Jeff Donne: How to carve puppets
Words and photos: Jeff Donne
Pinocchio, brought to life by the author, Jeff Donne.
‘Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the fire in winter to make cold rooms cosy and warm.’
For close to 140 years, readers of a classic Carlo Collodi tale have witnessed this embryonic beginning of a wooden puppet we know as Pinocchio. We’ve delighted at his impishness, ill-behaviour and eventual heroism, but what of the puppet, why should a character made from wood capture the imaginations of so many?
1. Carlo Chiostri’s drawing of Geppetto and Pinocchio.
It’s difficult to explain, but there is something about a puppet; it’s immediately believable regardless of how far from reality the puppet really is. The moment a string is pulled, it’s as if the puppet gains a soul; it’s alive!
And yet I can’t imagine the tale of Pinocchio imprinting on so many minds had the story talked of a puppet made from anything else. Wood, when cloaked in bark, and complete with twists and crooked branches, has life, and as the impoverished carver, Geppetto finds out, it’s not afraid to speak its mind.
Anyone who has carved a puppet, or anything else for that matter, straight from a tree will know how the wood can speak: wrong way...go with the grain...too deep...too fast...skirt around that knot...and so it goes. But the reward is a carved puppet that is ready to start its own adventure.
2. A basic tool kit for puppet carving.
I made my first puppet using an axe and a knife; this wasn’t an attempt at historical correctness, instead it was because I often carve spoons and I used the tools at hand. They did a fine job and I unwittingly managed to replicate old Geppetto’s techniques. Since then I have made every puppet the same way, exploring new ways to use the tools I have and in some cases how to adapt them to puppet carving. This is my current set up:
• A small carving axe. I use a Gränsfors Bruk Wildlife Hatchet
• A shortish carving knife. A Morakniv 120 is perfect for the job
• A cordless drill. Yep, I know Master Geppetto didn’t have a 14 volt Bosch drill in his kit, but hand drills and small pieces of wood aren’t the best of friends!
• A cobbled together ‘stock knife’. Rare as handcarved hen’s teeth, a real stock knife, traditionally used to carve clogs, is an expensive investment. Or you could make one in five minutes from a Morakniv push knife and a mug hook. Screw the hook into a bench top, insert one of the knife handles and you have yourself a powerful cutting tool. Sure it’ll never carve clogs, but we wear thongs in this neck of the woods.
• Detail carving knives. Great for carving faces and adding details like clothing to your puppets. They’re generally inexpensive so get the best you can.
• Hook knives. These come in handy for all sorts of things, from leg joint sockets to hollowing the inside of rabbit ears. I use Ben Orford knives and the fantastic new Australian hooks made by Pete Trott from Kyneton.
3. Using the cobbled together stock knife.
You can of course use carving chisels and gouges, as is commonly used by wooden puppet makers in Europe, but a knife is a one-handed tool that improves your connection to the puppet taking shape in your other hand.
4. The top of head has been axed out.
Straight from the tree is best as the wood is green and soft to carve. That said, if you are carving from round branch or stem wood you’re best off allowing the wood to dry in longer sections if you want to avoid cracks. Try experimenting because some woods shrink and crack more than others; banksia, for example opens up wide chasms as it dries, but black sheoak is fairly stable.
5. The head and shoulders are now roughed out.
The other thing to consider is lightness and the capacity of the wood to hold detail. On small-to- medium size puppets I’ll commonly use black sheoak as it’s nice to carve and dense enough to hold detail, but for larger puppets, I don’t want a dense wood that will make the puppet too heavy, so I opt for lighter woods like poplar or cedar. Pine is fine, appropriate too because Pinocchio is thought to stem from the Italian word for pine (pino).
6. Showing the head and body carved.
Things to look for in the tree are the conjunctions of twigs coming from the main stem as these produce a fantastic looking Pinocchio nose that is stronger than any drilled and jointed nose. They also make convenient thumbs when carving hands, as well as fantastic dinosaur tails.
While you’re pruning the tree look out for bent branches as these come in handy for other puppet projects: Viking horns, rabbit feet, dragon puppets, they’re all lurking in a tree near you!
7. Next, cut out the hip joints.
So let’s bring this log to life and hope it’s better behaved than the original wooden boy. The small log I’m working on here is the stem from a black sheoak tree, complete with a built-in branch conjunction that will become Pinocchio’s nose.
Mark out the sections of the head and body, keeping in mind this is a caricature, so any feature can be exaggerated, shrunk or simplified. I love staying fairly close to the original Carlo Chiostri illustrations, which interestingly show Geppetto carving with a half-crescent knife similar to those used for centuries by the wayang golek puppet carvers of Indonesia.
8. The axe comes out again to split out stock for the limbs.
With an axe, start carving either a conical shape above the nose (if you would like a hat wearing Pinocchio), or a rounded shape if he’s without a hat like the little fella here. Still with the axe, roughly shape the rest of the body, moving first to the neck by carving a notch around the circumference at the base of the chin, and then onto the bottom of the body and hip.
9. Lay the pieces out to check proportions.
With the head and body roughly shaped, it’s time to refine the surface with a knife, aiming for a finish that shows off the tool marks.
10. One arm is carved.
A number of knife grips are used here, including the thumb lever grip, pull stroke and thumb pull, all common techniques used when spoon carving. A different grip used in some of the more finicky parts of puppet carving, such as detailing feet and hands, is the spring pull grip, where to a casual onlooker it appears you are attempting to remove your index finger with a knife. Actually you are pushing the blade away from your finger and countering it with a controlled thumb pull, resulting in a safe spring grip.
11. These two parts will form a complete leg.
The last part of the body to shape is the hip, where simple saw cuts make recesses to accommodate the legs. With the body and head now shaped, it’s on to the limbs. These are made from the section of log we removed when breaking the head and body down to size. Saw to arm and leg length – marionette puppets often have longer arms and shorter legs than us mortals – and split the log into four. Using the knife, carve these to the shapes you desire.
12. Drawing on the features.
We’re keeping it simple with this puppet, but you can carve detailed hands and feet if you wish. I find that puppets, like illustrations, work well with simplified features, such as dots for eyes and a basic hand with no defined fingers, because they leave a lot of the storytelling with the audience.
13. The hairline and facial features are next carved.
And now we start breathing life into the puppet. First we make knee and elbow joints; there are many ways to do this, but I find a simple way is to saw at the elbow and knees and rejoin with cord glued into carefully drilled holes. The same technique can be used for shoulder joints. To attach legs to the hip, I drill through the groin (eyes watering!) and the tops of legs, and then thread through leather cordage before knotting at each end.
14. Knee joint is ready for assembly.
You will now be holding a puppet in your hand, albeit pretty floppy. To string it you need to screw small hook eyes into the thigh tops, hands and head, thread waxed cotton through these and then tie to a control bar that you have made from a forked stick with an additional cross section attached. The head string is tied to the middle of the control bar, the thigh strings to the forked extremity of the branch and the hand strings to the cross section.
15. Drill tiny pilot holes so the wood won’t split when you screw the eye hooks in or cause the hooks to snap.
And now Pinocchio is ready to dance! It’s a fine moment; one that sticks with you for a long time.
If you want to paint the little guy, I recommend layering watercolours – which allow the grain to shine through – and then finish with linseed oil. Remember that linseed oil left on a rag can spontaneously combust and burn down your shed*.
Which of course we don’t want, because a certain ill-behaved puppet would only get the blame.
* Editor’s note: Oily rags should be soaked in water before drying out or disposing.
Jeff Donne is a professional spoon carver, treecraft teacher and puppet maker from the far south coast of NSW. He runs regular puppet and spoon carving workshops in many places, including Sydney, Canberra and Pambula NSW. See: www.spoonsmith.com.au
16. Tying the legs to the hips.
17. A basic control bar made from a forked branch.
18. Pinocchio, finished and all stringed up.