Category Archives: Features

In-depth articles written specifically for this blog.

Umbrella Gun

The umbrella gun scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most visually memorable in the play. George, tired of his wife Martha’s insults in front of their guests, exits offstage. He sneaks back wielding a shotgun aimed at her head. The guests see him and scream as he pulls the trigger. Instead of the loud report of a bullet, though, a brightly-colored umbrella emerges from the barrel. Hilarious, right?

The original production was written to use a trick umbrella they already had in stock, but every production since has given the props master a headache as they try to figure out the gag. I initially checked with other theaters who had done this show, but theirs had either broken or been disassembled. The rental options out there were either too expensive or looked unrealistic. I decided I needed to build my own.

Drawing the stock and fore-end
Drawing the stock and fore-end

I needed a pretty thick barrel to fit an umbrella inside. It would look out-of-proportion if I just stuck it on a regular shotgun body. I scaled up the stock and fore-end to cut and shape out of oak.

Chainsaw disc shaping the wood
Chainsaw disc shaping the wood

I bought a chainsaw grinding disc for this project because I had always wanted to try one. It was amazing; it acted like a wood eraser. I just pointed it to the wood I didn’t need and it made it disappear. I will never attempt wood carving without one of these again.

Scaling the receiver to match the stock
Scaling the receiver to match the stock

The receiver would need to hold all the parts of the shotgun together and hide all the mechanisms inside of it I cut out several pieces of flat steel stock to weld a hollow container.

Welding the receiver from steel
Welding the receiver from steel

With just a welder, angle grinder, and belt sander, I was able to fabricate a decent looking receiver.

Spring mechanism for umbrella
Spring mechanism for umbrella

I took an existing umbrella from stock which had its own spring mechanism to make it pop open. I cut off the handle but left the hollow shaft in place. I welded a steel rod to the shotgun that the umbrella could sleeve onto and travel back and forth. To minimize binding, I put a bit of UHMW rod on the end of the umbrella that was slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the copper tube I was using for the barrel. I used copper tube because it was the most rigid tube I could find with the thinnest walls.

Pieces of the trigger mechanism
Pieces of the trigger mechanism

I drew up a full scale trigger mechanism in cardstock to figure out what would fit within what I had built. It was just two pieces: a trigger that rotated on a pin, and a long lever with a latch on the end that held the umbrella against a spring until the trigger was pulled. I traced the pieces to steel and cut them out. I slipped a small piece of spring into the fore-end to return the trigger after it is pulled. I slid a long spring over the metal rod in the barrel to actually propel the umbrella after the trigger is pulled.

Finished trick shotgun
Finished trick shotgun

I painted the barrel to match the receiver and stained the wood pieces darker before sealing them. I coated all the static pieces of interior and exterior steel with shellac to prevent rust. Any pieces of steel which moved against another part was coated with dry lube. I built the gun for easy disassembly in case any future users needed to fix or replace a part.

Umbrella Gun

I have a video which shows all the parts as they are assembled. You can see the various inner mechanisms in more detail if you are interested in how it all works, and if you wanted to see it actually fire.





How do I hire a Prop Maker?

I receive a number of inquiries every month from strangers who found my work and want me to build a prop. They range from churches who put on small performances, to magicians who want to make their show more exciting, to cosplayers who want a fake weapon. Sometimes, people just need some weird, custom item built that does not fit any other craft or discipline.

I can usually tell from their first email whether I want to do business with them. If you are looking to hire a prop maker, here are a few tips and tricks to make sure they respond back.

Tell me what you want.

I will occasionally find an email that simply says, “I may have a project for you. Give me a call.” In my world, a “project” can mean anything from making a fake thumb to carving a Mount Rushmore parade float. I need some sense of the scope and scale of the project at the beginning, as well the general topic. You do not need to have all the details worked out, just a brief description. If you need a chair shaped like a mushroom, great, let us talk more. If you need an 18th century ballroom gown, I have no idea how to make that, and it is a waste of both of our times to discuss anything else before you reveal what the project actually is.

You don’t need to have any knowledge about specific materials or construction methods. You just need to give me the circumstances: will it be used outside? Does it need to fit in your car? Will children handle it? How heavy can it be?

Know your budget.

If you have something very specific to build, then I can come up with a bid of what it will cost. But if you are open, then I can come up with a range of solutions to fit most any budget. I can do a $3000 severed head, I can do a $300 severed head, and I can do many other options in between. And on a side note…

It may cost more than you anticipate.

I find it much easier to deal with businesses and companies in the entertainment industry, because they are used to dealing with prop builders and fabrication shops, and know how much these things cost. When I quote them a price, it is in line with what they have spent on similar things in the past.  When I deal with individuals outside the industry who have never hired a prop builder before, the costs can be shocking. They see a cheap plastic sword on Amazon for $39 and think a custom-fabricated version will cost the same.

If I am contacted by a stranger who is not local, it is not even worth my time to consider projects less than a couple hundred dollars. Once you subtract materials and supplies, I can barely cover the cost of babysitting to spend time in my shop. Why would I want to spend my nights working on someone else’s project when I could be playing with my kids?

Give me a deadline.

Prop builders are busy folks, and they cannot just drop everything to start work on your project. If you have a specific timeline to complete the project, it becomes easier for the prop builder to carve time into their schedule. The shorter your timeline, the more expensive the project will be. I can do almost anything for the right price.

Also, be realistic about your deadlines. If you live in Seattle and you contact me, a North Carolina prop builder, for something you need in a week, it won’t happen. First, it may take a day or two just to hash out the details over email and commit to the project. Second, it will take a few days just to ship it there. That leaves almost zero time for the project itself, which may require materials to be ordered and paint to dry, not to mention I am already working on multiple projects at any given time.

Do your research.

If you really want a prop built, you should be contacting more than one prop builder. It is far easier to work with someone locally who you could visit in person, or at least pick the prop up personally. Chances are, there is one nearby. Look up local theaters and see if they list the prop department on their website. Not all prop builders have their information online, so it may take a few emails asking around before you get a name and contact information.

When you do find a prop builder, make sure your project is in line with other projects they have done. A prop builder who makes rubber ducks can probably make a rubber goose for you. However, a prop builder who fabricates medieval armor may not have the tools or skills to make that same rubber goose.

The best way to find prop builders is by asking other prop builders. If you contact one who cannot build your prop, ask them if they know anyone else who might be interested. We love referring jobs to other props people we know.

What are your thoughts?

Do any other prop builders out there have advice for people contacting them? Let me know!

Eric Hart and his props
Eric Hart and his props

From Prop Making to Authoring

Last Thursday, I gave a talk to the Alamance Makers Guild at STEAM Junction in Burlington, NC. I’ve been a member of the AMG since 2012, and it was great to finally give a featured presentation. STEAM Junction is the new Maker Space started by the same people.

My talk was called “From Prop Making to Authoring.” I started off discussing my career as a prop builder and what that entails, before moving onto the blog and how that ultimately led to writing The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theater, Film, and TV.

My wife broadcast the entire talk over Facebook Live, and now the video is up on YouTube. It is a little over an hour long, so only the most diehard fans will make it through the whole thing.

The audience really enjoyed it. I was able to explain how my work informed the blog and how that built an audience for the book. I talked about why I blog, and how I use social media to promote it. Much of what I discussed was relevant to makers of all kinds, not just those who build props. It is all about teaching and sharing knowledge, and how to get people interested in what you do.

Rehearsal Notes: Chair

© Michelle Dias

Day 1
May we please have a stool?

Day 2
Thanks for the stool. May we please have a taller stool?

Day 3
Thanks for the taller stool. The director has requested a bench instead.

Day 4
Regarding the bench, would it be possible to put arms and a back on it?

Day 5
Thanks for the sofa. Although the designer would prefer it, the director feels strongly about having the bench back, and altered as requested.

Day 6
After meeting last night with the designer, the director has reconsidered the altered bench and would like to see the sofa again. We appreciate the overtime you put into the bench and apologize for the change.

Day 7
Can we please see all the chaise lounges you have in stock?

Day 8
Thanks for bringing up the chaises. The director has decided to stay with the sofa. Would it be possible to shorten it? To about loveseat size?

Day 9
The director doesn’t care for the style of the loveseat you brought in. We will ask him to discuss it with the designer. Meanwhile, can we pursue our request to have the sofa shortened?

Day 10
Thanks for shortening the sofa. Unfortunately we’ve now found the arms are too low on this one and would like to see all the other sofas and loveseats you have in stock.

Day 11
Can we please have all the sofas and loveseats removed from the rehearsal hall before 10am? The director and designer have met and have decided to try an armchair.

Day 12
Thanks for the armchair. Do you have one with a taller back?

Day 13
Although very nice, the wingback is too tall. Is there an armchair in stock with a back that’s shorter than the wingback but taller than the first armchair?

Day 14
Thanks for the Barcalounger. Wrong style unfortunately, but fun. May we keep it in the Stage Management office? Can we please try again with another armchair?

Day 15
The director loves the new armchair. Thank you.

Day 16
Regarding your note about the designer requesting new fabric for the armchair: we can free up the chair after rehearsal today. It would be great to have it back tomorrow. Is one night enough time for the re-upholstery?

Day 17
After rehearsing with a dining room chair today, the director feels he would like to use that instead of the armchair. Sorry! Hope you didn’t stay too late last night!

Day 18
Do you have another dining room chair that closely matches the one we have, but without arms and with a different fabric? And perhaps a slightly taller back?

Day 19
Thanks for the selection of dining room chairs. If we wanted to use a full set of six, would it be possible to recover the seats before tomorrow’s dry run?

Day 20
We have some news that will make you laugh. The director has decided that one of the plain black orchestra chairs will be perfect. We had one in the rehearsal hall. Thanks and have a great day.

Day 21
Re: the table…

The above was written by Michelle Dias, who passed in 2011. There is a scholarship given in her name if you are interested in knowing more. Thanks to Cindi Zuby for sending this to me and Michelle’s family for allowing me to post it.