Blind Summit Studio

Unit 10, Grenville Workshops

2a Grenville Road

London N19 4EH

020 7272 9020

info@blindsummit.com

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© 2016 by BLind SumMiT

maKinG

Introduction

Master-puppet-maker Nick Barnes explains some of techniques he developed to make the puppets Blind Summit uses. 

"It explains the processes and techniques and includes information about the materials. I have tried not to be too technical and not overly detailed - it is impossible to explain everything and if you are interested in making then the best way to learn is to get stuck in. However, I guess if you're reading this, then you have an interest in knowing more, and will probably put up with a bit of technical chat and the occasional use of words such as thixotropic and exothermic."

 

 

Contents

 

DESIGN

       - Design Influences

           - Bunraku

           - Marionette Porte

       - General Design considerations

           - Size

           - Character/ Facial Expression

           - Joints

           - Materials/ Weight/ Strength


CONSTRUCTION 

       - Bunraku head

       - Bunkraku hands

       - Bunraku Body

       - Plastazote Pattern cutting - The Ogre

       - Plastazote "improvisation" - Puppets for Dark Materials

       - Cardboard puppets - Call of the Wild

       - Cloth "Workshop" Puppets

    
MATERIALS


LINKS



 

Disclaimer...

 

The is not a definitive guide to puppet making or any of the techniques it discusses. It just describes the way I have made Blind Summit puppets for a number of years and is a response peoples interest in how the puppets are made. I hope it is helpful. Nick

 

 

Design Influences

      
 

I started making puppets whilst studying Theatre Design at the Slade School of Fine Art. There were two initial influences on the style of puppets I wanted to make:

Bunraku puppets

Traditional Japanese Bunraku puppets are about about 0.8-1.2m tall. They require three people to puppet them: one on the head and the right hand, one on the left hand, and one on the feet. The head is carved from wood and sometimes has moving features such as eyes or eyebrows, it has a mechanism by which it tilts up and down, controlled by a trigger on a handle connected to the neck which is held from within the back of the puppet and which also supports the puppet body. The body is soft without legs, it has feet suspended from the torso with rope.


Although our bunraku style puppets have many similarities to the Japanese originals, the materials and construction methods vary greatly. However, our larger puppets are similar in height to bunraku puppets (about 1 metre high) and as in bunraku they require three people to puppet them fully.


 

Marionette porté

I came across this type of puppet in France, whilst on a course with the French director Philippe Genty, whose puppets have had a big influence on my own. It is very simply a puppet which is carried by a handle on the back of the head with a second handle on the puppet's back. Otherwise, it is controlled directly by the puppeteers holding the puppets wrists and ankle joints, there are no other mechanisms involved. 


This type of manipulation and style of puppet is very appealing because of the control you have over the puppet's movements and the close relationship between the puppet and performer.


I love the fact that it is a seemingly basic construction with no mechanisms and no life until it is operated by the performer. 

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General Design Considerations

Designing puppets can be quite challenging. It is not always easy to predict on paper how an object will behave when it has been realised in three dimensions. Where possible we try to create a mock up of the puppet to scale using materials and objects to approximate the movement and bulk of the finished puppet. I find it really helps to have an idea of what you are making. However, many of the potential problems will only become apparent during the make, meaning many of the design decisions have to be made as you progress. That said, there are some principals which provide a starting point for many of the puppets I make and which it helps me to think about before I begin. Perhaps most importantly, the design of a puppet is driven by it's character and the context in which it will be used, in particular how many puppeteers there are available to operate it, and what it is required to do. Other considerations are discussed below. Although some of these are perhaps more relevant to the Bunraku style puppets we focused on originally as a company, I think the principles can be more broadly applied to all styles of puppets. 

Size

We make puppets of all sizes, ranging from about 25cms tall to life size and beyond. However, the larger the puppet, the more difficult it becomes to operate, bigger puppets tend to be far heavier and take a lot more effort to manipulate. They also tend to move more slowly and can therefore become less realistic.


I usually do several drawings before beginning a new puppet, including full size sketches of the head from the front and side and a full size plan of the puppet.


The proportion of the head to the body
Classical human proportions are eight heads to the height of a man, some puppets are measured using 9 heads to body height, making the head smaller in comparison to the rest of the figure and resulting in a more elegant looking puppet. However it is a case of deciding what works best for the character you are creating. For example, 'Moses', one of our most successful puppets, has a head almost as big as his body.

Character/Facial Expression

I tend to sculpt expressions that are not too extreme, this seems to allow the actor/puppeteer to play a wider range of emotions. I usually sculpt the mouth slightly open, it seems to give more possibility that the puppet is talking or perhaps just active. 


I always sculpt from some sort of visual reference. Either a photo of someone in particular, or a drawing. Even when working from a photo, I find it useful to do a drawing, as it helps me to understand the features and structure of the face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Material/Weight/Strength

The strength of a puppet is always a consideration. Our puppets can take quite a beating during rehearsals and performances, and a lot of time and thought goes into making them durable and choosing the best and strongest materials. Handles need to be really secure and strong too, or else the puppeteer will struggle to control the puppet movements. Unfortunately strong materials are often also heavy, and I am constantly on the look out for strong but light materials. However, it is also worth remembering that the lightest of structures can become instantly 'heavy' if it is awkward to hold, if the handles are badly positioned or if it requires the puppeteer to hold it in a difficult position for long periods.


In all cases it is likely there will be a compromise between the strength of the puppet and the material used and its weight.

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Joints

The position and type of joint will determine to a large extent how the puppet moves and will create it's style of movement.
I often do technical drawings for certain parts parts of the puppets, particularly the arms and legs, in order to work out the exact shape of the limbs and the positions of the pivot points for joints. Depending on the material you are working with, there is usually some sort of a compromise between the maximum movement in a joint and the best possible shape for the profile of the limbs. For example, in order for a leg joint to bend enough to allow a puppet to kneel, you must cut away above and below the back of the knee. You then need to position the joint so that it gives the best possible shape to the knee at each stage of its rotation and allows you to keep as much as possible of the volume of the leg. It is a balance between having enough of a gap between body sections and around joints to enable movement, whilst retaining as much volume in the limbs and body parts as possible.

 

BUNRAKU Head Construction

Head sculpt

How the puppets are made...

The first part of the puppet to be sculpted is the head, which I sculpt in either plastaline or clay.


From this original, I make a mould, using silicone rubber encased in a fibre glass or jesmonite shell. The shell provides the silicone with support when the original is removed. I clean up the mould and then make a resin and fibreglass cast.

Sculpting...

An armature is needed to support the sculpted head. For plastaline I use a wooden ball fixed to of a piece of dowel, supported in a wooden base. (Click the image to see an animation of a head sculpt). The advantage of plastaline is that it doesn't dry out and shrink, this means that it is easier to work on something over a longer period. However it can be harder to work than clay and more difficult to get a uniformly smooth finish. You can use lighter fluid, applied with a brush or a small piece of sponge to smooth over the surface of the finished sculpt. 


If clay is being used then the armature cannot be solid, it needs to be something with give. This is because the clay shrinks as it dries out and so compresses whatever is inside it. To prevent the clay cracking around the armature you need a soft core at the centre. I use wet sheets of newspaper folded into one long strip, wrapped as tightly as possible around the end of a piece of dowel, and secured with wire. You can then add small bits of clay and build up the head. Whilst working with clay you must keep it as moist as possible, spray it with water frequently and wrap it in plastic when you are not working on it.

Whatever material you sculpt in, the armature needs to be strong enough to support the size of head you plan to sculpt. A relatively small head, 10cms from top of head to bottom of chin, can end up using almost 2 lbs of plastaline. 


For the eyes I use beads. It can be difficult to know exactly where to position them, especially early on when there is little of the head to know where they should be placed. I try to place them as accurately as possible by taking measurements from the drawings. But often it is just trial and error. I have occasionally got quite far with the sculpt only to realize that I need to move the eyes further forward or back. 


A finished clay sculpt can be sealed by applying two or three thin layer of shellac varnish.

Moulding...

The type of mould you make is determined by the material in which you are sculpting and the material in which you intend to cast the finished item. I usually cast the head and hands of the puppet in resin with fibre glass so the end result is a rigid positive. This means the mould needs to flexible if it is going to come away from the details of the face and pull out from any undercuts without doing any damage, and remaining reusable. The best material for this is silicone rubber. It is very flexible and provides a highly detailed cast, picking up every mark and texture of the sculpted body part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

                                                    Head with clay wall

To make the mould I begin by building a wide clay wall around the head of the puppet. The position of the wall determines the seam line where the mould will separate and the two parts of the head will join together when you later cast the finished head. I take the seam line over the top of the head along the edge of the ear and down just along the bottom line of the jaw.
You can build registration marks into the mould by making small hollows or protrusions in the clay wall. This means both parts of the mould will line up accurately if you assemble the head in the mould. I tend to dig out a small channel all the way around the head so that the two parts of the silicone rubber have the best possible chance of registering perfectly. 


I then make the first silicone part of the mould. This is best done in at least two stages. Firstly a thin layer or two of silicone poured or brushed gently over all the features and into the details of the face, and when this has cured, a thicker layer 6-7mm thick. This can be done in one go, but it is not recommended; in order for the thick layer of silicone not to slump, you need to add a thixotropic agent which makes it harder to brush into the more detailed parts of the face, around the eyes and the nostrils and ears, and increases the likelihood of air bubbles. 


Unless you are making a block mould, the silicone on its own is not rigid enough to cast into, when removed from the sculpt it will be soft and flexible. So the next stage is to make a rigid case to support the silicone. For this I use jesmonite and fibreglass, completely encasing the silicone and ensuring it overlaps onto the clay by at least two centimetres all the way round. I build up three or four layers with a couple more around the edge of the mould for extra strength. (You can use resin and fibreglass as well, but you may need to seal the clay to ensure the resin cures properly.)


Photos of the mould
process

When the jesmonite has set fully I remove all the clay from around the head and clean up the back of the mould and head. Take care doing this as the clay may have begun to dry out and could damage the head. Before continueing with the second half of the mould you need to spray a release agent onto the exposed edge of silicone otherwise the two parts will adhere and you will not be able to seperate the mould. Likewise, before encasing the second half of the silicone mould in jesmonite and fibreglass you will need a release agent. I put a thin layer of vasaline around the edge where the two halves of the mould will meet. This will ensure the two halves separate and do not just become one solid shell. 


To seperate the mould I firstly trim back the edge of the fibreglass. This gets rid of the rough edge, and cuts the mould back to where it is a bit thicker. Then, using a chisel, I gently work around the mould to prise it apart. (When building up the fibreglass shell for the mould I tend to make one or two areas around the edge a bit thicker so there are some stronger points at which to lever open the mould. This is especially useful for a larger mould as the adhesion of the mould materials to the sculpt and each other can be very stong over a large area)
Finally I clean up the mould to prepare it for casting.

Casting...

When the mould is finished the head is ready to be cast.
I use polyester (plastic) resin and fibre glass to make the puppet head. The resin is a liquid and can be brushed or poured into the mould. It is mixed with a small amount of catalyst which causes it to harden. I do not usually pour resin, as a solid resin head is far too heavy to be of any use. Also, on its own, resin has very little structural strength. To prevent it shattering, it must be used with fibreglass. The resin impregnates the fibreglass and the two materials create a very strong and reasonably lightweight structure.


I build up the head by brushing layers of resin and fibreglass into the mould.
When I have laminated the two halves of the mould I assemble them with a bead of gel coat resin placed around the join as an adhesive. The exception to this is a puppet with a handle on the back of the head as opposed to the head mechanism detailed below. In this case, to fix the handle you need to remove the head from the mould, making it necessary to assemble the head out of the mould. 

The Head Mechanism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hover on image to see mechanism

Many of the puppets that we use have a tilting head mechanism based on the bunraku puppet head mechanism this pivots the face upwards around a point where the head meets the neck. This simple mechanism gives a huge degree of life to the puppets thoughts and movements. 
The basis of the mechanism is a piece of aluminium tube, which forms the neck of the puppet. At its top end a small length of threaded rod pivots around a steel pin. The back end of this piece of rod is fixed into the inside back of the puppets head. A wooden handle is drilled to take the lower end of the aluminium tube. It has an elongated hole cut into its length through which a small trigger connects to a short rod within the tube. Through the use of piano/steel wire, the trigger rod pulls down the threaded rod at the top of the tube. It pulls against a spring which connects the threaded rod to the tube, which returns the head to its lowered (resting) position. When the head is in place on the puppet, the aluminium tube travels down through a hole into the puppets body. The shoulder construction of the puppet rests on the top of the handle (which has a rounded top to it), so as well as controlling the head, the top of the handle also supports the body of the puppet.

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BUNRAKU hands 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once the head is sculpted then I begin on the hands. As with the head, these are usually sculpted, moulded and cast.

To construct an armature for larger hands I use a heavy gauge aluminium wire, as in the photo. Hover over picture to change between the Armature and the Hand.

I have wrapped a finer wire around the fingers and thumb, this is to give the clay something to grip so that it doesn't just slide off the wire. The fingers can be bent into position and sculpted individually. The palm and back of the hand can then be sculpted around them.

For a larger puppet I will either sculpt the hands in plastaline or more often sculpey. The advantage of sculpey is that it can be heated and hardened in an oven. This means you can sculpt a couple of fingers and then harden them and sculpt the rest of the hand without damaging them. You can still make adjustments when it is hard, by carving or sanding and it is a lot easier to create a clay wall around the hand for moulding than when you use something which remains soft such as plastaline.

 

 

 

If I am making hands for a very small puppet, then I will probably not bother with a mould, and instead just make a one off. This will involve an armature similar to the one above, but much smaller, made out of thin steel wire. In place of the wooden support in the photo, I use a small length of nylon chord or bungee chord for the wrist joint, attached securely to the wire in the palm of the hand. The armature is attached to a length of piano wire, projecting from the side of the wrist, which will ultimately have a small wooden handle for operating. For the smaller hands I use milliput for sculpting, as with the larger hands, I start with the fingers and thumb, allowing them to harden individually and then add the palm and back of the hand.

 

Hand Mould

The moulds for the hands can be quite complicated, depending on the position they are sculpted in. If the hand is in a relatively open position, and the fingers are not too bent, then you can create a simple two part mould. However as soon as you start to have the fingers bent towards the palm, then you may need to consider a three part mould, in order to be able to remove the hand from the mould.

 


Hand in clay

A mould for the hands follows a similar process to the head mould. I will usually rest the hand in a bed of clay built halfway up the side of the hand and in line with the wooden support projecting from the wrist. When the hand is later cast, the wood will be replaced with cotton or nylon webbing which acts as a wrist joint. The exposed side of the hand is covered with silicone rubber and when that is cured, encased in a jesmonite and fibreglass shell. The clay wall is then removed and silicone is brushed over the other side of the hand. This too is covered with the resin and fibreglass. It is important to use a release agent between the two halves of the mould. Before applying silicone for the second part of the mould, I spray a wax based release agent on the exposed edges of the existing mould. When the silicone has cured I apply some vasaline to the rim of the resin shell, before brushing on resin and fibreglass for the final part of the mould.

 

Casting the Hand

I used to cast the hands by laminating them in fibre glass and resin in the same way as I cast the heads. The main reason for this was that a solid resin cast without fibreglass (which would be a lot easier to do) is too brittle, even with an armature to support the resin it will crack. However, laminating the hands is a very time consuming and fiddly process, as the fingers are inevitably quite slim it is difficult layering up the fibre glass and it can take some time to join the two halves of the cast together, which has to be done out of the mould to be able to insert a webbing wrist joint before assembly. 


I now use a polyurethane resin which is far stronger than polyester resin and which cures very quickly. The resin I use is called Easyflo 120 which I get from a company called Mouldlife. You simply mix the two parts of the resin in equal quantities by volume and you then have a couple of minutes to pour the resin before it begins its cure. You can mix polyurethane pigments into the unmixed parts to get a base colour which is closer to flesh. This is useful as the resin doesn't take paint terribly well, acrylics seem to rub off quite easily with a minimum of handling.


If you are casting quite large hands then this method is probably not going to work as they will most likely end up being too heavy. The problem with heavy hands is that they are difficult to handle and can pull down on the puppets shoulder when they are left unoperated. For larger hands I would probably laminate them and for very large hands (if you only need one pair) I would sculpt them as one offs from a material such as airex and then cover them with an epoxy resin to give them a durable finish

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BUNRAKU body


 

Every puppet seems to require a slightly different approach to making the body. But there are some general principles which seem to apply most of the time. This is how I usually make the larger bunraku style puppets. 

Body Construction

For the larger puppets I start by cutting out the body shapes in MDF, using a scroll saw. I create front view shapes for the chest, stomach and hips and side views for the arms and legs. Where possible I remove wood from the inside of the shape to reduce the weight of the puppet. I then bolt strips of aluminium to the MDF, if necessary milling a slot for it to sit in. The aluminium runs the length of the limb, this gives the MDF 'skeleton' extra strength and rigidity. Getting as much strength from as lightweight a construction as possible is a constant aim. In our rehearsals and performances the puppets receive to a large amount of wear and tear and are often pushed and pulled around the stage mercilessly! It is therefore essential that the body parts and all of the joints are as strong as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Puppet torso

Having created the body shapes, I use impact adhesive to clad them with soft foam rubber on either side and this is sculpted with an electric kitchen knife and scissors or rasp. I prefer to sculpt the body from a soft foam rubber as this is the most sympathetic material when it comes to using the puppets. There is no sound when the puppet knocks against things, it is lightweight and it has some give in it, like flesh. However there are some occasions when it is better to use a more rigid material, like syrofoam. This is usually when the limb will be seen, and not covered by clothing. For example the bottom of legs and the lower part of the arm. Both the soft foam rubber and the styrofoam will need some sort of covering to protect them. I cover soft foam rubber in stockingette, which is glued to the surface of the foam with copydex or latex. Styrofoam is more problematic. I usually cover it with fibre glass and resin, which can then be sanded to create a smooth finish. This is quite a laborious job especially if the puppet is quite large. However, it does give a good smooth finish. Unfortunately, you cannot apply polyester resin directly to styrofoam, as it will eat it away, firstly you must apply a barrier layer of tin foil, which prevents the resin from destroying the styrofoam. Alternatively you can use an epoxy resin which you can apply directly, but which I haven't found to be as robust as polyester resin 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joints and assembly

For elbow and knee joints, where the movement is like that of a simple hinge, I drill a small hole in the aluminium/MDF body shape and connect the parts with a 3mm diameter bolt. For looser joints such as the shoulders, hips and wrists, I use webbing, which allows the limb to twist and move in any direction. The two or three sections of upper body are also joined with webbing, either one or two pieces running down through the centre of the puppet.
At the top of the body there is an aluminium and wood shoulder section. At its centre is a hole, through which the neck of the puppet passes. Attached to either end of it are the arms. The underside of this section rests on the handle of the puppets head mechanism, it must be quite a strong construction as it will support the weight of the puppet below it. I attach this shoulder support to the MDF profile of the body. The back of the body is hollowed out for the puppeteers hand and the handle which controls the head.

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plastazote patterns: the ogre 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ogre was created for a production of Puss in Boots. It was constructed to be as light as possible and was mostly made from sheets of 10mm plastazote, with an internal structure made from 8 mm airex. 
 

Stage 1

The head and individual body shapes are sculpted in styrofoam. 
 

Stage 2

The styrofoam shapes are completely covered in cling film and masking tape to create a thin 'shell', where there is a lot of detail the masking tape needs to be cut into very small pieces. The cling film prevents the masking tape from sticking to the form, but is also thin enough to preserve the detail of the sculpting. 
 

Stage 3

A decision is made as to where the seams of the pattern will be, which are then drawn onto the form and the shell is cut into pieces along these lines. The pieces of pattern are removed from the original sculpt. (Make sure that they are well numbered or labelled, preferably seam to seam, as there may be many pieces. Also ensure there are some registration marks across the seams). With some additional cuts, these shapes are flattened out and a pattern is created. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



   
 

Stage 4

The pattern is scanned and enlarged, in this case by 2.4 for the body and 1.7 for the head. (the detail of the head required a bigger sculpt to be able to take a pattern from it. The head and body were then scaled by different factors to match a full size, two dimensional cardboard mock up of the puppet.) 
 

Stage 5

The enlarged shapes are cut from 10mm sheets of plastazote (8mm sheets for the head) and glued together, edge to edge, using Evo-Stik GP contact adhesive.



  
 

 

Stage 6

The Original Sculpted head is sliced on a bandsaw to create patterns for cross sections which are enlarged and reproduced in 8mm thick airex and assembled to create an inner support structure.

 
 

improvising in plastazote: 

his dark materials


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These puppets were made for a national touring production of His Dark Materials, a co-production between Birmingham Repertory Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Each puppet was designed to be operated by one puppeteer. 

 

 

All of the puppets were made from plastazote. However instead of taking a pattern from a sculpted form, each of the puppet heads were created through trial and error cutting and shaping pieces of plastazote, the right shape emerged. 

 


 

Some tips for working with plastazote:

 

Keep changing blades. When cutting thicker sheets of plastazote try to keep the blade as upright as possible to create an edge which is perpendicular to the face of the material. Some parts of the puppets such as the rabbit limbs were sculpted from blocks of plastazote, using a fretsaw to cut a profile pattern and then a rasp and sandpaper to shape and smooth the form. 
Painting plastazote is quite problematic, as the paint does not adhere easily to the surface of the material. The best solution I have found is to use Rosco Flexcoat, which can be applied as a base coat or mixed with pigment. 

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cardboard puppets: call of the wild


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working with students from Central School of Speech and Drama we created several cardboard dogs for a studio adaptation of Jack London's novel Call of the Wild

The dogs were constructed from cardboard. They were quite simple puppets. Sculpted cardboard heads and bodies assembled with hot glue. Each body had a length of 1x1 inch wood running down its spine to which a back handle was attached. The head has a simple aluminium armature with a handle. The head and body were linked by a short length of flexible foam.

 


 

 

Some tips for working with cardboard:

 

Keep the sculpted forms simple. We found that the best puppet heads were the ones which were not too complicated.
Keep changing scalpel blades, the cardboard blunts the blades quite quickly and you end up tearing through the cardboard.
For larger puppets which involve long stretches of glue, use a hot glue which melts at a higher temperature it will stay hot for longer giving you time to assemble the pieces.
Don't use card board that is too thick, for most puppets single wall corrugated board is strong enough. Twin wall is much more difficult to cut and is heavier. Even for larger puppets single wall is often fine, the assembled three dimensional structure will have a lot more strength than the flat sheets or individual pieces.

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cloth "workshop" puppets

 

 

 

 

 

These simple cloth puppets owe their existence to Dan Hurlin who lent us a similar set to work with when we led a workshop for students at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. 
They are constructed very simply from calico or a soft cotton drill fabric and stuffed with soft toy filling, and the patterns can be as simple or as complicated as desired, but in some ways the odder the shape and proportion, the better! 
Not a lot to add really...just grab a needle and cotton and get sewing!

 

materials

 

This page contains a brief description of most of the materials I use for making.
Click on a material, or scroll down the page.

 

Sculpting

Clay 
Plastaline 
Styrofoam 
Plastazote 
Airex 
Soft Foam Rubber 
Sculpey 
Milliput 

 

Moulding

Silicone Rubber 
Jesmonite 
Shellac 

 

Casting & Construction

Polyester Resin & Fibre Glass 
Epoxy Resin 
Polyurethane resin 

 

Adhesives

Araldite 
Evo Stik 


 

Clay

There are many different types of clay available, I usually use a simple grey clay. Clay is a very pleasing medium in which to sculpt the puppet heads, although for practical reasons I tend to use plastiline more often. 

Plastaline

This is an alternative sculpting material to clay. It's advantage is that it doesn't dry out and isn't as soft, so you can be a bit rougher with it. It provides very fine surface detail, however it takes a bit of practice to get a smooth finish if that is what you want. You can use lighter fluid and a sponge or brush to smooth it down.

Styrofoam

Some of the puppet parts are sculpted in styrofoam. This is easily carved to a rough shape with a saw, and can then be with shaped more carefully with sharp knives. It is finished with various degrees of sanding. 
styrofoam is great to sculpt in. It is very lightweight, and is available in various densities. It can be sawn, carved, and sanded, to create quite detailed shapes and features very quickly. On the whole it is better for larger figures, this is for two reasons. Firstly, very fine details can be hard to achieve and quite fragile, and secondly, you will most likely need to cover it with something to protect the surface and increase its strength. This will inevitably cause some loss of detail which is far less noticeable on larger, simpler shapes. The biggest problem with styrofoam is that it's easily dented or snapped if you are creating thin shapes (such as fingers). Also, there are certain adhesives and materials which dissolve styrofoam. If you use fibreglass for example, you need to cover and seal the surface first.

Plastazote

Plastazote is a very lightweight, soft polyethylene foam. It comes in sheets of varying thickness. It is very pliable and can be pattern cut and shaped to make complex and detailed forms. This can be done in two ways. The first is simply to cut out trial shapes and to keep adapting them until they are right. The second way is to sculpt the puppet in another material and then take a pattern from this sculpt.
Simple shapes can also be sculpted from a block of plastazote. 

Airex

Airex is another rigid foam, which is much tougher than styrofoam. It comes in sheets of various thicknesses and can be gently heated to shape it, it has an elasticity that styrofoam doesn't have, so is much less brittle and it can be glued easily with evostik. It is less dense than Styrofoam, so not as useful for carving detailed shapes. It is quite expensive and only available in large sheets.

Soft Foam Rubber

This is a good material for sculpting body parts. It is relatively light, and can be knocked and dropped with no damage to it at all. You can use an electric kitchen knife to cut and shape it. You can also use scissors, and a rasp and it can be sanded, to produce a good, smooth finish. After I have attached it to the body armature, I cover it in stockingette, using copydex to give it a more durable and protected surface. The stockingette also alows the costume to move more freely over the surface of the limbs with less friction than the foam. 

Sculpey

SuperSculpey is the brand name for a polymer based modelling clay which hardens in the oven. I have found it good for sculpting hands to make moulds from, as you can harden the fingers as you sculpt them. However it is too heavy to use for the finished thing.

Milliput

A two part sculpting material mixed in equal quantities of resin and hardener. When set it is very strong and can be carved, drilled and sanded. I tend to use it on smaller puppets, to sculpt body parts too small or fiddly to mould. It is quite heavy and so not ideal for larger puppets.
When using milliput be sure to mix the two parts very well, if there is any streakiness then they may not harden. You can smooth the surface with water whilst it has not set. 

Silicone Rubber

This is the best material for making the head and hand moulds, as it picks up the detail of the sculpting so well. The only downside is it's cost; unfortunately it is quite expensive. 
The rubber comes in two parts which need to be mixed together before use: the liquid rubber and catalyst. You can also add a thixotropic additive, which thickens the rubber and allows you to use it on a vertical surface without it slumping. 

Jesmonite

This is an acrylic based powder and liquid mix offered as a replacemant to fibre glass.
I have found it to be a bit too heavy for the puppets and a bit more 'crumbly' than resin and fibreglass when strength is needed. It's advantage over resin is that it does not have the fumes and is therefore much more user friendly. I sometimes use it for the rigid mould casing, where weight is not such an issue.

Shellac

A quick dring varnish which I use to seal clay before taking a mould. Apply three or four layers with a brush.

Polyester resin & Fibre glass

Polyester resin is a plastic based liquid which when used with fibreglass gives excellent strength for a reasonable weight. It is ideal for picking up the detail in the silicone mould, and is what I use choice to cast the head and hands of the puppet. It can be coloured by mixing polyester pigments before adding the catalyst which causes it to harden. The resin and its catalyst cause an exothermic reaction, i.e. one which creates heat. When laminating this is not particularly noticeable, but if you are pouring solid resin casts then the heat can be considerable. However this is unlikely if you are making puppets as a solid resin cast is usually too heavy for anything but the smallest of heads. The trick is to create the strongest and most rigid structure with as little resin and fibreglass as possible.

Epoxy resin

A liquid resin which sets with the addition of a catalyst. Its main advantage over polyester resin is that it can be applied directly to styrofoam, without covering. It is available as a liquid or a paste.

Polyurethane resin

A two part liquid resin which is mixed by volume. I mostly use this for casting hands. It is very strong and will not break if dropped. It is best to colour it with pigment when you cast it as I haven't yet found a matt paint which adheres well to it. I use a product called Easyflo 120 from Mouldlife.

Araldite

Araldite is the brand name of an epoxy resin. It comes as two parts which you mix in equal quantities. You can get quick setting glue and it is an incredibly useful adhesive. I tend to get a cheaper alternative such as Z-poxy from The Modelshop

Evo Stik

Evo Stik make many different glues, the most useful of which is the impact adhesive. You apply this to both surfaces about to be stuck, leave it for a few minutes and then put them together.

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links

 

Links and contact details for useful companies

 

Tiranti's 
27 Warren Street, London, W1T 5NB.  TEL: 020 7636 8565
General sculpting materials: clay, silicone rubber, resin, fibreglass, etc 

4D Modelshop 
The Arches, 120 Leman Street, London, E1 8EU.  TEL: 020 7264 1288
General model making supplies, particularly useful for styrofoam

Pentonville Rubber 
104/106 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9JB.  TEL: 020 7837 7553/4582 
Soft foam rubber and other types of rubber and plastazote

Flint Hire & Supply 
Queens Row, London SE17 2PX.  TEL: 020 7703 9786
Scenery and Prop making supplies, including jesmonite

Mouldlife 
Tollgate Workshop, Bury Road, Kentford, Suffolk, CB8 7PY  TEL: 01638 750 679
Resins and rubber for mould making and casting

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