It’s not as fun as the Oregon Trail, but you probably won’t contract dysentery either.



All About the Benjamins

Budgeting tools are a necessity for conveying fiscal information to the design team.  As a Charge, I have gone through many iterations of estimating templates before I landed on what I currently use.  I have found estimates to not only help me convey information, but they have also given me clout in meetings where I had none before.

I consider estimating tools to be a form of risk assessment.

What are the risks involved in any given project?  I don’t mean in the traditional way of perceiving risk: “Am I safe?”  It pertains to completing things on time and within budget.  Any process or technique poses an element of risk that if we are aware of and are able to plan for, we can then better execute.

Much like a Johari Window, an estimate can show your strengths and weaknesses of your shop, and where you will need to compensate on a given project, process, or technique.  Best of all, it can show you these compensations before it is “go” time.

Walk softly, and carry a big stick.

Consider this scenario: You walk into the meeting, look through the design, and in your head, you are thinking, “There is no way I have the money or hours to pull off everything in this show.”  So naturally, you turn to the designer and director and say, “I don’t think I have the time or resources to paint all of this.  Is there something we could simplify or cut?”  They look at each other, talk back and forth a bit, until coming to the conclusion that you really are able to paint all of this, you might just have to work some really late nights to get it all done.

“Just” is a four letter word.

I’ve been there.  Too many times.

Now consider this:  You walk into the same meeting, examine the design, and begin to crunch some numbers.  A few minutes later, you come to the conclusion that no matter what, you do not have the means to produce this show in a timely manner, and you have proof to back it up.  You show the designer your paperwork.  I would venture to say that most designers would look at that estimate, and begin to figure out a way to simplify a unit, perhaps cut something in order to make the numbers work, or go to the production manager for more resources.  Instantly, you no longer have to say “No.”  The paper is doing the talking for you.

Basic Algebra  (a.k.a – a bad fourth-grade subject)

The painting estimate is, at its core, a simple math equation:

(Area) ÷ (Coverage) = (Amount)

However, I have never been satisfied with this equation because there are so many other variables that are unaccounted for.  What if you are doing a wash?  What about a spray?  What if you aren’t covering the entire unit, but only a small corner?

This led me down a rabbit hole of excel spreadsheets, a myriad of conjunctions, and some new friends from India.  I would spend the next couple of years working through various revisions of a template that would ultimately change the way I move through the design process.

Page One: The Overview

The first page consists of a summary of the show.  Each unit is given its own line with a brief description, size, monetary cost, and labor hours required to complete.  Below is a subtotal, along with various lines of added cost.  These could include consumables that will be used during production, shop costs, and most important contingency.

Contingency deserves a shout out.  This line item is extremely important and should never be omitted, no matter if it is a simple process that you have done a million times.  A contingency is your insurance.  You will make mistakes, and this line item is how you account for them.  Labor should always be included in your contingency.  My rule of thumb is a minimum of 15%.  I have on occasion gone as high as 50% depending on the project.  This is, in essence, a value of risk assessment.  How risky is the project?  Higher risk equals higher contingency.  By risk, I mean to say: Are these new materials for you? New substrate? Large area?  Anything that might pose a problem should be assessed ahead of time.

Usually, I organize the estimate by unit, but sometimes this doesn’t make sense.  For example, I recently painted a box set with a nod towards French Neoclassicism: Striped wallpaper sitting atop wainscoting all trimmed in gold with Corinthian style capitals.  Instead of breaking the show into individual walls, I decided to budget the wainscoting, wallpaper, and trim as separate units.  This helped to reduce redundancies in the estimate and make it easier to adjust as changes were made.  This approach also helped TD’s understand the order in which I would prefer to paint things.  It wouldn’t do me any good to paint one round of wallpaper and wainscoting on day one, another round of wallpaper and wainscoting on day two, and so on.  It is much more efficient to paint all the wallpaper, then wainscoting, then trim.  Keeps things consistent.  All this to say: How you break up the show depends on the show itself and the elements in it.  90% of the time I am painting a custom-built unit that requires its own unique thought process.

Page Two: The Sweet Graphic

Page two is simply that.  A visual representation of where money and labor are going.  Pretty simple and is an easy reference for designers and directors who aren’t numbers people.  The visual explains very quickly where your money and labor are going.

Page Three, and Beyond!!

The next series of pages shows individual units and the process I will eventually use to paint it.  The process listed here is not set in stone and will change as we conduct samples.  It gives the design team a clear understanding of the general direction we are headed.  It is not the “be-all, end-all” of processes.

At the top of the page is a listed description of the unit as I understand it.  What is it made of? How big is it? How many? Is it double sided? Does it spin on its head and tap dance?  My goal is to communicate with the director and TD what this unit is.  This gives the TD a clear understanding of my desires, and ensure we are all on the same page.

Next to the description is the total square footage.  This number is probably the most important number on the page because, without it, the remaining cells can not populate.  I usually add 5% to the total to account for edges, small reveals, and the angel’s share.

Now for the process.  I list each step, a short description, the materials used, percentage of material to be used in the mix, and percentage of area to be covered.  For example, our typical base coat for hard scenery is either 1:1, or 2:1, mixed with water.  In other words, 50% or 66% material used in the mix.  Next, I enter the percentage of the area to be covered.  That’s pretty clear.

Once I hit enter, the magic of formulas spit out a number that is pretty darn accurate.  Or at least as accurate as what I have entered.


The Last Page…

Here is a reference page for all the materials I have used over the years.  As I enter the material into each line of the Unit pages, the following cells will grab information from this page to tell me how much that line item costs.  I also use this page to calculate how much of each material I need to order.  It’s not perfect, but it gets me pretty darn close.

Money vs. Labor

Calculating money is relatively easy.  In fact, I just went over the formula I use.  It’s plug and play.  Calculating labor hours, on the other hand, is a different ball game.  I say that because the variables are different for every shop.  Are you a union shop with veteran painters, or a Brooklyn start-up that is hiring painters straight out of college?  I once hired a Visual Anthropologist on my crew.  He painted faster than some painters I had worked with for a couple of years.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Is your crew familiar with the process and materials, or is this a brand new venture for all of you?

Download the template. Please consider this an open source document.  I have also opened a Forum page where I welcome feedback in the hopes of making this better.  If you use this document I encourage you to contribute to the community and help develop this material.  The only thing I ask is that you retain my credits on the overview page.

In conclusion

There are many estimating templates out there, from generic contractor sheets to the template in Susan Crabtree and Peter Beudert’s Scenic Art for the Theatre.  Find the one that works for you and use it to its fullest potential.  The one I developed works for me, but it may not be right for your situation.  If you are excel savvy, you can certainly make your own.  All that to say, staying on top of your finances is imperative to running an efficient shop.

Estimate Instructions and tips:

  1. The file contains macros, scripts built into the file to make it function. When you open the file it will ask if you want to “Enable Macros”.  Enable Macros.
  2. The file contains many hidden cells that contain reference formulas. This is the meat of the file.  Feel free to poke around.  Be careful about changing things as one edit can affect the remainder of the file!
  3. The overview page contains many cells that will auto-update the remaining sheets in the workbook. Start by filling in the show name, Director, Designer, TD, and Charge.
  4. Next, start adding the units of the show. To add a unit, double-click the tab “Sheet1” and add a title. It will auto-update the overview page.  I recommend keeping a consistent nomenclature with the TD regarding units. Continue adding as many units as you need.  If you have more than 23 units, stop and re-assess how you are breaking down the show.  If you really do have more than 23 units, let’s talk.
  5. Once all your units are named, head to one of the unit sheets and enter your description and square footage. Square Feet must be entered into cell AX8.
  6. Now time for the process. Add a step number, description, and choose a material.
  7. Next, add the amount of material in the mix, and the sq. ft. percentage.
  8. If you have entered everything correctly, this should populate the cost of the step.
  9. Enter labor hours.
  10. Continue entering all unit information.
  11. Tips and Tricks:
    • If you know Excel, feel free to unlock cells and play around. However, they are locked for a reason.  If you mess something up, download the file again and start over.
    • Materials Sheet: Add materials as necessary. The materials sheet is built for me.  Change as you need.  The prices reflect the prices I get in Florida.  They may be different for you, so double check.  Don’t forget to include shipping in the price, or add a line for shipping on the Overview page.
    • Don’t skip unit sheets.
    • Don’t add sheets.
    • Don’t delete sheets.
    • If you need to reduce the number of sheets, hide them. You can always unhide them.
    • When you download the file, save it as a template in the Excel Template Folder. It will pop up as a template when you open excel.


Jason Strom is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts and has been with FSU as the Paint Shop Manager and Adjunct Faculty for 7 years.  Jason’s experiences include painting scenery for The McCarter Theatre, Maine State Music Theatre, John Creech Design and Production, LIV Design, Inc., Carnegie‐Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, and for productions both on and off-Broadway.  To see more work of his work, please visit his website.


Do you have a great template that you use to organize and help manage the cleaner side of our trade? We would love to hear from you!


1 Comment
  1. Nicole Deibert 5 years ago

    This info is amazing. Thank you.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



©2023 Guild of Scenic Artists

Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?

Create Account