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

First Prop Links of Spring

BB-8 and Porg Puppeteer Brian Herring on His Journey to the Last Jedi – This is a great interview with the puppeteer who operated numerous Star Wars puppets during its filming, including BB-8 and the Porgs. I love the behind-the-scenes images showing how much of these creatures were done practically, rather than digitally.

Virtual Author Talk: The Prop Effects Guidebook – I talked about my newest book, The Prop Effects Guidebook, with the Virtual Costumer magazine. The book had some publishing delays, but it should start shipping out this week if you have pre-ordered it.

Props and SFX Guru, Jennie Marino, will present “Don’t Miss” Storied Show & Tell/Seminar – If you are in Burlington, NJ, on May 20th, be sure to check out this lecture and workshop by Jennie Marino. She has built props, puppets, and masks on over forty-five Broadway productions, as well as countless Off-Broadway and television shows. The event is about an hour-and-a-half from NYC, but it is only a short hop over the river from Philadelphia if that is your home.

Cara Cooper, Jessica Rush, and Celia Keenan-Bolger on Broadway Baby Mamas – Though focused on performers, a lot of these issues are similar for new mothers working in theatre design and tech. Some theaters have made good strides toward being more family-friendly, but we still have a long way to go.

Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

The following first appeared in a 1948 issue of Players Magazine:

By Joe Zimmerman. Temple University. Philadelphia, Penna.

For most educational theatres, borrowing properties is the most expedient method of securing properties, and the one by which the greatest number and variety of items are made available. Most non-commercial theatres rely primarily on borrowing for their properties. But a good many designers find that borrowing is a good deal of work, and at least in their experience, seems to require a lack of dignity and “professional manner” that is no great argument in its favor.

Borrowing, however, may also be handled as a self-respecting manner of securing properties, with dignity and some pride, if it is done properly. The “art of borrowing” is both a concept and a fairly specific technique. Continue reading Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

Props for the Weekend

First things first, a lot of you have noticed that the original publication date for The Prop Effects Guidebook has come and gone, but you still cannot order it. It turns out there was some problems with the printers, so the book needs to be reprinted, meaning its release is postponed for the time being. So sorry! If you come to USITT, my publisher will have one copy at their booth you can look through, or you can hunt me down and I will tell you everything that is in the book.

‘Props’ go to Wheaton: Exhibitions celebrate stage, movie, TV artistry that usually goes unnoticed – Last week I was in Massachusetts for the opening of the “Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theatre” exhibition I was a part of. Besides my props, it also features work from Jay Duckworth, Ross MacDonald, and Carl Sprague, who were all at the opening with me, as well as Randy Lutz, Buist Bickley, and Annie Atkins. The show runs through mid-April, so check it out if you’re in New England!

EXCLUSIVE: Discovery Props Master Mario Moreira, Part 1 – This interview with the props master for the newest Star Trek series is a lot of fun, and it features some great drawings and prototypes of the props as they were developed. The second part of the interview is up as well.

The Goblet of Fire – I did not realize that the original Goblet of Fire from the Harry Potter films was carved from a solid piece of English Elm by the Head Propmaker. Many of the film’s actual props are on display in London at the WB Studio Tour. Unfortunately, this link does not go into too much detail into the Goblet’s construction, but it’s still pretty cool.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies