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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Where to buy puppets in Australia can be found here. Buying books in Australia can be found here. [link to be added] This is more about materials and tools.
It’s hard finding materials and tools to build puppets with in Australia. In a previous reincarnation, this post listed a whole bunch of materials and told you where to get them. But in migrating this over from another site, I decided to reverse the concept. Instead of trying to list every material available, I’m going to list my favourite places to shop and why.
Is there a place in Australia that you can buy all your puppet materials and tools from? Is there a puppetry supplies shop? Well, unfortunately, no. But you can find everything you need in a number of arts and crafts stores, and the following are my suggestions (may not apply depending on which state you’re in. I only ever shop in Victoria). If you’re looking for info on antron fleece, that’s covered here.
This is pretty much my go-to materials store. Most of everything I need I can get here, and if not, the other suggestions below. Why do I like Spotlight? Oh, where to start! First off, they have fabrics that are cheap and wide-ranging. Their non-pill fleeces and low-end furs cost about $14.95 per metre, and come in a range of colours/patterns; perfect for any muppet-type puppet building. Their high-end furs are pretty expensive (anywhere from $70-90 per metre) but are far nicer in texture and have more interesting colourings. However, at a snap, the low-end ones work just as well. (You can see the low-end blue fur in use for my Round Head Foam Puppet pattern, and some cream non-pill fleece on the Human Foam Puppet pattern example)
Of course, you can find all sorts of other fabrics. One thing I always do is check their scraps bin and sales area in the fabrics section. The scraps cost $1 each, no matter how big the scrap is; and the sales area often has bolts of fabric that are leftover or hard to sell, which are far cheaper than normal. For instance, I got a bolt of blue chiffon that had about 4 or 5 metres left on it, for about $5. Not bad! And the staff are usually happy to cut off a small sample of fabric if you ask nicely enough. You can also find velvet, velveteen, both used in blacklight; and silk or bisilk, for shadow puppet screens.
But let’s not forget the other sections: the Sparties section (the area with the party stuff, which Spotlight terms "Sparties") has a lot of plastic cutlery. Plastic spoon heads make for great puppet eyes. You may also find handheld blacklights near their party stuff, which is always handy for testing out blacklight materials. You can check out their costume section for anything that might dress your puppets, like clothing or wigs. Their beads and jewellery section is also another place to find puppet eyes.
|Foam sheet is cut and glued together to form the puppet’s body; the foam sheets are from Spotlight.|
But most importantly, check out their teddy bear/craft section. There you will find A3 sized foam sheets, which is what I use for my muppet-type puppets. (More on foam in a second) They’re usually $1 a sheet, and I get a whole stack at once (be sure to put them in an airtight container when you get home. They go yellow pretty quickly due to oxidisation). I also find my favourite glues and clays here, although a similar range can be found at Riot Art & Craft; more on them in a moment. Also in this section you can normally find plastic doll joints (made by Arbee Craft) and doll stands; the former are great for puppet joints, and the latter are good to use as a stand for working on a range of puppets (mouths for muppet-type puppets, or decorating sock puppets, etc).
Generally, I buy all of my other stuff here too, like needles, thread and scissors. There’s a reason I keep going back, and it has a lot to do with my Spotlight discount card. Being a member also helps keep things cheap, and I often go during sales so that I stock up when it’s most cheap. (And this is why I avoid Lincraft. It’s too expensive at that chain)
Ignoring the pretty horrid experience you can have on their website (it’s hard to navigate amongst other things), my second favourite store is Riot Art. I pretty much only go there for a few things. For a start, Spotlight is more of a fabrics store, and Riot Art is more of a crafts store. So when I need things like cardboard, felt, or "Foamies", I go to Riot Art. Now, I am more of a shadow puppeteer than anything else, so I appreciate some good cardboard. They have a large range of colours and sizes, along with thicknesses. I usually get a sheet of black cardboard, about 3mm thick, and A0 in size. It will likely cost me $1-2 for a single sheet and I may get several puppets out of it, depending on the design.
Felt and "Foamies" can often be bought in packs, whereas at Spotlight you can usually only get them in single sheets. I’ve found "Foamies" in particular are not well-stocked at Spotlight. Plus, you can find a very good selection of paints, I get acrylic tubes and other assorted paints there.
Now, let’s discuss glues. I mentioned above that you can get similar glues at Spotlight, but I’ve found that there’s a wider range of them at Riot Art. They both however, stock my all-time favourite, Foam Glue. I use this all the time for my foam puppets (and pretty much everything else, it works just as well, if not better, as a PVA substitute), but unfortunately the bottles only come in small sizes. But it doesn’t cost much, maybe $6-7 for a bottle. It’s a non-toxic contact cement, and while it’s a bit watery, it does the job extremely well once it dries - and it dries fast. You can also find other glues; interestingly my last trip (as of 2011, despite the post date on this article) found a number of glues I’d heard recommended by Americans but was never able to test out. Mod Podge, a common glue in America, can be found at Riot Art; it works like a sealant. And another one is Elmer’s Ultimate glue, recommended to me numerous times for making foam puppets (I haven’t tried it yet though). More about what glues to use for puppet making can be found here. [link to be added]
For anything related to tools, wood or paint, I go to Bunnings. Check out their section of wood for long pieces of pine dowel; cheap and also easy to cut/drill for rods. I also find good non-chip paints (aerosol cans meant for painting cars) for rods, along with the usual matte water-based paints. In general, cans are expensive, so if I’m buying paint at Bunnings it’s only ever for large surfaces, like sets or props. You’ll also find ‘Q-bloc’ at Bunnings, near the wood; a thin aluminium tubing that makes for very sturdy frames for sets. There’s a range of plastic joints you can buy that fit the tubing and the whole thing can be put together/taken apart very easily (if noisily, as it requires hammering). And lastly, I buy large storage tubs at Bunnings, I like the stackable ones with wheels. Easy to transport and store at home. I’ve got about 10 of them stashed all over the house.
|Fimo is a brand of oven and air dry clay. Small packs are expensive, but excellent for small detail work. Image courtesy of Morebyless.|
Located in Seaford, Victoria (Australia), Over the Rainbow is an online store where I buy my clays and fantasy film. Now both Riot Art and Spotlight have Fimo clays, and Riot Art has modelling clay; but neither of them stock the speciality clays that OTR does. I’ve been a customer of Over the Rainbow for years now, and they have some stuff that is just awesome. Have you ever seen miniature doll house items made out of clay? Well, that’s done with most of the products you can find at OTR. Air dry clays are often used in making marionettes and other similar things, so having the more specialty clays at hand is great. As for fantasy film, it’s a special thin plastic that is multi-coloured, changing under the light. I’ve used them in shadow puppets before, but most people usually craft fairy wings out of them. You can also find a lot of other things to do with jewellery and clay-making, but not anything I’ve ever found in a local craft store before.
If you’re looking for foam, this is probably the best place you can go. I rarely if ever stop in, since I get my foam from Spotlight (see above). However, block foam at Spotlight is pretty expensive, and I’ve found if you go into Clark Rubber, you can ask the staff to show you their offcuts. Just like a sales bin, the offcuts are whatever’s leftover from custom cutting block foam - and it’s heavily marked down. A piece of foam from the shelves of similar size was about $40-50, compared to an offcut of $5-10.
Another thing to do, is to find out if they have any sheet foam. I heard from an unconfirmed source that you can actually find decent "reticulated foam", in sheet form. I’ve never had the chance to check, but it’s worth looking into yourself. Of course, there are plenty of industrial foam manufacturers in Australia, so I suspect even without Clark Rubber, you’ll be able to find foams easily. Want to know what kinds of foam to look for? The answer is here.
Coles and Safeway, er, Woolworths, make good places for shopping for odd items. I’ve used bottles of cordial and food dyes for liquids in sets (cordial doesn’t stain!); bought toys to recycle; and found great socks for sock puppets. But my main reason for shopping there is to look for coathangers. I have found them less and less over the years, but they’re usually the best place to find plain wire coathangers. They make for good and cheap wire rods for puppets. Some $2 shops may also sell them, but I’ve found it differs from location to location. (Rods are discussed more below)
Instead of trying to figure out how to make your own clothing for puppets, you can go out and buy them cheaply. Surprisingly, children’s clothing makes a great substitute. Even shoes - although avoid anything too heavy or else you won’t be able to hold up the puppet very well. I learned that one the hard way! You can also find plenty of cheap toys to recycle into puppets, fabrics or clothing patterns, props and other things. You can actually find people who do ‘op shop tours’, where you go on a trip to a bunch of different op shops in your city. I’ve actually found heaps of things this way, including giant toys for $10 each that would normally cost hundreds in a toy store.
This is often a last resort if I want to find inexpensive but hard-to-find items. Etsy is an online craft market, everything is handmade. And this means a lot of sellers not only offer their handmade stuff, but often supplies or leftovers from their work. One woman takes old books and makes new covers for them using high-end Japanese papers. But additionally, she sells those papers too. I bought large sheets of Japanese papers to make shadow puppets from. Or you can find unusual items to use with clay moulding. And so on. Because the site’s full of handicraft items, you’re more likely to find specialist supplies there than any other online sales venue.
Disclaimer: this company is a regular advertiser on this site.
As We Grow Learning Toys is practically the only Australian puppetry company that sells stands and spare rods for puppets. Because of this, and despite me not being a customer myself, it’s being added to this list of suppliers. I’ve actually gotten lots of enquiries in the past about these items in particular, and it’s nice to be able to finally say that they can be found locally.
Sometimes you need theatrical lights and other things. The proper gaffa tape can’t be found in stores, trust me. The tapes sold in Bunnings and other places is cloth tape, nowhere near as durable (although certainly way cheaper) than good gaffa. For that, you’ve got to go to a lighting hire company. And the best places to find lighting gel, often used in shadow puppets, are also going to be the lighting hire companies. Handy tip: many companies actually offer small gel swatch booklets, showing all the colours that are on offer. I have a couple of these, and they usually cost a few bucks to obtain. They’re very useful in helping pick out appropriate colours before purchasing the full gel sheet.
|Lee is just one of the companies that makes lighting gel. You can get swatchbooks at local theatrical/lighting hire companies. Image courtesy of Mhogan35.|
You can find a bunch of companies via ALIA, the Australasian Lighting Industry Association. They usually have a good list of Aussie companies and their websites, on their members or resources page. The site itself is worth a browse, because they have lots of readable stuff about lighting topics, theory, products, etc.
If you are in Melbourne, I can highly recommend Clearlight, who offer some of the best prices, and are extremely helpful if you are new to hiring/buying equipment.
If you are looking for a cheap haze machine, I can also recommend purchasing one from Dick Smiths. I bought one for a show a while ago, and with the haze liquid, it cost me about $100. It was highly effective, though it should be noted that the machine is probably not suited for extended use (ie. don’t expect it to last five years) or for large events or venues.
Please remember that if you do not have any experience or knowledge of theatrical equipment, especially electronics, to find someone who does and can help you buy or hire something. Alternatively, ask for help from the hirer/dealer, as they may be able to advise you on your needs. You, as a purchaser or hirer, have a lot of responsibility for: maintenance and repairs of equipment, safety of equipment, and operation of equipment. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is dangerous.
When shopping, you should check out the rest of the store. You never know when you might see a product or material that you will find useful later, even if you don’t use it for this particular puppet project. A number of times I will buy something without having a real purpose for it, but will often find a reason for using it later. Don’t forget, a puppet can be anything, and be made out of anything.
It’s also an excellent chance to store up on products or materials that you will keep using - like glue sticks, or coathangers for rods, or dress materials. If something is particularly difficult to find - like doll’s joints - I will buy a small number to keep in stock at home. When purchasing materials, I also make sure I get extra, because you will make mistakes, and you will need to do repairs.
Naturally, you will not consider the above as advice set in stone. The stores mentioned above are the best ones in my area; you may find other places that have better prices, or a wider range of products, or an unusual range of products.
Don’t be afraid to go into new places, ask questions, dig around in scrap bins, and look at materials and tools in a new light.
This post AKA reticulated foam in australia for puppet building, AKA puppet supplies melbournesend feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.