Carving a wooden marionette

I guess everyone has a list of things they want to do before they die. Carving a wooden marionette was high up on my list. Where better to learn than The Little Angel puppet theatre in Islington and who better to learn from than John Roberts - master puppet maker. It usually takes a professional puppet maker three weeks to complete a puppet, we aimed to do it in five days. 

I have clear memories of my mother telling me the story of Baba Yaga as a child, an old Russian woman who lives in a house on chicken legs and flies in a pestle and mortar. When I came research her as an idea for a puppet, I found 'Baba' simply means babushka or grandmother, but 'Yaga' can mean disease, shudder, illness, torture, doubt, worry or pain. She is sometimes referred to as 'old boney legs' and the repulsiveness of her physicality is often commented on. In reading about her I began to see her as a scapegoat for all societies ills. I wanted to show her more as a product of her natural environment, so I tried to keep her carving quite rough and clearly wooden. Whilst I was carving her bunion feet and her arthritic hands, I thought to myself 'These will be my hands and feet one day, this is what I am heading towards'. 

The first stage of making a marionette is to draw out your puppet, how they will look when finished, its fine to keep this drawing free and expressive: 

The next stage is to do a technical drawing, in the exact scale to which your puppet will be. This is easier than it sounds and the drawing will be constantly revised throughout the process. Sections will be traced directly onto the wood and cut out, always drawn within a box to aid lining up with the ban saw. 

The wood we used was jelutong, which though technically a 'hard' wood is quite easy to work with and has an even grain; for more detailed areas such as the hands we used lime which is slightly harder. The grain of the wood should always flow down the body of the puppet.  Planing the wood before drawing onto it allows you to check for faults and staining. 

The main tool we used was a specially made chisel based on a tool used by puppet makers in China (third from left) - it was as sharp as a scalpel. John also taught us how to care for the blade and sharpen it.  

The joints are designed to mimic the real movement of knees, elbows, shoulders etc; they have stops to prevent them bending in the wrong direction. It is important that they move freely without impediment so the puppet can perform naturally. We used a leather joint for the elbow and shoulders, and wire pivots for most others, carefully working out pendulum movement. 

As a general rule, joints must be larger than thumb width to be workable. There is nothing more pleasing than the sound of a well made wooden joint - 'clunk'.

Weight and ballance are key when making a puppet - you want to keep the marionette light and easy to maneuver, so it is necessary to hollow out certain parts, such as the chest and the head. 
For the chest, we carved the shape first (sagging old breasts for Baba Yaga) and the sawed the chest in half to hollow it out using a drill and glued back together: 

We had three hours to carve the head. We made a tracing paper mask to allow us to keep re drawing on the features after they were cut off. Then working deeper and deeper into the wood we revealed the features:

Sadly it turned out a week wasn't long enough to finish Baba Yaga so I still have lots of work to do soldering her joints, stringing her and not to mention thinking about costume etc. Keep an eye out for future posts to see how she develops.

UPDATE: Finally finished!

She looks into your soul with hollow eyes...


  1. Is it("she" depending on how close the master gets:) finished yet? Performing anywhere? This reminds me a little of the Javanese style puppetry - as in the ominous facial expressions, as opposed to the light weight construction - this looks sturdy. I'm jealous of anyone who can wield a "Záo".

  2. Wow! Great account of your course. That's a brilliant puppet, surely you've done this before?


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