Building a Professional Illusion from a Set of Plans

Illusions are an expensive investment and one solution for new illusionists (and seasoned professionals) is to build the illusion yourself as opposed to purchase 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.

There are three ways to go about building your own illusion:

1) Build it yourself with your own tools.

2) Get a friend with workshop tools, a carpenter, stage props or exhibition stand builder build for you under your direction and supervision.

3) 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 an mainly do a combination of the second and third methods along with buying illusions from pro builders.

Whether you intend to build your own illusion or supervising the build, you need to gain technical knowledge on the building process, tools and material.

Specifically, you need to be familiar with types of wood, metals, plastics and their thickness and availibility 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 grasp of the above should you embark on your first build. It helps great if you have an interest and knack for the 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 on support bars of 2″ x 1″ lumber nailed at different angles to create a curve.

That probably was a starting point in illusion building, Subsequently, all my technical knowledge was acquired in school (technical module which I aced) and observing builders of all kind and examining finished props – from furniture to illusions to exhibition stands.

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. 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 anythingwith 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 managable in size and weight.

Now, you have to look for resources to build that illusion. There are a limited number of books/ videos on the market but sufficient for you to build your first illusion.

Whatever book or plans you get, the first thing you need to do is

Most works by Jim Steinmeyer, Rand Woodburry, Mark Parker, Tim Cloutier, Milan Forzetting and… cough cough… J C Sum are essential for an illusionist’s library but would generally be for intermediate and advanced builders.

Some resources for first builds include:

Anything out of Mark Wilson’s “Complete Course in Magic”, a standard packing crate sub trunk, a sword box or sword-basket type box, a giant square circle,

Andrew Mayne has a few illusions that you can be used as a starting point for a professional first illusion such as Razor Wire and Voodoo Box. His “Levitator” DVD is pretty good for simple levitations for stage and close-up. Illusion EFX is also a good beginners reference.

While Paul Osbourne’s books are often cited as a starting point, I think it is a good reference guide but much of the designs and build methods/ materials are dated. His blueprint plans look great but can be difficult for the first time builder. However, his “Easy to Build Illusions” book is a perfect for first builds and I highly recommend that.

Darwin’s “Inexpensive Illusions” is great if you work in a controlled setting like a theatre stage. If not, the material will not work for you.

From my own books, “Illusionary Departures” ( )has the most easy to build illusions that can are within the reach of new illusionists and builders. Specifically for plans, my “Unique Penetrations” design plans set will be a first good few illusions to build.

When looking at different plans to get, you want to look for a designer/ author who has a good reputation. The design plans should also be clear and comprehensive.

Some designers give sketches and descriptions of concepts while others give detailed building or blueprint plans. The detail of different plans differ from designer to designer.

Ideally, the designer should work out all details including small but significant details such s leg attachments, type of latches and how different parts are joined together. Often, designers do not do this and it can be difficult for a new builder to figure out.

Some designers do not give dimensions as they feel that illusions are custom built so dimensions have to be figured out. While I agree that illusions are built around a specific person, the designer should give a reference point by giving dimensions based on a person of a specified height ad weight. This gives the builder an accurate reference point to begin work. Calculating dimensions are the most tedious part of illusion designing and I suspect some designers rather not spend the time doing that.

It is also useful if the designer has detailed drawings, photos or videos of the illusion in question. All this is essential for a new builder who may not know how to visualize parts.

Regardless of whether there detailed dimensions, you should build a mock up of the prop, especially parts that a person is supposed to fit into. This can be done with pieces of cardboard and duct tape. I often use a wall and build around the wall with wood sheets and cardboard to get dimensions. You will be surprised how a human body can fit into different spaces.

Good luck!

P.S. Look out for the next Magic Boutique mega sale starting this Fri, 4 Feb 2011. There are several illusion books and plans on sale!

Also, look out for a brand new magic project that will be available from magic dealers worldwide in Mar 2011!

Happy Chinese New Year!


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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