16(0) Candles

by Jay Duckworth

The finished foam candle holders on the set of HamiltonGetting creative with tools to give Hamilton a glow

Working on a historical piece like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—set in the Revolutionary Period era—always brings challenges for the props team. On this show though, there was also one I just fell in love with. 

Zach Murphy, our head of lighting at the Public Theater, found a style of Luminara brand “candles” that he liked, but there were a couple problems. One, the candles were purple. No problem. Just take the candle mechanics—LEDs that light the body of the candle and the electromagnet that moves the “flame” around—out of the fake candles and house them in an actual wax candle. (To give us a real candle glow.) Which led us straight into the second problem: The candle mechanics were pretty big, about 1.5 inches wide and 1.75 inches tall. These would not be simple taper candles. To house them we bought 160 wax candles 9 inches tall by 3 inches wide, cut them down to different random heights and cored them with a Forstner drill bit. 

This, however, brought us to our third problem: elegant candleholders. Anything that was sizable enough to look good with a 3-inch-wide wide pillar looked like it should be in Game of Thrones, not Colonial America. Not to mention the fact that the prices were ridiculous for the number of holders we needed. And that’s when we got creative. We decided to carve our own candleholders out of foam, using the … wait for it … drill press as a lathe. Yeah, buddy, drill press lathe! 

Two blocks with a dado in the center.We carved a sheet of 2-inch foam into blocks that were 4 inches wide by 2 inches deep and about 12 inches tall. Then we cut a ¼-inch dado down one of the 4-inch-by-12-inch sides. After that was done we green-glued two of the pieces together with the dadoes facing each other, so they formed a hole in the center of the block big enough to fit a threaded rod. We took our now 4-inch-by-4-inch-by-12-inch blocks and cut them into different heights to vary the sizes of the candleholders. I then drilled a hole in the center of two 4-inch-by-4-inch squares of Lauan, fitting them on either end of a block with the threading rod poking out from the center of them. Two nuts tightened on the threading rod compressed the foam between the Lauan squares.

I made a profile of the candleholder form as a jig, then made another copy for the other side of the press. I prepared a base for my rig to sit on by screwing a small amount of UHMW to the center of a piece of plywood that I clamped to the base of my drill press. I then attached an acorn nut to the bottom of the threaded rod so it could spin on the UHMW easily. I simply clamped the top of the rod into the chuck of the drill press. After giving the whole thing a few spins by hand to make sure everything was centered and tight in place, I turned on the press and started working at speed! 

A Styrofoam block in the drill press lathe. I used three different coarse rat tail files to remove foam. Being round they were easier to hold on both sides. The carving threw off so much foam that I hooked up a shop vac on the back to suck up some of the debris. After I changed out the profile a couple of times I just started to free hand the blocks. I finished them up with a fine-grained sandpaper. Taking the now-carved holder out of the lathe setup was the hardest part, as the acorn nut cap would get hot as heck from the friction of rotation. It also showed one drawback: the chuck does tend to smash the top threads of the rod a bit.

Once the holder was released, I cut the top and bottom in the chop saw and brushed them with watered down Rosco FoamCoat. After sanding them down and FoamCoating and sanding again I painted the holders gold before gold-leafing them. The hole in the core helped the electricians feed the wires through the holders straight into the wax candles. That final bit of voodoo magic made them glow and flicker for this enlightening musical.   

A nearly-finished foam candleholder. Currently the props master at the Public Theater in New York City, Jay Duckworth is the founder of the Props Summit and boasts more than 20 years experience in LORT and Off-Broadway theatre, independent film and TV as a props master and designer.