How-To

Puppetry Construction Methods

Making Puppets from Molds



Examples of plaster molds for puppet heads

Possible Materials

Neoprene
Foam
Plastic Wood
Rubber Latex
Celastic
Solvoset, Agoplast
Papier Mache

To make a puppet from a mold first you:

Carve the image out of clay, either water-based or an oil-based plasticene. Water-based has to be tended during the sculpting process to prevent drying and cracking, but the finished mold does not have to be so scrupulously cleaned since the moisture leaving the neoprene can pass through any residual clay and into the plaster. Plasticene requires less fuss when sculpting (better for long-term projects). It is available in a variety of grades to suit personal preferences in terms of hardness and is considerably less messy to work with, but any traces of its oil which are left in the mold will form a moisture barrier and prevent the neoprene from curing properly in those spots. These considerations are true when working with latex as well. If you are casting with neoprene or latex, make your sculpt a little larger than you need since those materials will shrink as the final cast cures.

Cover the clay in sections with plaster (wear gloves), using dividers where the mold will split. You can also make the mold one section at a time and then apply a light coating of Vaseline to the parts of that section which will be in contact with other plaster parts to prevent them from bonding together. The dividing lines usually define a path around the perimeter of the molded object and run along the high point of each feature that they cross. This is done in an effort to minimize "undercuts," those areas where the finished cast might catch in the mold. Common areas for this problem include nostrils, open mouths, eye sockets, and the spaces under the chin and behind the ears. It is also important to divide a head mold of fewer than three pieces carefully along the middle of the skull curve so that one side of the entire head does not become lodged in the mold. These considerations are not quite as crucial when casting with neoprene or latex, which are flexible, but must be followed absolutely when casting with hard materials--a trapped sculpt can result in loss of the sculpt itself and/or breakage of the mold.

Let the plaster set. It will go from soupy to firm. It will also heat up and then cool down again. If it has not done all of these things, then it HAS NOT finished curing! Some types of plaster will get hotter than others, but they all heat up to some degree. For this reason, it is a BAD IDEA to cast any part of your body directly in plaster!! It can BURN YOU!! If your sculpt is plasticene, be sure the mold has thoroughly cooled before trying to open it--the clay will have gone molten to some degree during the heating phase and may still be hot enough to hurt. It will also be much harder to clean out of the mold and more inclined to smear its way into the pores of the plaster when it's hot.

Gently pull apart the mold and clean out the clay from the plaster mold sections. If you have used Vaseline in your molding process, be very careful not to get any of it inside the finished mold (That Moisture Barrier again!). A citrus cleaner , followed by a grease-cutting dish soap such as Dawn, works well for this. Use a toothbrush for gentle scrubbing, if necessary. Rinse the mold well and allow it to dry.
Put the sections back together using a rubber band to hold them in place.

Seal the cracks with clay.

Pour a small amount of neoprene into the neck cavity and rotate the mold to coat the inside well. Fill the mold the rest of the way, using care not to splash the neoprene into the mold--that increases the likelihood that air bubbles will get in and spoil your cast. Gently tap the sides pf the mold to dislodge trapped air bubbles and make them surface.

Let it sit, allowing the neoprene to evaporate for one to three hours, depending on desired thickness of the finished cast.

If the level drops due to leakage or excessive evaporation, top it off with more neoprene.

Pour out the excess, which can be saved and reused. The neoprene will have formed a "skin" inside the mold. Allow this skin to dry in the mold for 24 hours.

Pour a small amount of talcum powder into the cast and blow into it to spread the powder. The powder will keep the sides of the cast from sticking to each other if they should happen to touch when the mold is released. CAREFULLY open the mold and remove the cast. It will still be quite raw at this point and should be allowed to cure at room temperature for one to three days, at which time it can be safely handled, trimmed, and painted.

Most molds are thrown out after the completion of the show to prevent a huge quantity of molds from accumulating. Just MAKE SURE that you have cast all of the copies of the sculpt that you are likely to need or want!

BEAR IN MIND that this is a quick overview of the molding and casting process!! If you want to get serious about this and reduce your likelihood of problems, get an experienced mold maker to help you out the first few times or get a hold of a book for in-depth instruction ("The Prop Builder's Molding and Casting Handbook" by Thurston James is an excellent choice. It is published by Betterway Publications, Inc., ISBN 1-55870-128-1).

The Magic Flute puppets and the Servant of Two Masters masks were all made from neoprene.

Some of the advantages of using neoprene:

1) The ability to make multiple hands easily--make a flat hand and when it comes out of the mold simply form the fingers to point in any direction and let it dry. Because it comes out of the mold still flexible, you can bend them and create many different hand positions from a single mold. Depending upon the size and thickness of the hands, it may be helpful to insert bendable wire, either single pieces or complete armatures, into the hands during or after the casting process.

2) It has many qualities which are desirable for builders of puppet heads or masks--durability, flexibility (more or less depending upon the grade of neoprene and thickness of cast), paintability (with or without gesso undercoat, depending on choice of paint and weight of application; acrylics and airbrush are both very satisfactory), and very lightweight, considering its resilient nature.

3) Relatively easy to work with, it can yield the detail which only a casting process can produce and, while it should certainly not be ingested, it is basically non-toxic.

4) As with any casting process, replacement of a damaged part is a much faster undertaking than it might be otherwise.

For a listing of neoprene and latex suppliers, courtesy of Robert Smythe of mum puppettheatre, check out that section of construction tips on Rose Sage's Puppetry Home Page at http://www.sagecraft.com/puppetry/building/latexsuppliers.html or get information from Chicago Latex Co. in the same section at http://user.mc.net/~spartan/cl.htm

NOTE!! You must plan ahead when using neoprene. If it FREEZES, it is RUINED. Therefore, most suppliers will not ship it from mid-November through April (approx.), so be sure to order it in the fall if you are planning to build with it in the winter.

There are alternatives to neoprene as a casting material:

PLASTIC WOOD: Put plastic wood in the mold and put the molds together. Let the plastic wood dry. Drying it under water will prevent it from shrinking and the water holds the plastic wood against the sides of the mold. Air drying is also an option but it may shrink in unexpected ways. Plastic wood is manufactured differently than in the past and was more toxic but worked better in the mold. However, it is still ACETONE-based so gloves and a respirator should be used and only with adequate ventilation.

RUBBER LATEX: Very similar to neoprene in terms of process, but does not accept paint as readily..

CELASTIC: Is no longer manufactured, but was the material of choice for many puppet- and prop-builders for years and if you should happen across some of it now you can enjoy its wonderful workability. It can be used either in a mold or over the clay if you have a foil separator. Celastic will stick to almost anything. It is a fabric material impregnated with a plastic. Dipping the Celastic into acetone activates the plastic so the fabric becomes soft and extremely malleable, behaving like clay in fabric form. It will hold almost any shape and once the acetone evaporates the celastic dries to a strong hard shell which is very light and durable. It can be pieced together like paper mache and resoftened, if necessary, with the application of more acetone. A final smooth surface is achieved by applying a coat of thinned plastic wood which can be sanded once it has dried. Celastic was often used for outdoor sculptures. The Big Blue Ox is an example. Despite its many conveniences, Celastic is a HAZARDOUS MATERIAL since the process uses considerable amounts of ACETONE. USE GLOVES AND A RESPIRATOR!

SOLVOSET, AGOPLAST, and a host of other products have been developed in recent years to try and fill the void left by the cessation of Celastic production. Reactions, in terms of enthusiasm, disappointments, and preferences, have been mixed. However, the general assessment among puppeteers is that the so-called "Celastic Replacements" are no such thing.

PAPIER MACHE can be done over the clay or it can be done in a mold but it needs a separator to prevent sticking. It can be used as a covering agent laid over a form or into a mold in torn pieces or sheets. It can also be used in "pulp" form as a safe, non-toxic casting medium. Traditionally, paper mache was made with wheat paste. Nowadays, though wheat paste is still used (it is simple and easily made), many people have begun to choose metylen-cellulose wallpaper paste. (one advantage is that it not a wheat-based product, which can be an allergy consideration when working on a project that involves alot of skin contact with the mache, either in construction or performance (especially with masks). Students at UCONN were given a great paper mache tip a number of years ago by puppeteer John Cresson: When working on a piece which requires small pieces of paper, lay out a medium-sized piece (either wet or not) on a board, apply the glue liberally to both sides and then tear off your smaller pieces of the now-pre-glued paper and stick them on your project. Light years easier than trying to apply glue to the small pieces individually!!! Coloration with food dye helps to differentiate layers. [Note: Avoid using red as it bleeds throught finishing paints.] While Paper Mache is one of the SIMPLEST and MOST ECONOMICAL choices for molding, it is not as durable as some others. This is not a bad thing, just something to consider when asking questions like, "Does this puppet have to last for three performances or three hundred?", or, "Will I be performing with this puppet only at home or will it have to be constantly packed and transported?"

One final note about some paper mache creations: Caution must be used to prevent mice from making a snack of them in storage! For more information about Paper Mache and some great Paper Pulp Recipes, check out the Paper Mache section of construction tips on Rose Sage's Puppetry Home Page at http://www.aracnet.net/~props/recipes.html#rec2


NEOPRENE

man made latex material that is relatively non-toxic to use
flexible for a period of time before setting
used in molds to make puppets
Neoprene impervious to elements and rodents, but may deteriorate over time in hot conditions
Used by Frank Ballard to make puppets for The Magic Flute.

Neoprene hand from a mold

Some of the advantages of using neoprene:

1) The ability to make multiple hands easily--make a flat hand and when it comes out of the mold simply form the fingers to point in any direction and let it dry. Because it comes out of the mold still flexible, you can bend them and create many different hand positions from a single mold. Depending upon the size and thickness of the hands, it may be helpful to insert bendable wire, either single pieces or complete armatures, into the hands during or after the casting process.

2) It has many qualities which are desirable for builders of puppet heads or masks--durability, flexibility (more or less depending upon the grade of neoprene and thickness of cast), paintability (with or without gesso undercoat, depending on choice of paint and weight of application; acrylics and airbrush are both very satisfactory), and very lightweight, considering its resilient nature.

3) Relatively easy to work with, it can yield the detail which only a casting process can produce and, while it should certainly not be ingested, it is basically non-toxic.

4) As with any casting process, replacement of a damaged part is a much faster undertaking than it might be otherwise.

For a listing of neoprene and latex suppliers, courtesy of Robert Smythe of mum puppettheatre, check out that section of construction tips on Rose Sage's Puppetry Home Page @ http://www.sagecraft.com/puppetry/building/latexsuppliers.html or get information from Chicago Latex Co. in the same section @ http://user.mc.net/~spartan/cl.htm

NOTE!! You must plan ahead when using neoprene. If it FREEZES, it is RUINED. Therefore, most suppliers will not ship it from mid-November through April (approx.), so be sure to order it in the fall if you are planning to build with it in the winter.

For more detailed information on Neoprene, check out
Facts on Neoprene



FOAM

CONSTRUCTION

Various types of foam products can be used to achieve convincing, lightweight results in many areas of puppet, prop, and scenic construction. Styrofoam, polyfoam, reticulated foam, and insulation foam all have valuable applications. The main drawback to foam construction is lack of durability over an extended period of time. Hard foam products, unless covered with an additional protective coating can easily crack or be crushed. Soft foams and some styrofoams will deteriorate over time, a process which will be hastened if the object is stored in a very warm environment. However, the results which can be achieved and the weight which can be avoided by their use make foam products the first choice of some puppeteers and a preferred choice of countless others.

CARVING Masks and puppet heads of all sizes can be quickly and easily carved from any of a number of hard foam products. A simple styrofoam ball can become a head in a matter of minutes with a pen knife and a bit of sandpaper. Another type, denser and preferred by many for its ease of carving and retention of detail, is insulation board foam (available at home supply houses and referred to as "pink" or "blue" foam. This comes in sheets which are 8’ long and 2’ to 4’ wide. Thickness varies: ½", 1", or 2". These sheets can be bonded together using a special contact adhesive known as Fastbond 30, then carved, sawn, drilled, filed, sanded, or routed (carefully!!). One of the most handy tools for this process is the Sureform Rasp. NOTE: At The Very Least, WEAR A DUST MASK WHEN CARVING FOAM, especially when sanding. YOU DO NOT WANT TO INHALE THE PARTICLES! WHEN USING POWER TOOLS WITH FOAM, WEAR A RESPIRATOR—FRICTION MAY CAUSE THE RELEASE OF FUMES. Sheet foam is also very useful for scenic elements as it can be laminated onto a thin plywood backing and carved to the texture of the desired facade, for instance rocks, bricks, or architectural ornament. With any of these materials, you will want to cover the finished carving with a protective coating. Either muslin or cheesecloth, dipped in thinned white glue will work well for this, as will papier mache. This will not only provide protection, but a paintable surface as well. In the case of most masks and many puppet heads, you will probably want to remove some or all of the foam once the outer coating has dried hard (A sufficient strength of covering may require numerous coats –experiment). You can carve some of the foam core out to reduce the weight or slice the piece in half, remove the foam entirely and then patch the two halves back together.

Soft foam products can be carved, as well. The two main types used are polyfoam, or sponge rubber, and reticulated foam, also known as scotfoam. Both are available in either sheet or block form, can be dyed using Rit or Tintex dyes, can be bonded with a contact adhesive such as Du-all or Barge Cement (available from shoe repair suppliers) ( THESE ADHESIVES HAVE TOXIC VAPORS!! USE A RESPIRATOR!!), and can be snipped to shape with a scissors, carved (an electric carving knife or safety-edged razor blade works well) or smoothed and/or shaped, VERY CAREFULLY, on a belt sander. NOTE: The use of a belt sander on soft foam is a very tricky proposition—the sander can easily snag the foam. Use a very light touch, hold the piece firmly, do not get your fingers close to the sanding belt, and, if possible, don’t work alone. The last two precautions are good ones to follow all the time when using power tools.

SOFT SCULPTURE:

Polyfoam and Scotfoam are both ideal for forming puppets using soft-sculpture methods. The reticulated foam tends to be coarser and a bit sturdier in a given thickness. Much of the success of this method depends upon careful patterning. Trying to explain that process in this format would probably create more confusion than it would dispel. Therefore, let us urge you, again, to experiment—try bending and pinning some thin foam into shapes. See what you come up with. Some features can be sewn in with tucks, darts, and quilting -type stitches. Others can be made from added "accessories" (Ball eyes, yarn hair, etc.). TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EXISTING RESOURCES. Suggested Reading:

"The Wit and Wisdom of Foam Puppet Construction" from Grey Seal Productions Puppet Studio. c. 1983 To obtain a copy, write to them at

225 West Fourth Street,
Charlotte, NC 28202
or CALL: (704) 374-0346
"3-Dimensional Illustration" by Ellen Rixford c.1992 Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of BPI Communications

1515 Broadway,
New York, NY 10036
ISBN 0-8230-5367-9
Additionally, any fabric or costume books which deal with DRAPING.

ETHAFOAM:

Briefly, ethafoam can be used for sculpting various body parts. It is stiffer and far more resilient than most other types of soft foam. These qualities make it less desirable as a medium for carving , say, heads. However, it is wonderfully light for solid structural limbs and torso pieces. In fact, the form in which ethafoam is most commonly found is tubular pipe insulation. This comes in a variety of diameters and, for limbs, can be cut to any length and simply jointed. One of the easiest methods is to insert a piece of dowel (the same diameter as the inside of the tube) into each end, and either string the sections together or, using a bandsaw, cut a slit into the end of the dowel and the foam and insert a piece of leather or similar fabric which will serve as a hinge. (The humanettes used in Servant of Two Masters and the puppets in Connecticut Yankee had limbs constructed in this way).

 




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