As Scenic Artists, our main job is to “Execute the designer’s ideas and concepts of a show using a myriad of techniques like painting, carving and texture work.” However, we also have a second job – making the scenery safe in case of fire. This extra task often falls onto our shoulders because we are the last stop for a scenic element before it gets loaded into the space. Selfishly, we also want to make sure that whatever treatments are applied to the scenery to make it fire resistant, don’t ruin our hard work. With that in mind, here is a handy list of things to NOT DO when creating fire-safe scenery:
Don’t Call It Flameproofing
We can’t actually flame proof anything that is considered to be a combustible. What we can do is add a layer of resistance to the substrate that gives your performers, crew, and audience the time needed to get out of the building in case a fire does happen. The products we use are Flame Retardants. That is what we do, we retard (to delay or hold back) the flame, we do not make anything flame proof.
Don’t Use The Wrong Product On The Wrong Substrate
For many applications the best choice is to treat your scenic element with a specific flame-retardant product designed for that specific substrate. Note that the flame retardant you would use to treat raw wood is not the same FR you would use to treat cotton, muslin, china silk or paper – they all have their own flame-retardant compound. The Roscoflamex range offers a variety of flame retardants for different substrates. Consult their Flamex Comparison Guide to choose the right one, or watch this handy video:
DON’T Forget To Test
It’s not about giving the surface of your scenic element a quick coat – you need to make sure it penetrates into the substrate and that you don’t leave holidays. This is where samples come in handy. Cue your inner pyromaniac! We not only get to paint things, now we can set them on fire too!
The general rule for testing your FR on hanging soft goods, drops and decorations is generally referred to as the “12/2 Test.” Apply flame to the surface for 12 seconds and then watch to see if it self-extinguishes in 2 seconds. Unfortunately, while we’d love for there to be a field test for hard surfaces like lauan covered flats, there isn’t one. Research and communication with your venue’s Fire Marshal will help ensure you are creating “passable and safe” scenery.
DON’T Add Too Much Water To Paint With Flamex PA
Probably the most popular technique is to add Roscoflamex PA into some paint and back-paint your scenery at the end, after all the pretty is done. Often times, however, Scenics will choose to add Roscoflamex PA directly into their scenic paint to meet their FR standards. This not only helps to ensure good coverage, but it also can mean big savings in labor costs, as you don’t need to do an extra step just to FR the piece.
The instructions state – Add 1 bottle of PA to one gallon of paint. If you subsequently add water to your paint mix for application, you MUST add more PA, and you MUST do more coats. Keeping the ratio of PA to paint solids is key, along with creating a good layer of paint build up. The goal is for the dry paint film to be no less than 4 mils in thickness. The effectiveness of a fire-retardant barrier is dependent on both the fire-retardant additive and the thickness of the coating. It is recommended that, in order to create a thick enough layer, you do two, good-quality coats – four if you’ve thinned your paint with water.
DON’T Add Flamex PA To The Wrong Type Of Paint
Roscoflamex PA is meant for use in acrylic and latex-based paints. House paints, and scenic paints love this stuff — Metallics and sealers not so much. Many a Scenic has created crazy science projects when mixing PA with sealer; not only does it curdle and won’t be useful as a sealer anymore, it also won’t pass a FR test, and money has just gone down the drain. Some scenics have had success adding it to metallic paints, but it needs to be added very slowly and it still might be a big gamble as it might alter the effectiveness of the FR or the appearance of the patina.
DON’T Assume Pretreated Fabrics Will Pass A Flame Test AFTER You Paint Them
Often, we paint on soft goods that have been pretreated and come to us as either FR or IFR fabrics. They have fancy certificates and everything. Know that many paints and other treatments can actually degrade the strength of that original FR. YOU NEED TO TEST your drop before it goes out onstage. If it doesn’t pass, then you need to go back and re-treat it.
DON’T Waste Your FR Product In The Wind When Working Outside
If you are one of the lucky Scenics who get to work outside or on location, extra care should be taken if you choose to spray the product on. Be aware of wind speed, wind direction, etc. It’s possible that 75% of your FR treatment is ending up downwind on something or someone else, and not on what you’re trying to spray. Not only might you kill the grass, you might cause a whole host of other issues with organizations like OSHA, DEP, and probably a bunch of city zoning ordinances would be broken too. In short, use plenty of masking and choose to brush/roller it on instead.
DON’T Use Expired Product
Although Roscoflamex products have a long shelf life, it is not forever; and after time the chemicals and salts will degrade. Unopened, they last two years, and only six months once they’re opened. If you find a bottle that has been sitting on a shelf for ages, dust it off and give it a good shake. If you see lots of tiny chunks and flakes, it is no longer viable and should be disposed of properly.
DON’T Throw Away Your Samples
Keeping your samples around makes fire marshals very happy. Doing a flame test on your actual piece of scenery, or drop, will at best leave burn marks, and at worst fail. So, having something that has been treated in the exact same way, with all the same layers of paints and FR, is always the way to go. For example, many touring companies will sew a small piece of extra fabric to the top of the drop just for testing purposes.
This article was originally published by the Guild of Scenic Artists. If you’d like to learn more about the flame-retardant products mentioned, please explore the Roscoflamex product page on the Rosco website.