Tag Archives: artisan

Final November Links

Hard to believe it’s almost December. Hope you enjoy today’s links!

“How to be a Retronaut” always has great vintage images. I like these recent photos of Anita Louise as “Queen Titania” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1935.

The Actors Theatre of Louisville is looking for an artisan/soft goods person for their upcoming Humana Festival (January through March). I worked there a few years back; the people are great, the shop is amazing and you get to do some quality work for really good theatre. Even the housing they put you up in is nice. All in all, Louisville is not a bad place to spend a few months. Also, this year’s SETC conference is in Louisville, so you’ll be in town for that (as will I).

Make Magazine has a holiday gift guide for woodworkers, but it’s kind of hit or miss. A $260 hammer? Orthopedic chisels? Personally, I don’t think novelty tools make good gifts for people who make things.

Vintage theatre footlights are needed every now and then, but they can be difficult to find. Ebay has one or two on occasion, but one frequently needs a number of matching ones. Costume Armour, Inc., makes a number of fiberglass and vacuum formed lights, and because they get a lot of requests for their footlights, they have set up a new webpage devoted to the standard sizes and shapes they offer, along with pricing.

Ripping a long board, circa 1443

Working with What you Have

Ripping a long board, circa 1443
Ripping a long board, circa 1443

It’s easy to think how hard it is to get started building props. Tools and machines are expensive, materials are hard to work with, and there are just so many to choose from. But think of this: the vast majority of materials we work with today were unavailable before World War II: all manner of plastics, all foams, all our composite materials, even our glues and paints. Nearly every kind of coating and adhesive has some form of synthetic polymer in it; before that, we had hide glue, wheat paste and rubber cement (well, after the 1900s that is). Even plywood as we know it was not something you could just go out and buy. It existed, but it was made by the carpenter himself, by laying up layer after layer of thin veneers.

For most of our theatrical history, props have been constructed with little more than papier-mâché, real wood, plaster, clay, leather, and natural fabrics. Animal glue and wheat paste were among the few adhesives available, and paints were limited to oil paints, casein, and varnishes. Think of all the theatre which was created and performed with this limited technology: everything from the Ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare and Molière, or Kabuki in Japan, up to the grand operas of the Gilded Age.

Think too of the tools we have available to us. Electricity and pneumatics have given us incredible power and speed in the palms of our hands. The industrial revolution and machine age have brought us standardized parts and precision unimaginable in previous times. Even our simple hand tools have benefited; a hand saw blade today is produced more quickly, cheaply, and precisely than before the industrial age. The steel it is made from is stronger and more consistent (and far less expensive).

From the weapons used by Alexander the Great to conquer the world, to the furniture found in Versailles, our museums are filled with amazing items created with nearly none of what our props artisans have available today. We can purchase a sheet of metal from a hobby shop which is superior in properties than the metal used by Genghis Khan to create his weapons which conquered the world. We can buy a Dremel tool for a pittance; imagine how envious the people who built the first railroads would be to see such a tool.

So if you are just starting out with prop making, or want to practice doing more of it, don’t wait until you can afford the fancy tools or can master the most modern materials. Think about what you can do with what you have, rather than what you can’t with what you don’t.

Labor is a cost, not a profit

What does it mean to do a project “at cost”? Simply put, when a client orders a project, you deliver it and charge only enough to compensate what you spent. It differs from a project where you add a markup to the costs or add a profit margin. So the price is the cost plus the markup plus the profit. Sometimes you might not mark up the costs, and other times you do not add in a profit, but in either case, you are charging more than what you spent.

The confusion comes from the “costs”. There’s the cash you spend – materials, shipping, gas money to drive to the store, overhead and maintenance of your shop – and then there is your labor cost. Some may argue that you should not charge for your labor when you are doing a project “at cost”. This is not only erroneous, but it is damaging to our industry, as I shall explain in a bit.

I’ve even heard the suggestion that the cost of your labor should be considered “profit.” This is absolutely absurd! If you get overwhelmed with other jobs and have to hire someone to do the project, you do not get to keep that money; it becomes a labor cost. When a company sends out it’s weekly payroll checks, it does not get that cash back, nor can it count it as profit. Why then should you count your own labor as profit?

The cost of labor is already factored into all the materials and tools you use. The cost of a gallon of silicone rubber includes the cost of the scientists who invented it, the people who manufactured it, the people who packaged it, the drivers who transported it, and the salespeople who sold it. You can’t count any of their labor as a profit; it’s all part of the cost. Why would your labor not also be a cost?

If you make something “at cost” you include the price of your labor. If you don’t know how much that is, you should charge the same amount for your labor as it would take to hire someone else to do that work. You can charge an hourly, daily, or weekly rate, or just set a flat fee for the project as a whole. If you are trying to control the costs of the project, you certainly have some leeway in how much you charge for your labor, but you should never charge too little for it; if your price is still too high for a client and you are trying to do them a favor, you can always add a “discount” to your final price, so you maintain the integrity of your own labor costs.

Prop masters and artisans with experience know that labor is often the most expensive part of a prop. A foam sculpture may only use about $15 in materials, but it can take fifty hours to complete. Even at a very modest $15 an hour, that is still $750 in labor.

Imagine than, a market where some prop makers are saying $15 is “at cost” while others are saying $765 is “at cost”. That kind of disparity drives down the price of props and devalues the labor which goes into it. It is very skilled labor as well, the kind that is frequently at a shortage, even in a large market like New York City. It takes a lot of training, skill and practice to be able to make props. Clients who want the “costs” of a project kept to a minimum will point to the $15 examples, thinking that the $765 estimate is somehow inflating the price or using more expensive materials. Even if you are just an amateur prop maker, your pricing can have ripple effects throughout the industry.

If you want to charge someone just for the materials you use and throw your labor in for free (because it is for a friend, or because you really love the work and would never get paid for it otherwise), that is certainly your right. Everyone does it at some point. But make sure you are saying you are only charging “for materials”, not that you are doing the project “at cost”. It’s a world of difference.

Product versus Process

I heard a story awhile back from a fellow props artisan. A large company was in town, putting on the kind of show that required hundreds of specialty props, all created specifically for their production. They started out working with one of the larger prop shops in the area. The shop was good, but they were still not happy with a number of the props; the performers themselves needed to talk directly to the artisan in order to give all the details and needs they were looking for. When the prop was finished, they wanted to be able to use it in rehearsal for a bit, then work with the artisan again to suggest changes and ask for modifications.

The large prop shop wasn’t set up to do business like this. They were used to taking drawings and draftings from a designer, constructing the prop, and delivering it to the theatre. They could certainly deal with the changes and additions that happen in every production, but the kind of individual one-on-one experimentation with props throughout the rehearsal process that these actors wanted was beyond their capabilities. This is where the fellow props artisan comes in. He was able to provide this kind of daily collaboration. He would talk through the prop with the performer, making notes and asking questions, then head to his shop for the rest of the day. The next morning, he would bring a newly constructed prop to the performer who would try it out and then suggest new changes and additions based on what was learned.

This is the difference between props as a product and as a process, and it is one of the reasons why good props artisans will always be needed. In one case, you are “ordering” a custom prop from a prop shop. In some ways, it is just like you would buy some of your props off of eBay or from a catalog. Having this shop continually make changes and modifications becomes expensive, inconvenient, or even downright impossible. Even if all of the props are built by an outside group, you will still need an artisan on hand who can modify and work with the props to make them do what the show needs them to do. Having an artisan on hand also allows the props department to be a bigger part of the whole collaboration. Like a conductor who lowers the volume of the trumpets or speeds up the tempo at certain parts in the music, an artisan can alter the weight or balance of a prop, change the color, or add a secret handle between rehearsals.

I’m not trying to knock commercial prop shops in this post, but rather make a point about the continuing need for artisans in an age where our industry is seeing more and more computerized fabrication. CNC routers and 3D printers are great technologies, and hold even more promise in the future, but they are no replacement for a good props artisan. They create products. They don’t replace the process.

A CNC router can cut an intricate shape out of a piece of plywood with very precise measurements, and it can do it a thousand times with no difference between all the pieces. A props artisan is more than just his ability to cut out a shape drawn on a piece of plywood. A props artisan takes the needs and wants of a prop, balanced with the input of the director, the designer, the actor and the stage manager, and weighs it against the limitations of the theatre, the shop, her skills, and all the resources available to her. She chooses the materials and techniques which best fit all of these requirements to construct the prop. And she does it knowing that it may need to be changed or modified later, or even cut entirely from the show.

A smart props artisan will keep on top of the changes in technology and tools available to him and learn when to integrate them into his process. We’ve integrated computer printers into our manufacturing of paper props. Even with all the amazing things one can do with graphics software, artisans still use a surprising amount of non-computerized techniques to add life to paper props. A good artisan uses all tools and methods available to him rather than altering the prop so it can be manufactured by a certain machine.

Friday, Friday, Friday, Fun, Fun, Fun Links

Welcome to Friday, everyone. I have some fun sites to keep you from getting bored at work today.

In honor of Father’s Day, Make Magazine has a post on 10 Projects to Make with Dad for Kids 10 and Under, as well 10 Projects to Make with Dad for Kids Over 10.

Also at Make is this great interview with food sculptor Ray Villafane. Not only are the pictures incredible, but his explanation of his carving process is very clear and well thought out; it’s helpful even if food is not your medium of choice.

Stephen Ellison talks about using plastics—foam in particular—for theatrical purposes in this Stage Directions article.

Finally, here are some great photographs of intimate spaces of renowned artisans. On a personal note, the first photograph of Henry Mercer’s home is where my wife and I were married. Not right inside his bedroom; it was on the grounds surrounding his home and in the courtyard of his tile factory.