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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Sawing and Sewing

The last three weekends (not counting this one) I’ve been attending puppet-building workshops. It was lots of learning and fun with sawing, sanding, drilling, carving, cutting, sewing, gluing, and goofing around with puppet improv. This is one of the perks about living in the Los Angeles area, I guess: many interesting workshops going on around here. The first two weekends were for rod puppets and the third were for Muppet-style puppets. No, the workshops had nothing to do with each other. They just happened to be on three consecutive weekends.

Rod Puppet Workshop

The workshop was taught by puppeteer / puppet-builder Greg Ballora and was an LAGOP event. (That’s the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. No, I am not in the Grand Old Party and I doubt any political party would put on a puppetry workshop.) The puppet would have a head that nods and turns so the head could move and tilt in very expressive ways, and the arms were controlled using rods. The head and body were foam covered in papier-mâché and the main skeleton was made of wood.

The instructor was energetic and loved joking around in very sarcastic ways, which made the class fun, but also it was a lot of fun for me to do many things that I haven’t done for a while. For example, I have not used a band saw since middle school so that brought back memories. Ditto with the press drill. I also got to use Celluclay, which was finely ground recycled paper with glue in it, sort of an instant papier-mâché (just add water). I also got to sand down a dowel. Now, I rarely got to work with big power tools like these. I haven’t done any wood work for quite a while; papier-mâché and foam-carving were totally new to me. The half-finished stuff didn’t look good but I had fun making it. I learn by trial and error and I’ve definitely committed errors this time.

The picture here was just the internal structure for the head attached to the spine. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and I don’t have a space for doing wood work so I wasn’t able to really finish it (like making the arms) on my own, unless I can find a wood shop that’s for rent by the hour in the area. Doing that stuff in my room on a carpeted floor is simply a little silly. But hey, I did learn a few things about making string joints and I got to play with new materials and tools. These are all knowledge and skills that I can apply to other puppets I am building, even if I never do finish this one.

Muppet-style Puppet Workshop

And then there’s the Muppet-style puppet workshop taught by puppeteer / puppet-builder Michael Earl. The students in this class were mostly people that had taken his TV puppetry workshop before (Click here to see my posts about those workshops). In fact, two of the students this time (Heidi and Bruce) were in the same TV puppetry class with me last time so it was good to see them again.

The puppets we were building were just like the one we used in the TV puppetry class. Since I’ve been using those puppets for ten weeks, I was pretty familiar with how the puppets were structured. In fact, I sort of attempted to build one myself so most of what was covered in class didn’t surprise me. However, the most valuable stuff was always the little things that made big differences.

For example, I made the puppet with fur fabric and ping pong balls. However, I had a hard time gluing the eyes (two perfect spheres) onto the head correctly, because the area in contact was small. In the class, I was taught how to trim some foam before setting the eyes. That information alone was worth the price, to me anyway. And I had no idea which kind of foam would be the right consistency so it was soft enough to give the mouth a flexible shape, but hard enough to keep the edges from sagging. Also I had a hard time cutting foam at a good angle so they would be easier to glue. Michael showed us how to bevel the foam for that purpose and that helped a lot. And then there were some tips on how to cut fur fabric using the right tools so we don’t have fur falling around everywhere. And then there’s the way to glue the mouth plate so there were no wrinkly patterns… You see? It was all in the details. They really made a difference and I wouldn’t have learned them if I didn’t take the class.

Everybody in the class was either already familiar with crafting and sewing or excited to dive in anyway. It was a great atmosphere making puppets together. And of course, when the puppets were done, puppet improv ensued. Puppets somehow just have a tendency to start talking to each other and many hilarious scenes just happened right on the spot.

A Pleasant Surprise

But of course, one of the coolest thing about the class was: I met Patricia Ja Lee! You know, the Pink Ranger from my favorite Power Rangers series, Power Rangers in Space. I know, I know. Somehow I am writing about Power Rangers again.

When I first walked into the studio, Michael (the teacher), Bruce (my former classmate) and two girls I didn’t know were sitting around the table. I said hi to the people I knew and exchange names with the people I didn’t know. I sat down to talk to Bruce since I haven’t seen him in a while, but I was wondering why that Asian girl really reminded me of someone. And it was not so much the face, but rather, the facial expressions and mannerism. I know a bunch of Asian people so I wouldn’t be surprised if she looked like one of my friends, but if I didn’t figure out which one, it would probably bug me all day. But more and more I started to feel like I’ve seen her on TV.

Then Michael asked her if she’s done any motion capture stuff lately. Then it hit me: wait a second, isn’t that Patricia Ja Lee? Last year when Jason David Frank announced that he was training for UFC, my sister and I looked up what the former Power Rangers were doing now, and I sort of remembered Patricia was doing voiceover and motion capture stuff, so I looked again. And that’s when I truly woke up.

“Wait, you are the Pink Ranger, right?” I said.
“Haha, yeah, that was a long time ago.”

How cool is that? Out of the blue (or pink), I met the star of one of my favorite show. That was like, one of the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. When we first came to the United States, we watched a bunch of kids programs because they were easier to understand and teach important English words like “sabre”, “morph”, and “megazord”. Ok, who am I kidding? There’s no denying that I enjoy some kids programs and people in spandex fighting people in rubber suits amused me to no end. But yeah, I loved Power Rangers in Space so this was totally cool.

Was she a nice person? Well, she was volunteering to sew stuff for people that didn’t know how to sew, and was trying to fix a malfunctioning sewing machine, though I didn’t know if she eventually succeed. That’s something a Power Ranger would do, right? Let’s just say that she did not ruin the show for me. Haha. But of course, now that I’ve met her, she’s not just Cassie Chan, but Patricia Ja Lee.

And here’s a picture of the everyone and the puppets. The class was scheduled to go till 5pm but some of us stayed longer. At the end, all the people that had real cameras had already left (my theory was that they had to hurry to go take pictures of the sunset, or something) so enjoy this tiny blurry picture from a camera phone.

Puppetry Resources for Beginners

Every now and then, I would emails from people interested in learning about puppetry but don’t know where to start, so I thought it would be a good idea to organize some links into a post. This post will be about Muppet-types, since that’s what people usually ask about.

To start learning puppeteering, it will be helpful to have a puppet to practice with. You can either make one, or purchase one.

Making a puppet

I built some puppets to use for practice based on the How to Make Puppets video series by Paul Louis Muller on eHow. I followed the method he covered in the videos for the most part, with a few modifications of my own. You can also find my own tutorials on this website for building a monster puppet with arm rods, a monster puppet with glove hands, and a sheep puppet. One thing I do want to point out that wasn’t really mentioned in the video was that rubber cement might be toxic (depending on what chemicals the manufacturer used) until dry, so you need have good ventilation and safety precautions in place. I prefer to just use hot glue, though it might not be as sturdy.

I’ve been making puppets just with fabric, cardboard, and poly-fil. If you are interested in building puppets out of foam, there are patterns out there that you can buy as well. Many people have purchased the Project Puppet patterns and build good looking puppets out of them. You can also purchase patterns from School of Puppetry. What’s good about this one is that there are videos demonstrating the puppet-building process, so you can follow along.

As for materials, I like getting them from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, because they carry a good selection of fabrics, which many craft stores don’t, and there is one in my area. I mostly just buy fabric there and get other random items (such as ping-pong balls, index cards, bamboo skewers) elsewhere.

Purchasing a Puppet

I am not particularly familiar with this aspect, since I build my own puppets. But eBay and Etsy should be good places to look. I was planning to buy a monster puppet from puppet builder Stacey Gordon of Puppet Pie, but her house got flooded. I am going to wait for her to unpack her stuff but I do like her puppets and want to purchase one from her.

Learning to Manipulate

Also on eHow is this video series on puppet manipulation. You can learn the basics from watching the video and just from your own trial and error. I also like the exercises and video demonstrations on puppeteer / instructor Amy Harder’s Puppetry Lab website. It’s really no longer updated, but there are goodies in the archive. I particularly like the videos because Amy shows interesting techniques in her enthusiastic ways.

Of course, the best way to learn is still from classes where you interact with an instructor face-to-face. That’s something no amount of video-watching can really replicate. With classes, you will be able to see things from different angles, and you will have a instructor giving you tips as you practice. If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend Michael Earl’s TV Puppetry Workshop. You can also see my notes here to get an idea on what’s covered in class.

For those of you that’s starting to learn about this topic, I hope this is useful. Feel free to leave a comment or email me if there are other questions. :-)

Puppet Building 101: Week 1: Ted Head

Here’s a picture of the simple puppet head that I made for the first week of Puppet Building 101.


While I’ve built several puppets before, what’s different this time is that I am following a pattern this time and doing a lot more hand-stitching rather than using a combination of sewing machine and hot glue. I like the way that it came out. It was a little crooked, I thought, and the fact that I was holding the puppet head in one hand and taking a picture using the other didn’t help either. But I got to practice my stitches and attempt a different way of building a puppet head and that’s all that mattered.

The pattern was supplied in the course material. I printed it out, cut out the different pieces, and then traced them onto a piece of fabric.

The Stitches In the last post, I mentioned that I was practicing different stitches. I tried to work all the different stitches in. The ears were sewn using locking whipstitches. The back of the head was joined together using a baseball stitch. Although I knew that I should have flipped it inside out and do the stitch on the other side, I went ahead and did it anyway, because I wanted to see how it would turn out. And that turned out to be… not such a great idea. But hey, there’s a reason why I attempted this at the back instead of front of the puppet. Most of the other seams are joined together using the ladder stitch (my new favorite). The top of the head piece was joined together using a whipstitch because it was the fastest, and I am allow to do more of a sloppy job because it will be covered by the hair at the end anyway.

ted_head_sideThe Mouth Piece From experience, the mouth piece is the most tricky part of the puppet, and that’s the case this time as well. One reason was that it required me to line up the mouth board with the rest of the head precisely. And the other reason was that I did not leave enough seam allowance and had to sew through the vinyl (which is more difficult to sew through) sometimes. The vinyl mouth board has an interesting effect, though I am not sure if it was intentional. When I was sewing the mouth board to the rest of the head, I realized that there was no “lip”. But the fabric curled in after I pulled the ladder stitch seam tight, while the vinyl correctly stayed in place. I probably didn’t pull on the stitches evenly though, and the mouth came out a little crooked, I thought. Then again, I don’t remember ever making any mouth boards that’s not slightly asymmetrical. It usually isn’t noticeable anyway.

The Decorations The eyes are three layers. They are a piece of felt on top of a piece of white sheet foam over a piece of black sheet foam. They are not totally 3D, but not totally 2D either. The hair is fun fur. The front is glued in place, while the middle and back were attached using several small stitches. I want to allow the maximum flexibility and movement of the hair, so as long as it doesn’t fall off, I am not going to do too many things to keep it in place.

That was a fun project, but of course, the most fun part is seeing everybody’s pictures. Although we are all building from the same pattern, many of the puppet heads build are quite unique. My favorite is still the smiling dog built by a classmate. It makes me smile too.

Different Stitches

As I previously mentioned, I’m taking an online class on puppet-making. I have been learning the different stitches on the Project Puppet site. The tutorial covered four different stitches: whipstitch, locking whipstitch, baseball stitch, and ladder stitch.

And also, you know what’s a really good resource for learning this stuff? YouTube. Text descriptions and pictures are good, but watching demonstrations (provided that they are filmed well) helps even more.

Whipstitch: This is simple enough. Just a bunch of loops. It’s pretty basic. It reminds me of the way a spiral notebook is bound together. A good example can be found on YouTube here, although this one doesn’t really require that much explanation.

Locking whipstitch: I actually could not find a good example video for this one, but since I’ve done it in my elementary school craft class, I already know it. Strangely enough, many of the crafting skills I currently have were learned in elementary school in Taiwan. They seriously made children try a lot of things like pencil figure drawing, basic sewing and stuffing projects with felt, water-color, embossing a sheet of soft metal, carving your own stamp, making and decorating frisbees out of cardboard, decorating cans with straws, working with playdough/paperclay, etc. “Kids, bring your knives to school tomorrow so we can carve some wood to make prints” is something you will never hear in American elementary schools.

Baseball stitch: Although the instructor Andrew recommended baseball stitch and ladder stitch for puppet-building, I wasn’t quite sure about it. This is the kind of stitch that’s also used for baseballs (hence the name), but wouldn’t that leave big seams? After trying it out though, I like it. The seams are quite hidden if it’s done right and it seems to join together the fabrics and hold it pretty well. I like this video on YouTube. She’s actually demonstrating the baseball stitch using a knitting needle and yarn as opposed to the regular needle and thread. This makes things a lot more visible, because sometimes needle and thread just doesn’t show very well in web videos because of the video quality, or because the view is easily blocked by the person’s hands.

Ladder stitch: At first I wasn’t quite understanding this one. Though I am told that this stitch is almost invisible, I had some doubts. The pictures I am seeing about this stitch look like there would be a bunch of horizontal stitches visible on the top. So that makes ladder stitch not that different from whipstitch. But later I studied it a little more closely and realized that as long as I pull the stitches tight, the stitches really do disappear! This quickly became my favorite stitch. This video is a good example of the stitch, and this page is what I was looking at when I had the realization of needing to pull the stitches tight.

I am now practicing these stitches on a fleece puppet head that I am currently sewing together. I am almost done, and will post pictures soon early this week! :-)

Puppet Building Live on the Web

Recently there are many puppet builders broadcasting live while they build puppets. I first came to know about these streamcasts from the Twitter updates of many puppet builders. And I guess the next natural thing to do is to organize these links into a blog post. At the risk of sounding like I am just regurgitating, as it seems to have already been written about everywhere (by that, I mean here, here, and here), I would like to share links to a few streaming live broadcasts.


You + Me + Puppets = Yay!

streamcast_stacygordonStacey Gordon is a puppet builder (among other things) that make many quirky things like toilet paper finger puppets. Many of them are finger puppets made of felt. They are colorful and interesting looking. She’s probably the most entertaining to watch on this list as she is pretty silly on camera (and quite possibly in real life too).

Stiq Puppets Live

streamcast_stiqmanDaryl from Stiq Puppets shows puppet building techniques in detail in his podcast. I am starting from the beginning and I am still catching up. I am not that far into it yet, but I am already picking up useful information like how to use a fishing line to hang a puppet’s arm. I haven’t seen all the episodes yet, but a quick glance tells me that I will be learning even more, such as how to install a detachable arm rod, which a lot of people are doing in different ways with their own pros and cons. If you want to learn more techniques, don’t miss this one.

Hoggworks Podcast

streamcast_hoggworksPuppet builder Brian Hogg of Hoggsworks Studios has also been live streaming his puppet building live. He’s the man behind DotBoom and Ask Papaltine and builds really good looking puppets (see website). I was also impressed with the attention he gave to the puppets’ torsos, as some puppet builders would just use generic shapes.

Puppets and Stuff Live

streamcast_puppetsandstuffI actually haven’t got time to check this one out yet, but Puppets and Stuff is a forum where many people share their experiences on puppet building, so it may have very good information as well.

It’s fun to see things being made, and if I can pick up a thing or two while I am at it, that’s even better! I am excited to see all these podcasts popping up on the internet.

New Sewing Machine!

I got a new sewing machine!

Ah, it’s about time. I’ve always wanted to purchase and learn to use a sewing machine at some point, and I finally did just that. And here it is, my new Singer Tradition Portable Sewing Machine – 2250!

singer_tradition_sewing_machineIf you’ve seen my new video, Start a Band, you would notice that there are four brand new puppets. They are all made using this new sewing machine. And for the four old puppets… Mac and Cheese was a prototype so he’s entirely hand sewn. Why did that to myself? Because he’s a prototype and I wanted to know how long it would take if I did that. And the answer is, my hand sewing was about 12 times slower than the machine. I figured that I’d never finish the puppets before the show if I didn’t sew with a machine.

So I got my good friend Janet to help me make the puppets. She did all the sewing (for the most part, that’s making the shape, the “bag”) and I did all other stuff with glue. That’s how Bottle Monster, Bobby, and Moostifer were constructed. But I don’t want to bug her over and over (though I know she’d gladly do it anyway), and also, the fact that she moved to New York didn’t help either. But hey, I’ve always wanted to learn to use the sewing machine anyway.

singer_tradition_sewing_machine_martha_stewartAfter extensive research… actually, no. I just decided to buy it because it was on sale at Target. I took it home, and started watching the DVD that came with it. It was short and only covered the basics, but that’s all I needed. It took me a little bit to learn to thread the bobbing and the rest of the machine. But once that’s done (after many trials and errors and rewinding the DVD), the rest is not bad at all. After some test runs on some scrap fabric for practice, I started sewing the puppets without any problem. The threads did tangle up quite a few times during practice, but that was because I kept forgetting to set the presser foot down. (The presser foot is this thing around the needle that holds the fabric in place while you sew so things don’t jump around.) And also I had trouble making sharper turns until I figured out (by accident) that I should lift the presser foot up, turn the fabric and then put the presser foot down again. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was called pivoting.

But yeah, I am fairly comfortable using the machine now. When I told my sister about this, she said, “I never thought you’d own a sewing machine before I do.” So far I think this cheap machine works pretty well for my purpose. Besides, it’s endorsed by Martha Stewart, so it must be bad-ass, right?

Related Posts
Music Video: Start a Band
How to make Mac and Cheese (moving mouth monster puppet with rod hands)
How to make Bottle Monster (moving mouth monster puppet with glove hands)
How to make Bobby (moving mouth sheep puppet with rod hands)

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