Building hand and rod style puppets is a very fun and fairly inexpensive hobby. In this Instructable I used supplies that I picked up from the fabric store. Professional level puppets are usually made using reticulated foam structures and nylon fleece aka Antron fleece. These materials are much tougher to come by, so I recommend starting with something you won't feel bad for messing up on. Also, this project can be completed without a sewing machine. You don't need much more than needle and thread, scissors, and a knife.
Fabric store supplies:
~1yd 1/2" upholstery foam
~1yd anti-pill fleece
craft foam sheets
20g florist wire
needle and thread
Small bits of black and red felt
Optional stuff I bought on Amazon:
top stick toupee tape
20mm doll joints
Smooth On - Smoothcast 300
I will not go over designing the patterns for this puppet. That is a process I have yet to master! I used a head pattern that I purchased from James Kemp and free hand patterns from Project Puppet .
For mobile users here is the link to the Youtube video
Step 1: Constructing the Foam Head.
The main structure of a puppet is made entirely of 1/2" foam. I have been strictly working with upholstery foam because of its availability. It is far more dense than its professional brother: reticulated foam aka filter foam but the construction methods are the same. The only downside is that upholstery foam is a little less forgiving, so take your time when gluing the pieces together.
Start by tracing your pattern on the foam. Be sure to mirror your patterns for both sides of the head.
Using an insanely sharp razor, cut your patterns out. Take special care that your knife is perpendicular to the foam, an out-of-square cut can lead to wobbly puppets.
Once every piece is cut, use a scrap chunk of foam as a stippling applicator for your contact cement. I use Weldwood contact cement from the hardware store, but most pros use Barge cement, both work great. Apply glue conservatively to both surfaces that you plan to stick together. Contact cement only adheres to itself and only once it has dried to the touch, so let your glued pieces sit for a good ten minutes or so.
Now that your glue has dried a bit, start gluing the darts together on each piece, being sure to line everything up nice and even while allowing the foam to begin to curve to shape. Next, stick all the pieces together and you have a naked puppet skull!
Step 2: Working on the Mouth Plate
One of the key ingredients to a great puppet is the mouth plate. There are hundreds of ways to construct a mouth plate and every puppet I've built so far has been different. I'm sure the next one will not be the same as this one, so use your imagination! This plate is made using foam core board from the craft store. I noticed that the edges of the foam didn't hold up well to to the contact cement, but seemed to stick to the foam head fine in the end. Quarter inch plywood would be a great alternative if you have a jigsaw.
I start but cutting my mouth plate pattern from the material and taping them together to make a hinge. I used duct tape but gaffers tape would be a much better option. Next, trace the mouth plate on to a piece of red felt and glue them together for the inside of the mouth. I also take this time to add a uvula and tongue using felt or craft foam.
Grips can be made using just about anything. Some folks use foam, or make little finger rings out of elastic, but i decided to try a piece of thin leather. It's just ok. I put one on top and one underneath for my thumb using contact cement.
The final bit is to attach the mouth plate to the foam skull. Lightly stipple glue to the edges of the mouth plate and the inside of the lip of your puppet. Once they are dry, slowly begin attaching them together. This is a much easier process if you have center lines marked on the mouth plate and puppet and start from the center and work your way to the corner of the mouth.
*Semipro tip: You can safely remove two pieces that have been glued together with contact cement by gently heating the parts with a hair drier.
Step 3: Covering the Head in Fleece
When using fleece, be mindful of the grain of the fabric. Fleece only stretches in one direction so its a good rule of thumb to make the grain of the fabric stretch around the waistline of your foam.
Most patterns that you purchase will include a fleece pattern as well. Trace and cut that sucker on to the back of your fabric and be sure to flip the pattern over for the second half. There is no need for a seem allowance if you are hand sewing, which I recommend for the head.
Next, pin the two pieces together and pin the darts to themselves. I start by sewing the darts together before I sew the two sides together.
There are several types of stitches you can use. The easiest is the whipstitch. The whipstitch is performed by sewing the material from the inside and and turning it right side out when you are finished. I sew all of the darts and the face this way, leaving the back of the head open.
Once you have sewn everything except the back, its now time to glue the mouth of the fleece on to the foam head. Add a 1/2 inch wide layer of contact cement to the inside of the fleece around the lip line and the same amount around the outer edges of the inside of the mouth plate and the corners of the mouth and stick them together slowly working from the center to the corners of the mouth.
Finally work the fleece around the head and sew the back seam together. For this I use a Ladder stitch or the Henson stitch. This one is fairly simple but will require a little practice on some scraps. There are lots of great tutorials on the web for various stitches. Check em out!
Step 4: Adding Features to Your Character.
Now here is the fun stuff! Adding features to your puppet is what will really make the character come to life. Material possibilities are limitless!
Eyes: There are a bazillion ways to make eyes. I have experimented with a few of them. My favorite so far is casting them in a mold. Smoothcast 300 cures super fast and white. I used a silicone egg mold from amazon to make the shape. I also use 20mm doll joints in the cast to attach them to the puppet. These eyes can be sanded once they have cured for a nice matte finish. The iris can be painted on, or you can use craft foam, felt, stickers, doll eyes, or anything else you can think of. I use little vinyl circles I cut on the vinyl cutter.
Noses and Ears: Again, you will really have to use your imagination for accessories. I construct my noses and ears with very dense styrofoam. They are carved and sanded to shape. The fleece is attached using hot glue and held in place with Topstick toupee tape while i sew them on the the head.
Hair: Really nice faux fur can be purchased from the fabric store and it can be sewn together just like regular fabric. Be sure to only cut the fur from the back of the material using a razor knife. Only cut through the backing taking special care not to cut the hair itself. Scissors will ruin your material! Once you figured out the style, simply tack it down with some hot glue. It can even be sewn on for a nice finished look.
Tip: When cutting your pattern out of fur, be sure to cut it about a 1/4" oversized all the way around. This will allow you to fold the fabric under itself all the way around to hide the raw edge of the matte that the hair is attached to for a nice natural hairline.
Step 5: Hands!
Project Puppet has a great guide and free plans on the construction of hands. I use the same method and they turn out great! I highly recommend checking out their site and tutorials for a more comprehensive guide to hand construction.
Making hands takes a lot of time and care. Cut your pattern from the foam four times making sure to keep the cuts nice and straight and as close to the pattern as possible. Using some card stock for a palm shape, attach florist wire using little curls for the posable finger armature.
Next, apply glue to the armature, hands, and insides of the fingers. Once they have dried, carefully put the pieces together and use a needle or awl to pinch the edges of the hands together.
Step 6: Arms!
Arms can be built several ways. I have filled the arms with pillow stuffing and foam tubes. Using dowels creates a cool elbow like this one.
Begin with a chunk of 1/2" dowel and cut or sand a long angle on it. When these two pieces are attached it will create a hinge. I used duct tape as the hinge and it didn't hold up, so I went with gaffers tape instead. You could also use leather or thick fabric instead.
Next, I glued and wrapped the foam around creating a tube around the dowel.
Once the arm is constructed, sew the arm and hand covering. I use my sewing machine for this, but it can easily be sewn by hand. Be sure to leave an opening at the shoulder and the side of the hand. Use these openings to insert the foam hand and arm. (Hint: it's a pain in the butt.)
I use doll joints to attach the arms to the body with the washer side of the doll joint in the arm. They can also be sewn on.
Step 7: You're Sorta Doneski!
I know I didn't go over the body, but, it's much like the head: patterns and glue. There are endless possibilities to the materials and methods, so don't feel limited by anything you see here. Puppets can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. I suggest starting off simple and stay inspired!