Before the introduction of many new materials in the 20th century, wood was, and probably still remains, the main material out of which puppets are carved. A carver, especially when he or she is also the puppeteer, will often give much attention to the choice of the piece of wood from which a head is to be carved.
Generally a wood with a close even grain is preferred. One of the most popular woods in Europe is lime, although in Italy cirmolo (a type of pine) is also popular. In Japan the traditional wood for the [Bunraku] puppet is cypress. Many different woods may be used and today a variety of more exotic ones is available, including jelutong, a low density wood from Malaysia that is relatively easy to carve but not very durable. The body and limbs are often made from whatever wood may be available
Whilst many puppeteers could carve their own heads, it was also very common for them to commission both heads and hands from professional carvers, but to build the bodies of the puppets themselves. Italians had a particular reputation for woodcarving and in the old Austrian empire it was not uncommon for puppet heads to be carved by Italians who also carved statues for churches. By the later 19th century, firms such as Bonini in Turin and De Vere in Paris sold both complete puppets and also individual elements such as heads. They employed professional carvers and satisfied on the one hand a juvenile market with puppets for home use, and on the other acted as suppliers for professional performers whose numbers increased enormously between 1870 and 1900.
The English marionette showman Richard Barnard in the late 19th century was a very fine carver with a distinctive and recognizable style of his own, but was also ready to buy heads where necessary. Amongst his marionettes there were at least three fine acrobats which, according to a note on the bodies, were made in Paris in 1889, but have heads in a style that is clearly not that of Barnard.
Many puppeteers had only rudimentary carving skills and few tools. Poorer ones made their heads themselves and often whittled them with a knife. Whittling, which amounted broadly to shaving off small pieces of wood, usually produced relatively simple heads with shallow contours. Many relied on little more than a bump for a nose and used paint to depict the other features. This type of very simple head can be seen today with the (revived) Robertos [glove puppets] in Portugal (see [Teatro Dom Roberto]).
The stock “masks” (maschere) of the [commedia dell’arte] have continued on the [glove puppet] stage, but had largely died out on the marionette ([string puppet]) one by the end of the 19th century. At this period marionette theatres followed the actors’ theatres in presenting plays with stock roles: leading man, leading woman, villain, comic servant, lovers, older male and female, etc. These types, like the “masks” of the commedia, were repeated again and again, and the puppets themselves might have to re-appear in a different costume in a different play every night. Once specific features of the type had been noted there was little room for original creation. Most carvers were simply skilled artisans and only very rarely was their work recognized.
With the 20th century many of the older marionette companies were disappearing and the puppet itself passed imperceptibly from being primarily a means of earning a living to being a form of artistic expression. One of the earlier people to think in these terms was [Paul Brann] with his Marionettentheater Münchner Künstler (Marionette Theatre of Munich Artists, 1906). A consequence of the more aesthetic approach was that a figure might be designed by an artist and then passed to a carver for execution. An obvious example of this is King Stag by Rene Morax after Carlo Gozzi (Zurich, 1918) designed by [Sophie Taeuber-Arp], but executed by Carl Fischer.
In many cases the carver was a fine artist in his or her own right, but the introduction of the designer created a dual role out of what had been a single one. With the development of the great ensembles of Eastern Europe after the 1950s the division of work within a company became even greater, as each member had his or her specialization.
Some 20th-century puppet carvers have a strong personal style, most notably Theo Eggink with his figures for [Max Jacob]’s Hohensteiner glove puppets or [Harro Siegel] with his [Faust]. In some cases the texture and grain of the wood has been put in evidence as with F. Vitek’s work for [Divadlo DRAK]’s Till Eulenspiegel (1974) or [Christopher Leith]’s Beowulf (1979). Much of the success of John Wright’s [Little Angel Theatre] in London came from his qualities as a wood carver.
Despite the myriad of modern materials and technical possibilities, for many performers there is a close link between crafting the puppet and performing with it. The labour of carving a piece of wood and seeing a head emerge is profoundly satisfying and this allows the figure, especially the glove puppet, to become a sort of alter ego of the player. The [Pulcinella] player, Gaspare Nasuto, with his own distinct style of carving, is a fine example of this synthesis of creator and exponent.
Today the skill of the carver may be partially bypassed by a form of mechanical reproduction which starts out from an already carved head, or from a clay model. It is based on the old device of the pantograph, used in the past to provide reproductions of statues, often scaled up or down. This has been replaced by the computer-guided router which scans a model of the head and produces a version of it in wood (or another material). This can, of course be repeated, and even mass-produced if necessary. One of the major providers of puppet heads in Italy today is Natale Panaro. He is a carver and one of his most successful products has been a playful reinterpretation of the head of Pulcinella, following designs by Emmanuele Luzzati. While not into mass production, he has produced more than one head in this style, and this has given a recognizable stamp to the work of Paolo Comentale at the Casa di Pulcinella in Bari.