Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Erosion Fences

These erosion fences were a side project at one of the theatres I work with. They needed to be sturdy and yet incredibly light and easy for actors to move. The designer wanted them to look old and weather beaten and for the wood to have the old "greyed" look of barn wood. In addition, the rest of the set is going to be made from raw wood with a little bit of stain and seal on it, which means painting wasn't really an option (my skills are not good enough to make painted wood look real next to the real thing). I went to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in hopes of finding some old lumber, unfortunately they had recently taken all of the old stick lumber they had in stock and used it to build more shelving in the store. After some discussion with one of the workers about options, he told me that, though they were not technically "for sale," he could give me some old palettes if I would make a donation to Habitat. It worked out perfectly, for less than I would have spent on new lumber I got all the wood I needed already greyed and roughed up.

If you're going to deal with palettes for lumber, there are some things you need to know about them. First, though they look rickety sometimes, they are very well constructed. The nails that are used to put them together are twisted, so trying to knock a palette apart with a hammer won't get you very far. You will do much better prying and twisting the boards. To get these apart I used a circular saw to cut the planks just inside both end boards leaving them only attached at the middle stretcher. I was then able to twist them back and forth to loosen them before prying them off.

Another thing to know about palettes is that they are often constructed of hardwoods (not the pine and cedar you would guess). I have found maple and poplar among others that I couldn't identify. You often can't tell until you cut it because the finish is rough and it's all so dirty.

After I broke the palettes apart I ripped the lumber down to the right widths on the table saw, used my draw knife to rough up the cut edges, and sanded everything lightly to remove the splinter hazard for actors who would be touching it.

The dirt at the bottom of the fences was made from a lauan base with layers of pink insulation foam attached with contact adhesive (the correct kind, in the green can for all of those who read "turkey adventures part 2"). I carved the foam down to natural rounded shapes and then cut slots in it with a matte knife for the planks. I attached the planks into the slots using more contact adhesive.

After the planks were in the slots (cut a little smaller than the plank so that friction would help to hold everything in place). I attached the planks together with cross-pieces. I learned while working on this that it is much easier to attach the top brace first. Also, if I were to do this again I would pay more attention when I was cutting the slots, that I was putting them in a straight line. It was nice that the fence posts weren't in a perfect line; the push and pull and bend and tilt made them look a lot more worn and weather beaten, but there were a couple of occasions when the posts were so out of line that I had to re-cut a slot and move them in order to be able to attach the cross-piece.

After the fence was assembled I used light-weight spackling compound to make the foam look even more dirt-like and to fill in all the gaps and seams. If you've never played with this stuff, you should try it. It has the texture of buttercream icing, dries incredibly fast and is fun to play with.

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