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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Puppet Making

The Craft of Puppet Making

The Craft of Puppet MakingWooden Marionettes Introduction

Puppet making is a demanding craft which requires a wide range of skills – from intricate woodworking to painting and sewing. When the puppets are finished, the craftsman turns performer by twitching the strings of his creations to bring them to life.

Origins of Puppet Making

Stringed puppets date back thousands of years in Eastern and Western cultures. In Europe they came into their own in the 18th century when theatres were considered disreputable. Puppets fulfilled the role of actors, performing everything from folk tales to Shakespeare's plays.  

In the late 1800’s puppet shows still attracted huge crowds but with the advent of cinema this century, the stringed puppets heyday was over – although they have since made something of a comeback on television.  

Today, marionette shows are usually performed for whom puppetry is both a passion and an art form. Most of these puppeteers are also puppet makers, believing that it is important to understand how a puppet is made in order to operate it properly. 

Basic techniques of Puppet Making

If a puppet is to be part of a performance, the puppet maker will start with a script and think of the character in the context of the show. Most marionettes are modelled to look as natural as possible but they must also convey the essence of the character. Their features have to be well defined because delicate details are lost to an audience, yet not so exaggerated that they become caricatures.  

The puppet maker also considers the movements required of the puppet and takes account of any special features such as moveable eyes or mouth.  

Generally, puppet makers try to imitate natural proportions, not just make the puppet lifelike but also make it well balanced. Marionettes are usually 18 – 36in high – any smaller and they are lost on stage, any larger and they would be too heavy for the puppeteer to operate comfortably.  

To make a mobile figure, the head, torso, lower body, upper body, upper and lower legs and arms, hands and feet are all made separately. A pattern for each part is drawn to scale from the front, sides and back to give a three dimensional picture.  

The way in which a puppet moves is governed to a large extent by the methods used to join the parts together (a process known as jointing) and string the figure to the control bar.  

The puppeteer manipulates the strings of a puppet from the control bar (or perch). If the puppet is well balanced, correctly jointed and the strings are at the right tension, the puppet will respond to the slightest movement of the control bar. Such a puppet is a delight to operate and is highly prized.  

Although marionettes can be made from a range of materials including fabric and latex rubber, professional puppet makers prefer the traditional method of carving the figure from wood. This gives a puppet, strong, lively features and, most importantly, the weight of the wood provides natural balance.  

Light wood such as balsa is often used to make the body and limbs while close-grained, quality wood such as lime is used for the face, hands and feet to give sharply defined and durable features.  

The outline of each part of the puppet is traced from the pattern on to each side of a block of wood. Initially, the wood may be curved with a band saw but finer detail is defined using a mallet and chisel.  

The head is the most difficult part to carve as the face must be natural and full of character. Some puppet makers swear that as long as the eyes are modelled correctly, the rest of the face will follow. Once all the parts are carved, they are smoothed down to a fine finish with sandpaper ready for painting. If the puppet is to be costumed, usually only the head, hand and feet are painted.  

In a standard ‘human’ marionette, the joints imitate those of a human figure with hinged joints at the elbow, knee and ankle and rotating joints at the neck, shoulder and wrist. In ‘trick’ puppets such as trapeze artists, these joints vary to allow the limbs greater freedom of movement.  

There are three main types of joint: string, leather and tongue and groove. String joints are very flexible which makes them perfect for shoulder and elbow joints. Holes are bored into each body part and strong cord is threaded through, glued and knotted.  

Leather is often used for hinged joints. A strip is inserted into a cut in the centre of each limb. It is then glued, trimmed and finally pinned into place. More flexible joints are made by looping a thin leather strip between the two parts of the limb.  

Tongue and groove joints look the most natural but are more difficult to make. They are usually used for elbows, knees and wrists. The two body parts are cut with a saw so they fit into each other and are then filed into shape. A hole is drilled through the joint and a metal pin is inserted to hold the parts together.  

The puppets strings run from the control to parts of the puppets body. On a standard control for a ‘human’ marionette, there is a crossbar for the head and knees, plus a detachable crossbar to work the puppets hands.  

Traditionally puppet strings were made of dark green thread to make them difficult for the audience to see. Today, many puppeteers like to think of the strings as being part of the performance and may use anything from macramé twine to black carpet thread, depending on the weight of the puppet.  

In wooden marionettes, the strings are threaded through small screw eyes attached to the puppet and the control bar. Usually the stringing is done once the puppet has been costumed.  

To attach the strings, the control bar is hung from a hook at the desired height. The two shoulder strings are the first to be strung as these take the main weight of the figure and must be taut. Next, the head strings are attached just above the ears. The merest tilt of the control bar should mean that the head falls forward. A single string (bowing string) is then taken to the base of the torso.  

The knee strings must also be taut so any movement from the control bar will give an immediate response. These are threaded just above the front of each knee joint. Foot strings may then run from the knee joints to the feet. These string are slack to allow for the natural drop of the foot.  

Hand strings are attached halfway along the thumb side of the hand so they will turn sideways when operated. This gives a more lifelike pose than a flat palmed position.  

More complex stringing is required to create special effects such as a dancing skeleton or a juggler.  

Costume also helps to convey character to the audience but because details are lost at a distance, the most effective costumes are usually the simplest. For some puppets the costume is simply painted on, but most are clothed in fabric.  
The costume must allow for movement, particularly at the shoulder joints. The outfit is often tacked and glued directly on to the puppet at either side of the shoulder joints, though parts of it my be sewn. Light fabrics like fine cotton or silk are best because they will not hinder movement, though heavy materials like felt can be used to pad out a figure.

Performing – Staging a puppet show is the most exciting part of puppetry and even at home it is easy to improvise a puppet theatre.  
Backstage in any professional puppet theatre lies a network of platforms and ladders for the puppeteers and racks of puppets waiting for their cue. As in any show, lighting, scenery and sound equipment are also required. And the show can be just as sophisticated and moving as any performance by human actors.  

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