Tag Archives: materials

Hourglass

Oh, the Things you Find in Stock

It is always fun when you inherit a props stock to go through and imagine what shows the props have previously appeared in, or to see how previous props people have solved problems. Every once in awhile, though, you see something that is so… “theatrical”, that you just have to stare at it for a bit:

Hourglass
Hourglass

If you are familiar with the “fast-good-cheap” triangle, this prop is firmly in the “fast and cheap” category. Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, it is actually a fairly clever solution. It uses materials and found objects that are common to most prop shops, and it is constructed in a manner that probably took less than an hour. It is also possible that on the right stage, under the right lighting and in the right context, this may have looked fine, and the time it would have taken to make this look better was better spent on other props.

Obviously, you would never put a prop like this in your portfolio, and it is not something you should aspire to. It can definitely use a second-pass of sanding and painting. The plywood could have been cut out more carefully, and the excess of glue oozing out everywhere is disturbing. But as I said above, without knowing the circumstances of when this was built, it may have been the least-bad option at the time. There are no judgments in props, only opportunities for improvement.

The 100 Best Sites for the Prop Maker

When I began my blog back in 2009, it felt like only a handful of sites for the prop maker were out there. Since then, the field has practically exploded and you can find information everywhere. I post links to sites regularly, but I wanted to make a list of the sites you should be checking out regularly. So I’ve collected and categorized what I consider to be the 100 best sites for a prop maker. Now, this is far from comprehensive, particularly if you are working on specific objects or using less-popular materials, but hopefully it will keep you busy for awhile. If you know of a site I’ve missed, drop a note in the comments or send me an email!

Forums

Forums remain a great way to find information about prop making, since much of what we do is so specific and unique. You can ask a question, search for answers to other questions, or just browse through and pick up tips on how other people work.

  • Replica Prop Forum – A very active and very informative forum filled with fans recreating their favorite props from films, television, video games and other media.
  • ControlBooth – A US forum for technical theatre, with a small section on props.
  • Blue Room Technical Forum – A UK forum for technical theatre, also with a section on props.
  • The 405th – Halo costuming forum
  • Dented Helmet – Boba Fett costume resource
  • The Hunter’s Lair – Predator Costume and Prop forum
  • Astromech – Forum for the R2-D2 Builders Club
  • Cosplay – For fans of dressing up as fictional characters, this also has sections on props and similar items.
  • PropPeople Forum – A once-thriving forum that still limps on, this is the only one devoted entirely to props people working in theatre.
  • TheatreFace – Forums built around the TheatreFace social network, with a section on props.
  • Brass Goggles – Steampunk forum with some prop-making threads
  • The FX Lab – Special makeup effects, mask making and creature design.
  • Haunt Forum – Lots of information for those who build their own sets and props for Halloween displays and haunted houses.
  • The Clubhouse – For modelers, sculptors and model collectors.
  • Concept Art – Forum for concept artists with a small section for sculpture and other 3D media.

Prop Makers

Many prop makers have their own website or post their work online, but a few go the extra mile and show how they’ve built specific props.

  • Volpin Props – Unique commissions for props and objects based off of items from video games, television and films.
  • Punished Props – Another fine replica artist making props from video games and other pop culture.
  • Fake ‘n Bake – If you ever want to make fake food, Anna Warren’s site should be your first stop.
  • Dave Lowe Design – One of the prop masters at the Hallmark Channel.
  • Kamui Cosplay – Armor and cosplay from Wonderflex and Worbla built by this talented German artist.
  • Blind Squirrel Props – A replica prop maker working on commissions and personal projects from all manner of films, television shows and video games.
  • Folkenstal – Interesting weapons and items based on the video game Skyrim.
  • Theatre Projects – Props and prop-related information from a freelance theatre prop master in Chicago.
  • Amethyst Angel – Armor and other cosplay projects.
  • Jay Surma – Another prolific replica prop maker.
  • 2StoryProps – Yet another replica prop maker.
  • MRX Designs – A prop maker working in the Steampunk and Lovecraft genres.
  • Tom Banwell – Leather and resin Steampunk projects.
  • Barnyard FX – A behind-the-scenes look at the props, exhibits and displays by Greg Aronowitz, a prolific special effects artist and design specialist on over two hundred films and television projects.
  • Spirits Dancing – Puppetry and prop-making from Hilary Talbot, a working Australian artisan.
  • Fevereon Props – A prop and costume maker out of Georgia.

Blogs

A number of sites may not be devoted entirely to teaching prop-making, but they still have regular tutorials, news and information relevant to the prop maker, or deal with comparable and related industries.

  • Prop Agenda – Now, I couldn’t omit my own blog. How-tos, news, videos and more from the props world.
  • Make Magazine – Blog companion to the magazine, this site regularly has posts on prop making and associated materials.
  • Tested – What began as site for testing consumer electronics has quickly grown to have regular features on props and prop making, particularly with Adam Savage as one of the regular hosts.
  • Propnomicon – A regularly-updated look at props built around the mythos of HP Lovecraft.
  • Lost in Schlock – Down and dirty prop making tips for low-budget films.
  • Design Realisation – backstage at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
  • La Bricoleuse – costume crafts teacher at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
  • StageBitz – a prop inventory software company that regularly posts prop-related news and interviews.
  • David Neat – Theatrical model making.
  • Stan Winston School – The new school run by the peerless studio responsible for the most famous practical film effects of the last thirty years runs a blog of related information. The school also has online video classes you can take for a paid subscription.
  • Meanwhile in the prop shop… – A Tumblr of random encounters in a regular props shop.
  • Theatre Safety – Articles and information on safety in the performing arts.
  • Technical Direction Tidbits – News and tidbits from the world of technical theatre.
  • Rosco – Spectrum – while also a lighting company, they do have tutorials on their paint and coating products
  • Mantle Studios – The sculpting blog of Jason Babler
  • The Dark Power – Bizarre sculptures and metal art with a theatrical flair.
  • Design*Sponge – Inspiration and reference for all manner of interior-design and furniture-related things.
  • Fake Believe – A behind-the-scenes look at props and sets made for various photography projects.
  • Haunters Digest – Tutorials and showcases of haunted house props and Halloween decorations.

Tutorials

If you need to learn how to build specific items or work with certain materials, these sites have collected the information you need.

  • Instructables – If you need to build something, chances are, you can find a tutorial here from someone who has already built it. This site should be your first stop for finding how-to’s, period.
  • Smooth-On videos – Tons of videos on molding and casting.
  • Deviant Art – You have to do some digging, but people post a lot of tutorials here, or post props with a detailed “how-to” in their description.
  • Woodgears.ca – Wood working by an engineer.
  • Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture – Tutorials for molding, casting and painting of miniatures and models.
  • Ultimate Paper Mache – Information and tutorials on, you guessed it, paper mache.
  • Monster Makers – You may never need to make monsters, but you may find their tutorials on sculpting, molding and casting, working with foam latex and painting to be helpful.
  • Paint-Sculpt – Tutorials and reference for both painting, and, wait for it, sculpting.
  • The Gizmologist’s Lair – A cornucopia of tutorials and links to all manner of gizmo-related projects.
  • Craftster – Projects and tutorials from the crafty side of the prop-making spectrum.
  • Mask Makers Web – Information and links for things related to masks and mask-making.
  • Costume Properties Construction Handbook – An online book of sorts with helpful information on building objects like hats, armor and masks.
  • Puppetry Home Page – Information on building puppets, and lots of links to other sites.
  • Proptology – A magazine devoted to props from 1995-2004 with some articles available online

Tools and Reference

  • Fastener Information – Everything you want to know about bolts, screws and similar fasteners.
  • This to That – Interactive tool for selecting adhesives for specific materials.
  • Golden Paints virtual paint mixer – Pick a color and this site will tell you which acrylic paint colors to mix to get that color.
  • Glass Attic – 1700 pages of everything you need to know about polymer clay.
  • Green Theater Choices Toolkit – A rundown of common building and crafting materials ranked by their environmental impact.
  • Sizes – A vast index with information about the sizes of practically everything. From definitions of units of measurements, to standard sizes of common furniture, to sheet metal gauges, and everything in between.
  • Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards – A guide to help workers recognize and control common chemical hazards in the workplace.
  • Wood Database – Pictures and information for identifying or selecting hundreds of types of wood species.
  • Toxipedia – Encyclopedia of toxins.
  • Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety – Provides health and safety information to artists worldwide.
  • Beacon Adhesives Adhesive Selection Chart – Like “This to That”, but dedicated to adhesives from the Beacon company.
  • Colorit Color Formula Guide – Pick a color to see which RIT dyes to mix to get that color.
  • Chemistry in the Toy Store – A look at the chemistry of various toys, including recipes to make your own slime, play dough, disappearing ink and other novelties.
  • Properties Directors Handbook – An online book showing how a theatrical props shop is setup and organized.

Research

Organizations and job sites

Finally, if you want to join a larger community of props people or find a job in the industry, check these sites out.

Black Friday Props Links

Black Friday Props Links

David Neat, author of Model-Making: Materials and Methods, has a blog going with all sorts of model making techniques. Posts on painting, mold-making, working in scale, and more are described and shown with ample photographs.

I really like this illustrated chart of hand tools over at Popular Mechanics. The chart itself is good-looking enough to hang up in your shop, while the tools pictured on it give you a great idea of what your shop is missing.

Smooth-On has a ton of great videos over at their website showing how to mold and cast with many of their materials. If you haven’t checked them out yet, start with one of their newer ones on how to make a mold for a replica of an antique rifle.

If you ever wanted to take the time to make chain mail by hand (as opposed to just spray-painting some crocheted yarn), Make Projects has a great tutorial on just that.

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.

Making a Plaster Mold

Making a Plaster Mold

I have a new video up on the videos page of The Prop Building Guidebook website. This one deals with making a one-piece plaster box mold. Plaster is a cheap and relatively easy-to-work-with molding and casting material, and a one-piece box mold is one of the most basic types of molds to make. I feel a one-piece plaster box mold is one of the best introductions to mold making for those reasons. If you can pull it off, you’ll have more success as you move on to silicone rubber and other fancy mold-making materials.

So check out the video below, and don’t forget that I’ll have new videos up every week until my book comes out on February 26th.