DIY Vacuum Form Parts

By Charles T. Jackson

As promised in my last post, in this post  I’ll discuss how I made my vacuum form having just watched some videos on YouTube.


For the first piece of the Vacuum form, I used a scrap piece of plywood left over from the 2′ x 2′ cubes I had made for the “Mother Goose” production. I cut a hole in it to allow for the vacuum port, and then installed the vacuum attachment.

I used the adaptor that allows for the use of different sized vacuums in case the smallest one that I had planned on using didn’t work. I’m very glad I did due to the fact that to get a proper “pull” on the softened plastic, I did need the largest shop vac that I had.


I then built a frame out of scrap 2″ x 3″ and attached to the plywood bottom. I would later caulk it all in due to “leakage” when the vacuum was attached.


I made the inner frame if 1″ x 2″ and supported the pegboard surface with staggered pieces of 1″ x 3″ in the open area of the work surface.

Vacuum Form Surface Supports

I wasn’t initially worried that the supports would be blocking the holes of the pegboard surface

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, but it turned out that would not to be a problem at all.

The next thing I had to make was a “media” holder that could both hold the plastic, and withstand the heating process. The above was my first try and proved way to leaky to allow for a good pull at the plastic. Using my grill as my first heat source turned out to be a bit disappointing as well, so I brought the whole rig inside to use our new oven. (Wife was at work!! LOL)


My second effort was the ideal media holder, and worked like a charm. It was a lot of work to make, and operate, but worked so well that it was well worth the effort. The key to the success of this one is the number of wing nuts…


…and the recessed bolt heads so the whole media frame gets flat on the vacuum surface, and gets a great seal. Even with all of the work that I had done with this project, the hardest part was figuring out what was the correct plastic to use in the media holder. After a couple of misfires with to thick, or hard to heat plastic, I finally got ahold of the right guy at Plastic Craft Products Corporation who recommended that I try .060 PETG plastic. With all of the elements in place, and realizing that the oven being on broil heated the plastic perfectly, I was able to make all of lanterns that we needed for our production of “Oliver” in a single morning. In my next post, I’ll outline what is needed to get a good “pull” off of your home made vacuum form. Thanks for stopping by!

Home Vacuum Forming to Save Money

By Charles T. Jackson

In this post I’m going to take a step back again, because I forgot a very exciting tool I built and used for some of the set we used in our 2008 production of “Oliver”. At the time of the show, I had taken a sculpture class at Rutgers, and had become fascinated with the idea of vacuum forming. I had seen the “Mythbuster’s” guys use a vacuum form machine to make quick molds for replication of their crash test dummy, and I thought, “I could probably make one of those. As it turns out, I could make one of those, but it took a frustratingly long time of trial and error to finally get it right. I initially only wanted to use it to make a couple of sculpture projects for class, but when our director mentioned how expensive the lanterns that she wanted to use in “Oliver” were, I asked her to let me see if I could duplicate them with my vacuum form as if I had mastered the art. IMG_1210
The first thing I had to do was make plaster casts of the lanterns that she wanted to use in the show. I laid the lanterns in clay, and then layered coat after coat of latex on them. IMG_1821
After what seemed like a million years, I felt I had enough of the latex on and tried to get the latex off in one piece.
I was surprised that it came off as easy as it did, but this was just step one of the process. I had to figure out how I was going to stiffen the latex so that it would hold it’s shape when I filled it with plaster. IMG_1198

I tried to find the Varaform mesh that I used in a skull mold project that I had done at an educational conference

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, but found that it was no longer available. I had to use the plastic infused gauze version of the product. It’s an awesome product in that it becomes very flexible when heated in water, takes the form of whatever you put it on, and hardens when cool. It worked great, but as it was very expensive, when I was done with the cast, I removed it from the latex mold, straightened it, and set it aside to be used again on another project.

The basic plaster cast turned out great

, and had quite a lot of detail. IMG_1825
The final product did not have much of the finer detail, but certainly had enough detail to be recognizable as a lantern when used on stage. Oliver Lamps 2
Here are the rounded lanterns in use in the show. These six lanterns would have cost in the area of $150.00 to buy outright, and would have been a challenge to fly. The vacuum formed lanterns cost around $1.50 each, weighed almost nothing, and were simply stapled to the lamp posts to be flown. In my next post I’ll show all the parts of the vacuum form itself, and discuss some of the challenges I encountered. Thanks for stopping by.

Reaping the Rewards of the Collection

By Charles T. Jackson

“Alice in Wonderland” was with out a doubt the most colorful show that I had done to date, and it was a lot of fun.

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But as with many other shows, mostly all of the set pieces used had to be fabricated from new materials. Sadly in this process some set pieces were fabricated on foam core insulation panels that rendered the pieces useless after the run and had to be trashed. The mushrooms, trees

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, and Rabbit’s house in both sizes however were built in a way that assured that they will be available for many shows to come. My next project however, would involve minimal colors, predominantly white with red accents, and would be the first set that I was able to stage without fabricating any foundation pieces as I had saved and stored everything that I had built to date. The hard part was trying to figure out what to paint over, and what to save for future shows.
Beauty and the Beast BookcaseVillage Stores12 angry men pic

It was not an easy decision

, but the very “Beauty and the Beast” specific flats, and the non window flats from “12 Angry Men”  were the flats I chose to paint over. My other choices were block walls that can be used in almost any show that had a castle or dungeon, or the canvas flats from “Annie”. By this time in my development, I had realized how high maintenance painting, using, transporting and storing canvas flats were so the choices were limited.

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The only thing that had to be fabricated new for this fairly large set for our Middle School production of “High School Musical” was the railing on the stairs and edges of the levels. That was a win in the area of the set budget!! The eight foot level was from “Urinetown” as were the stairs and stairs base, and the four foot level was from “Joseph”. The five flats were re-purposed from the shows mentioned above and even the basketball hoop was adopted from a home that had outgrown it’s use. While this design would have been quite a handful, and based on the expression the director had when she asked for it she anticipated problems, but as every piece, stair, and level are modular, it went up in just a couple of hours. When the show was over, this set was struck AND STORED in one hour and 30 minutes. Not a single piece of this set was discarded. I really suspected that I was on to something good with the modular design of these set pieces but it wasn’t until this show that I realized just how much easier this streamlined approach was going to make the process. We were able to put that set, that if built from scratch would have cost the school in the area of $500.00 to $700.00 in materials alone, for absolutely no cost at all. It was the ideal theatrical WIN/WIN and I was very glad to have had anything at all to do with it!! In my next post, I’ll discuss how I handled a request from the directors regarding having almost no movable sets whatsoever on the stage due to a large number of participants. Thanks for stopping by.

Sliding Doors

By Charles T. Jackson

For our Youth Theatre’s Spring production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” I had gotten the Cheshire Cat’s/Catterpillar’s house done, as well as the Rabbit’s, I needed to move on to the big door/little door scene. For these doors, that would be being handled by Youth Theatre helpers, I wanted to try and use very light weight foam core insulation.
I painted the little door on one panel

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, and the large door on another, and I bet I have inspired you to ask me why I didn’t just paint the little door on the other side of the large door panel. Well, the knob on the little door is a character in the show, and as a result a large hole needed to be cut into my carefully painted wood grained little door. The character had to have room to speak through the hole, so they couldn’t even be on the same dolly. So here’s what I did to solve this.
Sliding Doors
We couldn’t attach them together due to the fact that we would have had a real problem storing them off to the side of the stage, so we just stacked them face to face when off stage, and then when on stage, just set them next to each other with the first to appear visible in a gap in the mid curtain. When Alice drank the shrinking juice or bit the grow cake the kids just slid the doors back and forth. It worked great. I also built the “Hole” Alice initially falls through out of the foam core insulation…
…as well as the Queen’s podium…
…and some fence pieces. IMG_0751
The material was actually very easy to work with as far as getting it into the shapes that I wanted it to be. The glue on the “hole” too forever to dry I assume due to the non porous nature of the coating. Paint on either side of the panels is temporary at best. If the surface of the panels are scratched even a little bit, the paint come right off. In a show that I used it on well after this one, the paint came off in large latex sheets due to the number of coats I had to use to hide the writing. So, would I use it again? Yes, but not to the degree that I did in this show. All of those set pieces have had to be pitched due to the frailty of the painted surfaces, and at strike, and in transport, the took a beating. I just don’t like not having the option to reuse a set piece, so I’d use this material sparingly in the future. In my next post I’ll probably finish up my most colorful set to date, or get started on one of my least colorful sets. I’m just not sure. Thanks as always, for stopping by.

Standing the Mushrooms

By Charles T. Jackson

My last post covered how I made and displayed the full garden of flowers for the spring 2011 Youth Theatre production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr”. Having done that, I moved on to the mushrooms and Rabbits house.
I made these 8′ wide x 6′ tall mushrooms much the same way that I made the pharaoh head for “Joseph”. Although it’s a lot of work, it’s certainly a sure way to have a set piece last for quite a lot longer than it would usually. Having worked quite hard to get the outer shape to be realistic, I went ahead and tried to get the paint to make them look like a place an enchanted cat, and pipe smoking caterpillar would like to settle down.
These being early on in my painting with colors career, I thought I pretty close to the mark and was quite proud to put these on the stage. I then moved on to the Rabbit’s house.
This cupcake shaped house is roughly the same size as the mushrooms, and is build the same way.
With nice little sections of fencing, and a tree in the background, you almost expect a rabbit in a big hurry to appear at anytime!!. As the costume Mom’s had no idea what the house was going to look like until I brought it in, I had to make a “really large Alice” costume version of the house as well, modeled here by my eldest assistant and right hand man.
He’ll be thrilled to see that there. I was not really sure how I was going to stand the mushrooms on the stage, so I decided that I would just lean them against the wall and strap them to the proscenium with 1″ x 3″ lumber. This was of course not the most efficient way to get this done, but I hadn’t made any little jacks yet  so it didn’t occur to me.
Mushroom secured
Well, I had made a little jack, but didn’t realize it at the time. In the illustration I have it labeled “screw down arm”. I just screwed that to the wing wall behind the proscenium, and then secured a piece of scrap wood between the flats and screwed them to the end of the arm. While it wasn’t efficient

, it was stable enough that 70 children bumping into it for the run of the show wouldn’t knock it down. The Rabbit’s house I mounted to jacks on a 2′ x 4′ rolling platform/dolly and it was rolled on and off the stage when needed. IN my next post I’ll discuss how I handled the quick change of the doors from big to little

, and then back again. Thanks for stopping by!!

From the Drawing to the Stage

By Charles T. Jackson

At this point in my development as a scenic designer, builder, and artist, I had build show specific models, and set piece specific models, but I had yet to draw out an entire set to make a proposal to a director. With the our local Youth Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” looming on the horizon, and a basic list of their setting needs, I went to work.
Alice stage
I made a basic drawing to reflect some of the ideas that the directors had mentioned

, as well as some ideas of my own, wrote questions that I needed to ask in th the margins of the drawing and presented it. I found that this was far simpler than just discussing it, or showing them pictures from the Internet. With the connection of the drawn ideas on our stage, it was much easier for the directors to envision, and as a result, much easier to to approve. Now, as always, I had to figure out how I was going to make so many huge flowers, but I had a pretty good idea about how I was going to do the mushrooms, trees, and rabbits house.
After doing a drive for large scale cardboard, I cut out several different flower shapes, initially in luan so that I would have flower template forever, and then in cardboard. I figured that I was going to need several of each design to get the entire stage right proscenium covered. Fore a period of time, I had drying flowers every where in my garage and yard. It was actually quite a lot of fun.
I made a lot of flowers, and found that I only made a few to many to be able to get this 16′ flower display set up. The 1″ x 3″ brace and jacks that I made to secure this

, my first proscenium piece, would be the foundation of many similarly sized proscenium pieces to come. On the other side of the stage, were the mushrooms.
I’ll cover how I built, painted, and secured these mushrooms, as well as the trees and the Rabbit’s house in my next post. Thanks for stopping by.

Minimalist Directors

By Charles T. Jackson

With the “Joseph” set done, and the production in tech, I moved on to our High School production of “Guys and Dolls”. It seems that “when it rains it pours” really applies to our community stages because there is almost always shows going on, and as the groups don’t usually communicate, dates sometimes converge. Fortunately on this set I had a director that did not want a load of set pieces moving on and off of the set. She wanted to use curtained sections of the stage, dramatic lighting, and even gobos wherever possible, but there was a bar scene that needed the full magilla. So I was in luck! I had already built a bar for our production of “Curtains” a couple of years back, all I needed were four small bar tables and a “Hot Box” sign.
8 11 Curtains bar stairs and banisters
It was a great thought, until I went to find that particular bar in out community Theatre’s storage area with no luck what-so-ever. It was as gone as gone could be and with no clue where it could have gone, I had to add the building of a bar while we were in dress rehearsals for “Joseph”, and get them on the stage in the high school while we were doing the shows! So I built another bar just like the one from the above picture, and started on tables.
This was new territory for me

, I was essentially building the furniture for a full bar scene, so I wanted to get it done in a way that the tables could be broken down and reused. The chairs were retired funeral home chairs that I “Borrowed” from my brother.  At the end of this show, I would have all the parts for a decent bar scene at the drop of a hat, and would have no concerns with the bar disappearing because as we liked to do, we funded the build to maintain control over its use and storage. For the “Hot Box” sign, I pulled out the design I had used from the “Puberty the Game Show” sign, and added flames.
I had intended to raise the name off of the background of the sign body

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, and string some lights behind it for a back lit effect, but time was quite crunch at the the time of this build so I just turned it over to the director for the students to paint. Upon seeing how large the sign was the director then asked if I could make a way to mount the sign that rolled off and back on the stage. That’s when it occurred to me that this minimalist set had been quite a lot of work. LOL In my next few posts, I’ll be discussing how our Youth Theatre’s spring production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” got off the design page, and onto the stage step by step. Thanks for stopping by!!

Hanging Big Art

By Charles T. Jackson

Our next challenge, and when I say challenge, I mean CHAL-LENGE, was to get this 15′ x 15′ Pharaoh Head hung. While I don’t have any pictures of how we “rigged” it to hang

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, the below listed image is as close as I can remember. Having served as a Volunteer Fireman for 15 years, and in another Public Safety position for 22 years at this point, I was naturally very concerned for the safety aspects of getting this job done. So in the spirit of how I usually design, I went big!! I believe the cables that I rigged for this hanging could be used for pulling a full sized car up into the fly. The hooks that we used at the bottom of the piece were both hooked under, and screwed to the piece, and each of the cables were under at least four or more guides that were also screwed to the back of the piece. All of the separate panels were connected with 1″ x 8″ planks to assure maximum rigidity when moving into place.
Pharaoah Rig
After being rigged, we had to stand it up and walk it to the bar we were putting in on. After we stood it up, I started to panic because it looked so huge!! But once it was secured to the bar

, and weighted properly, it worked flawlessly for the run. The above drawing is not to scale, and the lightly highlighted area are where the 1″ x 8″ would have been. I really do wish I had a picture of this after it was rigged. It was truly a thing of beauty. In my next post I’ll get started on my design, build and painting of the set for our Youth Theatre’s production of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” Thanks for stopping by.

Painting a Big Portrait

By Charles T. Jackson

Now that I had figured out how to build the beast, and had gotten it done, The next question was, where the heck am I going to find that much gold paint. The gods of theatre once again smiled upon me and I found that my local Home Depot had stopped selling the Ralph Lauren gold that they had, and the four gallons that they had left over were on sale!! Winning!!
The whole thing got several coats of gold, and then had to be laid out again so I could draw on the face. Transferring the image was actually quite a bit easier than I had anticipated due to the fact that I had been dealing with this image in blocks of 4′ x 4′ almost from the beginning, so breaking it down to 2′ x 2′ and figuring out where everything went from there was kind of easy. Finding space to paint an 8′ x 8′ portrait however would prove a bit challenging. For a size/scale reference on this piece. In the above picture it can be seen covering mostly all of the orchestra pit

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, and handicapped seating area!! It’s a big’un.
Here’s another view as to just how big this piece is.
I took all the pieces out into the hallway of out theatre, and set the upper two full lats on an easel that I made from a trash picked six foot ladder. I used a dry brush shading technique to get the face features on, and then painted in the eyes.
After the face and eyes, I added in the perfect “Egyptian” blue

, and it was almost done. In the above picture, only half of the flats that make up the whole image are seen.
When it was finally painted and assembled, rigged and hung, I nearly cried. The scale of the piece was perfect for our venue, and was sure to provide some serious visual impact. Another perspective as to just how big this piece was, here’s what it looked like with actors in front of it.
Joseph pharoah head 1
I don’t know about you, but when I first saw how the cast interacted with this drop, I just said…wow. I was then, and am still now very proud of this piece. I had to develop so much in the process of just making this one piece, and when I consider that I built and painted this whole thing in two days off I had between shifts, I couldn’t have been more proud. In my next post I’ll discuss some minor props and sign I had to make for our High School’s production of “Guys and Dolls” and then touch on how a design can get really ramped up when your daughter gets the lead role!! Thanks for stopping by!!

Really Big Art

By Charles T. Jackson

After the new year, I had gotten the go ahead for the set of our Community Theatre’s 2011 Winter production of “Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I had already built the downstage stairs, so that was out of the way. All that was left was to build a massive pharaoh head. Having sat down and discussed the design with the director at this point, we decided that it would take up way to much stage to just leave it sitting there. She decided that she would like to hang it from the fly. I said that I would redesign it smaller and get back to her. Well

, I made it smaller. I took a full six feet ofo of the original design and presented a 15′ x 15′ pharaoh head design that was immediately approved. As I had become accustomed to doing with sets that I had designed, I had to now sit down and figure out how to do what I had designed. Of  course there were several lost nights of sleep over this one, but I decided that the only way to do it, was to do it. IMG_0629
So I laid all the full flats that the design required out in the driveway, and surrounded the flats with what would become the shaped flats. I started at the bottom and drew out the shape on the right of the full panels.
I then cut the shape out used it as a template for the other side.
I did the same to the upper pieces and at this point have established the basic shape of the Pharaoh head. As you can see it was quite cold, and the snow had been quite deep at one point. That’s why I am only now getting this huge project started with only 13 days left until the opening of the show!! I was getting very nervous. I was lucky this day in that I had my neighbor blocked in with this while I was working on it

, and she only emerged from the house when I had wrapped up all the cutting. PHEW!!!!
I laid the shaped pieces onto 3/4 inch plywood, and cut the outer shape out. With the shape now exposed, I used the guide that can be seen laying on the above plywood to trace out a 3″ frame of the shape leaving a 3″ brace in the middle. I then cut out the inner portions of the shape.
All of this work resulted in a solid frame for the luan that would match the full sized flats, making the fully assembled piece significantly more stable than if I had tried to attach the unsupported luan.
I was very pleased with the end result, but was not digging working in the snow again. In my next post I will cover how I initially painted, and transferred the image. Thanks for stopping by!!