Tag Archives: guide

The Prop Building Guidebook: 25% Done!

I have an update to The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theatre, Film and Television I am writing, due in stores February, 2013. I submitted the first 25% of my book to Focal Press yesterday, roughly four chapters. Does that mean I am a quarter of the way done? Hardly! Besides editing, I am sure I will continue adding to and refining the chapters I’ve already submitted even as I move forward on the rest of the book.

A lot of the early work has just been organizing and outlining what I want to cover in the book and developing the table of contents. I may be posting that table in the near future as it begins to solidify. I have never liked how previous prop-making books have organized information; one book even places painting first. Painting! Who picks up a book and says, “Well, I can’t build a prop, but at least I can paint it after I finish not building it.”? I think I have figured it out though. I begin with a sort of overview of the world of props in the realm of theatre, film and television, and how the role of the prop maker has developed over the years. I look at the materials and technology of prop making and how that has evolved to what we have today. I go through some more general concepts like safety, adhesives, tools before delving into the principals of prop making, such as determining the needs, breaking it down into simpler parts, and figuring out what problems you need to solve. You may recognize this thesis from my 2009 presentation at the SETC Theatre Symposium. In the book, I expound on this process, and take it from an abstract idea to a practical method.

The bulk of the book touches on the many materials and methods used for making props. I’ve been busy taking photographs and diving into research to flesh out what I already know. Having a lot of pictures is another goal of this book. I hate books that describe something but do not illustrate what the author means, particularly when a picture can clear up so much confusion. Previous props books seem to rely heavily on illustrations rather than photographs. While this is better than nothing, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Illustrations show a simplified and idealized version of a process, rather than what you will see if you are actually trying the process out. It also calls into question the accuracy of what is being presented; can you be sure that the author knows what he or she is talking about, or is the illustration just drawn from a description he or she has heard or read from another source which may or may not be true. By taking photographs of everything I discuss in the book, I am also testing out the accuracy of my statements.

Here are just a few samples of some of the photographs I’ve made for the book:

A quick molding and casting of a bird head
A quick molding and casting of a bird head
Cutting out a shape on a bandsaw
Cutting out a shape on a bandsaw

The Right Proper Links

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.

The Historic Naval Ships Association has a 1949 training manual titled Engine Room Tools presented in full 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.

Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

I’ve been finding a lot of great advertisements for theatrical property companies and other related businesses from The Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory. These ads appeared between 1898 and 1913. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the theatrical business scene in New York City from a century ago. I also love the style of the ads themselves, with their odd mix of formality and flair.

Morse Company Theatrical Properties, 1903

Turner Prop Storage

Douthitt Set Dressing

Gebhardt, props

Perry, Ryer and Co Imports

Prof. Dare Inventor

I like the previous man’s name: Professor Dare. In addition to prop-related businesses, I’ve also found some interesting ones for scenery studios and scenic artists.

Continue reading Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

Link Before you Leap

We’re right in the middle of tech for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park, so I don’t have time to write as extensively as usual. Here are some interesting links to keep you busy in the mean time.

  • Jesse Gaffney writes about her goal to create a Chicago props community. It’s a good rundown of how to create a community of props people in any locale, which is good for sharing resources, mutual borrowing agreements, and knowing who to recommend when you can’t take a job. We have one here in New York City.
  • If you’re a fan of Instructables, you’ll like Make: Projects. From the same people that publish Make Magazine comes this library of user-submitted DIY projects and how-tos.
  • Speaking of Instructables, if you are a teacher and like the promise of the site, but are unsure how to integrate it into your classroom, the editors have just published a post on how to use Instructables at school.
  • Here’s an oldie but a goodie: an in-depth look at Nino Novellino, founder of Costume Armour Inc., one of the largest creators of theatrical armor and all manner of sculpture and props.
  • And finally, it’s always a good idea to remember How Not to Hurt Yourself On a Table Saw.

Upholstery Yardage Chart

Every props shop needs an upholstery yardage chart! This chart is one of the most relied on ones; I’ve seen it floating around for years. The estimates are based on 54″ wide fabrics. If you need to do repeats, matching patterns, or your fabric has a nap, you will need more fabric. Likewise, if you need to add pillows, arm covers, trim, or skirts, your estimate will be higher. Feel free to download this or print it out.

Upholstery Yardage Chart
Upholstery Yardage Chart