Tag Archives: adhesives

Review: Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

I only recently came across this book for the first time. I’ve never noticed it before because of the title; if I had seen it before, I would have assumed it dealt only with costumes, not props, and I would have moved right along. Make no mistake though, this book is vital to the props maker. It actually contains almost nothing about making clothes or fitting actors or even that much about fabrics and sewing. Instead, Costumes & Chemistry: A Comprehensive Guide to Materials and Applications, by Silvia Moss, covers all sorts of paints, adhesives, and plastics (in both sheet and casting form) which the prop shop uses. Though the examples shown are mostly costume props and accessories and giant character heads and suits, you can very easily apply it to many of the props you need to build.

Costumes & Chemistry reveals a lot of research and development. It turns costume crafts and props into more of a science where the materials are thoroughly tested and described, rather than a hodge-podge of traditions and assumptions swirling around in each person’s head. Moss talked with chemists, technicians, salespeople and manufacturers of many of the materials you use from basically every company you’ve ever heard of who makes these materials. Armed with a number of grants from UCLA and interviews with so many people working in the field, she has created a reference book that should be on the shelf of anyone working in props and costume crafts, as well as those interested in cosplay and convention costumes, replica prop making, LARP, and even model making.

Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss
Costumes and Chemistry by Silvia Moss

Part 1 of the book is brief, providing much of the same safety information found in Monona Rossol’s book. The bulk of the book is divided between parts 2 and 3, or materials and applications.

The section on materials divides them into categories such as paints, adhesives, plastic sheets, and thermoform plastics. For each type of material in these categories, Moss gives the brand names of the various products that she tested, examples of why and how they are used, a description of the physical properties, how to clean them up (where applicable), precautions and health and safety information, where to buy them, and what sizes and forms they come in. This isn’t where you will find information about making props from paper plates and pipe cleaners; this covers all the modern materials you’ve used or read about such as Sintra, latex foam, leather dye, Kydex, etc.

In the section on applications, Moss breaks down how many example costumes were made. These include costume accessories, headpieces and jewelry from Las Vegas revues, Broadway musicals, advertising characters in commercials, various mascots, and other venues. This section provides some illustrations giving general techniques, but for the most part, it discusses the applications of various materials through very specific examples from a wide variety of craftspeople. Some of the pieces chosen for the book are quite recognizable, and it can be interesting and surprising once you find out what materials and techniques were used to create their look.

Costumes & Chemistry was published in 2004, so it should remain up to date for awhile. I could see an update in a few years to include new formulations of current materials and new brands (as well as the deletion of defunct brands; Phlex-Glu, for example, is listed in the book but no longer produced). For the most part though, most of these materials have been in use for several decades now, and barring some dramatic new invention, should remain in use for several decades more.

Is MDF really that bad for you?

I’ve run across shops and artisans who tend to avoid Medium Density Fiberboard, or MDF. MDF is an engineered lumber product made of sawdust bonded together with a urea-formaldehyde adhesive. When you work with MDF, the dust you release also contains this formaldehyde, which you may end up breathing. So is that really that bad? The short answer is “yes, with a but”, while the long answer is “no, with an if”. Like any other substance or material used in a props shop, the safety of using it is dependent on knowing the risks and possible hazards and taking the appropriate precautions. After all, people can safely work with plutonium if their shop is set up correctly and they wear the appropriate gear.

Let me start off by saying yes, you should avoid breathing MDF dust. Formaldehyde is suspected of being a carcinogen, and MDF has some of the highest concentration of urea-formaldehyde adhesives out of all the engineered wood products that use it. Other products which use UF adhesive include hardwood plywood and particle board. Some products, such as softwood plywood and oriented strand board, use phenol-formaldehyde resin which emits much lower concentrations of formaldehyde. Nonetheless, when working with these products, you should have appropriate dust collection at the source of dust creation, proper ventilation and air filtration, and wear an appropriate personal respirator (a NIOSH-approved dust mask for particulates) when sawing or sanding.

So if it’s unwise to work with MDF without proper safety precautions, why am I asking the question in the title of this post? Here’s what I’ve seen; some shops avoid or even downright ban the use of MDF because of what they’ve heard about UF adhesives. This is absurd for several reasons. First, all materials are “bad” to some extent. A better way to phrase that is to say that all materials require you to understand what the potential hazards are and how to minimize them. If you are barbecuing in a grill, you know there is a potential for things to catch fire, so you have a fire extinguisher close by. If you understand why MDF is potentially harmful, then you can figure out how to minimize those harms; if your shop is unable to minimize those harms, than its use should be avoided.

My second point is this: if a shop avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air and employees breath it, it implies a larger safety issue. While formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen, sawdust itself is a known carcinogen. Let me repeat that: sawdust is a known carcinogen (see here). If you allow sawdust to fill the air of your shop, you are basically filling your shop with carcinogens. So a shop or person that avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air is still allowing the dust from other products to fill the air, which is just as harmful to breath as MDF dust.

If you work with lumber of any kind, the proper precautions include dust collection at the source, ventilation in the whole shop, and the use of a personal respirator. These are the exact same precautions you need for using MDF. Also, the proper safety protocol in a shop is to keep track of all substances which you may be exposed to and take the recommended precautions to minimize exposure.

Thus, avoiding MDF in a wood-shop implies that not only does one not know proper safety protocols, but that one is exposing workers to other potentially hazardous dust. So my question, “Is MDF really that bad for you?”, has the same answer as every other substance. If you know the potential harms and how to minimize them, then it is no more “bad” than any other hazardous and toxic material you work with to build props. In other words, the proper question isn’t whether MDF is “bad” (it is, but so is everything else you use), it’s whether your safety procedures are bad.

Review: Backstage Handbook

Backstage Handbook
Backstage Handbook

I feel almost silly reviewing the Backstage Handbook: An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information by Paul Carter and George Chiang; it is already so well-known and ubiquitous in the theatre world, I don’t know that I have anything to add. Nonetheless, every time I pick it up, it’s like I’m rediscovering how much useful information it has in it for the props professional. If you haven’t gotten this book because you think it’s aimed solely at the carpenter, electrician, stagehand or stage manager, think again.

Inside, you can find illustrations differentiating the type of moulding we use, parts of a window and wood joints. You can find lists and illustrations of the common hand and power tools you would find in a prop shop, as well as all the hardware and fasteners you will come across. It also includes definitions and descriptions of the various fabrics at our disposal, the multitude of adhesives we use (along with their ingredients) and the different types of rope and cord you can choose from. Along the way, you can also learn how to tie the most common types of theatre knots, how to draw a variety of geometric shapes (like pentagons and hexagons) and how to build a flat. Of course, you can also find all sorts of general theatre knowledge, such as the parts of a stage and the types of curtains we use.

So really, this isn’t much of a review; it’s more of a reminder that if you work in technical theatre (or film for that matter), you should own this book. Case closed.

Who invented the hot glue gun?

The hot glue gun is one of the main tools in a props person’s arsenal. Some people love them, some despise them, but at one point or another, all will use one. They can also be referred to as hot melt glue guns and hot melt adhesive guns. They use sticks of hot glue, or hot melt adhesive, thermoplastic adhesive, or thermoplastic cement, depending on your preferred nomenclature.

So who invented the hot glue gun, and how did it come to be? If we Google the phrase “who invented the hot glue gun”, we find the following results:

Google search for "Who invented the hot glue gun"
Google search for "Who invented the hot glue gun"

The first few results list “Robert Brooklyns” as the inventor. Let’s see what a Google search on him turns up:

Google search for "Robert Brooklyns"
Google search for "Robert Brooklyns"

When I did the search, Google returned around 83 results. All of them basically parroted the same sentence. Basically, one site (Answers.com is my guess) made this completely uncited statement, and it has been echoed throughout content farms and superficial sites across the internet. No one with this name shows up in a deeper search through books or patents, which seems surprising, given how important the hot glue gun is.

You may have noticed in the first image that a result shows up with an obituary for George Schultz, whom the Boston Globe calls the “inventor of the first industrial glue gun”. According to the Globe, he founded Industrial Shoe Machinery in Boston in 1954, which he sold to 3M in 1973. Somewhere along the way, he invented the Polygun, the “first industrial glue gun”. 3M manufactured hot glue guns under the name “Polygun” until 2006, when they changed the name to “Scotch-Weld”.

The earliest related patent I could find for George Schultz was for an Apparatus for Dispensing Thermoplastic Material. It was issued on June 2, 1971.

George Schultz's glue gun
George Schultz's glue gun

The diagram shows a glue gun with a trigger, but the glue is held in an internal reservoir rather than fed through as sticks. While Mr. Schultz was certainly the inventor of a hot glue gun, he was hardly the inventor of the hot glue gun.

The Wikipedia article on adhesives has an uncited claim that thermoplastic adhesives were invented in the 1940s by Proctor and Gamble by a man named Paul Cope. Again, this becomes hard to verify, because innumerable content farms merely copy the Wikipedia article, and most of the search results are variations of this same initial claim (many have the same exact wording). At least we can find evidence that Paul Cope was a real person who worked at Proctor and Gamble. He even filed a number of patents having to do with improvements in packaging. Whether he had anything to do with thermoplastic glues seems to be a moot point, as mentions of thermoplastic adhesives can be found in literature and patents much earlier than that, as far back as 1907.

Perhaps the earliest proto-hot glue gun was this Plastic Extrusion Gun created by William R. Myers and Albert S. Tennant in 1949. The device was created for melting plastic and extruding it onto fishing hooks to manufacture fishing flies. The plastic was fed into the device as ribbons rather than as sticks, and it did not use thermoplastic adhesive. Regardless, many of the parts and components of a modern hot glue gun are there, and later inventors referred to the Myers and Tennant plastic extrusion gun quite a bit in their patents.

Myers and Tennant Plastic Extrusion Gun
Myers and Tennant Plastic Extrusion Gun



In 1965, Hans C. Paulsen, working for United Shoe Machinery Corporation, was granted this patent for the Portable Thermoplastic Cement Dispenser. It predates Schultz’s invention by six years.

Paulsen's portable thermoplastic cement dispenser
Paulsen's portable thermoplastic cement dispenser


That December, Popular Science ran an article about this glue gun, named the “Thermogrip”. The article proclaims “A black plastic pistol with an electrical heating element and an aluminum nozzle that extrudes hot-melt glue is one of the newest tools for home and shop.” I find the Thermogrip notable for its use of glue sticks and for the fact it was marketed and sold to home users, as opposed to previous glue guns which were tailored for specific industrial processes. I would consider this to be the first “hot glue gun” in the sense which we are most familiar today.

As with any invention, it is perhaps futile to try and trace its invention to a single person. The hot glue gun relies on a number of parts and components, such as the development of thermoplastics, the evolution of plastic extrusion guns, and the societal need for a portable device which accomplishes all of this. The modern-day glue gun we all know and love has any number of features and improvements which were not present in the earliest iterations.

That said, the hot glue gun was certainly not invented by a (perhaps imaginary) man named Robert Brooklyns, and hot glue was not invented by Paul Cope. This goes to show how easily an unverified claim can infiltrate the Internet. Remember kids, more search results in Google does not equal more reliability. An unsourced claim is still an unsourced claim even when it shows up on thousands of websites.

Monday Link-a-tastrophe

By now you should know about This to That, a great tool for finding out what glue to use. Well, Beacon Adhesives, makers of such prop-friendly glues as Magna-Tac and Fabri-Tac, have their own Adhesive Selection Chart.

I know I just did a post on knots, but I had to show off this hot knot diagram. It’s from a site I just discovered called Low-tech Magazine, which “refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution”. How very apropos for those of us in the world of ever-shrinking prop budgets.

Dug North has started compiling a great big list of Automaton plans in one single page. Some are even free!

Finally, here’s a neat little Repair Manifesto. You can view the image in a larger size as well.