This is great:Â Michael Fichtenmayer experimented with a number of available art products to create copper finishes and showed off his results. It’s incredibly helpful to see them all together so you can do a quick comparison.
Here is a tutorial to build a homemade plastic bender. Now, remember to do this only with adequate ventilation; heating plastics can release all sorts of chemicals. No one really knows what we’re breathing. The MSDS for the plastic won’t tell you either, because they only have to disclose what the plastic is made of, not what it turns into with the application of heat.
Prop Phone is an app that allows you to trigger an iPhone or iPod Touch to ring over WiFi or Bluetooth. They have a video up showing how to make sure the phone can’t receive calls during a performance; I didn’t realize you could out an iPhone in Airplane mode and then turn WiFi back on; I know, I’m practically Amish.
Monona Rossol has been teaching health and safety to theatres since at least 1986 and is uniquely qualified to write this book.
So rather than a review, this is more of an introduction about being aware of your own health and safety, and an encouragement to read this book and act on the information contained within. This goes for those working professionally, as well as the growing number of hobbyist prop makers (I would say especiallyÂ for hobbyist prop makers).
I’ve attended Monona’s safety seminars three times, and even with this book, I am still learning about the hazards we face in our line of work and the precautions we need to take. Luckily, she uses a very factual and empirical approach with this book. Rather than present her personal opinions, she discusses what the laws and regulations are. She will also present the various studies done where she feels the laws don’t go far enough in protecting workers. This is perhaps one of the more striking lessons to take from this book or her seminars; as stringent as we may feel OSHA is, the dangers we face remain woefully understudied, and manufacturers have great latitude to push untested chemicals on the market or provide misleading safety claims on their labels.
You’ll notice the mention of OSHA above. This book is very much grounded in the legalities of working in the United States. Though she may occasionally mention regulations in Canada, the UK or Europe, her focus remains firmly enmeshed in US law. Unfortunately, there is no realÂ equivalentÂ to this book outside of the US. All is not lost for my international readers, though. Since US laws protecting workers are among the most lax in the developed world, this book can be seen as presenting the absolute minimum guidelines for protecting yourself on the job.
While the book does deal with electrical safety, shop safety, fall hazards and other areas of physical danger, the majority deals with materials and chemicals and the less-understood danger of chronic exposure. We all know that you should avoid chemicals that could instantly kill you if you accidentally breathe them. What is far less understood is the result of your body somehow absorbing aÂ myriadÂ of chemicals and products throughout the day and over the years you are in the workforce. Some of these can live in your body for years, reacting in unknown ways with all of your genes and the other chemicals present in your body. Steve McQueen died from mesothelioma at a time when asbestos was used frequently in the theatre and film industry for painting and prop making; what are you being exposed to?
If you’ve never given thought to any of this, this book will be overwhelming in the information it provides. You may think we are safer these days with our stronger laws and new products. After all, lead paint only comes from China and we don’t use crazy materials like Celastic anymore. But as Monona points out, lead has only been banned in indoor house paint; it can still be found in any number of industrial paints. Some filling materials and putties were still being taken from a mine which contained asbestos as late as 1998. We are also exposed to far more chemicals on a daily basis than ourÂ fore-bearersÂ in the past. Every one of us is already carrying a certain amount of mercury, dioxin, PCBs and countless other chemicals in the tissues of our body (known as our total body burden); scientists estimate we carry as many as 700Â contaminantsÂ regardless of where we live in the world. Any additional chemicals we add from our work place enter that toxic soup and can have all sorts of additive or synergistic effects. So it’s even more important for us to monitor what we use than it was for our grandparents.
This second edition is long overdue; the first edition came out over 11 years ago in 2000. Monona includes many of the important changes to the laws as well as advancements in the science behind the effects of the chemicals (both of which have a lot owed to Monona’s own tireless work), and the addition of new types of products in the marketplace, such as nanoparticles. Unfortunately, the through-line remains the same: companies don’t want to spend money on safety training, manufacturers add more toxic products to the market, scientists can’t afford to study even a small percentage of their effects on the body, and governments refuse to pass stronger laws or give their agencies the power to enforce existing ones.
Until all that changes, though, we have this book. Read it and use it.
Celastic was first trademarked in 1926.Â It was being used by the theatrical industry as early as the 1930s, and saw its most widespread use in theatres of all sizes by the 1950s. It appears to be one of the most popular prop-making materials of the ’70s and ’80s, and why not? It was used to make everything from masks to armor, statues to helmets. It reinforced other props, or simply gave them a smooth, flowing surface.
Celastic is a plastic-impregnated fabric which is softened with a solvent such as acetone or MEK. When it is soft, it can be manipulated into nearly any shape; it can be wrapped around forms, pushed into molds, or draped over statutes. You can cut it into strips or small pieces; Celastic adheres to itself. When it dries, it becomes hard again, thus retaining whatever shape you can manipulate it into. If necessary, it can be resoftened and further manipulated.
Here is an example of what passed for safety knowledge back when the use of Celastic was prevalent: “Rubber gloves should be used to keep the Softener off the hands. The liquid is not injurious under normal working conditions… Common-sense precautions will make the medium acceptable for any school use” (Here’s HowÂ by Herbert V. Hake, 1958). Of course, “not injurious” is not the same as “harmless”.
Acetone and MEK of course can be absorbed through the skin, and the fumes can cause neurological damage. As prop makers became more health-conscious and aware of the effects that cumulative exposure to solvents, especially strong ones like MEK, could have on their bodies, they began seeking out alternatives and scaling back the use of Celastic. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a single practitioner using this material. You find one occasionally; their argument is that no other material can be draped as finely as Celastic, and if you take the proper precautions, you can protect yourself. There is some point to that; all chemicals can harm your body to some extent, and you need to be aware of how that chemical can enter your body, how much is entering it, and how to properly limit your exposure to it. If you wear the proper gloves and sleeves, respirator, goggles and face shield, and work with the solvents in a well-ventilated area (preferably some kind of spray booth or hood), working with Celastic would be no more dangerous than working with wood.
Of course, we rarely work alone in theatre; if one person is working with Celastic, than everyone is breathing the fumes. Prop shops are rarely the best ventilated areas, so the vapors can hang around long after everyone has removed their respirators. And of course with all the deadlines and time pressures, the temptation to take shortcuts in safety are always present; “I’ll just dip this one piece in Celastic really quickly; I don’t need to go all the way to my locker to get my respirator.”
Most prop shops these days seek to use the “least toxic alternative.” Whatever perceived benefits Celastic may have is far outweighed by theÂ existenceÂ of less toxic materials that will accomplish the same goals.
Some of these alternatives are thermoform plastics which are softened by mild heat; they can be dipped in boiling water or blown with a hot air gun. One of the first to be introduced was known as Hexcelite; it was developed as an alternative to plaster for setting broken bones in a cast. Today, it is sold under the trade name of Varaform. Two other popular brands are Wonderflex and Fosshape. Wonderflex is a hard plastic sheet, while Fosshape is more of a plastic-impregnated fabric.
These are so cool: US bread wrappers of the 40s and 50s. Besides being tons of fun, the pictures are good enough to print out if you need to make period wrapped bread. Incidentally, the site this is from, How to be a Retronaut, is chock-full of the most wonderful vintage and historical pictures. You can waste hours of time on this site while rationalizing that you are “doing research.”
I’ve pointed to the Early Office Museum site before, but I just found this gallery of Really Big Stuff. It’s photographs of early office equipment, like typewriters and rubber stamps, constructed at large scales (think “parade float” size). It’s also a good opportunity to check out the site if you haven’t heard of it before.
The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards is an extremely useful source of information for the hundreds of chemicals listed as “hazardous” by OSHA and found in the stuff we build props out of. Rather than serve as an exhaustive guide to all information, it lists key information about each chemical relevant to work. You can view it online or download the whole thing as a PDF; I’m also throwing the link up in the sidebar of this site so you can find it every time you visit.
TheÂ Historic Naval Ships Association has a 1949 training manual titled Engine Room ToolsÂ presented in fullÂ on their website. It illustrates and describes the tools one would find on a ship at the time, namely metal-working hand tools. They are surprisingly similar to the metal-working tools you would find in a props shop, and the illustrations demonstrating their use are very cool.
My father is a potter, and his job includes all sorts of dangers to the lungs, such as dust from dry clay, mist from spraying glazes, and fumes from firing pots. His words of wisdom for dealing with all this safely are “breathe nothing but air.” Putting these simple words into practice can be a bit more complicated, however.
Proper ventilation is a must when working in almost every aspect of prop-making: wood-working, welding, molding and casting, painting, etc. You can (and should) supplement it with more specific safety measures, such as respirators and dust collection systems, when necessary, but overall ventilation is still the backbone of any healthy prop shop. Without ventilation, you will be putting other workers and visitors to your shop at risk. Also, many harmful particles remain in the air for a long period of time, well after you’ve completed your task and removed your respirator.
It’s helpful to know the different kinds of harmful substances that may enter your lungs, as this will determine what kind of protection you need. I learned about the various physical forms a chemical can take while working at the Santa Fe Opera, which has a great safety training program:
Solid, liquid, fume, dust, mist, gas, vapor.
I would hope you know what a solid and a liquid are; the other forms may require some explanation. It is important to know the difference between them because they determine what kind of protection you need to keep them out of your lungs. Wearing a dust mask to protect against vapors, such as those found in spray paint, is not only useless, but can even be more harmful than wearing nothing. Why? When wearing any kind of mask or respirator, your lungs need to work harder to pull in enough air to breathe, so wearing the wrong kind of mask will make your lungs suck in more spray paint than when your breathing rate is lower.
When a solid is heated to its melting point, it may release a fume, which is a solid particle suspended in the air. Welding and soldering are common practices which create fumes.
Sanding, grinding and even just handling powders can create dust. Like fumes, these are solid particles floating in the air. Though most dust is trapped by your nose hairs, some dust is so fine it can make it all the way to your lungs; these are known as “respirable” dusts, and are the most harmful. Some are so fine they are invisible.
Tiny liquid droplets in the air are known as a mist. You can create mists from spraying liquid, or from boiling it. Some mists may even carry solid particles inside.
A gasÂ is the third phase of matter, after solid and liquid. Normally, when we talk about what form a certain material comes in, we talk about what phase it is at room temperature. Common gases used in the props shop can include argon and carbon dioxide for welding, and acetylene and propane for torches.
When a liquid evaporates, it becomes a vaporÂ (notice how “vapor” appears in the word “evaporate”). Evaporation can be sped up by heat. Vapors are molecules just like gases, and the only real difference between the two are that vapors can re-condense to a liquid or solid in a high enough concentration.
You’ll notice the first three formsâ€“fume, dust and mistâ€“are all particles of some sort. You can filter particles with a physical barrier, such as those found in NIOSH-approved disposable respirators (sometimes referred to as “dust masks”).
Gases and vapors are molecules and cannot be physically filtered. A barrier which keeps molecules of harmful gas from passing through will also keep molecules of oxygen from passing through, and you kind of need oxygen to live. In these cases, you need a respirator with a chemical cartridge. A chemical cartridge will either capture and hold the harmful molecules or chemically react to transform them into something less harmful. One of the earliest substances to be used in this manner is activated charcoal, which is still relied upon for filtering many kinds of chemicals. Your Brita filter uses activated charcoal to filter your tap water.
There is no single type of chemical respirator cartridge which will filter out every kind of gas or vapor found in prop making. It is absolutely vital that you know and understand what kinds of chemicals you are working with and what physical forms they are in so you can choose the correct type of respirator and cartridge to wear. As with particles, wearing a respirator makes your lungs take bigger and deeper breaths to compensate for the reduced flow of oxygen; wearing the wrong kind of respirator means you are taking bigger and deeper breaths of a toxic substance than you would wearing nothing. Some chemicals cannot be filtered by any type of cartridge and require either a supplied-air or self-contained breathing apparatus.
In any case, proper ventilation in your shop is still your best defense against airborne chemicals.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies