Creative crafters who make props and stage sets are the MacGyvers of the theatrical arts, yet they may lack some really important tools. Isolation can be critical for those who craft the props and sets to grace our TVs, movie screens and theater stages, yet they seldom have the best tools for it. In order to stay healthy and empowered for high quality, fast creative results, we have a few hot tips for custom prop makers and theater set builders who can benefit from isolation.
Why isolation is critical for props and sets craftsmen
Clearly, putting together sets, props, costumes and other parts of our fantasy worlds is a challenge that stretches imaginations, budgets, schedules and skill sets frequently. There will never be enough tools or money to realize the vision without ingenuity and a little trickery. Burning the candle at both ends and taking risks should probably be expected since the challenges are huge; so why be concerned about isolation? Wouldn’t that energy or budget be better directed toward a new 3D printer, CNC laser cutter or large format printer?
Yes, those tools could deliver powerful, flexible new making options, but there still will be tasks and situations where isolation is critical and doing without it can torpedo the schedule and force expensive rework or delay. Let me offer a few examples:
- The spot repair that requires paint, adhesive or thermal treatments that can damage or degrade other parts of the prop or set
- The dye or coating solvent that escapes into the shop or studio, forcing everyone out of the building until it can be exhausted, due to fire or toxicity risks
- The cleaning or bonding process that holds up production while it is sent to a vendor for fear that doing it in-house will be too dangerous
- The molding or dyeing process that compromises quality for the sake of safety or health risk management, and results in rework due to poor results
- The seemingly low-risk use of a toxic adhesive or dye that turns into an injury or site clean-up project delaying the production
In each of these cases a little education and an inexpensive isolation tool could result in faster results, better quality, or both, and better, healthier working conditions. When we work with a goal-directed, can-do attitude, we tend to do quick-and-dirty spot isolation with little attention to the risks of damage to facilities, unhealthy exposure for ourselves or coworkers, and risks to the project underway, right now. Sometimes that masking-tape and aluminum foil approach is the best option, but sometimes it is a serious mistake. If the training and tools for better isolation technology are not already in place, few professionals on a time-sensitive project will investigate better isolation. As time passes and we stack up doctor visits and schedule delays, priorities may change, but sometimes they don’t.
Rather than wait until your organization fails on a critical project, or your doctor delivers the news that more solvent exposure will cause permanent liver damage, there are tips that can get your shop ready while the cost is manageable.
Easy, flexible isolation for the shop and stage
There is inexpensive, practical technology to protect, entrain or enclose processes and materials that need isolation. Unfortunately, the most powerful isolation technology is out of reach for many of those who need it.
Some forms of isolation are very common and in use by many prop shop and set building teams. Most crews have gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), so the approach of isolating the worker is common. It is also common to have some type of exhaust ventilation, dust hood or vacuum pick-up system to entrain and remove sawdust or smoke, though many shops do not have a dust or fume hood work area, but rather make do with a few fans and vacuum cleaners. Actual enclosures for containment and isolation are not so typical. If an object or work area must be enclosed and isolated that may require tape, plastic sheeting or other jury-rigging, as the availability of a barrier isolation system, glove bag or glove box is limited in many shops.
This is not surprising, as fume hood and glove box enclosures are often expensive to install and challenging to maintain. Most other options are generally a mystery to people outside of a few narrow technical areas. If it isn’t viewed as essential, the investment is rarely made. That may be a sound decision for some crews, but it does have long-term consequences that can be costly. Many shops and studios would be empowered with better, faster output and reduced cost if they expanded this capability. They might also find that staff health and turnover improve after better options for barrier isolation are available.
Fortunately, there are some easy, inexpensive ways to get started with barrier isolation in the prop shop and set construction departments.
Isolation from the Nuclear Power maintenance world
When plumbing work is needed in a nuclear power plant, there are some real challenges. Corroded steel, degraded insulation, and sludge all stand in the way of the new pipes and fittings needed, and they are often radioactive and must be contained. The workers must be protected from exposure to the waste materials they remove, plus the facility and the surrounding environment need that same protection. The most common solution is the use of hazmat glove bags to enclose the dangerous material during disassembly, then contain and isolate it as waste. This works so well in the nuclear world that it has also become standard in asbestos abatement work and other non-nuclear hazmat projects.
There are a few basic features of these bags that make them so popular in hazmat and nuclear work, and make them a terrific tool for use in prop shops and set building. The availability, price, flexibility, and ease of use are the perfect combination for work that must adapt to changing demands, limited budget and schedule pressure.
Flexibility is the number one reason why this technology is likely to be important for a challenging future project. The open-end bags are designed to be placed on or around pipes, columns, housings or most anything else; you simply wrap them over and around the work area, then tape them up to the large object, a flat work surface or to themselves to form a sealed, isolated workspace. Whether you are isolating part of a large wall in a set for repainting or enclosing a small tank for sealing with an industrial adhesive, the same medium size glove bag type could be used.
Availability and economy used to be a problem for Prop crews and everyone else except specialized technical teams using a lot of these bags, but not now. A few years ago it was difficult to find hazmat glove bag dealers, and when you did find them, the minimum order was often a pallet load of hundreds or thousands of bags. Now they are available online, even on eBay and Amazon. You can even buy some of them one at a time if you like, for under $20 each. They are more economical in 25 piece rolls if you use them often.
Ease of use and convenience are great reasons to give disposable glove bags a try, especially when the work is particularly messy or likely to generate problem waste. The learning curve is really short. No special skills or sophisticated processes are needed to use these bags. You just put any tools and materials you’ll need for the project in the bag, tape it in place and get to work. The visibility isn’t perfect, and in some cases, the bag itself can get in the way, but when you need the isolation, these complications are often a very small price to pay. When your work is done, waste materials and disposable tools can be left in the bag for disposal, whether or not there are durable tools that you remove first; this is a great way to minimize environmental release and contamination when working with irritating, hazardous or inconvenient materials.
Isolation glove box workstations for close work
While the flexibility of the hazmat glove bag can be a life-saver in a pinch, a barrier isolation glove box provides quick, reliable work isolation for frequent use. Many scientific and medical labs use glove box or fume hood enclosures for routine work day in and day out. Some of the needs in the Prop Shop have much in common with those labs.
When much of your work deals with dyes, solvents or silicate dust, the fact that you can reduce PPE use can save time while it helps to improve quality and working conditions. Keeping messy work in a hard-wall enclosure can reduce clean-up time and keep the shop cleaner and more orderly. This approach can improve your safety, environmental risk and reduce contamination of the work from dust, drafts and environmental matter.
Isolation enclosures are processing power tools for doing practical work that presents problems if it is done on an open countertop. These are specialized workstations that empower you to do cleaner, safer work using a wider range of adhesives, dyes and other materials that would be unsafe, risky or impractical without this practical isolation. Such enclosures work best when they are just large enough to support the process. While a tall cabinet, a 55-gallon drum or a walk-in paint booth can be used for such isolation, a compact, tabletop barrier isolator is far more practical. Such compact isolation work cabinets provide easy access to an ergonomically sound workspace and require a few minutes for cleaning and decontamination, rather than hours.
Is your shop ready to assemble or fabricate in isolation? If not, a little planning and a modest investment now could make a big difference in critical projects when the pressure is on. Please share your experience with materials and process challenges, and how you deal with them. We appreciate any comments you can offer on how to handle such needs or on problems that didn’t have a good solution.
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