Tag Archives: US

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.

Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

If you ask ten prop makers how they began building props for film, you will get ten different answers. It usually involves some combination of luck, timing, and knowing the right person. While theatre has seasonal employment, apprenticeships and internships which you can find advertised as well as job fairs which feature employers that regularly hire prop people, the world of film has no such thing. You can’t learn about it in a book (believe me—I’ve looked). So how do you get started?

I also want to add that I am writing this as I figure it out; I am pretty much a prop maker for theatre, and my film credits are, well… I haven’t done any film. But this is similar to how I began to get work in the display and exhibition world, and that kept me fairly well employed for a few years. So if any of may readers have advice to add, I’m sure all of us, myself included, will be grateful for it.

To start, find out where the props are being built. Continue reading Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

Review: Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater by Monona Rossol

The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and TheaterIt’s difficult for me to write a review about the Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater (Second Edition) by Monona Rossol for several reasons:

  1. The information inside is mandatory.
  2. No other book is dedicated to this information.
  3. 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 especially 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 real equivalent 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 a myriad 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 our fore-bearers 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 700 contaminants 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.

History of the US Flag

Happy Fourth of July to all my US readers! I made this handy guide for how the flag has appeared throughout the history of the United States, so if your play is set during a specific year and it calls for a flag, you can quickly see the number and layout of the stars needed.

Flags of the USA throughout history
Click for a larger size

The layout of the stars was officially standardized in 1912, while the colors were standardized in 1934. In the guide above, I put the most typical flag of the period first, with alternate patterns and special flags listed after. Starting in 1818, the new flags were introduced on July 4th of the year listed.

In 1942, the Federal Flag Code was passed to provide uniform guidelines for the display of flags. One frequent complaint from flagophiles about many movies is the incorrect positioning of a flag in the vertical position. According to the code, the blue part should be on the left.

vertical positioning of the US flag
vertical positioning of the US flag

For more about the code, check out this illustration of how to display the flag. This of course brings up the prop master’s dilemma; if it is a “common” mistake to display a hanging flag with the blue field on the right, then it is conceivable that the character in the play who hung the flag would have made the same mistake. In other words, dressing and decorating a set isn’t about doing what is correct, but rather what is truthful to the characters and world of the play. Just like a character may drink wine out of a coffee cup, so too may one wear a jacket made out of a flag. Here is a whole blog dedicated to finding incorrect displays of the American flag.

As an interesting side note, there is only place where an official flag is never brought to half-mast during a period of mourning. That place? The Moon.

Money money money

One hundred dollar gold note
One Hundred Thousand Dollar Bill

Mint.com recently had a posting showing pictures of over twenty different kinds of historical US currency. Some of the pictures are really fascinating with the colors used, and the large denominations which used to be in circulation.

The Secret Service, which enforces counterfeiting laws in the United States, has very clear rules governing the reproduction of US currency:

  • The illustration is of a size less than three-fourths or more than one and one-half, in linear dimension, of each part of the item illustrated
  • The illustration is one-sided
  • All negatives, plates, positives, digitized storage medium, graphic files, magnetic medium, optical storage devices, and any other thing used in the making of the illustration that contain an image of the illustration or any part thereof are destroyed and/or deleted or erased after their final use

For further exploration of historical US currency, you can check out the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing to see some (very tiny) pictures of fractional currency. You can also play with an interactive timeline of the five dollar bill throughout history (click on “History in Your Wallet”)

For the best collection of images though, look no further than Wikipedia. You can find information and pictures galore under the articles for the United States dollar, the History of the United States dollar, and large denominations of United States currency. For an even grander overview, you can look at a list of all their articles concerning historical currencies of the United States.

See you next year!

One Hundred Thousand Dollar Bill