For one of the operas we are doing this summer, we needed some “sconces” made up of armor and weapons: shields with swords crossed behind them and that sort of thing. The designer wanted some pole weapons on one; we had a halberd in stock he really liked. Since we only had one, I had to replicate a bunch more to match it. Since these halberds were only going to be decorative, I could crank them out quickly with scrap materials.
In the photo above, I traced and cut out the main shape of the halberd blade from quarter-inch plywood. You can see the original blade at the very top of the photograph.
I attached a piece of 1-inch pink foam to each side of the plywood. I rough cut the foam to the shape, but left it oversized so I could trim it to the exact shape after the glue dried. I used Gorilla Glue to adhere it.
After the glue dried, I trimmed the foam to the shape of the plywood. I used a knife to make the bevels, followed by sandpaper to refine the curves.
Next I did a very “proppy prop” thing; I used hot glue to adhere some cord to create raised detail. These halberd blades are only meant to be decorative, and are way upstage; also, this is how the original one was made, and I needed them all to match.
The whole piece was then coated in FoamCoat, and sent off to the painters.
First, I wanted to mention that I have redone and updated my online portfolio; it was in desperate need of an overhaul, especially now that I am freelancing again. I went with a free site at CarbonMade.com, because the thought of designing and coding yet another portfolio site was making me tired just thinking about it. I’ve seen some other prop makers who use that site to show their work, and so far, it seems to be working well. Let me know what you think!
Now then, let’s take a look at a bench I made back in 2006 at the Santa Fe Opera. I basically had to build the whole thing from scratch in less than a week, so it’s a bit rough.
They wanted a cast iron park bench. The only real requirements were the size, so I had to find my own research image. I showed the above photograph to Randy Lutz, the prop master, and he agreed it was a good bench to duplicate.
I drew a full-scale layout of the side on a piece of paper and spray-glued it to a sheet of plywood. You’ll notice the decorative parts do not match the photograph exactly. What I decided to do was pull some decorative resin castings and carved wood pieces from stock—the opera has quite a good collection of these. I then arranged them to match the research as closely as possible. I traced them and cut away the extra plywood. You’ll see in a bit when I start gluing them on, it’ll all make sense.
I cut out and added some support runners on the insides of the two ends and began to attach the slats which would make up the back and the seat. It needed some extra support, so I ran a rod along the bottom; you can see it in the next photograph.
Now I began attaching the decorative resin bits. I also used some Ethafoam rod cut in half to make some curved half-round molding. I found a strip of upholstery fringe which added more texture.
Here’s a closeup showing some of the resin bits and Ethafoam, as well as some rosettes and even bits of yarn. If you look really close, you can even make out a bit of hot glue design work; though it’s practically invisible here, once the paint goes on, it will add just that extra little bit of texture that will make the whole thing seem like a single piece of cast iron from the audience.
The paint job is what really helped marry all the different materials together and bring the whole thing to life. The painter of this bench worked as one of the other props carpenters for the beginning of the summer, so none of us knew how good he was at scenic art until he did this bench.
So here it is, ready to go on stage. I even added some round bolt heads running down the middle so it looked like the slats were bolted to the legs. Overall, it was a fun piece for the short time frame I had to build it in.
The hot glue gun is one of the main tools in a props person’s arsenal. Some people love them, some despise them, but at one point or another, all will use one. They can also be referred to as hot melt glue guns and hot melt adhesive guns. They use sticks of hot glue, or hot melt adhesive, thermoplastic adhesive, or thermoplastic cement, depending on your preferred nomenclature.
So who invented the hot glue gun, and how did it come to be? If we Google the phrase “who invented the hot glue gun”, we find the following results:
The first few results list “Robert Brooklyns” as the inventor. Let’s see what a Google search on him turns up:
When I did the search, Google returned around 83 results. All of them basically parroted the same sentence. Basically, one site (Answers.com is my guess) made this completely uncited statement, and it has been echoed throughout content farms and superficial sites across the internet. No one with this name shows up in a deeper search through books or patents, which seems surprising, given how important the hot glue gun is.
You may have noticed in the first image that a result shows up with an obituary for George Schultz, whom the Boston Globe calls the “inventor of the first industrial glue gun”. According to the Globe, he founded Industrial Shoe Machinery in Boston in 1954, which he sold to 3M in 1973. Somewhere along the way, he invented the Polygun, the “first industrial glue gun”. 3M manufactured hot glue guns under the name “Polygun” until 2006, when they changed the name to “Scotch-Weld”.
The diagram shows a glue gun with a trigger, but the glue is held in an internal reservoir rather than fed through as sticks. While Mr. Schultz was certainly the inventor of a hot glue gun, he was hardly the inventor of the hot glue gun.
The Wikipedia article on adhesives has an uncited claim that thermoplastic adhesives were invented in the 1940s by Proctor and Gamble by a man named Paul Cope. Again, this becomes hard to verify, because innumerable content farms merely copy the Wikipedia article, and most of the search results are variations of this same initial claim (many have the same exact wording). At least we can find evidence that Paul Cope was a real person who worked at Proctor and Gamble. He even filed a number of patents having to do with improvements in packaging. Whether he had anything to do with thermoplastic glues seems to be a moot point, as mentions of thermoplastic adhesives can be found in literature and patents much earlier than that, as far back as 1907.
Perhaps the earliest proto-hot glue gun was this Plastic Extrusion Gun created by William R. Myers and Albert S. Tennant in 1949. The device was created for melting plastic and extruding it onto fishing hooks to manufacture fishing flies. The plastic was fed into the device as ribbons rather than as sticks, and it did not use thermoplastic adhesive. Regardless, many of the parts and components of a modern hot glue gun are there, and later inventors referred to the Myers and Tennant plastic extrusion gun quite a bit in their patents.
That December, Popular Science ran an article about this glue gun, named the “Thermogrip”. The article proclaims “A black plastic pistol with an electrical heating element and an aluminum nozzle that extrudes hot-melt glue is one of the newest tools for home and shop.” I find the Thermogrip notable for its use of glue sticks and for the fact it was marketed and sold to home users, as opposed to previous glue guns which were tailored for specific industrial processes. I would consider this to be the first “hot glue gun” in the sense which we are most familiar today.
As with any invention, it is perhaps futile to try and trace its invention to a single person. The hot glue gun relies on a number of parts and components, such as the development of thermoplastics, the evolution of plastic extrusion guns, and the societal need for a portable device which accomplishes all of this. The modern-day glue gun we all know and love has any number of features and improvements which were not present in the earliest iterations.
That said, the hot glue gun was certainly not invented by a (perhaps imaginary) man named Robert Brooklyns, and hot glue was not invented by Paul Cope. This goes to show how easily an unverified claim can infiltrate the Internet. Remember kids, more search results in Google does not equal more reliability. An unsourced claim is still an unsourced claim even when it shows up on thousands of websites.
In Thurston James’ second book, he tackles the subject of molding and casting for prop makers in more detail. The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook guides you through the most common materials and methods used in many prop shops. Because of its specific focus (and better organization), this book is far more successful than his previous Theatre Props Handbook, which, as I mentioned in my review, meandered through disparate topics with no way to quickly find information.
Though written in 1989, the methods described in this book still hold true today. Though the range of materials we can use today have grown dramatically, they remain improvements and new formulations to older materials whose predecessors can be found in this book.
It remains one of the most widely recommended books for molding and casting props because of the unique niche it fills. It describes the most common materials and methods used in props shops and by hobbyists; these materials are used because of their cost, ease of use, availability, and proven results. Books on molding and casting for manufacturing and industry are more focused on specific or specialized materials, and they aim for a level of consistency and cost efficiency which the prop artisan would never possibly need. Shaving a tenth of a cent off the cost of a casting makes a difference if you are casting ten thousand pieces, but it will be impossible to notice if you are only making ten.
James seems to have had an epiphany in shop safety between this book and the last, as he now presents clear and accurate safety precautions in the beginning of the book, and continues to reiterate them throughout. In his Theatre Props Handbook, safety precautions were nearly nonexistent.
The book does a good job of covering the generalities of mold making and casting. It discusses the model and its preparation, and defines a number of necessary terms, such as undercuts, release agents, mother molds and the like. It describes the considerations of making a mold of your specific piece, and breaks the various molding materials and casting agents into categories. In a way, it describes the process of choosing your materials in an almost flowchart-like manner. If you know what your model looks like, and you know what kind of properties and appearance your castings need, then you can narrow your choices of mold material and casting material down to a few choices. In the book, he describes over thirty of these material choices.
The bulk of the book is used to guide you through the specifics of working with each of these materials. Specifically, he talks about plaster, alginate, latex rubber, and silicone rubber (RTV) mold-making. The casting materials he describes include latex, neoprene, papier-mâché, Celastic, fiberglass (GRP), hot melts (such as wax, plasticine, hot melt glue and hot melt rubber, breakaway glass, thermosets (specifically polyester resin), water-extendable polyester, and urethane. He also has a section on casting with hardware store products, like caulk, autobody filler, water putty, and several others. Finally, the last section of the book describes vacuum forming and how to construct a vacuum forming machine.
Sometimes you need to fix things right, and other times, you need to fix them right now. Here are four things which prop people rely on to fix a prop when the audience is already seated and the curtain is about to go up.
It’s a common prop adage that “anything can be fixed with hot glue.” That’s true in many cases, and the fact that it cools in minutes (sometimes seconds) and is removable makes it a great candidate to hold two things together at the last minute. When you need to separate the items, just peel them apart. Keep in mind that it is not structural, and it will not come out of most fabrics.
Gaff tape is short for gaffer’s tape, so named because of its use by gaffers to tape down cords and cables. It’s like duct tape for prop people; unlike duct tape, it leaves no residue when removed, and most importantly, it comes in black, so it disappears on stage (and can be used in a pinch to make other things disappear on stage as well).
Wire of all different thicknesses is great for tying things together when adhesives just won’t stick. It’s also key for hanging things from walls or ceilings. With glue, there’s always a chance the weight will prove too much for the bond and cause the prop to come crashing down on someone’s head.
Mortite, or rope caulk, is a type of caulk that will not dry out. It’s great for keeping glasses from sliding around on a tray, or vases from toppling off of a shaky table. It also makes it very easy to remove the prop when needed, as when an actor needs to pick up the vase during a scene.
I prefer the kind that comes in the easy-dispense tubes, which makes this product as idiot-proof as possible. Epoxy resin is a liquid which comes in two parts; when mixed, it sticks to many materials and becomes rock-hard. As the name implies, 5-minute epoxy hardens in 5 minutes, making it one of the quickest ways to get a very secure bond.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies