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I make toys for kids who don't want to grow up. I'm on the lookout for new projects. If you're interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Building a New Display Booth Part 1: Flats

Back in 2011, I set up my display at the Bay Area Maker Faire for the first time.  Starting from scratch in a bit of a rush, we made this nifty little setup:

Blank booth

Twenty feet wide with display racks on either side and a small, private changing room in the middle, it proved to be all sorts of useful.  Still, I quickly outgrew it.

Over the years, this humble bit of wall with a tiny little changing room was expanded, rebuilt, repainted, redesigned, repurposed, and reworked to become some 50-plus linear feet of walls with two separate dressing rooms, display racks, pedestals, and storage areas for personal gear and whatnot.

After eight years of assembling, disassembling, packing, storing, neglecting, and meaning to improve the display booth, I finally decided it was time to scrap the whole deal and start over.  So the parts were broken up and hauled away and I was ready to make a new booth.

Then the Bay Area Maker Faire stopped being a thing and the COVID pandemic began and I haven't had much of a need for it.

Fast forward to now.  After a two-year hiatus, LUMACON will be returning on last day of April.  LUMACON is a kid-centric comic convention put on by the local librarians.  In the past I've had a limited display setup there to show off some of my various builds and sell copies of my book while some of my crew hangs out in costumes I've built. In order to comply with current restrictions for large gatherings in the current pandemic environment, the event is being held outdoors.  With no walls to hang my display on, it's time to make a new booth.

When I made the original booth, I had a vague idea of what I needed to do, but no kind of background or experience in building these sorts of things.  Since then, I've done some set construction work on TV series and movies and learned a few things.  Chief among the things I learned: I was an idiot.

Taking those lessons to heart, I decided that instead of rebuilding the same clunky, overweight, rickety junk I built before, I'd build this new booth just like a movie set. 

Movie sets can look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

But the backside of them generally look kinda like this:

These lightweight but surprisingly versatile wall panels are called "flats."

There are a variety of different ways flats can be built, depending on what they'll be used for.  "Broadway" or "theater" flats are thinner, and lighter.  Often covered with fabric and easily carried by one person to rearrange the set on stage in a hurry between scenes.  "Hollywood," "TV," or "studio" flats are thicker, a little heavier, and sturdier.  Since I'll be re-using these flats multiple times, I'm going to build Hollywood flats.

Hollywood flats can be made in various thicknesses to suit a particular design, but are most often made of 1-by-3 pine boards.  The boards are laid out on edge on the shop floor or a workbench, the ends are glued together and stapled or screwed. Once assembled, the flat can be covered with 1⁄4-inch or 1⁄8-inch plywood, which is glued on and stapled. The vertical "studs" or "stiles" are set on 2-foot centers and the horizontal "toggles" are also placed on 2-foot centers.

For each flat you need the following materials:

1 sheet 1/4" or 1/8" plywood (or Masonite if you're into that)

5 and a half 8' lengths of 1x3

A couple handfuls of 1-5/8" screws

A couple handfuls of 1" screws

wood glue

NOTE: ideally, I'd have used wide crown construction staples instead of 1-5/8" screws and narrow crown staples instead of 1" screws, but I don't own the staplers for either of them and wasn't going to spend $400 to own them for this one project.  You'll also notice in the following photos that we used 1x4 framing instead of 1x3s.   This is because the first store we went to was out of 1x3 and I was eager to get started.

ALSO NOTE: If you're one of those folks reading from every other country in the world, I won't be providing metric conversions.  All y'all have your own kinds of standard dimension lumber and I don't know what it looks like.  You're on your own there.

Step 1: Measure and cut your framing lumber:CHOPSAW IS YOUR FRIEND

The framing lumber is the 1x3s (or in these pics 1x4s) that will be attached to the backside of the flats.  For each flat, you'll need the following cuts:

2 pieces 48" long (the "top plate," and matching "bottom plate.")

3 pieces 94.5" long (the "studs" that are eight feet long, minus the combined thickness of the top and bottom plates)

6 pieces 22-7/8" long (the toggles, four feet long, minus the combined thickness of the three studs, split in half)

Once you've made your cuts, it's a good idea to clamp all of the like pieces together and pre-mark for centers.  Here you can see me measuring all of the studs so I can mark the center locations for the toggles:

The speed square is painted pink to piss people off

The centers of the top and bottom plates were also marked.  This will ensure uniformity when the assembly is done and saves you time later.

Step 2: Set up a clear work area:
Lovely, isn't she?
Disregard the background clutter.  This room has yet to be properly built out.

Step 3: Set up three studs on edge and attach the bottom plate:

Hollywood Flat Building029

For each of the joints in this project, we'll start with a bead of glue:
A little dab'll do ya!

Then, because we're using really thin, cheap lumber, we'll pre-drill each screw hole:Drill, baby, drill!

You'll notice in the pic above that the Lady Shawnon is holding the wood so that the top edges are flush.  If we were working on a perfectly flat surface and had reliably straight/square lumber, we could count on it to line itself up pretty well, but given that the boards we bought were pretty janky, we had to settle for making the front face straight where it would be attached to the skin.

Finally, the boards were screwed together:

You know how I like it!

Each joint would get two screws in this manner.

With the bottom plate attached, it's time to 
attach the top plate.  Now the assembly looks like so:
Just like the other end, but on this end.

Step 4: Attach toggles on one side.  These are installed on two-foot centers with screws through the studs into the toggles:

Hollywood Flat Building004

These are easy because you can drill and screw them through the outer stud and the inner stud:

Hollywood Flat Building010

Step 5: Attach toggles on the other side.  These area bit trickier.  On the outside stud, you can still screw through into the toggles like we did for the first half:

Hollywood Flat Building035

But the inside stud is blocked by the toggle on the other side.  To work around this, I 
toenail through the stud into the toggle to attach it:
Hollywood Flat Building037

Hollywood Flat Building036

Hollywood Flat Building038

Then, just like that, all six toggles are glued and screwed in place:
Them's there's the toggles.

Step 6: Attach the skin.

We start by applying glue onto the surface of the frame:Hollywood Flat Building039

NOTE: as you can see Doctor Girlfriend doing here, you want to put the glue on the center stud and the toggles first, then the outside edges last.  That way you don't have to lean your carcass across the sticky parts and make a mess of yourself.

Hollywood Flat Building020

Once the glue is applied, you can screw down the skin:

Hollywood Flat Building024

Despite what your mom says, there's a right way to screw.  Start by making sure the skin is flush on one corner and put a screw there first:

Hollywood Flat Building025

Then screw down the long side, straightening the stud to keep it flush as you go:

Hollywood Flat Building023

Once the long side is screwed down, screw down bottom edge.  Working from the first corner you screwed down, you'll be pushing and pulling the bottom plate up or down as needed to make sure the edge of the skin is flush with the framing. 

Once that's done, continue screwing down the skin, working from bottom corner upward and outward to make the whole thing flatten out as you go.  At this point, things might look a bit off.

The first corner and first two edges were nice and flush when we started:

Hollywood Flat Building025

But because the sheet isn't exactly 48" x 96" (and if we did it right, our framing was exactly 48" x 96") the edges of the plywood will overhang a bit:

Hollywood Flat Building026

Hollywood Flat Building027

Step 7: This tiny excess gets trimmed off with a router using a panel trim bit like this one:Edge Trim Router Bit

Is dusty work:
Hollywood Flat Building041

The end result is a nice, flat panel 48"x96" and ready to be painted, dressed, and made into something awesome.  

Assembled Hollywood Flats

To make it easier to get a nice finish, the screw holes are filled and sanded:
Hollywood Flats Spot Putty and Sanded

Then they all get a couple of good coats of primer:
Hollywood Flats in Primer

Finally, paint:
Basic Black Hollywood Flats

We went for basic black for starters.  All told we made 5 of them.  

Next I'll have to build something to keep them from falling over:Backside of Hollywood Flats

Stay tuned for more on this somewhat useful new project...


  1. Neat. I worked at a haunted house one year. We built similar panels, using them for "rooms" and passages. There was a big table jig set up to quickly assemble them. They were a little more beefy (2"x4" members), needing to stand up to a little abuse from the public, but the concept was the same: utilize a full sheet of plywood.

  2. I love this site! I leave wanting to build 'that-next-thing', but have no reason to. Also, what's going on in the background of the photos almost needs explanation too. Great work, thank you.