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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Bringing it together…

High school sets have a budget that’s small. You accept that, and you work with it and that’s part of the fun.  Instead of frosted glass, you stretch plastic drop cloths over the door windows (it actually works very well).  You have to keep in mind that everything needs to look good from 40 feet away, not 10 feet.

Thats theatre, but with high school, or smaller productions – it’s always an effort to do the most with the very small budget you have.  $500 is a big budget show for some sets.  You scrimp on everything, ripping 2x4s to make 2x2s.  Last shows book cases become this shows in wall inserts by flipping them on their side and making them even with the flats – which often require a ton of screws and clamps to pull them tight.  The french doors from the sound of music, and the arch from the library in the Music Man, combined to make this plays entryway.  Left over sheeting from Suessical becomes a bar.

Every bit of lumber, is reused. You make things with what’s available, you reuse flats and lumber show after show after show. Some of the canvas has so many coats of paint its practically able to stand in its own.  After each show, there’s something you pick up and take forward to the next.

But that shouldn’t hold anyone back. In fact, that’s not a blocker, it’s a challenge to be accepted.  Most of these over painted flats… Will be stripped or thrown away. New Hollywood style flats will replace them. But for now, for one more show, the skills if the parents and kids from 13 Past Midnight are shown in what we accomplished.

Awesome job for a couple hundred dollars worth of paint and effort.

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Posted by on November 17, 2012 in 13 Past Midnight


Blood on Demand…

For 13 Past Midnight, Victor is killed, A sheet laid over him… And then later it bleeds.

No big deal. For this, we tape (white duct tape) a clear hose filled with stage blood and a large (easy to find at a veterinarian supply) syringe. When the sheet is draped over Victor the Syringe with tubing is hidden in the sheet, as they drape it over the body they drop it in his upstage hand, his body never needs to move to spurt blood on command. (For realism have Victor squeeze the syringe a few moments before the blood needs to appear so it has time to soak in.)

You can see the rigging below…

Now here’s a few caveats and tips…

Tip #1: Syringes are often more difficult to push than people think, so use Silicone spray lubricant on the plunger and tube of the Syringe and work it until it slides with ease.

Clean the rig and spray it between shows so the silicone stopper doesn’t dry out. Use Silicone spray (found at Auto parts supply) instead of WD40 or other greases. The stopper is Silicone so your not going to dry it out as other greases will.

Tip #2: Tape .5 mill ir similar plastic drop cloth to the inside of the sheet so the blood is forced to soak into the fabric and not the actors costume or stage floor.

Tip #3:
Water down your stage blood so it’s almost between water and syrup in consistency.

Tip #4: Important!!!

Insert a small chunk of sponge into the end of your clear tubing to prevent accidental leaks of blood. And of course store it up right until use.

Surprisingly, the sponge will do a really good job, but better to be safe than sorry before show time.

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Posted by on November 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


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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Creating Brick and Stone Walls…

There’s several ways to make a very authentic, inexpensive brick or stone wall.  They range everywhere from applying paper mache to plywood, to purchased panels of faux rock to making your own.

Here – is one method I really like because it’s relatively cheap, it’s relatively easy and fast with nice results.

This works very well either using the thicker pink – or the thinner white sheets of foam which are very inexpensive and can be applied to a flat, or even curved around objects if you’re careful.



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Posted by on October 2, 2012 in How To


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Building columns …

Columns – are a common thing everyone hates because hey, they’re tall, they’re round, and tall round stuff isn’t easy.

Unless you use Concrete Form Tubes from your local home depot.  Here’s a few web links to help with videos by people who use these.


And to get that cool marble texture:

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Posted by on October 2, 2012 in How To


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Suessical and the 5th Avenue Awards…

I will eventually get around to putting up some stuff here on this – it was an incredible job by everyone, but we’ve since moved on to the next project.  But here’s a taste or two of Suessical…

Suessical, Fifth Avenue Theatre Awards…

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Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Fifth Avenue, Musicals, Suessical


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