Just down the road from me, Playmakers Rep is doing Enemy of the People. The costume shop needed to age one of their suits, but they didn’t want to ruin it for future use. So they turned to Schmere, which makes a line of products that stain and distress fabrics, but disappear when you wash or dry clean them. I bet you can find uses for this for soft goods and fabric props, or you can just tell your costume shop manager for some brownie points.
I often neglect the fabric side of props on this blog, simply because it’s more challenging for me and I avoid fabric projects as much as possible. Of course, we props people need to develop all our skills, not just the ones we are interested in. So I’m sharing this video I found of a fabric project that even I can pull off: a no sew pillow. With just an iron, hem tape, an iron and a thrift store pillow, your set can have pillows that fit the design of whatever show you are doing.
David Neat starts us off with making smooth shapes from Styrofoam. He’s dealing with the real-deal Styrofoam here, not that white bead foam stuff. And sure, this article is over a year old, but it has some really useful techniques.
Bill Doran has a helpful video on adding rust to your props. Ninety percent of the time when I show a completed prop to a designer, they say, “that’s great… once we age it down a bit.” Knowing how to weather, age, distress or generally tone down props is an essential skill for a props person, and adding rust is one of the ways to do this.
Make Magazine takes a look at some Maker-Friendly hardware stores from around the US. It’s a fascinating look at the vast array of materials a store might choose to stock, as well as a sobering reminder of how awesome hardware stores used to be to those of us whose only local options are Lowes and Home Depot.
I covered some basic stitching for fabric in my Prop Building Guidebook, but if you get into embroidery and ornamental stitching, there is a whole other world of ways to manipulate needle and thread. Tipnut has some great vintage illustrations of ornamental borders and the basic stitches to make them happen. It’s a relaxing project for when you are bored in tech and the designer wants the napkins to be “fancier”.
Finally, here is an article called “The Most Important Lessons in Woodworking“. Robert Lang uses his experience cutting plugs as a lesson in woodworking in general, and I think this lesson can be expanded out to prop making in general. It’s not just about how to use specific tools or techniques, but how to approach your whole project in the most efficient and easiest manner possible.
Triad Stage’s production of Wait Until Dark was set in a hip and modern New York City apartment circa 1963. The kind of furniture it required was not easily found in your typical antique store, nor was it cheap to come by. One key piece we needed was a sleek upholstered settee; with the stage in a thrust configuration, it needed to be low-profile as well. A settee like this easily cost as much as my entire props budget, so I had to build it from scratch.
I started off by building the basic shape out of plywood, with wooden tapered legs. A lot of the challenge here was thinking forward to how I would upholster and attach all the parts. It’s easy to work yourself into a corner if you don’t plan ahead; you may end up covering a bolt with a piece of fabric, but you cannot attach the bolt until the fabric is on. It can be quite the brain-twister.
I then began covering the plywood with upholstery foam, followed by batting. The cushioning was a lot more stiff than what you may typically find in a settee, since actors tend to sink into soft cushioning, making it harder to stand up quickly. I find myself reinforcing and stiffening a lot of upholstered furniture for this reason, so I just built this settee to be somewhat stiff from the get-go.
I was lucky to have the costume shop pitch in and help me with the fabric parts. Once I found a fabric the designer approved of, my intern cut all the pieces, and the costume shop made all the piping and stitched the pieces together. All I had to do was staple it on.
This particular settee had some buttons, so I got to try button tufting for the first time. It only had nine buttons laid out in a simple grid, so it was relatively easy to figure out. The cushions on top were attached by bolting through the settee into the plywood below. Again, that was only possible by planning it all out ahead.
So there is the final piece with all the fabric attached. It was very much a group project, with the other people at Triad chipping in, as well as my wife giving me a crash-course in upholstery as I built this. The result was a piece of furniture that helped give the set the right touch.
I have a new video up on my Prop Building Guidebook companion video site. It’s a bit lengthy at almost 12 minutes, but you cannot really upholster a slip seat much faster than that. Did I mention that the new video is about upholstering a slip seat?
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies