Kinetic Puppet Theater




Introduction: Kinetic Puppet Theater

About: Instructables got me started on an incredible DIY journey, which turned into a blog, which replaced my day job in 2 years. Anything is possible here at Instructables.

kinetic theater from life is groovy on Vimeo.

I often wonder how exhilarating it would be to have the abilities of superman and mermaid, to freely fly above the clouds and swim under the deep sea. Well, the lucky girl in our puppet show gets to do all of that.

The entire puppet show is operated with one pulley system, connected to either a crank, which creates the “swimming with dolphin” scene, or a sliding rod, which creates the “flying with birds” scene.  The mechanism is inspired by the brilliant kinetic sculptures of Reuben Margolin. (Thank you Reuben!) The mini mechanical theater offers many possibilities of studying movements of people, animals and nature, building sceneries, and exploring kinetic mechanisms.

Materials and tools (shown in each steps)-
To build the mechanism:
-3/4”x3/4” wood 3’ long, 6 pieces
-paper clips, colored ones are really helpful
-5 lb clear weight fishing line
-hot glue, glue gun, and all purpose glue
*the picture hanging kit was not used, instead, some angle brackets were used to set up the theater
-card board
-clips from MakeDo, which allow one to join two pieces of card board, and release them later, very useful in flexible designs. You can use other type of clips in its place
To make the puppets :
-fabrics, felt, poly fill, sewing needle and threads
-waterproof drawing pen, for the face details, or acrylic paints
-color construction paper, or design and print your own color patterns
-hot glue gun
-box cutter, or excto knife, and scissors
-measuring tape, straight edge, compass, pen or pencil
-drill or screw driver to install angle brackets onto wall

Step 1: The Mechanical Theater

The kinetic mechanism used here transforms a circular cranking or linear sliding movement into movements of swimming, flying, ocean waves, floating clouds. When a certain number of points evenly spaced along a line, in this case, the end of 8 strings on each of the 4 horizontal bars give us 8 points, when they pass through evenly spaced points on the circumference of a circle, keeping the linear order on the circumference in a clockwise or counterclockwise order, and when the strings are gather at the center of the circle, a circular movement at the gathering point will produce a continuous wave, like an ocean wave, and a linear movement through the center point will produce an up-and-down wave(is there a better name for this?), like the flapping wings of a butterfly.

The video below and last 2 pictures on this step here shows an early test how the objects start in a straight line when the end points are gathered at the center, and as the gather point moves outward, a wave is formed. The amplitude of the wave increases as the circular motion moves from center to the outer edge.

First build a rack with 4 horizontal bars - which gives 4 layers of movements - supported by 2 supporting bars. Hot glue evenly spaced color paper clips onto horizontal ¾” bars. Attach them onto the supporting bars with either glue or screws. The number of bars, and the spacing of the bars and paper clips are flexible, depending on your desired end result. I used 4 bars spaced 6”, 8 paper clips on each bar, 4” on center. Then hot glue equal number of clips onto one of the supporting bar, in the spaces between where the horizontal bars are. These paper clips will guide our puppet strings.

Next comes the magical part of the mechanism. Open up a cardboard box, but keep all the sides, so it can host our gears later. Select one side to draw a circle, mine is 12” diameter, with another 1.5” to the edges. Divide the circumference into 32 equal parts with a straight edge and a compass, mark all the points, then cut out the circle so you have a box frame with a circular opening. Glue 8 of each color paper clips so they are all evenly spaced around the circle. If we call the side with the circular opening the “front side”, then, half of the back side plus a center notch is cut out, so we can slide our crank and slider in and out. The width of the notch is just wider than the sliding rod of the slider (see next step).  I used the MakeDo clips to secure the sides of the box instead of gluing them, in case I want to modify something in the future.

The last step here is to set up the fishing lines for the pulley system. At one end of each fishing line string, there’s a paper clip, to hook on to the puppets and accessories. Each string first goes through a clip on the horizontal bar, then a clip on the supporting bar, then a clip on the circle opening. Try not to have the string touch each other before all 32 strings are gathered at the end at the center of the circle. A small bottle cap with a hole cut out is used to hold all the strings together.

There are 3 keys to keep in mind for setting up the strings-
  1. keep a linear order on the horizontal bar to start, meaning the first string goes through the first clip in the row, 2nd goes through the 2nd clip, and so on.
  2. do the same through the clips on the supporting bar
  3. start at any clip on the circle, but follow a clockwise or counter clockwise order

Now the hardest part of the work is complete. =)

Step 2: The Crank and the Slider

The key to the crank is that when it’s place in the box, the rotating shaft should align with the center of the cut out circle, and the depth of the end rod should be about 1” to 2” in from the plane of cut out. These dimensions need to be precise, other details are flexible. Because of the thickness of cardboard can vary, it's best to experiment a little to see how each piece fits neatly to the next.

The center crank/shaft support box is about 9.5” tall, and the cut circular holes for the shaft at 7.5” so it aligns with the center of the bigger circle.

The shaft is made from rolling glossy magazine paper rolled into a tight roll - a skewer helps- and glue the end of the edge.  It will rotate easily in the cut hole, do not glue where shaft goes through, it rotates here.

The shaft goes through the cut hole. On one side it is glued to the handle-made with paper roll  for comfort - and crank arm, and on the other side glued to the end rod. The end rod has 3 slots. A bottle cap with a hole in the center will hold all the end points of the 32 string, and a rubber band will secure the cap in one of the slots. The smaller the rotation diameter, the calmer the waves will look. So this offers possibilities to play.

All the rods with square cross section are made by scoring 4 fold lines, and gluing the final flap to the first. Where there's a 90 degree angle turn, it is created by leaving extra flap on one square rod, and gluing another to it.

The center support box has flaps for attaching the entire crank to the main box. The clips allow us to easily change between the crank and the slider.

The slider is made with a box, with a center slot, 11” long by 1” wide here.. The cardboard rod slide up and down the slot. The handle end has a stop to guide the movement. The other end has an opening to house the bottle cap/center of all strings, and 2 stops to hold the rubber band that keep the bottle cap in place.

There’s also the flap piece that attaches to the main box.

Step 3: The Lucky Girl

I named her Pippi, after the character of my favorite book- Pippi Longstocking, both of them know how to have outrageous fun!

I rarely sew and never made a doll before. Thanks to Emily Martin’s great tutorial (thank you Emily!)-, I was able to modify it and add joints for movements.

First plan out the size according to the mechanism. Cut out the pattern, and sew the hair to the front face, then to front part of dress, back of head to back of dress. Next sew the arms and legs, stuff with poly fill, sew a small pinch spot at the knees and elbows for movement joints. Sandwich the arms and legs in between the front and back pieces, sew along the edges, leaving a small opening on the top of head to pull everything through. Stuff poly fill in the body, sew close the head. Add some hair style, and draw in the facial features with water proof art pens(I used Pigma Micron) or acrylic paints. Sew tiny hoops on the joint and back of head to attach to the clips later.

Now she’s ready to fly!

Step 4: Flying Bird

Cereal boxes works great for building the skeleton of the bird. Cut long strips and  start with the profile of the body by gluing the 2 ends of the beak and tail, then glue rings along the body to form a 3D skeleton. Find the center of the body and secure a piece of fishing line so it can hang later on the clips.I made some color patterns, printed them out on card stock, and made strips of “feather” pieces, gluing them along the rings, starting at the tail. The eyes are made with small black paper circle on top of white paper circle.

The wings are made with stiffer cardboard, each composed of 3 sections. Poke a hole where sections meet, and tie loosely with fishing lines, so there are fishing lines attached to 2 joints and the end of the wing tips. Decorate with colored paper feathers.

Step 5: Dolphin and Waves

After studying the swimming motion, I made 5 sections of the body with cardboard and color paper glued on them. The adjacent pieces are joined by fishing lines, similar to the bird wings, so they are connected yet have great freedom in movements.

I also added a couple of colorful fish. Since they don’t have movement joints, they are more like accessories than puppets.

The wave is made the same way as the dolphin, with fishing lines connecting all the joints and ends, providing places to connect to the clips on the mechanism.

Step 6: Puppet Shows

Hang a stage back drop (aka my scarf), some puffy clouds (poly fill), or whatever fits your fancy, and the show begins. No need to occupy all 32 hanging points, simply hook the unused ones onto the clips above. Use the vertical slider for the flying show, and the circular crank for the swimming show. And there are certainly more stories to tell.

With Pippi being so free in the sky and at sea, I feel one step closer to that reality.

Puppet Contest

Grand Prize in the
Puppet Contest

Be the First to Share


    • Mason Jar Speed Challenge

      Mason Jar Speed Challenge
    • Pumpkin Challenge

      Pumpkin Challenge
    • Halloween Contest

      Halloween Contest

    13 Discussions


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    wow thank you so much bajablue! great to meet you and thank you for your sunshine filled instructables =)


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    thank you so much flyingpuppy for sharing my excitement! =) i am really honored!!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Beautiful work. I love the way your drawing style translates into the finished pieces - really quirky and cute!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    thank you jessy! i love so many of your gorgeous and delicious ibles! it's great to 'meet' you finally! =)