Let’s face it, the last few years have not been that great for us theatrical Scenics. Thankfully, more venues and live performances are opening back up, and audiences are returning. So the last thing we needed was the news/rumor that Argo Gloss Laundry Starch is no longer going to be manufactured, and finding it still on shelves is getting harder and harder.
For some Scenics, this is a real problem – this is what they have used for years to size backdrops as it gives a great slick surface to paint on. Others like myself aren’t as worried, as we switched to using regular cornstarch from the grocery store years ago. And for the same reasons – it makes muslin so lovely to paint on, but it’s way easier to find and often cheaper.
This sets up a whole fun debate at the mixing table: what version of starch is best, why do we choose the products we do, and who’s recipe is better? This is what prompted me to finally do a side by side comparison to find out the answer – is laundry starch better than grocery store starch and why?
So let the Paint-Off... err, I mean Starch-Off Begin!!
Before I started to staple any muslin or boil water, I went back and did some quick brush-up research about why we call it “sizing” a drop. According to Susan Crabtree, who co-authored the book “Scenic Art for the Theatre” with Peter Beudart:
“Soft goods must be primed or sized with something lightweight and fairly flexible. Generally, the term SIZE refers to the coat of thickened starch or animal glue applied to the drop, as this will shrink or ‘size’ the muslin to the shape it has been mounted in, usually a rectangle on the floor or frame.”
Once dry, starch allows our paints not to run and, with enough coats, not soak into and through the fabric. It’s thin enough to maintain flexibility and more importantly, it dries clear. This clear property helps to create any translucent lighting effects that might be desired by creating a perfect surface for dyes to sit on in the holes between the threads. Researching this small rabbit hole led me down another rabbit hole – how does this white powder suddenly become this magical gel-like elixir… but only when I add it to boing water and cook it? And that’s why we grab some coffee and stop for a…
But did you know that starch will only stay in this fun cross-world of solid and liquid when mixed with cold water? Once you add hot water to the mix, science happens!
“The starch molecules hydrate and combine with individual water molecules. The starch granules hydrate, increase size and viscosity and eventually form a paste or gel.” This is called gelatinization, and it’s the goal product we are looking for when we cook starch for sizing drops, making gravy, or even making a sticky paste.
Once the gelatinized starch has cooled, the water evaporates, and we are left with a dried-out film. This film helps fill in the holes between the threads in our fabric and gives it that nice surface to paint on.
All this cool science stuff, heating cold liquid starch to make a gel, gives us a reason to stop for a…
As usual, we Scenics don’t use laundry starch the way it was intended and have adapted the recipe on the box (made for laundering needs) to our larger backdrop needs. The most used recipe that Scenics follow and pass down comes from Lynn Pecktal’s book “Designing and Painting for the Theatre.”
- 1pound box of powdered Argo Gloss Laundry Starch.
- Dissolved into 1/2 gallon of cold water.
- Pour Into 3 gallons of BOILING WATER.
- This should yield 3.5 gallons of liquid starch. (page 300
I will tell you that I learned a more straightforward recipe that doesn’t require having a three-gallon pot of boiling water (which can be a challenge in some shops and elevations.) My recipe relies instead on the starch being mixed with just enough cold water to keep it a liquid (about 2 cups) then pouring in one gallon of boiling water and supplementing the final amount needed with super hot tap water. This recipe and the technique of turning cold starch into a gel can be seen in this Guild Video.
The critical step is constant stirring right before and after it magically thickens. If you stir too slow or pause too long, you risk the gelled starch not incorporating evenly with the hot water, and you will get lumps – no one likes lumpy gravy.
This debate about how much boiling water you need comes down to Scenic’s choice. The starch molecules will only “grow/hydrate” so much before they burst and you end up with just water. Too thick, and it can flake off your drop, taking some of the paint with it. It’s all about finding that happy medium that works in your climate and design needs.
But what if you don't have access to a hotplate?
Donna Wymore, the Tuxedo Junction Fine Art owner, has a thriving backdrop rental business and uses a non-cooking recipe that she adapted from Pecktal. Many have called it a “flex size” as it starts with flex glue and a liquid laundry starch instead of a powdered starch.
Donna Wymore Flex Size Recipe:
- One part Flex Glue to 6 parts room temp water.
- One part Liquid Starch to 16 parts room temp water.
- Mix the glue and water into the mixed bucket of starch and water.
Room-temp water is critical because the glue can get super stringy and gross if you get it too hot. Another bonus to the recipe, besides not needing a stove, is that it has a shelf life of about two months.
Recipe Side Note: I focused on normal sizing starch recipes for my comparisons as if I was doing a normal backdrop project. Recipes and applications change when you need to do a drop with translucent/opaque tricks. For those times, we create a new recipe called “barrier starch” and do a lot more than just the one coat on the front of the drop.
Barrier Starch Recipe:
- Make regular starch
- Add 2 cups of your favorite clear flat glaze or sealer
Now that we have had our break and drank some coffee, it’s finally time to get cooking! I adapted my starch recipe for this article by half. Meaning I only used a cup of dry starch and ended up with a little less than 2 gallons of the cooked product. I also let them cool off overnight to ensure they were at the same room temperature.
While I waited for the water to boil, I noted any differences between the two Argo starches.
Look and Smell – the same for both Argo Gloss Starch and Argo Cornstarch.
Feel – the same silky touch for both sampled starches.
Taste – The grocery version or Argo Cornstarch didn’t taste like anything; the Argo Gloss Laundry version also tasted like nothing but did have a subtle aftertaste of how cooked starch smells – if that makes sense.
Why did I taste test? Argo Gloss Laundry Starch is technically edible, not encouraged, but edible. And I was hoping for a more significant difference between the two products to emerge.
Ingredients – Once again, the same. Both products are 100% cornstarch. This is clearly seen in the labels and in a very hard-to-find Safety Data Sheet for Gloss Laundry Starch. I also know a handful of Scenics that have talked to Argo customer service and have been told the only difference between the two versions is “fewer bugs,” meaning the grocery store version is food-grade. And it’s this fact that has encouraged many Scenics to make the switch to the grocery store version. Not only is it slightly cheaper, but it also doesn’t require shipping, as you can find it in any baking aisle.
I want to note that in “Scenic Art for the Theatre,” they state that “regular cornstarch, sold for cooking, has an astringent quality. Drops primed with straight cornstarch rather than laundry starch tend to become damp in humid climates.” This is not a phenomenon I have ever witnessed; if you have, please let us know in the comments!
Fun Fact: In the past, a “Blue Box” version of Gloss Laundry Starch had ‘blueing’ added to it. This blueing made the muslin appear whiter/ brighter, and some Scenics liked how it affected the color. This addition made it inedible.
Side Note: I did a sample that started with a 1/4 cup of dry corn starch powder and was able to mix it into a gel from the cold water mix with just the hot water from my coffee pot. I would easily be able to make a gallon of starch this way for small projects and much more quickly.
For my testing, I covered small 3’x6′ flats from the same bolt of Heavy Weight Natural Non-Flame Retardant (NFR) Muslin. The same amount of staples and tension were applied and to mimic the spray and spread method, I used a P-50 style sprayer and a brush using an X pattern. On the Stage Right side of the flats, I went back and smoothed out the direction of the strokes to a vertical pattern, hoping to see a difference later on; spoiler… I didn’t. I let them dry partially on the floor before moving them up to the paint frame due to my busy shop’s lack of floor space.
The photo below shows how the two Argo starches have dried compared to my third flex size/liquid starch sample. Interestingly, the muslin has changed equally in appearance to a warmer, more natural color, and you can start to see the translucent qualities that starch gives to muslin.
All three samples shrunk the same, had the same pull pattern, and a fun drum-like bounce. It was finally time to paint!
To save money and time, I pulled a leftover cup of blue paint that had been used in my Scene Painting class on another project. It was made from Rosco Off Broadway Sky Blue, white house paint, and water. I created two new mixes of just Sky Blue and water and Ultramarine Blue and water. I also found random cups of green and yellow, also made with scenic and house paints.
I created a lovely soft ombré of the blues, and a slight spatter to help blend. As you can see, the base coat dried evenly on all three flats. You can see where the toggle bar affected my base coat and how unevenly it dried. This is a common issue as often it can take two coats of paint to get a sexy blend if you don’t do a base coat of paint first.
I admit I was lazy and not working from a source image and made this up as I went along. I was, in part, testing the starches and playing with the paint recipes to see how they sat on the fabric and dried.
I then painted the lower section with the greens and remembered to take a photo of how the paint spread on the different-sized recipes.
Had I painted the samples at different times, I don’t think my muscle memory would have noticed any difference in how the paint stuck to or spread on the surface. It was all pretty smooth like usual. However, because I was doing them simultaneously, I noticed the smallest amount of “slide” differences. The laundry starch was slightly better than the cornstarch, and the liquid was somewhat less slick than the cornstarch.
In the end, all three looked and felt the same. (I never went back to fix the base ombré blend.)
This could have been the end of my trials. There was no clear winner of the bunch, my original hypothesis of corn vs. laundry starch being pretty much the same product with the same results was proven correct.
Or was it?
I decided to do a small round of tests on how the muslin would react to being wrinkled up and stored for a couple of days before being pulled back out to be hung on a pretend batten.
In this photo, we finally see a fundamental difference between the three samples, with how the green painted section did or did not bleed through. It did not surprise me that the Liquid version was the worst – it didn’t feel as thick as the other two when being applied, so it makes sense it doesn’t have as much barrier strength to it. The difference between the Argos could be a real difference or be chalked up to how hard I was brushing or a slight difference in size thickness. I would need to do another round or two of tests to determine for sure. I can tell you that they all wrinkled up the same before and after I stretched them back out and only re-stapled on the bottom.
This photo shows how they all shrunk evenly and eliminated the wrinkles. However, you can still see ripples. This could be fixed by stretching out the sides more and doing another pass of a hot water mist ( This is a standard solution to significant backdrop wrinkling issues).
My final test involved a lighting test. Although my goal was not necessarily to create a translucent drop, I kept that idea in the back of my mind as I was curious how the different recipes, layers of paint, and water vs. added white would affect the light coming through as a teaching moment that I could use later with my students. I was also hoping to see one “glow” better than the other. Spoiler alert – and not a surprise- they didn’t.
My test involved a simple work light on the floor, with the flats resting on sawhorses just like they would be if I was running samples in my shop.
My Final, Final Test – was not intended, and it was a gross one. Remember when I mentioned the 2-month shelf life of the flex size recipe? Cooked cornstarch recipes do not have that same luxury. This was evident in two ways. Visually, you can see how the starch mixture starts to separate after a couple of weeks and the water begins to separate from the gel. This was the same for both Argo versions, and neither was able to be remixed.
Nor did I want them to. As a surprise to no one, both recipes smelled pretty rank and gross after two weeks and needed to be thrown away. I observed that the Corn starch version started to fail the smell test after only four days in my climate-controlled shop, and the Laundry version took five. The things I do for science.
In the end, I am not sure if I was happy or sad to find such strong similarities between the two Argo starches. I can say that I am not alone in trying to find a solution to the disappearing Argo Gloss Laundry Starch problem. My mentor, Susan Crabtree, tried out a different brand of cooking starch that can be bought in bulk at Earth Born.
Susan Crabtree's Review
- Suspends in cold water solution more easily than Argo.
- Argo boxes contain 16 ounces and 2 cups of powdered starch. We cook up about 3 ½ gallons of starch from a box and usually thin it out to about 4 ½ gallons of starch per box. We are settling for around 2 ¼ cups of this product to get the same results.
- Thickens nicely.
- Goes on and seals as well as Argo.
- As ‘paintable’ as Argo.
- Comes in a handy 3 ½ gallon reusable plastic bucket.
In conclusion, it’s not a lie when we tell people that our job is part artist and part chemical scientist. Figuring out how to make things stick to other things and do tricks simultaneously – like paint remaining flexible on fabric – can be a run-of-the-mill problem. At least until that mill stops making our tried and true product and we need to try out new mills.
I hope you find my scientific approach to problem-solving helpful. I would love it more if you shared your knowledge and stories with me in the comments or if you are a Guild member on our Forum.
Check out these other great articles on the Scenic Route Blog!
Angelique Powers has been painting for over 15 years and has an MFA in Scenic Art from Cal Arts. Along with being the Charge Artist at Penumbra Theatre she also freelances and works with the University of Minnesota as an Adjunct Lecturer. She is currently most proud of her work as a Founding Board Member of The Guild of Scenic Artists and her work here on The Scenic Route.