New Tools for the Scene Shop

As a Technical Director and a homeowner, I am always on the lookout for new tools to make my shop safer and more productive.  Over the years, I have introduced or been introduced to new tools on a fairly regular basis.

I am probably showing my age when I admit that when I started out in this industry in undergraduate school in 1978, our shop was not even equipped with cordless drills.  All of our “drill motors” had these pesky power cords attached to one end of them.  The ubiquity of cordless drill motors (and other cordless tools, for that matter) is one of the most major innovations to tool technology that I have seen over the years.  The very first ones were blue and were, as I recall, rated at 9 amps.  We didn’t call them drill motors or cordless drills but by their manufacturer’s name.  They were simply “Makitas”.   In the intervening years, I have gravitated toward cordless drill motors by DeWalt and Milwaukee, but I remember with fondness those early smurf blue tools.

Another early tool that my undergraduate school purchased was a portable band saw.  This was immediately following the construction of a set for “Jumpers” which consisted of open framed scenery of 1” square steel tube.  We cut every stick manually with a hacksaw.  It was a Porter Cable Porta Band saw that TD Steve Martin (No I am not kidding) purchased the week following the opening.  This saw was amazing! We didn’t have to use oil.  A small stick of wax-like lubricant that seemed to last forever was all that was needed to assist in cutting.  A couple of years later an alum came back after his first year of grad school with stories of a magic saw with a thin circular blade made of grinding-wheel material that was mounted on a pivot that chopped right through square tubing in seconds.  Of course, that was my introduction to the chop saw.

20 years ago, the must-have tool seemed to be a Biscuit Joiner.  And I got one.  We use it for flat and other framed construction where corner blocks and keystones (does anyone still cut “keystones” instead of “straps”?)  or covering the back with luan are contra-indicated.  A few years ago, my father-in-law (a cabinet-maker0 introduced me to the Kreg Pocket Hole Jig technology.  My students are almost as keen to use this tool as they are the biscuit joiner.  Several years ago the hot new saw “as seen on TV” was the Rage Evolution circular saw.  Keith Carradine reprised his “Kung Fu” persona to shill for it.  But that wasn’t why I was interested.  The ad showed this circular saw cutting easily through wood and steel without a blade change.  Coincidentally, my shop’s circular saw went missing about that time and a set constructed with a lot of steel tubing was going to need disassembling at strike.  Our reciprocating saw was just not going to be up to the task. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy one.  My first impression was that it was sort of cheap and I find design of the saw to be a bit hard to see past to guide a precise cut.  However, the Evolution Rage multipurpose saw blade worked as advertised.  It cut through 50 or more welded butt joints in square steel tube like butter.  We have used this saw for several years and only had to replace the blade a couple of times.

Our latest acquisition is a new table-saw with flesh-sensing technology.   It was dubbed the “hotdog saw” by my department chair on account of the widely viewed stunt used to demonstrate the sensitivity of the technology by running a hot dog through the blade only to have the flesh-sensing technology retract and stop the blade so quickly that the hot-dog only gets a slight nick in it.  Prompted by the intersection of our pitiful Delta Contractor saw biting the dust, an small accident caused in part by the miserable stock blade guard and the recent multi-million lawsuit against a portable saw manufacturer for the lack of such technology on their cheap big-box store model table saw, I convinced the Academic Dean to assist us in the purchase of a SawStop table saw.  We have yet to experience the blade brake retracting. Ironically, I think we train our students much more carefully to avoid such an experience.  It is a great saw!  Is it worth almost twice the price of a comparable Delta Unisaw (which I consider a fine tool also)?  I’ll be able to answer that question when the first student avoids inadvertent digit amputation and possible permanent disfigurement and long recovery because of the investment.

A tool that has been discussed recently on the Stagecraft mailing list was prompted by this video: Bridge City Jointmaker Pro tool is a little pricy for set construction but just might be the thing for the well-equipped prop shop.

Finally, I was watching TV this very morning and saw an advertisement for the Rockwell BladeRunner.  Bob Villa was shilling for this one, so it must be good :-).   Seriously, it looks like a “jigsaw” mounted beneath a small portable table.  It has a nifty guard that swings over the blade and even has an optional bracket that allows it to hang on the wall.  It is priced at around $150.  Another tool that might be useful for a small shop, but I question how durable it will be for a high-production scene shop.

That’s all for now.

Have fun (after all, they don’t call it a play for nothing).  But be safe!


Evolution Rage:

Stagecraft mailing list:

Bridge City Tool Works Jointmaker Pro Saw:


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