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On a Wing and a Router

Thomas H. Freeman • Answer Box • January 4, 2008

Model Spitfires take flight, crash and burn onstage.

Opera North, in Leeds, England, had something special in mind for its production of Richard Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus — eight Spitfire airplanes. Scale models with a wingspan of 25.6 inches (650 mm), each of the Spitfires also needed to accommodate a small function and be constructed from a robust material that could be reengineered to add future functions. They also needed to be mounted on poles, allowing them to be “flown” on stage by performers.
Additionally, three needed mini smoke machines to be mounted in their engine compartments, two needed to have snapping wings and one a breaking tail. Two also had to catch fire during the battle. And, oh yeah, the designer wanted them in gold.

To fill all these needs, Opera North’s prop buyer Mandy Barnett initially approached Phil Martin of Bath-based Theatrical Props. When Martin was confirmed for the project, production Set and Costume Designer Leslie Travers sent him a model Spitfire for a starting reference.

After looking at all the requirements, Martin contacted Fineline, a lighting and set/prop construc-tion company, to take advantage of the production possibilities of the company’s five-axis router. Darren Wring managed the project at Fineline, and Wring and Martin looked at various options on the materials front before deciding on a 0.77 density solid epoxy resin board. The basic ele-ments of the planes were rough cut and shaped from epoxy model board by the CNC router. To cut the exact, correct Spitfire shapes, Fineline obtained the 3-D files from the Turbosquid Web site.

The planes were produced in seven sections over three days on the router using a 6 mm and a 12 mm bull-nosed cutter. It was a difficult task for the router as the wings were so thin. The pro-pellers also needed to be durable, so Martin brought model plane ones and filed them into the correct Spitfire shape.

To have the planes catch fire, Martin custom-designed and built flame paste holders and then in-stalled them in the engine cavities of the planes, complete with a safety cutout that automatically extinguishes the flames once the planes are placed onstage. To get the gold sheen, the planes were finished in a high-gloss gold, applied through vacuum metalization.

The planes take center stage toward the end of the first act of the opera, during the battle between King Cyrus of Persia and the Lydians, of whom Croesus is king.  
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