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The Surprising (Low) Cost of Prop Making

I inevitably get asked how much did that <ENTER PROP NAME HERE> cost to make?! And I’m always amazed at people’s reactions when we talk dollars and cents. Like any hobby or project, things cost money. But it’s no joke that some items cost literally nothing - okay, let’s leave our time out of the equation for a moment.

There are many cost equations that go through my mind when planning something new to build. Equations such as, “How much would this cost at retail”? or, “How much would parts of this cost if fabricated only part of it”, or “How much could I sell this for in November?”. Some items simply can’t be easily fabricated - say, Darth Vader’s Helmet (so he didn’t come out looking like Dark Helmet from Space Balls). Additionally, other props would take an entire season of build time and have an unfavorable opportunity cost to boot - such as the Han Solo face and body sculpt (with the unmistakable grimace from Harrison Ford). Some things are just better left purchased so you can move on to bigger things.

Material consideration has a big factor on cost as well. The evil mermaid prop could have been made from sculpted foam, cardboard, or even foam board. But for the size of props such as this, the body alone would cost a small fortune. And with an entire array of props needed each year, this could quickly blow the budget. In this case, plastic food wrap and 4 rolls of clear packing tape fit the bill. At a mere $4.58 for the body, I could have made a battalion of evil mermaids - but one is all that was needed to do the trick.

Finding low-cost material options is critical to stretch the dollars as far as possible. For a seven-foot Pirate cannon barrel, I opted for two cardboard cement formers joined together for a combined total of $24. Not bad given the prop has now been given a second life next to a bookcase and looks as great as the day it was made. Surprisingly, the cannon wheels became the most expensive item (pound for pound) on the cannon. Factoring on acquiring free buckets from Firehouse Subs (the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket becomes a wheel), I unfortunately couldn’t stomach the smell of the pickle juice that these once contained. Therefore, I had to pony up $5 per bucket at The Home Depot.

Recycle, recycle, recycle - many materials continually get reused (and abused). And since these items have already been paid for, they don’t cost a thing next year. For example, the General Grievous (Star Wars) mannequin was built almost entirely of PVC that was used from the Mermaid Tank the year before. Since I use screws to secure the pieces (and not PVC glue), I can easily disassemble and re-purpose the materials for a new configuration.

There are always deals and opportunities to build or acquire materials for a low cost. You just have to keep you eyes out for the pennies and cents!

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