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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Antiquing and distressing a prop (1 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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This morning (Sunday) Donna and I were sitting in bed, having coffee and chatting about our day’s plans. I happened to mention that I really needed to write another column for the Café, since I hadn’t done one since March. She asked what I was going to write about, and I said I’d been thinking about a piece on aging and distressing.

She didn’t miss a beat.

She immediately said, “Geez, George, it’s not nice to write about old people. We are aging and distressing.”

I’m telling you, there’s no mercy here. No mercy whatsoever. Smile

Anyway, I wanted to write about this because every now and then I see a post about “How do I age this,” or “How do I antique that,” and I wanted to say that there’s no magic formula--no cut-and-dried technique--for aging and antiquing a prop. It all depends on the prop itself, and on what you’re trying to do with it.

The key--the secret, the technique used by professional theatre and movie prop people--to aging and distressing a prop is in understanding what it is and what its history is. And the best way to do this is by looking at a real antique and reading its history. Real antiques do tell a history, and we can learn a lot from understanding it.

For instance, a piece of furniture left out on the back porch for a number of years will inevitably show some fading: if the sun hits it mostly on one side, it’ll be bleached more on that side than on the other. But yet the backside, the side against the wall, may be in good shape, or it may be totally eaten away by rot caused by dampness that did not get a chance to evaporate. It may also be physically worn more on one side if the owners, for instance, set stuff on it more on one side than on the other.

Or take a china display case that’s been sitting on a sideboard for over a hundred years. If it hasn’t been moved very often, the sides of the box may be in good shape, but the lid and the area around the lock may be worn from use. The velvet lining in the lid (which hasn’t been touched all that often) may be fine, but the lining inside the box itself may be worn from the frequent taking out and replacing of the contents.

Old books are usually worn on the edges of the covers, where readers open and close them, and towards the top right of the pages, where these are frequently turned. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose has an interesting section on how an old manuscript was poisoned in just the places where the intended victim would flip the pages. An afternoon in a used book shop will reveal wonderful mysteries if we just stop and read the books’ own stories.

I did some design development work at one of the major theme parks a few years ago and noticed, sadly, that a lot of areas had been antiqued and/or distressed with no apparent regard to what they were supposed to be, or to how they would have aged for several hundred years or longer. It almost looked like the painters had followed a formula—like someone had told them, “Here, put this on first and put that on second, and then add a bit of this around the edges.” It created a cartoonish effect in areas that were not designed to look like cartoons.

Antiquing isn’t a formula; it’s a concept. That’s a phrase I learned a few years ago when Donna and I attended a class on how to make paella, which is a Spanish seafood dish. One of the first things the instructor said was that there’s no “classical authentic recipe” for paella. Paella is not a recipe: it’s a concept--a traditional way to use rice, and chicken, and chorizo, and locally available seafood, to make a one-course meal for several people.

An effective technique is to think of the object as having a history, and of each part of its history as being a “layer” that can be addressed separately. Although it’s impossible to create a “how to” list about antiquing props, I’m going to show a couple of hypothetical examples of how I would go about doing this, using standard theatrical techniques. This will of course delve into the actual design of the prop, but I’ll focus on the antiquing.

An antique case for a spirit writing board. Let’s say I want to create a fancy carrying and display case for a spirit board, aka an Ouija Board. First, a little research will tell me that the Ouija Board as we know it was introduced in the early 1900’s, but that a more generic type of board had been in use since the late 1880’s. Granted, I could do a lot more research, but this gives me a time period in which to work.

Fine. I’ll decide to go with a board and case made around 1920 in New York City, right around the time that Houdini was exposing mediums all over the place. Why? Okay, one simple reason is that there is lots of research material available on this period, including vintage Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Another reason is a lot of the design styles in this period were heavy and ornate, sort of a “retro” look dating back to the late 1800’s. In other words, it’s a fun period to work in.

For a little more research, I can look up fitted cases for dueling pistols and surgical instruments. We can still find some of these cases in museums and antique shops, and they are gorgeous.

Anyway, so I make the board and planchette, and then build a flat hinged case with a fitted recess in the center to hold the planchette, with the board itself on top. The inside is lined with purple crushed velvet (which is “pre-distressed” as is), and the outside is varnished and has brass fittings and corners. Once finished, this hypothetical case is nice, but it looks brand-new.

Here’s where the fun comes in.

Let’s look at the inside first. A case like this would have been kept closed most of the time, so, normally, the only real damage inside would be from people taking out the contents and replacing them. The purple crushed velvet is already giving it an antique look, but we need to emphasize it. The first thing I’d look at is where the lining would be worn from people picking up the board and putting it back. I would literally take the board out and replace it several times to get a good idea of where somebody would grab it and where their fingers would touch the lining. That’s exactly where I would take some fine sandpaper and rough up the velvet, and then grab my needle-nose pliers and pluck out a bit of the pile. A little masking tape or duct tape wrapped around my finger would help pull out some pile too. That’s the first of the “layers” I mentioned above

Another “layer” would be the fitted recess for the planchette. Here I would repeat the process, paying particular attention to where the feet go: if this case were almost a hundred years old, there would be some serious indentations in the velvet here.

Then I’d look at the inside corners of the case and pull out a few threads here and there, and maybe loosen the velvet a bit. Finally, I’d mix up some very diluted bleach, moisten a towel with it, and dab it lightly across the entire surface, with more emphasis on the edges where things would rub.

Then, just for kicks--and because the case would be used close to the audience--I’d buy a sachet packet, toss in the contents, and keep the lid closed for a few days. Maybe add half a mothball. A couple of stale cigarettes or a bit of pipe tobacco. A few drops of wine or brandy. And a very very light mist with a couple of different perfumes. Eventually I’ll dump all this stuff out and leave the case open outside in the sun for a day or two, but some of these smells will be absorbed into the velvet and linger for a long time. This is yet another “layer” of the case’s history: one that will make the audience notice several subtle smells, like in a glass of wine.

Good grief... between the paella and the wine, I’m getting hungry...

Now for the outside.

I said above that the outside of the (hypothetical) box was varnished, and I said it because varnish was a common way of finishing furniture back in the 1920’s. So let’s take a look at this box and what may have happened to it in almost a hundred years.

Back in the 1920’s, spiritualism was in vogue in certain areas and was very popular among a segment of the population. This means, simply, that the board could have been used fairly often for several years. So we have a lot of wear on the outside edges from the frequent picking up and setting down. This wear could consist of the edges being worn down or the varnish worn off; it could also mean a darkening of these areas, or even the varnish being polished to a luster from all the skin oil.

That’s one “layer.”

Another “layer” could be physical damage from moving the case: nicks and scratches here and there from taking the case to someone’s house for a séance or social gathering. Maybe someone set a glass on top of it at some point and it left a watermark.

This was all in the late 1920’s. Just a couple of years later, we have the Depression, and the popularity of spiritualism, among other things, fades away. So maybe the case just sat in a closet or in the attic for a number of years, gathering dust and spider webs. Now we have a general dulling of the surface as the dust accumulated, or maybe some damage from the conditions in the attic: humid in the summer and dry in the winter. Another “layer.”

But maybe the case wasn’t stored flat--maybe it was on its side, and the top edge caught the sun every day for years, drying it out even as the dust continued to accumulate.

Then World War II came along, and Americans focused on the war effort. More dust and spider webs. Maybe an occasional dusting off now and then, but at some point the board was removed from the case, played with, and returned to the case: a novelty from many years ago. A little more damage here, particularly to the edges and top surface as the case sat in the living room for a couple of weeks. Yet another “layer.”

Then the fifties came along, and the case was re-discovered. A couple of coats of paste wax right over the ground-in dust, and some brass polish on the hardware, which left those little white marks on the edges. One more “layer.”

See what I mean? By knowing the history of an object (even if we have to make it up), we can understand what may have happened to it and what it would look like over time: a vast difference from just banging the sides at random, sanding here and there, and spraying black paint on it.

What we end up with is a prop that “looks” and “feels” right and doesn’t distract from the presentation.

And that’s the key right there: the prop’s job description is to contribute to the story (or, if you’d rather, to the trick), not to distract the audience from the presentation. If it looks right, it’ll pass unnoticed. If not, it’ll attract attention to iself.

In the next part of this column, I’ll discuss a way to antique and distress a Sub Trunk.
That's Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Quote, How to get into illusions, unquote"
George Ledo
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Okay, so how do we make a new Sub Trunk look old and ordinary?

Just like with the case above, we need to understand the trunk and its context first.

I’ve seen a large number of Sub Trunks over the years that look nothing like a real trunk: they’re too clean, too new looking, the materials and finish are not what one would expect in a real trunk, and so forth. It’s almost like they were made to look like “what a Sub Trunk is supposed to look like” instead of like a real trunk. But, for some acts, this may work fine.

So, if a trunk that looks like a Sub Trunk fits into the visual style of your act, then by all means go that way. Don’t worry about making it look like a real trunk.

On the other hand, maybe you want a trunk that looks like it’s gone around the block a few times. As I mentioned in another column, trunks were once a very common piece of luggage, and you could see them everywhere. They’re not as common nowadays, but we still see them occasionally in catalogs or at large department or luggage stores. Mostly, the new ones aren’t made anything like the old ones: the materials and finish are cheaper, especially the fiber cover and the hardware. Old trunks were made to travel, take a beating, and last a long time. A lot of new ones seem to be made mostly for display or for use in a dorm room.

If you’re building a Sub Trunk from scratch, you have lots of options as to what it looks like. If you already have a Sub Trunk and want to do a makeover on it, you probably have fewer choices. But you still have choices.

Since this column is on antiquing and distressing, I’ll focus on that. Let’s say we have a commercial Sub Trunk and we want to make it look like an old “real” trunk.

Step One is to look at some old trunks to see what they look like and how they took a beating. Antique shops are a natural, but nowadays the Web is a good bet too. Just now, I got on ebay and found a selection of antique trunks (searching for “trunk” got me a selection of men’s briefs), and then I tried Google and found a few on-line shops that deal in these items. The resources are there.

The funny thing is that, looking through these sources, we discover (ahhh-ha!) that not all real trunks were black or had mahogany banding, They came in lots of colors and shapes.

Step Two is to understand the trunk and how it was used. Where are the wear points? Does it still have the original lock and hardware, or were some repairs done to it? Was it refinished? Did it have a number of travel stickers at one time, and were they removed or did they fall off? The old glue in some of these stickers leaves a telltale residue on the surface, especially after the trunk has baked in the sun for some time.

These variables are the same “layers” I discussed above, in the example of the case for the Ouija Board.

There is at least one company, Van Dyke’s Restorers, at, that sells hardware and parts for old trunks. Last time I looked, they also had a book on old trunks and luggage. A little research and imagination can turn a commercial Sub Trunk that looks like a Sub Trunk into a prop that looks like an old trunk that was recently refinished, giving it depth and character and interest.

Step Three is to look at the inside. A lot of old trunks were lined with paper, sort of like wallpaper, but others were lined with fabric. In many of these cases the original lining is in tatters or nearly so, or discolored beyond recognition, or stained, or all of the above; therefore, re-lining the inside would be a natural thing to do when refinishing the trunk. Don’t forget the little ledges on the ends, where the tray sits. If your Sub Trunk doesn’t have these ledges, adding them will help make it look like the real thing. Better yet, make a tray and just remove it in sight of the audience before getting into the trunk.

Another trick that has been used for years is to use the trunk to transport your props, at least for a few months. This will give it that unmistakable “been on the road” look, which could be just what you need.

That’s all there is to it.

Just to recap, the key to antiquing and distressing a prop is to really understand what it is supposed to be and how it was used – its history – even if you have to make it up. It’s sad to see a prop distressed at random: it looks like a prop distressed at random. Do your research, look at a real (whatever) if possible, and think in terms of layers. Then take your time.

And stop before you overdo it! Smile
That's Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Quote, How to get into illusions, unquote"
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This is an older thread, but WOW! I don't know how I missed it? In a "Magic Wagon" forum downstairs, we were discussing this very topic for the MW pieces.
This is excellent advice here, and thank you for writing it up.

I think an EXCELLENT book would be one on this topic!

Have you ever read Walt Anthony's "Tales of Enchantment" book? He took quite a few magic effects, and added in the excellent storytelling and ideas on how to bring the effects/props to a new level.

This could be done with "aging" as well...

Just a thought.

But thanks again for your thread here.

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