The attachments I form to stories I’m a fan of could be generously described as… abnormal. When I see a new show or movie, my strongest reactions are primarily to the story and to the aesthetics. This in and of itself is probably true for most people, and in a perfect world these two attractions would be equals. I am completely invested in the DC Universe for the characters and stories, and my love of that world’s aesthetics run just as deep. May I refer you to the header of this blog?
Like a lot of nerds in our current age of nostalgia-soaked media, the properties I got to know as a child still have the strongest hold on me. The wee synapses that started my obsession with Batman and plenty of other stories have been firing away since potty-training, but there are even more properties that got left behind. Power Rangers, Godzilla, direct-to-video Disney sequels; all things that I was more than a little obsessed with as a kid that have faded from relevance in my mind over the decades. But even so, I am always in danger of staying in love with an aesthetic part of them. Namely, the props.
As a fan, my mind tends to live in the aesthetic of one fictional world or another for weeks on end. This is why the physical representations of the stories are so endlessly fascinating to me. It brings a part of those worlds into my own. An inside joke between me and fictional characters that have no concept of me. And while my love for the story or characters may fade, my coveting of the physical item can remain. I haven’t watched an episode of I Dream of Jeannie since grade school, but I’ve painted more than a few Jim Beam Christmas decanters since then.
What the hell does any of this have to do with a magic book tutorial, you ask? Sabrina the Teenage Witch played on a loop in my family living room and in my head for most of the year 2000. I wanted to be like that girl so badly it hurt. The magic, the bitchy-as-fuck cat, and a linen closet portal to anywhere… what’s not for a 10-year-old to love? More than anything, I wanted her magic book. (The tome was given to Sabrina in the pilot episode and sat on a lectern in her bedroom for basically the entire run of the show.) Even at 10 I knew the thing was just made of filler pages (a fact later confirmed for me by the prop master*), but I coveted that bejeweled behemoth more than life itself for a few, formative months. I made my own versions out of sketchbooks and cardboard, and would get giddy when I saw a rerun with a clear close-up shot of it. I could name those episodes by heart.
A few years later, my mind was unexpectedly taken over by it again when we (the book and I) happened to run into each other during a family trip to Disneyworld. We would have had dinner at that Planet Hollywood every night if I’d had my way, just to sit next to it. My poor, poor parents. The years went by, and despite occasionally being reminded of the prop when I came across the surprisingly good reference photos I took at 14, I never seriously considered replicating it. Not until Netflix.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was exactly the lush, macabre, dumb nostalgia trip I was looking for when it first dropped. Exactly the show I wanted the original to be now that I was grown and mildly discerning. Only two notes really; add a talking cat, and big, jeweled magic book, please.
I sat on the idea of replicating the book again for a few months (2 seasons and a Christmas special), mostly because I could not see a reason to own a giant tome of blank, or bullshit pages I’d never read. All that changed when I thought about making it a keepsake box. Suddenly, I was reliving my childhood struggle to find the exact right rhinestones (like most young men) and braided border trim. Ultimately, I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. The book is far from screen-accurate, but close enough for me to love it and display it proudly. It’s certainly not the MOST-subtle thing I own, but a good prop rarely is. And even though I’ll likely rarely catch a glimpse of the original Sabrina series again, somewhere inside my 10-year-old self gets very happy every time I catch a glimpse of it. This project was really for him, anyway.
First, you’ll need reference. Say a thanks to 14-year-old Matt and click the link to see the detail shots I took at Planet Hollywood and sketches I did recently of the title lettering and crest.
After way too much looking, I found the perfect base-box-book on eBay, an 11”x15”x5” version of “Treasure Island,” made by a company called Third Hand. Happy hunting.
At first, I thought I would have to cover it in a brown leather hide. Thankfully when Treasure Island arrived I saw that the book was already covered in a thin faux-leather vinyl. Perfect for what I needed to do.
I started small, sculpting the raised top of the center seal with two-part resin. This is the same material a lot of action figure customizers use to sculpt new bits onto toys. I sculpted the green rhinestones into the resin when it was soft (which wound up being a bit of a pain when I was painting, but alcohol got off most of the paint).
Speaking of painting, I used various shades of brown, orange, and red, and several coats of each. Paying as much attention to my reference as I could while a Mission: Impossible movie was playing, I did my best to immediate the different gradients in the original leather. I was also careful not to cake on too much paint at a time, as I wanted to preserve as much of the vinyl’s texture as I could to help sell the illusion.
Happy with the painting I’d done, I printed out the title and the crest to size and used transfer paper and sculpting tools to stencil them onto the book in solid lines. I then used the sculpting tools to do my best to “emboss” the crest onto the book. Since the cover vinyl was not a thick piece of leather hide like the original prop, this process was a bit of an uphill battle. Imitating embossed leather with thin vinyl and cardboard is not ideal, but I went slow (read: this took for-fucking-ever) and ultimately came out with a crest that had enough depth to sell the look. I used a star-shaped embossing tool I’d bought for the larger stars, and then etched in the small stars and the moon by hand. The title was easy-peasy, comparatively. Got done with that in no time, and added the appropriate hatch marks.
A bit of touch-up paint and gold-lettering later, I was ready to start with the border. I did my research on this one, and found what I believe to be the exact style of tool used to make the two, distinctive border bands on the original prop. This was a total fluke, in fairness, as the only reason I knew what tools to search for was that I happened upon a graphic in my endless Google-searching that named them exactly.
Using a rubber mallet and elbow grease I eventually got the borders clear enough to highlight in gold, though this process was deceptively difficult as well. The border tools are very detailed, and cardboard simply doesn’t hold a stamp as well as wet leather.
The gold border ribbon, tassels, and rhinestones were the last pieces. A few dabs of super glue and, voila, a perfect/bizarre keepsake box.
Please, if anyone decides to replicate this, send some pics through! I’d love to see them. And Gods bless your nerdy-selves for reading all this and giving it a shot. See you in the Other Realm.
*So, quick story. After I got home from that Disney trip I’d found that the Internet was able to provide me with the name and address of the prop master for Sabrina, Bill King. I wrote him that October asking about the book, and got a call from him that November. This total stranger talked to a 13-year-old kid for an hour about the show, and the book, and what it was like to be a prop master, and it made my life. Eternal thanks to him for being so nice to a little nerd in Jersey.