Category Archives: Tools

Recommended Tools for the Props Person (SFO Edition)

All props people have their own tools they bring to work. Some of the tools are basic necessities that one should never be without, while others are specialty items that you rarely find at any shop. But if you are just starting out, what tools do you need? The Santa Fe Opera provides their incoming apprentices with a list of tools which they are required to bring. Obviously, their shop is well-equipped; these are just the personal tools which every props person should have. Think of it as a base-line set that you bring to every job, regardless of where it is or what you are doing.

The Opera has two different lists, one for the carpenters (who build the furniture and other fabricated items out of wood and metal) and the crafts persons (who do soft goods, casting and molding, and all other crafts). I’ve paraphrased them below.

For the carpenters:

  • tape measure
  • architect’s scale rule
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • slotted screwdriver
  • drill and driver bits
  • hammer
  • end cutting pliers
  • slip joint pliers
  • diagonal cutting pliers
  • adjustable wrench
  • combination square or speed square
  • utility knife
  • 3/4″ wood chisel

For the crafts persons:

  • needle-nose pliers
  • fabric scissors
  • craft scissors
  • tape measure
  • utility knife

In addition, though the shop has some of the following tools, they are so commonly used that they recommend bringing your own if you have them:

  • precision cutting knife (X-Acto® knife)
  • snap-off blade knife (Olfa® knife)
  • bevel gauge
  • cordless drill
  • steel ruler
  • vise grips
  • ratchet and socket set (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • box wrenches (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • compass

Finally, while their shop has some safety gear, it is always a good idea to own a personal set of the following:

  • respirator with organic vapor cartridges
  • safety glasses
  • hearing protection
  • leather gloves

Again, these are the tools required by the Santa Fe Opera, and other work sites may require a slightly different set of tools. However, if you are just starting to build up your own personal tool kit, it is a good guide to refer to for the most commonly-used tools in a props shop.

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

10 Things to Know about your Table Saw

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.
Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

1. There are two main types of table saws: contractor and cabinet.  Contractor saws are lighter and cheaper, and often built to be portable. They are also usually less exacting and have less power. Cabinet saws have an enclosed “cabinet” base, making them quieter and easier to use dust collection on. Compared to contractor saws, they typically have a larger table size and are more precise, but can be far more expensive, and are definitely not portable. They also typically require a 220v outlet. Most permanent props shops use cabinet saws, as contractor saws are not sturdy enough on their own to handle full-size sheet goods. Some manufacturers are now making hybrid saws, which capture features from both. You can also find hobby saws in specialty shops, which are small and fit on a table top. They can be useful for small projects and model work (though a full-size machine can also do this work with the proper setup). Hobby table saws range from cheap and inaccurate toys, to highly precise machines packed into small bodies.

2. Watch for kickback. While a SawStop can prevent your fingers being cut off (a very expensive accident), the most common injuries on a table saw come from kickback, which is when the spinning blade catches the material and flings it back at you. Never stand directly behind the piece you are cutting, but rather, just to the side. And never, ever let go of the wood while it is in contact with the blade; even if kickback is in progress, you have more control if you keep hold of the board than if you panic and let go. A splitter, or “riving knife”, is the single most effective method for preventing kickback. Never force the wood through; the blade may be too dull, or it may be binding, either of which can cause kickback. Pay attention to the sound of the blade; if it is whining or sounds like it is slowing down, you’re getting close to a kickback.

3. Double-check your measurements. Always measure from the fence to the blade, especially when using a particular saw for the first time. The ruler which is attached to the fence rail may not be accurate or precise. Only when you are certain the ruler on the machine is accurate and precise should you use it for setting your fence.

4. Keep the wood in place. Your wood (or other material) needs to be held snugly against the rail and down against table. Use featherboards or other attachments to hold your wood if your fingers will get too close during a cut. Featherboards are especially useful on miter cuts. Push sticks and push shoes are also vital accessories for holding your material snug and keeping your fingers away from the blade.

5. Never wear gloves when cutting. If a bit of the glove, or even just a single loose thread, gets caught by the spinning blade, it can be pulled into the blade, which will catch more of the fabric and pull more of the glove into the blade. This creates a vicious chain reaction where your entire hand can be pulled into a spinning blade within a fraction of a second. Without gloves, the blade cuts through the skin or bones before being able to grab on and pull more in. On this same note, avoid rings, ties, necklaces, loose hair, apron strings in the front, &c. If you are wearing long sleeves, roll them up tightly before using the table saw.

6. With the correct jigs, you can do almost anything on the table saw. You can cross-cut, cut slots and channels, cut patterns, cut tapers, cut circles, taper long boards, make cove molding, and much more, and you can do it all safely. For tricky cuts or complex operations, it will actually take longer to set up the tool than to carry out the actual operation.

7. Maintain the top of your table. Rust will slowly damage the top, making it hard to push material through. It will also discolor your wood. Clean the top with metal cleaners, or even steel wool for stubborn rust spots. When clean, you should wax and polish it to prevent further rusting. Paste wax works well, particularly carnauba-based wax; anything made for cars will work as well. A freshly-waxed surface will also make your materials slide through the saw much more effortlessly.

8. Watch where your wood goes. Never start a cut until you know that the wood can go all the way through without falling off the edge or hitting an obstacle, and that you can reach it and keep hands on it at all times. Use stands, outfeed tables, or a friend when necessary. You may wish to “walk-through” a cut first, to check all this before you cut. Do not forget that the balance of the wood will change after it is cut into two pieces; where a full-size piece may rest comfortably on your table, the off-cut may tip off the side.

9. Use the right blade. Some blades are made for ripping, some for cross cutting, while more specialty blades exist for cutting veneers, laminates and plastics. For most props shops, you will be ripping and cross-cutting plywoods and soft woods throughout the day, and constantly changing the blade will be inefficient, so invest in a good combination blade that will work for the majority of your most common operations.

10. Set the correct blade height. Your blade should be high enough so the gullets of the teeth (the spaces between the teeth) are at or just below the top of the wood’s surface. This allows the blade to clear sawdust and introduce fresh air into the cut, while minimizing the amount of exposed blade to your fingers.

Using a Big Boy Vacuum Former

Using a Big Boy Vacuum Former

I have been working at the Santa Fe Opera for a few weeks now. While I haven’t completed anything enough to show on this blog yet, I did shoot the video below. I needed to vacuum form a giant champagne bottle which I turned in foam on the lathe (actually, half of the champagne).

The Opera has a large vacuum former capable of taking full 4′ by 8′ sheets of plastic; even cooler is that the whole thing was built by the technical director, Eric Moore. This video shows me pulling a sheet of thin styrene over my form.

Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases

Vacuum Forming on Zero Dollars

I am currently working as props master on Crazy for You at Elon University. In one of the musical numbers, twelve showgirls dance around the main character while talking on the phone. The show is set in the early 1930s, so that is twelve candlestick phones needed (all of them painted pink). If you’ve ever had to get candlestick phones, you know that the real ones are prohibitively expensive, and even the replicas are too expensive when twelve are needed. I decided I would make them all (which is what most theatres do).

Most hand-built candlestick phones I’ve seen have a pretty simple base, and I wanted to try for something a bit more interesting and realistic. Since these were just being used during a dance number, the dial didn’t need to work. It looked like I could sculpt the base as a solid object and than just vacuum form twelve copies. The only problem? I don’t have a vacuum forming machine.

Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases
Vacuum forming one of the telephone bases

I ended up assembling a very small and fairly weak vacuum forming system out of tools I already had and scrap materials which were laying around. Other than my time, the cost was free. I was able to make all the phone bases I needed though the process was a bit inelegant at times. I like what vacuum forming can accomplish, and I think I may spend some more time (and maybe even some money) making a more usable vacuum former after this show opens, but it was nice to be up and running without too much investment on my part.

I have posted an Instructable on how I built my free vacuum forming machine if anyone else is interested in how this all works. I also have a video of how it works and what it looks like when it’s being used:

Pure Smoke

This was making the rounds on email yesterday: The Pure Smoke system by Jason Brumbalow. Say you need a clothes iron or a tea kettle to make steam on stage, but generating that kind of heat is too dangerous for the actors. You can probably hide one of these somewhere and let it make some room-temperature theatrical fog for you.

It essentially works like an e-cigarette with a nicotine-free cartridge. The major difference is you cue the vapor with a squeezable trigger rather than an airflow sensor which is activated when you inhale on the end. The vapor is generated from propylene glycol, which is among the safer kinds of chemicals used in theatrical foggers and electronic cigarettes. 1

The website lists the system at $147, with refill smoke packs starting at around $25. It says each cartridge gives you over 80 large “puffs”, with a refill pack giving you 10 cartridges, so that’s about 3 cents per puff. The cost is a great deal cheaper than palm-sized theatrical foggers ($1850), though I’d imagine the vapor is considerably less dense and long-lasting.

It has a battery pack which takes 4 AA batteries (not included) which is connected through a long wire to a squeezable trigger mechanism. The mechanism is rigged to be strapped to a performer’s chest, though I imagine you can alter it to fit any prop you need the smoke in. A hose runs from the mechanism to the dispenser tip, which also holds the smoke cartridge. The dispenser is about 3 1/2″ long; the diameter of the base is about half an inch, and the tip is a quarter of an inch.

Notes:

  1. The amount of vapor produced by the Pure Smoke in the video looks to be extremely small, but if you are interested in the possible health risks of inhaling propylene glycol, especially in the quantities produced by full-stage theatrical foggers, I urge you to check this fact sheet about propylene glycol from Monona Rossol, the leading expert on chemical hazards in the entertainment industry.