Simple puppet fabrication
Note... my puppet's head is directly copied from the awesome designs of Scott Radke (used by permission).
Here's a nice simple way to put together a puppet, without the need for foam latex. These methods work for puppets that will be wearing clothes. In my quest for simplicity I have been using heads and hands made from solid materials like polymer clay or cast resin... they could also be carved from wood or made from paperclay or whatever works for you. After exploring these techniques for a while, I plan to also delve into the foam latex approach, and start to blend methods for a hybrid style.
Here's the armature, made from twisted aluminum wire of 1/16th" diameter. I sculpted the head directly onto it in polymer clay and have already baked and painted it. I decided I didn't like the hat, so I sawed off the top and used a rasp to change the shape. Later you'll see the new hat.
Notice that the spine and legs are made of 4 strands of wire twisted together, while the neck and arms are only 2. You want the legs and the backbone to be stronger than the rest, partly because they must support the entire weight of the puppet and whatever he's carrying, but also to make it easier to bend the arms or the neck without accidentally bending the waist or the legs. The same principle is often used for ball and socket armatures, with the ankle joints being cranked down the tightest, and each successive joint from there upward being slightly looser.
The white material forming the chest block and the pelvis is plumber's epoxy putty. It's used to create solid "grab points" that allow you to feel and easily move the puppet under the padding, and also it helps to lock the twisted wire together permenently. The black stuff wrapped around the arms and legs to stiffen them between joints is just cloth tape. It's slightly flexible, but a lot less so than the unwrapped wire itself. Alternately you could make 'bones' from brass or aluminum tubing attached with epoxy glue, or from epoxy putty, or a stiffer wire, like maybe a cut section of a nail or coathanger wire, which can be glued in place with some hot glue or epoxy and wrapped with a very thin wire.
I made the feet from blocks of wood. To begin, I found some nuts and bolts and some wingnuts that all fit together to use as tie-downs. You can see in the picture how they fit together. I then cut two sections from a length of wood and laid the nuts on top of them, approximating where I thought they should go, and keeping the blocks a little oversize to account for the fact that I would be dremelling away some wood for shaping.
I carefully marked where I wanted to cut the slots that would hold the nuts, and cut them with an X-Acto saw. It was essential to carefully gauge just how wide to cut the slots, so the nuts would be locked in and not be allowed to jiggle. One of them was slightly too big, so I packed a little epoxy putty in to secure the nut in place. When I had cut to the right depth, I used an X-acto knife like a tiny chisel to remove the excess wood. The bottom was a little rough, I had to clean it up with the saw. I then carefully marked and drilled the holes. Remember that the holes under the nuts must be slightly bigger than the diameter of the screw that will be coming up through it. In fact, it's a good idea to widen them toward the bottom, like a funnel, so it's easy to get the end of the screw in that little hole while poking it up through the table.
For padding out the armature I use a thin polyfil type material that I believe is used for padding the roof liners in cars. Don't ask me where to get it from, I was given some by a friend who worked in a factory a long time ago, and it just happened to be perfect for puppetmaking.
It's sticky on both sides, because my friend worked in a booth spraying adhesive on it as it rolled past. But most of the stickiness is gone now, and it behaves almost like a normal synthetic polyfil. I generally attach it with hot glue or with cloth tape. If using glue, be careful not to get any in areas requiring high flexiblity... usually I just apply glue to hard surfaces and sort of tack it down in spots. Then I wrap it around the armature until achieving the right thickness and I again tack it down with some hot glue.
Don't think of this as the only way to do it, or even the best way.... I'm just making it up as I go, and there are things I wish I had done differently. Live and learn, as they say.
When the body is all wrapped, it's time to make the clothes. There are different ways to do this... you could buy cloth and sew it up, but this way is easier. I just use gloves! I bought some white cotton inspection gloves online... they're easy to dye using acrylic paint and have good stretch, which is a nice feature. Here's how to do it:
Mix up a dab of acrylic paint with some water in a cup. I squeeze out maybe a 1/4" of paint and add a few tablespoons of water. Immerse the glove and move it around, trying to get paint all over it. Usually I get parts that are still white, but then I squeeze the glove out and paint wrings out of it back into the cup. Just squeezing it like this usually gets paint on the rest of the glove, but if not you can then re-dip and repeat as needed. I did two gloves, one for the shirt and one for the pants.
For pants I used the first two fingers cut from one glove. Since the shirt will be covering the waist area, I just taped them in place. Hey, I said this was simple, didn't I??!!
Here's a picture showing how to cut the glove for a shirt:
Cut off the thumb and the pinkie, these parts will be tucked away inside and sealed shut later. The middle finger becomes the collar and the first and third fingers, which are nearly the same length, become the sleeves. Be careful not to cut anything too short; it's best to just take off the very tips and then trim up later. The body of the shirt fits very loosely now.... what you need to do is cut up both sides and remove some excess material, but be sure to leave enough to fasten it back together, preferably folding it over to form a clean seam. You can stitch it, or glue it, or if your puppet can wear some kind of belt or something, that might be enough to hold it. Get creative... some of the coolest stopmo puppets I've seen don't look just like real people or animals... and the clothes are fanciful too. You often see thongs or straps wrapped around arms or waists, and that's a great way to help hold clothing together.
Well, that's about it. Here's a shot of what the finished puppet looks like. Actually, it's not completely finished. Just between you and me, I still need to trim and seal the shirt closed, and make some hands, which I plan to do using epoxy putty. Oh, I also need to finish the feet, also with epoxy putty, and give him a final painting. There's still some detailing to be done... that's a process that suggests things as you go, and there's no way to explain it in a tutorial. You just have to try out some things and see what works. Maybe after I've got him completely done I'll add some more to this tut. But this is enough to demonstrate the whole process. Of course there are many alternatives to each step I showed... rather than a thin padding material, you can use cushion foam cut with scissors and glued in place with a flexible contact cement, or I suppose you could glue it on with hot glue just tacking it in place the way I did here.
As promised, here's what the head looks like now. More of a helmet sort of look. I left some of the rasp marks in for a damaged look, as if he subjects it to a lot of wear and tear.