A Case Study in Illusion Design & Modification

A Case Study in Illusion Design & Modification


This is the first post of its kind that I have made on my illusion design process. It is a case study in illusion design & modification. I hope sharing my approach gives insight and may give you ideas on how to redesign stock illusions to make them unique.

I think one of the things that got me noticed in the international magic industry is the redesigns/ rebuilds of illusions that I have done over the years.

Some notable ones include:


Crystal Metamorphosis
Original design/ new build for a clear Sub Trunk built for speed

360 Sawing

360 Sawing
Redesign/ rebuild of Gerry Frenette’s “Woman’s Revolution”


Redesign/ new build of Jim Steinmeyer’s “Through a One Inch Hole”.

Crystal Appearance

Crystal Appearance
Original (base) design/ build method for the “Crystal Casket”

Human Light Tunnel

Human Light Tunnel
Redesign/ rebuild of Jim Sommer’s “Lightbulbs Through Girl”

Visual Displacement
Redesign/ New build of Andrew Mayne’s “A-Frame”

Water Vault

The Water Vault
Original design/ build for the “Milk Can Escape”

My latest project is a redesign/ rebuild of a custom prop originally built by Dan Wolfe.

As with all of Dan’s work, the build quality and materials used were top notch.

The original prop is minimalist and simple in design and intent. However, while fully functional, I felt there were many aesthetic and design elements that I could add/ modify to make it a completely new & different illusion.

In this post, I will share my design process and rationale on how I transformed the prop from wheels up.

The thought process I go through (especially in the last half a decade of my career) when choosing to buy or build a new illusion is how it could/ would be different from any similar illusion in the world.

I am very concerned with the aesthetic look and finish of the prop, beyond being deceptive (which is a given). The illusions must visually fit the overall aesthetic of my show, personal performing style and image.

In addition, I strive to add distinct design elements to make the illusion mine. The illusions must also look “pretty” on stage and on TV.

This illusion was no different. In fact, I deliberately wanted to design an illusion that had more detail and character than previous illusions but still fit my show.

When I was offered the opportunity to take over the prop, I spent a few days thinking about the presentation. I had design changes in mind right away, but I wanted a major change to the basic effect to justify the purchase of the prop.

In its current form (at that time) the effect is a crusher/ vanish effect. In my opinion, it felt a bit close in effect and look to Gerry Frenette’s Crusher illusion. So, I wanted to change the look and feel of the illusion so it is completely different and would never be mistaken for the Crusher illusion.

Here are couple of pictures of the original prop.



You can see more photos of the prop with the crusher/ plunger stick in play at: https://www.smmagic.com/?attachment_id=234

The basic effect of the original build is also essentially another “girl in box” type effect. Since I already have several “box illusions”, I needed a unique presentation that would justify this one.

After a couple of days, I came up with an original presentation that would justify the design of the prop I had in mind.

The new functional and aesthetic design is reflective of the presentation of the illusion. While I do not want to share my original presentation at this point in time, one can still appreciate the design process and refurbishing ideas.

But, trust me on the fact that there is now motivation to use such a strange-looking prop in the context of the presentation of the illusion.

I chose to go with a post-modern steampunk look as evidenced by the design elements and graphics on the roller blinds.

Audition 1

Here are the design changes I made to make the prop more interesting, deceptive and unique.


The first thing I wanted to do was to raise the height of the prop. The original 3″ castors made the prop very low and this made it very awkward for the performer who had to bend/ crouch at an odd and visually “unattractive” to push in the side of the prop.

While I understand the original look of the prop is to replicate a trolley, I knew that concept could be preserved even if I used large wheels. I did not want to build legs for the prop and I have also wanted to build a prop with oversized castors for the longest time, so this was my chance.

The oversized castors also fit the post-modern steampunk look I was going for.

I bought four massive 10″ castors. They are very expensive and heavy (which will likely turn many builders off) but I think the end result is worth it.

The original base of the prop was too narrow to accommodate the large castors so two cross support boards were added. This also added a bit of height to the illusion which is a nice side benefit.


This one change visually transformed the prop immediately and made it look better.

Audition 6

Adding Deception to the Base

I felt the original design of the base could be a bit more deceptive (especially after changing to the bigger castors), so I added an additional 2″ x 1″ aluminum tubing step all around the base.

In addition, the Alan Wakeling “ball feet” deception in the original prop was not pronounced enough. I added three-dimensional block corners and center blocks to create better visual separation.

Essentially, I created a multi-step base.

I recommend all illusionists looking to build/ invest in a modem base to always strongly consider a multi-step base. Check out Rand Woodbury’s “Base Book” and “IllusionWorks” as well as my “Base Work” Premium Design Plans for detailed information on modern bases.

Changing the Effect & Functional Design

To drastically change the effect and look of the prop, I added a top lid with hand holes and head box. During the performance, a girl enters the prop and places her head in the head box. Two blades are subsequently inserted through the head box as part of the illusion.

Audition 7

Audition 8

The original method used a pole to push the side in. Instead of a pole, I had the side cut out and put in a wheel that I had chromed. I also added a crank shaft and fixed gear at the side of the prop so I could get the very geeky cool image of turning the crank shaft to compress or expand the side wall of the prop.

Audition 3

Aesthetic Deceptive Design

Aesthetic detailed design makes a good prop great. Just have a look at Tim Clothier’s props. He currently makes the most beautiful-looking props because of his detail and intricate design elements.

First, I added dimension to the front and back frames of the prop by discarding the vinyl stickers and using 1″ aluminum tubing to create the frames. Not only does this make the prop look more textured and detailed, it gives it a more 3D solid look.

Moving gears were added to both sides of the vertical supports of the trolley to add detail.

Audition 9

The original roller blind screens were a stark white which did not look particularly attractive. My guess is the original owner did not figure out what graphics he wanted on the screens.

To match my gear design, I searched for a suitable graphic and remade the roller blind screens. I went through about five different graphic designs and decided on the the one seen in the photos.

The blueprint background design fits my presentation but contrasts strongly with the rest of the prop. This contrast pulls central focus to the “box” part of the prop creating better optical misdirection. The rich blue colour is a much better choice than white, grey or black for this very reason.

Modifying the Trolley Frame

The original trolley frame extended up past the top of the prop. Due to the design, the vertical supports of the handle do not break down easily. This meant when the illusion is cased for transport, there is a lot of wasted space. The case would be much higher just to accommodate the vertical frame.

I chopped off the top of the handle and added a new stainless steel handle to the top side of trolley frame. This modification saves me significant volumetric space for the case.

(The head box can be detached with two bolts and placed into the prop for transport)

Audition 2

I recycled the diamond plate aluminum flat bars that were originally used as trim around the base. These were cut and placed over the horizontal bars at the back of the trolley frame as decorative pieces.

However, spacers were placed between two of these flat bars so a holder was formed to hold the two head box blades for the performance.

Audition 5

I always try to keep an illusion entirely self-contained as this makes it more efficient for stage & backstage management.

I wish I could claim credit for this design element but this neat feature was suggested by my builder when we were discussing where to put the blades at the start of the performance.

Excess diamond plate flat bar was cut up and used as decorative elements on various parts of the prop to add detail.


The entire design process took about a month of on-and-off designing and it took about two to three weeks to look for different components of the illusion.

Rebuilding the illusion took a total of about 3 weeks.

As this was a side project with no deadline, the entire process covered a span of 10 months. I only worked on it between my performance schedule and other projects.

I spent an additional US$1200 to rebuild the illusion on top of the purchase price of the illusion. The castors alone cost almost 1/3 of that amount.

There are naturally pros and cons of redesigning and rebuilding the illusion the way I did.

The additional cost and weight may be seen as cons but the end result of a one-of-a-kind prop far outweighs the additional investment.

With YouTube, Google and social media, it is so easy to look at the work of illusionists around the world and see the exact same props used in different shows. It is harder to make a case as been a unique artist when others seem to be performing the same illusions. So, presenting distinctively unique-looking props that look good is a significant first-impression advantage for a professional illusionist.

The redesign also helps increase the future resale value of the prop, should I want to sell it.

The prop is no doubt heavier. But, in the context of shipping the prop where volumetric weight is used to calculate shipping costs, the increase in absolute weight of 30kg will not really affect shipping costs. Apart from removing the head box, I do not intend to break down the prop for shipping so, it just goes into its own case as it is.

Footprint area-size wise, my rebuild only increases the footprint of the prop by about 2″ on each side. It still fits through a standard door.

In time to come, I will share a video performance of the illusion so you can see the entire presentation.

Oh, you are probably wondering what the new prop is called. I have named it but telling you the name will also give away the presentation of the illusion. So, for now, we can just refer to it as the Gear Box.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please leave a comment if you have any questions.

Disclaimer: This illusion is not for sale and no plans are/ will be available.




  1. Hi JC Sum,

    great post. I wonder if You use any kind of graphic programm to visualize Your concepts and ideas first. You did so many visual changes to that prop that I guess it would be very hard to have everything imagined in Your head.

    All in all, great looking prop!

    • Hi Tomasz, Thanks! Actually, I did visualize a lot of this in my head but also sketched it out. I did not draw out plans for this as it was just a modification job. I also built it step by step with the major changes first, such as the oversized castors, multi-step base and the 3D framework. Then I added as I went along. I did have the luxury of time for this since I had no deadline so was not rushed to make decisions too.

  2. JC….simply incredible! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m inspired to go out to my shop and begin reworking the look of some of my standard stuff. I look forward to your future posts. Thanks for helping to keep the art “fresh”.

  3. Hello JC-Just started Following, bought 1 item-
    Thanks for the notes on your redesign.

    Do you have plans for the 360 sawing?

    Your changes are amazing-love the way the box goes for a roller coaster ride!

    only thing I miss is the Box back on top sliding back and forth?

    Regards, Dan Rosenberg ” The Amazing Rossini”