We created this ace-high DIY wild west jail cell and backdrop for our Murder in the Wild West murder mystery party. It was an ideal group photo background and also formed the backdrop for the mystery game in our lounge. The design meant that guests could pose behind the bars as well as socialize in front.
1 Make the Front of the Jail: Individual Cardboard Sheets
For the front of the jail, we used 4 double-wall cardboard sheets 1000 x 1200mm thick. We went for this extra-thick cardboard to give the front wall enough structure to stay upright (with the support of the frame).
The cardboard sheets were arranged in a landscape fashion with the 1200mm side touching the ground.
To create the jail "bricks", we did a quick calculation as to how many rows and columns of bricks we needed per sheet.
We decided to go for five rows of bricks per cardboard sheet and so each row was 200mm high. (1000mm divided by 5).
We chose to have 3 and a half columns of bricks per cardboard sheet and so each brick was approximately 342.9mm wide. (1200mm divided by 3.5). The half of the brick was important as this enabled us to create a visual continuity between the two different sheets of cardboard once placed side-by-side.
Tip: by making each alternate row start with a half-brick on the left, the brick structure looks more visually appealing and also mimics how bricks are traditionally laid in a simple "stretcher bond" pattern.
Tip: to create a row of bricks, use a tape measure to measure from the top for the left, right and middle points of each row and then use a straight edge to connect the dots.
Tip: once you have all the rows sketched in, use a tape measure to measure one brick's worth (in our case, 342.9mm) from the left. Take three markings (top, middle and bottom) and then connect the dots. Take care to ONLY place these vertical lines on alternate rows of bricks as shown in the photo above. Then, measure half of one brick's worth from the left (in our case 171.5 mm) and repeat this process for the ALTERNATE rows of bricks. See photo above.
Tip: draw each line in pencil. Once you are sure your measurements are correct, use a black felt tip to give a definition. Do not worry if your lines are not completely straight - back in the days of the Old West, building materials would have been rough and ready and not perfectly shaped.
Tip: we did not do this for our party, but - had we been creating this again - we would have added more visual interest by painting over the lines with black-brown paint, using a thin brush and ensuring that the lines were of uneven thickness. Then we would have diluted the paint and used a larger brush to roughly color-wash each individual brick.
2 Overlap the Sheets and Cut Out the Window
Once we finished marking the bricks on the four individual cardboard sheets, we laid them on the ground and overlapped them to our desired width and height. (We were limited for the width by the position of some furniture in our lounge; we also wanted the height to be eighteen inches or so below our ceiling so that the painted backdrop would be visible.)
Tip: overlapping the cardboard rather than cutting it adds some extra strength. If you overlap by a full brick, then the join is minimized.
Decide where you want your window to be. We went for one large window so that a number of our guests could be photographed "behind bars" together. Our window size was approximately 400mm high by approximately 1370mm wide but you can adapt this to suit your needs.
We marked out the window in pencil and then used a Stanley knife to cut the shape out.
Important: cut on a flat NON-VALUABLE surface. We used an old piece of plywood.
3 Make the Frame of the Jail
We used wood that we had in our garage. A neighbor kindly gave us the metal poles from his old gazebo to form the prison "bars".
Note: the bars looked authentic but also added a lot of stability to the frame structure.
To give the jail stability, we used a wide piece of wood for the base - this was a piece of an old bed frame that was approximately 6 inches wide. (We designed this so that the base would be behind the jail and so not visible.) Then we screwed four by two pieces of wood on top of this to make the sides and top of the frame.
Using a tape measure, we used a felt tip pen to mark the position of the bars on both the top and the base.
Important: be accurate with your measurements and ensure that both top and bottom measurements are identiacal as the bars must fit into the top and bottom slots without being crooked.
We then drilled holes for the bars in both the top and base using an electric drill.
We then slotted the bars through the top of the frame to connect into the holes in the base. We used a hacksaw to saw off the tops of the bars to make an even height.
Tip: you may need to work outdoors in order to get the height above the top of the frame for the solid bars to thread through. (If your structure is 6 foot high and the bars are 5-6 foot high, then this would be difficult to achieve inside the average room.)
4 Attach the Overlapping Cardboard Sheets
We used a staple gun to attach the cardboard sheets to the wooden frame. We also used a staple gun to staple the overlapping cardboard sheets together.
5 Decorate to Make Your Old West Jail More Interesting - And to Cover Joins
We then used decorations to transform our basic Old West jail from this:
to this stunning Wild West party backdrop:
1 We used a separate piece of cardboard for the Jail sign and used a staple gun to staple it across the top of the jail. (This neatly covered up the join in the cardboard!)
2 We created a large cactus and also a wagon wheel out of two separate large pieces of cardboard and then painted them.
Tip: weigh down the sides of the wagon wheel and cactus as the paint dries to avoid the cardboard curving in on itself.
3 We created a desert canyon backdrop using two large king-size sheets. We painted a canyon scene on them and then hung them from the top coving.
Tip: use a light-brown sheet to give a sand-colored backdrop without using so much paint. We used Mocha/Latte sheets from Comfy Nights.
4 We used the printouts in our decoration party pack that we provide with our "Murder in the Wild West" mystery game. These include various Wanted posters as well as posters about different themes of the mystery such as cattle rustling, the previous murder of two cowboys, an attempted bank robbery as well as a humorous "outlaws will be hung but floozies welcome" poster. We "aged" these posters by smearing them with a weak tea solution, tearing the sides and lightly scrumpling them.
Tip: strategically place these posters over joins in the cardboard.
5 We used red and orange colored sheets and shawls to cover up evidence of modern life - such as our TV and sofa.
How the Jail Looked During Our Murder Mystery Party
If you are interested in a rootin' tootin', all-fired western shindig game, complete with cowboys, saloon girls, outlaws, law enforcers and a moralism advocate, then please check our Murder in the Wild West.