Welding is a great skill for a prop master or prop maker to have, though it can be a hard one to begin learning. The best way to learn is to have someone teach and guide you as you practice on your own. Whether that’s possible or not, it is also a good idea to watch some videos on welding to pick up background information and to get a different perspective on some of the techniques.
I discovered Kevin Caron’s videos on welding; he has dozens of videos covering all sorts of welding styles and techniques. His background is in metal art and fabrication, so the way he demonstrates welding is close to how a props artisan approaches welding. We rarely have to deal with all the technical information one might get with a traditional welding course, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed with all of that when you are just starting out and simply want to join a few pieces of steel together for a static prop.
I just reached a major milestone today with the submission of the last of my chapters for The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film and TV. I now have the next two months to edit the whole thing and try to turn it into a usable book. Luckily, I’ve been receiving a lot of help from my technical editor, Sandy Strawn. She’s the author of the very-helpful Properties Directors Handbook, which is listed over on the side of this website. After August, the whole thing gets proofread and designed (I’ve seen some mock-ups of the interior so far, and it’s going to look great). When everything looks good, my publisher (Focal Press) will send it to the printers, and it should hit bookstores next February, right on schedule.
I know that still feels like a long way off (though for me, it feels like it’s all happening very quickly). As a prelude to what you will find in the book, here is a small sampling of some of the photographs that belong with the chapters I just handed in.
Today I thought I would go retro and show you a cart I built back in 2007. La Boheme at the Santa Fe Opera required a whole bunch of push carts during the outdoor scenes, so the other prop carpenter and I set to work constructing them.
The first one I built was a crepe cart. The structure was simple enough, but the wheels were all custom-sized, so the first thing I had to do was fabricate the wheels and the axle system.
I built the wheels out of metal because the diameter of the spokes and the rim in the drawing was small enough that I was afraid wood might not be strong enough. I TIG welded the rods to the hub to keep the welds as visually-unobtrusive as possible. The rim of the wheel was a length of bar stock bent into a circle and welded together. It also had a strip of rubber glued along the outside to cut down on noise and keep it from tearing up the stage floor.
The front wheel stuck way out to the front of the cart. I first assembled a jig to hold it in position. I then cut the four bars that held it in place and welded them to the axle while the wheel was in position. This ensured that the wheel was centered, at the correct height, and completely parallel with the direction the cart traveled. I thought I was very clever until it came time to remove the jig and I realized I had built the cart around it; I had to cut the jig apart to get it off.
Above is a picture showing the bottom of the cart with the front wheel in place and the axles for the back wheels. If you look close, you can see the back axle is actually separated in the middle; when the cart is turned, the wheel on the inside of the turn spins more slowly than the one on the outside, so they need to be able to spin independently of each other.
I added a circle of wood and a decorative rosette we had in stock to cap off the hub.
The top of the cart was pretty straightforward; it consisted of a plywood box, a thick “counter”, two handles I shaped out of solid alder, and a metal box to serve as the oven. There was also a braking system to lock the wheels in place to keep the cart from rolling into the audience when the artist walked away, but that is a post for another day (In opera, the singers are called “artists”, rather than “actors” or “singers”).
A number of accouterments completed the look. A box with a hinged lid was placed on front for artists to take crepes from. I welded a tube in position to hold an umbrella at a jaunty angle; the umbrella needed to be removable to facillitate storage backstage. Finally, I placed some molding around the edges to match what was in the drawing.
Here is the final cart after the paint shop finished with it and the props master dressed it. Bon appétit!
Still not sure whether you should come to the 3rd Annual Props Summit in New York City tonight? Even though we will have a guest speaker? What if I told you that you’ll get a gift bag filled with goodies? Jay Duckworth has been making some phone calls and sending some emails to get all sorts of cool prop stuff for everyone who shows up, from companies such as Rosco and Rose Brand.
As for those who can’t make it, here are some links to brighten your day:
As part of the new year, I’m going to be digging through my archives of props I’ve built in previous years. The first one is a chandelier I built for Romeo and Juliet. It was one of my first prop projects in graduate school, and the first prop I built which involved welding.
The first part I made was the body dish. I turned it on the lathe out of poplar. The outside needed to be a specific diameter, as we shall see shortly. I also drilled a hole through the center for the hanging hardware and wires to go through.
Next I cut a circle out of 3/4″ plywood to use as a template for the main ring. I made that out of several strips of what we call “wiggle wood”, which is a bendable plywood. I wrapped one layer around the circle, then glued another layer around the first one, with the seams offset so they would hold the circular shape. I added a thinner strip to the top and bottom to mimic molding.
I left the chandelier in the jig and marked the center of the circle template. I then added a little stand with a smaller circle on top, also centered. I placed the body dish on top of that. This ensured that the body dish was centered within the ring, level, and at the correct height above the ring.
See that metal ring in the above picture? That is why I needed my body dish to be a specific diameter; the ring needs to sleeve on the outside of it. I cut the ring from a section of large pipe that was laying around. On the right side of the picture, you can see some metal brackets bunched together. These will be spread evenly around the wiggle wood ring and hold the cups for the candles. They will then have a metal rod welded to them, with the other end welded to the metal ring on the body dish.
Ta-da! I next ran wires out the bottom of the cups, along the rods, and up through the center. The only thing left to do was glue the electric candles into the cups, which you can only do with a bushy beard.
Actually, what I meant to say was that the only thing left to do was hang a big disco ball from the center, because every chandelier needs a disco ball.
Notice in the picture that I made more than one chandelier. The template and jig not only allowed me to get all the shapes and spacings correct, it also enabled me to duplicate the same prop without having to remeasure everything.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies