I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
Unless specified, all text, images and files are © by School of Puppetry, 2007 onwards. This means you can not use any of the text, images or files without my permission, unless specified.
Those coming here from Pinterest: you’re probably looking for this page instead.
While there aren’t set rules for designing a puppet, there are some things you must consider before starting a build process. The following is a list of things that I try to keep in mind at all times, and will help you make your own puppet. It’s not definitive, but does cover the range of issues that you will come across, and will help you make a great puppet. It can be hard to make a puppet, but only if you don’t know where to start.
This is a long post. It’s totally worth it though, this is the list of things I think of before creating any puppet. You can read the shorter version here, but it’s not quite the same. You may also want to read the article on making ‘professional’ puppets before you start reading the following. Making puppets can also take time: how much is up to you.
(This is the basics of puppet design; if you want to learn how to make a puppet show, then you might want to start with this [link to be added] instead. If you are looking to make a specific puppet type, then read the following and then browse the other categories for patterns and tutorials)
|My puppets in City Head by Tom Taylor. I picked muppet-type puppets for this show based on the need for them to talk.|
This may involve consulting a script - some puppeteers use storyboards, as it helps clarify movements and imagery - for any kind of movements, etc. Consider whether or not the puppet must speak, what limbs are necessary (you don’t have to make a puppet full-bodied if only the top half of it will be seen!), and what other things they must do. Consider whether the puppet will need to walk, pick things up, eat, etc. There is no limit to what kinds of things you may want it to do, so try to think of everything ahead of time.
You may also want to consider what you’d like the puppet to do - this can be movements which aren’t necessary for the plot or storyline, but are cool, fun, interesting, or just plain kooky. This is a great way to add some novelty and uniqueness to your puppet: remember, just because you’ve seen a puppet before doesn’t mean you can’t do it your way. (Mechanics are more important than character design, so keep reading…)
You will find that there a great many types of puppets that will suit your design. There are rod puppets, mouth puppets (muppet-type), marionettes, glove puppets, finger puppets, etc. Check out the list of puppet types for more info, as well as the list of types from easiest to hardest.
Once you have figured out what the puppet needs to do, it is quite likely that you might have already decided on the type, as it may come naturally. However, don’t let the list above limit you. One of the great things about puppetry is that it can be made out of anything! I have made puppets using Lego, chairs, plastic bags, pieces of paper… Some of the most novel puppets are ones that are made with unusual materials.
|How will you move the puppet? Do all parts of it move, or just some? Will you need one hand or two? This shadow puppet uses rods as the mechanism of movement.|
This also has to do with the above comments about what you want the puppet to do, and what the puppet type is. In order to make the puppet do things, it has to have some sort of operating mechanism - whether it’s by rods, strings, or other forms. You will need to make sure that the mechanics are suitable to not only performance conditions (explained below, to do with tourability, etc.), but also the puppeteer. There is no point making a giant panda costume/puppet which is seven feet in height, and your puppeteer is only five feet tall; left-handed people may need to work a muppet-type puppet differently than those who are right-handed… etc. How does the puppet actually work? This is like figuring out what cogs and parts you need to make a clock, or what kind of spark plugs you need to build an engine.
At some point, here or further down the list of things to consider, you’ll want to think more about character design, whether it means you’ll be making a human puppet, an animal, a creature, etc. Read more about character design here [link to be added], along with info on making humans, and clothing.
This will of course be affected by the type of puppet you would like to use, plus the following points. In general though, you must consider the weight of the materials (too heavy and the puppeteer’s arm will fall off!), texture, look and feel (ie. dark colours, halloween, neon colours, something for kids, something more esoteric, the character, age, gender… etc.). The following points will help you decide more about what kind of materials you need.
Always consider safety. Remember that most puppet materials will be flammable, and should be fire-proofed as much as possible. (Don’t consider this safety advice. I’m no health and safety expert, nor am I a lawyer) Materials are covered in more detail in other posts; check out the ‘materials and tools‘ category for them.
Generally speaking, I keep my eye out for cheap materials in local stores. I shop when there are sales on, or when I notice a particular item is available I store it up - ie. I buy coathangers in huge amounts at one time, and am never at a loss for a good puppet rod. I also know that if I want a particular look, I may need to spend the money to get it done. Don’t skimp when purchasing things like tools (a good pair of scissors can go a long way), or other materials that will need to be durable.
|For any shadow puppets I make, I first create a pattern from which I work. Here you can see the finished pieces laid out next to the patterns I had made. Note the patterns also show the basic outlines for my colours.|
You may not want to design or sketch any puppet builds, but it is worth doing if you are just learning how to make a puppet. This is also a good time to work out how to make things work, not just what the puppet is going to look like, and you can add swatches of fabric or other ideas to the design artwork.
I find that I make a lot of my puppets without sketches - or ‘as I go’ - but do think through every step before building something. This means that a lot of the time I don’t have measurements planned out, so when I do make something that requires precise measurements, I note them down. This is important if you make things up as you go, because there may come a time when you need to make duplicates, repairs or a rebuild. Sketches and plans are also a good documentation of the process that you can come back to and learn from.
Something that I inevitably do when facing a particularly difficult build process is to make a prototype. This involves getting some scrap materials and making part, or all, of the puppet that is giving me difficulty. This helps clarify problem areas, allows you to make different versions and work out which is the best, and clarifies any other issues you may have with the build.
A puppet is made to be used; it’s also bound to be used beyond its limitations. Don’t get so attached to your puppet that it becomes precious and you stop everyone and their dog from using it as it was intended: which isn’t to say you should allow your friend’s dog to pee all over it. See the puppet as a nicely made tool; one to be admired, but one to be used. And be prepared for accidents.
When designing a puppet, it is important to remember that you will need to do repairs at any given stage of the puppet’s life, and this will influence how you make something - you will need easy access to difficult-to-reach places, so be sure to allow for those kinds of issues.
Whenever I’ve finished making a puppet, I put aside some scrap materials, the tools I used to make the puppet, and anything else that might come in handy for repairs. And then I make a repairs kit; think of it like a first-aid kit for puppetry. I carry this wherever I go with my puppets, especially to rehearsals and performances, because you never know when you might need to make a modification or a repair. Read the post with more details about repair kits here [link to be added].
|My first ever muppet-type puppet performed by Troy Larkin for my show, City Head in 2007.|
When building a puppet, you must also consider the amount of energy required to operate it. A heavy puppet will put great strain on a puppeteer’s arms and body (don’t believe me? Hold your arms up in the air for one hour straight!), and so puppets need to be both light and ergonomic. Act out the puppet’s movements yourself with the puppet, and see how comfortable it is for you - if it’s not comfortable for you, it’s probably not going to be for the puppeteer. You should also consider whether you will need to make rest areas for the puppet/puppeteer during the performance; I find that buying some ‘doll’ stands (the ones that hold Barbies, etc.) make for great stands for puppets too, although you can make your own. The length of the show will of course influence any needs of the puppet and the puppeteer’s relationship with it.
A puppet needs to last a certain number of performances. Depending on what you design and build, you will need to make it as durable as possible; of course, there are situations when durability needs to be less than normal. I once saw a puppet show where pads of paper were used as faces, and each page was removed to reveal a different expression. This show would have needed lots of paper pads for each show, and so their durability was not a factor.
Generally speaking though, you will need materials that will not fade or deteriorate after use. Consider also whether your performance will be outdoors or not, and how the weather will affect the puppet. An outdoors puppet will need to be more durable than an indoors one.
You may also consider something less palatable: a puppeteer’s sweat glands. I know, I know… ew! But puppeteers get very sweaty, which means their hands get sweaty, which means a puppet’s insides (if using a muppet-type puppet for instance) will get sweaty. Over time, this can turn into a number of problems for the puppet’s durability. I tend not to think of this when designing, but you may find it useful to keep in mind. Maybe you just need to buy some air fresheners to stuff into the puppet when it’s not being used. Sweaty hands are discussed in more detail here.
A puppet doesn’t just get up and walk to rehearsal (well, not unless you build an animatronic), so you will need to consider how you will transport the puppet to and from places.
Remember: you must be able to fit the puppet through doors!!!
|Not the best way to store your puppets - this bag was a temporary, but useful way to transport my puppet.|
If you are making something large, think about whether or not it will need to be in sections and put together on arrival at a venue; or whether you can make it collapsible. Smaller puppets are of course easier, but this will still require some thought. You will need at some stage some storage containers - good for keeping out dust - and places for the puppets to reside when not in use. Don’t forget that marionettes will need to hang up when not in use (to keep the strings untangled), and puppets need somewhere to rest during the performance itself. Storage of puppets discussed in more detail here.
If you don’t drive, I recommend making puppets you can take in bags or small boxes. If you do drive, remember you will need to fit everything you need in one car - or else hire a vehicle for the duration of the rehearsals/performance.
Don’t forget to label your storage, not just with your contact details, but with a short list of what’s inside. It makes it so much easier to find things, and to check for lost/missing items later on.
One extremely important thing to remember is to ensure the puppet is stable. That is to say: if the puppet is knocked while resting on stage, will it fall apart? Do you need to make a stand or some sort of special case, to ensure that the puppet doesn’t get knocked about while going over speed bumps in the car? Will the puppet withstand the bashing around during rehearsal that often occurs?
This is somewhat covered above in the comments about needing places for puppets to rest, but you will also need to think about other things. A puppet may require one person to operate it; it may need three or more. The more puppeteers you have on stage operating one puppet, the larger the stage needs to be: and the more room the puppeteers will need to work together behind the puppet. You should also think about the way a number of puppets will need to interact with each other - are they going to need to hold hands, or pass each other objects, or just be independent of each other?
|A plan for a shadow puppet screen. The black-filled areas represent curtains which will hide the puppeteer. A shelf behind the screen will allow for storage of puppets and a resting place for rods.|
Here you must also decide whether or not you want the puppeteers visible or not. Some designers (like with many of the puppets in The Lion King) integrate costume and puppet together, while others blend the puppeteer out using black or white costumes. Some design a costume in keeping with the atmosphere of the performance; rocker punk costumes to fit with an absurd puppet circus painted in neon.
Scale is also another issue: is the venue going to be small or large? Indoors or outdoors? The smaller the venue/space, the easier you can get away with small puppets. Remember: puppets appear smaller than they actually are. Audiences may have trouble seeing something that is very small, and if outdoors, should be eye-catching from miles away.
Levels of play is something else to consider. Do you want to work from the floor up? If so, the stage will need to be raised so that the audience can see the puppets. Do you want things to appear mid air? Or from the ceiling? Do you want the puppet to interact with the audience?
Finally, think about the kinds of props or scenery that you will need - shadow puppets require a different stage design than a show using marionettes. Will the puppets need to hold anything? Consider the weight of the object, and how the puppet will hold onto something. Perhaps the puppet needs to hold and let go of a prop - this may cause difficulties. Remember that gravity will play a great part in getting a puppet to hold anything, and if the prop isn’t light enough, then it may fall easily from the puppet’s hands. Set design is covered in more detail here.
Shadow puppets require specific lighting, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the puppet its own light source. Some puppeteers use neon paints and a UV light to create a ‘blacklight’ theatre. Others hide the puppeteers with special lighting equipment, as with ‘light curtain’. This will all influence your ideas on the puppet design.
A puppet’s eyes are the most important part of the puppet itself. Why? Because this is where the ‘life’ of the puppet comes from, and how the audience reacts to it. A puppet with no eyes, or sockets, may seem evil and creepy. Give the puppet some eyes - with a little shine on the pupils - and it will suddenly ‘come to life’. The puppet’s eyeline tells the audience what the puppet is looking at, how it is reacting to things in its world, and the general expression of the puppet’s emotions. It helps us relate to the puppet and its situation. Not being able to see the puppet will greatly influence the audience’s reaction to it. Also, read my post on lighting design for puppetry, which includes some comments on lighting and the way it reacts with the materials of the puppet.
|My workshop area is too small to make anything bigger than a muppet-type puppet. It’s also unventilated: another space would need to be sought out if I needed to make different puppets.|
You will also need a place to build your puppets, and a lack of space may impact on what you end up creating. There’s no point in making a giant animatronic puppet when all you have as a workshop space is your kitchen table; and if you need special machinery (like bandsaws), then you may have to use a real handyman’s workshop. Don’t forget that ventilation is important when using heavy-duty glues and paints, as well as varnishes and dealing with wood dust. Be sure to protect any furniture you don’t want damaged.
If you have pets and children, ensure that they are kept away from your tools and materials, and anything that might be harmful, unless properly supervised.
You may think of other things to plan for which are more specific to your certain situation. Making a puppet with your son or daughter will take on a different course of action than if you were making one for a pro performance. But the above should cover many different aspects that you may come across. I leave you with two last concepts:
The devil is in the detail. This isn’t to say that you should spend hours getting one eyebrow just right: the detail is the additional features on a puppet that make it more accessible. I made a little girl ‘muppet’ in a pink party dress. Though she has long hair, and her shoulders aren’t easily visible, I gave her sleeves some small pink heart-shaped buttons. Doc wears a lab coat, and always has a small pen in his lab coat’s pocket. The little details will not only enhance the puppet, but it will also clarify the puppet’s character to the audience.
A puppet is a one-of-a-kind creation. Don’t fret if you make a duplicate and it doesn’t look exactly the same. Don’t fret if it doesn’t look like a picture in a book or on TV. It’s your creation. Be proud and enjoy it! Remember: building a puppet is a journey.
You should not hold to the design steadfastly, as you will discover practical problems as you build and rehearse; work with these problems, think around them, and often you will find some use for the limitations. You may also find the puppet can do things you didn’t plan; that’s where the fun comes in.
If you want a good resource to help you learn the basics of all types of puppets, then I highly recommend purchasing Puppets and Puppet Theatre by David Currell. I have this in my personal library, and consult it often for clarification of ideas and puppet building concepts. It includes basic explanations of the types of puppets, helpful hints on builds and techniques, ideas on staging, lighting and sound, as well as plenty of pictures. You can read my review of the book here [link to be added].
I hope I have made things clear for you, and I am glad I could share the basics of puppetry design. Feel free to leave a comment about the above thoughts. Be sure to check out the rest of the site to find explanations and tutorials on making specific puppet types. You should also check out my post on what makes a puppet ‘professional’. Most importantly, read the post that follows on from this, about creating puppet characters [link to be added], which explains more about facial features, body shapes, etc; and the one on finding inspiration.send feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.