Introduction: Pirate Skeleton Trick Marionette Puppet

Trick puppets that can fly apart or turn into other creatures are always a crowd favorite. The break-apart skeleton, the Grand Turk, and circus performers are traditional trick marionettes. I built this break-apart skeleton with a pirate twist and will show you how to make your own step-by-step.


plaster of paris
aluminum drink cans
modeling clay
styrofoam ball

Dowels and wood
Screw eyes
black fishing line
wire coat hangers
paper clay
acrylic paint

Step 1: Sculpt Head

A foam ball on a dowel is used as the core for the puppet head.
  1. Sculpt skull out of clay.
  2. Make plaster mold from clay skull, I like to make a four piece mold.
  3. Put paper clay 1/4” thick in plaster mold. Use a even coat of corn starch inside the mold so the paper clay wont stick to the mold.
  4. After the paper clay is dry the skull can be unmolded, sanded, and painted. Add three small screw eyes to the skull before you paint. There should be screw eyes in the middle of each side of the head and one on the top of the head.

Step 2: Build the Body

  1. The back bone is shaped from a 1”x1” piece of wood. I used a belt sander to form the back bone.
  2. Holes drilled in the back bone hold the ribs formed from thick wire, I like to use wire coat hangers.
  3. The pelvis bone is cut from cardboard and glued onto the back bone.
  4. The sternum is also cut out of cardboard and glued to the ribs.
  5. Add shape to the ribs and strength to the pelvis and sternum by covering them with paper clay.
  6. Once the body has the shape you like sand and paint

Step 3: Arms and Legs

Arms and leg are made from different size doweling. Add paper clay to doweling to make them look more like bones. Add interlocked screw eyes at the elbows and knees. Sand and paint.

Step 4: Hands and Feet

Find hands and feet you like by researching on the internet and print them out. Make sure the hand and feet are the right size for your puppet. If your skeleton is a proper pirate, you just need one hand and one foot since the other will be a peg leg and a hook.
  1. Put the printed out paper on a piece of scrap wood.
  2. Hammer small brads or nails at the tip of ever finger or toe. Also, hammer nails at the base of every finger or toe. Put a couple nail around the palm of the hand.
  3. Wrap a small wire around each nail to form a wire hand or foot.
  4. Once you get the hand or foot to a desired shape cover with small strip of material dipped in glue. The material makes it easier to add paper clay details.
  5. Add paper clay details. Sand and paint when dry.
  6. Attach to ankle and wrist with a screw eye, nice and loose for good action.
If the skeleton is going to be a pirate a peg leg made from wood and a hook hand can be added. The hook hand was made from things found at a hardware store.

Step 5: Control and Stringing

The control is made from two different size doweling. The main part of the control made from the larger size doweling and is 10”  long. The smaller size doweling is two 10” pieces and one 5” piece. Drill two holes in the larger doweling 2” from the bottom  and 8” from the bottom. Make the hole the same size as the smaller doweling. Center the 5” doweling in the bottom hole. Center the 10” doweling in the other hole. Insert a wire hook at the top so you can hand up the control.

You will need to put eleven small screw eyes and three larger screw eyes on the control. Screw in small screw eyes at the end of each of the small dowels. Put small screw eyes in the smaller 10” dowels 1 1/2 “ from the end. On the larger dowels put a small screw eye in 1/2” from the bottom. One of the larger screw eyes should go where the 10” small doweling and 10” large doweling cross. Open this screw eye slightly so you can use it as a hook.  Another large screw eye is installed 8” from the bottom on the larger dowel. The last larger screw eye goes into the middle of the remaining dowel not attached to the control.

To start stringing, tie a long string to each shoulder. I like using black 12lb. braided Dacron fish line but it is very hard to find. Some puppeteers like using clear mono-filament fish line. That tends to catch the light and show up more than the black. Take these  first two strings and run them through the screw eyes on the side of the skull.  Tie each string to the side of the 5” smaller dowel on the control. This will determine how long the rest  of the strings will be so take some time to make these first two strings the correct length.

Add a screw eye or drill a hole to the top of the backbone. Attach a string to that screw eye and run that string up through the two holes drilled in the skull. You may need a piece of wire or long needle to get the string through the skull. Attach that string to the bottom screw and the main part of the control.

Attach a string to the screw eye on the top of the skull. Run that string through the screw at the bottom and run it up through the next larger screw eye. Attach that string to a ring of some kind. This ring will be used to pull up the head.

To attach the arms and legs attach a string around the top part of the leg and arms. Run the strings through the hole you have drilled in the shoulders and hips. The legs strings are attached to the outside screw eyes on the 10” small doweling. The arms strings are attached to the inside screw eyes on the 10” small doweling. When you tip the control flat the arm and legs should come apart.

The last 10” piece of dowel should have four small screw eyes and one large screw eye. This bar will be known as the foot bar. It hooks on the open screw eye on the main control. Run a string from the outside screw eye to the screw eyes that make the knee joint. Run a string from the inner screw eye to the palm of the hand. You can drill a small hole in the palm and run a string through that.

Step 6: Paint and Decorate

Finish the painting and add details like earring, scarf, and eyepatch.
Practice taking off the foot bar to walk and dance, pull the head string to pop it off, tilt the control flat to separate the legs for spooky perambulations.

Puppet Contest

Second Prize in the
Puppet Contest