Organizing your prop collection

Many theatres and production companies have a large (and sometimes huge) prop and furniture collection and need quick and efficient access to it, but sometimes the storage conditions aren’t all that great for doing so. In this post, I’ll discuss what I did with a huge prop and furniture collection about ten years ago to help solve that problem

As with so many similar projects, defining the goal and making some decisions up front was very important. Our decisions were:

  • The ultimate goal of the project was to create a web site to expand the existing prop and furniture rental program.
  • The web site would make it easy for designers, prop masters, directors, and other clients to see what we had without having to come over and physically go thru the collection, which was housed in three separate locations. A time-saver all around.
  • Although the web site would require inventory numbers and photos, we did not need to assign a number to, or photograph, every single item like a museum would. A collection of ten identical glasses, for instance, would be treated as a single item. Another time-saver.

Once we had those decisions in place, it was time to begin. The project had three steps:

1. Physically organizing the collection

When I began the project, the bulk of the smaller items had already been stored in large cardboard bankers’ boxes (the ones made for legal files), which were about fourteen inches wide by twelve deep by about two feet long. These were stacked, two or three boxes high, on industrial steel shelves. The boxes were already labeled, but not too clearly, so I created new labels that also had box numbers on them. Then, in preparation for Step 2, I also numbered all the shelves.

Part of this step involved weeding out the collection and throwing out damaged items or anything we knew would never be used again. You may want to refer to my post on Saving stuff (or not) for some ideas.

In the end, we had sort of a department-store setup: books were here, then serving items, then kitchen items, then decor, then small musical instruments, and so on. It was really easy to go to the area you wanted, and there was the stuff.

Furniture and larger items, which were housed in two off-site warehouses, worked the same way. For instance, all the armless chairs were together, then armchairs, then sofas, then small tables, large tables, and so forth. In these areas I also numbered the shelves and the aisles. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

2. Inventorying the collection

Now that the pieces were physically organized, we prepared an inventory. A lesson I learned early was that, although doing this after Step 1 (instead of at the same time) seemed like duplicating the work, it wasn’t. It was much easier to inventory and photograph an organized and pared-down collection than trying to organize it and inventory it at the same time.

For this step, we started with paper forms and then transferred the information manually into an Excel spreadsheet back at the office, but later I set up a spreadsheet on my then-current-but-now-ancient Palm VIIx and entered everything into it as I went. Then, after every work session, I uploaded it to the main spreadsheet back at the office. One more time saver.

The spreadsheet was designed with the web site in mind, and was very straightforward. Each item had the following fields:

  • Location – this could be a shelf or an area in one of the three storage facilities
  • Box number – the number of the box where the item was stored (if it was in a box)
  • Tag number – a sequential inventory number for the item itself
  • Item – what it was (plate, book, lamp, chair, etc.)
  • Quantity – how many of the same exact item there were
  • Category – electric & electronic, housewares, medical items, etc.
  • Sub-category – for instance, under housewares: dishware, glassware, serving items
  • Color – red, blue, reddish brown, gloss black, mixed, etc.
  • Period – modern, medieval, renaissance, Victorian, unknown, and so on
  • Dimensions – width, length, height
  • Notes – any additional description
  • Rentable or not rentable – for instance, we decided not to rent any weapons

Because of the fields, it was really easy (by sorting) to locate, say, all Victorian blue china pieces, or all medieval silver or pewter items, even if they were in different boxes on different shelves, or even in different rooms.

This step was also where we photographed the individual items. As I mentioned above, if, for instance, we had sixteen fairly similar books in the same box, we took a photo of a stack of a few to show what the books looked like, gave them all one tag number, and indicated 16 in the quantity. Or, if we had a dozen small alarm clocks, we put a few in one photo, gave  them all the same number, and listed the quantity as 12. The idea was to make items easy to find, not to account for every one of them.

3. Creating the web site

The actual design of the web site came about because of those decisions we made up front: it was to be easy to use, give customers an accurate description and photo of the items, and — importantly — allow them to submit a list of what they wanted, find out if it was available when they needed it, and get a quote.

The site has been visually re-designed (at least once) since I created it back around 2005, but it still functions approximately the same way, and most of the original photos are still there, although some seem to be missing. You can visit it at

Now — without getting into a lot of techno-speak — here are a couple of notes on the (original) web site.

To make the site easy and quick to update, I used Active Server Pages (ASP), which is a programming language used for database-driven online applications. To update the web site as we added items, I just listed the new items in the Excel spreadsheet, saved it as an Access file, and uploaded it, with the new photos, to the server. ASP took care of the rest. I don’t know what was used to re-design the site, so I can’t comment on it.

BTW, I’m not a programmer. I taught myself ASP by reading Active Server Pages for Dummies, which I borrowed from the public library. ASP is probably outdated technology by now, but there are more current ways to do the same thing.

Using sequential inventory numbers made it easier to assign the numbers to the items. I did not create separate lists for props, furniture, and other pieces: everything used the same numbering sequence.

Along the same lines as above, and to the consternation  🙂  of a couple of people at the theatre, I decided to name each photo with the item’s tag number instead of a description. For instance, if I had a red Victorian chair with tag number P2638, I named the photo “P2638.jpg” instead of “ChairVictRedUpholst.jpg.” This made it much easier to manage the database, since I didn’t have to worry about duplicate file names or typing out long names. To display a given photo, the system just read the item’s number (i.e., P2638) off the Tag Number field in the database, then added “.jpg” to it and used the result (P2638.jpg) to call up the photo itself.

A couple of years after this system was up and running, we started adding costumes to it, and it helped the costume rental program grow quite a bit.

Not every theatre company needs (or wants) a rental program, but I’m seeing more and more companies have them. It can be a good source of revenue, but does require some dedicated work. If your company doesn’t need a rental program, of course, you can simplify the inventory system we designed, and still have a very useful tool for keeping track of your collection.