From Furniture Designing and Draughting (1907), by Alvan Crocker Nye, we have this wonderful diagram on how to make a table.
The top row shows names of the common parts of a table.
The next two images show a number of ways of attaching the legs. The one on the left shows the frame both being doweled to the leg and using a mortise and tenon. The frame itself is connected with blocks which tongue into a groove in the frame. The drawing on the right shows a cleat screwed to the top, with a leg tenoned into the cleat.
Continuing down the drawing is a “section of a built-up top”. As a solid wood top is expensive and hard to come by, tops were often built up with a core and covered with a finish veneer to make it look like a piece of solid wood. A piece of cross veneer was placed between the core and finish veneer; this is a piece of veneer in which the grain runs perpendicularly to the core and finish veneer.
The bottom row shows various means of securing the top to the frame. The left shows a screw which is countersunk nearly halfway through the height of the frame. The middle illustrates a pocket hole screw. The drawing on the right shows the blocks which were previously illustrated up above.
I recently finished my first major gig down here in North Carolina. I was building props for the productions of Henry IV and Henry V at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It was a lot of fun, and also an interesting change of pace to return to a job where I am building all day without any managerial duties.
The base for this chaise lounge was fairly straightforward. I began by building a nice sturdy frame out of oak. The design evolved later to a piece which was completely covered in moulding. The oak ended up being completely obscured by all the moulding. Ah, well.
The king’s headboard had a fairly intricate cut-out design, so the props shop sent a piece of 3/4″ plywood to the scene shop to be CNC routed.
When I got the CNC’d piece back, I cleaned it up and attached some other layers, moulding, posts and finials to make the full headboard.
Above is a nice trestle table base I built for the tavern scene. The feet and the pieces on top of the legs are made of solid wood; I had to laminate a few pieces together to get those thicknesses. The legs themselves are actually boxed out, with a two-by-four hidden inside for strength. The wedged tenons on the sides of the legs are just fake pieces glued on the outside.
The table top had already been built for the rehearsal piece, so I just had to attach it. The scene shop also added some metal diagonal braces, which were needed to keep the table from collapsing under horizontal forces.
Finally, the props shop was building a hammered copper bath tub out of some good old-fashioned papier-mâché. I jumped on this project in the middle, adding a few layers to what was already started and attaching the large Ethafoam rod along the top. The initial layers were done with an ordinary flour and water paste. The next few layers were done with strips of paper and a product called “Aqua Form” to make it harder and more water-proof. Aqua Form markets itself as a nontoxic water-based polymer which replaces resins for use in laminates; it worked great with the paper, but it also claims it can be used in lieu of resin for fiberglass. I certainly look forward to learning more about it.
In fields such as graphic design, design briefs are used to define the scope of the project. A design brief is a collection of information defining the intended results of a project, as opposed to the aesthetics.
A good prop master or artisan has internalized the process of creating a design brief. The most important consideration in determining the construction of a prop is figuring out what the prop needs to do. For more complicated props, it may be helpful to actually create a design brief.
The first and most important part is asking questions to determine a prop’s needs. Suppose you want to create a table. Your questions may include:
How tall does it need to be?
What size is the top?
How is it used?
What is the finish on the table? Stain? Paint? Raw material?
What material is it made out of? More appropriately, what material is it supposed to look like it is made out of?
Most props artisans know that when a table is requested, you should automatically ask the following questions as well:
Will actors be climbing on top of it?
Will actors be dancing and jumping on top of it?
How many actors at a time will be on it?
I swear, some directors only want tables so they have a place for actors to dance.
If you were just building a regular table, the information you need for your design brief may be complete. As this is a theatrical table, you have some additional questions to ask:
How does it need to come on and off stage?
Where is it stored backstage?
Where is it being built?
Why does the last question matter? Most props are built in one location (the prop shop) and transported to another location (the stage). Whenever you are transporting an item, it needs to fit through the smallest opening in that path. Often that is a doorway or an elevator. If the stage is on the second floor of a theatre with only a tiny passenger elevator, you need to build the table so it fits in the elevator and can be reassembled once on stage.
Other props will have different questions to ask. The important thing is to determine exactly what a prop needs to do.
Tables are a type of furniture which have innumerable variations, types and styles. Nonetheless, some basic parts show up in the majority of tables, especially the kinds which find their way onto the theatrical stage. Knowing the names of these parts is helpful for facilitating communication between designers, artisans and other members of the team; if the set designer asks for the apron to be smaller, you want to know which part you should change. What follows is some quick definitions of the parts in the illustration above.
top – the flat surface of a table
apron, skirt or frieze – the under-framing which connects the legs to the top
leg – the main vertical piece which supports the top and raises it off the floor
knee – the upper portion of the leg
foot – the bottom part of the leg which touches the floor. A table may have completely straight legs with no distinct knee or foot.
drop leaf – a portion of the top which overextends the apron and can be hinged down to take up less space when not in use
stretcher – cross pieces which connect the legs to add strength and stability. Some common configurations of stretchers include the H stretcher, X stretcher, and box stretcher.
I’ve just returned from this year’s USITT in Charlotte, NC. I have a lot going through my head at the moment, so I’ll show off some of the video I shot at the Tech Olympics. Each year, undergraduates at USITT can compete in these Olympics in a variety of events, such as knot-tying, hanging and focusing lights, and folding a drop. Many technical theatre departments have their own event. For props, the challenge is to strike a table setting to a prop table, and set up a different table setting. Randy Lutz and Tracy Armagost from the Santa Fe Opera were the judges. Contestants are ranked by the speed they complete the task in, but they are penalized for things such as missing their spike marks, making too much noise, or dragging a tablecloth on the ground. I filmed DH from Elon University doing the challenge so you would not miss out on all the fun:
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies