We review ‘The Prop Building Guidebook’ by Eric Hart
We’ve been following Eric’s Prop Agenda blog for quite a while now, and highly recommend it. So we were excited to see that he was publishing a book. My first exposure to it was on my iPad, as it is available as a Kindle version from Amazon and I read it on the plane over to USITT. I enjoyed the book immensely on the iPad, but was thoroughly unprepared for the real thing. Let’s start by saying it’s big. And solid. Very satisfyingly so. My favorite thing, though, is the binding – the solid cover hides a ring binding which lets you open the book to any page you like and have it stay perfectly flat; perfect if you are trying to refer to pictures or instructions while working on something. Wonderful!
Now that I’ve finished judging the book by its cover, let’s move on to the content. I should start by explaining my making history. As a stage and production manager who also makes things, I’ve never had the luxury of working in a fully kitted-out workshop since university; it’s been portable tool-kits and a lot of improvisation. But I’ve made a lot of puppets, done a lot of scenic painting, wired quite a few practical props for lighting or sound and also lots of modifications of purchased items. I’ve never really done metal work or worked much with plastics, but my carpentry, foam and sculpting skills are solid. So what did I think?
1. This book is laid out very clearly.
It moves logically through everything from ‘what is a prop’ to setting up your space and then onto specific techniques and materials. It even includes a chapter on doing budget estimates, which is rarely included in how-to books. There was great use of pop-out boxes to highlight particular terms, safety instructions or other information, although I would have liked to see the same background color used for the same types of information so you knew what to look out for; for example, most safety info was against a blue background, but sometimes a technical explanation would be on the same color. Minor point, though!
2. There is a strong focus on safety
It’s too easy to think ‘I’ll just do a little bit of sanding – who needs a mask?’ Eric not only points out where common hazards are, he explains easily over-looked hazards and provides sources for further information.
3. Types and brands of material are clearly explained
Whether he’s listing the different types of foam and their properties or providing a standard list of timber sizes, you can easily see exactly what is being referred to. I particularly liked the table of adhesives and what they’re good for on page 70-71.
4. Instructions are precise and easy to understand
I’ve never welded before. I really want to learn. The section on metal welding made me want to go and steal my father-in-law’s welder and go for it. But Eric was clear that you should start with an experienced eye looking over your shoulder. So I won’t until I find one. (But I still want to…). The photos and illustrations are excellent, with some being specifically set up to show how to, for example, lash rope, and others just shots from an actual build process. He covers a huge range of materials and techniques from upholstery and sewing to hard-core metal work and vacuum-forming, so it’s a very versatile book. Probably the only thing not covered in great detail is the incorporation of electrical circuitry in props, but that’s really a whole other book by itself.
5. It’s funny! And very readable.
Yup, in amid the how-tos and the how-not-tos are honest to goodness funny bits, usually in the captions of photos. Which you may miss if you’re not watching out for them. My favorite, under a picture of an anvil: “Prop makers find them handy when shaping metal through hammering. Anvils are also the primary tool for protecting road runners from wily coyotes”
Whether you come to this book because you’re a beginner, or whether you’re more experienced and looking for a few extra tips and tricks, perhaps in an area you haven’t worked in before, you will find something here for you. Our congratulations to Eric, his technical editor, Sandy Strawn, and the team at Focal Press for creating such a valuable resource for our industry.