Understanding Age and Wear Effects

by: Wulf
In prop building, breakdown is the final treatment things are given to disguise their recent manufacture. Often the only difference between a good-looking prop and a bad one is that one has been broken down and the other hasn't. Many people associate breakdown with an appearance of great age or decay, but that's only one extreme of its use. All props appearing on stage, whatever their supposed age or condition, will usually benefit from some degree of breakdown. This can either be extreme physical distressing, such as making an upholstered chair look like it has been clawed by cats, or subtle shading that is really virtually invisible to conscious observation, such as taking the shine off of plastic fruit. The real art of breakdown is knowing what techniques to use, and to what degree, in each case.

Breakdown and distressing must never be random. Both do a great deal to help "tell the story" of the prop, and must be consistent not only with that little tale but with the picture of the production as a whole. All materials and objects wear and decay in very specific ways, depending on age, use, location, etc. The degree of breakdown required in any situation is dependent not only on the "character" of the prop - age, use, etc. - but also on the theatrical situation involved. Props to be used in a small, studio theatre will require far more subtle treatment than those for a large opera house or an outdoor amphitheatre. For theatre in an intimate setting where the audience is very close (or for film), breakdown should be at its most realistic and be barely detectable. The larger and further away the audience, the bolder and more exaggerated the break- down must be to have any effect. Fine breakdown and realistic effects are wasted in most large-scale performance situations.

There are very few books on prop building, and none of them offer much advice on breaking down props once they're built. What follows are a few of my own favourite techniques for breaking down and distressing different materials and types of objects. What you must remember is that the same techniques will usually result in very different appearances depending on the degree to which they are applied. How much? Where? and Why? must all come from your own understanding of the object itself.


Obviously, physical distressing is a one-way street - once you've taken away part of a chair's frame, it's very difficult to restore it to its original state. Therefore, distressing is limited to furniture that is the theatre's own property, and which will not be needed in its pristine state again. Borrowed and important stock furniture must be dealt with entirely by surface breakdown.

Taking the edge off: I think almost all wooden furniture looks better with all sharp corners sanded down. When this is done to painted or finished wood, the colour may have to be retouched to match, but usually the lighter coloured edges and highlights are an improvement. A fine grade of sandpaper (180 to 240) in a palm sander will do this quickly, or a spokeshave or edge-rounding scraper can be used for more pronounced wear. Obviously, edges of seats, arms, tops of backs, etc. will be worn smoother, and generally upper class furniture keeps stays crisper-looking than working-class furniture. For a temporary effect, especially on carved or decorated surfaces, try just tipping the corners and highlights with a lighter colour to soften the look.

Extreme wear: When furniture is used for a long time it becomes worn down in certain predictable ways. This is part of the "patina" that antique dealers prize so highly now, and it is just as valuable on stage. Wooden chair seats become worn in the middle and front, but virtually not at all at the back. The difference between these two is a visual clue that tells us how old the chair is. The same is true of rungs, arms and backs. Sanding down the entire surface too evenly will just make it look odd, not old.

Seats of old chairs, stools and benches are usually thick and solid, and therefore often crack and split, especially if they have been built up from several narrow boards. Simulate this by sawing a narrow notch at the edge and cutting the continuation of the crack along the upper surface with a chisel or knife. Remember that cracks always occur in the direction of the wood grain, which in chairs runs from back to front. Cracks like this will usually be worn rounded at the edges and darkened with dirt.

Broken rungs are certainly a good sign of wear in chairs, but it also makes them weak. If you need to retain the strength of a chair but want the effect of a broken rung, try replacing the original rung with a made-up one that appears to have been broken and crudely spliced together. Don't just do this to the original rung, as it will be very weak. Unlike rungs, rails in chair backs are mostly decorative, and one or two can be broken out without impairing the strength of the frame.

Upholstery: Two things happen to upholstery over time: it gets dirty, and it gets worn. In extreme cases the fabric will become torn and ragged, stuffing and springs exposed, and perhaps stained with food and liquids. When furniture is freshly upholstered it has a uniform cleanness that looks unnatural on stage. Even upholstery that is not meant to look old or worn will benefit from a subtle darkening of the fabric in shadows and unexposed areas. I usually do this with FEV in a spray bottle. This should usually be subtle enough to be just barely detectable; test carefully on a scrap of the fabric to establish the right intensity. For some reason this kind of breakdown makes many designers very nervous, so I usually don't tell them what I'm going to do.

Tears in upholstery fabric must always follow the direction of the weave: either splits up and down or snags that cause right-angled tears. Diagonal or irregular cuts will only look like random slashing. Use sandpaper to wear the edges of the cut and abrade the surface of the fabric.

Larger tears should show some of the padding underneath. I fake exposed horsehair stuffing by knotting bits of black thread onto some dark fabric and slipping it under the opening. Bits of cotton batting can be glued around edges of the opening. Usually very little exposed stuffing is required to create the illusion. Real protruding springs aren't very actor-friendly, but they can be faked with a coil of thin PVC rod. Sew the bit of protruding spring to a piece of backing cloth and tack it under the opening in the covering fabric. Remember that real springs don't actually come sproinging out six inches like they do in comics.

For surface dirt, I prefer artist's acrylics instead of scenic paint. Raw umber is usually a good choice for many colours of upholstery, although for pale fabrics you will have to use it very lightly. For dark fabrics, a colour nearer to black will be necessary. Apply some paint onto a rag and wipe it off until the cloth is barely sticky. Rub the paint into the surface of the upholstery in small circles, starting with a light surface application and increasing it until you get the right degree of grime. This technique will make the paint build up on the texture of the fabric surface exactly as dirt would. Remember that this kind of grime builds up on centre of the seat, the arms and the back at head level.

Added bits of damage like frayed or missing gimp, broken webbing hanging down underneath, broken threads where buttons have come off, etc. will all help to build up the overall appearance of wear.

Paper Props

Antique papers are never burned along the edges unless they have been snatched from a fire. This silly old process is probably meant to imitate a deckle edge, but it's a lot safer to do that with careful tearing. Paper from later than the middle of the 19th century will be yellow and brittle, due to the acidic process that came into use. Pale amber FEV is good for this, or a light dusting of aerosol spray paint. Magix shoe spray or one of the floral sprays will offer the best colour choices. Opaque spray paint has the added advantage of fading anything already printed on the paper. Usually the darkening of the paper will be greater towards the edges. If using spray paint, remember to do both sides. The brittle, flaky quality of old paper can be simulated fairly well by wetting it first with white shellac.

8"x11" paper just screams 20th century North America, so if you're trying to pass a document off as foreign or old, always make it a slightly different size and proportion. If I'm using photocopies, I will usually do them on 11"x17" paper and cut them down to a good size..

Newsprint darkens quite quickly to a deep beige colour, and very old papers may be a quite deep amber. Use FEV to tint the paper. Note that even new newsprint is quite flimsy, and doesn't stand up to stage use very well. If you are making a newspaper that has to endure much handling, use a thin, buff coloured rag paper instead. It'll have the same look and feel, but will last much longer.


My all time favourite gimmick for breaking down metals is aerosol spray black urethane paint. It's not too opaque, so it lets the metal underneath show through, and dries slowly (8 hours) so it remains workable long enough to wipe it off highlights, etc. And unlike most spray enamels, urethane paint won't easily scrape off of metals. The colour is quite cold, making it excellent for weapon steel, and for silver I just wash over it with a very thin brown FEV to warm it up slightly.

My second-favourite metal breakdown technique is just a very thin wash of brown scenic paint - not much thicker than just dirty water. A mixture of raw and burnt umber gives a good warm colour, or raw umber alone for a cooler, dirtier look. Good over foil, gold leaf, metallic paint or unpolished metal. (Doesn't stick too well to polished surfaces.)

Brass: Remember that brass and bronze don't go greenish unless they've been exposed to the elements. Ordinarily, brass will just collect dirt in crevices (raw umber paint) and darken overall (FEV).

Bronze: Bronze comes in so many colours it's really hard to refer to it as one thing, but I've found that water-soluble contact cement (the green-tinted kind) gives quite a nice verdigris over most kinds of bronze. Just let it collect in crevices and hollows. Poor quality pthalo green scenic paint (the kind that contains a lot of white) is also quite good for this. One of the few good uses for Struther's scenic paint.

Rust: Rusted iron looks most convincing if there is general rustiness overall and small patches of thick rust in certain areas, usually where it would be most exposed. I give the surface an irregular, splotchy wash of warm brown FEV, then stipple on flecks of burnt sienna or red ochre scenic paint. The flat, dry look of straight scenic paint stands out perfectly against the smoother FEV surface.

Gold Leaf: Don't wear yourself out sanding gilt down to reveal the red bole underneath. Just tip the surfaces with red paint for exactly the same look. Dry brush it on for subtlety, or be sloppier for a bolder look. Just don't tell the designer what you're doing.


Marble: powdered raw umber pigment (or ordinary dirt - powdered clay works well) mixed into paste wax gives an excellent effect when rubbed into marble. It collects in the cracks and builds up around highlights exactly as real dirt does. It also works on painted marble, as long as the surface is flat enough. It can be completely removed with mineral spirits, although it shouldn't ever be done to antique marble, as it will remove the natural patina as well and ruin it.

Mirrors: It's safer to simulate cracks than try to do them for real. Mask off the surface leaving only the width of the crack showing and dust it with silver spray paint. Remove the masking and draw (with a ruler) a shadow under the silver line in felt marker. Dulling spray, hair- spray, soap and all the usual shine-cutting gimmicks look terrible on mirrors. I prefer to cut the shine on a mirror by stretching sheer black or dark grey fabric across it. It keeps the glass from glaring but allows clear reflections. If this isn't possible because of a fixed frame, etc, then use a light dusting of flat black spray enamel. It can be removed with lacquer thinner afterwards. I have never found any way to make mirror silvering blister in a realistic manner -any suggestions?

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