Puppetry Tech Notes


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Wednesday, July 17, 2002



JULY 2002

Puppeteers have been recycling plastic bottles for puppet heads and bodies for years. After surveying various methods, here's my "system" for making efficient rod puppet bodies from larger plastic bottles.


1)Last summer at the National Puppetry Fest in Tampa, Bill Laurenzin exhibited a set of neutral rod puppets built around flat dishwashing liquid bottles, the kind with a "waist".This kind probably the best ones to start with; they require little cleaning. Cooking oil bottles are the largest size of this type bottle. Degrease these with a strong commercial product. As long as the bottle is flattened rather than cylindical, and not brittle, it will do.

2) Find the right height bottle for the scale of puppet being made; if the figure has legs and needs to sit, use a stubbier bottle. Don't cut off the bottom.

3) Using a bottle allows for creating a puppet that can turn its head while the body stays still. Make a hole in the bottom the same size as the one at the top. Run a tube (plastic, PVC, taped over cardboard, aluminum, etc) from the neck to the bottom and let it protrude enough to reach down to the hand grip point.

4) Mount the head, which can also be bottle-based of course, on a dowel which will fit through the tube. The dowel can reach to the top of the head and may serve to support head-nodding or eye controls. Put a short piece of tubing around the dowel for a neck. Cut a washer from polystyrene, say from a milk jug, to allow the head to pivot.

5) At the bottom of the bottle, put on another washer, glue a short piece of tubing around the dowel just above the hand grip. The distance between the bottom of the bottle and the grip is dependant on how the figure will be used.. Put enough tubing around the dowel for a handgrip after installing a third washer, then add a fourth washer at the bottom, and glue on a small piece of tubing to hold the whole thing together.

6) To turn the head, pivot the small pice of tubing above the hand grip using the thumb. Determine the best position by experimenting and hot-glue on a bump, then wrap the small tube with cloth tape. Add foam and tape to the grip below to fit the operators hand.

7) When done wrap entire bottle with cloth tape for durability.

Mounting rod-puppet Arms begins with the question of Shoulders. These have to be in proportion to the head scale not the body,. which means that the width of the bottle is too small. A shoulder board can be added and indeed can swivel around the neck of the bottle.
A However, a length of stiff wire, probably from a coat hanger, with a loop in each end is sufficient. Heavier fence wire will work, soft iron baling wire may be too flexible.
B Cut a piece of wire the width of the shoulders plus at least an inch to form the loops. Form a loop in one end with needlenose pliers
C Punch two holes in the "shoulders" of the bottle with an ice-pick or an awl big enough for the wire.
D Thread the wire thru from on side to the other. To get around the center tube bow the wire slightly.. Make a loop in the other end.
E Center the wire. Spiral wrap cloth tape on either side to keep the shoulders in place.
F Now cut a piece of venetian blind cord, tie line , or the equivalent several inches longer than the proposed spread of the arms. Thread this thin rope through the shoulder loops running behind the bottle. Center the cord and tie a knot against each wire loop.
G The fastest way to prototype arms is to get several cardboard tubes from dry-cleaning hangers. If these are too sticky, wrap with masking tape. Use a sharp mat knife to cut two identical pieces long enough for the upper arms.
H Thread these short tubes onto the cord on either side of the shoulders. A piece of wire with a small hook in one end will help fish the cord through. Tie a knot - not too tight - at the elbow.
I Cut two more tubes for the forearms. Thread these on and tie knots at the wrist. The arms need to be flexible but not floppy. Adjust the knots.
J Hands vary. One method is to use flat cutouts - wooden ones from the craft store will work. Make a hole at the wrist and another in the center of the palm.
K With the thumb up, thread the wrist cord through from the palm side, up the back of the hand, and through to the palm side. Tie another knot.
L Fasten hand rods to this knot. Fiberglass spokes from golf umbrellas work well. Regular umbrella spokes work for smaller puppets. Thin bamboo tomato stakes look very folksy. Professional rods are usually made from various grades of stiff steel welding rod. How tight the rod is secured to the hand effects its gestures.
M Cardboard tubes may be too flimsy for continued use, though they can be protected by wrapping with wide filament packing tape. Cut a piece of tape the length of the tube and lay it flat on the table. Press the tube onto on edge and wrap the tape around it by rolling. Stronger tubing includes PVC and other plastics, such as rigid poly used in labs, thin aluminum from old TV antennas, etc.

Email: Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 4:12 PM

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