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Hand Puppets: How to Make and Manipulate Them

"Hand Puppets: How to Make and Manipulate Them"
by Florence Fetherston Drake
Popular Science Monthly, February, 1937.

A photograph of Punch, Judy, and the baby ready to perform

Hand puppets are simpler to make and easier to operate than string--controlled marionettes. They have the additional advantage of being able to present a drama on the simplest of stages or on no stage at all-a window, a door opening, or even a break in the shrubbery outdoors. The body of this kind of puppet or guignol is really the hand of the puppeteer inclosed in a cloth bag. Arms and legs, if any, are attached to the bag. The shortness of the arms and the queer anatomy, which must be disguised by drapery, are handicaps, to be sure, but anyone who intends to take up puppetry seriously should try both types before deciding which suits him the better. Even very young children can be taught to make hand puppets from paper pulp or rags and produce entertaining little plays. In fact, no matter how they are made, hand puppets seem to be born, as it were, with a genius for acting.

Their size, which is determined by the human hand over which they are stretched, varies but little. The usual height is 18-in. -the length of the operator's forearm and band plus half the length of the puppet's head. The heads are generally 4-in. long, including the neck. The width of the shoulders is the space between the operator's thumb and middle finger. His wrist is the puppet's waist. Heads for hand puppets are made in various ways, but in all cases it is necessary to prepare rough sketches, actual size, for both profile and full face. Paper pulp may be used as described for marionettes in a previous article (P.S.M., Jan. '36 .57) .

How the parts for Punch’s head are cut from wood and assembled; sketches to aid in carving his hands

The stick which forms what is called the armature must be a trifle larger than the operator's forefinger, so that when it is removed and discarded, the head will fit on the finger easily and comfortably. In this case no extra tube is needed. Wooden heads may be made as shown in the drawing of Mr. Punch. The center is cut from soft wood with a fret saw, and the four thicker pieces for the sides of the head and the cheeks and ears are whittled to shape, sand-papered, and then glued or nailed to the centerpiece. Depressions are filled with cotton batting or similar material soaked in paste, or with paper pulp, and finally covered with stockinet drawn tightly over the whole face. Stitches to accent the features are sewed here and there with a large needle and stout thread, and these also hold the covering. Choose a brownish flesh-color stockinet for Mr. Punch. When rouge is rubbed on the nose and cheeks, and a few lines of black crayon are added, this will give the desired effect. The cap is made of felt and the costume of gayly colored fabrics. The head can, of course, be whittled from a single block of wood, in which case the hole for the forefinger is gouged out. It must reach halfway up the head.

Policeman with stuffed head and leather hands, Toby the dog, and a doctor with stuffed rag head and hands of felt.

Another delightful and simple method is to carve the head from a large potato or turnip. Cut the features boldly; exaggerate them. Large noses are cut separately and held on by pins. All will be greatly softened when covered with paste soaked paper toweling (see P.S.M., May '36, p. 70). Five layers of paper will be found sufficient. Alternate the layers, first a layer of soft newspaper, then one of tough paper toweling. The toweling should be the final layer because it gives a fine surface for painting upon. After this has dried thoroughly, which may take several days, the potato is carefully dug out, leaving the hollow head. Fill the front with sawdust mixed with a little whiting and glue; then plaster the entire inside of head with this mixture and while it is still soft, insert a suitable tube, letting it reach to about the eyes, which are in the middle of the normal head.

A stick puppet after the Javanese carved from balsa wood; a Mexican character with an unpeeled potato for a head; Scaramoich with a potato head covered with paper pulp; and, in the foreground, potato-carved head plastered with paste-soaked paper

A tube foundation is needed for other types of hand-puppet heads. Simply make a cylinder of tough, flexible cardboard from 2 to 3 in. long to fit loosely over the index finger. Wrap and tic the tube with strong string, and cover it with several layers of paste-soaked paper (toweling) until it fits snugly into the neck of the head. When dry, it will be found securely anchored. Around the base of the tube is it advisable to add a roll of soft muslin. This is sewed to the tube with a large needle and carpet thread. To this the garment is to be attached. Hair, and the headdress as well, can be modeled on with pulp or carved in wood. Cotton or rags wet with paste give wood effects. Wigs and beards can be made from almost anything-frayed rope, fringe, zephyr, raffia, cloth, and even metal pot cleaners. Anything, in fact, is better than human hair. Heroic personages demand sculptured hair. With hand puppets, the most elaborate headdresses can be used because there are no strings to become entangled. For jeweled headdresses, use colored gum drops pinched and cut to form the jewels of the crown. Rub the sugar coating off a bit so as to show the rich color beneath. Hands, too, are made from a variety of materials: Carved wood for wooden-headed puppets as in the drawing of Mr. Punch. Wood pulp or cardboard, either covered with cloth or left uncovered. Wire covered with tape (see P.S.M., Feb., '36. p. 64). Felt or leather, folded and sewed as shown in an accompanying drawing.

All hands should be fastened into cardboard tubes from 1 to 1 ½ in. long, made to fit the thumb and finger tip. Finally, the hands must be firmly fastened into the sleeves of the costume. Puppet arms may be elongated by means of additional cardboard tubes placed over the fingers. For finishing the various parts, tempera paint is preferable to oil paint because it dries without any gloss; poster paints answer well, too. If oil paint is used, mix it with turpentine to dull its gloss. Two or three coats may be necessary. Coloring can give as much expression as modeling. In emphasizing expression, make sure that it, as well as the color, carries across the room. White, yellow ocher, and a touch of vermilion give a normal complexion, with accents of red added to the corners of eyes, nostrils, and ears. Use blue or violet shadows in eye sockets, and sweeping dark lines for eyebrows and lips. Add last a touch of shellac or glue to eyes and teeth to, make them glisten. For a hand-puppet theater three things only are essential: a screen or a curtain to hide the operator, a background (curtain or back drop) to make the figures and faces stand out, and a strong light arranged above and in front to shine directly on stage and puppets. While a makeshift theater can be arranged in a window or a doorway, it is advisable to have a well-planned stage on which various experiments in scenic and lighting effects may be tried out. Nothing is better suited to this type theater than a threefold screen. For the uprights, get six lengths of 7/8 by 1 ¾ in. by 6 ft. 6 in. pine or cypress, dressed on all four sides. For the crosspieces of the two end frames, you need four similar strips 2 ft. long; and for the crosspieces of the center frame, obtain four pieces 3 ft. long.

Make a full-size drawing of the ornamental top piece A and the floor-piece shelf B, both of which should be cut from 7/8-in. thick wood. These, as shown in the drawing, are made to come off so that the screen will fold flat. Six double swing screen hinges hold the panels together. The side panels and the lower part of the center panel may be filled in with a lightweight fiber wall board or with sateen gathered on brass rods at top and bottom. Use your taste regarding the color scheme. The frame should, of course, be painted in harmony with the covering. Three screw eyes are used at each side of the top strip of the side panels to take metal rods or heavy wire. These wire braces hold the wings rigidly and also support the back drop and drapes for either a deep or a shallow stage, as need be. In hand-puppet booths, where most of the floor is trapdoor, furniture, when used, must be prevented from falling through. It should be mounted on thin pieces of wood and attached to the apron (shelf B) or to a strip of wood across the back of the state with iron turn buttons or small wing nuts, which can be screwed to the stage floor in convenient places. It takes only a moment to turn these fastenings over the edge of the thin wood. The costume should be large and long enough so the operator's hand is not crowded for room or his wrist left exposed.

Suggestions for making characteristic headdresses to represent various historic periods

The bending of the wrist (the. puppet's waistline) is flexible enough to represent a variety of movements. The, clothes and body, of a hand puppet are, of course, one and the same thing. The foundation garment is a straight skirt or shirt about 14 in. long and 18 in. wide, doubled. Gather or pleat the material around the neck, and then sew or tack it about the throat of the puppet. Before doing this, sew in the right sleeve 1 in, down from the neck and the left sleeve 2 in. down, because the middle finger forms the right arm and the thumb, the left. This, of course, must be reversed if the puppet is used on the left hand. A small cushion or block of wood is often hung by tapes to the puppet's neck in front so that it can be held firmly by the puppeteer's two unused fingers. This contrivance holds the puppet's head and body more firmly and also makes its chest more shapely. Capes, collars, and scarfs improve the effect of the arms, disguising their short length. Headdresses are very important. They can add distinction and character, as well as indicate the country and period. Gestures must flow smoothly one into the other, without haste. Study gestures before a mirror.

A simple way to construct a suitable booth, and two methods of operating hand puppets

Time must be given to study, experiment, and rehearsal. Only the puppet who is speaking should move. Let there be no movement lacking in meaning. A serious fault is to hold the puppets too low; let them enter with all the body visible. The action should be down stage, and the puppet must be held vertically. The length of the play should be from ten to twenty minutes. Have no monologue, over fifteen or twenty words. Appropriate music is the salvation of many a performance. The height of the platform determines whether you operate standing, kneeling, or sitting. Many now are experimenting with the latter position and find it less tiring. A semitransparent back drop is used, and through this it is quite easy to see the puppets although the manipulator himself cannot be seen. There should never be any light back stage.

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