Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Finger of Nephren-Ka

I've been working on this particular project for a while, which is a bit embarrassing. In theory this is a trivially easy prop- a mummified finger. What made it so time consuming is that I wanted to do it with old school gaff techniques while making it realistic enough to meet modern presentation standards.

Part of the problem with doing it retro-style is the dearth of information about the actual manufacture of carnival and sideshow attractions. Some vintage pamphlets from gaff makers have survived, but they don't contain any specifics about techniques. The high end of the craft is maddeningly opaque because the practitioners were so tight lipped. When they died their secrets went with them.

We know from surviving documentation and examples of their work that most pre-WW II gaffs drew on two traditions- taxidermy and puppet making. The taxidermy school used the body parts of dead animals to manufacture gaffs, while the puppet making contingent relied on sculptors working with malleable materials like rubber and paper mache. There was also some crossover between the schools. Puppet-style works were sculpted over animal skeletons, while taxidermists used paste and plaster to modify the shape of preserved animal specimens.

I'm drawing on the techniques of the puppet-style craftsmen. Paper mache is cheap and easy to work with, but can produce amazing results in the hands of a skilled artist. And, lets be honest, it's a lot more socially acceptable than doing taxidermy on the dining room table. Bringing home some road kill for a new project is likely to result in many a night spent sleeping on the couch.

We start with the presentation. It took forever to find a box that was the right size, but I finally stumbled across this one at the dollar store. It was originally a storage box for puzzle pieces and measures 6" by 2" by 1 1/4". Some sanding and a coat of stain gave it a suitably weathered exterior. The label is a re-sized version of a stock specimen label. After printing I trimmed it to size, applied the edge distressing, and tea stained it.

The finger itself. The core is a bamboo skewer. I measured the joints on my right index finger and bent corresponding ones in the bamboo after soaking it in hot water. The joints and body were then bulked out with glue saturated cotton fiber. It's a vintage technique for building puppet armatures and it's unbelievably strong thanks to its composite nature. The cotton fibers and glue mimic modern carbon fiber and resin, producing a final product that's stong in both compression and tension.

My references for the sculpt were pictures of actual mummy fingers and my own hand.  I wanted something between the bony structure of a true mummy and the relatively normal proportions of a specimen preserved with salt or natural tree resin.  Dessicated, but still fleshy.  On that front I think I was successful, but the final result is probably a bit too plump.  The dried flesh should more closely mimic the contours of the underlying bone.  I write that off to the preservative effects of being an occult artifact.

A closeup of the finished gaff.  One of the hardest parts of the sculpt was the slight curve of the finger.  Each joint segment needed a tiny bend, with the fingertip having the most noticeable angle.

Getting the nail right was an exercise in frustration.  I didn't particularly want to try carving a nail from horn, so I broke from the pure retro rules and used some light packaging plastic for the nail itself.  I trimmed out the basic shape and used a heat gun to get the surface curve right before giving it a light sanding and adding a bit of wear to the nail tip.  It was then laid in a bed of paper pulp for final positioning.

Trying to keep the fingernail oriented correctly while I sculpted the rest of the fingertip was extremely difficult.  What I should have done is placed the nail and then gone back and sculpted the details around it.  Instead I engaged in a comedy of errors trying to sculpt the details of the fingertip and the nail bed while the nail was effectively floating in a vanishingly thin layer of pulp.

There were two small details that I really wanted to capture here.  The first is the slight retraction of the flesh of the fingertip under the end of the nail as the finger mummified.  The second is the similar shrinkage that takes place just at the edge of the nail bed.  The nail itself rests on the relatively tough attachment point for the flexor tendons, but they immediately branch to the right and left to produce a fleshy gap immediately behind the nail.  That produces a concave dip as the fat and tissue in the space contracts during drying.  In the picture above you can see that slight constriction.

The final skin was built up with tissue paper and dissolved pulp mixed with starch and a bit of glue.  I sculpted the folds of skin along the joint lines with a finely tipped dental tool.  This, ultimately, was a mistake.  I didn't take the shrinkage of the pulp mixture into account when adding the slight dimple at the joint at the same time as the skin folds.  The dimple is there, but it's shallower than it should be because the pulp shrank excessively as it dried.. 

The end of the finger, with the nub of the metacarpal bone visible.  This is another one of those little details I wanted to capture.  Most gaffs like this don't show any real anatomical detail.  The finger just kind of...ends.

One of my goals here was to have a clear distinction between the skin, the underlying tendons and flesh, and the stub of the severed bone.  I also wanted to capture what actually happens as an amputated finger is mummified.  The bone is stable, but the tendons shrink along their axis of contraction while the skin tightens inward.  To recreate that I first built up the structure of the dried tendons over the bone with cotton fiber and let it dry.  The skin was done separately.  I spread a thin sheet of tissue paper on glass and misted it with diluted glue to build up it's stiffness without building up too much thickness.   When it was dry I applied some fine pulp to one side and wrapped it around the tendons, trimming it to size and blending it in to the rest of the finger with more pulp.

The finish was pretty straightforward because the paper mache was pre-tinted with dark brown pigment that acted as my base color.  Over that I wet sponged some mid-tones and light brown along with just a hint of green.  The final surface treatment was tinted paste wax.  That gave some depth to the color and produced the glossy effect of flesh treated with resin.

All in all this turned out to be a pretty solid piece.  I'd give it a 7, maybe even an 8, out of 10.   It may seem from my narrative that I'm dwelling on relatively small details most people won't even notice, but there's a reason for that.  This isn't a display prop.  It's meant to be handled and closely examined and has to stand up to scrutiny that a gaff under glass or in a display case would never have to deal with.  From a foot way things like tendon attachment points don't matter, but when someone can hold it next to their own finger and compare the two it's something you have to pay attention to.


Jason McKittrick said...

I think the area of the fingernail is very successful. Has a very authentic look.

I did a Nephren-Ka finger about a year ago and that was the area that gave me the most trouble.

Great aging job on the label. Not too much, not too little.

Propnomicon said...

@ Jason McKittrick

Thank you for the kind words. This was my fifth try at doing a finger and I was becoming a bit obsessive toward the end. Heh.

Barry John said...

I agree. Very nice work. I found the fingernails hard to conquer as well. I'm pretty sure I used the frosted type 2lt plastic milk bottle for mine using similar techniques as you mentioned to shape, colour and position. I love the single finger idea too.

Jeff said...

Have you ever thought about putting all the information you have learned about making Gaffs together in pamphlet or book form. I know I would be interested.


Propnomicon said...

@ Jeff

I'm not sure there's really enough interest to justify a printed product. Most folks that are interested in that kind of thing end up here eventually.

Jeff said...

LOL you may have a point but then again you might be surprised and how many people are interested in how the old gaffs where made. I myself am always looking for new techniques that I can use in some future piece.

Alex Kaeda said...

I'm going to echo Jeff's remark.

Sir, we might end up here eventually.... but even when we're here.... it would be really awesome to have a printed resource that we can mark up, highlight, refer to at a glance and keep handy when prop-making.

And it could reside with pride among dusty tomes filled with descriptions of indescribably awful rituals and incalculably evil pharaohs who worship gods from beyond the furthest stars...

print on demand

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted an elephant foot umbrella stand and finally made one this summer. To make the toenails I did much the same as you only I used small soda bottles as they had the perfect curve to them. As for your finger...beatiful!! Have you ever thought to use chicken or turkey wing bones sort of peeking out for your finger gaffs? Seems made to order for what little you want them to show. Thanks for your website- it is a constant source of inspiration for me. Cookie

Propnomicon said...

@ Jeff

For now I think publishing everything here is the best. Although now that I've had a chance to think about it I don't think anyone has every done a scholarly look at gaffs. Considering their deep social significance, particularly the faux religious items of Europe and Asia, I'm surprised no one has tackled it.

@ Alex Kaeda

I *will* go as far to say that if I eventually have enough material for a book on gaffs I'll put one out.

@ Anonymous

I tend to shy away from real animal parts. Getting them clean enough for long term use is difficult and time consuming.

Phil said...

I think it looks wonderful, thanks for sharing with us. And yeah, I ended up stumped on the nail with mine as well.

Only possible quibble I can find is whether the stump of the bone shouldn't be hollow. I'm thinking maybe a chick drumstick bone or bamboo twig might not do the job.

And I'm with Jeff. I'd love to see a collection of your techniques gathered in one place. Perhaps a website with them listed alphabetically? I know I've spent a good bit of time trying to track down a particular references on your blog. Its a shame this site doesn't have a Search feature.

Propnomicon said...

@ Phil

There should be a search bar on the upper left hand side of the webpage.

All of the how-to posts I've done are available under the "DIY and Tutorials" tag over there in the right hand column.

If you ever lost track of something just drop me an email and I should be able to help.

Phil said...


No idea how I managed to miss the Search bar, and the DIY tag. Thank you as always.
Looks like its time to have my eyesight checked again.

David said...

I just finished making a whole hand, and damn, I couldn't get the fingernails to look half as good as yours. Big thumbs up for this one.

Oh, and if you're into antique gaffs, I strongly recommend this video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17193936

It shows how, in those times, simpler was better!

Naamah said...

Oh, wow. Very nice.

As for the dwelling on details nobody notices, people *do* notice. They just don't realize it, and they don't always have the vocabulary to express it. (Witness the times you've probably heard someone say "It looks fake. I don't know why, it just DOES!" about poorly-rendered digital effects in movies.)

I have a saying that I mostly applied to set dressing and home decorating, but which applies to propmaking just as well, which is that "ambiance," the feel of a place and how deeply it affects us, is the sum of the details we notice without realizing that we noticed them. This applies as much to objects.

Another thing I've noticed is that, to fool some people, a fake sometimes has to look *more* real than real. You can put a real shrunken head in front of some folks, and a fake shrunken head beside it, and they will go for the fake, because it matches their expectations. If you aren't going for a totally 100% accurate look, but are looking to sucker people, there's a fine line to walk there. Give the unicorn a horn people can see.