Monday, November 24, 2008

Mini Cooper

(A cooper is one who makes or repairs barrels) hee.

Two days to make one prop? a.) It's an important prop that features a lot in the film over several scenes. b.) I'm now enjoying the satisfaction of starting and finishing things for the film in a single push and finally getting things done.

I've been worried about how I was going to make this rainwater barrel for Rana's porch for over a decade. So, now instead of having to worry about it, it's done. I had the idea to use a carved base block of Floral foam [1] reinforced with 2 layers of Durham's water putty and tissue paper (in my favorite plaster maché technique) so the shape would be durable enough to be used as a mold for the barrel's shaping.[2] It worked and became sturdy and rock hard when dry. I sketched where the rings and staves might go. I thought I would use real copper for the rings that I bought for that purpose in New York But watching several barrel making videos on YouTube (! praise G-d for internet references!) I realized the four rings would be minimal and there wasn't enough of it. [3] When the balsa wood planks I bought to use were far too brittle to curve over the barrel shape, I got resourceful and decided to use a piece of scrap 1/16" hardwood snagged from the trash somewhere and cut it up into the right size using a straight edge and utility knife. [4] I deliberately used the board's frayed rough edge on the top edge for added texture and detail. The videos taught me that each stave had to be narrowed at each end in order to conform to the bulging shape of a barrel at its middle.

In order to get the shaped wooden staves to shape themselves around the blank block I used the combination of Gorilla duct tape and long nails hammered into the block's ends. [5] Then, in order to keep the planks shaped that way I had to find banding material that was strong enough to corral boards that would want to resist and sproing out if they weren't there to keep things that shape. I came across a stash of magnet tape in house that could be riveted into hoops and looked exactly like iron with a rust patina when finished later on. [6] While the ends were still firmly capped with tape, I slathered on a thick layer of stainable wood glue to fill in all gaps and to secure the rings to the wood so they wood be permanently fixed together as one unit. [7] In the morning, after the glue had dried I carefully wrenched the tape and nails off of both ends with pliers. [8]

Like cracking a poached egg, I cut through the hard shell of maché at the top and tore off the top third of it, leaving the interior of the wood to show above the "water line" that will appear to be in the barrel later on. [9] I scooped out the rest of the green foam all the way down to the bottom of the barrel (don't anyone dare say it o-0) leaving the hard maché shell in place. Gave the inside a thick coating of more wood glue. [10] Made a paper pattern of the barrel bottom, used it as a template to cut out more wood, glued it securely in place. [11] Stained the whole thing when dry with watered down acrylic and walnut ink. [12]

When I placed the finished barrel on the set where the cottage porch will be, it really brought the place to life. Very exciting! It will be used to keep the mermaid in during her visit at the cottage and also on the trek through the desert to see the wise man, strapped onto Rana's back with a fabric sling.


  1. I learned so much by reading this one post! The barrel looks perfect! I really liked how you made it. And walnut ink! I learned something brand new. Thanks for sharing your process!

  2. Oh, thank you Rich! I'm so happy at the thought this description might have been helpful! let me know if you run into any snags with what you need to make!

    Walnut ink ( is the absolute most magical stuff there is. It's made from walnut shells and is a water-soluable colorant. You can by it in little spray bottles already diluted with water and/or buy a little jar of the walnut ink crystals to mix up to your desired strength. I use the spray bottle to refill with the crystals as needed.

    Here's a Googled demo of the effects:

    It can instantly add an uncannily true aged look to anything from paper to wood or clay, anything. It can be subtle or strong depending on your hand with it. And NOTHING ELSE will do what it does the way it does it. I have also used dilute mixtures of india ink and paints to give various patina effects but nothing else imparts the stain of vintage aging like walnut ink.

    fyi master model builders, the Thomas', make and sell something they call "bug juice" ( which I'm sure is every bit as good at weathering, and may even have walnut ink as a magic ingredient for all I know. It costs more than I'd like to pay so I've not tried it.

    Go get 'em!

  3. singing...

    "Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun"

    You sure it's only rain water Rana will be keeping in there? nothing a little stronger?

    The barrel looks great shelley.

  4. pomegranate beer? meebee.

    Thanks, Mark! by the way, I just found the mailer for my xmas cards, did you get the cardstock samples?

  5. Magical tutorial Shel!

    I love how you've used the inner core to both give the barrel shape and to reinforce the final prop. Smart! And beautifully finished.

  6. Thanks, Rich! I think a better craftsperson, like downstairs Clare, could have used mathematics (!) to measure the circumference and plank widths, used proper machine wood tools to get the staves to be perfectly fitted at the top and bottom BUT fortunately for me Halfland is rustic!

  7. Anonymous5:32 PM

    You and Strider are the barrel masters! I haven't actually made a barrel with real planks so far, just theorized a lot.
    My trick for bending planks for boat hulls, kinda similar, is to soak them in hot water - that makes them bend easier. Then I bow them between two blocks of wood and let them dry that way. They end up with a curve, maybe not exactly what I want but very close, so there isn't so much tension when I shape them. But you've made it work and it looks great!
    I don't hold with that mathematickle stuff neither, I guess the taper on a few planks and shape the last planks to fit the ones they go next to.

    I always drop by here when I want to see some real work being done!

  8. Oh! Alternating the planks and carving the inbetweens to fit, that's genius! That's the way to go! Math. Bleck.

    I did consider steaming the barrel when the wood planks were strapped down in shape to fix them but thought the nice water putty block on the inside might've melted down.

    I gotta go search Mike's archive for his barrels!

    Man, Nick, that last line really made me feel encouraged! Thank you!

  9. Shhhhh!

    top secret stuff

    oh wait, its your project

    Samples mailed back to you today
    let me know what you think.

  10. Wait. You mean these conversations aren't taking place just in my head?!


    Thank you, for your help on the secret xmas project, Mark, can't wait to see what you sent.

  11. Barrels are so cool!!

    well done...and thanks for the techniques...I just soaked them into my brain for future barrelyness.


  12. Thanks, Famous J, true, one never knows when one may need to have more barrels through life. hee.

  13. Beautiful! Interesting technique too, I never would have thought of paper maché on foam for a base structure. Thanks for the great description, Shelley! A decade's worth of worrying released -- must feel good :)

  14. Thank you, Stephanie, you got that right, it's a huge release to get these lingering things done.

  15. Love the barrel!!! Typically of Halfland stuff, it's a handmade antique, where mine are mold-poured replicas of a sculpted original. I considered using real wood, but thought it was too difficult.

    Don't bother checking my archives, at least not on my blog or the old hand-coded "blog" at my site... the barrels were done back when the message board WAS my blog! There's an old thread somewhere in there called Roll Out the Barrels... pretty sure you've seen it already.

  16. Thanks, Mikeeee! I did go back into your website and blog archives, couldn't find the barrel notes. But did recall reading a long thread at the boards about the many different ways to construct one. Cool stuff.

    Did you ever post any photos of the ones you made? Couldn't tell. Your Ahab film scale is quite a bit smaller. I might have cast multiples if ever in your sea-fairing shoes!

  17. Hmmmm...

    I DID post some pics, but that was back when I was using a free host called Ranchoweb. Don't recall exactly why I stopped using them.... I think they started charging and I found a better one (photobucket).

    You can see some barrels in a couple of the old test clips... the hammer tests and walk tests on my site (On the Table page).

  18. Oh, thanks! I went again and saw your barrels on the walk tests (, great stuff of yours in that whole archive too!

    You do such nice work, Mike. Very detailed and well executed, real.

    Sure looking forward to more of your projects.


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