Monday, September 29, 2014

A Few Questions About My Steampunk Magic Props

I've gotten a few questions about my magic props of late that I'd like to address here. The first one came from someone who is not in the magic world, but I liked the question.The others were from magicians, so I hope you enjoy my answers.

1. Why don't you paint your props like other magicians with red/black and dragons on it? This was
a popular trend for a long time, too long in fact. I think it was also part of what killed apparatus magic. Performers like Okito, Fu-Manchu, Chung Ling Soo and others who presented an asian style act, had their props decorated to look like they came from their respective countries. Often there was a dragon or chinese letters written on them. This was done for a specific act and they were generally very tastefully and artfully designed. But magic dealers (those folks who sold magic props) for whatever reason thought this was popular among ALL magicians so they began producing these types of things. Unfortunately, when the magic dealers recreated these props, they didn't have either the skillset or talent for design. The props themselves were well made, but they dropped the ball in the finishing. What is sad is the paint was applied skillfully, but the designs and stenciling were ugly. This all started in the early part of the 20th Century and continued until the late 20th century. It was in the 80s and 90s that the wheels came off and rather than put Asian designs on the props, some dealers painted the magic apparatus in circus colors and/or stenciled other designs on them that really made no sense. It was awful with no sense of style. In my case, I usually repainted my props anyway to suit my style. When I started moving to a steampunk act, I really altered the look of my props.

2. Why steampunk? I didn't always know what steampunk was, but I always had a keen interest in the designs of steampunk. I just didn't know there was a word for it. When I saw that there was this whole steampunk culture out there, I found that it was the perfect marriage for my kind of magic because I would be mixing science fiction, time travel, crazy inventions, victorianism together with magic. Much of magic is still highly influenced by the Victorian age because that is when many of the coolest effects and props were created. Sadly, for 40 years or so magicians have frowned upon the use of apparatus, mainly because the stuff looked so bad and they also didn't like the fact that a prop was given credit for the magic they created. I always found that the right presentation could make anything relevant and popular. Changing magic props into steampunk devices and such automatically pointed the way for solid routines. The prop made sense because the presentation made sense and all of a sudden old forgotten apparatus magic was alive again!

3. Steampunk designs often feature gears and cogs but your stuff has none of that. Why? True,
none of my current props have gears and cogs but that's only because I've not found the right use for them.
I don't want to put a gear on my prop simply for decoration. Gears and cogs have a function, they turn
and cause something else to turn or move. If I use a gear or cog I'd like the audience to see all of these
things moving, just as they'd see any clockwork device moving. I do insinuate clockworks into some of the props through cranking and ratcheting sound effects. But trust me, eventually I will have a clockwork type effect in the show.

4. Should everyone do steampunk? NO!!!! Hell no!!! This is the problem with magic as a rule, no one has an ounce of creativity and they just go with the latest trend until they run it in the ground. For the record, I didn't go after steampunk because I saw another magician doing it. In fact, when I started to get involved with steampunk, I checked to see if there were magicians using steampunk and almost decided NOT to do it because I found a couple who were. Ok, I'll give you the whole story. I found out there was a duo in Las Vegas about to do a big illusion show using Steampunk and I decided not to go with it. But then their show closed very quickly and that seemed to be the end of it. So I thought about it some more and realized that it was a perfect fit for me. I wasn't doing it because it was popular but because it fit my personality perfectly.

I think one thing the steampunk genre does is point out that there are other ways to go besides decorating your props with red/black and bad stenciled designs. And there are far more design schemes besides just steampunk. Here are a few examples of design ideas: Aviation design, lots of aluminum and rivets and gauges and propellers, that's cool. Race Car design: If you thought of your props as being built by a Formula 1 Race team, how would they look? Or what if a NASCAR Team built your prop, how would it look? Futuristic Design: This could go lots of different ways, you could go with a very streamlined design with lots of curves and colors like white, silver, gold and other metallic colors. OR you could go after a prop design right from the NASA launchpad. There are countless ways to go with futuristic.  Then you've got the RETRO LOOK. RETRO DESIGN could be anything from a 1930s Art Deco Look, 1950s Look, a 1970s look and so forth. Don't just do steampunk because you saw someone else do it.

Final Thoughts. Adding a unique design to your props is a great way to go to stand out from the crowd. If you are looking for inspiration, go to a furniture store, go to Target, go to IKEA, check out some of the modern designs that are being produced today. It's an amazing time to find incredible design concepts.

Once you've settled upon a design them don't stop at just the props. Consider your costuming and also consider something sorely forgotten, the scenery. Magicians very rarely have scenery, yet most stage plays, musicals and other theatrical shows have scenery. Even standup comics when they perform at theatres often have cool scenery. THIS should be the new trend more so than decorating props. Decorating your backgrounds!!! Rather than performing against black, or a curtain, create an actual set for your show. There is a trend among family style performers to use custom backdrops and this is a great idea. A great resource for backdrops and custom backdrops is  My friend Mark Daniel was one of the leaders in using custom backdrops at his shows. He has a new backdrop made for every show he does. The backdrop serves a number of purposes. For one, if you have your name/logo on the backdrop it serves as advertising and branding. For two, it does act as your scenery, or at least the main part of your scenery. For three, it makes you look more professional. Most folks who use one of these portable backdrops only use one throughout the whole show. But I think if you're doing a stage production, you could actually use several throughout your show in an effort to 'change the scene'. Ok, that might be more than you can handle, but it's something to think about!

By the way, the photo at the top of the page is my steampunked 'Sawing a Spectator in Half' Illusion.

Hmmm, One More Thing. I didn't mean to poo-poo the apparatus magic of Okito and others at the start of the article. Their creations were incredible. It's just that the dealer items that followed for years and years tried to continue the same type of design scheme but they were usually poor recreations as far as design. They were well built items, just poorly decorated. NOW, having said that, if you are doing a themed act of some kind and the Asian designs work for you, I would like to give a plug to a modern day creator of those effects. Norm and Lupe Nielsen of NielsonMagic build faithful reproductions of many of Okitos props. In fact, Norm was actually taught personally by Theo Bamberg, the man who was OKITO. So if you are interested in obtaining a HIGH quality piece, you must visit their website at

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Another Steampunk Magic Illusion

In the world of magic, the term 'illusion' usually stands for a large effect using a person or large animal or other large object. The term 'illusionette' is kind of an odd term which is basically means a smaller illusion.

I just finished building a wonderful piece that was the creation of Larry White. It was a chore to build and I in no way did all the work myself. My father and I did the construction and I couldn't have done it without his help. It was a tricky piece to fabricate.

I'm calling mine The Disectalator, a Very Dis-Arming Illusion. I chose to go with a more subdued steampunk look. Not an over the top steampunk appearance on this one. It has one gauge which I think looks really incredible. I found this gauge on eBay. The folks I got it from also have a store called They've got incredible electrical parts and devices to really take anything and give it a vintage appearance.

Other than the gauge, the only other steampunky looking thing were the bolts that adorn the top edge of the box and the lower section as well. These were all decorative, none of them actually serve a real purpose. I added brass corners onto the lower box and the upper box as well, just to give them a bit more Victorian look.

After working on this piece I came upon an idea for a slightly different illusion, so in the near future I'm going to be rebuilding the upper box for a new effect (which I'm not going to divulge right now).
The effect if you are not familiar is, the magicians arm is pushed through the upper boxes so that his/her hand comes out the far left end. Two metal blades are pushed thru the box dividing it into three sections and then the middle is pulled up, or zig-zaged as it were. The zig zaging can be seen below, minus the arm. I can't take the photo and be IN the prop, lol. I hope you enjoy it. Once the second version is complete, I'll post an image of that as well.

MORE: One of the joys of steampunk work for me is a project never quite seems to be done. Just when I think I've completed it, I find something I can add or replace to make it even cooler. In the case of this prop, I decided very shortly after taking the photos to add one more thing, really to balance out the prop. The right box has a gauge, the middle box has the handle, but the left box had nothing, so I added something to it. It also helps the routine as now the valve handle seems to serve a function, though in truth, that is an illusion

Monday, September 01, 2014

Building Steampunk Magic Props

One of the most common, and frankly frustrating, things I hear from magicians after they see my show is, "WOW, that was a really cool approach, I want to do that." Uggh. I'm by no means the first or last magician to incorporate Steampunk into his act, but the fewer of us there are, the better. Still, there are some who are not really interested in transforming into an entire 'steampunk show' but rather would like to have one really cool prop. So I'll give you some tips.

The prop at the top of the page began as something known as a Handkerchief Box or Jap Box. It's a
very old trick, but this one was built by me and my Dad, mostly my Dad on this piece. It was actually built for something other than making handkerchiefs appear and vanish. The one thing that makes it unique is it has one of those 'crank-noise- toys that you see around New Years that people use to make all sort of racket. One of those was built into the box so that when the handle is turned it gives a good loud ratcheting sound.

When I decided to move into Steampunk, this was one of the first props I chose to refit. It was a gradual process. The first alteration was adding a top to the box with a brass handle. Next I added a gauge on the side along with some buttons and knobs. I also took some fake leather and put that on each corner of the box along with some decorative brass tacks.

That was stage 1 and it stayed that way for a while. But I wanted it to be more animated and I eventually found a small toy that lit up and made sound. I gutted the toy, meaning I removed all the lights and electronics and put them into my box. This required a bit of soldering the first time around, but I was game for anything. I wanted the lights to really stand out, so I took three small gumball prize containers and mounted them onto the top of the box. The lights would go inside these plastic containers. I got the idea for these three roundish looking gumball prizes from the movie The Time Machine (see photo). I was afraid they'd look too much like  gumball prize containers, so I decorated them slightly by adding a large blue bead inside and putting one of those decorative brass tacks in the top. To my surprise, when I first mounted the containers onto the wooden box, the glue created a haze like finish inside the containers. This only helped it look more unique, so it was a lucky accident.

The prop remained this way for sometime, until I found some brass corners at Home Depot. Adding these to the four top corners finished the prop off nicely. I really thought I was finished at this point, but as fate would have it, that was not quite the case. Through use, one of the knobs broke off and the sound and light gimmick eventually died on me. This meant I had to replace them. Thankfully, the light/noise toys were cheap and fairly easy to install. As I was making the repairs, a friend was working on a disc drive and he had all these parts he was going to throw away. I quickly snagged the parts and added a number of them to the prop. These final additions really took the piece over the top.

Below is a video snippet showing the moving parts and the sounds and lights. Feel free to use this as inspiration, but DO NOT COPY MY PROP!!!! And if you're looking for places to find these unusual steampunk accessories, follow the link for an eye opening experience.