Essential POWER TOOLS for Prop Makers
Previously in my post Essential Hand Tools for Prop Makers, I looked at marking out and measuring tools among others, for this post, I'm going to focus on POWER TOOLS.
Power tools in general are fantastic at reducing time and effort when performing tasks like sanding, cutting and gluing. Most of the things they do could be replicated using hand tools, but power tools are often more accurate, as well as being neater and less physically challenging.
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.
This power tools list takes into account that for a lot of people, having a workshop with large machinery isn't possible so while I'd love to include things like bandsaws and chop saws, belt sanders and lathes, it isn't really the scope of this post.
In the future, I'd love to have a workshop big enough to house them all (which I had at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland when I worked there, and it was glorious!) but that day isn't today. I'll cover that in a future post.
HEALTH & SAFETY- The smoke and fumes that come off the burning foam are TOXIC. Please use a ventilator mask with filters rated for gas. Foam dust is also dangerous, so please ensure you have a mask capable of protecting you from it for sanding, dremelling and cutting.
I get my safety gear from Arco, who are knowledgeable about all things Health & Safety.
I've used three different types of drill-
A battery powered/ rechargeable drill
A corded drill
A combo, battery powered/rechargeable drill that can also be used corded
My combo drill is by far my favourite, because unless you have a few different batteries to switch between, a battery powered drill is out-of-use while charging, and a corded drill requires a power socket to use.
My favourite and current drill I own is THIS ONE, but that's not to say it's the best. It does a good job and while it's listed as cordless, the charger comes on a cord that can be used while its attached to the drill so it can be used corded as well. I've found the staff in Screwfix to be very knowledgeable and helpful for advice, if you need some.
I'm including this just because they can be used in place of a heat gun, or for times when a heat gun is too powerful, such as drying something on polystyrene or paper/ something that burns or disfigures with heat.
The downside is that it's not really hot enough even on a hot setting to heat-mould plastics, worbla or foam, and barely hot enough to just heat seal foam. Still, if you have one and don't have a heat gun, it can at least speed up drying time for paint or primer.
TIP - One thing I do use my hairdryer for whilst moulding and casting, is the vibration that happens when its on. To get air bubbles out of silicone, resin, plaster or anything else that is poured into a mould, I hold the back of the hairdryer against either the mould or a board underneath it. The vibration is a good alternative to a de-gasser if you don't have one as the bubbles rise to the surface quickly.
I've tried quite a few heat guns over the years and this is my opinion on the best ones I've used. I think everyone ends up with their their own preferences, so it's not to say that others will feel the same or that there aren't heat guns suitable for other uses than prop making.
This DeWalt heat gun has two heat settings, which is really useful (similar to a hair dryer on the low setting). It gives enough control to work with a huge variety of materials and techniques. However, I've found them not to be terribly durable, and they're also large and clunky.
This Oypla heat gun is the one I use. It has two airflow settings (though not exactly heat settings, it does the job) but it's smaller and easier to use. It's also lasted me a lot longer than some of the DeWalt ones, which is odd as DeWalt is a better known brand.
This Energer heat gun from Screwfix is the next one I plan to buy if my Oypla one ever gives out, as I used it in the past and really liked it. It's got both two heat settings AND two airflow settings, as well as being more streamline than the DeWalt and lighter/ easier to use. It's also available locally to me, which is easier.
Glue Guns are another tool that people quickly seem to develop strong preferences for.
My absolute favourite glue gun is THIS ONE, a Bosch glue gun we've affectionately called a 'lava gun'-
It's known as the lava gun due to the fact that it's so much hotter and more effective than any other glue gun we've seen.
It has a long, thin nose which allows precise work, and heats up quickly.
It's also DANGEROUS, and really does require more care than normal 'hobby' glue guns. It's absolutely not for use with kids, but as someone making frequent professional-quality props, it's a necessity (in my opinion). Other guns just don't compare.
HOBBY/ CHILDREN USE-
If you're looking for something to work with your fingers in small crafts, or with children, I wouldn't recommend the Bosch 'lava gun'. Instead, These dual-melt hot glue guns by Stanley would be my suggestion.
I've used these effectively, even on professional level props that needed to be durable.
The high setting is very hot, but still not as hot as the Bosch one.
On the low setting, it's possible to use with polystyrene without it melting.
It's also much more suitable for small crafts and for use with (supervised!!) young folk. It's still hot!
If you're looking for something soley for use with polystyrene, or for children's use, where the work doesn't need to be as secure, a cold melt glue gun might be an option. These are much less effective, but for paper, card fabrics and felt etc, they'll do alright.
The other thing to note about glue guns is that they come in two sizes. The mini glue guns are good for small crafts but the output is far too small to be generally used by prop makers.
GLUE STICKS -
Check that you're buying the right size of glue sticks for your gun. Mini guns ten to use 6/7mm diameter sticks and normal sized ones are 11/12mm. I buy my glue in 5kg boxes from Axminster, because it's cost effective and lasts for ages.
By 'Dremel' I suppose that I mean any brand of rotary tool, but as I've only used - and fallen in love with - my Dremel, I'm going to recommend this brand. A really good post about the different varieties can be found HERE.
I own a Dremel 230V 130W Corded Multi tool 3000. It's not the newest or fanciest version of the Dremel rotary tools, but it has been an absolute life saver. If I was to buy a new one, I would go for the 4000 Dremel Multi tool instead.
Rotary Tool bits - The bits I use with my dremel most are:
And I also recommend buying a Dremel Chuck, that allows you to use any size of bits, drill bits or other brand accessories too and is compatible with the Dremel 3000 and 4000.
I mostly use my dremel for sanding foam and cutting metal, fibreglass and PVC pipe, but they have near-infinite uses, and I've used them for everything from sanding down fibreglass props edges to opening a tin of tuna when the tin opener went missing! (I wouldn't recommend it, little bits of metal got into the tuna...)
Of all the tools listed, this is the one that's changed how I work the most. Sanding and cutting is perfectly possible by hand, but the finishes you can achieve and time taken are so much improved that they're 100% worth investing in.
Pyrograph/ Soldering Iron
A pyrograph is a tool with a nib that heats up in order to burn designs primarily into wood or leather, and a soldering iron is for use in, you guessed it, soldering. However, my main use for them is in foam detailing.
Once it's fully heated, making designs on foam is as easy as drawing using a pencil. The heat melts the foam around it, carving in the shapes drawn on effortlessly. It isn't limited to drawing designs either, the various nibs can make a huge variety of textures and effects.
Cuts and gashes
TIP- It's also good for neatening up rough foam textures, because the heat melts the surface of the foam almost similar to sanding using a dremel tool.
As a foam-smith, I use my pyrograph quite a lot, but it's definitely not the most vital tool on this list.
Mouse Sander/ Hand sander
I first bought THIS Black & Decker mouse sander kit when I was working on my giraffe puppet. Each of the foam pattern pieces that were glued together were slightly off, requiring sanding to smooth the whole body down before painting. It was a pretty big body, and my arms were aching after an hour when I'd done ONE pattern piece (Out of over 100!!)
It's a simple little tool, corded, and it has specific sized sanding pads that you can buy, and I've also chopped down some bigger ones to fit.
The sanding pads come in various grits, and mine has a point at the front for sanding into corners.
I sand most things that are too big for my dremel now with my mouse sander, because its convenient and sands evenly.
It's especially good for large uneven foam areas.
I'm not a tailor, and my costumes tend to have minimal complicated fabric patterns because I'm not as confident as with other materials. So the sewing machine I use isn't a high spec one, it has limited stitch types and just a plain old foot. I use THIS ONE from Brother and it's done the trick for me for about 5 years now.
HOWEVER, I know that I would really benefit from upgrading my sewing machine. Despite not doing a whole lot of tailored fabric work, my sewing machine does get a fair bit of use. I enjoy making hats, and also use my sewing machine for thin craft foams which sew very nicely to fabric and foam.
Having a selection of different feet would help with sewing all the different fabrics, leather and foams too, especially using lycra which can be a pain to sew.
A handy sewing machine guide from people who know more than me can be found HERE.
If you're more into sewing than I am - An Overlocker is worth the money for making your work more professionally finished and more durable too.
Air Compressor/ Spray Gun
When it comes to painting, latexing or spray priming, I've got no better advice than to invest in an air compressor and spray gun. Seriously. If you have the space to do it, get one.
They make everything painting and finishing quicker, smoother and more professional looking.
No brush marks, far less chance of drips and even coats all around.
Each coat is thicker than one painted on with a brush, so projects need less layers, and it takes a fraction of the time to do.
And when I first started looking at compressors, I had no idea what I needed. I ended up with a huge, heavy, noisy monstrosity that I couldn't even use because it was so loud. It's hiding in my dads garage now incase it ever becomes useful but I don't think it will. Instead, this is what I've learned -
Silent air compressors are a thing, and they're amazing.
The brand I'm familiar with and love is BAMBI AIR, who do silent compressors in various sizes.
The one I have just now is their smallest, and it does occasionally struggle with the output my spray gun wants (i.e. I have to occasionally wait for it to increase pressure when it's used it all up too quickly) so I would recommend the slightly larger one.
To go with my air compressor, I've tried a whole bunch of different spray guns. I've mostly been going for ones I can get my hand on quickly, because I leave things to the last minute, so THIS ERBAUER ONE from Screwfix is my absolute favourite. It has brilliant pressure, a lot of options regards to nozzle size, air control and paint control too, and it's a lot harder to clog it with latex than the cheaper ones. I love it.
TIP- When choosing a spray gun, it's really important that you check your hose between the compressor and gun to ensure that it's compatible.
Airbrush/ Mini compressor
I only bought my airbrush last year, and it's lifted the quality of my work so much higher than any other individual product. It's benefits include-
Shadows make every prop look better. It's just a fact.
The contrast gives it depth and realism that I haven't really managed to achieve as well painting by hand.
It's much quicker painting with an airbrush, for small projects and small detail.
Smooth colour, no brush marks and easier to make smooth gradients and fades.
When choosing an airbrush and mini compressor it's really important that you make sure they're compatible. As a starter, I picked up THIS COMPRESSOR AIRBRUSH KIT because it was relatively inexpensive and I didn't have to worry about them not fitting together. I'm also pretty bad for not cleaning things so I tend to go for cheap knowing I'll be able to replace it without too many tears. For specialist advice on which compressor is best for you, I'd have a look at articles such as THIS which can probably give you a better idea.
I've had a lot of advice and heard good things about specific airbrush paints like Vallejo, but I've managed to achieve really good results watering down acrylic paint and also with my go-to, acrylic inks by Daler Rowley.
They work on latex, and are water-based and can be washed with water whilst being fairly waterproof when dry.
Measuring out resins, silicones and other two-part materials ACCURATELY drastically improves their effectiveness and reduces waste when you have to redo things that haven't cured correctly.
THIS is the type of electronic scale I use, and I love it because it's easy to use and flat - so it fits any size of item. I wrap mine with a clear plastic pocket and cover the screen with sellotape so that when they get disgusting I can replace it.
I've never been particularly good at using a jigsaw, but they are really useful for cutting thicker wood and plastics that can't be done with a dremel and would take an age to do by hand.
I don't own one, because I don't usually work with the materials that need it, so I'm not able to say which I think is best. THIS LINK has a good explanation of different jigsaws on the market, although I might put it on a list for 'buy it when you have a project that needs it' rather than being ESSENTIAL.
And that's all!
Again, like in my other Tools Review posts, 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 PATTERN SCALING UP TUTORIAL, so keep a look out to see the method that spawned my PUPPETS - 12ft tall Giraffe Puppet, as well as the Galoshan's giants.
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Thanks for reading!