On building a puppet

In a previous post I mentioned (and got absolutely no reaction, by the way) that I’m trained in puppetry and also make my own puppets.  I don’t get a lot of opportunity to practise these skills, though.  When I was still working as a youth pastor I did puppetry quite often and also trained kids in doing puppetry, but no more.  We also went through a phase where we got several orders for puppets, but those have dried up (probably due to the fact that we don’t really advertise).

Until this week.  A student who was doing her practical at the wife’s school needed a puppet for a class requirement.  They have to make it themselves.  For marks.  And not just any old puppet.  It must be a human mouth puppet, you know, like Elmo.

Sesame Street's Elmo
Elmo from Sesame Street
Designed by Caroly Wilcox
Click image for more information

This shows once again just how little some university lecturers actually know of the real world.  See, these puppets can be tricky to make, the materials are expensive (the foam used for the insides cannot be bought in single-puppet quantities), and good patterns are not freely available – you have to buy them.  But they have to be hand-made because that’s cheaper than buying them (then have them make glove puppets, for crying out loud!)

As one would expect, most students cheat.  They pay someone who has the patterns, materials and expertise to make the puppets for them.  I don’t really have qualms about helping them in their cheating – I enjoy making puppets and it’s good money.  I’m much more concerned that these students will enter the teaching profession with a puppet but without any training in puppetry and without any appreciation for the puppet they purchased, cause every time I sell a puppet it’s like putting a child up for adoption.  That’s how I feel about them.

Maybe you’ll understand a bit better once you’ve seen a bit of what goes into making a puppet.

Advisory Warning:  At this point I have to warn you that the rest of this post will contain graphic images of naked, skinless and skinned puppets.  Sensitive readers might do well to go look at these funny pictures of crying babies.

Okay, now that all those with weak constitutions are out of the way, let’s get cracking.

Unassembled Puppet
Puppet Skeleton – unassembled

A puppet basically consists of foam, cardboard, felt, and whatever you use for the skin (Lycra, fleece, faux fur).  These parts are glued together to make the skeleton of the puppet.  Many puppet builders use hot glue, as it’s easy to work with and dries easily.  I prefer contact adhesive, as it doesn’t come loose should the puppet have to spend some time in a hot car or direct sunlight (though that should be avoided, of course).

Puppet innards
Puppet Skeleton – assembled

The international secret society of puppet-making people have redacted some of the steps for the sake of maintaining their monopoly on puppet-production, but here you can see what you end up with when the parts are added together.  Now the puppet is ready to get a skin.

Puppet skin
Puppet skin, still fresh

I’m not sure exactly how one gets the skin.  The wife takes care of that part and I only know it involves sewing machines and sharp pointy objects and a lot of language I cannot repeat on this blog coming from her secret workshop, but I am assured that the skins are not obtained from existing puppets.  That would be beyond evil.

Getting the skin on can be a bit tricky.  You ever see one of those cartoons of someone trying to eat their own face?

Puppet inside out
I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight…

Pretty much what happens here, except in reverse.  After tugging the skin in place like a plastic surgeon who cut off a bit more than he was supposed to you get something that looks like this.

Faceless puppet
A blank slate…or a worm…with ears…

Now comes my favourite part – creating the character.  I try to give each puppet it’s own personality and have not made two puppets that are exactly alike.  There have been moms, dads, grandparents, children, baddies and sheep.  For this one, the student merely said she wanted a girl-puppet and she specified the colour.  I whipped out the glue, some felt and wool, added the appendages, and voilà:

Girl puppet
Proof that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Isn’t she pretty?  And she’s a very modern kid.  First thing she did when she saw my camera was to take a selfie for her Facebook profile.

Puppet selfie
I’m cute and I know it

And then we had to let her go.  That’s always hard for me.  Is her new mom going to take good care of her or leave her lying on a cupboard where the kids can all see her?  Will her mom remember to keep her dry and to wash her hands before handling her?  Will she survive the rigours of living in a Kindergarten class?  It’s better to rather not think about these things.  We just have to let them go…

(By the way, if you’re in South Africa and interested in one of these, you’re welcome to contact me via the form on the about-page for a quote.  International readers are also welcome to contact me, but shipping costs may well turn out to be more than the actual puppet.)

7 thoughts on “On building a puppet

  1. That is tres cool! Years ago we had a good family friend who was a dab hand at latex-and-paint mask making for theatre, among other things including marionettes and stick-animated puppets, mostly for street theatre. He went off overseas but we’ve kept in touch and he sometimes pops up as a reader of my blog these days. Its tremendously creative – partly, I think, through the fun of creating a character.

    1. Latex puppets are the pinnacle of the art as far as I’m concerned. The materials are just a bit expensive (and not that available around here), so experimentation is out of the question. The next skill I’d like to learn is puppets where you actually shape the foam, like the “human” muppets. But again you need foam of a different density than what I can find here (and there’s no pattern, so it’s akin to sculpting). I’ve also been meaning to teach myself ventriloquism (I have a manual and a CD). Oh, so little time.

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