Turning Legs for Jenny Lind Tables: The Memory Of Water

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!




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