Turning the Table: How to make a flipping table

by Jay Duckworth
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Drumsticks of shamans were the first representations of magic wands. Then later, in ancient Egypt, the royal cubit was a standardized stick that was distributed to workers, those too were seen as magic wands because those who carried and worked with these sticks were able to build the structures of the Gods. The first documented magic trick is from ancient Egypt, where Dedi, a fictional ancient Egyptian magician, decapitated a bird and then reattached the bird’s head and brought it back to life. There is also a depiction of the cup and balls trick where a ball was put under one of three cups. The trick was to follow where the ball was supposed to be, an ancient version of Follow the Lady aka Three-card Monte. As technicians in theater, there are often times where we have to create an illusion. In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest there is a banquet table in Act 3, Scene III where food appears out of nowhere. There is a neat trick for this, and I’d love to share it with you. 

I’m going to give general instructions for the trick so you can build your table to the size you want. Make sure that your individualized measurements are very precise on this project. For ours I used oak plywood and plain 2x4’s for the legs. For this project you will need to know how to plunge cut with a circular saw, and how to use chisels properly.

Flip Your Lid
First cut down the plywood to the overall size you need for the tabletop. Once that’s cut, measure and mark out your inner, flipping top and then mark the center on both the short sides of your tabletop with a chalk line or a pencil. This mark is where your pin flip mechanism will go. [Tip: You can help preserve the chalk line by spraying it with cheap hairspray.] Marking this before the cutting will keep your placement more accurate. Using a guide, plunge cut with a circular saw to cut all four sides of the inner top, but not the corners. Support your sheet goods before you cut your corners out with a jigsaw. Supporting your boards will prevent any chunks ripping out.

You will now have two rectangles. An inside solid rectangle and an outside frame. On the short ends of the inside rectangle you will want to create a hole the size of your axle rod on each end at the center of the wood and on the center of the mark you made earlier. This will be for your center pin to live in. It is the point that the inner tabletop rotates, so you need to make sure it’s very accurate. You then take a small metal plate and weld your axle rod to it. This plate will screw into your frame piece of the table underneath. Mark it out in place and then use a chisel or router to cut away the wood to make your pin sit at the center of the middle inside of your frame rectangle. One thing to note is the pins must be put in your center rectangle before it is mounted onto the outside frame. Once the plate and pin are bolted onto your frame your inner table should rotate freely. 

In order to keep the inner table from flipping uncontrolled you will need to mount ball catches on the inside lip of the frame. [Note: Please don’t trust that the plywood is true and always measure before you make your cuts.] There are two parts to a ball catch; the ball and spring are on one side and on the other is a plate with a divot in it for the ball to rest in. You can put four of them on the four inside lips of the frame and the plates on the inner, flip top. This will keep the flipping rectangle in place.

Tablescape
For covering the table, have two identical tablecloths on hand; one to cover the outer frame and will be cut to cover the empty side of the table, and the second will be cut to cover the wood of the loaded table. Make sure to cut both tablecloths very carefully and use some Dritz Fray Check, a clear, liquid seam sealant, to keep the tablecloths from unraveling or sew the edges. Make sure to spray glue the tablecloths down in place. 

Lastly when you place your items on the table you want to make sure that your items that are tallest go in the middle and then place items from tall to small as you move to out to the sides. Try and use plastic bottles and anything that is lighter in weight for the flip board. Make sure you test things as you add them so you know that they will clear the edge. Once you have everything in place and tested the flip, hot glue, epoxy, screw, and wire items down to make sure everything sits in place. The last element is the skirt for the table. A 5- to 6-inch skirt on the edge of the table should be able to hide the items underneath. So, while they may not be able to perform the old ‘pull out the tablecloth’ trick; your actors can now make food appear, or disappear at will!  
Table Flat  Table Pivot  Table Spinning - The blue dots at the corners of the inner, flip top are the ball catches that are mounted on all four corners to keep the table from spinning freely.