Tag Archives: budget

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

A Contingency for your Contingency Plan

When you are estimating the cost to build a prop, you often add a “contingency.” Take 15-25% of the anticipated cost and tack it on to the estimate. So if you predict that a prop will cost $100, a 15% contingency is $15, making your new estimate $115.  I recently heard a student ask whether a contingency should be applied to every item in your estimate, or to the estimate as a whole.

To help me think this through, I looked up the definition of contingency. It is a “provision for an unforeseen event or circumstance.”

When you are purchasing your materials, you probably want to buy a little extra. You may mess up a cut, you might measure something wrong, a section might be damaged, or you may have underestimated how much you will need in your original plan. Often, the cost of getting just a little bit more material later is greater than the cost of buying a little extra material at the beginning. Materials are often cheaper in bulk. If you buy them online, it is cheaper to pay shipping once rather than twice, and many material suppliers have minimum order requirements. Even if you can get things locally, the cost of multiple purchases can add up; sure, a single screw may only be 13 cents, but the half hour trip to the hardware store adds several dollars worth of time to its price.

So pad your material needs. When I buy hardware, I buy by the box to make sure I have enough. Sometimes you use more than you originally thought, sometimes you just drop a few screws and can’t find them. When I buy fabric, I round up to the nearest yard (or add a few yards if it is cheap enough). Especially when it is materials I know I can use for future projects, any extra will go onto my shelves and save money down the line.

Not every material or line item will be padded, of course. If your project requires a motor that costs $200, you’re not going to buy two of them, right? I mean, not unless you’re planning for a lengthy open-ended run and your company has the money.

I do not really think of material padding as part of your contingency, because it is not an “unforeseen event”. The contingency is added on top of everything at the end. It is for costs you could not have planned for or for costs that come up because of changing circumstances. “Oh, I need to buy degreaser to clean this steel.” “Oops, I need to buy rags to apply this stain.” “I’ve just been told I need to buy a drop cloth before painting this.” “This prop is heavier than I anticipated and will need handles.” “Now they want to put a light inside this magic wand.”

So pad the amount of materials as needed, than add a contingency to the top of everything. That’s what I find works for me.

Has There Ever Been an Honest Property Man?

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

The Property Man has always been in some sort the black sheep of the theatrical flock. The question, has there ever been an honest property man? has even been mooted. We find this appreciation of his labors to result chiefly from the irregular manner that the master of properties has of keeping his accounts. As a general thing, indeed, he does not keep any at all, or if he does it is by a system of book-keeping so very double that no one but himself can untie the knot. He is allowed to purchase his small stores from a fund furnished him by the theatre, and to obtain larger articles on credit, bills of all to be rendered weekly, after being vised by the stage manager, to the treasurer. But the articles required are so numerous and are in many cases of so trifling a character that no one but himself can keep the run of them.

One of the most prized accomplishments of a stage manager is the ability to keep down these bills, but the very sharpest of those gentlemen is to a degree at the mercy of the Property Man who understands his business. A list a yard long is demurely handed to the stage manager, with a request for his signature. How is he to know if the articles have all been used, or that they cost the price affixed? A finer point still, how is he to know that they had not already been stored away in the theatre? So, if the manager should even check the items off, one after the other, demanding a full explanation of each, he might be still very wide of the mark.

Experienced men know this, and do not attempt to audit their property bills in that manner. Some managers as a regular thing coolly deduct a certain per cent of the total. This they say is for errors, and the property men are mostly too polite to dissent. Managers generally, however, learn by experience about what it costs to run the different orders of plays. Spectacle and sensation drama cost most; tragedy next, and comedy least. Knowing the bill of fare they have at the time been giving to the public, they know what their Property Man’s bill should be, and if, judged by these rules, it be exorbitant, they remonstrate with the logic of precedent. This will not cover, however, the important point before mentioned—the accumulation of old stores that may often be recharged as new.

There is a story in one of Dumas’ novels of a man travelling on horseback with a girl seated before him on the beast, and another behind him. He is met by a person who asks if those young women are virtuous. The man on horseback says that he thinks the one in front, being continually under his eye, is, but for the one at his back he can say nothing. In like manner the Property Man’s accounts, as far as relates to what is really bought for the occasion, may be correct, but for what is not bought, and yet for which the theatre has all the same to pay, the manager has, in nature, nothing to say.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

Spend All the Monies

A few years back, I was working on a project in a facility that had a number of groups using the space. There was a group of students doing the props and furniture for a show, and they were so proud of how far under budget they had come. They were given $300 to do all the props and furniture, and they had only spent $30.  Here’s the thing though: it looked like they had only spent $30, and spending a bit more money could have made it look a whole lot better.

We talk about the importance of not going over budget, but we rarely talk about the flip side: not using enough of your budget. As props people, we are always looking for a great deal or a bargain that other mere mortals may think impossible. And it’s great to get an item for a fraction of the price you would normally pay… if it looks like the full-priced item. If you have $300 to spend, it should look like you spent $3000.

It’s a great skill to try and produce as much as possible for as little money as you can. If you have zero budget and you only spend $30 on all the props and furniture, that’s quite the achievement. But if you are given a budget of $300 and you still come in with the $30 solution, it makes me wonder what happens when you have a budget of $1000. Or $3000. Or $10000. Are you still going to show up with the $30 solution? Because managing larger budgets has its own set of skills: knowing when to buy nicer materials, or when to buy certain items to save time fabricating them; paying money for little details that make your prop look more like the real thing; hiring extra help or outside contractors to help you get more done in the same limited time frame.

It makes sense if you compare it to your other resource: time. If you only have two hours for a project, you will probably come up with a very creative and inventive solution, albeit not a very impeccable one. Now, if you have two weeks for the same project, imagine showing up with a prop that looks like you whipped it out in two hours. You wouldn’t let your time go to waste just to prove you can make a prop with minimal effort, so don’t let your budget go to waste just to prove you’re a spend-thrift.

With time, we are almost always working right up until the props are taken from us (or the audience is being seated). I usually have a few notes left on my to-do list by Opening Night because I can always find things to improve. The show is certainly fine if I never get around to them; I just find it difficult to declare, “Everything in this show is perfect, and I can stop working on it.”

The same is true with the budget. I allocate all the money I have to specific items; I don’t leave any large chunks sitting around (other than contingencies, which I build into the budget). Of course, as rehearsals progress, the budget shifts around; items are added or altered, I discover solutions that allow me to save money, etc. If a change requires me to spend more money than I was anticipating, I take that money from something less essential. However, if new conditions cause me to save more money than I was anticipating, I find somewhere else to spend it. Maybe I was using a cheap solution for a nonessential prop, and now I can buy a nicer version for stock that I know I will use in later shows. Maybe I buy some hardware that I was planning on fabricating, and save myself some time that I can use elsewhere. Or maybe I just buy some more dressing, because you can never have too much dressing. If everything works out, by the time I get to opening, my budget is pretty much on the nose.

Sometimes, things are cut or changed at the last second, and the opportunity to spend the money never comes up, and I come way under budget. I don’t just run out and start buying random things. The important point is that I had plans for that money. You should have a plan for how you are going to spend every dollar in the budget given to you, rather than trying to avoid spending any dollar. You can tell when things were done for cheap.

1716 Prop Expenses

Last week, I shared photographs of some of the historic props at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. One additional artifact in their collection is this account report for the stage prop expenses incurred during three shows at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1716.

Stage Properties Expenses
Stage Properties Expenses, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The text, as best as I can decipher, reads:

Wednesday, County Wake

  • paid for Ballad, 3 pence
  • for Blood, 2 pence

Thursday, The Rover

  • The use of A Great Picture, 2 shilling and 6 pence
  • paid the Carriage to the house & back, 6 pence
  • For A Quarter of A pound of Counters by Order of Mr. Wilks, 1 shilling

Friday, King Lear

  • For A Truss of Straw, 1 shilling
  • Lightning, 6 pence
  • For Blood, 2 pence
  • For Switches, 2 pence

The final total for the three days of performances is 6 shilling and 3 pence.

The bill is signed by the three managers of the theatre, Robert Wilks, Colley Cibber and Barton Booth (no relation to Edwin and John Wilkes). There is additional text added in pencil that reads, “June 1st 1716 Thurmond’s Benfit.”

A few months ago, I posted a magazine article which listed a tongue-and-cheek imagining of some of the props stored backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1709.