Tag Archives: method

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

10 Things to Know about your Table Saw

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.
Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

1. There are two main types of table saws: contractor and cabinet.  Contractor saws are lighter and cheaper, and often built to be portable. They are also usually less exacting and have less power. Cabinet saws have an enclosed “cabinet” base, making them quieter and easier to use dust collection on. Compared to contractor saws, they typically have a larger table size and are more precise, but can be far more expensive, and are definitely not portable. They also typically require a 220v outlet. Most permanent props shops use cabinet saws, as contractor saws are not sturdy enough on their own to handle full-size sheet goods. Some manufacturers are now making hybrid saws, which capture features from both. You can also find hobby saws in specialty shops, which are small and fit on a table top. They can be useful for small projects and model work (though a full-size machine can also do this work with the proper setup). Hobby table saws range from cheap and inaccurate toys, to highly precise machines packed into small bodies.

2. Watch for kickback. While a SawStop can prevent your fingers being cut off (a very expensive accident), the most common injuries on a table saw come from kickback, which is when the spinning blade catches the material and flings it back at you. Never stand directly behind the piece you are cutting, but rather, just to the side. And never, ever let go of the wood while it is in contact with the blade; even if kickback is in progress, you have more control if you keep hold of the board than if you panic and let go. A splitter, or “riving knife”, is the single most effective method for preventing kickback. Never force the wood through; the blade may be too dull, or it may be binding, either of which can cause kickback. Pay attention to the sound of the blade; if it is whining or sounds like it is slowing down, you’re getting close to a kickback.

3. Double-check your measurements. Always measure from the fence to the blade, especially when using a particular saw for the first time. The ruler which is attached to the fence rail may not be accurate or precise. Only when you are certain the ruler on the machine is accurate and precise should you use it for setting your fence.

4. Keep the wood in place. Your wood (or other material) needs to be held snugly against the rail and down against table. Use featherboards or other attachments to hold your wood if your fingers will get too close during a cut. Featherboards are especially useful on miter cuts. Push sticks and push shoes are also vital accessories for holding your material snug and keeping your fingers away from the blade.

5. Never wear gloves when cutting. If a bit of the glove, or even just a single loose thread, gets caught by the spinning blade, it can be pulled into the blade, which will catch more of the fabric and pull more of the glove into the blade. This creates a vicious chain reaction where your entire hand can be pulled into a spinning blade within a fraction of a second. Without gloves, the blade cuts through the skin or bones before being able to grab on and pull more in. On this same note, avoid rings, ties, necklaces, loose hair, apron strings in the front, &c. If you are wearing long sleeves, roll them up tightly before using the table saw.

6. With the correct jigs, you can do almost anything on the table saw. You can cross-cut, cut slots and channels, cut patterns, cut tapers, cut circles, taper long boards, make cove molding, and much more, and you can do it all safely. For tricky cuts or complex operations, it will actually take longer to set up the tool than to carry out the actual operation.

7. Maintain the top of your table. Rust will slowly damage the top, making it hard to push material through. It will also discolor your wood. Clean the top with metal cleaners, or even steel wool for stubborn rust spots. When clean, you should wax and polish it to prevent further rusting. Paste wax works well, particularly carnauba-based wax; anything made for cars will work as well. A freshly-waxed surface will also make your materials slide through the saw much more effortlessly.

8. Watch where your wood goes. Never start a cut until you know that the wood can go all the way through without falling off the edge or hitting an obstacle, and that you can reach it and keep hands on it at all times. Use stands, outfeed tables, or a friend when necessary. You may wish to “walk-through” a cut first, to check all this before you cut. Do not forget that the balance of the wood will change after it is cut into two pieces; where a full-size piece may rest comfortably on your table, the off-cut may tip off the side.

9. Use the right blade. Some blades are made for ripping, some for cross cutting, while more specialty blades exist for cutting veneers, laminates and plastics. For most props shops, you will be ripping and cross-cutting plywoods and soft woods throughout the day, and constantly changing the blade will be inefficient, so invest in a good combination blade that will work for the majority of your most common operations.

10. Set the correct blade height. Your blade should be high enough so the gullets of the teeth (the spaces between the teeth) are at or just below the top of the wood’s surface. This allows the blade to clear sawdust and introduce fresh air into the cut, while minimizing the amount of exposed blade to your fingers.

Papier Mache Chair

A Papier Mache Chair from 1854

The following comes from “The Illustrated Magazine of Art”, Volume 4, Number 24, page 344, published in 1854. I thought the process they described was interesting. First, it is the first time I’ve heard of using metal molds for papier maché; second, they let each layer dry fully before applying the next (I learned to lay up each layer while the previous is still damp).

The polished French claim the honour of being the original inventors of the papier maché. In Paris the manufacture of the article is carried on very extensively; but far beyond the articles produced there—articles both of utility and ornament—stand those of the Birmingham manufacturers.

The old method of manufacturing papier maché is as follows:

—The paper for use is gray in colour, but similar in texture to ordinary blotting paper. Prior to using it, the paper is well saturated with flour and glue mixed with water, in about equal proportions, and is then laid on the mould of the article intended to be produced. These moulds are of iron, brass, or copper. The mould, coated with the first layer of paper, is then dried for twelve hours. A careful smoothing by a file follows, after which another deposit of paper is made. The processes of drying and smoothing are successively repeated with each additional layer of paper, until the article assumes the required strength and thickness. When the newly-formed article is taken from the mould, the several parts are planed, filed, and trimmed, so as to be quite correct and level. The process of stoving then follows; after which the varnish is laid on, and brought to a smooth, hard, brilliant surface. The article is then coated with several layers of shell-lac varnish, coloured, which, after being hardened, are scraped quite level. The different varnishings and smoothings are carried on for a period varying from twelve to eighteen days, according to the purpose for which the article is required. The exquisite surface is produced by manual polishing with rotten stone and oil; but the finish is obtained by the process of handling alone.

Various alterations and improvements have been made from time to time in the manufacture of papier maché; and sometimes the paper is reduced to pulp, cast to the form required, and then rendered compact and solid.

The specimen which we present is of a chair in papier maché; the grace and elegance of the design deserve especial attention.

Papier Mache Chair
Papier Mache Chair

Papier Mache Chair. The Illustrated Magazine of Art, Vol. 4, No. 24 (1854), p. 344

How to Draw an Ellipse

How to Draw an Ellipse

I have three new videos up on my Prop Building Guidebook companion website. Two are on painting techniques (spattering and sponging), while the third shows a quick method for drawing an ellipse. I’ve attached that below. My book comes out next Tuesday, so that is it on the videos for now. But if you want to request a video for a specific technique, or demonstrating a certain tool, let me know, and I’ll see what I can put together.

Fake Food: Making Edible Replicas

They used to solve this problem in the breakfast scene of “The Duke of Killiekrankie” by having the food made of candy which would melt rapidly in the mouth, and so not interfere with enunciation. The hashed brown potatoes, for example, were nothing but spun sugar, browned, which looked substantial enough to the audience, but melted away almost as soon as they touched the tongue.

– The New York Times, April 1, 1906.

I have previously written about making inedible fake food. A props person may also have to make edible fake food. What is edible fake food? Say a character needs to eat a peanut butter sandwich, but the actress playing that character is allergic to nuts; you need an edible replica of peanut butter that contains no nuts.

Props people make edible replicas for a variety of reasons. Most common is the above-mentioned allergy issue; before planning a meal, you (or your stage manager) needs to find out what the actors are allergic to, and any special dietary needs. An actor may be vegetarian or keeps kosher. Besides allergies and diet, actors avoid other types of food while on stage; milk and cheese, or sugary drinks, tend to affect the vocal chords in ways which many actors dislike. A prop master’s greatest challenge is when he or she needs to serve a massive edible banquet, and an actor is vegetarian, allergic to gluten, and lactose-intolerant.

Another reason to make edible fake food is cost. Characters on stage may chow down on what appears to be hundreds of dollars of caviar in a single scene. You need a more cost-effective solution if you want to keep your budget under control. In a similar vein, certain foods may be time-consuming or complicated to prepare. Remember, your running crew needs to prepare the food before each show in addition to their other pre-show duties, and if your production has matinées, they may have an even tighter schedule between the two shows. It’s usually better to microwave a turkey substitute for thirty seconds than to roast a real turkey for four hours.

Third, the food on stage may require special properties which the real deal does not possess. A common example is when a director wants the characters to eat ice cream, but does not want to see the ice cream melt during the scene. It’s a tricky feat to pull off under those hot stage lights.

Finally, an actor may need to eat something which is normally not edible. Edible flowers are commonly called for, as well as paper notes. Be prepared for anything.

It is important to keep the food preparation area clean, which means separate from any work areas. If you keep a stock of preparation dishes and utensils, these should be kept separate from your regular stock of kitchen props; you don’t want to prepare your food in a dish that was painted with a toxic paint for the previous show. Likewise, the food needs to be stored properly in between shows, especially if you buy a whole bunch at once for multiple performances. It should also go without saying that you should not attempt to reuse uneaten food from one performance for the next one.

Creating edible food is a little bit sculpture, a little bit painting, and a whole lot of creativity. It’s good to develop a sort of “base” of materials which are readily available, easy to work with, and can mimic a great deal of foods. Bananas, breads, and food coloring have been some of the more popular bases for props artisans for well over a century.

Bananas can be mashed to imitate a great number of foods, such as cream or ice cream. With the right coloring and toppings, it can even substitute for meat or fish. When sliced lengthwise, you have a decent white meat substitute for chicken. Yogurt and cottage cheese work in a similar vein, but because of the milk content, they are less-commonly used.

Bread can take on a variety of shapes. Brown bread with the crusts removed and cut to the proper shape can simulate chops and roast meat. I saw the head of properties at the Walnut Street Theatre create a very convincing Salisbury steak each night with just a slice of pumpernickel covered in cold canned gravy. Switch the gravy with fruit glaze or some other red jelly and you have a slab of raw meat. A whole loaf with the crusts removed can be shaped into a number of different forms. If you use a loaf that is at least a day old, you can even carve it somewhat.

Tofu is another kind of base which can be built on for any number of fake edibles. It has the advantage of being vegan, and in some cases, gluten-free, so it’s a great choice for tricky eaters.

Food coloring adds greatly to your repertoire of faux food creation tools. It can be tricky to match the color and opacity of your intended goal; luckily, everything is edible, so you can eat your tests and samples. Specialty baking shops will stock a greater range of colors and sizes, so you don’t have to try to create every single color with those tiny bottles of red, yellow, blue and green. You can also find culinary colors in spray cans, which are a boon for the more artistically inclined.

Fruits are a friendly substitute for many foods, and can be tastier for the actors than old bread covered in cold gravy. I used a fresh grape and a dried apricot for my appetizers in Timon of Athens. I’ve also heard of shows which used half an apricot for an egg yolk and a pared apple for a raw turnip. Watermelon with some brown food coloring makes a convincingly juicy slab of raw meat. Dried fruits such as prunes and apricots can be cut up, shaped and squished to resemble a variety of things, and are especially handy when you have that large banquet scene that requires a variety of edible colors and textures to appear sumptuous.

Sausages and other imperishable meats serve a similar purpose as dried fruits. With the skin removed, they can be sliced and carved to mimic all sorts of appetizers and side dishes.

Fake edible food is a great exercise for students and interns because it forces them to distill an item (the real food) to its most recognizable characteristics, and then come up with a simple and economical replication of those characteristics. It makes them think about the constraints of a show, such as preparation time, cost per show, shopping time, etc. Finally, most people do not create fake food in their spare time, so they can’t fall back on familiar materials and methods, such as carpentry or foam carving.

A knowledge of cooking, baking, and food preparation is helpful, as it can help you learn how to thicken or thin various sauces and liquids, or give you clues how to cut and shape different foods. A trip to a culinary or baking store is great as well, as you can find all sorts of icing bags, cookie cutters and food-safe molds to help you out. I read about a production in 1906 which used a mold of a chicken to bake a sponge cake that could be carved and consumed on stage. Now that’s a tasty trick!

Ripping a long board, circa 1443

Working with What you Have

Ripping a long board, circa 1443
Ripping a long board, circa 1443

It’s easy to think how hard it is to get started building props. Tools and machines are expensive, materials are hard to work with, and there are just so many to choose from. But think of this: the vast majority of materials we work with today were unavailable before World War II: all manner of plastics, all foams, all our composite materials, even our glues and paints. Nearly every kind of coating and adhesive has some form of synthetic polymer in it; before that, we had hide glue, wheat paste and rubber cement (well, after the 1900s that is). Even plywood as we know it was not something you could just go out and buy. It existed, but it was made by the carpenter himself, by laying up layer after layer of thin veneers.

For most of our theatrical history, props have been constructed with little more than papier-mâché, real wood, plaster, clay, leather, and natural fabrics. Animal glue and wheat paste were among the few adhesives available, and paints were limited to oil paints, casein, and varnishes. Think of all the theatre which was created and performed with this limited technology: everything from the Ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare and Molière, or Kabuki in Japan, up to the grand operas of the Gilded Age.

Think too of the tools we have available to us. Electricity and pneumatics have given us incredible power and speed in the palms of our hands. The industrial revolution and machine age have brought us standardized parts and precision unimaginable in previous times. Even our simple hand tools have benefited; a hand saw blade today is produced more quickly, cheaply, and precisely than before the industrial age. The steel it is made from is stronger and more consistent (and far less expensive).

From the weapons used by Alexander the Great to conquer the world, to the furniture found in Versailles, our museums are filled with amazing items created with nearly none of what our props artisans have available today. We can purchase a sheet of metal from a hobby shop which is superior in properties than the metal used by Genghis Khan to create his weapons which conquered the world. We can buy a Dremel tool for a pittance; imagine how envious the people who built the first railroads would be to see such a tool.

So if you are just starting out with prop making, or want to practice doing more of it, don’t wait until you can afford the fancy tools or can master the most modern materials. Think about what you can do with what you have, rather than what you can’t with what you don’t.