Tag Archives: artisan

Prop Building for Beginners

I came out with a new book a few months ago, but I haven’t written about it here yet. It has been such a tumultuous year!

The book is called “Prop Building for Beginners: Twenty Props for Stage and Screen.” It is now on sale at Routledge.

Cover image of the book, "Prop Building for Beginners."

I wrote this book because a lot of beginners want step-by-step instructions to build specific props. The world of prop building can be overwhelming, and sometimes you just want to know where to start.

I chose the kinds of items that people in theater or film often need to build. These are props that appear in a lot of stories and which are not always cheap or easy to buy.

A collage of the twenty props which are included in this book.
The twenty props you can build from this book.

I designed and built all these items to make sure I was only using materials which are readily available throughout the world, as well as a limited number of tools. In fact, if you complete each project in this book, you will end up with a good understanding of the basic skills that every props person needs, as well as a simple toolkit that you will use on a daily basis.

Sample pages from the book showing step-by-step instructions and corresponding photographs
Sample pages from the book.

I wrote this book for anyone who wants to begin the wonderful journey of learning how to build props. It is useful for teachers who want to introduce their students to the materials and methods used in prop making. And it may be helpful to the theater practitioner who needs to build some props but does not know how.

You can purchase “Prop Building for Beginners” directly from the publisher, from Amazon, from your favorite local bookstore, or from wherever books are sold in your country. If you’ve already bought it, leave a review on the site you bought it from!

Links for a Long Weekend

Do you need a feather quill pen for a show? Lexey Jost has an Instructable showing how to make one that actually writes. Now you can keep your production of 1776 under budget.

Buzzfeed(?) has a collection of diagrams to help you decorate your home. They have everything from antique chair back styles, to common furniture sizes, to the names of lampshade fittings. Most of us prop masters have a collection of diagrams like this to help in decorating a set, so here’s a chance to grab a few more.

Many of us already saw this last week, but in case you missed it, that insane Mad Max flame-throwing guitar was no CGI trick. Find out how and why they constructed such a crazy practical effect.

Volpin Props has another great build log up. This time he made the Cael Hammer from the video game, Bastion. It’s a mix of EVA foam, vacuum formed plastic and PVC. He’s got a lot of great little tips and tricks for shaping and painting these various materials.

“Do not let artisans discourage you from learning this or that trade because they have not made a success of it. They may tell you that a certain trade is overcrowded. Investigate a little and you will find that only the botch workman and chronic kickers are out of work. The cheerful, enthusiastic workman is idle only when misfortune overtakes the whole country.” Read more from this 1888 article on workmen over at the Lost Art Press Blog.

Final November Links

Hard to believe it’s almost December. Hope you enjoy today’s links!

“How to be a Retronaut” always has great vintage images. I like these recent photos of Anita Louise as “Queen Titania” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1935.

The Actors Theatre of Louisville is looking for an artisan/soft goods person for their upcoming Humana Festival (January through March). I worked there a few years back; the people are great, the shop is amazing and you get to do some quality work for really good theatre. Even the housing they put you up in is nice. All in all, Louisville is not a bad place to spend a few months. Also, this year’s SETC conference is in Louisville, so you’ll be in town for that (as will I).

Make Magazine has a holiday gift guide for woodworkers, but it’s kind of hit or miss. A $260 hammer? Orthopedic chisels? Personally, I don’t think novelty tools make good gifts for people who make things.

Vintage theatre footlights are needed every now and then, but they can be difficult to find. Ebay has one or two on occasion, but one frequently needs a number of matching ones. Costume Armour, Inc., makes a number of fiberglass and vacuum formed lights, and because they get a lot of requests for their footlights, they have set up a new webpage devoted to the standard sizes and shapes they offer, along with pricing.

Working with What you Have

Ripping a long board, circa 1443
Ripping a long board, circa 1443

It’s easy to think how hard it is to get started building props. Tools and machines are expensive, materials are hard to work with, and there are just so many to choose from. But think of this: the vast majority of materials we work with today were unavailable before World War II: all manner of plastics, all foams, all our composite materials, even our glues and paints. Nearly every kind of coating and adhesive has some form of synthetic polymer in it; before that, we had hide glue, wheat paste and rubber cement (well, after the 1900s that is). Even plywood as we know it was not something you could just go out and buy. It existed, but it was made by the carpenter himself, by laying up layer after layer of thin veneers.

For most of our theatrical history, props have been constructed with little more than papier-mâché, real wood, plaster, clay, leather, and natural fabrics. Animal glue and wheat paste were among the few adhesives available, and paints were limited to oil paints, casein, and varnishes. Think of all the theatre which was created and performed with this limited technology: everything from the Ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare and Molière, or Kabuki in Japan, up to the grand operas of the Gilded Age.

Think too of the tools we have available to us. Electricity and pneumatics have given us incredible power and speed in the palms of our hands. The industrial revolution and machine age have brought us standardized parts and precision unimaginable in previous times. Even our simple hand tools have benefited; a hand saw blade today is produced more quickly, cheaply, and precisely than before the industrial age. The steel it is made from is stronger and more consistent (and far less expensive).

From the weapons used by Alexander the Great to conquer the world, to the furniture found in Versailles, our museums are filled with amazing items created with nearly none of what our props artisans have available today. We can purchase a sheet of metal from a hobby shop which is superior in properties than the metal used by Genghis Khan to create his weapons which conquered the world. We can buy a Dremel tool for a pittance; imagine how envious the people who built the first railroads would be to see such a tool.

So if you are just starting out with prop making, or want to practice doing more of it, don’t wait until you can afford the fancy tools or can master the most modern materials. Think about what you can do with what you have, rather than what you can’t with what you don’t.

Labor is a cost, not a profit

What does it mean to do a project “at cost”? Simply put, when a client orders a project, you deliver it and charge only enough to compensate what you spent. It differs from a project where you add a markup to the costs or add a profit margin. So the price is the cost plus the markup plus the profit. Sometimes you might not mark up the costs, and other times you do not add in a profit, but in either case, you are charging more than what you spent.

The confusion comes from the “costs”. There’s the cash you spend – materials, shipping, gas money to drive to the store, overhead and maintenance of your shop – and then there is your labor cost. Some may argue that you should not charge for your labor when you are doing a project “at cost”. This is not only erroneous, but it is damaging to our industry, as I shall explain in a bit.

I’ve even heard the suggestion that the cost of your labor should be considered “profit.” This is absolutely absurd! If you get overwhelmed with other jobs and have to hire someone to do the project, you do not get to keep that money; it becomes a labor cost. When a company sends out it’s weekly payroll checks, it does not get that cash back, nor can it count it as profit. Why then should you count your own labor as profit?

The cost of labor is already factored into all the materials and tools you use. The cost of a gallon of silicone rubber includes the cost of the scientists who invented it, the people who manufactured it, the people who packaged it, the drivers who transported it, and the salespeople who sold it. You can’t count any of their labor as a profit; it’s all part of the cost. Why would your labor not also be a cost?

If you make something “at cost” you include the price of your labor. If you don’t know how much that is, you should charge the same amount for your labor as it would take to hire someone else to do that work. You can charge an hourly, daily, or weekly rate, or just set a flat fee for the project as a whole. If you are trying to control the costs of the project, you certainly have some leeway in how much you charge for your labor, but you should never charge too little for it; if your price is still too high for a client and you are trying to do them a favor, you can always add a “discount” to your final price, so you maintain the integrity of your own labor costs.

Prop masters and artisans with experience know that labor is often the most expensive part of a prop. A foam sculpture may only use about $15 in materials, but it can take fifty hours to complete. Even at a very modest $15 an hour, that is still $750 in labor.

Imagine than, a market where some prop makers are saying $15 is “at cost” while others are saying $765 is “at cost”. That kind of disparity drives down the price of props and devalues the labor which goes into it. It is very skilled labor as well, the kind that is frequently at a shortage, even in a large market like New York City. It takes a lot of training, skill and practice to be able to make props. Clients who want the “costs” of a project kept to a minimum will point to the $15 examples, thinking that the $765 estimate is somehow inflating the price or using more expensive materials. Even if you are just an amateur prop maker, your pricing can have ripple effects throughout the industry.

If you want to charge someone just for the materials you use and throw your labor in for free (because it is for a friend, or because you really love the work and would never get paid for it otherwise), that is certainly your right. Everyone does it at some point. But make sure you are saying you are only charging “for materials”, not that you are doing the project “at cost”. It’s a world of difference.