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, 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.