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Building a Guillotine
By Steve Walker

Welcome to 'Decapitation 101,' also known as "How to Cut the Head Off Your Friends Without Killing Them". What we will be building today is a basic guillotine illusion. I cannot stress enough the importance of safety. This can be a dangerous piece of equipment if used improperly. The effect is that a live person can have their head placed in the stocks of the Guillotine, the blade dropped and although the blade is seen falling below the stocks, the neck is unharmed. The trick is to use two blades, one that falls from above and stops inside the hollow stocks before reaching the neck, which trips a second blade, (held in place with ball clamps) that drops out of the bottom of the stocks, below the victim's neck. The blade is tied to a cleat on the prop, and dropped by letting go of the rope. To reset, pull the upper blade up and tie it off, then push the lower blade back up into the ball catches.

The construction of this prop is simple, but confusing to describe. Someone in the beginning stages of prop building can do this project, however, keep in mind that it will take time and patience to complete. Always wear safety glasses when using power tools. Do not wear loose clothing (it can get stuck in power tools), and most importantly use your head.


  • 5 wood 2x4's 8 feet long ($3.49 each)

  • 2 Ball catches ($3.29 each)

  • 2 Draw catches ($2.62)

  • 1 box of dry wall screws 1 1/4 inch ($2.45)

  • 1 box of course screws 2 1/2 inch ($4.00)

  • 4 angle brackets 4 inches x 4 inches ($1.89 for package of two)

  • 1 sheet of  3/8inch plywood ($9.50)

  • 1 pulley, 2 inch ($3.37)

  • 96 Flat head wood screws #6 x 3/4 inch ($4.68)

  • 3 Dowel rods, 5/8inch square 36 inches long ($1.39 each)

  • 3 Dowel rods, 3/4inch square 36 inches long ($1.89 each)

  • 1 piece of 16 gauge steel sheet metal 10 inches x 18 inches ($9.28)

  • 4 1/4 inch rope cleat ($1.98)

  • 8 feet of Black nylon rope ($1.52)

  • Two-part epoxy ($1.98)

  • Total cost: $79.04



  • Circular Saw                                                   

  • Screw Gun (Or Reversible Drill With A Screw Bit)           

  • Router Table (With 3/4 Bit)

  • Various Drill Bits

  • Saber Saw (Metal And Wood Blades)

  • Carpenter's Square

  • Wood Chisel

  • Metal File

  • Tape Measure

  • Pencil

  • Sharpie

  • TrianglE

  • Compass (Pencil And String)

  • 'C' Clamps, 3 Inch And 5 Inch

  • Grinding Wheel

  • 1/2 Inch Spade or Paddle bit

  • 5 Inch Sanding Disk

  • Dremel Tool With Several Cutting Wheels

  • Sand Paper

First we will build the guide (channel) for the blades to ride in. Cut two 2x4s at 78 inches long each for the uprights. Run each piece through a router table using a 3Ú4 inch bit (or a table saw with a 3/4 inch dado blade). This may take more than one pass. Sand the channels you routed out by using a short piece of the 3/4 inch square dowel rod and tape some sandpaper to the end. Now cut two 2x4s 16 inches each for the cross supports. Drill two holes in each end of both uprights. Use a bit about the size of the screws you are using. Attach the uprights flush to the crosspieces with the 2 1/2 inch screws to form a frame. (You will be taking the top cross piece back out later to put the blades in.)  Cut four pieces of 2x4, 11 inches each to act as feet for the uprights. Using the angle brackets, screw each of the feet to the uprights, flush against the end of the (foot) board, using 1 1/4 inch drywall screws. Cut two triangular braces from the 3/8 inch plywood, each measuring 18 inches on each leg and 25 inches across the long edge (hypotenuse) of the triangle. (When measuring you want to use the factory edge as much as possible.) The height of the triangle should be about 12 1/2 inches. Attach these pieces to the feet along the 25 inch side, using the 1 1/4 inch screws, centering them on the uprights. Make sure that you do not screw into the channel. These braces will help support everything and eliminate any sway.

Make supports for the stocks using the 3/4 inch square dowel rods. Cut the dowel to 4 pieces about 18 inches each. (The ones I bought were 36 inches so I just cut it in half.) Pre drill three holes for the 1 1/4 inch screws through each dowel, one at each end and one in the center. >From the bottom support, measure up 16 inches on each upright and mark it. Measure 7/16 inch from the edge of the channel and draw a line on each side of, and parallel to, the channel. Place in your cut dowel along the line and on the mark and drive a screw them into place.

Installing the ball catches is kind of tricky if you do not have much wood working experience. Ball catches are made up of two pieces; a spring loaded ball inside a cylinder, (this has a mounting plate perpendicular to the cylinder), and a plate with a dent in it for the ball to 'catch' in. Measuring up 7 1/2 inches from the bottom of the stock supports on each side, (23 1/2 inches from the bottom cross support), and make a mark in the center of the channel. Drill a hole in the uprights for the ball catches, using a 3/4 inch paddle bit, making sure that the drill is centered in the channel. The spring housing will fit but the mounting plate is larger than the cylinder. This is where it gets a bit tricky. The mounting plate on the ball catches that I bought were a bit wider than the channel so unless you can find smaller ones you will have to remove a little bit of the channel sides. Slide the ball catch into the drilled hole until it hits the face of the uprights. Trace the shape of the mounting plate onto the upright, and remove the catch. Using a chisel and a hammer, remove the wood until the mounting plate fits flush with the back face of the channel. Only take out a little bit at a time! The mounting plates for the catches must be flush with the channel so that they do not interfere with the blade runners. Once flush, secure the catches into the uprights.

The stocks are made up of pieces of the 3/4 inch dowel, sandwiched between two layers of 3/8 inch plywood. Start by cutting three pieces of plywood 13 inches x 16 inches and one 27 inches x 16 inches. The larger piece is the back bottom of the stocks and runs all the way down to the cross support. Locate the middle of one 16 inch edge on each piece, and with this point as the center, use a compass (a pencil and piece of string will do), to draw an 8 inch diameter arc. Cut out these half circles with the saber saw. Take back bottom stock (the larger one) and screw it to the 3/4 inch dowels.

The runners for both blades are made of the 1/2 inch square dowel rod. The rod must be sanded slightly to making a little extra room so the blade will slide easier. Using a grinding wheel, grind down the edges of the ball catch plates (the plate with a dent in it for the ball to 'catch '), so that the plate fits on one side of the dowel and slides freely in the channel. For the bottom blade runners, cut two pieces of the sanded dowels 8 inches long. Place the catch plate on the end of your cut piece and mark it. Take the Dremel Tool and remove the wood from the mark to the end of the dowel. This recess is so that the ball catch plate is flush with the edge of the blade runner about 1/16 inch deep. Rest the plate where you cut and mark the screw holes. Pre drill these holes, making sure not to make them too big. Also grind out a small divot into the wood, so the back of the plate will set flat. Screw down the plate and file the edges. Flip both pieces over and grind off the excess screw length sticking out the back. Run the Dremel down the center of each piece, on the opposite side as the plate, and make a deep groove to accept the blade. For the top blade runners, cut two dowels 14  inches long. Make the same grove down the center of the dowel to accept the blade, as done for the bottom runners.

The Blades
Lay the metal out so that the 10 inch length is the height. Measure down 4 inches on one side, and 6 inches on the other and mark them. With a  'Sharpie' draw a line between the two marks on one side to the single mark on the other. These pieces will be your blades. Using the Dremel, score the metal along the line. Be very careful! You will go through several of the cutting wheels so make sure you have extras. Once the score line is deep enough to bend the metal bend it back and forth until it snaps off. Grinding down the cut edges and then file them until smooth. When finished both blades should be 6 inches high on the one side, 4 inches on the other and long.

Test fit the runners to make sure they fall freely. Take the 8 inch runner pieces and slide them on the blade, so that the blade is flush with the end of the runner that has the catch plate. Do not permanently attach them now. If the blade does not fall free then you may have to shave off some of the blade. Make sure that the runners are parallel so that they do not stick when the blade drops. Take the top cross member off so that you can install the blade. This may make the gap between the uprights larger so when you drop the blade try to get them as close to normal as possible. Start the blade even with the top edge of the bottom stock and let it drop. If it does not drop smooth and fast take it back out and trim the metal. You may have to repeat these steps a couple of times. (Better to test now than after you have everything put together!)  The 14 inch runners have to be able to fall the whole way down from just below the upper cross support to the stop in the stocks without binding.

Align one of the remaining stock pieces in place above the bottom stock which is in place. Position the blade in the channels and slide it up until it is about 2 inches above the neck hole. Trace the edge of the blade with the sharpie, making sure that the blade is below the top edge of the stocks. Place an 8 inch piece of 3/4 inch dowel along the drawn line. This piece is a stop for the blade. Using the 3 inch clamps hold the dowel on the line while you pre drill 3 holes through the plywood and into the dowel. Secure the dowel with screws and glue. Cut two more pieces of 3/4 inch dowel 3 inches long and attached these near the bottom edges of the upper stock on both sides of the neck hole. Screw these in the same way you did the centerpiece.  Align the front piece of the upper stock with the back piece of the upper stock and attach them to each other with screws into the 3/4 dowels. This piece should be free to slide up and down, to make room for the victim's head.

Using a two-part epoxy glue your blades in place. You want your runners squared up on the blades so that they do not stick when they drop. After the glue dries reinstall the blades and do a test drop to see if the blades drop smooth. If they drop slow take them back out and sand some of the sides off the runners. Keep testing until they drop smoothly. Once you get the blades working, leave them in the groves and replace the upper cross member back in and tighten it up.

Install the pulley in the dead center of the upper cross support. Bend open the loop of the eye-hook with a pair of pliers, insert the pulley and bend the loop closed. Drill a 3/8 inch hole in the top middle of the blade. Run your rope through the hole and keep it together with a 3/8 inch rope clamp. String it through the pulley and the hole in the upright. Screw the rope cleat to the side of one up right and tie off the top blade. (Screw it off center to avoid the channel.)

Optional Bench
This design can be made for a kneeling victim, or a prone one. If you want your actor lying down on the job, now is the time to add a bench. Using 2x4's nail a frame that is 42 inches long and 12 inches across. Cut a piece of plywood that fits squarely on the top and screw it to the frame. Measure down 4 inches from the top edge of the bottom stock on each side of the hole. Center the platform on that line, and screw through the plywood. Cut two legs at 21 1/4 inches and attach them to the frame using 3/8 inch plywood triangles 6 inches on each leg. With the bench attached to the guillotine, complete the assembly of the lower stocks. Use a 5 inch piece of 3/4 inch dowel to attach the lower front stock to the lower rear stock, flush to the top edge of the plywood, and secure it to the uprights. Attach the draw catches on each side of the neck hole, and make sure that they latch securely.

Optional Decorative Cap
The workings of the guillotine are completed at this point, but I felt the top looked too plain, so I added a decorative piece. Cut a design out of two pieces of 3/8 inch plywood and then clamp them to the top of the uprights using 5 inch clamps. Center a 12 inch piece of 2x4 between the plywood making sure that it is directly on top of the cross member. Screw the decorative pieces to the 2x4 and remove it from the uprights. Place another piece of 2x4, about the same size, between the pieces of plywood near the top and secure it with screws. Repeat this step with two upright 2x4's 20 inches apart (wide enough to slide down over the guillotine uprights). Replace the decorative cap on the top of the uprights. 

You now have a fully functional magical illusion, sure to fool your friends and patrons alike! In the next issue, we will finish the guillotine by aging and detailing the piece. 

 Steve Walker is a freelance artist and owner of Manic Illustrations, an The Necropolis, a Home Haunt in Indiana, PA . He can be reached at via Email at beezle@microserve.net or log on to http://manicillustrations.8m.com

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