Tag Archives: furniture

Nothing a Property Man Can Not Make, 1871

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

Bona-fide stage furniture is easily distinguished from the kind that people use in real life. In its ornamentation it is especially rich and rare. The idea in manufacturing this species of goods is to avoid a conflict with any given age or time, and in this it is successful, for it is unlike anything that is or ever has been. Wonder has often been expressed concerning the makers of this furniture. It is the joint handiwork of the Property Man and the stage carpenter; and when it is remembered that oftener than not these worthies know as much about cabinet-making as they do about the economy of the steam engine, the wonder really should be that the furniture is as good as it is. But there is this peculiarity about a Property Man, that there is nothing he can not make—after some fashion. In the Adrienne case above mentioned the man had not time, or he would have manufactured a set of “Louis Quatorze” furniture calculated to make that monarch turn in his grave. There would have been plenty of paint and Dutch metal upon it, and a great many people would have thought it a great deal finer than the real thing.

It is hard to say what class of work gives the Property Man the most trouble. When a burlesque or show piece is produced there is a quantity of special preparation to be made, which at first sight would be the most troublesome of his labors. Take such a piece as the Naaid Queen. All the masks, the marine productions of every sort, are furnished by the Property Man. Of course they have to be made, for no shop in Christendom deals in such wares. Such things are often quite elegant in design, and show the Property Man to be something of an artist, just as he is at other times carpenter, machinist, and chemist. To no man can the legend, “Jack of all trades, and master of none,” be applied with as much propriety as to him.

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

Some Light Prop Reading

If you’ve ever wandered over to Dave Lowe’s blog, you may have noticed he’s a bit into Halloween. He has already began building props and decorations for his house this year. I got a kick out of this ghostly gravestone made of foam core and spray foam. Be sure to check his blog regularly for many more projects leading up to the big day.

Lewis Baumstark, Jr. made a fake crowbar out of a piece of PVC pipe and wrote an Instructable showing how he did it. It looks so devilishly simple and quick, especially if you don’t have the time or money to mold and cast one.

Chris Schwartz has scanned some drawings of English furniture styles throughout history and posted them on his blog. It’s a great aid for recognizing the style of pieces you find in the antique store, or for choosing furniture based on the period of the play you are doing. It’s also fun just to see how furniture has evolved in the last 800 years or so; a chest of drawers used to literally be just a chest.

Finally, Make Magazine has shared this wonderful short video of Dan Madsen painting signs by hand.

Full bar

Building a Bar for “Anna Christie”

The first scene of Anna Christie takes place in a small waterfront bar in the New York City harbor around 1910. For our production at Triad Stage, the design had a large back bar and front bar which could appear for that scene and strike backstage when it ended. The scenic designer drafted the front bar and the back bar for the props shop to build, and away we went. Standing nine and a half feet tall, at almost twelve feet long, the back bar really pushed the limits of the definition of a “prop”.

The back bar was built mostly out of lauan with half-inch plywood framing pieces to make it as light as possible, since it would need to be pushed on and off stage a vista by three crew members.

Beginning construction
Beginning construction

It was constructed in three sections to make transportation to the theatre possible. You can see two of the sections below, showing where the piece broke apart. You can also see the beginnings of the wood grain paint treatment which I wrote about last week.

Two sections
Two sections

Most of the vertical surfaces on the top section of this piece were meant to be antique frosted mirrors. I used some silver Mylar as the mirror, laid a section of lace on top, and spray painted through it. This left a lace-like design on the Mylar, and after a few more coats of spray frosting over the whole thing, it looked just like a mirror.

Making the mirror
Making the mirror

The unit was originally on wheels, but when it got to the theatre, the noise it made while moving was deafening. The stage floor consisted entirely of expanded steel panels. We discovered that plastic furniture gliders actually made moving the unit completely silent and fairly effortless. They also ensured the unit remained stationary when no one was touching it.

Back bar
Back bar

With some practical sconces, some lace runners and doilies, and a whole bunch of vintage liquor bottles, the piece was complete. Below is a photo of the whole setup, which includes the front bar that our prop shop also constructed.

Full bar
Full bar

You can also see a side-by-side comparison of the final piece with a research image. Obviously the proportions and specifics were changed in the design, but the inspiration is fairly clear.

Research vs final piece
Research vs final piece
Step-by-step wood graining process

Graining Some Wood

Our production of Anna Christie closed last night at Triad Stage. The first act takes place in a bar, filled with wooden furniture. The bar, tables and chairs all needed to match, and since they were constructed from a variety of wood and other materials, the best way to do that was by painting all of them.

Our scenic charge artist, Jessica Holcombe, helped us develop a process to match the wood sample that our designer picked out. The base coat was a wet blend of two colors: a light tan, and a slightly darker beige. We blended them in the direction that the fake grain would go.

Base coat
Base coat

The next layer was a maroon/pink graining layer. A lot of the graining was done simply with a chip brush lightly dragged along the surface to make stripes. For some of the larger surfaces, we broke out the grain rocker to make some knots and other grain characteristics.

Graining
Graining

For the third layer, we made a glaze from some amber shellac and a bit of brown tint, and painted that over the whole thing.

Glaze coat
Glaze coat

The picture below shows the progression of this graining process, starting with an unpainted chair I bought.

Step-by-step wood graining process
Step-by-step wood graining process

When the furniture got on stage under the lights, it was too bright and the grain had too much contrast. We added another glaze coat of tinted shellac, this time using a darker brown to tint it. Jessica also showed us how to flock (edit: I mean “flog”) this layer, giving it a bit of the subtle pores and perpendicular stripes you can see below.

Final glaze
Final glaze

When doing a wood grain, the more layers you can add, the richer and more realistic your final result will be. There are many other techniques and tricks you can utilize depending on the specific type of wood you are trying to replicate; it is important to have a clear reference photo or physical sample of what you want your wood to look like.

 

 

Shenanigans in Poughkeepsie, 1871

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

The Property Man is one of the first grand essentials of the theatre. The success of every piece, no matter how slight, depends in a great measure on him. Everything on the stage, except the scenery, are properties. The word is oftenest applied to small articles used by the performers, but these are a part only of the great mass of such material. Furniture of every sort are properties. These large pieces are termed “stage props” in opposition to “hand props.” The best “stage props”—parlor sets, etc.—are sometimes very handsome and are used very carefully. In modern society pieces it is quite the custom now to hire furniture of a dealer for the run of the piece. Property men in the country (as theatrical stands outside of the larger towns are termed) are often sorely perplexed in this respect. They have in such cases nearly always to hire, and it often happens that furniture men are a narrow-minded set of heathens, for whom the drama has no æsthetic attractions whatever. The strangest things have been done under these circumstances. The curtain must go up—so much is sure; and that great results can be accomplished under the stress of a “must” more important affairs than things theatrical have proved.

We heard of a sharp fellow once who, being with a travelling company, struck a town whose shopkeepers were all of the very strictest sort. He had to have a sofa and some other furniture for a piece to be played, and he could neither hire, borrow, buy, nor steal it. They would rather chop it up, the owners said, than have it go inside of a theatre. Our man, not discouraged however, set his wits to work. He got another person to purchase the required goods, and to have them sent with the bill to a hotel, where they should be paid for on delivery. The car driver was in the trick, and the furniture was swiftly driven to the theatre. It was only required in the first piece, and by 9 o’clock it was back in the owner’s store (not a whit worse than an hour and a half before, except that a few profane stage-players had touched it), with the message that it did not exactly suit the intended purchaser. This clever trick was played in Poughkeepsie, and the daring wretch who devised it yet lives to boast of his exploit.

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