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Hell on Wheels Q&A – Ken Wills and Justin Onofriechuk (Prop Masters)

Ken Wills and Justin Onofriechuk, Prop Masters for AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talk about replicating authentic props and the gun Ruth used to shoot Sidney Snow in Episode 410.

Q: Season 4 includes a number of new sets, including the casino, the Palmer hotel, the railroad office, and the Cheyenne Leader office. Were there any sets that were especially challenging to provide props for?

KW: I think the printing press was the biggest challenge this year, and that was a matter of having to show the actors who were working in there how to run it. We had to teach Jennifer Ferrin (Louise), and she was brilliant. We taught her once, and that’s all it took.

JO: I personally got lucky because Ken had already established that set, so I ran away from it as far as I could. [Laughs] I walked in and everything was set up for me. My favorite set was the casino because it had all the liquor in it. I enjoy doing food scenes, and a lot of props guys don’t. I enjoy serving the food, having the food look good, and watching the people actually enjoy it.

Q: Talk a little about the press. Where did you find it?

KW: We were lucky enough to have some help. Pieces were found from museums and all over the U.S. It’s original stuff.

Q: Are there any other notable props on any of the sets that fans should be sure to notice?

JO: We’ve got a rubber builder that makes all of the weapons for us. There are a lot of scenes that involve beating guys over the head this year, and you couldn’t tell the difference between a real rifle and a rubber rifle — that’s how good he is. We had an actor with retractable knife boots. The Dead Rabbits were really a great gang to prop up. They were pretty brutal guys, and the weaponry was quite fun.

KW: Kasha [Kropinski] had never handled any guns. Greg Auch, our armorer, and Anson [Mount], who’s learned a lot over the last four years, taught her. She picked up the Colt Navy very well [for the scene in which Ruth shoots Sidney Snow in Episode 410]. Building some of the Mormon fort was also pretty challenging, too. The history was amazing. A lot of people don’t realize that they were pretty violent, yet very religious. It was a whole different thing for the Mormons. Even their cooking habits, we had to show differently.

Q: When working on a period drama like this one, do you prefer to use authentic items, or do you find they tend to be too fragile or not to show up well on camera?

KW: We try to be as authentic as possible, but there are times where we have to use real-looking replicas. Some of the guns would be too old or fragile to even try to fire.

JO: A lot of times we have to get doubles or triples of things, and with this time period, it’s almost impossible. You really take a chance because a prop could break or get lost, and we’d have to stay home the rest of the season. [Laughs] So, sometimes we get one or two built.

Q: The two of you alternated as property master from episode to episode. Were there any episodes you didn’t get to work on that you wish you had?

KW: All of them! I miss them when I don’t get to do them all, but Justin stepped up to the plate last year and it gives us a bit of a break. I think my favorite episode was Episode 406 with Common. The next episode right after was one of the best ones, too.

JO: I enjoyed Episode 407 too, because that was a pretty big storyline. I also wish I did all the episodes, but I watch Ken’s episodes and say, “Wow! That really looks good” or “I wish I did that.” With alternating, the only tricky thing is continuity, but we have a good crew on set that keeps an eye on that kind of stuff.

Q: Do either of you collect any props yourself? Have you kept, or do you covet, anything from Hell on Wheels?

JO: We rent from Ken. It costs so much money to ship stuff, so it’s really great to have them local.

KW: Most of the props are owned by me. I’ve been collecting since 1991, after I did Unforgiven. It’s one of the things I’m addicted to.

View a gallery of props from Season 4 with details from Prop Master Ken Wills >>

Read an interview with Music Supervisor Rick Clark >>

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