Last February Joseph Goodman asked me if I could build a holder for a gong. He wanted a gong to hit every time a PC died in the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG tournament at Gen Con 50. I had fabricated the hardware for the large three sided banners which hang over the DCC booth the previous year and I guess that made Joseph think I’d be up to the task. What he didn’t know was that I worked in an amusement park art, sculpture, and sign shop as the assistant park artist for five years as a teenager. So I said yes and got to work.
First, we needed to find a gong. Gong’s are expensive. I showed Joe a few gongs I had found online and he did his own research and three months later a huge 28″ brass gong arrived on my front porch.
That was a lot of time gone by with no work on this project. I was itching to get it done, but my wife went to school in Europe for month and I was a single parent for all of June and again nothing was done.
Welcome to July and I really needed to start work on this thing. I knew what I was going to do though, I was confident in my skills. My wife returned and I said hello, goodbye, and disappeared into the studio.
First, I drew out a design diagram with measurements. I wanted it to be big. Taller than myself. I wanted it to be imposing and grim. But I had to get it to Indy. So it couldn’t be house sized like I wanted.
I found some old theatre panels in the shed with crazy New Orleans Jazz Turkeys painted on them and decided to save some time and money by cannibalizing them. I sawed them up. Added a few more supports and braces and set it up to look at it. I drilled holes for the connecting hardware, carriage bolts, washers and wingnuts. I put in some hooks and hung the gong from it as a test.
After that I cut foam panels and glued them over it so I could later carve the stone effects into it.
My family was super generous through all this giving me the time and space I needed to hustle this project. They brought me food and made supply runs for me. My daughter even helped carve the foam.
I changed the design at this point. I decided it needed to broadcast the name of the game. It’s Gen Con, it is a big gaming convention, but it is also the industries largest trade show. This thing had to announce why it was there. I cut out some letters for the pediment.
I mocked up a skull. It was 100+ degrees in the shop and I wasn’t thinking straight. I mocked up a demon skull. It had more in common with the Danzig logo than the iconic DCC demon skull. I showed it to Joe and he suggested I talk to Doug Kovacs, the designer of the iconic skull, about it.
Doug’s advice was if I was going to do my own thing, make it truly original and if I was going to copy his skull do it right. Don’t do a bad imitation of his work. He hates that and rightly so.
So I started to add a bunch of features to this generic demon skull I had going to push it away from the DCC skull. But more horns and googly eyes didn’t help and I knew I had made a mistake. I dumped it and went for the iconic DCC skull, which was the only real answer all along.
Meanwhile I had glued the skulls on the pillars and built assembled the blood bowls. I bought a salad bowl at target and cut it in half. Cut the heads off the bolts and glued them into the backs of the bowls. They needed to be removable so I could lay it flat for shipping.
Also the skulls and letters had to be flush with the face trim for the same reason. Anything sticking out would probably get damaged in shipping. At this point in production I was expecting to mail it to the Con.
As an aside… There is a doom band by the name of Book of Wyrms, that practices there, and our paths crossed as I was working late nights. When I was carving this demon skull it was 100+ degrees in the shop at night. Sweat was dripping off the foam in rivulets as I carved it and a live doom band was playing accompaniment. When I realized what was happening, it was real moment of truth about what success in life really is. I was getting paid to carve demon skulls while a live doom band played beside me. I had won.
I should probably thank Book of Wyrms that the skull turned out so well. Thanks ya’ll!
I finished up the work on the skull and letters and glued them on. I sanded everything a few times. I patched the seams with automotive body putty and sanded that a few times between layers.
I had hoped sealing it with paint would allow me to use polyester resin to coat the outside and make it really durable. But, either I used too cheap paint or the actual heat of the resin setting melted the foam. I had to go back and patch the damaged bit with more body putty. I switched to a two part epoxy. I applied a coat and found the humidity and infernal heat of Richmond in the summer wasn’t helping the epoxy do it’s thing very well. I applied several coats and did a lot of sanding and worrying in between. It did look really gruesome when it was gloss black. The kinda of thing a soon to be dead party of adventurers would discover on a forbidden death moon.
But I had to paint it, so I knocked back the gloss with a coat of shellac based KILLZ paint. I started mixing my own paint at this point using the KILLZ and craft paint and sign paint. I got the grey for the stone and made a big batch of the gold for the letters and skull.
Doug had sent me the color cover for the DCC annual and I saw the skulls gem is red, which I didn’t know previously. I wanted it red and shiny. I wanted to put a light in it. I wanted to put lights in the eye sockets. I told myself to stop escalating the project and just finish what I was doing instead of making it more difficult.
After much deliberation I set to applying the faux finish on the stone work, and then painted on the blood. I painted the gem red and added in shadows for depth. I went back in and black lined the skull and letters to make the details pop. I mixed some dark gold and laid in shadows on the column skulls.
It was at about this point I knew deep down in my heart that if I shipped this with UPS or Fed Ex they would destroy it. 100% guaranteed. Unless I built a shipping crate and then the transport cost would be that of a small used car. I called my friend Scott Jenkins. I knew he was going to Gen Con. Luckily he was driving, alone, and in a big ass SUV. He’s a hero. He stopped by and we measured and made sure this beast would fit. Salvation was at hand.
I added false bottoms to the bowls sealed them with epoxy and KILLZ and painted them up. All the blood got a layer of gloss varnish to make it look wet and fresh as did the forehead gem to make it shine.
I bought bigger hooks and spray painted them gold and drilled new pilot holes.
I was at the finish line with about 10 days to spare. I painted the back black again along with the feet and sealed the whole thing with several cans of matte varnish spray.
I left the beast lay in the shop for a week to air out and dry as much as possible. The humidity was wreaking havoc with my dry times and epoxy curing… so I wanted to make sure it was good and finished before I tried to pack it.
I bought a huge box of bubble wrap to pack it up in but I was really worried it would stick to the thing and when I unpacked it the paint would come off with the wrap or it would leave little bubble dots all over the facade. I bought a bunch of moving blankets, wrapped them up in them and secured it all with packing tape.
We put them in Jenkins car. Jenkins drove away and I got on a plane to Gen Con 50.
Both the Gong Arch and I arrived safely. We got it all set up Thursday morning and the rest
is gaming history.
Big thanks to Doug Kovacs, Steve Bean and Natalie Hershberger who helped me move and assemble this thing, Tim Deschene, Micheal Curtis and Ian Walker and the rest of our procession for helping me parade the Gong around Gen Con. Thanks to my wife and daughter for their help and support, my folks and to everyone who took the time to appreciate it and tell me they enjoyed it and yet another big thank you to Scott Jenkins for getting it there intact.
I dedicated this build to the man who mentored me in the skills I needed to successfully accomplish it.
In memory of Matt Rusnak 1925-2010 WWII veteran, traditional hand letterer, artist, painter, sculptor, and all around genius. We miss you Matt.