This year's theme was Surf Shack, and I began planning in the Fall of the year before. In order to stay on budget and get the biggest bang for the buck, it pays to plan and purchase over a long period of time, taking advantage of sales, seasonal stock and using that 40% off coupon at each and every visit to Michaels and Hobby Lobby. I've gone into a lot of detail below about my process and materials, and included some tips in red!
What would Surf Shack be without surfboards. I actually found some old sheets of insulation foam in the storage section of the church dock, and when I asked about using them, was told that they'd been there forever and to have at it! I traced a surfboard shape using a transparency and overhead projector. Then cut them out with an industrial-sized hot knife. A local high school student in need of community service hours, Raya, is one of my all-time go-to people for artistic help. I handed these off to her (along with cans of latex paint and brushes; spray paint didn't adhere to the foam very well), and she made a weekend project of it, along with some friends. [NOTE: I also painted the sides and backs of the boards. We used them for kids to hold at various pre-VBS promotional events, and so having them completed on all sides gave them a much more finished and authentic look. For VBS itself, they leaned against things.]
Raya also took on the project of making these customized life preservers for the front doors of the church. I purchased round pieces of styrofoam from Michaels. They had flat fronts and backs, which I thought would be OK, but I wound up no liking how they were missing the rounded front-facing surface, so I took Dollar Tree pool noodles and cut them in half length-wise, and taped one half-moon noodle to the front of the styrofoam. Gave them to Raya along with white and navy duck tape and white rope. [NOTE: For extra artistic hands, reach out to your neighborhood high school art department. Students are always in need of community service hours. And what better way to earn them than doing what you love!]
For the lettering, I typeset then printed out the words, cut out each letter, and Mod Podged them on. I poked a hole in the back of each preserver, and hung them from the doors using Command Strip hangers.
A seagull printed out on the color printer, cut and taped on the inside of the window with double-sided tape, was a nice touch at the entrance.
I knew I wanted lots of pilings around, and so I collected large cardboard tubes. Mine were salvaged from my workplace (where we had a surplus of shipping tubes ready to be recycled), but you could probably go to a carpet store or a display company and get them for free. I had one of the guys from church cut them at various heights (some straight across and others at an angle) using an electric saw. Then I cut cardboard pieces for the tops and taped them on. They got a sloppy coat of base paint, and then I went to work painting all the details, everything from the wood grain to the seaweed-stained bases.
Once the detail painting was done, I hot-glued several pilings together, wrapped the trio with rope, and added the fishing net (another Dollar Tree find; purchased a bunch of these!) and a wooden pelican (affordable with the 40% off coupon at Hobby Lobby).
Another paper seagull and a poster completed this vignette. The poster is printed out from a large-output printer and mounted onto foam core. Command Strip hangers (the metal-hook kind) were perfect, as the hook went right into the foam without breaking through the front surface of the poster.
Dollar Tree also had lots of these grass skirts, which I used for the roof of the Surf Shack and also, as shown here, to hang from handrails. Kids love touching stuff, and so I like to add tactile items all around.
I also hung the skirts across the entrance to the sanctuary to set the stage for the tropical theme.
Surfboards flanked the entryway, held in place with a small wad of Florist Cling. [NOTE: Cling is a great way to secure items. A little wad is all it takes. It comes off very easily, and if there is any residue left, just use a little Goo Be Gone. I always have a roll of Cling for every event I do. I have it in both green and white.] The jointed paper parrot is another Dollar Tree find.
The side walls of our sanctuary are covered in cushioned and upholstered sound panels. I decided to drape rope (the same used for the front door life preservers) like a clothesline, and then hang beach towels from the line. The beach towels are from Dollar General. I chanced upon them when they were on sale for buy-one-get-one-half-off. At $6 a piece, the second one for $3, they were a bargain. I debated asking the congregation to donate old beach towels, but I knew I wanted fun, bright-colored ones, so I went the route of buying new.
I hung the rope and secured the towels using T-pins. Then added the clothespins.
The paper seagulls are used here as well. You can see that I secured them with extra long straight pins, not putting them flat against wall, but floating them to give them a more 3D look.
Under the light sconces, and secured using T-pins, are Dollar Tree buckets and shovels holding brightly colored silk flowers. I printed out Surf Shack logos and glued them onto the front of the buckets.
Here is a view from the altar to the back of the sanctuary. We have these six large windows which always push my creative thinking. I decided to turn them into aquariums.
The window sills are about 3 inches deep, so I knew I could create a cool environment. I made coral using Great Stuff. [NOTE: This stuff is a VBS decor staple. Once a can is opened, you pretty much have to use it all in one sitting, AND you must wear rubber gloves as it's an absolute mess and hard to get off your skin. I use it not just for an adhesive, but for actually making things, like the coral here, and wave foam as you'll see further below.] I put down a large sheet of plastic tarp, and sprayed the coral shapes directly onto the tarp. Once dry, each piece of coral peeled right off. I made six whole pieces, one for each window. I spray-painted each. And secured it on the sill using Cling.
The sea life is printed out on a color printer. I printed out a sheet, then created a mirror-image version of the document, printed that out. Cut out all the sea life and taped them so that each had a front and back. These were adhered to the coral and the window using either double-sided tape (on the window) or Cling (on the coral).
Here are the windows from the other side (in the narthex). On this side, we've covered the window with blue cellophane, holding the cellophane in place with clear packing tape. I wanted a solid piece of cellophane on each window, and with the windows 40" wide, I wound up ordering the cellophane from U-Line. I couldn't find anything larger than 36" wide in stores. I had to buy 4 rolls (WAY more than I needed), but we used it for water for the Surf Shack set.
And now onto the Surf Shack! Here is the altar area with the set.
The Surf Shack is made of 2" thick 4'x8' foam, which a member of our congregation gets for me every year. It's not available at our local Home Depot or Lowe's, so he has to go to a special building supply company. But it's worth the extra effort. The stuff is super sturdy, but light enough to move easily. It cuts well if you use an industrial-strength hot knife (I get mine at Harbor Freight Tool). And it takes paint like a champ. I made up my own pattern for the shack, cut and painted each piece, then constructed it once in the sanctuary, attaching the pieces using long carpenter nails. The roof is covered in two layers of grass skirting.
The hut has two windows and a half-Dutch door. One of our crafty ladies, Lavonne, made the latches using flexible sheets of foam (the kind kids use for art projects). She secured the latches using T-pins (she painted the top of the T black so you couldn't see them) and then gave them a little extra security with a drop of hot glue. The door opens and closes easily!
She also hot-glued tall grasses around the base for that beachy vibe.
I made a trip to Goodwill and got some touristy beach-shop t-shirts and a dress. Hung them from T-pins. Adding them last minute really helped to make an authentic Surf Shack feel. The tin signs (the Coke thermometer and Icee advertisement) were purchased from Hobby Lobby using my coupon. The card stock Surf Shack sign is from Cokesbury (I just cut it out from the colored background so it's "solid wood").
The wood grain is easily done using both dry and wet brush techniques. It doesn't need to be perfect. I used gray, black, brown and cream to achieve my look. [NOTE: I always go to my Ace hardware and ask for mixed paints on clearance. It's a crap shot as to whether they have a color in the family that I'm needing, but I've built a good enough relationship with my red vests, that they are always more than happy to drop in a few squirts of color for free to get me closer to what I need.]
The tiki torches are from Dollar Tree. I removed the lids and wicks, and made "flames" from orange, red and yellow acetate. Rather than purchase expensive acetate from an art supply store, I found colored acetate subject dividers from Dollar Tree — cheap, cheap, cheap. Just cut them into flame shapes and hot glued them inside the lip of the lid.
The rainbow umbrellas I used throughout are from Target. I purchased four at $15 a piece. They were available online only, but I had them shipped to my local store free of charge, and picked them up. Easy peasy.
The palm trees were a true labor of love. I knew that to make a real statement, they'd have to be tall, but that would have involved a lot of supplies and engineering, so I opted for smaller ones that I staged from behind the Shack. Each trunk is 5 pool noodles taped together. Lavonne, always one to exercise her creative noggin when it comes to problem solving one of my hatched ideas, volunteered to cover the trunks, so she cut brown craft paper strips in a shingled pattern, gluing them on to the noodle structure in overlapping layers.
For the palm fronds, I started with two umbrellas. Ripped the fabric off, spray-painted the metal framework green. Lavonne cut the fronds from green poster paper, then we painted on accents in a lighter shade of green. The fronds are attached to the spokes using hot glue. The handle of the umbrella fit perfectly into the center of the pool noodle trunk. The top of the noodles is covered in a nest of dried Spanish moss.
Lavonne had some brown-feather-covered styrofoam balls which we both agreed would make great coconuts, but when they disappeared, she came up with this genius idea. Dollar Tree bath loofas spray-painted brown and hung from the spokes with safety pins look real and add no weigh to the structure. Love it!
The engineering of the palm trees required an industrial-sized paint tub filled with sand, two broom sticks and a tall wooden table. The broom sticks were shoved in the bottoms of the trunks — far enough in to make the trunk rigid — with enough hanging out to be submerged into the sand. I still had to secure the one tree (the one out to the side and not using the shack for bearing) using fishing line to make sure it stay put. The line was around the trunk and then wrapped around a nail on the other side of the shack on the roofline.
The surfboard/ocean backdrops are from Cokesbury. We attached them to rolling walls.
I found a cute image of a pelican, printed him out, mounted him to foam core
and put him high up on a ledge.
Used the blue cellophane from U-Line as water. The hat, guitar, beach ball and flip flops are all from Dollar Tree. The "sand" is canvas drop cloths.
The dock is made from a pallet. The pilings holding it up are small cardboard tubes.
Everything is detailed to look like weathered wood.
I used one of my bird cages for decoration on the registration/information table in the atrium. Spray painted it brown, decorated it with silk flowers, lined the bottom with burlap, and added a Dollar Tree parrot cut-out (which is printed both sides!).
Little did she know that I'd take her dead seriously and figure out a way to make it happen. One of the men in the church took on the challenge, and made a wooden wave, which is super sturdy and easy to move. With the help of another high school student (this one who paints sets for the school's drama department . . . well if that ain't a gift from God!!!), we got this painted to look super realistic! I found a wooden boogie board at Goodwill. With the back of it sliced off, it look just like a surf board. The foam of the wave is made with Great Foam on a base of cut foam insulation; Great Foam is also used around the base of the surfboard!
On the Sunday before VBS, we had the wave outside of the front of the church. Parishioners loved posing on; wonderful picture-taking opp! We had Beach Boys music playing. And kids from the church carried surfboards and encouraged catching a wave!
A couple other details. For the snack tables, we needed to label what was "dolphin," "sea turtle," and sand crab" — our three breakout groups. I had these pilings from when I did a nautical shower, and I was able to repurpose them here. The crab has a sand and shell base, and the dolphin and sea turtle have clear and blue marbles / glass baubles to mimic water. The animals themselves are glued onto a piece of clear acetate and just shoved into the sand/marbles. The animals are two-sided.
For labeling the pews where each group sits, I had to not only designate by animal, but also by color. I purchased flip flops in colors I needed, and put the animal pictures on foam sheets also in the designated color. The flip flops were attached to the pews with Command Strips (the hooks embedded in the sole of the flip flop), and the foam sheets are hung with string.
If you have any questions about anything you see here in the post, please don't hesitate to leave a comment here. Please make sure you leave your email address so that I can respond!