Fake Books Out Of Real Paper

It is so rare in props that you end up making the same thing on 2 different shows. Sure, there are some old standards: knives that bleed so that it looks like someone is getting cut, wine, breakaway bottles etc, but in my experience each of these tends to have its own twist in each show such that you essentially re-learn how to make them. Its possible that with more experience, this changes, but for now I’m going with the same prop twice being a rarity. Well, this week said rarity happened for me.

Sometime last year, I spent a good week in the basement of my apartment making fake stacks of paper, and fake book spines for the Broadway production of 33 Variations. I have to say, I never saw the show or spent any time in the theater, and I kinda screwed up the project, but damn, did I figure out how to make fake stacks of paper.

Ryan and Barb, who helped me, referred to the whole experience as “making fake books out of real paper”.

Heres a progress shot:

So, as you can see, fake piles of paper are made basically by cutting paper into strips, and then piling them around stacks of insulation foam. On this project, where the shelves also had to fly in and out, so the dressing had to be super light, so the whole foam part was pretty essential.

During this process we learned that you need to cut your paper into 2″ wide strips (a paper cutter is your friend), then take small sections (say 15 or so pieces), crumple them, and then separate them, flipping every other strip so that the crumples are opposite to create volume. Then you staple the little sections together and glue them into stacks, using little wedges of foam to flatten them when they start to lean.

Time consuming, right? Particularly when there’s trial and error involved.

Anyways, I’m currently working on Shakespeare in the Park, and for Merchant of Venice there are lots and lots of bookshelves. Yesterday we were making dressing samples. Guess what they wanted???? Yes, matching ledger spines and stacks of paper. I was like “don’t worry dudes, I got this”.

Heres a shot of the sample shelf:

So, the green ledgers on the upper right, and the stacks of paper on the lower left are all fakes.

The ledgers are made of 3″ blue foam strips with file folder wrappings (I also attacked them with paint to give them a little more personality, and pieces of ribbon on the bottom). They’re only a few inches deep, though, except for the end one, which is full length:

Cute!! I love my job.

Then the paper stacks. Heres a close up:

So these are made the same way as the ones for 33, with the only difference being that I refined my flattening method, so theyre less tilty, and I coated all of the edges so that theyre both fire- and water- proof (important for outdoor theater).

Hooray for experience.


About meredithries

Meredith is a set designer living in Brooklyn, NY. See her work at: www.meredithries.com This is a repurposed old blog. Because continuity is important. Malaprop is a malapropism
This entry was posted in Meredith Ries, paper props, props, Public Theater, set dressing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fake Books Out Of Real Paper

  1. Michelle says:

    What did you coat the edges with to make them fire/waterproof?

    I am faced with making a row of fake books for a nice condo set, and these fake books will be really close to the audience, but have to be glued into the shelf because the shelf tips down and becomes a bed. So they also have to be light. I’ve been eyeing the pink board I have around here and wondering the easiest way to do this, so I went onto your blog to see what I could find – and I saw your current entry and laughed really hard. It’s like you knew I was going to ask you about books today. You. Are. Great.

    • meredithries says:

      ok, i would use a mixture of paper, muslin, and vinyl, (vinyl is really great cause its a little stretchy, and you can use spray paint and paint pens to do details on the bindings… and I would use different widths of foam (eg 1″, 2″, 3″ for variation). I ususally score the foam at the top and paint it a little for fake pages. You can also gut real books and wrap their spines around your foam to make it work…

      oh, and i used Crystal Gel for the fire/water proofing. Rosco makes it. I bet matte medium for acrylic paint would work too, if you dont want them to be shiny… if you paint them at all, also they are FR on their own.


  2. Michelle says:

    (Oh, and this is the Michelle from Chicago – I just used a different email address this time, I think.)

    Do you ever cover the spines with muslin or anything to give it texture? I’m looking at making all different type of books, reference books (for which the file folder finishes looks great), fiction, poetry tomes, the kind of stuff you’d find in an educated, sophisticated couple’s house.

    Do you recommend using your strips of paper method to create the pages for the row of books? I imagine the tops of the books will be visible in the shelf I have, so I was thinking I could use the foam interior structure and cut the strips of paper but not crumple them so much?

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  4. I just wanted to write and thank you for this brilliant solution. I designed a production of Mamet’s OLEANNA in the fall, and I designed two massive bookcases filled with books (both 12′ high by 13′ wide… that’s like 312sq.ft. of books total… ack!). To top it all off, they had to all be struck during the intermission between acts II and III. Just as the technical staff at school were starting to think I was nuts, I stumbled across this post and it all seemed possible again.

    We ended up making probably close to a thousand books (I haven’t definitively counted yet) and they looked amazing and worked perfectly. We used painted poster board for the spines (literally took paint, a roller, and a lab student and had them go to town on a huge stack of paper) and cut up tons of pink foam in various widths and heights. We used hot glue to adhere the poster board to the foam (maybe not the best choice, but it got us through five performances) and then a liquid-nails type foam adhesive to stick the books in bunches to cardboard backings so they could easily be shelved and de-shelved.

    I have a picture up here (it’s big): http://www.chrisvanpatten.com/site/images/slides/act1_ole.jpg
    and another one here of the whole set: http://i.imgur.com/tehQ2.jpg
    one showing the set sans-books: http://i.imgur.com/iewqp.jpg
    and one of the books behind the scenes: http://i.imgur.com/Vr7rm.jpg

    I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this production could not have happened without this post… or at least without the set I envisioned. I’m so grateful for this seemingly-simple trick that made my design a reality. Thanks so much!

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