One of the most interesting things I’ve done as a museum curator is work on a script for a Victorian Halloween drama presented by the museum. There are many interesting aspects to death and dying in the Victorian Age, and their interest in the afterlife. In an interesting juxtaposition, the Victorians were advancing technology and science at an amazing rate, yet clung so stubbornly to a belief in the supernatural world. They truly believed that science could explain all, and that all the scientific innovation would some day also explain what people knew to to be true of spirits and the afterlife.
Part of the production was recreating a Victorian seance, complete with a “Talking Board.” Today, they are commercially known as Ouija boards. As early as the 1850s, spiritualists were creating ways to make it easier to communicate with the dead. Flat spirit boards are actually relatively simple to make on a laser cutter, as are the planchettes (or pointers.) For the production, I wanted to make something that wouldn’t be obvious that it was being controlled by the museum volunteer, who was in no way a “professional medium.” I found a reference for obscure “dial plates” and I knew that would be perfect to model my version after.
As this post is not entitled “52 weeks ago,” it’s not meant to rehash what we did, but how we are making it better. The design and the mechanics of how the spirit dial moves was pretty solid, so what I endeavored to do for this week was to prototype the board for kits. As it was my first attempt at really any wood construction, has a lot of room for improvement and simplification.
I want to take a moment to insert a little disclaimer. The kits are made for entertainment purposes only. The original dial was created based on Victorian beliefs. It was intended to be a prop; a Victorian-style curiosity. What you choose to do with it beyond that is your choice and personal belief.
The basics on how to use the Spirit dial: the largest circle is the one where the participants’ hands rest, and this is the only piece that should be moved. Around the edge are “Hello” “Yes” “No” and “Good bye”. The text repeats so the people at the indicators opposite of each other read the same thing. The Victorians believed you need to start every communication with the spirits with a “Hello.” The yes and no are for simple answers and when you are finished (or the “spirits” are 😉 ), you tell the spirits goodbye. The pointer (which is attached to the big circle) is for more detailed messages that need to be spelled out, or have numbers.
The biggest obstacles to making the current design into a kit:
The original board was 16 inches in diameter, which was the biggest width we could easily get blanks for a the time. This worked well in a theatrical setting, but the size is almost prohibitive to ship. It would be less expensive to produce and ship at 12 inches in diameter. Since we were messing with the design and sizing of it, I also increased the turn radius of the pointer, to the alphabet text could be larger and easier to read / point to.
The turning mechanism is a little sticky: This is where my novice building skills come into play. I didn’t want board to rub up against board when turning the device. Meandering up and down the isles at the hardware store, I discovered furniture movers. The original board has little plastic furniture moving nubs between each layer in an effort to make it “glide.” It added unnecessary depth, and was a little stickier than expected.
In prototyping for the kit, I thought felt might be a logical thing to try. The wood in the kit is not sanded, because it is intended that the you customize and finish your own kits before assembly at home. The tiny rough bits of wood that were barely perceptible with the hand caught on all the fibers in the felt. It was not pleasant on the ears.
My second attempt at a new smooth mechanism was with simply, thin, laser cut acrylic washers. I’m still kind of enamored about how simple this was and how beautifully it worked. It glides like butter.
The original board involved screws and power tools. While it did make it relatively sturdy, it is stupidly hard to drill straight down a dowel rod. Consequentially, some of the alignment is a bit off. With such tight measurements, this contributed to the stickiness of the movement. I also didn’t sink the screws, to the heads were sticking out. This made for an absolute mess on the bottom. The one screw made it wobbly and prone to damaging furniture (a no no in a museum!) so I put felt feet on it. Well, the stickiness of the movement and the felt feet made it slidey. So I glued some of the grippy shelf / rug liner to the bottom of that.
There are holes for the dowels to go through, as well as engraved wells to secure the glued dowels.
So we removed the screws completely, instead creating shallow glue spots for the dowels to fit in. Using a craft or wood glue, it stays quite secure! And, of course, there is always the opportunity for people to modify their kits at home with screws and the like.
Revisiting this project has been a lot of fun. I was proud of the original, but the kits are going to be so much fun! I can’t wait to see what people do to customize then. The physical parts are done, next up is writing up instructions for assembly, and a quick history of Talking Boards!