Process which consists of removing the unwanted part of a raw material block (wood, cork, foam, etc.) thereby creating a structured form from it. Puppets, and especially puppet heads, are often sculpted. A simplified casing volume is taken out and the representational drawings are traced on all the surfaces. The chiselling process consists in reducing the volume. Forms are then sculpted by size, turning, scraping, burning, chemical stripping, or other technique. Traces of the tool used can be left so as to obtain a “matière”, or one can grind, brush, sand, coat, apply a liquid, paint, or patina, glue a wig, install articulations for the members, etc. It is often necessary to empty out the heads in order to make them lighter and to place inside the mechanisms for the eyes or the mouth.

Materials and Tools

Many varied types of materials can be sculpted. For wooden sculptures, basswood is preferred but balsa (which is soft but fragile) or exotic woods like camphor wood can also be selected. These must not be too hard, must not split, and must present a fine texture. Agglomerated cork, which is found in rolls or simple volumes, in the shape of cones, cylinders or spheres, is equally appropriate. Rigid foams should preferably be dense and solid: polyurethane or expanded polystyrene foams can be found in huge rolls or in prefabricated volumes under different forms (cones, cylinders, cores or pyramids) whereas polyether foam is supple and can be sculpted provided it is drenched with water and frozen making it easier to work on when hard. However, this material tends to be replaced by latex-based foams. Plaster, heavy and fragile, is used to create models for moulding. Expanded concrete (Siporex), which is easily sculpted, is fairly light but presents a granular surface that must be coated if one wants a smooth appearance.

Several devices are used to hold the piece during sculpting – a harness, a spinner placed on a table, a vise, presses, a workbench holdfast, clamps, vise grips/C-clamps, and straps. Tools used to work the material include hammers, mallets, wood chisels, gravers, gouges, small axes or adzes (especially used in Africa), saws, cutters, box cutters, rasps, and files. The usage of heat or chemical treatments can be useful (expanded polystyrene). Portable power or extension tools can also be used: band or chain saws, jig saws or circular saws, drills, routers, planes, and lathes. Finishing may require sanding with emery cloth for metal, sandpaper for wood, and the use of electric sanders. Finally, the usual surface preparations are done before the painting process.

Unsung Artists

Virtually all of the old traditional puppets are sculpted out of wood, whether from Europe, Africa, Oceania, Asia or the Americas. The names of puppet sculptors from olden days are rarely known with the exception of a few whose works have defined their times such as Léonard Van Brackel, called “Six Pouces” (“Six Thumbs”) who lived on Rue Mazagran in Lille during the 19th century and who specialized in sculpting puppet heads from linden wood for the Budt Theatre. One can still recognize his handiwork by looking at rod marionettes (French: tringle puppets) from northern France. The sculptor Charles Ferry and the costume maker Edmond Fruit were skillful manufacturers during the second half of the 19th century and remain famous for their expressive puppets like Polichinelle. Charles Ferry was the supplier to, among others, the famous Thomas Holden as well as Hovaroff, a modest puppeteer from the Pantagonia Theatre at the Carré Marigny.

Among other notable sculptors are Carl Fischer from Zurich who created the puppets for König Hirsch (The King Stag, of Carolo Gozzi) based on the drawings by Sophie Taeuber-Arp in 1918, as well as the Bastien et Bastienne puppets for the Zurich Puppet Theatre (1923) and his traditional Zurich character, Hansjoggel, which at that time replaced the famous Kasperl Larifari. The Czech Karel Nosek sculpted Josef Skupa’s very famous puppets Spejbl, in 1920, and Hurvínek, in 1926. Rien Baatmans and Maaik Bautmans-Hobbel created turned-wood puppets for the Merlijn theatre of Haarlem, the Netherlands, for the play Spiegel le petit chat (The Little Cat Spiegel). It was Vitek who sculpted fifty wooden tringle/rod marionettes for the Till Eulenspiegel at the DRAK Theatre (Divadlo DRAK). In order to give it character, Theo Eggink decided to leave the traces of his chisel in his puppet, the gnome Cuprus, in Le Violin enchanté (The Enchanted Violin) performed by the Honald Schwarz Theatre. Besides Jacques Chesnais, Albrecht Roser, Bil Baird, creators of admirably proportioned characters (Shango, voodoo god of thunder), we can also mention Tony Sarg, Harro Siegel, and Patrick Grey who sculpted most of the puppets for Monique Créteur’s puppet theatre of Nantes and creates animated forms for the Houdart-Heuclin Company (Les Voix de la matière Voices of Matter/Material, 2005).