Tag Archives: labor

First Links of September

I love that Oregon Live has put together a list of 10 Must-See Props at the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. From wedding cakes to bears, you can learn how the OSF prop shop made it all happen.

Kamui Cosplay has a great video tutorial on adding animated LEDs to your prop. Making your LEDs pulse and chase really bumps up the wow-factor compared to static on/off lights.

Did You Know The Props On ‘Melrose Place’ Were Covert Works Of Art With Coded Meanings? I don’t know what else to say about this article other than repeating the title. Apparently an art exhibition showcasing these works of conceptual art is now running in NYC.

Did you know that new overtime rules for workers in the US are going into effect in December? American Theatre tackles how this may affect theatres, particularly non-profits. All of us should be aware of the rules and regulations that govern our wages, particularly since theatre and small films are so rife with infractions. A combination of ignorance, lack of oversight, and the belief that we should “suffer for our art” keeps it from improving. My worry is that these new overtime rules will either be ignored or hand-waved away like so many other labor regulations that some theatres do not follow.

How much does a prop maker earn (US Bureau of Labor edition)

Beginner prop makers often want to know how much money a prop maker earns. Even experienced prop makers want to know, just to compare their earnings to what is typical in the industry. These numbers are hard to come by because of the range of ways a prop maker can earn money, the vast variety of industries a prop maker can work in, and the wide spectrum in expertise of prop makers (a beginner prop maker who constructs apple crates is probably making a far different wage than a veteran who machines intricate aluminum mechanisms). Still, we have to start somewhere.

One of the best resources to learn about typical wages and contracts is from Sandra Strawn’s Properties Directors’ Handbook. She collected survey data from many of the regional and educational theatres around the United States. Another organization which collects a lot of data on employment and wages is the US government. This is what we are looking at in today’s post.

The United States Bureau of Labor keeps statistics on National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Now, they do not list “prop maker” as an occupation, so we have to look at a few related and similar fields to hone in on what a US prop maker might be making. I’ve pulled some numbers from their most recent report, which was May 2012 1.

First, a couple of caveats. The major one is that this data does not include self-employed workers. According to the IRS, if you get paid with a 1099, even if it is in a situation where you are “employed” by a company, they consider you self-employed. Many prop makers earn some or even all of their income in this way, so it really skews the data. I’ve found that it is the smaller and lower-paying gigs that will often pay you with a 1099 (not always true, but true more often than not), so these numbers are probably higher than what most prop makers earn.

As another caveat, if you look at the data yourself, you will find “annual mean wages” listed that make it seem like these workers are raking it in. However, these annual wages are calculated by multiplying the hourly wage by a typical “full-time” schedule, and do not reflect what someone actually earns in a year. Most prop makers do not work full-time every year, and even so-called “full-time” jobs at regional theatres are actually seasonal contracts ranging from 28-42 weeks per year. I’ve always found that the hourly wages offered me were well above minimum wage, but it is very difficult to string together enough jobs and gigs to work full-time year-round.

For the table, I looked at two categories: “Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres”, and “Motion Picture and Video Exhibition”. Neither category has a “prop maker” listing, so I chose the occupation titles which I thought a prop maker would likely be categorized under. For Theatre Companies, those categories were “craft artists” and “fine artists”, while in Motion Pictures, I chose “fine artists” and “artists and related workers, all others”. Feel free to explore the data on your own and look at other industries or occupations; I am not presenting this information as the definitive guide to prop makers’ wages, but rather as my own personal best guess of what might be the wages of some prop makers.

Occupation Title   Employment   Median hourly wage   Mean hourly wage
                Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres
Craft Artists        230             18.89                18.86
Fine Artists         100             19.03                20.67
                 Motion Picture and Video Exhibition
Fine Artists        2400             27.10                30.45
All Others           390             33.89                33.86

Despite all of my caveats and excuses, these numbers do tell us a few things. First, that the movies employ far more people than theatre. Second, that similar occupations are making around one-and-a-half times as much in movies than in theatre, at least on an hourly basis.

Another possible surprise is the small number of full-time occupations in theatre. The 330 combined craft artists and fine artists would likely include not just the people in the props shop, but also the costume shop and paints departments. That’s a tiny amount of people. Remember, though that these numbers do not include self-employed workers, of which there are many. Also, in larger markets and commercial theatre, many prop makers would be working for independent shops and studios, rather than theatre companies.



  1. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm, May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, accessed April 1, 2013.

Actors in IATSE?

Happy Labor Day, everyone! For those who work in the theatre, happy Monday. In honor of the holiday, I have a news article below of interest to the history of theatrical unions. IATSE, the union of backstage employees, was founded in 1893 as the National Association of Theatrical Stage Employes [sic]. Actors were not represented until 1913, when Actors’ Equity was founded. However, there was a time when the possibility was considered to allow actors and actresses into IATSE. The article below is from the Kansas City Journal and appeared in 1898. Enjoy!

Union Heroines Next

A Plan Under Way to Unionize the Men and Women of the Stage.

George Carman and Charles Balling have been selected as the Kansas City delegates to attend the national convention of the Theatrical Alliance of Stage Employes, which will be held in Omaha next week. The most important matter to come before the convention is the question of admitting actors to membership. For some time the actors have been anxious to have a well organized union and representatives of the stage will attend the convention to present their suit.

The National Alliance of Stage Employes is a strong organization and extends all over the country. Were actors to be admitted it would make a vast difference to the traveling managers. The players would belong to a union which would be protected by the Stage Employes and could dictate terms in a great many things in which the manager is now absolute. The admission of the player would unionize all of the people working behind the footlights of a theater, as scenic artists and electricians are members of the Stage Employes’ union. 1


  1. Kansas City Journal, 15 July 1898, pg 10. Accessed from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86063615/1898-07-15/ed-1/seq-10/, 3 September 2012.

The Most August Links

I am in North Carolina for a few more days, but return to New York City next week, so I will have more time (and a real computer) to spend on writing. Until then, here are some useful sites to satisfy your prop-reading needs:

PDN’s Photo of the Day has some wonderful photographs of Pamplona’s San Fermin festival, where giant puppets run around beating children.

Speaking of puppets, Project Puppet has a great tutorial on adding facial features to your puppet characters. It covers everything from cutting the shapes out of soft foam, to patterning and covering them with fleece.

Rich Dionne continues his series on budget estimates in theatre with one of the hardest variables to estimate: the cost of labor to complete a project.

Some brief, but interesting, prop facts about the upcoming Fright Night remake. I also found another article which has some additional fun facts.

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.