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Books about making props

A Brief History of Prop Making Books

I wanted to make a “Top Ten” list of prop making books, but it turns out there aren’t enough to do that. As it is, I have to include one that’s nearly 80 years old. In other words, books dealing solely with how to make props are few and far between. Plenty of books exist for the various specialties of prop making, such as woodworking, sewing and sculpting, but these do not deal with the specifics of prop making, which often uses a more limited range of materials and has an emphasis on faster techniques rather than slow processes. In addition, making props for the stage or screen has its own considerations beyond just making an object look good.

So, with my own book coming out this week, I thought I would step through the prop making books which have come before. I am not including books such as Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master or Sandra Strawn’s  The Properties Director’s Handbook. Though both of these have sections on making props, they are more geared toward the management of propping a show or running a prop shop. There are also plenty of books on set design or stagecraft which include a chapter on props, but these rarely delve into the subject with enough detail to be useful. If anyone knows of other prop making books, let me know in the comments; I think I found them all, though.

Books about making props
Books about making props

Small Stage Properties and Furniture, by Mrs. Nesfield Cookson (UK, 1934)

I quite liked this book in terms of layout and how comprehensive it was for its time. What really kills it is its datedness, both in terms of materials and in the stilted and formal language it uses, making it difficult to follow in parts (and yes, the author is actually credited as “Mrs.”). Still, it is divided up into useful sections, such as furniture, papier mâché, molds and modelling, jewellery and painting. It also has two chapters to cover some “catch-all” categories. One is on armatures and foundations, the other on projections and ornamentations (“projections”, in this case, refers to three-dimensional details which stick out from the prop’s surface). The material covered in these two chapters are useful for the props artisan but the information is often overlooked because it does not fit neatly into one category or the other, particularly when you divide prop making into specific materials and tools. It is clearly illustrated in parts, though not nearly enough.

Stage Properties, by Heather Conway (UK, 1959)

This book is a disappointment. It spends a scant 27 pages on the making of properties; the techniques are the same dated ones (sized felt, perforated zinc, papier-mâché, et al) found in better detail in other books on this list. The bulk of this book is spent on “reference” for historical plays. Each of the main “theatrical periods” in vogue at the time, such as Ancient Greece or Elizabethan England, are described in quick detail, with line drawings of the most archetypal objects, such as goblets or sword handles. It reminds me of The Theater Props What, Where, When, by Thurston James, and is especially useless in an era of Internet searching. It would certainly be nice to have a quick reference for the common objects of any particular era or period, but this book does not even go that far.

Stage Properties, and How to Make Them, by Warren Kenton (UK, 1964)

This book is an improvement in that the illustrations are shaded, thus imparting more detail. It is also the first in our list to mention plastics, but only so far as to say a) they exist, and b) they are too expensive for the prop maker to use. Still, I like the way this presents the more traditional aspects of prop making, giving a description on the left page and various illustrations on the right. The basic techniques it covers only last for about twenty pages. The rest of the book falls victim to what many prop making books succumb to; rather than trying to break down the craft into simpler components, or attempt to describe an approach to building props, it simply lists common props (candlesticks, masks, powder horns, etc.) and describes one way to make them. Nonetheless, it does so in a way that is clear and approachable.

Theatre Props, by Motley (UK, 1975)

The “Motley” listed as the author is not someone’s name; rather, it describes how the book is written by a diverse set of people. It has seven chapters written by five people, with a sixth writing the introduction. This does give it an advantage of avoiding a single prop maker’s point of view or experience. The chapters included are strange in their selection: “Hand Props and Soft Props”, “Moulding and Casting”, “Light Fittings and Fires”, “Special and Trick Props”, “Carpentry Props”, “Flowers and Foliage”, “Jewellery and Decoration”. While it is nice to get away from the “papier mâché and chicken wire” approach the previous books take, this book is far from comprehensive. It is more like a collection of magazine articles compiled into a single volume. Still, you can tell from the chapters that, though not a complete guide to prop building, this book contains useful  information that is absent from many other prop books. It is also the first on our list to feature photographs in addition to illustrations.

Create Your Own Stage Props, by Jacquie Govier (UK, 1984)

This book is aimed at the amateur or school theatre, and as such, feels very “crafty”. It also takes a step back in time and uses only illustrations, rather than including photographs. As a craft book for amateurs, it is actually quite well; it covers a lot of the basics, and is the first book on our list to deal with foam carving, one of the staples of any prop shop. For the budding professional though, the techniques can seem a bit embarrassing, even when you forgive the book its age. Even at the time, professional theatres were vacuum forming and using fiberglass, not to mention welding steel and constructing real furniture. They certainly weren’t wrapping glue-soaked string around a balloon.

The Theater Props Handbook, by Thurston James (US, 1987)

The first US book on our list is also one of the most well-known. While it attempts to be a comprehensive guide to all manner of theatrical property construction, the layout and organization is quite strange. James puts the chapters in alphabetical order, meaning you go from reading about “eyeglasses” on one page to reading about “fire” on the next. The chapters also differ greatly in scope; one chapter is dedicated to “construction techniques”, while another deals simply with “confetti”. The chapter on “construction techniques” is broken down to a few different materials, though one of the sub-headings is “making a butter churn.” Later, he has a whole chapter titled “Gramophone.” Why gramophone gets its own chapter while butter churn is included in a larger chapter is beyond me. Basically, this book is a collection of props which James has built and tricks James has learned with no attempt to find the standards of our industry or organize any of the information. If you want to know how to construct wooden furniture, head to the “Rehearsal Furniture” chapter, but if you want to know how to cut wood on the jigsaw, it’s back to the section on making a butter churn. This book has a lot of great information and tricks—don’t get me wrong—but only if you can find it. And don’t even get me started with how the columns are laid out on the page! Every page has two columns of text. However, you switch from the left column to the right whenever you reach a new sub-chapter, rather than following each column all the way down the page.

The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook, by Thurston James (US, 1989)

James is perhaps more well-known for this book, and it has probably done more to cement his legacy as a writer of props books. Unlike his first book, this one is laid out in a very organized manner, giving a general introduction and then stepping through each of the materials in turn. The introduction even has a photograph comparing the various materials covered in the book, which helps clue you into what will follow. Though the book is nearly a quarter of a century old, the techniques described still hold true. A few of the materials have better alternatives available, and a couple have become obsolete, but on the whole, we still use most of what is in the book. Materials like plaster, latex, silicone rubber, alginate and plastic resins are some of the workhorses of the props shop, and any advances have not made this book any less useful. Like the other James’ books, it has the same confusing column layout where you switch from the left column to the right and back again several times on a page.

Making Stage Props, by Andy Wilson (UK, 2003)

Wilson has written one of the most up-to-date and well-organized prop building books. This book covers a great deal of the materials and methods one might actually use in a professional theatre’s prop shop. While it has a great deal of information in it, it does not have everything; for example, it covers steel, but none of the other metals one might use, such as aluminum or brass. It covers upholstery, but nothing else about fabric. In fact, it skips over a lot of the craft and soft goods portions of prop making, and omits entirely any mention of plastic sheet goods such as plexiglass. It is also uneven in the amount of space it devotes to various topics. The section on turning, for instance, spends over nine pages discussing the setup of the lathe, the various tools used, and methods employed. This is not to say the lathe is not a useful tool for a props shop — it is — but a machine like the table saw is far more frequently used in props shops, and it gets only an off-handed mention in the middle of a sentence. Likewise, Wilson spends a few paragraphs and a photograph on “fire cement”, which is one of his specialties but practically unheard of in the majority of props shops. This would be fine if you had an infinite number of pages to cover everything, but not if your book neglects to include how to make a single stitch or seam in fabric. The photographs and illustrations are nice, though they are in black and white. None of the books on our list, in fact, use color photographs, nor do any talk about prop making in film or television.

The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV, by Eric Hart (US, 2013)

Yes, this is my book. While writing it, I have attempted to pull all the good stuff from the aforementioned books while avoiding all the criticisms. I’ve looked at a variety of prop shops, both through interviewing various prop makers, visiting shops of all sizes, and through my own experience working around the country, to avoid prescribing one single way to build props. In the photograph above, you can see it is the largest and most comprehensive book, and it is also the first to feature color photographs and illustrations. I have geared the book to be useful to all levels of both amateur and professional, but I avoided making it “amateurish”; even if you have no budget, you can still work to high standards. My hope is that it will be a major leap in prop-making books to a new standard of professionalism that better reflects what our industry is like.

The Properties Director's Handbook

The Properties Director’s Handbook

The Properties Director's Handbook
The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra J. Strawn

Props people have a new book that was just released today: The Properties Director’s Handbook, by Sandra J. Strawn. Longtime readers may be familiar with the website version of the Properties Director’s Handbook; I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years, and this blog has a link over along the sidebar.

Sandy also happens to be the technical editor for my book. Both of our books are being published by Focal Press. Between the two, they cover two of the major aspects of props: building props, and managing a prop shop. I asked Sandy a few questions about how the website came about and what we can expect from her new book.

What prompted you to first create the Properties Director Handbook website?

Sandy: I was prompted to initially start the handbook from the SPAM (Society for Properties Artisan Managers) discussions at our national conferences. As someone who has been doing this for almost three decades I realized many of our incoming prop masters were asking us “old timers” among the SPAM network many of the same questions: how to organize a shop, how to effectively manage a build, how to write a prop list and work with stage management in updates, etc. I also teach this as part of my arc of training in the prop curriculum. I found myself emailing out my handouts to folks in the business and they would often comment to me, “You should write a book.” I decided to try and compile the information in one spot and was granted a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to create my website. I wanted it to be a free textbook available to all those folks who teach the props classes in university programs, as well as to prop professionals or community prop people who need to understand the process of being a prop master or props director.

How has the website been translated into this new book?

Sandy: Seeing the success of my website, Focal Press expressed interest in making a book from part of the chapters I had on the website. Over the past summer I re-worked the webpage into a more condensed book form, now available online from Routledge Press and all the usual online book selling sites.

I have updated my website pretty much continuously since I created it in 2008. As I re-worked the chapters to make them over into a book, I ended up pretty much re-writing and updating everything. I did a new survey on prop salaries and contracts and that information is included in the book as well as some better illustrations of paperwork. The book covers about two-thirds of what is on the site and focuses primarily on the properties director’s process of taking a show from initial script reading through opening. These chapters tend to be the ones most viewed on my site and I think are the ones most relevant to those folks who are teaching prop classes. The web site has many more links and examples of prop lists, show reports, photographs of shops and props, and additional “chapters” on setting up a safe and happy prop shop. Anyone who utilizes the book will find the website a convenient resource for additional reading and research materials as well as interesting examples of prop work and prop shops around the United States.

I wrote this primarily as a textbook for undergraduate props training but I know many beginning prop professionals would find it useful as well. My hope is, in combination with your excellent book on the “how to do” part of making props, this book will help theatre folks understand the “how to manage” part of doing props.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what a prop director/master does?

Sandy: The biggest misconception about what a prop master does is about the range of skills an effective prop master must have in order to do the job well. Not only does the person need to be able to shop, but to create props the artisans must know sewing, welding and metal working, furniture construction and restoration, plastics construction, upholstery, faux painting, radio and pneumatic controls, calligraphy, graphics layout, molding and casting, leather work, painting and portraiture with acrylics and watercolors, floral arrangement, sculpture and 3D carving, especially with foam, electrical construction and wiring, crafts, photography, fabric dyeing and distressing, matting and framing, draping, fabric layout,  pattern making, musical instrumentation, weaponry, pyrotechnics… to name a few.

Layer that on to the management side of being a props director and master, where an effective prop person must be highly organized, creative, have an eye for detail, flair for design, creative adaptability (the “what if…”), be self motivated, and be willing to do all that and more as part of a collaborative design and production process. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it!

There is no prop “store” where we can run out and buy all the props; eBay comes close, but our budgets are never enough and those pesky designers always want something so specific it must be created in the shop. That’s what we do as prop people.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Salon on Being Green

Yesterday at Wingspace Theatrical Design I attended their salon on “Being Green.” The featured guests included set designer Donyale Werle (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Broke-ology), as well as Annie Jacobs and Jenny Stanjeski from Showman Fabricators.

A lot of the facts which were presented are better summed up in my post on a previous workshop I attended called “Going Green in Theatrical Design.” I did see something that was new though (new to me, that is): UC Berkeley’s Material and Chemical Handbook which presents some of the materials we commonly use in prop making, along with disposal instructions and safety notices. It’s specific to their college, but it is a good starting point for developing your own.

Since I didn’t take notes, what follows is more of a highlight of various points made in the discussion as I remember them:

“Being green is not black or white”; it is not an either/or proposition. Rather, every day you try to make better choices, and every show you try to do a little greener. It takes a lot of experimentation, a lot of analysis, and a lot of effort.

Do not do bad “green” design and art; it’s worse than no design. The goal is to make good design, and the goal of sustainable theatre is to do it a little greener each time.

As theatre people, we already come from a culture of sustainability and recycling. We reuse and repaint flats and drops. We take the lumber from one show and use it on the next. We borrow and barter the costumes and props from other people doing the same. But as our careers progress and the shows get bigger, we get away from that. Maybe it’s because you get to work with bigger budgets, or maybe it’s because you want to push your work to have higher production standards. Making sustainable theatre is a conscious choice and takes a concerted effort.

One of the problems, someone pointed out, was in trying to do a green production with a designer who was still in the old mindset—the mindset that everything has to be new and bought just for that show. What is the new mindset? It may mean a design which evolves from the available materials, rather than a design which starts on paper and then requires the purchasing of all new materials. Maybe it just means less design, though as Donyale pointed out, she likes a lot of “stuff” in her designs:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Thinking about more sustainable options means taking more time out of your already busy schedule, and asking others to take more time as well. Donyale pointed out that if you can do case studies on what you’re spending versus what you would spend in a more traditional production, you can convince the producers; for Peter and the Starcatcher, she calculated that they saved $40000 in materials by using recycled, salvaged and upcycled materials, but that the labor cost was a third more due to all the sourcing and processing of this material. Still, it was an overall savings; the extra labor cost was offset by the reduced materials cost. Producers like to see savings. It is also, for a lot of us, morally preferable to have more of the money to go to human labor (which is sustainable) than to the purchase of materials shipped from across the globe which will end up in the trash once the show is finished.

For artisans and production people, as opposed to designers, using more sustainable techniques means taking time to do your own experimentation and comparison of materials and techniques to arrive at better solutions. If you can come up with concrete alternatives to show your designers, it becomes easier to convince them to trust you. An example the ladies from Showman gave was using carved homasote, which is made from recycled newspaper and non-VOC adhesives, to make faux brick and stone facades, rather than vacuum-formed plastic panels. Not only is the plastic a petroleum-based product shipped from overseas, but it releases toxic fumes when heated in the vacuum former. Homasote comes from a company in New Jersey, so it only has to travel a few miles. The results look the same, and the costs are comparable. By showing the designers what they can achieve with more sustainable and less toxic materials, it makes it easier to convince them to accept them.

Backstage Handbook

Review: Backstage Handbook

Backstage Handbook
Backstage Handbook

I feel almost silly reviewing the Backstage Handbook: An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information by Paul Carter and George Chiang; it is already so well-known and ubiquitous in the theatre world, I don’t know that I have anything to add. Nonetheless, every time I pick it up, it’s like I’m rediscovering how much useful information it has in it for the props professional. If you haven’t gotten this book because you think it’s aimed solely at the carpenter, electrician, stagehand or stage manager, think again.

Inside, you can find illustrations differentiating the type of moulding we use, parts of a window and wood joints. You can find lists and illustrations of the common hand and power tools you would find in a prop shop, as well as all the hardware and fasteners you will come across. It also includes definitions and descriptions of the various fabrics at our disposal, the multitude of adhesives we use (along with their ingredients) and the different types of rope and cord you can choose from. Along the way, you can also learn how to tie the most common types of theatre knots, how to draw a variety of geometric shapes (like pentagons and hexagons) and how to build a flat. Of course, you can also find all sorts of general theatre knowledge, such as the parts of a stage and the types of curtains we use.

So really, this isn’t much of a review; it’s more of a reminder that if you work in technical theatre (or film for that matter), you should own this book. Case closed.

The Theater Props Handbook

Review: The Theater Props Handbook

The Theater Props Handbook
The Theater Props Handbook

Perhaps no other book about theater props is as well known as The Theatre Props Handbook, by Thurston James.

The largest shortcoming of this book is that it was written in 1987. The World Wide Web hadn’t even been invented yet. The number of materials and tools which have been introduced since then is vast. The book has almost no safety information; the photographs show artisans working without gloves, respirators, dust masks or any other personal protective equipment. Many of the projects are built out of urethane foams; these days, there are much safer alternatives you can use.

This book is geared to the props person who finds him or herself having to prop a show with little to no resources. It does not deal with paperwork, reading a script, managing employees, shopping, sourcing, budgeting, labor estimates, or any of the other practical considerations a properties director must deal with. In a way, it’s almost a relic of a time when a props person must create every prop out of paper-mâché, epoxy putty, and hot glue.

Perhaps the other greatest downfall of the book is the organization and presentation. The chapters are apparently in alphabetical order, though what information is present in each chapter is a surprise. The photographs are all in black and white, small, and occasionally questionable. Looking at a few projects in the book, I find myself thinking that a few of the photographs are missing; he explains a step in the process, but his explanation is unclear and the inclusion of just one more photograph would suffice to make it clear.

On a personal note, my biggest pet peeve with the book is how the columns break. Each page is divided into two columns. Normally, one would think to read a column down to the bottom of the page and then start at the top of the page with the next column. In this book though, every section heading and photograph causes the columns to break, much like if you were reading a newspaper. It can be quite disconcerting.

Even though it is poorly organized, woefully out of date, and badly illustrated, there is still no viable alternative. Where this book excels is in its presentation of the tips and tricks that all props people use. If you need to learn about being a prop master, I would suggest Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master combined with Sandra Strawn’s The Properties Directors Handbook. If you want to learn how to be a props artisan, Andy Wilson’s Making Stage Props is a more comprehensive and organized guide to the typical materials used in the construction of props. If, however, you want a source for all the props tricks used by props masters in theatre, such as putting a fake beer can label on a can of seltzer, using lamp parts, or FEV, this remains the only book you can turn to. Books like this come only once a generation or so. Perhaps props masters are unwilling to give up their secrets, or perhaps they can’t string together a coherent sentence after years of sitting through tech rehearsals. My own theory is that props people are too busy doing props to find the time to write such a book, and when they finally leave or retire, they no longer have the inclination to write such a book. So for the time being, it seems, The Theatre Props Handbook will retain its place on a props person’s bookshelf.

In some respects, the information in this book would have been better presented in blog form, if it had existed back then. I suppose that is part of my goal with this blog. I’m trying to add to and improve on the information first written down in the Theater Props Handbook twenty-three years ago in addition to writing about my own experiences.