Puppet Making

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The Thing Called Puppets

I’ve had a love of puppets, specifically the Muppet™, and have spent some years wanting to get my own WhatNot™. However, cost has prohibited my getting a WhatNot and finding one (FAO Schwarts and Macy’s had something years ago that sold WhatNot in store) has proved difficult. So, my desire for a hand and rod puppet.

Making Stuff

About a year and a half to two years ago I found myself looking for things to do and started building stuff out of paper and cardstock. Most of these things were helmets (I’ve since tossed them and have decided to rebuild in a different material) and a few paper playthings for Cy. This proved to be interesting, though very time consuming with all of the cutting of small parts out with a hobby knife then interpreting plans and glueing the pieces together.

Masks and things led to me realizing I had an interest in bookbinding and on a whim one day (seriously, whim) I decided to try my hand at rudimentary bookbinding (see, Bindery, which has exploded into both more complex books, layouts, notebooks, as well as building the tools and implements to really dig into bookbinding. I discovered that I’m completely capable of seeing something I’ve either wanted for a very long time or a skill I now wish I knew and then self-learn how to do it. The process is called Just In Time Learning.

Just In Time Learning

(For more on Just In Time Learning, see Wikibooks.org Designing Professional Development/JIT Learning or check out Zero to Maker: Learn (just enough) to make (just about) anything by David Lang. Or Google “just in time learning” and see where the journey takes you.)

The idea behind just in time learning isn’t to become a professional or fully trained first and then begin building. Rather, it’s to learn what you need only when you need it. In this way, a lot of complex things can become very simple through the act of breaking projects down into doable parts. You still learn what you need to know, you still have to find people to help, Youtube videos, and more, but it only has to happen when you need it. The process is a significant mental shift.

Learning About Adhesives

For me, one of the first things I needed to learn was about adhesives, glues. When I started down the *rabbit hole of putting paper masks together, I chose to ignore a lot of advice in terms of what kinds of adhesives to not use. Specifically, don’t use glue sticks. They’re great for the classroom and probably even great for crafting, but when it comes to the precision construction of a thousand little pieces of paper, the glue stick is a bad choice. They also seem to not adhere for very long, the adhesive properties failing after a short period of time.

In this process, I ordered some Barge Cement, a contact glue, as well as PVA glues, to include acid free glues that are better for bookbinding, and found that not all adhesives are the same. For example, when binding a book and putting mull along the spine, the adhesive should be acid free to protect the paper. While not absolutely necessary (and definitely expensive), the reality is that for archival purposes and to take binding to a new level, the type and properties of glue is important.

More recently, I’ve found a need (or is it desire) to adhere to pieces of differently colored card stock together and had to research best methods (and products) in doing this. PVA glue can cause wrinkling and I needed a flat outcome Which led to a spray adhesive. This spray adhesive, amazingly, is also good for adhering fleece to foam in puppet making. As a result, when walking into my office, and knowing what to look for, there are all kinds of glues sitting on shelves and in containers, to include hot glue sticks and an inexpensive hot glue gun (I’m currently wanting a variable heat hot glue gun that’s also much bigger).

The Reason to Learn

According to people who are much smarter than me (in areas of cognition and mental elasticity), the act and process of learning something new keeps the mind more agile and more willing to accept “things”. Honestly, I’m not as concerned with mental elasticity as much as I’m concerned with the ability to constantly be moving forward and to be mentally young for both Cy and the new baby as well as fulfilling some of my life-long dreams and ideas.

If I were only ever to acquire things by spending money on a finished product, I’d only have what I want when I had enough disposable income to purchase that thing. It’s true that for things like cars and computers (and a lot of other stuff) buying a finished product is the only reasonable solution, there are a lot of things I can learn to build or make and that will, over time, cost less and maybe even lead to me making a little money over an upfront cost for a finished product.

Book binding and puppet building are two examples, as are woodworking, computers (as in building and software) and so many other things. Instead of engaging a specialist for every little thing, I’m in a position to become a part-time specialist for things I want or need. This also means I can build a library of books I’ve bound (classics) that cost me time and resources over paying a publisher for a binding that’s not designed for generational use.

Back to Puppetry

Not too long ago I had an idea. I wanted to create videos that explored ideas in a way that acted as both satire and a means of entertainment and information (for people). At first, I thought I’d film myself IRL running a news talk show and interviewing puppets about different idea stories through a variety of segments. Then I realized I could take it a step further and create the host as a puppet and then run the entire show off camera. Which appeals to me.

A couple of years ago, as a way of entertaining both Cy and me, I started building a DIY video lighting and green screen setup. Nothing fancy, just stuff I’ve been slowly purchasing over time to enhance the final quality of the video product.

I’ve also been using and learning Adobe Premiere Pro for editing and a few other products for post-production work and have since spent time with small videos and things, nothing too big. My primary goal has been HD and all digital.

Because of all this, I’ve got the setup and have been learning the process (actually, updating what I used to do as a teenager for the digital age and then improving quality) so I could produce something.

Which led me down a different rabbit hole of how *hand and rod puppets are built. Truthfully, the process is both intuitive and not very intuitive. There are a lot of people with even more ideas about how puppets should be built and from what materials. In the long run, materials are important, though in the learning process some materials can be substituted for others. Regardless, I started to learn how to build puppets, which started with looking for pre-made patterns for foam head construction.

Hacking it Together

In reality, I have to work through some internal obstacles when it comes to applying the academic and theoretical, even the practical, to an actual product. For example, Barge Cement is the best out there for contact cement. Knowing this and knowing that contact cement works both from allowing it to dry then pressing two sides together, I had a mental issue in putting this into practice because no one wants their hands or fingers glued together.

Also, when a lot of people offer different (and sometimes conflicting) advice about how to do something (hot glue instead of contact cement, felt instead of fleece, whipstitch instead of Henson Stitch, and so on) my reality is a stopping point that requires me to begin working through a different set of mental exercises. One of which includes:

When I don’t know what to do, do something.

There are a lot of reasons for this, like coming to a mental or emotional place and not being able to move forward. The rule makes me at the very least do something.

In this case, the doing something was to take best practices from as many sources, find a cheap (read free) head pattern, buy the minimum number of materials, and go to town on a prototype. This meant following other people’s best practices which was to apply the contact cement with another piece of foam. I don’t know who came up with this, but using a variety of different types and densities of foam resulted in a horrible product. (One that was claimed by Cy even though I wanted to put it on a shelf and look at it as a lesson in what to not do.)

Then there was skinning material. A lot of places said to use the cheap and readily available (at your local big box store) felt. Yeah. Works great (or at least okay) for things like mouth and tongue, jot so great when trying to skin the puppet head. I ended up shifting to fleece, softer and easier to work with, as well as shifting my stitch from whip to Henson (oddly satisfying and for me much faster).

Out of personal need and desperation, I also enlarged my foam head patter so my hand could fit inside and glued together a second , larger head. The large head is currently sitting pike-like on a thing on my desk and looks a thousand times better than the original. But I’m still learning.

The smaller head is done complete with plastic spoon eyes and yellow fleece skin, a black felt mouth with red felt tongue. I have way too much felt in my sewing supplies (see, Studio) and for what I need a shit ton of yellow fleece. Though the fleece will be turned into a body with arms and some of the felt is going to be made into a Glorified Sock Puppet™ puppet.

My plan is to sew some arm tubes together and then cut out the body foam and glueing that together and then figuring out the skin for the body AND attaching it all to the head. Cy’s excited for the product after which I may try a couple different head styles and sizes before I go full puppet on my puppetry plans.