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...
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As mentioned in my short post about what materials to use when making a puppet, there’s no hard and fast rules as to what to use when building a puppet. However, marionettes are generally one of the puppet types that have some standard industry materials, because these puppets are quite complex and must deal with a lot of physical (and physics!) limitations. To make this easier, I’ll split this article into sections: materials for the puppet itself; joints; strings; and controls.
|Making and Manipulating Marionettes by David Currell.|
Before getting started, I thought I would mention this: David Currell’s excellent book, Making and Manipulating Marionettes, covers this topic in far more detail (and expertise) than I can. It’s very much worth a read! It doesn’t just cover the basics, it goes into detail on moving eyes, jaws and trick marionettes; it has photos and diagrams on a range of methods of joints, controls and designs. Read about the myth of the online marionette pattern here. [link to be added]
The most well known and more traditional materials to use for the body/head/limbs is wood. Carved wood is extremely popular, but does require some carving and sculptural skill. Preference by puppet makers to the type of wood used is: linden, limewood, pine, basswood (there’s also an Asian wood that is popular, but I can not find a reference or actual name for it… I’ll put it in here when I find it). Whatever wood you use, it must be easy to carve.
Another one is papier mache; some puppet makers just use papier mache, others use foam and cover it with papier mache in order to protect the foam. Well-known marionetter Ronnie Burkett uses papier mache for his puppets. (By the way, that link above is an excellent discussion on materials for marionettes in general… well worth a look)
Additionally, paper clay or polymer clay, and the more expensive fibreglass can be used. One method you could try is using cloth, either to sew a three-dimensional (stuffed) character, or to create something more one dimensional. A good example (or two) of a cloth marionette is the ’scarf’ marionette.
Another cheeky idea is to recycle parts from dolls, using the heads, hands or feet and attach them to a cloth body.
The main issue in making marionettes is the weight. You need the puppet to be light enough to move effortlessly, and not be heavy for the puppeteer to hold up, but on the other hand, the puppet also needs a certain amount of heaviness or gravity in order for it to hang correctly and move naturally. In order to get the puppet to hang correctly puppet makers often use fishing or curtain weights and install them in the bottom of the heels of the puppet… as well as adding a couple in the hips, in order to give the marionette a centre of balance.
Decorating the puppet is often done with paints, along with specially made garments for the puppets to wear. Eyes can be carved and painted; or they can be separate items (such as marbles or doll eyes) that are inserted later. Facial features are discussed in more detail here. Some puppet makers even carve the clothes ‘onto’ the puppet and simply paint them to give the effect of clothing. Hair and other such things are made using many of the materials puppet makers use in general: wool, feathers, fake wigs, and so on. Any decoration will need to account for placement of strings, so usually the puppet is clothed before it is strung. Additionally, clothing and other items must ensure flexibility of joints; nothing must prevent normal fluidity of movement. Clothing is discussed in more detail here.
|At a workshop in ‘09, this half-finished puppet was shown as an example of the materials and methodology used. The marionette was made by Fratello Marionettes.|
Joints can be made by carving the wood and inserting leather straps (to make flexible hinges), by using metal eyelets that hook together, or by adding in metal nails as pivots. The pieces of the puppet slot together like a puzzle, so straps, eyelets or nails can do two jobs: create a pivot point and hold the pieces together securely.
If using cloth, then joints can be made easily by sewing the fabric at the point required. Actually, some puppet makers drill holes through their puppet pieces, and join them together by threading rope through these holes.
By far this is the most common question about making marionettes. I have found two good answers:
Use braided nylon fishing line. Weight: 10 to 20 pounds. The lighter the puppet, the lighter weight string you can use. If you can’t find what you need, the Puppeteers of America online shop sells fishing line.
Use a strong cotton thread, such as an upholstery thread.
This is good since you don’t have to worry about where to buy marionette string, because all you need is a good fabrics store. ‘Marionette string’ is not really any specially-made product, at least as far as I’ve found. (You may want to ask about colour at this point: many puppeteers use black or brown string. This blends into the background better than clear or some other colour) Puppeteers use these because they: tend not to get too tangled; are lighweight and easy to find in stores; blend into the background; are strong; tie off easily and strongly. Many puppet makers, if using a cotton thread, wipe the thread in bee’s wax. This prevents further tangling by ensuring the thread is smooth (and therefore has less snagging on things). Do you need to untangle your marionette? More info on how to do it is here [link to be added]. Learn how to store your marionettes properly here. Metal eyelets or holes drilled into the puppet, are methods of attaching the strings to the puppet itself.
Another good thing to have is a wooden gallows, which makes it easier to attach strings, controls and other things, and to double check the weight/gravity of the puppet. You can make your own gallows here; and then learn to string your puppet here. [links to be added]
|At UNIMA 2008, these marionettes were on display. Note Sicilian control on the far left; the cloth joints on the marionette to the left; and the horizontal control in the middle. The marionettes were made by Jiri Zmitko.|
Controls are usually made of wood, although some marionettes (like those made in Italy or in the Czech Republic, usually known as Sicilian marionettes) also have a wire control running from the top of the marionette’s head. Wooden controls can be either dowel or specially shaped planks. Wood is usually used for comfort, as well as durability.
Most people don’t realise that the technical term for the control is… a control! But there are different types, depending on how the wood is oriented. A fish or German control is vertical: a puppeteer holds it as one would hold the neck of a bottle. A horizontal control is one which is held as if one is pouring liquid out of a bottle. Hold your fist up in the air, making the ‘thumbs up’ gesture. Push your thumb back down to meet your fist, but keep your hand in the same position: this is how you hold a vertical control. Now turn your wrist so that your thumb faces your body. Note that now your hand is ‘horizontal’.
Because of these two different methods of holding the control, you will need different methods of putting the controls together. For the most part, there is a main wooden control which holds the strings for the body and head; a separate piece may be used for the arm and leg strings, but depending on your design can be connected to the main control piece. So it may be a matter of having one wooden piece as the control - or it could mean nailing two or more pieces together. Eye hooks are usually used to attach strings onto the controls, however some puppet makers carve grooves or drill holes for the strings. Eye hooks can temporarily connect control pieces together, so that one may use one hand or two for manipulation.
I again recommend obtaining a copy of David Currell’s book, Making and Manipulating Marionettes, but there are plenty of other good books on marionettes out there. Luman Coad’s book, Marionette Sourcebook: Theory & Technique, always comes highly recommend, although I’ve not read it myself.
You can find my list of free patterns here. How to make one of these puppets is discussed here. [links to be added]
This post AKA simple marionette jointssend feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.