Few projects are as challenging as replicating items found in nature. Creating a realistic tree or, in this instance, a stage full of rocks, can be a costly and timeconsuming endeavor. Natural textures are not impossible to produce, but creating them often requires a great deal of work and resources. Traditional materials such as polystyrene blocks or sheets are expensive, and carving them creates a large-scale mess. Cutting them with hot wires or hot knives also requires ventilation of fumes.
The show that required us to think creatively about rocks was a production of Children of Eden at the Wright Center Concert Hall at Samford University. The stage has a 58′-6″ proscenium opening, and the design called for the rocks to extend past the opening about 4′ on each side of the stage. Originally, the plan called for carving Styrofoam billets that we had in stock and supplementing those with additional billets from our supplier. As we moved forward with that plan, the logistics of creating and painting all of the pieces presented some challenges. We had at least 12 large foam billets in stock, but we were still going to need to order almost $2,000 in additional bulk foam. With production deadlines approaching, our confidence in finishing the project using foam began to wane, and we began looking at ways to buy our way out of the problem.
A Plan to Make Stone Cloth
One of the options we had considered earlier in the process was commercially available stone cloth, which has an aluminum foil-backed canvas that can be quickly “crinkled” into organic shapes. Having used it before, I loved the idea of this time-saving product. However, it was expensive – about $6,000 for the 13 or more rolls we would need.
But what if we could create our own stone cloth at a lower price? That would become the answer to our dilemma.
We started with a search for heavygauge aluminum foil, which led me to a familiar supplier, Grainger. Grainger offers two thicknesses of aluminum in 4′-0″ by 100′ rolls: .003″ and .005″. Commercially available stone cloth uses a .0039″ aluminum backer, so I took a chance and ordered the .003″ roll, which cost $129 per roll. I hoped that it would be thick enough to create the right effect. However, we quickly decided that the .005″ rolls – which are almost 30% thicker than the backer used on the premanufactured material – would perform better in this application. The thicker rolls were $165 each.
Our plan was to bond scenic muslin to the aluminum. We tested Elmer’s glue as the bonding agent and achieved a solid bond with the low-cost glue. However, we quickly found that theatrical muslin sized too much due to water we added to the white glue.
A quick search on the internet led us to a de-sized muslin that cost $7.99/yard in a 118″ width from FabricMill.com. One of the most important lessons we learned while using this product is that we needed 30-40% more material than our initial estimates due to the contour of the rocks and the material needed to wrap around the back of the structure.
Once we determined the best approach to creating the stone cloth, we began the process of fabricating the massive amounts needed. By the end of the project, we had created approximately 460′ of the 4′-wide cloth. Laminating the fabric to the aluminum and base painting the panels proved to be good projects for our lab students. Our scenic charge then stepped in to give the rocks the textured look that we wanted to achieve, and we were able to produce all of the panels needed in just over a week. We chose to make the panels 9′ tall, and we were able to get 11 panels per roll of aluminum. We ended up ordering four rolls of the .005″ aluminum after purchasing the initial roll of .003″ material (which we also used).
The move to stone cloth allowed us to rough in the shape of the rocks using Hollywood flats and frames that loaded in easily to the concert hall. It took us about four days to finish applying the stone cloth material. The cloth is heavy enough to be stapled into step facings and then onto the tread below to achieve stone step facings. The overall process was quick, and we were able to avoid the mess created by a major Styrofoam undertaking.
Two Important Notes
- The heavy-gauge aluminum is extremely sharp on its edges. Care should be taken during the handling of the material and the prepping of the set for actors.
- The aluminum stone cloth may cause interference with wireless microphones. We had already introduced the microphones before we began adding the rock facades, and the addition of the material caused the microphones to lose their signals. With a little experimenting, we were able to relocate the receivers and antennas to eliminate this issue.
Additional Uses for the Cloth
After the production, we separated the material into individual sheets and rolled it for reuse in the future. We have since reused the cloth to create smaller stack stones and even as bark for some oversized tree limbs. The usefulness of the cloth as a repurposed stock item helps justify the initial cost of the materials by spreading the expense over several show budgets.
Since producing the muslin backed with aluminum, we have tried experimenting with other fabrics, and the pairings have created some exciting possibilities for future use. Fabrics with more nap than muslin could be used to increase the inherent textures of the surfaces and offer different paint properties. The aluminum can be doubled up to increase its thickness for even greater rigidity of the material, and we have even experimented with folding the 4′-wide material into a four-layer thick, 1′-wide material for use as a large, self supported ribbon.
The choice to go with the homemade stone cloth allowed us to complete Children of Eden on budget and on time, and it gave the stones a natural texture that would have been hard to match with foam carving. A project that had initially looked to overwhelm the production crew ended up finishing in about 10 days, and the stone cloth ended up being the most cost-effective option.
Written by David Glenn David Glenn, director of technology and design at Samford University in Birmingham, AL, and a professional technical director for 27 year, is editor of the Outside the Box Column.