We are once again requesting pay-what-you-can donations to support this S*P*A*Minar programming. All money collected will be used to offset webinar operation costs with additional funds going to our annual grant program for early-career prop people. The suggested donation amount is $3.
Tested has another great episode of their talk show where Adam Savage, Will Smith and Norm Chan discuss building an inexpensive toolkit for beginner makers. By “maker”, they mean someone doing small-scale fabrication of wood, various metals and plastics, some fabric and leather, model-making, and a bit of electronics, so really, it’s great advice for beginning prop makers as well. You can either watch a video or listen to a podcast of the show, which runs about 41 minutes long. They have also written down the list of tools they suggest, though it’s a good idea to listen to the show because they talk about how to buy tools and why you should get certain tools as well.
In case you missed it, I came across The Painters Journal, a publication about scenic art that ran from 2003-2010. All 22 issues are available online to read. Scenic art deals with paints, coatings, texture and sometimes even sculpting, so many of the articles are invaluable to props people as well.
Make Magazine has posted ten tips for using a circular saw. They’re all pretty good, though I would add that hearing protection should be worn too, as circ saws are almost always loud little beasts. A dust mask is usually a good idea as well.
I liked this recent article about Nick Ruiz, a theatre carpenter in the San Jose area. It’s simple and probably familiar to a lot of us in the industry, but stories like this are so rarely written.
And just a reminder that you have less than a month to enter the Prop Building Guidebook Contest! Surely you have a photograph of a prop you’ve built, and who doesn’t want a grab-bag of prop making supplies? The entries I’ve received so far look fantastic, so thanks to everyone who has already submitted.
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.
Where do you get started with making props? Maybe if you have a block of wood and a knife you want to start carving. You can also buy a lump of clay and start trying to shape something. If you want to learn construction techniques, try building a box with some wood and nails. Papier-mâché has been used in prop making for hundreds of years and is an easy and inexpensive method to experiment with. The important thing to do is get started working with your hands. Tools and materials all have their own quirks and characteristics, like a secret inner life. The only way to discover these and begin to familiarize yourself with them is to work with them. All the reading and planning in the world will not bridge the gap between theory and practice.
You may be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t worry; you will. You will not turn out a beautiful pristine prop on your first try. You need to go through all the hours of familiarizing yourself with the materials and methods before your work becomes good. You may feel silly just jumping in; if you just start carving a piece of wood with a knife, surely some more experienced artisan will come along and tell you that you are using the wrong knife, or that the type of wood you have is not very good for carving. You’re probably right. Even the most experienced artisans do not know everything, and when we start working with new materials and processes, there is some learning curve before we find the ideal tools for the job.
In many cases, tool and material choice is a matter of preference, culture, experience and any number of other factors. I’ve read about experienced woodworkers who treat their way of working as gospel, only to run across a seventeenth-century engraving of experienced woodworkers of that time using tools in precisely the opposite way of what should be “right”.
My point is that even experienced artisans do not know everything about everything, not with the sheer amount of crafts, tools, methods, materials and processes which a prop artisan can call upon. You can easily spend your entire life studying under master craftsmen and still not learn it all. While blogs like this one are great because it gets you thinking and spreads information efficiently, you need to jump in and start making things while you learn as well.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies