Illusions are an expensive investment and one solution for new illusionists (and seasoned professionals) is to build the illusion yourself as opposed to purchasing one from a professional illusion builder.
Now, there are many benefits from purchasing from a professional builder and it is well worth the asking fee, simply because the builder brings expertise and experience to an illusion. And, if he has built the illusion before, he would know what works and what does not.
However, when budgets do not allow you to spend much on new illusions, building your own can be a cost-saving approach to adding scale to your show. I hope to share some basic tips on how to build an illusion from a set of plans.
3 Ways to Build Your Own Illusion
There are three ways to go about building your own illusion:
- Build it yourself with your own tools.
- Get a friend with workshop tools, a carpenter, stage props or exhibition stand builder to build for you under your direction and supervision.
- Get different parts built yourself or recycle different parts from other places (furniture) and assemble the illusion yourself.
I have done all three ways before but mainly do a combination of the second and third methods along with buying illusions from pro builders.
What You Need to Know
Whether you intend to build your own illusion or supervise the build, you need to gain technical knowledge on the building process, tools and materials.
Specifically, you need to be familiar with types of wood, metals, plastics and their thickness and availability in your location. Hang out at lumber yards, metal shops and plastic sheet suppliers to see what is available and talk to the people there if they have time.
You need to understand basic building methods such as cutting, joining and finishing. Different materials needs different tools to cut and there are multiple ways to join parts depending on the material. Finishing includes painting, laminate or vinyl/ carpet covering.
Only when you have a grasp of the above should you embark on your first build. It helps greatly if you have an interest and knack for building things.
I remember my first build project was when I built my first skateboard street ramp when I was 11 years old. I got scrape wood from all over the neighbourhood and used nails and a hammer. I had no tools or knowledge of how to cut curves but created the curve of the ramp using the flexible nature of the plywood nailed onto support bars of 2″ x 1″ lumber nailed at different angles to create a curve. It looked crappy but it worked! I executed many jumps off that ramp.
That probably was a starting point for me in illusion building. Subsequently, all my technical knowledge was acquired in school (technical module which I aced), observing builders of all kinds and examining finished props – from furniture to illusions to exhibition stands.
Choose the Right Illusion
When building your own/ first illusion, you will be constrained by budget, time and resources so you need to choose an illusion within your means, as well as within capabilities of the builder.
You have to choose the right illusion project. Here are some tips:
- Start with a manageable illusion first. Something without too many moving parts or requires too many different materials.
- Avoid illusions that require complex metal work like metal forms, bending or welding.
- Avoid anything with electronic or remote control elements.
- Avoid anything that requires a full D******** B***. If you do not know what that is, you should not be building it.
- Being a first illusion, you probably want something manageable in size and weight.
Look for a Set of Illusion Plans
Now, you have to look for resources to build that illusion.
Please note that not all illusions have illusion plans available. Many illusions are licensed to professional builders and the creators never released building plans to the “public” magic community. If no plans are released, it is an ethical unwritten rule that that particular illusion is off limits for you to build or have built, unless by the authorized builder.
However, there are hundreds of illusions that have building plans that are described in books or sold as individual illusion plans.
Most works by Jim Steinmeyer, Rand Woodburry, Mark Parker, Tim Clothier, Milan Forzetting, Paul Osbourne and… cough cough… J C Sum are essential for an illusionist’s library. Check out my recommended books and DVDs for the beginner illusionist in my list HERE.
Having said the above, not all illusion books or plans are very detailed or comprehensive. Sometimes building instructions are not as detailed because it is assumed the builder is experienced in building props. Some designers also do not give dimensions or specific material lists as they feel that each illusion is custom to each illusionist, hence dimensions are not useful.
Personally, in my books and plans, I always give dimensions and material lists as I feel it is an important guide for builders to get a sense of the illusion.
An experienced builder will be able to assess the size & weight of the illusion and based on the material lists & plans can get a sense of the amount of time & money it will take to build the prop.
I feel dimensions and material lists are even more important for new builders as they need all the help they can get to guide them through the process. However, even in my plans, I do not go into the basics of how to cut a piece of material, embed a T-Nut or apply a plastic laminate finish. I do assume the builder possesses these basic fabrication skills.
It is best for you to research on a set of plans or book before purchasing them. If you intend to buy a book or set of plans for your illusion education and knowledge building, exact dimensions and material lists may not be as essential. However, if you intend to build the prop, then specifics are critical. Ask around or leave a comment on this blog if you want feedback or clarification on a particular set of plans or book.
Understanding the Plans
Once you have the plans, the first thing to do is to understand the effect of the illusion, followed by the method. This should be explained clearly in the write-up of the illusion plan. Most of the time, the plans of the physical illusion prop will only make sense if you understand the effect and the method.
When you interpret the illusion plans, try to visual how the illusion works. If there are moving panels or components, understand how those components move together.
Try to visualize the size of the prop. You may need a tape measure to help you out. This will give you an idea of the space you will need to perform, rehearse and transport the illusion.
An example of one of my illusion drawings is given below. It is not drawn as a schematic but as an easy to understand drawing.
Examine the list of materials needed and the building methods. For example, if the prop requires welded parts, you must be able to weld metal together. If not, you must figure out an alternative method of joining the material.
Ensure that you will be able to obtain all of the materials needed to build the prop.
Have the Right Materials & Tools
Once you have chosen your illusion and decided to build it. Create detailed lists of what you need to buy. You will need to combine total measurements to calculate how much material you need to buy. For example, if you are building a prop that requires four legs made from aluminum tubing, each 2ft long, you will need to buy 8ft of aluminum tubing. But, also note that if you buy an exact length of 8ft of aluminum tubing and cut it into four lengths, each length will be a few millimeters short of 2ft as you will lose material when you make each cut. This is important if you need a precise amount of material.
Once you have calculated all the material, you will also need to know how many connectors you might need, like wood screws, rivets or bolts & nuts.
Ensure you have the right tools for the job. For example, if you are cutting both metal & wood, you need two different saws or at least two different blades. If you need to drill through thick steel, you will need a different drill bit and drill than drilling through thin aluminum.
A measuring tape and pencil/ marker is a must! Measure twice & cut once. Wrong measurements can be costly as they can result into material wastage.
Build the Illusion
Follow the building instructions to build the prop. If no specific build order is given, I generally recommend building from the main base, table or structure of the prop and build the “box” part or other panels/ doors after.
Always build some kind of mock-up with cardboard cartons and duct tape. Follow the dimensions in the set of plans and build at least the shell to ensure that it fits your assistant or yourself.
After you build the illusion, ensure any small sharp edges or corners are filed and sanded smooth. Splinters or metal burrs are very dangerous and can hurt someone during rehearsal or performance.
Well, that is a basic guide on how to build an illusion from a set of plans. I know, its is easier said than done. But, every illusion prop begins with the first cut of material. So, best of luck and work safe!
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