Carving in wood has always been a classic way of making puppet heads, but there are also many very old examples in both Asia and Europe of puppet heads directly modelled in clay or papier-mâché (pulped paper mixed with some form of glue). Today puppeteers employ a variety of malleable products such as plastic wood, modelling compounds or a type of plastic that can be softened with heat.
A popular way of making heads is to create a basic model in clay and from this to take a copy in a lighter and less brittle material. In recent years expanded polystyrene has also been carved to create the basic model. The building of a head on top of a modelled core is much used in mask-making and also for giant puppets such as those of Bread and Puppet Theater. A common method is to make a laminate of layers of paper impregnated in an adhesive (traditionally a paste of flour and water, or wall-paper paste – but there are many possibilities today). Often this technique is inaccurately referred to as papier-mâché. Covering the core with a barrier of grease (petroleum jelly for example) or a thin plastic membrane may help ensure that the laminate does not bond with the clay. In the case of large heads, if a water-based glue is used for the laminate, such a barrier is essential if the laminate is to dry out. Variants of the technique include fabric soaked in a varnish being spread over the head. Celastic softened with acetone was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but the toxic fumes generated by this process mean that it is now generally discontinued. It is also possible to use a classic mask-making technique, rediscovered by Amleto Sartori in Italy when working on the commedia dell’arte. This involves stretching a piece of very thin and well soaked leather over a form (which may also be a carved wooden shape). Whatever the method, once the outer layer is fully dry the core can be removed. If necessary a sharp blade may be used to separate the back from the front to release the core and the two halves of the hollow head can then be stuck together again.
If multiple copies of the same head are required, an inside mould will ensure that details of the modelling remain with maximum precision. This involves taking a plaster cast of the head – generally in two parts. If the features are relatively simple, casts of the back of the head and the front will be sufficient, but where there are more exaggerated features, especially hooked noses or chins, the front or face cast may need to be divided down the middle to allow for easy removal from the core.
If a lightweight solid head is required, the cast may be tightly packed with papier-mâché. More usually a laminate is built up of several layers of newspaper, but plastic wood or other modelling compounds may also be pressed into the contours of the mould. Resins are used in the same way, and liquid latex provides another possibility.
The casting method may be extended to other parts of the body, especially for animals and more grotesque figures. In 18th-century Italy it was quite common for hands and feet to be cast in lead, especially in the case of very small and light marionettes.