Tag Archives: Education

Skills to Pay the Bills

If there is a specific type of prop you want to build, or a specific style or medium you want to work in, find the companies that specialize in that. Fill your portfolio with that kind of work. If you want to build sci-fi weapons for instance, but all your previous work is in constructing furniture, employers won’t necessarily make the leap that your furniture construction skills will translate into sci-fi weapon-making. Even if you have to build your own props on your own time, do it.

This is also true for skills you lack; a lot of theatres with a one-person prop shop are looking for well-rounded prop makers, which includes being able to upholster. I never learned how to upholster, so I started practicing it every chance I could get, and taking on any little upholstery project I could.

Once you are out of school, no one will be around to guide you with what you need to learn next, so you should always be experimenting with new skills, new materials and new techniques.

Friday’s Rehearsal Notes

The Food Network gives some credit to the shows’ prop master (or design director). Wendy Waxman is responsible for decorating and accessorizing the sets of all the shows filmed at the Food Network’s studios at Chelsea Market.

Congressman Das Williams has introduced legislation to make flesh or proximity detection technology mandatory in all table saws sold in California after January 1, 2015. I have mixed feelings about this. I think safety is important, and I feel in a lot of situations, companies will put out unsafe products until forced otherwise; this is more true with chemicals and toxic substances. But this kind of feature on a table saw is expensive and unwieldy. The vast, vast majority of table saw accidents happen on untrained home hobbyists. 1 This law would make trained users pay for a safety feature that’s more needed for untrained users. Not only that, but job site saws and contractor saws are far too small and light to utilize this technology; I’m only guessing, but I would imagine these kinds of saws are more likely to be used by home hobbyists. Why stop at the table saw? Why not legislate these features on band saws, planers and circular saws? Is it just because a table saw is statistically more dangerous? Because if we’re looking at statistics, a door causes just as many finger amputations per year as a table saw; why not require flesh detection technology on all doors? Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

Speaking of dangerous tools, AnnMarie Thomas makes the case to let kids use real tools to build things, and not those cheap toy versions. She mentions how an engineering professor asked his class of 35 first-year students whether anyone had ever used a drill press before, and not a single hand was raised. Looks like props people are single-handedly preserving manual-arts training in higher education. Maybe if kids were taught to use tools, we wouldn’t have so many table saw accidents (the majority of which are sustained by men in their 50s; age does not make one safer, only training does).

I’ve wanted something like this for awhile, but never actually sat down to plan one out. But this adjustable sanding jig for a disc sander looks like it’s the perfect design.

The Studio Creations website has a nice tutorial on vacuum forming plastic. Don’t have a vacuum forming table? No, problem, they have a tutorial on how to build one of those as well.


  1. Popular Woodworking analyzed the injury statistics for table saws put out by the CPSC last year.

Monday Link-o-Rama

Welcome to the first full work week of September! I’ve been away all weekend, so enjoy these articles and sites:

The Art of Manliness has a nifty guide on sharpening your edged tools. It deals mainly with knives and axes, but it covers a lot of the basics.

Once you’re finished sharpening your tools, you can find out why your teenager can’t use a hammer. The decline of shop and industrial arts classes are leaving even the most basic of manual jobs with a dearth of skilled young workers.

Air and Space Magazine has a nice little gallery of Vietnam War—era Zippo lighters.

I recently came across The Clubhouse, an online community for model-builders, sculptors, and collectors. It seems to be a good resource for help and information on working with plastics and resins, as well as painting and weathering.

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody

Review: The Business of Theatrical Design

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody
The Business of Theatrical Design

This is the story of The Business of Theatrical Design, by James L. Moody.

Does this book have anything to do with props people? Sure. Though it is geared towards the theatrical designers, both prop masters and artisans working in the freelance world need the advice and information presented within. Further, the job title of “properties designer” is becoming more prevalent in today’s theatrical world.

The first six chapters are on the technical aspects of running a business: accounting, staffing, offices, etc. A lot of this seems out of the realm of the average freelance props person. On the other hand, you will probably need some of the information at least once in your career. Even if you never have a full-time staff (very few freelance prop masters do), you will on occasion have an assistant or need to hire some outside help for some jobs. You may think you do not need an office, but if you have a shop, it might serve the same purpose. The information presented in these chapters is dense, and not meant to be read all at once in one sitting. Rather, it is a great reference to keep close by and refer to as needed.

Perhaps the only main deviation between the business of a theatrical designer and a props artisan is that theatrical design is mostly a service industry (according to Moody) while a props artisan mixes elements of manufacturing and service.

The next few chapters feel more directly applicable to the props freelancer. It deals with marketing yourself, networking, job interviews and dressing for success. Sure, you can find this kind of information elsewhere, but most of it seems geared towards bankers and mid-level managers applying for cattle calls at large corporations. This book deals with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of getting jobs in the world of theatre and entertainment design. It also devotes some time to dealing with the aspects of the job not typically covered in other books about theatre work, such as conflict resolution and group dynamics.

This book does have a few flaws. It is fairly US-centric when dealing with specifics about legal topics, business culture, contracts and unions. Though only written in 2002, it is a touch outdated when it comes to technology and the internet; I don’t think I would suggest to anyone to carry around a CD of your work, especially when thumb drives and jump drives can hold so much more information in a much smaller space and work on nearly every computer (some newer laptops and tablets don’t even come with a CD drive). I also think an internet presence is more of a necessity these days. Employers are incredibly likely to run an internet search on you when you are applying for a job or a gig; even if you do not have a website, you should run an internet search on yourself to see what they would see.

This book fills the gaps in theatre education for the all important considerations of the business side of show business. Maybe your education did not give you the chance to take business classes while enrolled, or maybe you did not find yourself working as a professional freelancer until well after your formal education ended. In any case, The Business of Theatrical Design covers such a broad range of information not found elsewhere that makes this a must-have for anyone wanting to make a living in theatre.

Theatrical Design and Production, sixth edition, by Michael Gillette

Review: Theatrical Design and Production by Gillette

Theatrical Design and Production, sixth edition, by Michael Gillette
Theatrical Design and Production, sixth edition, by Michael Gillette

I’ve decided to incorporate some book reviews into my blog. Books about props are few and far between, so these won’t be fresh reviews of books hot off the press. I will, however, start with one of the newer books. If I ever actually convince you to purchase a book from Amazon, keep in mind that by using the links in my post, I will get a small kickback from them. The price you pay will be the same, but my happiness will be higher, and isn’t that what really matters?

The Sixth Edition of Theatrical Design and Production, by Michael Gillette was published in 2008. Gillette, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, first published this seminal textbook in 1987. Though pricey (it is a textbook, after all), it has not become the go-to text for stagecraft without earning it.

My examination of it will focus solely on the prop-specific parts, though the book does cover all aspects of technical theatre. It is important to note I am looking at the sixth edition; this version has seen a substantial reworking of the properties chapter through input by Sandra Strawn in particular, and the members of S*P*A*M in general. This gives the book more authority out of any other available books on how many prop shops in American regional and educational theatres are run. Between this and Strawn’s own “Properties Directors Handbook“, you get a good sense of the “standard practices.” This chapter does well as a guide for a college class, either as a section on props in a general stagecraft class, or as a springboard for developing an entire syllabus.

The first half of the chapter deals with the process and organization of propping a show. Most prop books deal mainly with the craft side; Gillette takes the reader through the whole process step-by-step, from the moment you find out what show you are propping, through initial prop lists and planning meetings, on to rehearsals and tech, and into the opening and running of the show, ending finally with strike. Other than Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master and Strawn’s Handbook, few books lay out the process in such a clear fashion, and none have the advantage of incorporating the experience of prop directors from many of our major regional theatres.

The second half focuses on prop craft. Prop furniture construction shows four apparently common wood joints: open and closed dowel, pocket hole, and biscuit. I personally love the pocket hole; the biscuit is indispensable for long end joints, and open doweling is great for repair work, particularly on chairs. I’d like to add to his definition of a jig: “A device used [to] hold pieces together in proper positional relationship.” “Pieces” can mean either the various pieces of material you are using, or it can mean the tools and the material. In other words, a jig can also be used as a guide to keep the tool in a proper positional relationship with the material.

The section on upholstering and drapery is very informative and makes a nice comprehensive introduction to the subject. The remaining section on “crafts” seems to deal mainly with the most toxic and least environmentally-friendly materials and processes one can use in props. There is an interesting mini-tutorial on using spray urethane foam (eg, Great Stuff) to make rigid molds. Though clever, I’ve found spray foam to be finicky to work with. Great Stuff has a Threshold Limit Value of .005, making it 4,000 times more toxic than turpentine, and 100,000 times more toxic than acetone. Likewise, using heat to shape plastic, or working with fiberglass, requires much more attention to safety than Gillette implies, though to be fair, he does implore the reader to seek out proper safety procedures on their own.

He also pushes aside papier-mâché too quickly. In a comment on my post on “Coating Foam”,  Mary Robinette Kowal points out that papier-mâché on top of foam can actually be stronger than fiberglass. It is also that rare type of material and process that is both friendlier to the environment and better for your health. The paste is made from wheat, and the paper can be rescued from the trash for reuse. While the wheat-paste is usually laced with rat poison to discourage vermin from eating it, the rest of the ingredients are practically edible (note: please don’t eat papier-mâché). I’m not saying it’s a magic cure-all that can replace all other craft processes; also, I understand that Gillette is describing the current industry as is, rather than proposing a new direction it should take.

Back to the review. Information of interest to the props person can be found in other chapters of the book as well. Chapter 10 has a good introduction to the types of hand tools, power tools, and construction materials found in prop shops and scene shops. With a 2008 publication date, these are probably the most up-to-date descriptions of building materials available to the theatre-maker today, including all the synthetic and engineered products that are so difficult to keep track of. This chapter is also a better source for the safety information that is not included in the chapter on properties, with the assumption being that you would read this chapter first.

The section on fasteners, glues, construction hardware and stage hardware, though not as comprehensive as The Backstage Handbook, is more descriptive, and its use comes in describing the most commonly-used items, rather that every possible iteration. The section on safety equipment is so brief it feels like an afterthought, and does nothing to address the most common areas of concern for a beginner: the difference between impact and chemical-splash goggles, the various types of respirators, and choosing the right kind of glove for working with chemicals. Using this book for a class would certainly require supplementing it with a text like The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by the tireless Monona Rossol. Learning how to create props without the proper safety precautions is like learning how to drive without learning to use turn signals, checking your mirrors, wearing your seat belt, or reading road signs.

Chapter 11 on scenic production techniques is also useful information for the props artisan. Though we seldom build flats, the techniques used in building flats come in handy for prop carpentry projects. Likewise, the book does a wonderful job of describing welding, soldering, and making construction drawings as well. I particularly relished the section on stressed-skin platforms and look forward to trying some of the techniques in future prop-making.

Gillette also touches on building rocks, trees, and creating objects out of foam, all necessary skills for the well-rounded props artisan. He’s a little incorrect in some of his definitions though. STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for their extruded polystyrene foam, not expanded as Gillette writes. It is usually sold in blue sheets for insulating buildings and is indeed fire resistant. Different types of Styrofoam insulation can be pink or even white, though still fire resistant. Dow also makes Styrofoam in white and green for the craft and floral market, but I could not discern the fire resistance of these kinds. Disposable foam products, like foam cups, coolers or packaging materials, are not made by Dow, hence not STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam. These are usually made out of expanded polystyrene beads, and is often referred to as “bead foam”. This is what Gillette is talking about when he refers to the course texture left from cutting through foam, or the “foam sawdust” from sawing. You can also by bead foam in large sheets similar to Styrofoam. Though both expanded and extruded polystyrene are generically referred to as “Styrofoam” here in the US, it is important to note that bead foam (expanded polystyrene) is not fire-resistant and can not be used untreated or left exposes on the theatrical stage. The multitude of plastics and synthetic materials available to today’s prop maker is confusing enough without a book as commonly used as Gillette’s muddying up the next generation with erroneous information.

The chapter on scene painting (chapter 12) is also useful for a props artisan, particularly the section on texturing. The chapter on electrical theory and practice (chapter 15), though interesting on its own, does not deal much with the kind of wiring a props person may need to do. Chapter 19 (costume construction) is notable in that it describes many of the same tools, materials and techniques necessary for soft goods work, such as curtains and drapes, Likewise, the information on millinery, costume crafts and masks is very applicable to the crafting of three-dimensional prop pieces, and may be incorporated into a lesson or class on props.

Though I’ve pointed out a few shortcomings and errors in this book, let me reiterate what an incredible resource Gillette has created in the latest edition of his book. As I said at the beginning, the chapter on props can easily become the outline for an entire class.