Prefab Garage Shelves

Posted in Adventures in Home Improvement, Uncategorized on June 13, 2018 by stevenjmclean

My wife and I recently found a place to live in  southwest Florida where we have spent time over the past couple of Christmases and summers.  One inconvenience that I identified early on  was that shelves in the garage just did not suit the type of gear that I hoped to store on it.  I have a couple of purpose-built trunks that I built many years ago that fit my versatile trailer and store the gear for the SOT kayaks that I enjoy paddleing whenever possible.  Anyway, they are heavy and when not on the trailer,  are best stored side-by-side on the floor of the garage.  Unfortunately, the placement of the uprights on the existing shelves were too close-set for them to slide beneath, so they had to sit in front of the shelves.  Even though the shelves were only 16″ deep, with a 17″ depth on the trunks, the effective depth of the garage was reduced by 32″.  I found this unacceptable.

ShelfElevationsMy solution was to design a replacement set of shelves; ones that would permit the trunks to fit between the uprights beneath the bottom shelves. While I was at it, I increased the depth to about 24″ which held the maximum number of my favorite Sterilite® brand 54 Quart storage boxes. At 22.5″ L x 16″ W x 12.75″ H, they feature a gasket seal around the lid and 4 side-mounted clips to hold the lid securely in place.  I also needed to take into consideration how I could create storage for my 2 kayaks, while also creating some secure storage for items that I wanted to lock up.

ShelfElevations2I designed the shelves using measurements taken last Christmas using VectorWorks CAD software and built the elements at my Iowa scene shop over Spring break,  transporting the pieces 1500 miles to Southwest Florida on my trailer in late May.

Once I arrived at the home, I dismantled the existing shelves and used the otherwise empty 2-car garage to paint all of the pre-built elements. I was also prepared to address the repair of the wall behind the shelves before final assembly.  The previous owner had evidently repaired a thin stair-step crack in the back wall.  IMG_1628

While the crack hadn’t progressed after the repair, the repair, itself, was unsightly and failed to match the wall texture.  I used a masonry wheel on my angle-grinder to remove the patch material and re-expose the cracks.  I filled the cracks with a polyurethane caulk which I squeezed deep into the 1/8″ gaps in the original mortar and then filled the remaining crack even to the wall with a quick-set mortar.  IMG_1633After that had cured for a couple of days, I still needed to match texture of the existing wall which is the same knock-down plaster texture used throughout the home.

I have actually created this texture on the ceiling of a basement bathroom remodel many years ago, and happen to own the pneumatic hopper-gun required to do it.  However, the compressor that I have did not produce the volume of air to spray the texture without pausing every few seconds to allow the pressure to build to sufficient level to continue.  Besides, the compressor and hopper-gun were still in Iowa.


Homax Knock-Down Texture

By coincidence, last year I discovered a product from one of the local big-box home improvement stores that provides sufficient material in a spray-can.  Sold in an aerosol can under the brand name “Homax” there are few different types of textures the choose from (including “Knock Down”).  I first discovered it following Hurricane Irma when I repaired a small area of my Lanai ceiling that received some water damage.  I also used it as a texture on some shop-built ersatz 1980s furniture that I designed for last fall’s “Tartuffe” at Simpson College.



Knock-Down Texture Knife

The product comes in a “wall” version and a “ceiling” version depending on whether the application surface is vertical or overhead.  It needs to be thoroughly shaken to mix the heavy texture with its medium and propellent.  Failure to do so, leads to a the escape of too much propellent and a wast of the product.  After spraying the texture over a couple of square feet of surface,  it is allowed to set only a few moments and then a special “putty knife” is dragged lightly over the top to create the “knock-down” effect.  The techniqe requires some pracice and at over $12 per can is not cheap!


The Finished Project

Only time will tell if the new shelves are a significant improvement, but they should provide the space to store a wide variety of sporting paraphernalia, tools, supplies and other materials.

Meanwhile, that’s all for now.  Be safe!



A Prop Cell Phone for Comedy of Errors

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2018 by stevenjmclean

When we were preparing to design a production of The Comedy of Errors for Theatre Simpson’s 2016 fall season, the Director decided to create a prologue and an epilogue to the play in order to ease our audience into the vaudevillian concept that was to guide the visual and presentational style of the production.  The prologue was to be set in the present with a young lady breaking in to a derelict theatre strewn with the detritus of long-ago productions.


Production Photo of Prologue– Photo: Luke Behaunek

She uses her cel phone’s flashlight feature to see her way around the space. While she is settling in for the night, she receives a couple of unwanted texts, texts back to the sender, and then her phone rings.  She declines the call but the caller calls back immediately and in frustration, she hurls the cellphone offstage.

In considering this challenge, I turned to my colleagues from the Stagecraft Mailing List for advice. The responses varied from suggestions to use a real phone, to telling me to decline to attempt the gag on the grounds that it was too fussy and that “directors, playwrights and auteurs expect too much and need to be reigned in” .  I decided to pursue a combination of several more practical suggestions: deconstructing and re-engineering an inexpensive LED flashlight and mounting it an inexpensive cel phone case.

MultiLED Flashlight

24 LED Puck Style

My first step was to identify a suitable flashlight.  A trip to my local Menards (a local big box home improvement store) led me to a puck-style flashlight with 8 LEDs.  once I examined it further, it was clear that the  way the LEDs were mounted and the 2 AA-style batteries would create an impractical thickness.


An additional problem with the puck-style flashlight was that the switch cycled through 3 states in 4 steps: 1 LED on the front on, Off, 14 LEDs in the face of the puck on & Off again.



1 LED Book Light






I also found a booklight that was plenty thin, using  button-style batteries but which only incorporated a single LED insufficient to light a 3″x 5″ screen.

LED StripFlashlight

LED Strip Puck





Further exploration yielded a second puck-style flashlight using a flat LED strip that would appear to fit in a thin cellphone profile. I dis-assembled all 3 flashlights, identifying parts from each to use in the finished prop.  Starting with the LED strip flashlight, I removed the strip and the reflector.  I had hoped to use the switch and the circuit-board from it as well, but found that they were hopelessly integrated with the front LED.  So, I used the switch from the 14 LED-array flashlight and was able to separate the portion of the circuit-board associated with the small solid-state transistor in line with the LED array (having determined that both puck-style flashlights used the same transistor).  I only used the pair of 3-volt batteries from the magnetic book light.

I created an I phone “body” from 1/2″ MDF, starting with an I-phone 6 case purchased from WalMart to get the size right (though, in truth, it ended up just a little thicker than an authentic I-phone to accommodate the depth of the flashlight reflector. I carved out the body to accommodate the various salvaged electronic components with the battery compartment simply a hole drilled in the back to the exact diameter and depth of the stacked batteries with electrical contacts of 20 gauge wire striped bare, coiled flat and fused with a dollop of solder.  The slide-on bottom portion of the cel phone case trapped the batteries and contacts in place. I soldered wires to the switch so that both “ON” positions applied current to the LED strip.   A photo of an I-phone screen printed it on acetate served as the screen.  It was held to the face of the cellphone with double-stick carpet tapeCelPhoneParts2.jpg


Assembled Cel Phone

The finished prop proved to be a convincing “facsimile” of an I Phone 6.  It had to be turned on and off by the actress using it in order to illuminate the screen and since it did not have an actual “flashlight” LED on the back, she had to use the screen as the flashlight in the opening sequence.   It proved plenty bright enough for our purposes and resilient enough that when the actress threw it upstage, it survived the journey. It helped that she sort of “frisbeed” it and it came to rest in a pile of ropes and drapes upstage.


Production Photo of Prologue– Photo: Luke Behaunek

That’s all for now!
Photos by Steven J McLean except as noted



Vectorworks/Renderworks Production Renderings

Posted in Design and Production on April 12, 2018 by stevenjmclean

While I was doing some cleaning in my office recently (the reason for this may well be the subject of another post soon) I was going through my renderings and discovered that I couldn’t find the one that I created for a Winter 2016 production of an original play about Joan of Arc entitled Knowing Joan.  The action of the play was set in a present-day urban hole-in-the-wall coffee shop while flash-back scenes of the life of Joan of Arc also occur in the same space.  I recalled that I had created the rendering of the setting in Vectorworks as a 3-dimensional model and that I had labored to fully texture, color and light it. I had even taken the trouble of modeling all of the furniture that I acutally intended to use (including a coffee bar adapted from an ornate chest of drawers with some industrial pipe and fitting shelves fixed to one side)  I vaguely remember having encountering some sort of problem in rendering and printing it out, but I couldn’t recall what the impediment might have been.

Following is a discussion of some of the Vectorworks/Renderworks rendering modes that I use most frequently for demonstrating how a setting should appear to an audience member using Vectorworks/Renderworks. As a bonus, at the end, I reveal the simple adjustment that I needed to perform to permit the image to render properly.

14x10KnowingJoanG_Plan--no light objectsDashedHiddenLine copy

Wireframe Rendering of Knowing Joan Set

The wireframe mode is the fastest method of rendering in Vectorworks. This mode is almost instantaneous.  This mode doesn’t discriminate between lines that define the front of the scenery and those that should be hidden.

The “Hidden Line” rendering is slower, but  shows objects defined as solid in such a way as to ignore any lines which should be hidden from view by the bulk of an object or by  elements that should appear in front of another element.

14x10KnowingJoanG_HiddenLine4 copy

Hidden Line Rendering of Knowing Joan Setting

This is the rendering mode that I use as a basis for most of the set renderings that I create for productions.  By transferring these Hidden Line drawings onto Bristol board and working over them with watercolor and colored pencils, I achieve  results such as the rendering  for Tartuffe (fall 2017).


Watercolor & Pencil Tartuffe Rendering

14x10KnowingJoanG_WhiteModel2 copy

Virtual “White Model” of Knowing Joan Rendering

The “Renderworks Style/Realistic Colors White” rendering mode (demonstrated in the post on the 2016  production of The Marriage Of Figaro) takes even longer to render.  This rendering of the Knowing Joan set model took my computer approximately 2 hours to render and another 2 hours to save as a JPG.

However, the full color rendering of the setting, showing colors and textures, images of some of the set dressing and including virtual lighting intended to reveal the setting in its most realistic rendering was the intended final result of hours of drawing in Vectorworks.   Once I found the file for the production and tried to render the model in the Final Renderworks rendering mode it took the computer about three hours to render it.  However, once complete, all of the symbols for the virtual lighting elements in the visible frame would overlay the rendering.  The cause of this eluded me at the time and I didn’t remember this problem until it happened at the end of the rendering process.  After trying the same thing a few times with the same results (someone once told me that this is the definition of insanity), it suddenly dawned on me that I had seen something in one of the preference windows that may have a bearing on this matter.  After some investigation I found in the Vectorworks/ Preferences/ Display tab a drop-down setting labeled “Display Light Objects:” and the options: Always, Only in Wireframe,  Never.  It was set to Always.  I do not know if this is the default or if I changed it from one of the other settings at some point in the distant past, but changing it to “Only in Wireframe” or to “Never” solved the problem.

14x10KnowingJoanG_Renderworks copy

Final Renderworks Rendering of Knowing Joan


Knowing Joan Production Photo

Once it rendered for about 3 hours, the image was free of the “Light Objects” and took another 3 or so hours to save as the JPG seen above .



I can’t even begin to estimate the time invested in this rendering considering all of the drawing involved in creating each of the elements and providing them with textures and image maps needed to present the realism that is attained in the image.  Was it worth it? Maybe not.  On the other hand, it is kind of cool!

That’s all for now!
Be safe!  But have fun!  After all, that’s why they call it a play!
All imagery used in this post by Steven J. McLean.

“Recycled” Scenery for The Marriage of Figaro

Posted in Uncategorized on March 6, 2016 by stevenjmclean

My latest production opened on February 26.  Although I am a faculty member for Simpson College’s theatre department (Theatre Simpson), this opera was produced by the music department (Music at Simpson).  The two departments have a complicated history and relationship that has evolved over time.  Under our current arrangement, the Theatre Department hosts one music opera production per year in our home facility (the Blank Performing Arts Center).

This means that the Theatre Simpson Designer/Tech Director faculty serves as Technical Director and the Theatre Simpson ATD/Scene Shop Supervisor faculty oversees construction; Theatre Simpson provides a lighting designer for the production (either faculty or student); the scene shop provides 350 or so of work-study and service-learning labor-hours toward the building of the scenery and another 200 or more work-study hours lighting and running the light board.  All other labor (including building scenery during two 7-hour Saturday work calls, stage managing, run crew, etc) is provided by music students or volunteers.

The Music department contracts their own Set Designer for these productions.  They often contract me (under a separate contract since my load doesn’t cover another design) to design Music at Simpson productions. This year, in addition to Technical Directing Marriage of Figaro, I was assigned by the theatre department to design lights for the opera production as part of my load.  In December, when the Music department was struggling to arrange for a set designer, I became the set designer as well.

Part of the reason for the Music Department’s delay in arranging for a designer was their hope to save production budget by borrowing a setting from the Des Moines Metro Opera.  When it became clear that none of the available sets would lend themselves to the particular scenic needs of The Marriage of Figaro, they were left in a quandary.   I have designed The Marriage of Figaro for the music department two times previously and some of the scenic elements used in previous productions remain in various forms in the theatre and music department’s stock, so I offered to design the sets at a reduced fee and proposed a similarly minuscule set budget with the understanding that we would be using a lot of repurposed scenic elements.

I conceived a spare abstract theatrical environment with late eighteenth-century details to coordinate with the 1790s period costumes that were to be provided for the production. I designed the set  using Vectorworks software.   In addition to producing the standard plans, sections and elevations, I extruded all of the elements from each scene into 3-dimensional virtual models.  Viewed as Renderworks Style Realistic Colors White, the “models” have the visual appearance of a standard theatrical white models.

A1MODELMarriageOfFigaro2016_B12-17-15Act I of The Marriage of Figaro takes place in an empty room that Figaro (the Count’s manservant) and Susanna (his betrothed and the Countess’s handmaiden) will move into once they are married. The room has doors said to communicate between the Count’s and Countess’ rooms and has another entrance.  It also features  a high-back chair that is needed for business involving one character hiding from another by hiding under a sheet over that chair
MarriageOfFigaroS16A1_2702Two of the doors and pediment on one of them were originally built for a 1996 Theatre Simpson production of Arcadia.  The third door was was built to match for a 2002 production of The Marriage of Figaro.  These scenic elements have been used for countless productions and are kept in stock because of their usefulness and versatility. The polychrome marble floor is painted using galzes over a “sprayed-up” black floor.  The backdrop is a black velour panel lit from below by cyc footlights hidden behind a 1’6″ high black-painted ground row.

A2MODELMarriageOfFigaro2016_DAct II of The Marriage of Figaro transpires in the Countess’ bedroom.  There are a number of features that are important to the room.  It needs to include a closet door behind which Cherubino, the Count’s page  is trapped when the Count’s jealousy has him convinced that the Countess is carrying on an affair behind his back.  The door to Figaro’s & Susanna’s soon-to-be-bedroom allows Susanna to sneak into the room when the Count locks the room’s main entry doors while he goes to get keys to open the closet.  Susanna frees Cherubino who jumps out of the window and she replaces him in the closet.  The director also insisted on a four-poster tester bed.

MarriageOfFigaroS16A2b_2729Two of the doors from Act I were moved to new positions onstage flanking the purpose-built four-poster bed.  A double-door main entrance doorway and pediment was built years ago and has been used several times since.  The doors, themselves had to be constructed since the  French windows that remained from their last use were unsuitable for this production.  The wagon on which the double doors stand needed to be built from scratch as did the window and window seat unit.

MarriageOfFigaroIntermission_2716We took intermission between Act II & Act III.  The cartouch remains from the 2002 production.  constructed of carved foam, it needed to be repainted after water damage incurred during storage.  The swagged drapes creating a soft false proscenium are a pair of stock black masking legs.

A3s2CourtMODELMarriageOfFigaro2016_BAct III is a complicated affair with action shifting back and forth between three settings.    When the curtain opened the playing circle was dressed as a music and art room in the palace, while the stage is fitted-up as a courtroom where the Count is to hear a complaint against Figaro lodged by Marcellina

MarriageOfFigaroS16A3s1_2736The playing circle is one of the idiosyncrasies of Pote Theatre which superficially resembles a classical Roman Theatre. The upstage portion of the playing circle level is removed to open up the orchestra pit.  Bridges over the orchestra pit on either side of the stage provide performers access to the downstage portion.  Pit rails and bridge rails give the bridges and back of the playing circle a finished look.  The current set of “Bridge Rails”  was built for Music at Simpson’s production of Street Scene in 2014.  The furnishings in the playing circle came from Music department stock, from Theatre Simpson stock and some was borrowed from the Des Moines Metro Opera stock.

MarriageOfFigaroS16A3s2_2740The courtroom consisted of an assemblage of elements from other productions.  The window is part of a window unit built in Spring 2013 for Music at Simpson’s production of Massenet’s Cendrillion and Theatre Simpson’s production of The Winter’s Tale.  The drapery and the folding screen were created for Cendrillion, while the desk and chair came out of Theatre Simpson stock and the 8 light-colored chars were used in Theatre Simpson’s 2012 production of Alice’s Trip: A Movement Adventure.

A3s3BallroomMODELMarriageOfFigaro2016_BToward the end of Act III the action shifts to the palace’s ballroom for Figaro and Susanna’s wedding. This scene must accommodate the entire 40-plus member cast and chorus .
MarriageOfFigaroS16A3s3a3 large window panels were repurposed from the Cendrillion/ Winter’s Tale windows while the 4 paired columns were purpose-built for the production.  These windows are constructed of welded square steel tubing.  The backs of them are covered with a clear plastic membrane MarriageOfFigaroS16A3s3bavailable from home improvement stores for winterizing windows.  The thin plastic is held in place with double stick tape and then it is shrunk to the appearance of glass by strategically applying heat with a heat-gun or hairdryer.  Under the right lighting, reflections of the actors onstage appear in the windows, effectively doubling the apparent size of the cast.

A4MODELMarriageOfFigaro2016Act IIII is set in the garden that evening where the Count believes that he is meeting Susanna for an assignation, but, instead woos the Countess, his wife.  Meanwhile Figaro who is not in on the prank temporarily believes the Count is having success wooing his new wife (really the Countess in Susanna’s clothing) and resolves to have revenge by wooing the Countess (really Susanna in the Countess’ clothing).  Though he quickly sees through the disguise, he continues pretending to woo the Countess, and upsetting Susanna who briefly thinks that he thinks she is the Countess.
MarriageOfFigaroS16A4c_2752This setting used both the playing circle and the stage.  In the playing circle, a bench borrowed from DMMO is paired with two topiary bushes built for Theatre Simpson’s 2002 production of To Fool the Eye and used frequently for Theatre, Music and even DMMO productions ever since. MarriageOfFigaroS16A4a_2746 Onstage flanking gazebo halves represent the “pavilions” called for in the text were originally built for a production of The Merry Widow in 1996 and have been used for at least 10 productions since then (last for the 2014 production of MarriageOfFigaroS16A4b_2758Carousel).  The bench center stage has been hanging around for 25 years, having been designed and built for the 1991 production of Les Liaisons Dangeruses.  Flanking the bench, the flowering bushes also date form that 2002 production of To Fool the Eye.  Overhead at the back of the stage, I repurposed windows from the 2014 production of Street Scene.  Originally there were 4 of that particular size, however one did not survive its use as a window in Julie’s house in the second act of the 2014 production of Carousel.  Cosequently, we only hung 3 of them for Act IIII.  The windows were covered by stretched window sheers and back-lit to offer the impression of a brightly lit  piano nobile at night.

As I hope the reader can see, the production achieved both an economy and an elegance that belies the repurposed nature of the majority of the scenery used onstage for the production. Even though scenic elements were drawn from a half-a-dozen or more disparate productions, through careful selection, a strongly unified period production can be maintained even on a minimal budget.  However, without the foresight to save valuable items and the space to do so, even this could not be possible.

That’s all for now!
Be safe!
All photography and CADD models used in this post by Steven J. McLean.









A Lost Summer: Laying Ceramic Tile on a Basement Floor

Posted in Liberal Arts Applied: Tiling a Basement Floor, Uncategorized on October 23, 2015 by stevenjmclean

I went into the summer hiatus from my college teaching and theatre designer / technical director job with the intention of catching up on the backlog of planned posts to this site.  My thinking was that except for a 3-week vacation in Florida, I would have plenty of time.  After all, for the first summer in several years I had no summer theatre gig, no major renovation plans and the two sets that I was scheduled to design for the Fall semester were both well on their way to being designed.

Then life happened.  A whole lot of bad things:  a pair of deaths in my wife’s immediate family, a flooded basement and a cat with a broken leg.  While the family losses took the greatest emotional toll, the flooded basement had the greatest impact on my time


Niko’s Cast

My wife and I were one day into a 3-week vacation,  having driven from the midwest to southwest Florida.  Our son (who was home for the summer from his first year of college) called to tell us that one of our cats had broken her leg.  The next day he called again, having  awoken around noon, to enquire as to why the carpet in his basement bedroom would be wet following a heavy rain.  Turned out that a critter had dug a borough clear down to the bottom


The failed sump pump

of the foundation beneath one of the downspouts and the sump pump had utterly failed.  The entire wall-to-wall carpet and carpet pad was wet and moisture was wicking up the drywall.  Eventually, the whole house would smell of mildew.  Of course, this all only became clear to me after I returned home following several days of updates where the report of the condition of the floor and the failure of attempts to dry it out with portable pumps, shop vacs, and fans became increasingly dire.


30-yard roll-off dumpster

My son enlisted the help of some of his friends to rip all of the carpet out of the basement and I rented a 30 yard roll-off dumpster in which to dispose of carpet, pad, and a whole lot of ruined furniture.

The carpet itself was no great loss. It  was installed by a previous owner and was in questionable condition when we moved in over 10 years ago.  Since that time, The basement had seen heavy use, first as a family room , then as quarters for my daughter and son-in law, then as quarters for my mother-in-law and step-father-in-law.  Finally my son moved down there at the beginning of high school.  As a general rule, I don’t think that wall-to-wall carpeting  is a good idea in a basement anyway, so we decided to take this opportunity to replace the floor with ceramic tile.


“Stuff”  following Carpet Removal

I have laid  tile in the past, but at approximately 650 square feet this proved to be the largest tile project that I have ever undertaken. The task was complicated by the immense amount of “stuff” that we have accumulated.  Though some of that was ruined by the water and  discarded  in the dumpster, I still had to work around a whole lot of furnishings and other “junk”.

As a result of this,  and the experience of consolidating the households of the expired relatives, and the prospect of one day moving from our current home, my advice to the reader is to get rid of anything that is not absolutely necessary to your livelihood, comfort or security.

I have yet to take my own advice.

Since it was such a large floor (and relatively flat) I selected a  16″ tile, choosing  to lay it in a brick pattern off-setting every other course.  I planned the installation by dry-laying the tiles to determine the best way to maximize whole tiles and minimize cut tiles (resulting in less work and a more attractive layout).


Brick-laid 16″ tiles & tile-laying tools

The actual work of laying tile is more laborious than you might expect.  The thinset mortar  must be mixed one batch at a time.  I used a 5-gallon bucket and mixed about 3 gallons of mortar at a time.  I used a grey powdered mortar mix and a liquid  acrylic modifier (instead of water to maximize the adhesion properties of the thin set mortar).   Adding the liquid to the powder a little at a time to mix properly, it took about 10 minutes to mix


Grooved trowel used to spread mortar

and required another 20 to 30 minutes to  “slake” or permit the liquid to fully absorb into the powder. Another 30 seconds of vigorous mixing readied the mortar for application.  I prepared the floor (scraping, sweeping, mopping and moistening it) and applied the mortar to the floor  with a 1/2″ square notched trowel (notch size is determined by the tile size).


Back-buttered tile & mortar bed

I  back-buttered each tile to assure that mortar completely covered the back of each tile (again to maximize adhesion).   Once that was done, I pressed the back-buttered side into the troweled mortar bed making sure that it was level and evenly centered.  Small foam spacers assured regularity of the gap.  I also carefully removed any mortar that squeezed out between the tiles so that the beige-colored  grout would have a generous depth


Tile laid into mortar bed with spacers

of gap to fill and would completely cover the grey mortar.  Each mix of mortar was sufficient to lay between 12 and 15 tiles and took about an hour to apply.  The tools and mixing buckets needed to be completely cleaned and rinsed out between batches.  You can imagine that with each batch taking about 2 hours or more and yielding 20-25 square feet, it took around 25 of batches and a lot of time to lay all of the tile.


First Section:  Tiles laid (not grouted), wallboard repaired, ready for paint


I worked the floor in 3 large sections so that I could leave some of the bigger items including floor-to-ceiling bookcase, tables, pool table and other large pieces of furniture in the space (so as not to have to move them up the basement stairs).


8″ of soaked drywall replaced with MR wallboard


Once a section had been laid, I let it cure for a week before grouting and let that cure for another week before moving furniture on it.  Meanwhile, I also repaired the drywall over the finished section and painted the walls.


Diamond wheel on Angle-Grinder

Of course, the tiles did not work out to whole tiles around the edges so, I used a tile cutter that I bought at my local big box store to split tiles to fit the margins around the edges  tile field against the walls.  The tile cutter has a sharp wheel like a glass cutter that scores the front of the tile, and a lever that applies pressure on both sides of the score to split the tile in a nice straight line. Sometimes the cuts needed to be inside corners or close enough to the edge of the tile that the tile cutter wouldn’t work.  After some experimentation and research,  I purchased a diamond cutting wheel that fit my angle-grinder to get those hard-to-do cuts.


Clara the cat (Nicco’s sister) inspects the first section before grout

I staggered these operations so that there was no down time, with something going on practically every day. In this way my summer slowly ebbed away until I was finishing up grouting the last section in mid-August.  After the grout had cured I installed  pvc baseboard along the bottom of all walls and sealed the grout with grout sealer.



Clara approves of the final section


that’s all for now.

Thanks for reading and Be safe!



A Boat For Carousel

Posted in Design and Production with tags , , , , on May 19, 2015 by stevenjmclean

Every designer probably has in the back of his mind an idea in want of a project.  For me, the strongest one  stems from my interest in boats and boating.


20′ Highlander

When I was a kid, my father bought a Highlander Inland class sailboat. This is a 20′ boat with a mainsail & jib and which also could carry a spinnaker.  Our boat was solid wood construction with a mahogany hull and a wooden mast & boom.   My family sailed it during summers for a couple of years at the Hoover Yacht Club near Westerville Ohio where I grew up.  Tragically, the boat was holed, the mast and boom destroyed by a careless driver who ran off the road and ended up upside down on top of the boat taking a couple of fence posts with him and ripping the boat off the trailer, sliding atop it across the gravel marina parking area for about 50 feet.  We moved the boat to our backyard under a shed and worked on & off for years trying to restore it. Dad sold it 10 or more years later but she never sailed again for us.


13′-9″ Sunfish

I also took sailing lessons (with my Mom) at the Yacht Club in 1974 (the year that Jaws came out in movie theaters).  We learned to sail on a fleet of little Sunfish,  small 13 3/4′ single person boats (2 could sail without incident if they both knew what they were doing).  Though I never sailed much after that summer (except for a brief session at summer camp a couple of year’s later earning my sailing merit badge)  I trace my love of boats and the water to these experiences.


Ocean Kayak Malibu II

Years later, when my own family was young, I embraced  the sit-on-top kayak like the ones manufactured by Ocean Kayak.  I was introduced to this type of kayak when my family took a paddling tour while vacationing at Las Olas Beach Resort in Satellite Beach Florida in the late 90s and bought our own a few years later. We use it practically every year when we return to Florida to explore the canals and islands of the inland waterways looking to observe manatee and dolphins. Recently, I have embraced the paddle-board craze by purchasing ISUP boards from Tower Paddle Boards.  But I am getting ahead of myself!

Porgy and Bess--Catfish Row--Project

Porgy and Bess–Catfish Row–Project

Over the years, I have often sought to include boats into my set designs.  In graduate school at Penn State University one of my scene design professors assigned us the set design for Porgy and Bess.  Most of the play occurs in Catfish Row (a fictitious

Porgy and Bess--Kittiwah Island--Project

Porgy and Bess–Kittiwah Island–Project

neighborhood of run-down tenements near the Charlestown South Carolina waterfront circa 1920s)  However, smack in the middle of the play, the action moves briefly to Kittiwah Island where the community goes to have a picnic.  I envisioned the island for this project as a low, flat, sandy dune with scraggly growth, a stunted Palmetto tree and an upturned boat.

I also included an upturned boat in the design project for Ah, Wilderness!  that I designed as another grad. school project.  When Richard and Muriel meet for an evening rendezvous at the beach, I thought of them sitting on an upturned skiff.  A couple of years later I was unsuccessful in getting a boat included for a realized production at Allentown College (now De Sales University).

On and off over the years, I  failed repeatedly to integrate boats into the design of several productions where I thought one might be useful (most recently my 2013 design for A Winter’s Tale which saw the 2nd act set in a Texas/Louisiana bayou.)  I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but when I had the opportunity to design Carousel in Fall 2014, I seized on the boat idea for the clambake scene.  As in Porgy and Bess, the community retires at one point in the action to an offshore island for a picnic (characterized in this New England setting as a “clambake”).  I had been unsuccessful in getting a boat into the 2004 production of Carousel , so this time, because I was determined to give each scene an iconic look, I was more-than-ever determined to finally get a boat into the production.


Carousel Act II scene 1 (The Island)

One of the things that always “thwarted” me (pardon the pun) in the past was how complicated that it would be to construct something that actually looked like a boat, while also being able to support the weight of the actors who would inevitably sit, climb and possibly dance on it.  While researching the look of old wooden boats, I  concluded that the standard caravel or lapstrake planking methods of boatbuilding would exceed our available skills, space, time and budget.  I  flirted briefly with the idea of purchasing a boat and searched local Craigslist listings.  I found a couple of possibilities including a 15′ Sirocco daysailer that was going for around $750.  At that price, I strongly considered it (thinking that I might just buy it myself and loan it to the production) but I thought better of the idea, concluding that the work needed to make the fiberglass hull appear to be a late nineteenth-century boat would be overly time consuming and would probably wreck the boat besides.

During my research I ran across a boat-building technique known as “Stitch and Glue”.  This method uses sheets of plywood cut into pre-designed shapes, held together with copper wire as the basis for the boat hull. There are books that detail this technique, but I found a pretty useful free tutorial on Stitch and Glue boatbuilding  online.

OrthographicCarouselBoadI found  free plans online and downloaded several before settling on the 14′ Sunny Skiff rowing boat at  Full-scale templates  for these boats are available  on the web sites (for a fee), but I TemplateCarouselBoatSide&Bottomimported the pdf pages into Vectorworks, scaled them, then traced the parts using the 2D Polygon [drawing] Tool to create the orthographic drawing and the part layouts that are shown on this page.  Using the Viewport feature of Vectorworks, I was able to print out full-scale templates of my own on our HP 24″ DesignJet printer.  That way there was no question about my carpenters reinterpreting the shapes in such a way that the parts would not fit together properly.  Notice that the bottom and the sides of the boat are longer than the standard 8′ length of a TemplateCarouselBoatThwarts&Deckssheet of plywood.  Boat builders get around this issue by joining two lengths of plywood with a tapered “scarf” joint, thus creating one long piece of plywood out of two.  There is even a tool available to accomplish this job.  Since this wasn’t going to be a REAL boat, we scabbed the plywood pieces together, positioning the side joints so that they would be hidden in the “thwart” (the seat that is positioned in roughly the middle of the boat). To maintain the maximum offset between them, the joint on the bottom of the boat was about 12″ astern (behind) the one in the sides.  The original plan was to have the boat upturned anyway, so none of these scabbed joints were expected to show.  The boat bottom and all of the frames and decks from were cut from 5/8″ ply, and the sides from 1/4″ ply.  An authentic boat would be constructed from marine grade plywood, costing a premium, but since this was scenery, we used standard CDX for the 5/8″ & B/C for the 1/4″ ply.  Instead of using the copper wire “stitching” and epoxy resin to construct the hull, we used staples, construction adhesive and adhesive caulk.  We did not take pains to bevel joints where pieces abutted others at non-right angles either, relying on the application of adhesive caulk to cover up the omission.  After completing the hull, we reinforced the gunwales by ripping 1x to 3/4″ widths and bending and gluing them along the top edges of both sides. laminating 3 strips to gain a 2 1/4″ reinforced edge.

CarouselTheIsland#1CROPPED_6890Unfortunately, we did not get any process photos.

After about 1 week of construction, the boat was ready for tech rehearsals. During that process, we made several changes to how the boat was to be used.  While I always thought of it as an “overturned” boat, CarouselTheIsland#2_6893the director Jennifer Nostrala and I realized that as a scenic element, it was more picturesque and more useful in an upright orientation.  Also, although my original intent was to have the boat onstage throughout the scene, Jennifer decided to strike all of the scenery and props following the initial CarouselTheIsland#4CROPPED_6901“Clambake” number, leaving the unit set stark and bare.  Later, she decided to leave the “market umbrella” that we used to dress the stage on stage right, but the boat did not stay.  While the boat did provide seating variety for some couples during the clambake number, its picturesque presence was absent throughout the rest of the scene, meaning that we didn’t get many great production photos of the boat onstage.

Once the production was over, I resisted the persistent requests to take the boat to a local lake and put her in the water to see how she would float.  I have no doubt that the boat would initially float and behave as it should.  However, built as she was of inferior materials using “set construction shortcuts” I am also convinced that she would deteriorate quickly and shortly become unserviceable.  So, we slid her into a storage garage next to the carousel horses.  When next I need a boat (overturned or otherwise) for a production, she will be waiting.  Meanwhile, I now have some experience with boat-building.  Perhaps my next boat will be made of better stuff and will be able to paddle or sail in the water for real!

Meanwhile, thanks for reading.  Have fun!  But be safe!



Turning Legs for Jenny Lind Tables: The Memory Of Water

Posted in Design and Production on May 11, 2015 by stevenjmclean

In November 2014 Theatre Simpson opened a production of The Memory of Water.  We produced it in the Simpson College Blank Performing Arts Center’s Barnum Theatre.  Barnum is an unusual shaped Black Box style space.  A “Black Box” space is one that according to J Michael Gillette in his textbook Theatrical Design and Production is ” usually painted black and [has] a simple rectangular shape” and has seating that “is generally located on movable bleacher-like modules that can be arranged in any number of ways around the playing space”.  Our Barnum theatre fits this general description, and director Anne Woldt chose to produce the play in an arena configuration.

The choice of an arena staging configuration with the audience surrounding the acting area on all four sides drives many choices that the set designer will make.  Again, according to J Michael Gillette:

The scenery used on an arena stage is extremely minimal. Because the audience surrounds the stage, designing for the arena theatre provides a challenge to all the designers.  Anything used on an arena stage–sets, costumes, makeup, props — must be carefully selected to clearly specify the period, mood, and feeling of the play.  Additionally, everything must be well constructed, because the audience sits almost on top of the stage and can see every construction detail.

The Memory of Water takes place in the bedroom of the recently deceased Vi and concerns her daughters Mary, Theresa, and Catherine and their coming to grips with their memories of their mother and of growing up together.  There are several scenic requirements demanded or implied by the script:  A full-sized or larger bed, a bedside table and lamp, a dressing table with functioning drawers, storage for clothing and other items that the sisters sort through, the suggestion of a mirror, an entrance from another part of the hours, a casket, and a window through which one person must enter.  The standard arena configuration surrounds the acting area on four sides.  This typically leaves the 4 corners open for entrances.  This also creates the circumstance that the actors can stand on diagonals to one another without blocking one another from large sections of the audience. Entrances along these diagonals help to motivate such blocking.  It is also customary to place items on or near those corners of the acting area  to motivate blocking on non-entrance diagonals.  Large items can sometimes be placed on the diagonals as well to prevent them from creating serious sight-line issues.


Consequently, I chose to place the bed in one corner and the window roughly diagonal to it on the other corner.  We  adjusted the audience seating to accommodate the placement of those items, and placed other items (trunk, mirror and dressing table) on the axis created by the aisles in the seating  sections.  We used one diagonal as the entrance to the room from the rest of the house and although not directly called for in the script, used the opposite corner to represent an exit to an offstage dressing-room or bathroom.

7031MemoryOfWaterSetSMALLEven with its placement in the corner, the headboard of a bed presents a serious challenge in an arena stage. However, while imagining the setting, I came across a wonderful Jenny Lind headboard that should prove to minimize the problem with its open spindle configuration.  In order to maintain a sense of design to the room, I felt that it HeadboardB_2231
was necessary to carry the general design style of spool-style spindles through as much of the rest of the room’s furniture as possible.  This presented quite a challenge since the acquisition of the head-board and bed frame was a bit of a fluke and there was minimal likelihood of acquiring matching bedside table and dressing tables.   Since the arena configuration dictated such a minimal scenic response (a floor, a cornice and a window) in addition to this furniture, I decided that we could build it and decided to design and build the matching dressing and bed-side tables.
TheMemoryOfWaterSide&DressingTablesThe biggest challenge would be the spool-style legs.  After a search through catalogue and online sources for suitable table legs failed to discover anything useful, I determined to turn them myself.  I have some previous experience with turning.  However my skills were rusty.  Though every-place I worked previously had a lathe in the shop, Simpson College did not.

DiagramOfCraftsmanLatheThe first impediment to my plan: the need to secure a lathe. I was hoping to pick up a high-quality lathe from Craigslist.  However, I had to settle for one of the ubiquitous “Craftsman” lathes that Sears flooded the market with between 1960 and 1990. To put it in perspective, of those shops that I worked in that had lathes EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS A CRAFTSMAN!  Thus it was with only a little disappointment and no real other concern that I settled on and purchased one. (I have since seen several Delta, Jet and other manufacturer’s lathes advertised for decent prices on Craigslist, so, your mileage may vary).

A visit to my local Woodsmith Store scored me some 2″ thick Poplar that I could turn the legs from.  In retrospect, I found the Poplar a little brittle and splintery for this purpose.  Had I to do it again, I would look for a “friendlier” wood such as Birch, but the price was right for the Poplar and I didn’t have to do any glue-up to get the turning blanks.

I began the process by ripping the stock to as close to square cross-section as possible without a planer or a joiner.  This allowed me to find the exact center of each end by drawing a diagonal from  opposite corners to find the intersection.

The table legs that I designed included sections that were to remain square.  In order to mark the blanks so that I could round the spool sections while keeping the square sections un-rounded  I created a template or story-board by printing off a full-scale viewport of the leg drawing using Vectorworks.  I spray cemented the full-scale drawing to a strip of 1/8″ Masonite.  After marking the block, I made shallow cuts on all four sides of the blank to separate the surfaces of the square sections from those that were to be rounded.  While I was at it, I scored shallow cuts along each diagonal of the end of the blank that would be held by the lathe headstock spur center.  I removed  the spur center from the headstock spindle and tapped it into the scored end with a woodworking mallet, then mounted the blank between the lathe centers, placing the spur center back in the headstock and aligning the indentations and centering the point of the tailstock cup center on the other end.  I tightened the tailstock to the bed and  tightened the tailstock ram in place with the crank until the blank was held securely between the points.


2384CaliperSMALLI turned the spool sections round (using the gouge tool), then using the the template again (as seen above), marked all of the turned details on the blank.  Using mostly the parting and skew chisel tools (with judicious use of the spindle gouge), I continued to refine the shapes until they matched the design both “by eye” and by using a caliper to verify that diameters were rendered correctly.


The soft and brittle nature of the Poplar resulted in a lot of tear-out.  To make the surface smooth, after an initial sanding, I rubbed joint compound into the turned sections.  Once dry, I sanded again and applied a coating of shellac.  Since it was always my attention to paint the legs so that they would match the rest of the inferior grade woods for the tables, this worked very well.

2394SideTablePartsSMALL 2492BedTable2498DressingTable2395DressingTablePartsSMALL

Not counting the cost of the lathe, these perfectly matching tables ended up costing us less than $100 (mostly in the cost of the Poplar).  With so few elements of scenery visible onstage, it was important that the furnishings coordinate.

Meanwhile, thanks for listening.  Have fun!  But be safe!