Tag Archives: shop

Friday Notes

Things continue chugging along here. King Lear began previews. I’m furiously preparing the first four chapters of The Prop Building Guidebook to submit to my publisher at the end of the month. Yet I still have time to find fun things on the internet.

Here’s an interesting story on how a film prop (technically, a mask) became a real-life prop used in protests around the world. This article on the V for Vendetta masks shows who is behind them and how this all came about.

Christopher Schwartz, former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine and current founder of Lost Art Press, has published 14 principles of shop setup which he has developed over 20 years of woodworking.

In the same vein, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of Mythbusters’ fame have 15 DIY Workshop Tips, including an ingenious nesting work table and indispensable tools to have.

In our current production of King Lear, we needed to provide them with a paper bag. Not just any paper bag. Only a specific size would do. I eventually found a place online we could order a close-enough size, provided we cut a few inches off the top. So I thought this history of the paper bag posted on the MoMA site was particularly apropos to the situation.

I don’t mean to nerd out, but did you know there’s a whole club of people who build R2-D2 replicas? I haven’t signed up to view the forums, but you can still browse the galleries, and read a few issues of the online magazine they publish.

Puppets

Childsplay Theatre part 2

Previously, I showed photographs of our tour of the Childsplay props shop. Today, I will show photos from our tour of the rest of their facilities.

The dye room, located next to the costume shop, also had a spray booth which was shared with the props department.

Spray booth

The costume shop itself was clean and well-organized. I love shelves full of labelled boxes.

Costume shop storage

Someone was working on a bunch of tails for a giant mouse costume.

Mouse tails

I enjoyed the copious number of power cords hanging from the ceiling.

Ceiling power cords

We also toured the administrative offices of Childsplay. Old props and bits of artwork appeared everywhere. Here, Jim Luther, the prop master, shows us one of his creations.

Snap, Crackle, Pop

We saw many of Childsplay’s awards they’ve won over their 35 year history.

Jim Guy looking at awards

These puppets are delightful.

Puppets

Below is a portrait of Sybil B. Harrington, namesake of the Sybil B. Harrington Campus for Imagination and Wonder, which is where all these shops and offices are located.

Sybil B. Harrington

My wife, Natalie, found her long-lost twin sitting on one of the desks.

Natalie's friend

I hope you enjoyed sharing my tour of Childsplay Theatre in Arizona. Enjoy the weekend, and stay tuned for more information from this year’s S*P*A*M conference.

When nothing is happening

It happens. It’s rare, but it happens. You get to work or your studio, and nothing is happening. You have no upcoming projects, the phone isn’t ringing, your emails are all answered, and you have no meetings. It is especially prevalent this time of the year, when half the country seems to be out of town or hunkered down in their homes for the holidays. You can spend all day watching Netflix, or you can take advantage of the downtime with some things you never have time for but which will improve your shop and skills in the long run. Here are some of my favorites.

Clean. I know you clean your shop every day (right?). And you probably do a big clean every week (when you have time). Still, there always seems to be something dirty in your shop no matter how often you clean, so here’s your chance to empty the vacuum cleaner, scrape the paint traps, and dust the tops of the chandeliers.

Maintenance. I’m talking about sharpening the chisels and oiling the pneumatic staplers. All tools require some maintenance, even if it’s only needed once or twice a year. If you don’t know the current state of your tools, now is a good time to check each one and make a list of what needs fixing and what needs replacing. It’s also a good time to get rid of those random tool parts from tools you no longer have that every shop somehow accumulates (or put them in your big bin of “found objects to use as prop parts”).

Organize. I don’t mean to imply that your shop isn’t already the paragon of proper organization. It doesn’t hurt to check all your bins of bolts to make sure they only contain the right sizes and cull out all the random bits that have found their way into the wrong drawers. While you’re at it, make sure you can close all the drawers; if one seems to be constantly overflowing, now is a good time to think of a way to divide up the contents and reorganize your hardware. It is also a good chance to take stock of how your supplies are faring and whether you need to order anything new (if your shop doesn’t have someone who does that).

Learn a new skill. This is one of my favorites. No matter how advanced you are, there is always something in the world of props that you’ve never quite mastered. Maybe it’s an artisan skill, such as welding or fabric draping, or maybe you just want to brush up on Excel or CAD. It’s your choice whether you want to just practice or if you want to take on a whole project utilizing your new skill so you have something to show for it at the end. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can undertake an improvement to your shop, such as building new shelves using a saw you haven’t used before.

Tinker. Closely related to learning a new skill is tinkering. Maybe you want to experiment with different ways to pull of an effect which didn’t quite work in your last show, or maybe you just want to check out some new blood recipes you found on the internet. The world of props has a whole host of tricks and effects which can always use improving. Perhaps you can finally solve the problem of making a cell phone ring on cue.

Read. If you know what shows are coming up in your season, you can get a jump on them by reading the scripts now. When we’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to read a script for fun without stressing over every prop that is mentioned in it (all the needles just fell off the Christmas tree at once! How am I going to pull that off?). Alternatively, you can peruse the books on your shelf or look up information in other places about the time period of your upcoming plays to make yourself more informed about the context. Even if you don’t have any shows you want to prepare for, the prop master has an endless supply of reading material which can inform his or her profession. And hey, if you’re really bored, why not look through the archives of my blog to catch up on any articles you may have missed?

Scout new sources. Maybe being in the shop is the last thing you want to do when there is nothing going on. If you don’t have to be there, now is a great time to check out stores, flea markets and other suppliers that you otherwise haven’t had the chance to. It is especially nice this time of the year, as the throngs of holiday shoppers have gone home and discounts can be found.

Portfolios. A props person should always have an up-to-date portfolio, even if one is not actively seeking employment. A lull between shows is a good time to make sure of this.The least you can do is gather all the photographs you can find of past shows. Portfolios aren’t just for individual artisans; it’s a good idea to have a “shop” portfolio as well.You can show off what your shop has done in the past to tours which come through, or in presentations to groups, or at conferences such as USITT. It also doesn’t hurt to brag on your accomplishments to your bosses and the higher-ups every once in awhile. Even if you can’t think of a specific reason to keep a portfolio, you don’t want to be caught in a situation where someone asks to see examples of your shop’s work and all you have is a dusty photograph from a 1982 production of Christmas Carol.

BRT prop shop

Berkeley Repertory Theatre prop shop

During the 2010 S*P*A*M Conference, we visited the Berkeley Rep prop shop. Even if you’re not familiar with the Berkeley Rep, you’ve probably heard of some of the shows that came from there: American Idiot and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) are two of the more recent shows which have come to New York City. Ashley Dawn, the prop master at Berkeley Rep and one of the hosts of the Conference, graciously gave us a tour of their prop shop.

BRT prop shop
BRT prop shop

The prop shop is located within the same building as the theatre. Notice all the dust collection hoses. Also, the shop is very clean, and every nook and cranny has some form of boxes, bins, drawers or shelves for storage. Though hectic at first glance, it was actually very clean and well-organized, and once you knew your way around, it seemed it would be easy to quickly locate whatever you needed.

BRT prop shop
BRT prop shop

Berkeley Rep is fairly similar to the Public Theatre in terms of the size and number of shows produced in a season. In fact, many shows we do are co-productions. It was inspiring to see how they’ve organized their limited space to handle the demands of their shows, particularly because our own shop is larger. It would appear one can always squeeze more use out of a space, no matter how small.

Sign over the BRT prop shop
Sign over the BRT prop shop

They have a separate area for welding and working with metal, which is also shared by the scene shop when they are at the theatre loading in a show. During the rest of the time, the scenery is built and painted at a much larger building a few miles away. In the near future, they are getting a new facility where scenery, props and costumes are all housed together; the prop shop I just showed you will soon be no more.

Choosing the right disposable glove

First, I wish to offer a caveat; I don’t write much about safety, because it’s a highly complex area, especially once you start talking about safety around chemicals. I’m not an expert, and if you are in a workplace situation, there are actual regulations, standards and laws that need to be followed. The last thing I want is someone’s sum total of knowledge about safety coming from “Eric Hart’s Props Blog.” Still, the home hobbyist may not know where to look for information, and the prop shop employee may not know what questions to ask their employer, or what their employer is responsible for providing. Thus, what follows is not a guide for choosing the right disposable glove; rather, it is a guide to what questions to ask and what information to look up to learn which disposable gloves are best for each situation. All the safety data in the world is useless if we don’t know what information we are trying to find, or even that we need to find certain kinds of information. Often, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Dozens of companies make disposable gloves, offering hundreds of combinations of materials, thicknesses and liners. You need to find the permeation data for the specific gloves you are using. This will tell you how long it takes for specific chemicals to work their way through the glove and onto your skin.

No single glove will protect you against every chemical. There were approximately 50,000,000 chemicals registered by the CAS on September 7, 2009, with more being added at the rate of twenty-five per minute. Luckily in theatre, we only use a small percentage of those chemicals. If you work at a theatre or shop in the USA that employs ten or more people (that’s counting the whole theatre, not just the prop shop), then it is subject to OSHA regulations, and your employer is required to inform you of any toxic chemicals you may be using.

As a general rule of thumb, you should be wary of rules of thumb when it comes to safety. But a good rule of thumb to follow in safety is “don’t get stuff on you, and don’t breathe anything that isn’t air.” Choosing the right glove falls under the “don’t get stuff on you” part of the rule. Gloves are necessary because many chemicals can be absorbed through the skin. Chemicals commonly used in prop shops that can be absorbed through the skin include solvents and epoxies. Solvents don’t just include pure solvents like acetone, xylol and mineral spirits, but also any product that includes solvents: spray paints, cleaners, adhesives, etc.

Another good rule of thumb is that latex gloves don’t stop any chemicals. They can keep your hands dry, and they’re great for keeping blood and other bodily fluids from getting on your hands. They’re also useful for the reverse: keeping your own sweat and oils from getting onto your work surface. But as far as working with any sort of industrial or household chemicals, they may as well be invisible.

Notice how I mentioned household chemicals above. Just because you can buy something in a grocery or drug store doesn’t make it safe to work with without proper protection. For example, many cleaners like Windex, 409 and Simple Green use a chemical called 2-Butoxyethanol. The toxic exposure level of 2-Butoxyethanol is less than that of acetone and hexane, placing it in the category of “highly toxic” chemicals. When you start looking at permeation charts for popular glove brands, you see a trend; latex gives you no protection, while neoprene and vinyl will offer only several minutes before exposure begins. If you are using anything other than nitrile, you are exposing yourself to a highly toxic chemical.

If you are using a glove and the substance is splashing or spilling onto your bare arm, it defeats the purpose. Make sure you are wearing sleeves that offer similar chemical protection, or use longer gloves.

Many chemicals we use for prop making are toxic through skin absorption. An example is any of the two-part epoxies we use: sticks of epoxy putty, five-minute epoxy glue, epoxy coatings for fiberglass and carbon fiber, epoxy resin for casting. Epoxy is a sensitizer, which means our bodies do not react to it on the first exposure. Rather, it is on the second or subsequent exposures where we develop what is essentially an allergic reaction. It can even be after decades of using a product before one reacts to it. But reaction can be severe. Here is a chilling but not uncommon description of a reaction:

Open, oozing, and itching insanity hives virtually all over my body and my eyes literally were swollen shut for a week on two separate occasions. Recovery, each time, took better than a month.

Once developed, it is not reversible, and occupational physicians may advise you to not only never use epoxy again, but none of the “two-part” chemicals in that category. No more Smooth-On products, Great Stuff, A-B foam, etc. If you make your living as a props artisan, you pretty much have to do all your molding and casting out of plaster.

It is important to note that permeation data charts tell how long it takes for a chemical to permeate through a glove. This implies that no glove will offer permanent protection; they are called “disposable” for a reason. In fact, the most a glove gets tested is for 6 hours. If you use a pair of gloves all day, don’t set them aside for the next day. In fact, you should throw the gloves away. Trying to stretch the use of a pair of gloves to save money may seem thrifty, but it is actually counter-intuitive. The same is true of any safety measures and products you use. If you use or reuse them improperly, you get the worst of both worlds; you are spending money but not keeping yourself safe. If you feel you are spending to much money on safety equipment to make props, the best solution is to stop making props. You don’t go scuba diving without an air tank. We often get in situations where the easiest solution seems to be to continue on and finish a prop; it’s late and you’ve run out of gloves, and all the hardware stores are closed, and all you need to do is get one more coat of epoxy on so it can cure by the morning and they can use the prop in rehearsal. When you get to those situations, remember this: Your goal in life is not to finish that single prop. Your goal in life is to build props for the rest of your life. Taking shortcuts now will affect your health later on. No prop in the existence of humankind has ever been more important than your health.

A good shop foreman will be consistent in his or her purchasing of disposable gloves, so you don’t have to hunt down the permeation data every time he or she buys a new brand.

In conclusion, don’t get stuff on yourself. You should know what is present in any material or substance you are working with. If it includes chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin, you need to find out what glove will offer protection from that chemical, and how long it will offer that protection. Remember that gloves from different companies may differ in their permeation data, even if all the stats on the box seem the same.