Upgrading your Zig-Zag Pencil

Creating the MARKED Zig-Zag Bill

When I was a kid I had a Zig-Zag Pencil. I have no recollection of where it came from but I distinctly remember the trick. I was fascinated by the workings: the little plastic slides cleverly concealing and switching the pencil pieces. I loved it so much that I managed to keep track of the pencil pieces for almost a full month before losing them. This was high praise for the trick considering that I was only a single digit in age.

Sadly, once I had misplaced the pieces of the pencil, the trick wouldn’t work anymore. I’d love to tell you how, at only nine years old, I innovated a new and wonderful routine for the prop. But that’s not the truth.

Truth is, it would be more than a decade before I’d hold a Zig-Zag Pencil again and that would be a new one for sale at my magic store, Grand Illusions. A handful of years later a mentor of mine, Lee Forrester, would show me the method for converting the prop into something much more powerful: the Zig-Zag Bill. The marked Zig-Zag Bill.

EFFECT:  A borrowed dollar bill is folded in half and rolled up. The rolled bill is placed into Zig-Zag frame and, you guessed it, “cut” into three pieces. While the bill is still clearly in three pieces, the middle section of the bill is marked with indelible ink. The magician pushes the middle of the Zig-Zag back together, restoring the bill…With the mark still on it! The marked, restored bill is returned to the audience.

MODIFICATION:  To perform this effect you’ll need to modify a “stock” Zig-Zag Pencil. A handful of tools and parts are required:

  • A Zig-Zag Pencil
  • A pair of scissors
  • Clear adhesive tape
  • A One-Dollar bill

Let’s begin by disassembling the Zig-Zag Pencil. Remove the solid pencil and slide the center of the Zig-Zag open, revealing the three pencil pieces. Dump out the three pencil pieces and close the now-empty Zig-Zag. You might want to keep your solid pencil and three pieces in a safe place in case, someday, you want to convert it back into a Zig-Zag Pencil. (Though I couldn’t imagine why.)

Fold the dollar bill in half, width-wise across its face. (We don’t want the face of the bill showing because the face has serial numbers! ) Starting with one of the long edges, roll the dollar bill up into a tube. [Figure 1] The writing on the outside of the bill is unimportant at this step but it will be important later. For this article, I’ve rolled the bill so that the outside says, “1 ONE DO.” [Figure 2]

Place the rolled up bill into the closed Zig-Zag and allow it to unroll slightly. This will make the bill the perfect size for the hole in your Zig-Zag. [Figure 3] Without allowing the bill to unroll, remove the bill from the Zig-Zag and tape it shut using the adhesive tape. I recommend that you cut the tape in half, lengthwise, using only as much tape as is necessary to prevent the bill from unrolling.

Here’s the exciting part: using the three small pencil pieces as guides, carefully measure and cut the rolled, taped bill into three pieces. [Figure 4] and insert them into the Zig-Zag’s three compartments. [Figure 5] You’ll find that the last piece of the bill will be a little too long for the Zig-Zag frame. Trim off a little bit more of the last piece of the rolled up bill to make it fit.It’s important to remember which end of the bill you insert into each of the three compartments: more on that in a moment. Close the Zig-Zag frame, we’re ready to try the trick.


Borrow a one-dollar bill from your audience, fold it in half, width-wise across its face, and roll it up in the same way as you rolled the bill inside of the Zig-Zag frame. Also, make sure that you insert the bill in the same direction as the cut up bill. (Just so I can remember, I always insert the end of the bill with the “1” on it first. Why? Well, it’s a “1”…It goes “1st”. (Yes, it’s silly, but I never forget it.) Push the borrowed bill all the way into the Zig-Zag frame. Hold the Zig-Zag up so that the audience can clearly see and then, quickly and smoothly, push the middle of the Zig-Zag open. The audience will see their bill apparently “chopped” into three pieces.


(Requires an felt-tipped ink pen)

You could close the Zig-Zag frame now, pull out the restored bill and hand it back to an amazed audience but, if you did, you’d be missing out on the best thing Lee taught me all those years ago: marking the bill while it’s still in three pieces and putting it back together marked!

Hold the Zig-Zag frame in your left hand with the opened section furthest away from you and your left thumb pressing gently onto the left-most piece if the bill. [Figure 6] Pick up the felt-tipped marker with your right hand and hand it to your spectator, asking them to remove the cap. As you are handing out the pen with your right hand, your left index finger reaches out and presses against the far edge of the “opened” compartment of the Zig-Zag frame. [Figure 7] As the spectator is taking the pen and all eyes are on them, pull your left index finger backward, closing the center compartment half way. It’s important to maintain that gentle pressure with your left thumb down on the left-most compartment in order to assure that the frame closes only half way. [FIGURE 8]

The timing is this step is crucial. You want to be closing the frame halfway with one hand at the same moment at which the audience is taking the pen from your right hand. The spectator should be looking at the pen and, more importantly, you should be looking at the pen. This leaves your left hand unobserved to do the dirty work.

Once the spectator has the pen, immediately hold the frame with your right hand as well, with your right thumb gently pressing down on the right-most compartment of the Zig-Zag frame. Keep your thumbs over the left and right compartments as you ask the spectator to mark the center of the bill. [Figure 9] Why? Well, despite the fact that you’re going to clearly and articulately say, “Please mark the center of the bill.” Some spectators just don’t listen and if they mark either the left or right hand pieces of the bill, bad things are going to happen. It’s best to avoid confusion and simply cover the two sides, leaving no doubt as to where the center of the bill is. [Figure 10]

Once the spectator has marked the bill, ask them to re-cap the pen and then to watch the mark on the center of the bill. There’s a simple reason for this: we don’t want the audience to see the switch and the two outside sections of the Zig-Zag frame are going to do just that. What isn’t going to switch is the center compartment. The bill and the mark are going to simply slide sidewise – so your goal is to get all of the audience’s attention on the mark. Fortunately that’s as easy as saying, “Don’t take your eyes off of that mark.” When you’re confident that everyone is watching the mark on the center of the bill, simply slide the Zig-Zag frame shut, remove the bill and hand it back out. You’re amazing.

Very special thanks to my old friend and teacher, the late Lee Forrester.

Steve Johnson

November 2006

© 2006 Steve Johnson. All rights reserved.