Essential HAND TOOLS for Prop Makers
I've been freelancing professionally for quite a few years now, and I'm only just starting to feel as though I've got my toolbox fully equipped for *most* of my common commission work.
Some of the tools I use most now are things I never thought I needed when I first started out and now I can't believe I managed without them all. It pains me (pathetically so) when my tools aren't at hand, because normally whenever something needs fixing, making or jury-rigging, I've got SOMETHING that'll do the trick.
The list isn't exhaustive - for some jobs more specialist tools are required (for example, polystyrene carving needs a set of carving knives, surforms and wire brushes) but for the most part, they'll see you through. It's another really long one, but hopefully useful.
Next, I'll be looking at POWER TOOLS, so follow up with that post for details on glue guns, heat guns and more.
My Etsy shop is always evolving with new products and I'm open for commissions too - Check it out HERE if you'd rather buy something than make it yourself.
Pens/ Pencils/ Sharpies
These guys are pretty standard, right? But somehow no matter how many I buy, they're almost always missing within a week or two.
I prefer ballpoint pens for marking out foam as opposed to sharpies or pencils, because they show up well enough but don't end up bleeding through my primer and paint job. It is possible for them to score and damage the smooth surface of foam, so be careful not to apply too much pressure.
If you do use sharpies or permanent markers that aren't water based - these can keep bleeding through your finish, whether its paint or latex, long after you've finished the prop.
A layer of shellac/ button polish is the main thing I've used to stop the sharpie-bleed, but it's expensive and not so readily available or suitable for flexible props.
Sharpies are AMAZING at writing on almost anything, but I wouldn't recommend using them for marking out foam or worbla props. They CAN be used really effectively in place of painting for really fine details, though.
A really good pair of scissors is essential. This is my set up:
Fabric scissors (a small pair and a large pair) which are ONLY used for cutting fabric so they stay nice and sharp and clean.
General purpose scissors that are quite messy, since I use them for cutting fibreglass matt, worbla and foam and all sorts of other things.
Small pair that are dedicated latex mask cutting scissors because they're small/ precise and super sharp.
Craft Knives/ Scalpels
Craft knives blunt quite easily, but with the knife sharpener I manage to use one knife for years. Eventually the blade does becomes thin from over-sharpening and needs to be replaced.
Craft knives can be bought for as low as £1 for multiple from hobby shops and even newsagents sometimes, but why create more waste than you need to- right?
Scalpels are much better for small detailed work because I have a bit more control over the angle of the blade.
However scalpels are hard to sharpen so I go through quite a lot of blades for these. I have a Swann Morton scalpel handle and my normal blades are no.10A but there's a variety of shapes and sizes available for that scalpel handle which is nice.
Two flexible sewing tape measures - for fabric
A small spring return tape measure - for foam or longer distances
A wooden metre stick - for measuring and marking out straight lines
A metal metre stick - for measuring, marking out and CUTTING straight lines
A metal 30 centimetre ruler for general purpose marking out and cutting straight lines
A scale ruler that has various scales on - for technical drawing
It may seem like a lot, but using the wrong kind of tool for the job is how measurements get read wrong and for a lot of projects, that means starting from scratch when it doesn't fit.
Primarily, the aim is to have enough screwdriver bits for all of the screws that you're working around. For a prop maker like me, that can be pretty much anything.
My set up is a magnetised interchangeable screwdriver handle and a large set of screwdriver bits that came with my drill. Similar to THIS. It means that with one handle I can attack pretty much all available screws.
However, a selection of screwdrivers is a fine option, it just takes up a little more room. A really good low-down on this can be found HERE, but if you have a few sizes of phillips heads and a few sizes of flat heads, you'll probably be fine for general work and can just buy specific ones as required for a job.
A while ago I got a set of 3 different pliers that are perfect for most jobs.
The set is very similar to THIS ONE from RS Composites. Which includes a 180 mm Combination Plier; 160 mm Side Cutter and a 200 mm Snipe/Needle Nose Plier.
There are some projects that will require specialised pliers, such as making chainmail, but for general work these ones have been fine.
The two types of clamp that I think are most useful are:
Various sizes of spring clamps like THIS which are good for holding small pieces together.
Various sizes of One-Handed Bar Clamps such as the IRWIN range which are amazing for larger projects.
I have two hand-tool saws that I frequently use although a lot of my cutting is done with my DREMEL or Bandsaw (those, I'll cover in my POWER TOOLS blog post).
A hand saw - This one I use for bigger jobs, mainly wood and fibreglass.
A hack saw - I use this for smaller projects such as cutting PVC pipe or upholstery foam.
I'll look into the more specialised and powerful staple guns in my POWER TOOLS post.
Honestly, I don't do terribly much woodwork, so mostly I use my two chisels for prying plaster moulds apart, or chiselling off cured plaster from my work bench. Still, I feel that having at least one or two around is useful because while I might not use them for their intended purpose, I do use them.
I also use metal scrapers for chiselling off plaster, but they're not as rigid or robust as a proper chisel.
Even for someone who's far more into my foam crafting than sewing, I use my stitch ripper quite a lot. A few projects I've done have been a blend of foam and fabric, and as someone who doesn't do a lot of sewing I do find I make mistakes more than I should. For these times, a stitch ripper is a life-saver.
TIP- Thin craft foams and plastazote are really easy to sew through in a sewing machine. It's a great way to join foam to fabric and even foam to foam that I find gives a very smooth join as opposed to gluing, which can be clumpy or leave stain marks.
I have a leather working hole punch that I use for a lot of things other than leather. It's also great for making neat holes in foam - such as holes for eyelets or decoration. The one I have it similar to THIS ONE, which spins to give a variety of hole sizes.
Some other bits and bobs that require a mention -
These aren't exactly tools, but they're thing that live alongside my tools I just couldn't do without. It's great to have a stock of these items for when you just need a 'thing' to do 'something'.
(Various grits from rough (60) to fine (180 -4000)
I like to have a variety of lengths and widths, making sure I have a screwdriver bit to fit!
A variety of nails is perfect, with thin ones being a substitute for pins holding foam together too.
I have a large stash of thick and sturdy wire, because its perfect for so many things, from making armatures for clay sculpting to loops for hanging props or weapons up while they dry.
I use string for EVERYTHING. My favourite is the really sturdy dark grey stuff, because its not rough like regular string. It can be used for detailing on props, wrapping handles on weapons and pretty much everything in between.
Phew, that was ANOTHER long post!
Again, like in my LARP and COSPLAY MATERIALS post, I'm sure that there are some other useful tools I haven't included here, as well as tools that are for specialised projects which would be better bought as required.
Please let me know if you can think of anything that should be included and I'll do my best to provide some tips.
Next, I'll be doing a run through of all the POWER TOOLS I use for my prop making, which is quite a lot too!
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Thanks for reading!