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Puppet Head Construction

puppet head construction

by Peter Gardner

Those people who attended my puppet workshop at the 2003 convention at High Leigh will have seen my system for making puppet heads.  For those of you not able to attend I have written it down complete with pictures. 

paper layering process which is very slow

My original method used a plasticine master which I covered with layers of paper stuck on with wallpaper paste. When the paper had hardened, I would cut the head in half, remove the plasticine and then glue the two halves back together.  In the picture above you can see a head in the process of having paper applied to it. This was a very slow, messy and time consuming process.  I now use a system which is relatively fast and produces puppet heads which are fairly cheap to make, lightweight and extremely strong.  They are strong enough in fact to be used for Punch and Judy figures.

three puppet heads made using paper pulp compound

The process which I now use and which was used to make the three heads shown above uses paper pulp.  The heads shown were produced using old newspaper which I cut into small pieces and soaked in a bucket of water for a day or so.

tools used to produce puppet heads

When the paper has been well soaked in a bucket I use a couple of fine cheese graters with handles on and grind the paper pulp between them.  To make the job even faster I sometimes use an electric hand blender.  One of those devices with a metal propellor at the end.  Your object should be to break the paper down into as fine a consistenecy as you can get it.

Wearing a pair of rubber gloves, otherwise you will get covered in newsprint from the pulp, drain off the water from the pulp and squeeze out as much water as you can. 

You only need to squeeze out as much pulp as you think you will need for one head.  You can leave the rest in the bucket.  It will be ok in their for several days before mould starts to set in.

If water is still coming out when you squeeze a lump of the pulp then it is still too wet.  Water is your biggest enemy in this process.  The more water you have in your pulp head, the more shrinkage and distortion you will get in your finished head.

When you have got as much water out as you can get then mix in some white PVA glue and knead it in with your fingers.  The pulp should be like putty when it is ready and not sticky.  In the picture above you will see some of the tools that I use.  These are not expensive and in fact most of my modelling is done with my fingers.  I only use the plastic tools to give finer detail.  I also have a small selection of paint brushes a large plastic chopping board and a small knife to cut shapes out of the paper pulp compound

I use sections of broom handle to build my heads on.  These are fitted to a base so that they stand upright.

I cover the top of the broom handle with cling film before pushing a ball of my paper pulp compound onto it.  The cling film prevents the pulp sticking to the broom handle, so I can get the heads off the broom handle when they are dry

devil's head on stand showing cling film and acrylic paints

When the broom handle section has been removed it also leaves the space for my finger or fingers to be inserted into the puppets head for operating it.

If you look closely at the head in the picture above you will see that I have molded a ridge at the base of the neck.  This is to allow costumes to be attached to the heads.  To reinforce the horns on the devil's head shown, I used short lengths of match sticks pushed into the head and then built the horns up round them.  The sections of matchstick kept the horns in place as the model dried.

The finished heads are painted using acrylic paint which can be varnished when dry to make it even harder wearing.  The heads described are for glove puppets put the same pulp process can be used for other puppets such as marionettes and also ventriloquist dolls.

Using newspaper for your pulp gives a rough finished model which is very hard and tough and can be sanded prior to painting.  If you were to use a different paper such as soft toilet tissue the resulting model would be smooth almost like porcelain.

The pulp may also be put into molds but you would need to use some sort of mold relase agent such as a wax.  The pulp heads take several weeks to dry out completely.  I usually leave mine in the airing cupboard which is usually warm.

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Revised: October 10, 2012.
opyright (c) 2001-2012 Peter Gardner used by the FCMUK with permission