A Question about Canvas and Rolling- page one

I belong to the Shawbury Village Players, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire and for many years we have put on pantos in our village which did not have a stage. So it had to be built and dismantled again at the end of the run.

Now thanks to the lottery we have a fixed stage. not a lot of room above it, but we now have a rear 'cyclorama' measuring 22ft wide by 8'8" tall. Up until the new stage we used to have our rear 'cloth' painted on 4'4" by 8'8" pieces of tri-wall cardboard. Scene changes involved either turning them round to form another 'jigsaw' or removing them completely. ...we are now going for a proper backcloth.

Your website has some marvelous information on it but I do have a few of questions. Firstly, what material do you use for backcloths? Secondly, is it possible to roll a painted backcloth on to say a long scaffolding tube or would that be too narrow? My idea is to have two or three cloths so we can do scene changes by rolling one up and another down. If you have rolled yours how long did they take to unroll or does the paint crack so they won't roll. Finally, do you have any details of backcloth suppliers (the raw material)?


Hello Chris,
How nice to have a new stage to work on. What a pity it is so low. But read on as this is to your advantage!
I paint on canvas. (I think it is in fact a man-made version but it is just as good as the original natural canvas.) Co-incidentally you are the third person in the UK to ask this week about where I get my canvas. Here is what I wrote to the others…

I live in Northern Ireland and buy my canvas from my local Theatrical Supplies man.
I buy it in two versions. I can buy it from him 9 feet wide and (apparently) almost indefinite length. Buying it this way, as it comes off the loom, it is surprisingly cheap. I bought several pieces from him last week and each piece was 13 feet long and nine feet wide and each of those pieces cost me £30 plus vat. (No postage as I collected it myself from his workshop.) (June 2005 price)
However if I want a bigger width than that, then the price rockets as he gets his manufacturer to make up the piece with no seams.

Incidentally if you do end up with an overlap on your canvas then ensure the overlap is the right way up so that light striking the overlap does not cast a shadow.
So my advice is to firstly try contacting your own local Theatrical Supplies Company (yellow pages?).
However I have phoned my own man ( Bob Forster) and, just in case you do not have any luck at your end then he is willing to supply you from here in Northern Ireland. In actual fact I think he gets his canvas from a mill in England somewhere and he hinted he would probably get your order sent directly from there to you to save all the to-ing and fro-ing of the material and also to cut down on the cost of postage.

I will email you with his details, phone number etc.

Incidentally he sells all manner of other theatrical goodies; Rosco paints (Very dear!) Shimmer cut cloths, gauzes, lighting rigs, lighting gels, gobos, fog machines, UV lamps and paints etc etc.
Unfortunately the man still does not have a computer or web site. I keep shouting at him about keeping up with the times and hopefully he will be going on line in a few months time. He and I have been “trading” for many years and he has never let me down.

Stretching. Yes if at all possible I stretch a new cloth when sealing it. Not needed once a cloth has been used once. Usually there is no chance of a frame so I have to improvise. One way is to position a couple of good heavy solid book-flats either side and staple the edges of the cloth to them. I also staple the cloth to a wooden batten along the top and another along the bottom which are in turn nailed to those bookflats.

Hope the above is of use Chris.
Next question. Rolling up.
If you use canvas and NOT CALICO then your paint will not crack. I am rather lavish when applying my paint so my canvases only last about six different shows before the paint starts to crack and even then we use the cracked canvas for cave interiors etc then when they are even past that, we cut holes in them for doorways etc. I use ordinary Dulux Vinyl Matt Emulsion for my painting. Much much cheaper than Rosco or acrylics. I guess it is the vinyl in the paint which gives it that elasticity enabling it not to crack when being rolled.
Rolling on a scaffold pole? Some companies do this (As you probably gather from my web site I work for several companies.) and they have a rather clever system of ropes wound around the ends so that they can haul them up. The rope is wound around the ends so that as they roll them up the rope unwinds from around the pole !! (I told you it was clever.)
However, a scaffold pole has a small diameter which means the canvas at the start of the roll is curved a great deal which can lead to paint cracking. Try to have any spare canvas at the start (i.e. nearest the roller) to alleviate this.
The problem with long scaffold poles is that they sag in the middle as they can only be supported at either end and not in the middle for this rolling-up-with-ropes idea. However with your stage being so low I suggest you don’t bother with ropes but have a pair of step ladders (even better with three pairs) and roll them up by hand. Another problem is tying them up, once rolled up, as you will find you will need to tie them up in the middle as well as the ends. Especially with a scaffold pole this will put a large weight on the canvas where it is tied in the middle resulting in a pleat all the way down the centre the next time you unroll it. A company I know found an even heavier weight and stiffer metal pole than normal scaffolding, which meant they did not have to tie off in the middle, as there was no sag. Trouble was with such a heavy pole all were dicing with death when rolling or manoeuvring this pole as if it fell down on someone’s head it would have killed them. I am delighted to say they have now had professional rollers installed (By Bob Foster mentioned above) This is a special alloy tube which can be up to 36 feet long yet will not sag in the middle and at the same time is very light weight. However the tube is about 6 inches in diameter, which, together with the pulleys etc, would take up a lot of your “real estate” in terms of stage height.

Returning to your scaffolding pole problem. Everyone finds it difficult to attach the canvas to the pole firmly so it won’t slip when rolling. One solution is to use very strong gaffer tape or duct tape. However one company I know ended up cutting little traps in the canvas and applying glue so that flaps of the canvas was stuck down.

Talk to your local theatrical supplier though, as they might have a solution re what to use. . Another company I am involved with uses an ordinary square length of 2“x 2” timber but that leaves a Venetian Blind row of creases on the cloth after it has been rolled up.
CLICK for example See especially in the cooking pot.(Close separate window once finished with)

Another trick is to pack the wooden batten around with spare canvas to try and smooth out the hard edges of the timber. One idea I have used is to buy a length of round plastic drainpipe, Slice it lengthways down the middle with a power jigsaw. (Actually a farmer in one group used his chainsaw. – a bit of a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial but at least it gave a wider cut). Mark your cutting line with masking tape first, otherwise you will veer off the “straight and narrow” Then thread this tube over the batten with the cloth going up the slit. The snag you will meet is the plastic - once released from being a circle- tries to close up and even overlap on itself, so you have to force the slit open with a screwdriver blade. The task of this threading on business takes about four strong men with much hammering and cajoling - but it works.

Have you any member of the cast in the central heating business? I believe there are large diameter foam lengths available for insulating big pipes. (The small domestic version is not big enough diam.) Slipping that around your batten should work.
All this batten, pipe, etc refers to the bottom batten of course. The top batten is an ordinary length of timber tied off into the roof grid by ties at both ends and the middle.
Time to roll? Not long - a couple of minutes at the most.

Now here’s a trick for you. (And I am indebted to Sean Magee who showed me this idea) One company I used to paint for, paints on both sides of their backcloths, and both sides are used in the same show. Once a scene is finished they change the backcloth as follows…

A weighted rope is lowered down the front of the cloth in the middle and tied onto to the bottom of it. (Red rope in diag.)

All three ropes are then pulled, from the back, until the bottom is at the top. The ropes are then tied off on cleats to keep them taught.

The other set of three ropes (Green in diag) are then undone from their cleats and the cloth lowered so that the back is now displayed to the audience. The (weighted) middle rope is then undone and hauled up out of the way. and all three of these ropes are then tied off.

The advantage of this system is that not only do you use both sides of the canvas but there is no need to roll it.

Hope some of the above helps.

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