A Magician Seeks the Rough Way

Inside Magic Image of Harry Robson's Roughing StickThe magical principle of Rough and Smooth occupies a special place in the litany of things that matter to the world. Granted, it is very low on the list and even among magicians, it is still down there with the consistency of Magician’s Wax and the tensile strength of threads.

But, for some reason, likely attributable to the amount of time we have to think of such things, it has become of paramount importance to us.

In the old days, before Twitter, we would do our own roughing and smoothing using a fine liquid we purchased by mail from Tannen’s in New York. It came in a small bottle and had a very special aroma that likely led to our demonstrable brain damage in later life. We would use cotton balls to dab, never wipe the special liquid on to our decks. Wiping would lead to ink smearing and would ruin the deck forever. We had piles of otherwise perfect decks of cards throughout our room that had been marred by improper dabbing.

Sure, we could have bought decks already treated with the special liquid but that cost money – likely less than what we were paying for new decks and the special liquid – and we thought it inhibited our creativity. And what creativity we had!

We made several otherwise commercially available decks and thousands of unworthy packet tricks over the years. In fact, we are pretty sure we never used a deck we prepared in an actual performance, anywhere.

Perhaps, we thought, we were wasting our time. Perhaps we just liked mastering the artistic technique of dabbing. Perhaps we were addicted to the fumes. There is, a wise man once said, a fine line between aroma therapy and huffing.

Then came the revolution wrought by the aerosol spray technology. It worked for processed cheese and string so it made sense that roughing fluid would be the next application. We purchased special cans of roughing fluid and made our own decks and learned that the fumes could now fill a house, a porch (when we were forced out of the house because of the fumes) and finally a garage.

The spray worked wonderfully. We could do entire decks at a time and never worried about smearing the ink. Now we had perfectly produced decks that we still never used in real-world performances.

At a convention, we learned that one could buy commercial products for the lay consumer that did what the roughing spray did and at a tenth of the cost. We bought cans of the product from our hobby store and went to work. Same quality, less cost but we still never used a single deck or packet in real performance.

Recently, the magic world learned of a new substance from Card Shark called Science Friction. It was a roughing fluid applied by aerosol technology. It got rave reviews from critics and chemists weighed in on its likely composition and less expensive alternatives. We almost bought it but balked given our new living situation in a small apartment in West Hollywood next to a bakery for dog treats. We did not want to be evicted because of the odors – the dog treat bakery actually smells wonderful – and had no desire to buy a special, portable spraying booth just for roughing and smoothing.

Yet, for the first time ever in our career, we had a real need for rough and smooth technology to accomplish a minor miracle that we developed. It was for the finale of the routine we are doing at the Magic Castle and were sure it would rocket us to the real theaters on the upper floors of the clubhouse. We perform weekly (and sometimes weakly) downstairs in the two venues available to amateur members.

So, what could we do? We did consider buying a mobile spray booth to make the cards. We tried to accomplish the same effect using only sleight-of-hand. We tried many different things but we were stumped. We needed to make the gimmicked card – just one card – and we needed to have it roughed.

We sought spiritual guidance and our priest cautioned us to recall that the path of the righteous is often rough and rarely smooth. To be fair, we didn’t ask directly about roughing and smoothing cards for magic tricks – we kept it more general, more vague.

We asked some members of the Magic Castle and learned about a new, old technology called a Roughing Stick.

The price for this magical stick was high, approximately $14.99. There had to be a cheaper alternative, we thought. So we walked the streets of Hollywood looking for a source for the active ingredient in the Roughing Stick. Someone told us it was made of “White Rosin” often used by musicians.

We went to one of the many music stores in the area and asked about “White Rosin.” If it is used by musicians, it is not apparently called that by people who sell to them. No one had a clue what we were talking about. Granted, we mumble sometimes – especially when dehydrated from walking the streets of Hollywood in the hot sun – but we were met with blank stares and slight indications of pity or concern.

“What will you do with this ‘White Rosin’ once you find it?” a kind lady at The Guitar Center asked.

“Rub it on the back of a card.”

“Oh,” she paused for a little while. “Why?”

We explained that it would make it sticky to another similarly prepared card.


We bought several blocks of rosin from her. Each costing more than $8.00. We tried each on cards and nothing happened. We didn’t smear the ink but we did permanently remove the finish from the back of the cards, making them rejects.

Depression was kicking in. The guys at the dog treat bakery knew someone who used a plastic compound that comes in a spray can called Plasti-Dip. They suggested we try that.

We realized this was becoming an obsession. Why would we spend weekend after weekend walking the streets of West Hollywood looking for an alternative to something we could buy for $14.99? Was it pride?

We broke down and ordered the roughing stick from Andi Gladwin and Joshua Jay’s company, Vanishing Inc. True to their word, the order came to our door and we tried it. It worked and it left no smell or tell-tale damage to the card. The trick was built and is now being rehearsed several times a night as we ready it for use at the Magic Castle.

So what was the point of our searching for alternatives and fixes that took time and money when we could have trusted in the power of the Roughing Stick?

We are not sure why we are this way. We would add to the worn-out adage, Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. We likely would starve trying to figure out how to catch more fish.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.