do not have a full fly space, and a crafting budget, and a props budget, and a crew of 15 people, most of those volunteers who show up on weekends. 

Your director – and possibly cast – are hoping you can do a 3 million dollar broadway production… and that’s not happening. 

If you’re lucky, with your budget you’ll get some good stages, you get stairs and a few platforms.  And the ability to re-use the flats from the last show.  Most likely… reuse the paint as well.  You don’t get to put wood floors down (like the picture above).  Stair case that goes up to a second floor loft that rotates out over the audience?  Probably not in your budget. 

But all that research does give you ideas.  And ideas let you build amazing things.  So take your ideas – and grab a pen and pencil.  If you’re not an artist that’s fine.  There’s a lot of free software out there which can help you design a set.  And heres a few programs I’ve found you can do some great stuff with… and they’re free.

Google Sketchup has a free version.  And you can download literally hundreds of theatres, props, you name it  – premade. 

SNAGHTML1086675 SNAGHTML10a81d1 And there’s theatre flats and all kinds of set props you can add to your sketchup to get an idea of what the over all look will be. 

You can print these or even create little movies to give the Director and everyone a chance to see what you have in mind.  Since these are all in actual measured sizes you can do some very impressive planning all on your computer.

Now… what if you want to actually DESIGN a set, and you’re not all that … into the complicated CAD thingy like sketchup?  imageTry Autodesk’s Homestyler – it’s free and pretty easy to use.  You drag and drop walls, etc., of the sizes and shapes you want to your stage area.  You can even add furniture and it works well with tablets or mobile devices.  image



And as I mentioned – it’s free.  Drag and drop the items you want in 2D, then click a button to see them in 3D.  Although it’s not as robust as Sketchup – SNAGHTML118803cthe learning curve to use it is such you can generally be designing things within a few minutes.  Once you have “Your Designs” in mind – show those off to the director instead of the sets of Broadway productions and it will make your life much easier all the way around.

Having it here, also allows you to turn it into easy to understand build instructions for your crew.  For example… Sketchup features imagetons of flats – all pre-set for building with measurements… just print and hand out.  Smile  

Want people to see which walls need to be stone, brick, orSNAGHTML123195f whatever… just click… and click, and print. 

Oh, and my “Third Step”…  pretty self explanatory here…
1) Build: Estimate Build Time/Cost for Pieces, Props
2) Build: Get Materials…
3) Build: Build, build, build…

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Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Books, How To, Resources



Paint Markers and Spray Painting Sets…

One of the headaches of painting sets is the need to get it done quickly and easily.  Especially if you don’t have a lot of time and resources and… maybe, like me, your not the greatest with a brush.   Sure the big wide areas are easy enough but for details you really wish someone made like… a big marker you could just follow a pencil line with, or feather things out like with a spray paint can.

The problem with most paint markers from Autoparts stores and the like is, they’re usually enamel based paints that don’t play well with the PVA (Poly Vinyl Acrylic) paints we use on sets.  Well the good news is, they actually make those.  In fact graffiti artists and well, regular artists have known about these for a couple of years.  My personal favorites are the Montana Gold series, and the Liquitex lines of paints and markers.

Why?  Because they’re really made for art in mind.  They come in a variety of tips, even the sprays have adjustable nozzle sizes to go from very fine detial all the way to wide sprays you may be used to… and in every color you can possibly imagine. 

The closest distributor in my area is in Seattle, so – a lot of links here are from their site.

Before I completely dive in to the paints/markers, lets stop for a second and look at who these were made for originally because that really helps give you some idea of what you can do with them.  These are really meant for Graffiti artists.  They can say whatever they want, but the markers are really just well made NYC Street Mops.  What’s a street mop?  It’s basically when you take a roll on deodorant or shoe shine applicator, empty it out, shove a hunk of felt in where the roller/foam goes, and then fill it with a very thin paint/ink combination.

These are used by Graffiti artists so because they allow very precise control of paint, very quickly in a easily storeable media. Ever wonder how all that graffiti literally pops up in minutes with all those colors and so on?  the secret… a spritz or sixty with a spray can, and details with the mop.  In two days, a wall can be covered by a good artist with an insane amount of detail using nothing but sprays and mops (markers).     

Graffiti artists problems are very similar to Set Design art problems – and for similar reasons.  You’re covering a big area and it’s not just with defined color splotches.  Sometimes you need to do clouds or forrests, or any number of things, even paint offices, cityscapes, you name it – your problems will not be the same as those of someone who just has to paint a wall.  So take a few minutes on Youtube and check out some of the work done by graffiti artists. Watch their techniques.  Regardless of how you feel about the vandalism aspect of it – there’s a lot of really great art out there by people who have to work with very uneven surfaces, often fooling the eye and on very large scale. 

How these people accomplish their graffiti, is a great way to learn how to do scenic art for theatre.  The tools they use, are ones you can put in your tool box for sets because they really can be time savers with really impressive results. 

Top to Bottom: Extra Extra Large, Extra Large, Large, Short LargeMontana Hardcore & Acrylic Markers

Lets look at markers first… all of Montana’s markers are Acrylics – and as you can see the Montana Hardcore paint markers have a variety of sizes – everything from 1/2” to 2” sizes.   Montana also makes smaller sizes in their standard Acrylic line from (15mm) 1/2” all the way down to ball point pen sizes. But since these are for sets… bigger is better in a lot of cases.

Montana makes several types the Hardcores are the largest and you can get almost any color you can imagine.  Here’s an example of what’s available from my local retailer just for the plain Montana Acrylic markers…


Montana Gold Acrylic & Liquitex Spray Paint

Acrylic Spray paints are amazing to use.  Low pressure, High Pressure cans, multiple nozzles for almost everything from a fine point to big broad swaths of color.  Best of all – they’re acrylic – they work on canvas, wood, old paint, you name it.  With a very short time to get used to how to use spray paints – you can achieve some amazing effects.

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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in How To, Resources


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Rocking, Rolling, Weights and Rigging

I recently had a chance to do some work on a high school (Glacier Peak High School) version of Bye-Bye Birdie.  Since this is probably my last set for them Bill Erickson, and I did some different stuff using sets that rotated and rolled.


Rolling sets are great because you can use multiple sides of a box to accomplish in a say, 8×8 space two or three set pieces.  For imageexample the front of the MacAfee kitchen is also a part of Sweet Apple’s streets… and this not only saves space on the stage but makes from some fun transitions since we just rotate the sets.

Instead of having set pieces flying in and out we have for this production only two sets that fly in from above, the Sweet Apple Train Station and the Penn Station train station in NYC.

Part of the planning for this was done using a special spreadsheet (attached for you) which allows you calculate the weights of set pieces fairly accurately.  It does this by just inputting how many boards, sheet lumber, etc., you have and it kicks out a total for the object.  Rolling pieces like the ones shown above, or fly in flats – this does not of course include hardware (nuts bolts, braces, wheels) but it does feature in the weight of all lumber used which will get you within a few pounds.


Here’s an example based on our Penn Station clock.  For this we used 4 1x3x8 furring strips, or 32 ft. of 1×3’s.  We also used 2 1x4x8 boards, or 16 feet of 1×4’s.  We had a clock which was a four foot circle (4×4 sheet of 5mm luan)= 16 sq. ft.  So our weight for this was approximately 8.25 lbs.

We also added 4 aluminum metal pieces left over from a garden trellis arch which we’ll calculate at around 3 lbs. each, or another 12 lbs. so the weight we needed to compensate on our fly bar was only 21 lbs. give or take – roughly 1 small pig iron weight.

Now, our Sweet Apple train station arches were far more complex, each column was meant to be 12 ft. high, 2 ft. wide, with 6 1/2  feet wide 4 feet tall boxes that fit in between.  Skinned on to this we used 4 sheets of 5.5 mm luan sheeting, and for trim approximately 6 feet of 2×6, and 4 feet of 2x4s, for a total weight of 138.05 lbs..

imageNow, it’s important to keep in mind that when you do weight calculations, 138 lbs. may not seem like a lot but stretch that out over an area of 3×8=24 feet and try to lift it.  It suddenly feels like it’s 4 times that.  Also add to it your hardware, some scabbing and braces for the rear and you could easily have something that takes 4 or 5 people to lift something that two people would have no issues with.  So always use safe lifting practices.

Here’s the spreadsheet I use for

Theatre Weight calcuations Theatre Calculator


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Posted by on April 8, 2013 in Bye-Bye Birdie, How To, Resources


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Using Glue with Scenic Paint (and Glazes)

One question I get all the time when I’m doing sets is “Why do you add Elmers glue to paint?”.

I do it for a couple of  reasons – the first is I can stretch the amount of paint I have, often doubling or tripling it, second, I can create really great glazes and washes which hold to the existing primer on the flats well.

People seem to think that by adding glue, I weaken the paint which, is actually not true, just the opposite actually.  Elmer’s glue is probably the best thing for all kinds of very cool scenic art and set building tasks you can have.  The reason why it works so well with paint is – that almost ALL paint is… basically a kind of glue.

Specifically it’s a Polyvinyl Acrylic, or PVA paint.  In fact, don’t doubt me – it’s actually right on the label as either “PVA” or “Vinyl Acrylic”.   Which is a nice fancy way of saying it’s a synthetic Caesin, and by Synthetic, it’s the method they produce it – the chemistry involved in the process hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last several hundred years.  Just the production methods, degree of accuracy and chemical purity.

So… what’s a Caesin?  Well the technical definition from Wikipedia sounds very complicated but essentially… it’s Milk.  It’s a byproduct of dairy products that when you heat them, add a little vinegar, or lemon juice, or ammonia, the stuff that separates from it, is Caesin.  And depending on what you mix that with, whether it’s oils – or any number of things you can create a Polymer and that Polymer+Casein = becomes PolyVinyl Acrylic.  Add color and some other pigments and essentially dusts… and you get paint.

You can, actually make your own paint, or playdoh, or heck even plastic at home – using nothing more than some skim milk, and a few household ingredients like vinegar and cornstarch.  Really – its easy.  Smile

So… when you see people adding Glue to the paint … don’t be surprised.  What it does, and this is especially true of scenic painting is allow for colors to be placed over existing colors.  Here’s a good example of how you’d use this technique.WP_000085

When we painted these flats – to achieve the wood grain we used several colors which had to blend together.  First we had a white primer coat, we then added a orange glaze – then a thin dry brush of Vandyke Brown SuperSat glaze to make the lines, then dabs of a pink/brown all brush stroked into each other.  The over laying colors cause it to look more like a wood grain.  Here’s what it looks like in an assembly line, where we just have one person go through and do each color pass.  Because we’re letting one color bleed up from the previous one, we can actually take advantage of this to get very cool graining.  And when we’re doing – we can then give it a bit to dry and then use a glaze over it to give it a nice redish coloration like you see on the board sample in the next picture.  Its a board that was painted white – and we used this same technique to get a more defined texture of wood grain. WP_000014

We could have made this more brown, or more yellow pine – or even an oak color.  All we had to do, was add the color glaze afterwards.  In fact, to keep all of our work on the flats above the same color levels and hues, we’ll go back over all of them side by side and match them with a final wash.

Even more fun, is when we start doing the marble.  On the panels above we’ll be making the white sections in a faux marble.  When we do the marbling – we’ll do something similar, only we’ll brush the brownish glaze directly onto the white which when it dries – will give it a marbleized texture as you can see in our test flat.

We do a test flat – which is a flat for us to practice on, and then we we get the color or the look we want – we apply it to the others.  In this case we went a bit nuts with the marble texture – maybe a few too many lines.

WP_000110But as you can see on the test – we also used our glue colored glaze – to create wood panel insert like effects.  Which is another plus to this, we didn’t need to – really repaint, we literally just drew a nice clean brush line over the existing wood grain, and we let it dry to darken those tones.  We can also, add highlights using this technique.  And it works equally well on wood and canvas.

It’s also… really really cheap to do this.  A tablespoon of SuperSat and 1 Gallon of Glue can equal 4 gallons of Glaze paint, which is … like… $120 savings.  Even if it’s just used to extend a few gallons of paint – it’s a money saver. So… glue.  Its your best friend for scenic painting glazes.

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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in How To, Resources


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