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Puppets are mostly obtained from wood; they are real wooden sculptures. In the following paragraphs, we’re going to analyze some examples of material. The most important characteristics to observe in wood are: hardness, resistance and weight. Three kinds of wood rank between the most suitable for sculpture: Swiss stone pine (pinus cembra) wood, linden wood and nut wood. Their characteristics are different, so are their usages.


Swiss stone pine: very soft and light wood, quite porous but not very strong.  Used for puppets since the pre-roman era, as witnessed  by the “pupe”, ancient examples of wooden dolls with movable limbs. Cleopelia, a roman pupa, is one of the most famous and historically important examples of these dolls.


Linden: middle-hard, very compact wood, it is probably the most used for carved furniture and doors.


Nut wood: very hard, compact and strong wood.; often used for furniture and very suitable for sculpture, it has been used since Middle Ages for carved crucifixes.



In choosing wood, we must pay particular attention to the following characteristics of a single piece of wood:

1)    Lack of knots

2)   Linear grain


It is important to identify the direction of the grain





Once identified it, we must keep in mind NEVER to carve in the opposite direction




The carving should always follow grain’s direction, or cut it perpendicularly.




Once we have chosen the block of wood and the subject, we can start with rough-shaping. The log must be reduced to a geometric shape, which can contain the subject from its major to its minor relief.



After this first step, we start drawing the most important lines with a pencil, tracing the volumes of the subject (for example: if the subject is a head, we draw the nose, the eyebrows and the mandible). Now we can start to shape. Never start to define a single element unless the whole design of the subject is achieved


In the case of carving a head, the movable mouth, the artificial eyeballs and the ears are the last elements to be worked out, since they are the most fragile. The part between nose and mouth is one of the most difficult task: in most cases one is tempted to first finish the nose, so having removed the fundamental material needed to carve the upper lip.






When creating a head with movable mouth, the sculpture must first arrange the whole head’s design, including the neck. Once the carving of the whole head -excepted the lower lip and the chin- is achieved, the lower part of the head (i.e. lower lip and chin) is removed, in order to create a vain where the movable mouth is going to be inserted. The movable mouth is an independent element based on a lever moving on a fulcrum. The mouth is a piece of wood that fits the vain created in the lower part of the carved head; a spring joins the rear part of the mouth to the inner part of the head, while a string is fastened on the same side: moving the string upwards the mouth would open, releasing it the mouth would close. The fulcrum is another small piece of wood, crossing the mouth at about half of its length.





We can choose between two kinds of artificial eyeballs: the glass ones -in use since ancient times- and the more modern plastic ones, which are lighter and more resistant. To put artificial eyeballs on a wooden head, the sculptor shall not carve the eyelid and the globe, creating there a vast hole that can contain quite completely the eyeball. After the eyeballs are symmetrically set, eyelid are created by the means of wooden-based filler, then hidden through colour.

The upper eyelid should normally cover for a small portion the eyeball, while the lower eyelid should touch the iris. Before we insert the eyeball we’d better wrap it with film, in order not to stain it with filler. Once filler dried, we can remove film by means of a small blade.




Head is hooked to the body through a hole made on the upper part of trunk, between shoulders. A hook set on neck’s ending is crossed, in this hole, by a fulcrum (innerly) crossing the trunk from side to side.


THE BODY (top)

The body is normally divided into two parts: the trunk and the hip. The trunk begins with shoulders and has, in its interior, the place where the head is hooked. The trunk is slightly shaped, according to character’s needs (skinny, fat, fit…). Two eyelets are on trunk sides, in order to secure the arms. The hip is a wooden parallelepiped, whose front side has a slanting face -going from about the half until the end of the side- so going inwards. To this face, we nail legs. Trunk and hip are connected through a strip of cloth. The division between trunk and hip makes the puppet more movable; in case of minor characters, it can be omitted.







One hand is normally made up in prehensile position, i.e. thumb and forefinger touching in order to create a hole, where stage objects can be put; for the same reason we make also a hole on the palm, while the string passing through it is directly tied to the object (for example, a bottle, a sword,…). The wooden arm includes hand and forearm, while the rest is normally obtained from a strip of cloth; only if the character is naked, the whole arm would be of carved wood. In carving hands, we must be very gentle and use quite small gouges. We’d also better carving fingers as if they were a single element, in order to make the hand more resistant: single fingers are beautiful, but so fragile they wouldn’t endure for a long time.







Legs are divided into two parts: thigh and calf. Thigh and hip are connected through a strip of cloth. Legs are divided into two parts: thigh and calf. Thigh and hip are connected through a strip of cloth. The knee moves thanks to a male-female screw mechanism  permitting, like a real knee, just a backwards movement.




Normally, feet are not movable; they’re simply fixed to the ankles. Carved according to character’s needs, they’re often covered by real shoes.









When talking about puppets, we are used to thinking of  them being sustained by a wooden cross with dangling strings; but in this case, we are talking about puppets moved by iron-bar and knob. An eyelet is found on top of the puppet’s head; an iron bar is hooked to this eyelet. At the other end of the iron bar we find the knob, which is the handle used by puppeteer to move the marionette.  Strops (strips of leather) are attached to the knob: from here, strings are connected to body’s parts in order to move them. In the front part of the knob, two strops move the arms, in the lower part, two strops for the legs: In the rear part,  a strop for the back, and in the lower part another strop for movable mouth. These are the basic strops to allow basic movements of puppets; every other movement requires an additional strop. Strings are tied to puppet’s wrist through a running knot, while legs’ strings are secured to eyelets on the knees.  The back’s string is secured to an eyelet in the middle of the back: this string is fundamental, because it gives stability to the puppet. The mouth’s string is tied to the mechanism of movable mouth.


The instruments used to carve puppets are called gouges: they’re of many different kinds, shapes and dimensions, therefore it is not easy to classify. In carving ornamentation it is necessary to be very precise, using concave-bladed gouges that reproduce the design to carve. In figurative carving, we’re much more free to decide what instrument use and how. However, concave-bladed gouges represent an useful and versatile instrument in carving.




Since ancient times, wooden sculpture are painted with pigments and/or tempera colours. If wood is very porous, we’d better put a layer of water and chalk before starting with colours. As last step, a layer of wax will both protect colours and give an ancient look to the puppet.





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