Prop Safe

 

Prop safe with door closed

Prop safe with door closed

This prop safe was built for a recent theatre production. The top sign is hinged on the top and folds down for transport. A steel rod that drops inside the safe supports the sign when it is up.

The safe is made of timber with swivel castors attached to steel support plates on the base. Shaped timber blocks decorate the tops of the plates where they protrude from the sides of the safe.

To minimise mechanical problems with locks and latches a simple magnetic latch was used on the door. This avoids any potential for locks catching or failing to open during a performance.

Side view of safe with door open

Side view of safe with door open

Steel rod that supports the top sign when it is hinged upright

Steel rod that supports the top sign when it is hinged upright

Movie Camera Prop

Prop movie camera on dolly platform

Prop movie camera on dolly platform

A recent project involved making a very simple movie camera prop for a theatre production. The camera had to look as if it was built from bits and pieces by children playing movie makers.

The camera body was a simple plywood box with bits of PVC pipe, rubber sink plugs and brick vents attached. It was attached to a metal tripod which was attached to a dolly base. The base has swivel castors so the unit can be easily moved about on stage.

Side view of the movie camera body

Side view of the movie camera body

Detail of the tripod and dolly base

Detail of the tripod and dolly base

Practical Catapult

Practical catapult primed for firing

Practical catapult primed for firing

This small practical catapult was made for a recent theatrical production. The design was based on a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a catapult. Modifications had to be made in order for the catapult to operate as required.

The main power for the catapult was a length of rubber cord similar to bungy cord. Two children’s motocross push bikes were recycled (pun intended) for the wheels and steering mechanism. The bike parts were attached to the timber framework with custom brackets which were then lashed with sisal rope to give a more lived in look.

A steel ratchet mechanism was built to ensure reliable operation of the release of the catapult arm. Clicking on the photos below will bring up a larger image.

End view of catapult

End view of catapult

Catapult released

Catapult released

The ratchet mechanism

The ratchet mechanism

Closeup of the release mechanism

Closeup of the release mechanism

Oversize Chicken Eggs

Giant chicken egg

Giant chicken egg

These oversize chicken eggs were made for a theatrical production. The oversize eggs are 60cm high and made from fibreglass for strength so they can be sat on.

The first step was carving a polystyrene oversize egg so a fibreglass mould could be made. The mould construction is described in another post. After the mould was finished two oversize eggs were cast. After the fibreglass halves were joined together they were painted.

One of the oversize eggs was made with a broken top so something could *hatch* from it on stage.

Assembled cracked egg

Assembled cracked egg

Cracked egg with top removed

Cracked egg with top removed

Making A Giant Egg

Completed egg shells

Completed fibreglass shells painted in shellac ready for finishing

The first step in making a giant egg is to make a giant egg – so a mould can be made.

Depending on the size of the egg you want to make will dictate how you go about making the egg form. Since the egg we needed to make was about 60cm tall it was decided to carve it from a block of polystyrene. Since the egg shape is symmetrical it is best to turn it on a lathe.

Preparing polystyrene block for turning

Preparing polystyrene block for turning

The polystyrene has to have plywood boards glued to both ends so a lathe faceplate and tailstock centre can be attached so it can be turned on the lathe.

The corners of the block are then cut off at 45 degrees to make turning a bit easier on the polystyrene. If this is not done it is likely large chunks will break off when the lathe chisel is applied to the turning block.

It is very, very messy turning polystyrene on a lathe so ensure the work area is covered with something to collect the shavings and clean up regularly as you work. This will minimise the polystyrene getting into every nook and cranny of your workshop.

Polystyrene mounted on the lathe ready for turning

Polystyrene mounted on the lathe ready for turning

Basic shape completed on the lathe

Basic shape completed on the lathe

Completed polystyrene egg

Completed polystyrene egg

The polystyrene is removed from the lathe and the two ends trimmed. Sandpaper is used to smooth both ends until their radius makes a smooth transition around the egg shape. It is important to get the shape exactly right with no obvious flat spots or sudden changes in the radius.

To support the egg while making the mould a box was built to put the egg form into so the middle flange can be made with plasticine. Once that has been done it is given a coat of PVA mould release in preparation for fibreglassing.

Ply box for making the top half of the mould.

Ply box for making the top half of the mould.

Flange finished around egg

Flange finished around egg and mould release applied

After the top half has been fibreglassed a timber support is fibreglassed on the mould so it sits horizontal when put on its side. The egg with the first half of the mould attached is removed from the support box and turned upside down to expose the underside of the egg form. This is cleaned up, PVA mould release applied and the second half is coated with fibreglass as described in previous mould making posts.

After polishing the inside of the mould halves with wax fibreglass casts are taken and trimmed to the flange line around the mould on both halves.

The two completed fibreglass mould halves

The two completed fibreglass mould halves

Fibreglass casts for egg ready for joining

Fibreglass casts for egg ready for joining

To ensure that both halves of the egg are joined together securely they need to be fibreglassed along the inside centre seam of the egg. To do this an access panel is cut in one half that is big enough to get your hand inside the egg shell. Blocks of wood are attached to the inside of the shell around where the access panel will be cut. This allows for easy re-installation of the panel section after the work has been done.

You can see the alignment blocks in the photo below with the access panel removed.

Cutting out an access panel in one half

Cutting out an access panel in one half

Access panel removed

Access panel removed so halves can be fibreglassed together

The two halves are taped together with mylar tape to keep them aligned. They are then fibreglassed on the inside along the centre seam. Once this has been done the access panel can be glued back into position and all gaps around the panel opening and the centre egg seam can be filled with polyester filler.

After sanding smooth the fibreglass is given a primer coat of de-waxed shellac.

Halves taped in position

Halves taped in position for fibreglassing from the inside

Access panel glued back in position

Access panel glued back in position and gaps filled and sanded

The completed eggs can be seen in this post.

Silk Flame Campfire Prop

Battery operated silk flame campfire prop

Battery operated silk flame campfire prop

This silk flame campfire prop was made for a theatrical production that needed a safe but realistic campfire effect onstage. Real pieces of timber were arranged around a circle leaving a space in the middle to accommodate a rectangular light box.

The light box was made from ply with several non-symmetrical holes cut in the sides with orange gel glued over them. Two small electric fans were mounted in the bottom of the light box along with three amber 12V automotive stop lamps mounted on the inside of the box.

Three layers of 10mm egg crate diffuser was fitted on the top of the light box to stabilise the airflow and to provide a platform to mount the silk for the flame effect.

Two of the 12V lamps were connected to a flickering candle effect so their intensity varied over time. The fans and lamps were run on a small 12V 9Ah battery. A long lead with a switch was used to control the campfire when it was on stage.

Timber arranged with a space for the light box

Timber arranged with a space for the light box

Top view of light box with the egg crate diffuser removed

Top view of light box with the egg crate diffuser removed

Below is a brief video of the silk flame campfire in operation.

52 Storey Tree House Props

We recently built a selection of hand props for the theatre production of the popular children’s book called “The 52 Storey Tree House”. Mark Thompson designed the costumes, set and props and the show was directed by Liesel Badorrek. Julian Louis was the Artistic Director. Below are photos of some of the props we made along with some construction notes.

Sporting trophies

Sporting trophies

"Vegetable Castle" sign

“Vegetable Castle” sign

The sporting trophies were sourced items found in a box at the back of a junk shop on the Central Coast. They were black but came up well with some judicious polishing and hydrochloric acid! The sign was simply a stick-on vinyl print mounted on some Alucabond. Alucabond is a strong and light substrate that is perfect for this type of application.

Cow letterbox

Cow letterbox

Giant potato masher

Giant potato masher

The cow letter box was made of empty paint tins mounted on a sculpted steel branch. The branch framework was painted with texture coating to give it a more natural look. The giant potato masher was one metre in height and made with aluminium and laser-cut polycarbonate. A turned wooden handle secured the aluminium frame together.

Pile of children's books

Pile of children’s books

"Fun with Vegetables" book

“Fun with Vegetables” book

The pile of children’s books were glued to a ply sheet so they could be quickly set/struck from the stage. The book was an old cook book dressed up as per the design.

Secret disguise bags

Secret disguise bags

Communication funnel prop

Communication funnel prop

The printing on the Secret Disguises bag was very difficult. All types of paint refused to stick to the nylon bags. After much trial and error a light spray of 3M contact adhesive on the nylon provided a stable base for the paint. A much better solution would be to avoid this type of bag altogether. The communications funnel was simply several metal shower tubes from Bunnings joined together.

Wooden tray of Ninja Snails

Wooden tray of Ninja Snails

Detail of Ninja Snails

Detail of Ninja Snails

The X12 Ninja snails on a wooden tray were made from expandable urethane foam. Details of their construction are described in another post.

Illuminated Organ Console Surrounds

Wurlitzer with an illuminated surround

Wurlitzer with an illuminated surround

During the silent movie era a live musical accompaniment was often used to add atmosphere and drama to the film being shown. This was usually provided by a piano or, in the larger theatres of the day, a pipe organ. The organ console was mainly kept out of sight as there was little reason to do otherwise. With the advent of the talkies in the late 1920’s the role of the theatre organ changed to one of a showman’s instrument for musical entertainment. During intermission an organ console would appear from nowhere, usually from below the stage on a lift, with an enthusiastic performer milking the instrument for everything it was worth. At the end of the performance the organist would, with great bravado, sink back below the stage waving goodbye to an appreciative audience.

The Plaza Theatre, Sutton

The Plaza Theatre, Sutton (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)

Unfortunately a timber paneled organ console quickly becomes boring to watch – even in a coloured spotlight. Many consoles were mounted on a revolve to add a bit of movement and the organist had to become quite animated at times to maintain the attention of the audience. The personality of the organist and organ became the big draw card and the organ console itself was becoming a secondary aspect to the performance. There was a need to make it a more integral part of the performance .

The Compton organ with illuminated surround at the Odeon Theatre, Swiss Cottage

The Compton organ with illuminated surround at the Odeon Theatre, Swiss Cottage (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)

The John Compton Organ Company in England created many exciting and innovative new designs for organ consoles using exotic timbers and sculpted panels. The first major new design was a French-style console in 1930 which bore more than a passing resemblance to a Wurlitzer.

However the big innovation happened in September 1932 when “The World’s First Luminous Organ” opened at the Capital Theatre in Forest Hill. The idea took flight immediately and demand for the new illuminated surrounds soared. Many fine examples of these consoles can be found in the “Stories of London” blog. Here can be found many examples of the organs made by John Compton. The Compton List is a detailed record of the 261 theatre organs built by the John Compton Organ Company, and installed in theatres, town halls, and studios throughout the UK and overseas before and, in a few cases, just after the Second World War. It is the result of continuous research and documentation begun early in 1990 by Ivor Buckingham.

Donald MacKenzie playing "The Duchess" at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

Donald MacKenzie playing “The Duchess” at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

The use of illuminated surrounds was a predominately British phenomenon which was not used in the United States or elsewhere. The most famous instrument, known as “The Duchess”, is located at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square. The surround was a special and it can be seen in this youtube video with Donald Mackenzie playing the signature tunes of the presidents of the Cinema Organ Society (COS) at a concert on the 25th August 2014. The audience were joined by members of The Cinema Organ Society who were celebrating their 60th anniversary.
the Rainbow style surround at the Gaumont Theatre in Chelsea

Terrence Casey with the Rainbow style surround at the Gaumont Theatre in Chelsea (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)


As of 2015 there are only a few theatre organs still in use in Sydney. The Cremorne Orpheum on Military Road is the only theatre providing regular intermission entertainment during screenings. The Orpheum Theatre is the jewel in the crown of Art Deco theatres in Australia much to the credit of its owner, Mike Walsh. The Wurlitzer console itself is a white and silver paneled unit mounted on a revolve which rises up from under the stage floor. Many of the polished consoles were painted ivory or white to make them look better under coloured spotlights. In the city this happened to the organs of the Regent, Plaza and Capitol theatres. This treatment was also done to some of the suburban theatre organs as well. At the State the console was ivory from new.

Other theatre organs that still exist around Sydney include the following;
– Orion Theatre (Campsie) : Ex-Sydney Capitol Theatre (Wurlitzer – owner TOSA)
– Marrickville Town Hall : Ex-Prince Edward Theatre, Castlereagh Street (Wurlitzer – owner TOSA)
– Epping Baptist Church : Ex-Duke of York Theatre (later the Odeon), Eastwood (Christie)
– Anglican Church (West Ryde) : Ex-Kings Theatre, Gordon (Christie – owner TOSA)
– State Theatre ; Being restored – currently unplayable (Wurlitzer)
– Wesley Theatre, Pitt Street: Ex-Lyceum Theatre on the same site (Christie)

The Theatre Organ Society of Australia (TOSA) organise regular recitals at some of these venues so these marvelous instruments can be heard.

A few years ago Decoworks submitted a proposal to build an illuminated surround for the Orpheum Wurlitzer to give it a more Art Deco feeling in keeping with the overall theme of the theatre. The story of its design and final submission pictures can be found here.