Category Archives: Tools

How I Organize My Tools

Over the summer, while the theater was dark, I had some time to organize my shop and execute some larger projects. One area I focused on was my tool storage, which has always been a bit improvisational and haphazard.

Triad Stage prop tools
Triad Stage prop tools

The cabinet itself began life in the scene shop to organize their hardware and supplies. A few years ago, they removed it to build a better solution, so I snagged it for my own shop. I also added the pegboard along top.

This past summer, I tore out a lot of the shelving in the bottom and replaced it with more custom pieces. I prefer my tools and supplies to be visually “out in the open”; I find it difficult to deal with things in drawers or behind closed doors. My feeling is that “if I can’t see it, I don’t have it.”

Of course, securing the tools is another thing. I may add doors on the front to lock it at night, but during the day, I would still keep it open. My shop itself is kept secure, so I haven’t had things walk off with this kind of setup.

I like using pegboard to organize tools because it allows me to see what I have and it takes up very little floor space. For tools like saws, files, and rasps, it also prevents the edges from becoming dull and dinged, which is what happens when they are stored in a drawer and other tools are constantly thrown on top of them. I would probably use more pegboard if I could, but this was the largest piece I found in the shop.

The tools are roughly organized so that similar tools are kept together: measuring tools, cutting tools, assembly tools, etc. If you are looking for a mallet, and you find the hammers, you know the mallets will be close by. Accessories and consumables are also stored in close proximity to their tool; drill bits are near the drills, and sanding discs are near the orbital sanders.

Most of the smaller paraphernalia is kept in plastic bins, but I made some custom organizers for Dremel bits, router bits, and my tap and die set. Again, keeping router bits and taps in a bin would ding up the cutting edges as they rubbed against each other. Dremel bits just become a nightmare when you start mixing them together into one giant container.

For the future, I may add even more dividers so that the power tools all have their own “cubby”; it would be great to determine which tools are missing just by glancing at the cabinet and seeing an empty space. I may also add labels and trace out the outlines of the tools on the pegboard.  I find its easiest to keep things clean if every item has a specific location that it returns to.

Do you want to share images of your tool storage? Shoot me an email, or leave a comment on my Facebook page!

Sandpaper Grits

We all know about sandpaper grit. The lower the grit, the more coarse the sandpaper is, while the higher the grit, the less material it removes (and the smoother you can make your surface). You may have noticed that sometimes the grit has a “P” preceding the number. What does that mean?

It turns out sandpaper grit is measured in two different scales. As with most types of measurements, you have the US way and the European way. The US scale uses the bare numbers and is known as CAMI (Coated Abrasive Manufacturers Institute). The European scale is the “P” grade, and is known as FEPA (Federation of European Producers of Abrasives).

Both scales are based on the diameter of the average particle size in micrometer (µm), also know as a micron (one millimeter equals one thousand microns). Below is a chart comparing the two.

Average particle size CAMI FEPA
15.3 P1200
16 600
18.3 P1000
20 500
21.8 P800
23  400
25.75 P600
28.8 360
30.2 P500
35 P400
36 320
40.5 P360
44 280
46.2 P320
52.5 P280
53.5 240
58.5 P240
65 P220
66 220
78 180 P180
93 150
97 P150
116 120
127 P120
141 100
156 P100
192 80
197 P80
260 P60
268 60

You can see that the two different grit scales are fairly comparable at the coarser end of things.  In fact, 180 and P180 are exactly the same. But once they start getting finer than about 240, the two scales really start to diverge; 600 and P1200 are nearly identical.

Most sandpaper sold in the US uses CAMI, but you can find some brands with the “P” scale; Klingspor is one that comes to mind. The two scales can get tricky at the finer ends of things. If you read a tutorial that says to sand something at 800 grit, but you grab a sheet of P800 sandpaper, you’ll be using something far more coarse than what was intended.

But now you know.

Not all Acrylics are the Same

I was recently weathering a prop I’m working on. To get some grime and age on it, I decided to thin some black acrylic paint down with denatured alcohol to make a wash. I had two types of black acrylic paint laying around: Sargent and Liquitex.

They are both pretty cheap, share the same pigments, have similar consistencies, and dry to the same color. So they should be exactly the same, right?

Comparing acrylics
Comparing acrylics

As you can see in the photo above, the Liquitex immediately clumped up when I began to mix it with alcohol; it turned to little globs and flakes that refused to blend in with the rest of the liquid. The Sargent on the other hand blended easily into the alcohol, making a silky smooth wash that was ready to distress my prop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I use the Liquitex paints all the time; it’s great to have a range of colors ready to go to touch up a prop or add a spot of color. But it’s obviously not made to be thinned. Some paints are better at being thinned, some mix better with other colors, some have purer pigments. Paints have a whole bunch of ingredients in them that make them act differently than each other, even within the broad categories of “acrylic” or “oil” or “lacquer”.

This is why your scenic artist favors scenic paints for certain tasks over hardware store paint. Sure, you can get some similar colors, but when it comes to mixing colors, making glazes, or just thinning them down, the cheaper hardware store paint often turns to crud.

Recommended Tools for the Props Person (SFO Edition)

All props people have their own tools they bring to work. Some of the tools are basic necessities that one should never be without, while others are specialty items that you rarely find at any shop. But if you are just starting out, what tools do you need? The Santa Fe Opera provides their incoming apprentices with a list of tools which they are required to bring. Obviously, their shop is well-equipped; these are just the personal tools which every props person should have. Think of it as a base-line set that you bring to every job, regardless of where it is or what you are doing.

The Opera has two different lists, one for the carpenters (who build the furniture and other fabricated items out of wood and metal) and the crafts persons (who do soft goods, casting and molding, and all other crafts). I’ve paraphrased them below.

For the carpenters:

  • tape measure
  • architect’s scale rule
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • slotted screwdriver
  • drill and driver bits
  • hammer
  • end cutting pliers
  • slip joint pliers
  • diagonal cutting pliers
  • adjustable wrench
  • combination square or speed square
  • utility knife
  • 3/4″ wood chisel

For the crafts persons:

  • needle-nose pliers
  • fabric scissors
  • craft scissors
  • tape measure
  • utility knife

In addition, though the shop has some of the following tools, they are so commonly used that they recommend bringing your own if you have them:

  • precision cutting knife (X-Acto® knife)
  • snap-off blade knife (Olfa® knife)
  • bevel gauge
  • cordless drill
  • steel ruler
  • vise grips
  • ratchet and socket set (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • box wrenches (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • compass

Finally, while their shop has some safety gear, it is always a good idea to own a personal set of the following:

  • respirator with organic vapor cartridges
  • safety glasses
  • hearing protection
  • leather gloves

Again, these are the tools required by the Santa Fe Opera, and other work sites may require a slightly different set of tools. However, if you are just starting to build up your own personal tool kit, it is a good guide to refer to for the most commonly-used tools in a props shop.

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.