We are asked all the time about how we build our puppets. If you are in the St. Louis area, you can come to one of our demonstrations and see how we do it. However, for our friends around the world, we offer these pages. On them you will be able to see how we do all the building of our puppets, from the clay head to the stringing of our marionnettes. We will be adding to this page as time goes one, so come back often!
Many people wonder how we begin to create our puppets, so we have put together this series of looks behind the scenes to give you an idea of what is involved from the beginning sketch to the finished character. After more than forty-five years of building our puppets, we have developed the standard process that is used every day in our workshops. The size, shape, or subject may vary a bit, but the method that we use stays the same through out the building process. We hope you enjoy these segments and that you will learn a little bit about the time and artistic ability that goes into the completion of each puppet.
In this particular segment, we will take you from the beginning drawing to a head that is ready to be painted. Other segments will follow on painting and different steps we take to put one of our marionnettes together.
For a Christmas show a few years ago which took place in a bakery, there were all types of deserts that came to life. One group was three Cup Cake Girls. They were thought of as a chorus line at the end of the show. So several different drawings were made. The final drawing was picked and developed further.
After the final simple sketch is made, a scale drawing is made on brown butcher paper. This is a drawing that is exactly the size the puppet will be when it is completed. It is very important to know the finished size so that it will be on the same scale as the rest of the characters in our shows. When we are designing the characters for our show, we keep in mind where the show will be performed and what size audience we will be performing for. From this drawing, patterns for each of the puppet parts will be made.
Now it’s time to choose an armature for the head to be built on. An armature is needed to hold the clay in place, otherwise the clay would fall off of the wooden dowel rod. Armatures can be made of many things. We have chosen to use a wooden base with armature wire. It is very easy to work with and light weight compared to other materials. Also we can easily bend the armature wire to help support the clay for unusually shaped heads.
After the armature is the right size and the wires, if needed, are in place, the plasticine clay, which is an oil based clay that will never dry out, is put on the armature, piece by piece.
More clay is put on the armature making sure the wires are being covered. A clay calipers, used specifically for sculpturing, is used to make sure we are not making the head too large. The scale drawing is constantly being measured. It takes about six pounds of clay for one of our average heads. In this case it took fifty-five pounds of clay.
When the clay is just the right shape and size, we smooth the head. This is done with another wire clay tool that is sharp on one side so that it shaves and cuts the clay. Thus the clay becomes very smooth and is ready to add the features.
Once again we go the the scale drawing and use our clay calipers to make sure everything is alright. After the scale drawing is measured, horizontal and vertical lines are drawn in the clay so that they can be filled in with additional clay. Several hours later the head is beginning to take shape. It was decided to use a plastic ball for the round shape on top of the head that will become a cherry on top of each of the Cup Cake Girls.
The completed clay head is now checked one more time and is ready for molding. Before making a plaster mold of any of our heads we have to study the whole head and make sure that the mold will be broken up into pieces that will work with the cast head.
If we don’t consider the way the material will come out of the mold, we risk the chance of breaking the plaster and the mold will be ruined. So after the head is looked over, the lines are drawn for the metal shims that are placed into the head so that the plaster mold will come off the head in several pieces of our choosing and not broken into irregular shapes. Each mold is usually broken down into four pieces, however some may have up to eighteen pieces. It all depends on how complicated the sculpture is.
So now we put the metal shims into the head to divide it up in the right sections and then it is plaster time! We use molding plaster. It is available at most building supply companies and doesn’t cost a lot for a one hundred pound bag. The plaster is mixed and poured into the first section of the head and then the metal shims are removed to get ready for the next section of the mold. We put round keys in the edge of the mold to help one section of the mold register with the others. You can see them around the bottom of the mold edge.
The next section of the face is poured and left to harden up. What is left is the back of the head, the section we call the trap door. It is where we have access to the back of the head when the head is finished and we have to make repairs. It is poured next. By doing this section first, the rest of the mold can be finished and will fit the trap door section very well.
The mold is taken apart after it has cooled, usually over night. The back of the head is removed first. You can see the trap door section in the middle of the mold. The two front sections are removed next. The clay head is removed and may not look like it did when the mold first started, but the character is ok because we have it’s likeness in the plaster mold.
Now it’s time to put a material into the mold, or cast it, that our finished head will be made of. The material we use is called form fast. It is used in the same manner as paper mache but it is cloth that has plastic in it. When it is dipped into a chemical, it becomes softened and can be put it into the plaster mold very easily. We always use rubber gloves at all times as a protection from the chemicals used to soften the form fast. In addition to the gloves, we have an exhaust fan as well as several floor fans running at all times so that the air is kept moving. Our motto is prevention and safety at all times.
Only two layers are needed to build the material up in the mold. After about eight to ten hours, the form fast head is removed from the mold. It may look ruff but it’s the beginning of the new character’s head. After a day to let it dry out completely, the head is covered with Plastic Wood. This is left to dry for about a week before sanding.
The head is then given five coats of guesso and that is sanded after one to two weeks. The head is now ready to animate. In this case, we will be putting moving eyes in our Cup Cake Girl. Then she will be ready to have her face painted.