From Plywood to Steel, Tariffs Hit Louisville Set Designers' Budgets
In a large red brick warehouse in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, Ben Rodman spends his days surrounded by mounds of sawdust on a concrete slab floor and neatly-stacked piles of different kinds of wood.
Most of his time is dedicated to making furniture for homes and restaurants, but recently he finished two big projects for arts organizations.
“We just finished building a set for the Kentucky Opera and we did another set for the UK opera, both at the same time, which was a lot of fun,” Rodman said.
Both projects cost about $6,000 — and like many arts organizations, the groups were operating on a pretty strict budget. And this is one reason Rodman is concerned about meeting these demands in the future, with recently-imposed tariffs on industrial and building materials in effect.
“For me, every time I call to order plywood, literally every time, they tell me the price has gone up,” Rodman said. “Sometimes a couple dollars a sheet, sometimes $5 to $10 a sheet. Same with steel; stick of steel that we used to get for 20 bucks or 25 bucks is now $35 or $40.”
Over the past year, the Trump administration has announced tariffs on both Canadian and Chinese wood products, ranging from oak and maple, to various types of plywood. That means the price has gone up for American consumers, like Rodman and the theater groups he builds sets for.
He said these changes are frustrating.
“When the price goes up on materials, between the time you bid a job and the time you actually purchase the material, it can be a pretty significant difference,” Rodman said.
Elizabeth Greenfield is a communications specialist for Actors Theatre of Louisville. She says that when Justin Hagovsky, the theater’s technical director, ran the numbers, he saw some major increases in cost on materials they use for all their sets.
“Especially on those construction materials that we buy in bulk, we’ve seen about an average 33 percent increase in the cost of those standard building materials,” Greenfield said. “Two-by-four pine, for example, has gone up about 65 percent over the last year or so.”
Most of these costs haven’t hit Actors Theatre in a major way yet. They are a larger arts organization and had the resources to buy in bulk before the tariffs went into effect.
“That might only delay the sort of the moment we have to face the impact of the tariffs a little bit longer,” Greenfield said. “But it’s been something that has been on our radar for a while and will continue to be an issue we follow closely.
But Rodman, who is self-employed and doesn’t have the same bulk resources as Actors Theatre, says he can’t really do much about the increased cost on his end.
“You just deal with it,” he said.
And he has to tell his clients that next year, he may not be able to complete the same project for the same price.