Building props that are specific for the production are part of most builds.  Designers may give scaled drawings detailing the specific shape, finish, and construction for the prop.  Often designers communicate what they want by using a photo or set of photos that demonstrate the desired look and the information about size or finish communicated by notation on the photos.  Other times, designers rely on the Properties Director to manage the building of props based off verbal descriptions of what the prop should look like that may or may not be accompanied by a rough sketch or photocopy of research for confirmation. Each Properties Director develops a way of working the communication between the designer and the shop and some are more likely to step into the designer’s role of research and creation with only a confirmation of that design coming from the scenic designer.  Others strongly feel it is the designer’s role to do that work and rely on the designer for all information. 

    Information about props is expected to be submitted as part of the preliminary design ideas and certainly should be included in the final design information.  Having the preliminary prop information allows budgeting to occur in a timely manner in conjunction with scenery and the entire package can be modified or approved by seeing the whole project. In addition to the scenery information, the final design should include a furniture plot, set prop requirements and major dressing, any prop drawings for built items, and all necessary research.  

    Most hand prop information is not included at this time but evolves during the rehearsal process. As designers become increasingly busy, production managers have begun to establish firm deadlines to establish timely design information submissions.  Both the directors and designers are made aware of the deadlines. This should facilitate the communication and creative process to move along so the information on the build can be moved to the shop on schedule.


Drawing from Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata for La Traviata at Skylight Opera Theatre

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Buy                Borrow                Pull   

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Buy                Borrow                Pull   

Building Props

The properties director assigns projects to be built by the various artisans in the shop and it is their responsibility to ask questions and carry the responsibility for completion of the prop to the satisfaction of the designer. The artisan often makes the choices about what processes to build with and what materials should be used.  The priority of completion is set within the overall build of all items and may be moved about depending on the changes coming from rehearsal.   Some items may be built to a certain level of completion and then sent into rehearsal to be used for a time before having final work done to complete the finish or upholstery making it ready for load-in and technical rehearsals.  This allows valuable response for specialty built items while time is still available to make alterations as well as helping the actors understand how the final prop might differ from the rehearsal prop.

Every show requires props to be altered or built depending on stock availability and the requirements of the script.  Creating objects that are a specific size or weight is a common request.  Finding real objects may satisfy the visual look but if the item is too heavy to be easily shifted or the stage space requires a low back or a different length, then a build or modification may be necessary.  Many built furniture pieces have additional bracing or even a metal under structure to allow for the extra abuse prop furniture encounters.

Built hand props such as newspapers or family photographs using the actual actors faces in a period document can require extraordinary setup time.  Using the computer has freed the manipulation of graphics from the old cut and glue down to a click of the mouse, making downloads of period documents, labels, and even whole newspapers possible.  Adding in a photo of an actor or typing in a specific headline is possible using any of the various graphics programs and printing the paper out on a plotter or quality printer. 

Photos show drawing and research information from Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata for La Traviata at Skylight Opera Theatre.  After pricing items in retail locations the item was built.  Construction/upholstery work in shop by Props Intern Ana McHenry.

Fabric might be bleached or toned with dyes, tattered or worn down with a rasp or sure-form, and trim pulled free and stretched.  Upholstery is often layered to create a saggy cushion or flattened for a look of great age and use.   Design Master floral sprays, which stick to almost all materials, are often used to tone and distress prop items.  Glossy Wood tone is a personal favorite as it gives the perfect “dirt” tone to most materials.  Krylon clear flat is an alternative treatment to take the edge of newness off of many surfaces.


Building a prop can be a time consuming, expensive, and laborious process and accurately managing the fabricated items within the context of the whole build can often determine the choice made between building or borrowing an item if it can be found in the community.  On the other hand, building props enriches the prop stock as items are added to both furniture and hand props expanding on what will be available for productions in the future. More importantly, building is often the only way you can create that specific prop that fits exactly what the designer envisioned and the show requires.

To view an album on the building of LA TRAVIATA at Skylight Opera, designed by Takeshi Kata click on photo


Some items such as handwritten letters can also be produced on a computer but the conformity of the machine makes them appear computer generated even when a “handwriting” script is used.  Having calligraphy skills and understanding how to write in a period style allows the prop to have the appropriate look and feel with dark splotches and all.  After the original is completed and approved, more can be made using a photocopier to duplicate the document. Paper size can be modified after copying to make documents fit period appropriate paper sizes or colors.  A wide variety of papers in various weights and colors as well as textures are available for use in photocopiers allowing quick paper prop creations.

  Period Newspaper- Hayfever, UW-Milwaukee

Building a prop also means making it look like it belongs in the world of the play. Understanding how to distress wood, fabric, metal, and other materials is necessary to instill props with a history.  Once props are built the final step is usually making it fit into the world of the other props by giving it the correct patina, polish, paint finish, or even wiping down with dirt or mud. 

  Click to move to next “chapter”:  Production TECH PROCESS