Prop makers create objects that help to bring a theatrical or cinematographic production to life.
Props are objects which have been used in the theatre for many centuries: they set the time period and give a special character to the production. During the Renaissance, theatre companies considered these special items as “company property”, better known as “props”.
Nowadays, prop makers use a mix of practical and creative expertise to create objects for use on stage, in film and television. They are usually skilled in several areas such as metalwork, upholstery, casting, sculpture, painting, furniture making, computer modelling, electronics, fibreglass, etc.
Props can be divided into three categories:
- Hand props: these are items carried or handled by the actors. They can include weapons, cigarettes and jewellery.
- Set props: these are large movable items for the set, for example a table, tent or canoe
- Stage dressing: these smaller objects are also part of the set and give it a sense of place and time. They are usually stationary and can include curtains, globes or paintings hanging on a wall.
Before they start creating new objects, prop makers read the script to get a basic understanding of the story. When they work on a historical production, the next step is often to undertake research to make sure that their props look authentic. Prop makers then work either from a detailed design or a brief (which will include information such as size, colour, use, details, quantity) given by the production designer or the art director. They normally make doubles or triples of each prop, in case the original gets damaged.
Props makers must be good team players as they constantly liaise with other members of the production team: they get the materials and tools needed from the production buyer and often work in collaboration with costume and set designers, make-up artists, electricians and stage hands. However, on small productions and especially in theatre, prop makers may be asked to put on several hats and be responsible for the creation of costumes and sets as well as props.
Prop makers usually have to work within tight budget and timescale requirements so they need to be imaginative and resourceful when it comes to creating an item from scratch. They may have to recycle old props or adapt them using techniques to simulate marks of age and wear.
As they create, prop makers often experiment with different materials. For example, they may have to create a prop which looks very heavy, like a metallic sword, but is in fact made of lightweight material so that the actor can manipulate it easily. Prop makers try out their props during rehearsals and tweak them accordingly, and may have to repair damaged props between scenes.
The vast majority of prop makers are self-employed and are paid per day or a set fee for a production.
Rates can vary widely and are generally lower in theatre than television and film. The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), which represents freelance workers in media industries, suggests a minimum rate of £200 for a 10-hour day.
Typical tasks include:
- Reading and analysing the script
- Drawing a preliminary props list
- Carrying out library and web research
- Compiling found images into a collage book which will be used during production meetings
- Attending briefing sessions
- Drawing sketches and designs
- Creating authentic-looking props
- Defining the shopping list for making the props
- Experimenting with a variety of materials such as wood, plastic, metal or fabric
- Using specialist machinery and tools such as soldering irons and electric drills
- Coordinating the look of different props
- Adjusting props after rehearsals according to the stage manager’s notes
- Repairing props
- Working in collaboration with the rest of the production team
- Respecting health and safety regulations
There is no required qualification to become a prop maker. However, being qualified in art and design or technical theatre will help you to find your first job.
Several routes are possible:
- You can take a foundation course directly related to prop making, such as a BTEC Level 3 Nationals in Production Arts
- You can train in production and design as a theatre technician or set/stage designer. The Drama UK website has a list of accredited courses.
- You can get into prop-making by specialising in a related area of your choice, such as furniture making, 3D design or fine arts
Two higher education institutions offer long courses in prop making:
- The Central school of Speech and Drama has a BA (Hons) Theatre Practice and Prop Making
- The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) has a postgraduate diploma in Property Making
An attractive part of these courses is that they offer placements, which will help you to get your first foot on the industry ladder.
- Creativity and imagination
- Manual dexterity
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Problem-solving skills
- A range of practical skills
- Good listening and interpretation skills
- Excellent communication skills
- Versatility and flexibility
- Ability to work well under pressure
Your place of work will change with each production: you may be based in a studio, in the backstage area of theatres or on film sets. You will often have to visit specialist shops to buy materials and libraries or museums for your research.
Your timetable will also vary with each new production. Evening and weekend work are common, especially when deadlines approach. Your work may require you to travel to sets across the country or even internationally.
It is vital to respect health and safety regulations as you may have to handle dangerous equipment and chemicals to create your props. Backstage rooms may not be well ventilated, which can be hazardous when you create sawdust as you drill through a plank of wood or paint a prop. You may have to wear safety goggles and a mask to carry out this type of tasks.
It can be hard to earn a stable income, especially at the start of your career, as the majority of prop makers are freelancers on short contracts.
You will be entering an extremely competitive field, so it is vital to get some work experience, either through your vocational course or by volunteering for student productions or amateur theatre.
You can widen your network by becoming a member of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT). The website has a list of technical resources, training opportunities, publications and industry supporters.
In television, the main employers are the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
You will often start as a props assistant and can progress to the position of props master or director, in charge of the overall production and maintenance of props.
You could also move to another production role, such as set or costume designer, or take up a lecturing position in an art and design college.
Melanie Wing, 32, is a freelance prop maker based in Leicester.
How long have you been in this particular job and how did you find it?
I have been working as a prop maker for around 12 years. I also continue to work as a stage manager. The two jobs work well alongside each other.
Having always made simple props as part of my stage management work I began working as a freelance prop maker by chance. A show I was working on as stage manager needed a prop but they couldn’t find someone suitable to make it within the required time frame. As I was working on the production and knew exactly the requirements for the item I was able to make it within a specific budget and get it into rehearsals quickly.
What was your first job as a prop maker and how did you end up doing it? Did you do an apprenticeship?
I have always made props from an early age at my local youth theatre. I was encouraged and inspired. I first made my own Scythe for Death in a Terry Pratchett play and then later had to make all sorts of strange items such as dead rabbits and whale costumes.
In 2006 I got a job working as an onstage prop technician at the Royal Shakespeare Company where I was responsible for the setting and maintenance of props used in productions. Then I moved into the RSC’s prop making workshop. There I broadened my knowledge base and grew in confidence to try new skills.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have a BA (Hons) Theatre Design from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and a BTEC Diploma in Art and Design.
Do you think that university prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
My degree was very hands-on and focused on teaching practical skills. It also trained us in what it is like to manage your own time and be responsible for planning and prioritising.
What do you do in a typical working day?
For me there is no such thing as a typical day. Some days I can be at a sewing machine hour after hour. Other days I could be covered in glue and paint, moving between different projects while waiting for things to dry. Another day I could be out shopping (propping) looking for just the right item to meet a designer's request.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
To work as a freelancer for the theatre you must have a broad knowledge base and an ability to respond to random requests in an often short time frame. You cannot become too precious about the items you are making and a sense of humour is vital. Often I am asked to change something I put hours and hours of work into at short notice because the director or designer have changed their mind about how they want to use it.
Do you belong to any professional body, and if yes, what are the benefits?
I am a member of Equity which covers all my work within the entertainment industry. Equity is a very important union for improving working conditions within the theatre generally.
What has been your best experience on the job?
The first time I got a phone call asking me if I could make all the props for a big show. I was really pleased they had asked me and it felt great to be able to fulfil their requests.
What was the worst experience?
It is always frustrating when a request comes in but I’m too busy to do it. As a freelancer, turning work down goes against every instinct.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Learn as much as you can from others. Seek out new skills and ideas and then give things a try. You get better in this job by diving in and giving it a go.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
I have thought about being a teacher. I would like to inspire another generation to work in the creative arts.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour - this is very helpful for job seekers?
There is no regular wage in this line of work as a freelancer. I receive requests which I then quote for, depending on materials and time. Each job is different. If working on a rate rather than quoting per item, as a prop maker you can expect to earn between £10 per hour and £250 per day depending on your skill level and the type of work you are doing.