The Prop Shop Bookshelf

Every shop has a shelf of books over the desk, and they're usually a mixed collection ranging from oddities that were acquired for a specific project years ago and never looked at again to valuable reference books that are in constant use. Here are some suggestions of useful reference books that should be on everyone's shelf. Obviously this is just a small selection, and I am anxious to hear about the books that other props people could not do without.

Everyone has at least a few favourite books they couldn't work without. Heck, I've thought of two or three more since I wrote this piece! So drop me a line with your list, for the next installment of the Prop Shop Bookshelf.

Use these links to help you select the subject:
[Prop and Theatre Texts]
[Design and Visual Reference]
[Drawing and Painting]
[Materials and Construction]
[Furniture and Upholstery]


The Prop Builder's Molding & Casting Handbook by Thurston James. Betterway Publications, 1989. ISBN 1-55870-128-1
A good overview of methods of moldmaking and casting in different materials. All the basic techniques, terms and materials are covered, and as with all of Thurston James' books, the illustrative photos are nice and clear.

The Prop Builder's Mask-Making Handbook by Thurston James. Betterway Books, 1990. ISBN 1-55870-166-4
This is the most thorough of Thurston's books, and I think probably the subject closest to his heart. He gives good background material on the history and use of masks, then covers specific techniques and problems, including making live face casts, sculpting character masks, negative and positive molds, etc. He demonstrates the use of a variety of materials: papier mach‚, latex, neoprene, thermoplastic, vacuum-formed styrene, celastic, metal, fur and leather. The section on leather mask-making is extensive and includes good background information on the Commedia dell'Arte and its various characters.

The What, Where, When of Props by Thurston James. Betterway Books, 1992. ISBN 1-55870-257-1
Nothing can take the place of a good research library, but many theatres are in places that lack that basic amenity, and you may have to get by with just this book. All the big areas are covered, including eating and drinking, furniture, writing equipment, home appliances, sceptres and crowns, armour and weapons, scientific equipment, and even Catholic and Jewish ritual apparatus. Each item and object is identified by the date it first appeared, and what country it was found in or identified with. Most are illustrated with simple but very adequate line drawings. The main problem with this book is that it needs to be about five times thicker than its very spare 222 pages. But it's still a very useful book for all shops, especially those in out-of-the-way places where a good research library isn't close to hand.

The Backstage Handbook by Paul Carter, Broadway Press, 1988. ISBN 0-911747-14-1
Probably the one book that every theatre shop - electrics, sound, props, carpentry, wardrobe or whatever - should have. At first glance this might seem to be just another pocket manual for stage carpenters, but in fact it contains a wealth of information useful for almost everyone, from names of tools to identifying textile fibre content to the parts of a chair. If there's any bit of shop information you need to know, look here first.

Pocket Ref by Thomas J. Glover. Sequoia Publishing, 1993. ISBN 0-9622359-0-3
Any information you can't find in The Backstage Handbook will probably be in here. An incredibly dense little book of miscellanous information: lumber sizes, computer codes, air velocities, CB and other radio codes, properties of glues, solvents and paints, drill bit sizes, maximum slope of conveyor belts, metric conversion, and thousands of other lists and tables of information. (It even lists telephone numbers for reporting lost credit cards around the world!). Frequently updated and well organized. Thin paper and tiny print, but then it's almost 500 pages and only 3" by 5«" and less than three quarters of an inch thick!



Handbook of Ornament by Franz Sales Meyer, Dover, 1957. (A reproduction of the original 1892 edition.) ISBN 0-486-23480-0
One of the reference books found in every good prop builder's library. An indispensible collection of examples of ornament and decorative style from different historical periods from Ancient Egyptian to High Victorian (called "Modern", since it was at the time). It has one section of architectural and other decoration arranged by type of ornament - geometrical, natural, artificial, bands, frets, etc. - and a section of objects - furniture, utensils, weapons, jewelry, etc. - arranged by subject. Like many decorator's reference books of this period it has a slight Arts and Crafts slant, which means it concentrates more on medieval and gothic styles than others, but this is certainly not a disadvantage to us. Mr. Meyer's drawings are clear and useful, and most of his subjects are identified.

The Styles of Ornament by Alexander Speltz, Dover, 1959. (A reproduction of the original 1910 edition.) ISBN 0-486-20557-6
The natural companion to Handbook of Ornament, this is also a collection of clear line drawings of examples of decoration and decorative objects, but arranged by historical period, from prehistoric to Biedermeier. It also includes a useful cross-reference index of the illustrations according to subject and material. This book does not have the same Medieval bias, and includes excellent material from the French Empire, Baroque and other periods not covered fully in the Handbook.

The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration by J.G. Heck. Park Lane, 1979. (A reprint of the
Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art of 1851.) A thick book of thousands of clear, sharp, precise engravings of the world as it was and had been up until the mid 19th century. The most advanced knowledge of medicine, physics, botany, engineering, astronomy - all detailed here. As well, representative illustrations of life in every historical period and every part of the known world, reproductions of classical art, illustrations of the great buildings of the world, animals, the history of arms and uniforms, and many other fascinating bits of knowledge illustrated. There aren't very many single picture reference books as useful as this one for prop information. About ten years ago this books was being remaindered everywhere and second-hand copies can still be found.

The Stoddart Visual Dictionary by Jean-Claude Corbeil, Stoddart, 1986. ISBN 0-7737-2093-6 (A colour edition has recently been published.)
This book serves much the same contemporary purpose as the Iconographic Encyclopedia (above) must have in the middle of the last century. It illustrates examples of everything, from types of shoes to military aircraft, and names all the separate parts of each. A valuable reference both for finding simple clear illustrations of common contemporary things (sport equipment, for example) and for detailed views of complicated settings (a television studio, for example). Translated from Quebecois French, some of its names for things are a little odd (the theatre diagram is amusing), but otherwise very complete.



Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Beg, Oxford University Press, 1951. ISBN 0-19-503095-8
This is the clearest and most useful guide to human anatomy for sculpting and painting I have found. Many clear explanatory drawings of skeletal and muscular systems (but not so many as to be boring), useful male and female model photos and interesting and useful little sketches giving hints how to remember important details of human anatomy. This is the book to turn to first if you have to sculpt a realistic human figure and don't know where to begin.

Colour Atlas of Human Anatomy by R.M.H. McMinn and R.T. Hutchins. Year Book Medical Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-8151-5834-3
While anatomy books meant for artists give us tasteful drawings of flayed bodies, doctors need to see the real thing. And although the information on basic musculature is essentially the same either way, these photos of dissected corpses show exactly what bodies and bodily organs look like when they're peeled, chopped open, cut up or just sitting there on a slab. Not for the squeamish, but invaluable.

An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists ed. by Lewis S. Brown. Dover, 1949. A translation from the original German text of 1901.
As useful a guide for construction of animal bodies and sculptures as the above book is for human ones. Covers horses, cows, dogs, cats and several other common critters.

Speedball Textbook for Pen & Brush Lettering. Hunt Mfg. Co, 1972.
This guide has been updated constantly since it was first published (mine is the 20th edition - I believe the current edition is the 22nd) and it remains one of the most useful quick guides to basic lettering and calligraphy. Although it doesn't cover a million different fonts, and all the decorative ones it teaches are somewhat dated, this is still the lettering guide I turn to most often. It is specifically meant for use with calligraphy pens, but most of the techniques and fonts can be used for any other technique you might encounter.

The Letraset Catalogue available from any Letraset dealer, published annually. No shop can be without one, so buck up and pay the $10 or so they charge for it. The good news is that you don't have to get a new one every year - every three years or so will keep you up-to-date enough. The catalogue lists the hundreds of different lettering styles that Letraset sells, giving a reproduction (although small) of the complete font of each. This makes it an invaluable guide for finding a style of lettering appropriate to just about any prop, and a quick enlargement on the photocopier gives you a good reference to draw from. I understand some people even use it as a catalogue of Letraset products.

The Art of Woodgraining by Stuart Spencer. Macdonald Orbis, 1989. ISBN 0-356-17536-7
A very useful little book on painting faux wood finishes. Although like all of these books it assumes you will be using oil-based paints, the techniques taught are very applicable to scenic and prop painting.



How to Repair & Restore Practically Everything by Lorraine Johnson. Mermaid Books, 1984. ISBN 0-7181-3044-8
Not only does this book give clear, easy-to-follow instructions for making repairs to furniture, porcelain, paper, fabric and many other materials, and covers many of the techniques and tools used in prop building, but it includes invaluable little pockets of information on the history and substance of the materials themselves, including colour photos of fifty different types of wood. Very clear illustrations and good colour photos. A book that every shop should have.

The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight, Davis Publications, 1982. ISBN 0-87192-135-9 (a new edition has recently been published.)
A slim, spiral-bound handbook packed with useful information on soldering, cutting, casting, forming, shaping and finishing both precious and common metals. Not bit of space is wasted; every square centimetre is filled with drawings, formulas, facts, hints, instructions and warnings. One of those invaluable "how-to-do-it" books that may sit on your shelf for years, but when you need it you'll be so glad to have it. Good safety info throughout.



Practical Upholstering and the Cutting of Slipcovers by Frederick Palmer, Scarborough Books, 1983. (A reprint of the orginal 1921 edition.) ISBN 0-8128-6170-1
This is considered by some to be the "bible" of upholsterers, and it's easy to see why. Mr. Palmer covers basically the same ground as most other upholstery manuals, but is much more comprehensive. Even details like mounting castors, correct placement of feet and sewing welting are covered. Design and form of furniture frames are discussed fully, as are working in leather, many types of springing and other forms of traditional upholstery. And true to the title, design and sewing of slipcovers is covered in great detail. Of course, given the date of the original book, some of the materials used have been replaced by synthetic ones, but the overall practice is still standard.

The Furniture Doctor by George Grotz. Doubleday, 1962.
A manual of furniture repair and refinishing. Tons of useful hints and instructions, including invaluable get-the-job-done info on repairs, re-finishing, painting, distressing and many other problems that we face all the time. Because of the age of the book, however, his suggestions and recipes for chemicals, paints, etc. cannot be followed too literally. It's written in an opinionated, eccentric style that's like listening to a cranky old uncle (for example, his wonderfully warped history of furniture styles).

Dictionary of Furniture by Charles Boyce, Henry Holt & Co., 1985. ISBN 0-8050-0752-0
This is exactly what you would want it to be: an invaluable quick reference, covering all periods and nationalities, including individual designers, details of construction, materials, hardware, styling, decoration, etc. It also covers areas that other authors tend to ignore, such as 20th century furniture designers and Japanese and Chinese furniture. Many clear marginal drawings.

Soft Furnishings edited by Elsie Burch Donald, Pan Books, 1980. ISBN 0-330-25916-6
This how-to manual covers construction of what we call "soft props", including pillows, drapery, slipcovers, bedding, tablecloths, lampshades, etc. It also includes a section of basic sewing techniques, both hand and machine. There are other similar guides available, but this happens to be a quite good one. Every shop would do well to have either this book or one of its fellows.



The Artists Complete Health and Safety Guide by Monona Rossol. Allworth Press, 1990. ISBN 0-927629-10-0
A must-have for every shop. All the facts we need to know about paints, glues, adhesives, dyes, welding, plastics and all those hazards we face every day, along with common-sense, written-for-laymen recommendations about respirators, ventilation, goggles, gloves, etc. Monona Rossol is a very knowledgeable Industrial Hygenist who works extensively in theatre and fine arts. Includes a great deal of information on WHMIS, how to make use of it, what shops must do to comply, and useful things like how to read MSDS sheets.

Rapid Guide to Hazardous Chemicals in the Workplace edited by Richard J. Louis, Jr. Van
Nostrand Reinhold, 1990. ISBN 0-442-23804-5 Few shops can afford the comprehensive but expensive scientific texts like Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference, but most of the essential information has been distilled into this little guide. Lists exposure limits, physical properties, synonyms, hazard information and other data on about 800 of the most commonly used hazardous chemicals. A useful reference to help make sense of MSDS and product labels.


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