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How to Make a Really Big Puppet

Updated on March 26, 2013

Step by Step to a Giant Head

Puppets like these are used in street demonstrations, festivals, protests, pageants and theater. It's a great way to get your message across in a dramatic way and build community through creative collaboration.

I made this page several years ago, but I have been newly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street actions. I am in the process of building some new big heads. Hope to post a tutorial with photos one of these days.

Please note - this tutorial was created to share what I learned originally from Beth Peterson of Heart of the Beast Theater, and from various publications, including the Wise Fool Handbook and 68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets Share freely but do not copy or claim it as your own.

Ingredients

Start gathering these up as you begin to contemplate possible imagery and themes. Put out a call to your friends and neighbors. Much of it can be found for free or cheap.

  • 4 or 5 medium size cardboard boxes
  • packing or masking tape
  • 50 to 150 pounds of clay - amount depends on the size of the head you want, get the cheapest kind (purge clay)
  • plastic bags or thin plastic drop cloths
  • pile of newspaper
  • pile of brown paper bags
  • scissors
  • cornstarch paste (see recipe below)
  • 2 paintbrushes (3" or 4" wide)
  • drop cloths for floor if needed
  • 2 pieces of wood 3' + long
  • plastic food container lid
  • 8 1" screws, screwdriver or drill
  • primer or white house paint
  • acrylic paints, house paint, artists brushes
  • 2 poles, 8' and 3'
  • 2 or 3 old bike inner tubes
  • fabric for costume (about 5 yards)
  • a work surface you can leave messy
  • at least 1 other person to help (the more the merrier)

13 Steps to Puppet Love

  1. Plan project and collaborate on a design

    Consider the purpose of your puppet and how best to communicate your message or concept with character, color and shape. Do a sketch, work out the size on paper. When scheduling your project I recommend giving yourselves at least 3 weeks: 1st week - prep, clay, paper mache, 2nd week - drying and start costume, 3rd week - paint, poles, finish costume, practice. A month is better to avoid stress.

  2. Create a foundation form

    A manageable size head to start with is 3' tall x 2 - 3' wide. Use cardboard boxes - cut, rolled up and taped into the basic shape of your puppet's head. Also try balled up old plastic bags, buckets, bubble wrap, anything that will create dimension. Lots of tape helps. This form will not be seen once the clay is on, and will later be discarded.

  3. Add layers of clay

    Use a wire to cut the block of clay into 1" thick slices. Lay these over your cardboard foundation smoothing the joins together. Sculpt it into details like the eyebrows and nose. Don't create undercuts in your modeling; these make it difficult to pull the paper mache off.

  4. Lay on plastic

    Completely cover the finished clay work with a thin plastic drop cloth or cut-open plastic bags. This keeps the paper mache from sticking to the clay. Use the thinnest layer possible and carefully press it into the details of your sculpture or they will be lost.

  5. Make your cornstarch paste

    Dissolve 1/2 cup cornstarch into 1 cup warm water. Heat one quart of water on the stove. Slowly stir the dissolved cornstarch into one quart of boiling water. Once it thickens, turn off. Let cool before using. You will need 2 or 3 times this amount for a 3' x 3' mask. Make it fresh each time or store it in the fridge - it gets moldy fast. For a large amount at once use 2 cups cornstarch to 1 gallon of water.

  6. Prepare to paper mache

    Cut a piece of cardboard slightly larger than an open piece of newspaper. Cut the paper bags open so they lay flat and remove handles. Pile up your newspaper near by and get out your wide paintbrushes. You might want to drop cloth the floor.

  7. Paper mache process

    It's good to have at least one paste-er and one mache-er. The paste-er brushes a layer of paste over the whole big cardboard sheet. Paste-er lays a whole piece of newspaper open on top of it, smoothing it to get the paste all over that side, then brushes more paste on the top of the newspaper, so it's coated on both sides. Paste-er peels the paper up and hands it off to the mache-er. Mache-er tears the paste covered sheet into strips and starts pressing it and smoothing it on top of your puppet's face. Use small pieces for delicate details, large pieces for wide flattish areas. Cover every inch with an even layer. Put on 2 more layers with the newspaper. As you go, remember which parts you already did, so nothing is left too thin. Moving in only one direction helps with this.

    Next, do the same process with a layer of brown paper bags. You want to lay 3 layers of newspaper and 1 layer of paper bags, and then to repeat this pattern 3 times for a strong, long lasting puppet. Pay close attention to the edges, wrapping the paper around it and making it smooth. Reinforce edges and the high points with a few extra layers because they get the most wear and tear.

  8. Dry and remove mask

    Let mache set until it's hard and dry all the way through (slide your fingers under to test). This usually takes about a week. Pull the mask/head off very carefully. This is a 2-person job. Don't worry about destroying the foundation or clay in the process. Pull off the mask and discard/recycle the foundation materials. You can save the clay for next time by bagging it up tightly in plastic. Take a minute to admire your work! If you need to, repair cracks or holes with more paper mache.

  9. Paint

    Prime the front of the mask with white paint. It may need 2 coats. The underside does not usually need paint unless you plan to march in the rain with it. In that case, prime the underside or give it a coat of clear acrylic. When it's dry, paint your puppet head however you envision it. Brighter colors and higher contrast show up well from a distance. Tiny details can get lost. Use acrylics or latex house paint. Poster paints will fade and run. You can also collage paper on it with a coat of white glue or "Yes" glue (doesn't wrinkle). A final coat of clear acrylic will protect it from bumps and scrapes.

  10. Put on the braces

    Cut the 2 pieces of wood to fit across the back of the puppet head, about 1/3 from the top and bottom. Cut 1" washers out of the plastic lid (a hole punch works to make the middle hole). Carefully drill holes through the paper mache to attach the ends of the wooden braces to it. Use the washers to reinforce the screws. Put two or three screws on each end. Make it snug and strong or you will regret it later.

  11. Poles

    Bamboo is light and strong if you can find it. For a 3' head, an 8 or 9' pole works well (make sure it will fit in your vehicle if it needs to). Cut a 3' pole for the shoulders and tie it about 2 1/2' from the top of the 8' pole, using the inner tube (cut into 1 1/5" wide strips). Tie the head to the part of the pole above the shoulders, one tie per brace. Tie it so it can be untied easily later but it's secure.

  12. Costume

    Drape or sew the puppet's costume. Make sure to use fabric that the puppeteer can see through, or cut an eyehole. To cover the back of the head, poke holes every 6 " or so, about 1" from the edge, from ear to ear over the top. Tie a piece of fabric over the back of the mask with small pieces of rubber laced through the holes.

  13. Practice

    Practice walking with your puppet before your event. Be careful of low hanging trees, signs and high curbs. It's good to have a puppet helper assigned to walk with the puppeteer because it is very hard to see in there.

Tovungnar and me - photo by Kevin Hass

One of the 3 Arroyo Arts Collective puppets made in 2006 for a parade and festival. Based on a Tongva creation story (native people of northeast Los Angeles).

Sunny goes to Cliffside - photo by Bill Rhodes

My first made-in-Asheville puppet. I worked with some people from the UU church on this. We call him Sunny and he went to the April 2009 protest of the Cliffside Coal Burning Plant in Charlotte, NC. Sunny says "Solar power not coal is the way to go!".

Harvest Goddess at World Food Day

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This puppet was made for the October 2011 Rally for the Right to Know, a part of the campaign for a GMO-free WNC. She was sponsored in part by Sow True Seeds of Asheville, NC. She represents the power and beauty of the natural world. She invites us to live in balance with her, eating pure foods, walking lightly on the earth.

Big Roy: the Spirit of the Arroyo - photo by Jennifer Murphy

This is the 1st big puppet I helped make. Done in 2003 with the Neighbors for Peace and Justice of northeast Los Angeles. He represents the creatures and plants of the Arroyo Seco that cannot speak for themselves.

Videos of giant puppets - Parades, workshops, theater...

A variety of venues and styles.

Slippery the Streamspirit - photo by Paul Hersey

Dragon puppet made in 2006 in Los Angeles as part of the Northeast Trees stream restoration education project.

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