Building A Prop Telescope

A while back I had the opportunity to serve as Prop Master/Prop Designer  (as well as Technical Director) for our production of the Learned Ladies.  Staged by director Tom Woldt as if occurring the 1920s, the setting featured  Art Deco-inspired scenery and properties to match.  Guest set designer Amber Miller took a strong hand in the selection of much of the set props and set dressing picking out most of the major furniture items herself.  One set prop that she relied upon me to secure was the telescope  that was brought  onstage and set up at the top of the show and which remained onstage, in use by one of the characters off-and-on throughout the play.  The process that I followed in researching, designing, building and adapting this prop to the needs of the cast and the action of the play as staged is instructive as a model of the process for prospective Prop Master/Designers.

The only real data that I had (beyond that it should be an instrument circa 1920, that it had to be set up by cast members representing workmen at the top of the show and that another character from the play needed to appear to use it) was that the set designer wanted it “to be big” and that it was to sit roughly down center on our thrust stage aligned with our theatre’s central vommitory entrance.

circa 1918

circa 1913

1910s Telescope

I began the process by doing some research on the appearance of a period telescope.  In this manner, I learned that at the time, the bodies of telescopes usually appeared to be made of 3 or more brass cylinders of graduating sizes .  The tripod could be made of wood or metal. My first instinct was to try to borrow an authentic telescope, but after failing of find any leads at all, and recognizing that the modern telescopes that I had found at local thrift stores were unsuitable because of their lack of period appearance, I determined to construct one.

I made the drawing at right  to work out details of construction and to guide the purchase of material and hardware for the construction.  The original idea was to fabricate the telescope body using PVC pipe and standard pipe fittings.  However, after a trial fitting of the standard fittings it was clear that they needed to be adapted to make the lens tube appear more authentic.  In addition to trimming and sanding the fittings, some needed to be filled using epoxy putty.  I used PVC cement to join the tubes and fittings. A threaded rod inserted through the larger tube near the visual center of the tube secured the telescope to the wooden mount and permits the telescope to tilt through a wide range of inclination.

Tripod head parts before assembly

The mount is secured to a plate which, in turn is attached to the head of the tripod so as to allow the telescope to pan.   The tripod was made of clear birch.  Fittings on various parts of the tripod are carriage bolts and knobs from the local hardware store.  Fine brass chain and a steel ring with small split rings kept the tripod legs properly positioned (similar to that of the 1918 telescope research)

Detail of telescope mount and tripod head

Telescope on set of Learned Ladies

Once the prop began to be used for rehearsal, the director needed the overall height of the prop reduced so as not to be in the way of audience sight-lines.  With the lower stance the actress was unable to crouch low enough to peer through the original linear eye-piece, so I adapted the eyepiece to resemble that of the eyepiece arrangement evident in the 1913 telescope research.  I also had to insert and epoxy glue a small length of 1/2″ steel pipe into the narrow section of the telescope tube in order to balance the telescope on its mount and allow the actress using it to adjust it more easily.  Finally, a small circle of 1/2″ thick acrylic plastic inserted in the open end of the larger tube served to represent the lens.

The final finishes included several light coats of brass spray paint on the metal parts (telescope tube and knobs) and stain and  polyurethane on the wood parts of the tripod

That’s enough for now! Have fun!  Be safe!



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