Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Puppet Making
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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