Introduction: Creating a Broadway-themed ZAZU Puppet

About: Technology lover, gamification evangelist, prop/set designer


The Lion King Jr. and Zazu were my gateway into theatre and entertainment projects creating puppets, props, costumes, and traditional and digital sets. I actually took on way more than I should have by creating most of the characters in the production. I have over 33 years in multimedia and design and always wanted to get into this profession since I was young seeing the creepy animatronic figures at the "Hall of Presidents" at Walt Disney World. I am slowly building my skills over the years and hopefully this Instructable will help you attain your goals and/or passion for fabricating as well.

Not knowing where to start learning how to fabricate a puppet, I found many Instructables (a special shout out to RickGyver) that helped using cardboard as the structure and more. Having said that, I wouldn't recommend using cardboard for puppet designs. But Zazu seems to be holding up 2 plus years later. A fabrication of this nature can be time consuming (especially with the feathers!), but it is very rewarding in the end seeing the children's faces perform with them and seeing your work come to life in front of an audience. I took several photos during this build, but many intermediate photos are missing because I didn't realize I would be writing a tutorial one day. I will do my best to illustrate what was done in the fabrication process. I also didn't make Zazu have a mouth mechanism to simulate talking. I didn't have enough time to build (not hard to build), but I did regret not making it. Here's a great place to learn. I will also give you some hints, warnings, and lesson learned that might help you along the way.

Now, with that all aside, let's build a puppet!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Materials Used: (The links are for visual identification purposes only. You can purchase anywhere: online, in art stores, or hardware stores.) Don’t let this materials list stop you from your build if you feel it is too much! You do not have to use all of these materials to fabricate a fun, functional, and nice looking puppet.

A lot of corregated cardboard! (Do not use cardboard from an appliance, like a refrigerator. It is very hard on your hands and fingers over time.) Call up or email your local appliance store(s) and see if they have a bin that you can rummage through to get a lot of different kinds of cardboard free. They’re used to these calls from theatres.

Hot glue sticks (order online, much cheaper)

Sandpaper (60, 80, 120 grit, etc.) – Block sander or single sheets

Bondo® (or any other type automotive body filler)

Bondo® glazing and spot putty (for filler pinholes)

Sandable primer

Acrylic paint (red, orange, white, blue, black, and brown)

Mod Podge® Clear Acrylic Sealer, Gloss (or any other brand gloss sealer for acrylic)

Large Wood dowel (body handle)

Wood dowel or metal (mouth mechanism handle)

Thin, white fabric (feathers)

Children’s plastic Slinky® (neck)

Snap blade replacements

Tracing paper

Polystyrene foam balls

Flexible Tubing or similar piping (legs)

1/4” white Craft Foam

Plumbers epoxy (not always in the plumbers aisle, go figure)

Hemp twine (or something similar)

Various nuts, bolts, washers and lock washers

Elastic band (jaw/head connection)


Hot glue gun

Plastic spreaders (e.g., Bondo® brand or putty knife)

Tape measure (soft tape or lock tape)

Utility knife or snap blade (preferred)

X-ACTO® knife (optional)

Art paint brushes (small tip to large)

Cut-in brush (for large areas; can be substituted for a chip brush)

Cutting mat (optional; the larger the better though)

Black markers (fine tip to medium)

Step 2: Research

Like anything worth creating and or duplicating, spending a good amount of time researching a subject is time well spent. First, I would suggest using a three-ring binder or manila folder to house your sketches, printed material, and ideas. Note that this Instructables is recreating the look of the Broadway play The Lion King Zazu puppet, not the animated Disney version.

Here are some amazing videos, web sites, and images available on the internet to begin your research into understanding how Zazu was made in the Broadway play The Lion King and how he looks and performs. Note: you might spend hours watching videos and researching puppet fabrication, but it is totally worth it and enjoyable!

The Lion King – Behind the Scenes Part 1 (Just a cool video to get you excited about the build)

The Lion King – Behind the Scenes Part 2 (starting at 7:09)

The Lion King – Behind the Scenes Part 2 (starting at 5:00)

Zazu comes to life (cool breakdown of how he functions)

The Lion King – Rafiki and Zazu

Behind the Scenes in The Lion King’s Puppet Shop

An inside account of The Lion King masks and puppets department (web site)

Zazu Backstory – When fabricating a puppet, knowing its backstory helps to “flesh out” their personality and allows their mannerisms and voice to shine through when puppeteering.

If you are helping with a production of The Lion King or The Lion King Jr., here’s a great guide offered by Disney Theatrical Productions Education Department (

Google search words like: Zazu puppet build, or broadway zazu puppet

Other Resources:

Stan Winston School of Character Arts - Subscription-based but well worth it and the years of cumulative knowledge in the industry is amazing.

Punished Props – Very nice work and fun tutorials.

Adam Savage’s Tested – Adam Savage is from the well-known TV show “MythBusters” and he’s an awesome prop fabricator. You’ll spend hours on his site watching videos and learning a lot.

Design Modeling/Card Techniques - How to work with cardboard.

Magic Wheelchair – When you are ready, volunteer or donate to this great cause. I did and it’s a lot of fun and very humbling seeing all of the epic wheelchair costume builds around the country!

Step 3: Preparation and Templates

Now that you have a better understanding of how the Broadway play version of Zazu was created and his overall appearance, it is time to build your own! Crank up your computer speakers or radio to ‘Circle of Life’ and let’s get inspired. Try to get that out of your head…and you’re welcome. Ok, and this one too. Could you imagine being there?

As a side note, please excuse the poor photo's; older cell phone technology.

Sketch, Trace, and Cut

After I sketched all of my Zazu images, I thought it would be fun to create a clay maquette (a sculptor’s small preliminary model or sketch). I wanted to create the body smaller so that the actor could easily hold it while the head was relatively the same size as the Broadway play version. Not a final maquette, but it was good practice in figuring out a form before spending too much time in fabrication.

Having said that, on a piece of paper or on your computer, sketch out Zazu’s head. I use Adobe Illustrator to create my artwork. I always sketch out my ideas first so as not to waste any time on needless lines in the program and to understand my general direction. Don’t worry if you don’t own the software or anything comparable. Sketching works just as good! I like to keep a digital copy of my work AND to be able to print out the templates with clean lines if I want to revisit the build (see PDF templates below).

The following PDF templates can be downloaded for use for this project. Please note that some (if not most) templates may need to be retrofitted to work with your design/build. Many templates were built after-the-fact, so an exact measurement may be needed before cutting. There are times where there won’t be a template and you will need to fabricate based off an image. By this time you should be proficient in working with cardboard and making your own templates. Also, for legal purposes, please do not sell any of these templates. They are for educational-purposes only. Download all templates in one PDF below.

1. Head/Beak/Jaw (A-Side)

2. Head/Beak/Jaw (B-Side)

3. Beak (top view)

4. Beak (inside structure)

5. Beak (outside structure, A-Side)

6. Beak (outside structure, B-Side)

7. Jaw (top view)

8. Jaw (bottom view)

9. Body

10. Legs

11. Feet

12. Wings/Tail

Step 4: Head, Beak, and Jaw - Part 1

HOT TIP: This may seem obvious, but hot glue can get extremely hot when you leave your hot glue gun on for a long time! I just want to put this out there because I was using a high temp glue gun towards the end of the build and burned my fingers pretty badly. Especially watch out for the glue when you are working with fabric. I found if I put too much glue on at a time and tried wrapping it around the puppet it would snap back on my hand (almost like it was magnetic) and burn my hand. I sound like a fool telling you this, but if I can keep anyone from burning themselves like I did, then I will be happy.

Print out the template(s) and trace the lines using tracing paper with a fine tip black marker. Or, from your own research sketch out Zazu’s profile onto tracing paper or directly onto the cardboard. The outer structure of the head (A-Side and B-Side) shown above are instructions on where to place the template objects. The PDF template for the head, beak, and jaw are found in the previous step "Preparation and Templates".

TIP: To soften the cardboard before working with it, drag the cardboard on the corner of a desk or wall. Drag forward and back. This will breakdown the structure inside the cardboard a little better and you can bend the templates into position. Note also that there will be a direction in which the cardboard was made (generally you can look at the side or note the lines in one direction). Try to bend according to the direction of the cardboard; makes life much easier!

Methods for Tracing Templates

Option A: Cut the template object out, tape, and trace onto a piece of cardboard. Then cut the cardboard out. I did this on larger pieces like the head so I made sure everything lined up correctly.

Option B: Place the tracing paper on the cardboard and tape it. Then take an XACTO-knife or snap blade and cut through the line. Next, take a black marker and mark through the line onto the cardboard. Freehand drawing works just as well, but the templates would be useless at that point.

Option C: Tape your cardboard onto a wall and use an overhead projector to trace the template. The problem here is you have to make sure you are designing to the correct size all of the time; meaning don’t move the projector once it is set in place. Speaking from experience, this becomes a true nightmare!

Once you have all of the pieces traced or hand drawn, cut them all out and label. Labeling is the key to semi-quickly fabricating this character and maintaining order.

HINT: If you know you will be building this puppet again, make sure if you have retrofitted a piece to fit, make a duplicate. It takes a little time, but you will be thanking yourself the next time you rebuild the puppet. If you have access to a program like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, scan the new template into your computer, trace it, label it, and get rid of the old template.

Shown are the steps and images for fabricating the head with beak and jaw.

Step 1 (image 1): Print templates out or make your own. Cut out the head/ beak and upper jaw.

Step 2 (image 2): Cut out and glue in the inner structure to the head and beak, along with the upper jaw. Continue on the opposite side and repeat using the template provided.

Step 3 (image 3): Glue in the insert of the beak on both sides and start adding the outer structure of the beak.

Step 4 (image 4): Add the eye hole on both sides. (Note: in the previous images there was a structure near the eye hole. It is now taken out to make room for the eye structure. Add in another inside structure around the eye once done for stability.

Step 5 (image 5): Place the Polystyrene ball in both eye sockets. See notes on hollowing out to make lighter in the section “The Eyes Have It”.

Step 6 (image 6): Front view of head and beak. The head will need to be fully fabricated because there is no template.

Step 7 (image 7): Cut out the upper jaw template and add sides.

Step 8 (image 8): Jaw in place. Make sure it is not glued to the head if you want it to move with your mouth mechanism (instructions not included).

Step 9 (image 9): Add the neck. Template not provided. Curl up a piece of cardboard to form a neck.

Step 10 (image 10): Inner and outer structure glued on.

Attaching the Jaw

In order to connect the jaw to the head, if you are not making a mouth mechanism, do the following:

1. Attach the jaw to the head using an elastic band.(see image 11)

2. Cut two wide pieces or use several to attach the back of the jaw to the jowls on the head. (see image 12)

Step 5: Head, Beak, and Jaw - Part 2

Sand the Floor

No not really, but you will be sanding quite a deal using larger grit to finer grit to create a shiny beak.

This section can be skipped if you are going to add fabric to the beak and not have it look like a hard shelled beak. This is the most time consuming, besides creating the feathers, in this build.

Things to keep in mind when working with Bondo®:

1. Working inside with Bondo® is not an option, the smell is horrible! I can say that because I have worked with the body filler since I was 16 years old and I still can’t get used to the odor. Work in a garage or outside.

2. Drying time is fast, just like plumbers epoxy so you need to make sure you know what you are building up and work quickly.

3. Wear gloves and googles because the chemicals can irritate your skin and eyes.

4. Work in small doses so as not to waste any filler due to drying out and hardening.

When mixing the Bondo® to hardener ratio you may get it wrong many times before you figure out what works. A good hint is if it is too red, then there is too much hardener and if too light then there is not enough hardener/Bondo® ratio. Here’s a good video to get you started.

HINT: Cut your plastic spreaders so you can get into tight spots with the filler. It’s easier to work with on a sculpture of this nature (i.e., not flat). (see image above)

Step 6: The Eyes Have It - Part 1

Zazu’s eyes are very expressive. You don’t want to make him too angry or too stunned by misplacing his eyelids. If I were to redo my own puppet, I would have made him look less tired or angry. Play around with the positioning of the eyelids and lock it in place with hot glue when ready. If you are really daring, you can make his eyes move and blink. But that would be a totally different Instructable. Also of note, try to position the eyelids close to the same position on each side. You can tell if they are off if you look at him straight on. He will look like he had too many drinks if they are off.

Fabricating Eyes

There are many ways to create a static eye for this puppet. I used a polystyrene ball that you can get at any art store. In order to keep his head lighter, you will be cutting out a portion of the eye to use on each side. The other half is used for his eyebrows and upper lid. Follow the steps shown below as a profile of the polystyrene ball to create your own (See images above).

Glue the main eye in place on the head. Next, glue the upper eyelid in place (large upper half circle with eyebrow). Cut the eyelid in half once you have figured out how much you need to give the correct expression. The eyebrows will be added in the section "Detail Work".

Step 7: The Eyes Have It - Part 2

Fabricating the Eye Bags

This part is really fun. Here you will be taking what is used to stop water leaks and sculpt some true character into Zazu! Read the instructions carefully and wear gloves when using plumbers epoxy. This stuff has a distinct smell to it and can cause irritation to the skin. Create the eye bags in small increments. Don’t get anxious and mix the entire epoxy roll at once. The hardening time is quick and you will just have a large, hard ball in the end, literally. Depending on the type of epoxy used, mix the grey to black or grey to white until the two colors become a medium grey. You will have a limited time to work with the epoxy so place it under his eyes to begin forming the bags. Sculpt it into place and notice how it begins to heat up as it hardens. Keep doing this until you have built up a good base under his eyes. You may need to get 2 containers of the epoxy depending on how aged you want Zazu to look.

Step 8: Creating the Neck

I added the neck to the puppet at the end because it was kind of awkward working with it during the build. You can add it now if you don’t mind dealing with the head.

The neck is fairly simple. It consists of a flexible tubing (optional), a children’s slinky (yes, they actually use it in the real puppet!), fabric, and feathers. Attaching the neck to the head and body consists of using a lot of hot glue with cardboard backing.

Step 1 (image 1): Place cardboard under the neck hole to accommodate for the flexible tubing to go through and be hot glued. (Note: feathers are added at the end)

Step 2 (image 2): Attach the slinky to the upper head, then to the body.

Step 3 (image 3): Wrap fabric around the slinky and flexible tubing and glue.

Step 4 (no image): Glue the neck to the head and the body. Use a lot of hot glue!

Step 5 (no image): Test to see if hot glue is holding the head and body sufficiently by pulling slightly.

Head and Neck Handle

Cut down a 1” wooden dowel or hollow metal pipe and cut a hole in the jaw. With a wooden dowel you can drill a hole in the top, place a large washer in between and use a screw to tighten. Paint it black so it doesn’t interfere color-wise with the puppet. (see images 3 and 4).

Step 9: Body Work

There were no photos of the body when I originally created it. I have a template for the inside structure and main body. The outside structure needs to be fabricated by your own templates.

Attach the neck to the front of the body by using a lot of hot glue. Next, make two holes roughly half way through the body towards the top, on each side. Here you will be attaching the legs. DO NOT glue the bodies back section together until you get the hardware in to attach the legs. Wait until you have made the legs and attached both sides together before you hot glue the back end.

a. Legs

Print the template for the legs and reference the image above to fabricate. As you can see in the photo, the bendable piping is used for the extended leg. However, you can use PVC if you have it, just use a lot of hot glue to keep the cardboard and tubing together. (See images 1 - 6)

b. Feet

Print out the template for the feet or make your own. The top and back of the foot are not shown in the template. Reference the images above and images online to complete the foot. The toes consist of the same pattern combined and glued at the top. In my version of Zazu, I made hinges on his ankles by drilling a hole where the ankle would be and placing a bolt through it. Each side had a small washer or lock washer and a nut on the end. (See images 7 - 10)

c. Body Handle

Instead of holding Zazu like a football, a handle can be inserted under his belly as the image shows (see images 11 - 12). I used a 1/2” wood dowel, cut it down to size to fit my hand comfortably and covered it with foam pipe insulation. This stuff is great and can be used for so many projects! But alas, this will have to be another Instructable.

Step 10: Detail Work

If you know how to airbrush, here is where you can shine. If not, no big deal, you can still hand paint everything. But if you are going to stay in this field, learn it! You can use it on almost every project you do.

Fabricating the Eyebrows

The eyebrows are fairly simple. Cut out 12 pieces of 1/4” craft foam at an angle and hot glue together. In the paint stage, paint them a fudge brown color and dry brush with white to give it an aged look. (See images 1 - 3)

Feather Work

Feathering Zazu! The most time-consuming part of the build besides the beak. As I mentioned before, you could go the route of covering the puppet with faux fur or fleece fabric. However, if you want to be more adventurous and a little crazy, just kidding, you will be needing to cut out around 200-300 plus individual feathers. Doesn’t sound like much until you actually start cutting them out. I’ve given tips below to make your life a little easier. Have fun!

Cut the feathers for the larger part of the body in strips as shown in the image. This way you can lay a large strip down, tack it into place with hot glue and move to the next row. You will need to start from the back of the body and work your way forward in order to get the feathers to lie correctly. Same with the legs and neck; start from the bottom and work your way up. Make sure each layer is offset from the one before.

Image 5: Add feathers to the back of Zazu’s head and paint.

Image 6: Reference an image of Zazu and sporadically paint the tips of the feathers as shown using orange and yellow paint.

Image 7: This image shows you how to lay down the feathers in proper order so as to have a layered effect.

Beak Divider

Glue down some hemp twine or any other type of rope to divide the head from the beak. (See image 8)

Paint Beak

Paint the beak from red, to orange, to white in a sunburst style. It is easier if you have an airbrush, but I didn't at the time and was careful to lay down the red on the orange by the doing the following (see image 9):

1. Paint the beak all white. Let it dry thoroughly.

2. Tape off and paint the beak orange (3/4 of beak). Let it dry thoroughly.

3. Last, spray paint the tip of the beak red. In order to get the nice fade from red to orange, paint the tip all red (1/4 of beak). Then fan out the red spray paint onto the orange to blend.

Make the Tongue

Create a tongue for Zazu and paint it magenta. Use ½” to ¼” craft foam and if you have access to a heat gun or even a hair dryer (takes longer) bend the tongue to form an "S". Hot glue into place. (See image 10)

Head Feather

You can find a feather (artificial or real) in most art stores. Bend it at the bottom and hot glue onto the top of his head. (See image 11)


Tie some hemp twine around the ankles of Zazu and hot glue into place. (See image 12)

Step 11: Testing and Quality Checks

As the final step to using your puppet in a production, you need to make sure parts of him won’t fall off during the performance. It is yet to happen to me, but it could, considering not every play has a props master to ensure care has been given to all props, sets, and costumes. If you are dealing with younger performers they have been known to throw their puppets during a show or rehearsal. I’ve had to fix many of my puppets after-the-fact and once during. Here is a short checklist to ensure your puppets don’t implode by the hands of others:

1. Tighten every visible bolt and ensure to use washers were a nut can fall through (especially with something like cardboard). Use a locking washer so that the nut won’t spin off the bolt. When the hardware is internal, you will be doing this same check before laying an outer structure on the puppet.

2. Give a little pull on parts like arms, legs, and head to see if there is any give. You don’t want to overbuild, as I mentioned before, but you also don’t want an Exorcist scene being played out in front of the audience.

3. If the puppet has hair, feathers, clothes, etc. make sure they are sewn or glued down in key spots.

4. Does something rattle when you shake your puppet? If so, is it a game stopper and you have to take it apart to fix or is it something you can live with because a small internal part fell off and it won’t affect the performance? Sometimes it is best to leave something alone and say, “What noise?”

Step 12: Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned:

Here is the section I believe everyone should come up with after a big project. It will allow you to grow as an artist and help others to learn from your mistakes or accomplishments.

1. Make it lightweight! Try to make your puppet or prop as light as possible because the actor you think should be performing with your creation isn’t always what you had in mind. For example, Zazu was my first puppet build. I would watch videos and look at numerous images of the Broadway version of The Lion King, Zazu performer. The performer(s) are usually slight in build, 5’8” and above, and are men. Who was casted for The Lion King Jr. role well after the fabrication commenced? A small build, 5’4” girl. A small girl wasn’t the issue. She wasn’t able to hold the puppet for longer than a few minutes was the issue. As you know, Zazu is seen throughout the entire performance; thus he wasn’t used as much and all of that hard work kind of went down the drain. So, the lesson learned: MAKE IT AS LIGHT AS POSSIBLE so any performer can use it, no matter their size, gender, or how long it is used throughout a performance.

2. Give yourself enough time to fabricate. If possible, request ample enough time for you to build your props, create costumes, fabricate puppets and build the sets. The time you think it takes to fabricate, equals twice the time to build. This is true in most production and design work. Remember, this is supposed to be fun (I always have to tell myself that in the wee hours of the night and morning).

3. Attend Technical (Tech) Week/ Day. This refers to the week prior to the opening night of the play, in which all of the technical elements (costumes, lights, sound, set and makeup) are present for the first time during a rehearsal. I did not know much about theatre when I started and I didn’t realize how much I was needed there to help fit the costumes and characters to the performers. Not to mention I created the digital backdrops for the production and we had to have a light check the day of the play. No Bueno! If you can, be there for the days requested by the Director; it helps everyone in the end.

4. Do not overbuild. Overbuilding a puppet or prop means to build it so strong that it is near impossible to fix if and when it breaks, and it will eventually break. Many of my first puppet builds, as you can see by the amount of hot glue I used in the images, are so tight that it is near impossible to pull apart. Build it well, but don’t go to extremes that not even the apocalypse can destroy it. Give that honor to the cockroaches!

5. Improvise. This is a big concept all fabricators learn early on. There won’t always be a template, YouTube video, or online tutorial that will help explain how to do something. We all make it up as we go along for the most part. That’s where the fun occurs, where the “little mistakes” turn into better approaches to a solution. As Oscar Wilde put it, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

6. Clean up. I wished I learned this earlier on. By the end of my first project, I literally had cardboard half way up to my 6’ frame and no one could walk in that area without biting it on the floor. Take the last 15 minutes of your day and clean up your workspace. Not only does it make your life easier when you start up the next time, but it is also a safety factor.

Well, I hope you learned a lot, had fun in the process, and created a really cool Zazu for your production. Please share what you have made and if you have any questions, tips, war stories, or I missed a step somewhere, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Until next time my friends, “Hakuna Matata!”

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