Sawdust happens. If you are a prop carpenter, or you do any sort of carpentry in your shop, you will produce sawdust. There’s been plenty written about maintaining the dust in your shop; that is, providing adequate ventilation in your shop, hooking your tools up to dust collectors, hanging dust filters above larger power tools, and wearing dust masks when necessary. That’s all important, but this post is about dealing with the dust that is left. Sawdust creates four hazards:
When you have a fine layer of sawdust on the ground, it reduces your traction. It is challenging enough to run a full sheet of plywood through a table saw. Don’t compound the struggle with slipping and sliding around on the floor. On lighter-colored floors, a thin layer of sawdust can be almost invisible and still cause slips and falls.
When you allow dust to hang around, everytime you drop a piece of wood or a prop, you will raise a cloud of dust. A lot of tools, especially routers and sanders, kick out a stream of air which will also blow sawdust into the air, and ultimately, into your lungs.
Ideally, your shop will be set up for seperate metal and wood areas. In reality, this is not always possible, especially with larger props which cannot be moved to the metal area, or props constructed with both wood and metal. Grinding throws out hot sparks which disappear quickly, but if they find a pile of easily-combustible sawdust, they may begin to smolder and even catch fire. More dangerous is welding around sawdust. I’ve seen plenty of small fires begin from the johnny balls that fly out of a welder and roll into a pile of dust.
All wood, even kiln dried, contains a minute percentage of moisture. When you turn the wood into dust, it allows the moisture to be released more easily. If you let even a thin layer of sawdust remain on your tools, the moisture will eventually begin to rust the metal parts. It makes no sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a tool with a precision-machined metal table only to let sawdust rust it away into a rough surface; especially when it takes about two seconds to brush the sawdust off.
Model makers from Industrial Light and Magic gathered at this year’s Maker Faire and discussed their favorite tips, tricks and techniques for building models. Tested has the complete story, filled with lots of great photographs. There’s a ton of useful information here, as well as lots of good stories from the filming of the various Star Wars films.
Jay Surma has been documenting the build of a new sculpture of a Dungeons and Dragons character in great detail. In the seventh part, he tackles the mold making process. It’s a great look at a two-part matrix mold. If you’ve never seen a matrix mold being made (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one being made in person), check it out, because it’s a handy technique to keep in mind.
Popular Woodworking has a whole article devoted to sweeping, with the wonderful title “To Sweep; to Sweep: Perchance to Clean“. It makes the good point that apprentices are often tasked with sweeping so they can get to know the shop and see what everyone is working on.
Here’s a great in-depth tutorial on making a two-part underpoured mold written by Adam Savage. Yes, I’ve already had some Adam Savage on the blog this week; there are only so many props people out there who write about what they do.
By now, you’ve all heard about 3D printing, and some of you have even gotten your own 3D printers to play around with. Here’s a great article on why 3D printing is overhyped. It is not saying 3D printers are worthless or a waste of time; rather, it offers a sobering look at the reality of 3D printer’s capabilities versus how they are presented in the media. They are at the peak of hype right now; I’ve seen articles promising they will destroy traditional manufacturing and even end consumerism. The reality is that they can make shapes in plastic from digital models, something which may be useful to some props people in certain situations.
Fans of The Walking Dead may enjoy this piece on John Sanders, the prop master for the show. He talks about weapons and special props which will be appearing in the upcoming season.
Jeff Burks has posted quite the treatise on workshop cleanliness from 1885. I think a clean and well-organized shop is vital to working safely and efficiently; however, the author states that when you are finished with a tool, “return it to its place, immediately after you have done using it.” Now, I’ve heard “tools away at the end of the day,” meaning don’t waste your time putting a tool away if you might need it half an hour later. How does everyone else deal with putting tools away?
We’ve been cleaning out a bit lately at the Public Theatre. One reason is we’re about to undergo major construction and renovation, and need to clear out spaces that haven’t been cleared out in decades. Another reason is we finally have all our shows open for the year and have a bit of a breather at the moment. Finally, storage space is expensive in New York City, and we don’t have that much to begin with, so we continually need to reevaluate what we keep.
Like most props people, I’m a bit of a pack-rat, so it can be almost physically painful to throw things out. There are of course, alternatives to just trashing things. The easiest solution, depending on the item, is to send out an email to everyone in your theatre and offer it up for free on a first-come first-serve basis. You can also try to sell it on Craigslist or eBay, or through another venue. There are also a number of charities you can donate certain things to, such as Salvation Army or Goodwill. Here in New York City, we also have a place called Materials for the Arts.
So how do you go about determining what to keep and what to toss? Unfortunately, no two theatres can use the same set of guidelines. If you do mainly new works, you’ll have different prop needs then if you do mostly Shakespeare. Likewise, the capabilities of your shop will determine what props can be built in the future. While you may come across your own set of guidelines after maintaining a storage space for a few years, if you’re new to your stock, you can run through a series of questions to determine whether a prop is trash or treasure.
How show-specific is the prop? Is it something common that can be used in a number of shows or as a rehearsal prop? Or is it a painting of a unicorn on a piece of black velvet… in a forced perspective picture frame.
How large is it? If it takes up the space of several smaller props, you may need extra justification to keep it around.
How much does a new one cost? If it’s inexpensive, especially if it’s already showing some wear and tear, you may want to just buy a new one when you need it… that is, if you need it.
How hard would it be to build another one? Some props are constructed so simply, it would almost take more time to walk to the prop storage, dig around until you find it, and carry it back, then it would to build a new one. This is especially true when I come across props whose construction can be improved upon.
Do you already have some of the same thing in stock? Sometimes you need multiples, but sometimes there’s no conceivable reason why you would need a hundred brown paper grocery bags; and if you did, you should demand the budget for it.
Is the item in good condition? You have to figure that anything in your stock will need some tightening and dusting when you pull it out, but if it’s beyond repair, why are you keeping it?
Is there anything useful or valuable that can be taken off and used again? If you can remove large, sections of usable raw materials, do it. Sometimes, you have pieces which you feel can be incorporated into future props, such as knobs or dials. In these cases, I’d rather keep these “found object” building materials with the rest of the building materials; keep knobs with knobs, dials with dials, and the rest in containers such as “brass stuff” or “wood pieces”. It’s a lot easier than filling your prop storage with random vacuum cleaner parts and broken prop pieces.
Is it going to be difficult or dangerous to store? We all have at least one prop like that in our storage; no matter what we need to get, it always seems to be in the way some how, and it weighs more than you can lift. No matter where you put it, you’re doomed to be kicking a dead horse whenever you need to get a chair.
How adaptable is it? Chairs can always be reupholstered, refinished, or painted; they can even be made taller or shorter. Compare that with a carved piece of solid marble.
Will it attract mice and ants in storage? I’m looking at you, shellac-ed piece of real bread.
How well-made is it? This is a little different from whether it’s in good shape or not. A crude and ugly piece is still crude and ugly even when it’s undamaged. An exceptional prop, in addition to serving your limited storage well, can also have instructional value for future prop building endeavors.
Can you make money or develop karma by renting it out to other companies? If you have an iron lung, you can almost make a full-time job out of renting it to theatres who are putting on “City of Angels”.
I’d love to hear what everyone else does to determine what to keep and what to get rid of, as well as more alternatives to simply throwing things away.