Puppet Heads

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Puppet Heads

Postby Morris » 31 Mar 2007, 23:48

I notice that most people seem to use puppets with carved wooden heads, and wondered if there is anyone else out there who makes the puppet heads from cloth stuffed very firmly then painted so that the fabric becomes stiff. Any ideas folks?

Oh and hullo all, this is Morris Harding here from the murky depths of Torteval on the Island of Guernsey. :D
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Postby johnstoate » 01 Apr 2007, 00:00

Hello Morris,

I use a variety of things for heads, The cloth one's ok, but not wonderfull if you bash 'em about with the stick like me. I find the best stuff for coating them is pva glue dried off between coats in a very low oven,(But don't tell the wife! ) then finished with a couple of thick coats of good varnish. Most of what I'm using at present are papier mache made using the same pva method, and I find they hold up very well. But my principal figures are latex heads, made up from a plasticine original moulded in plaster, The latex is the water-based stuff, and if you add a little china clay you get a very robust head. (With a bit of practice!) Traditionally, of course, they used to tack thin leather to the wooden heads to limit the damage, hence the term 'leatherhead' as in 'Lantern leatherhead'
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Postby Chris » 01 Apr 2007, 09:01

Now that's interesting John. I've never come across the idea that it was traditional to cover Punch heads with thin leather for protection. What is the source for the information?

I may be wrong, but I thought Lantern Leatherhead was a character in a Ben Johnson play - a man who sold Hobby Horses. Now I know rocking horses used to be made in leather, and some were carved in wood and leather covered.
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Postby johnstoate » 01 Apr 2007, 13:18

Lantern Leatherhead is indeed a Jonson character Chris, but my understanding of him in 'Bartholomew Fair' is more as the 'Major' or 'bottler'
for Filcher's show, I suspect Majoring as he interprets the show for the audience. ( A necessary evil with a poorly swazzled show). As to the practice
of 'leathering', I Have seen 'Leathered' dolls a couple of times, most recently in a puppet exhibition in a museum in Liverpool a couple of years back,(2004,I think) The main reference to them is in the Jesson memoirs where 'Prof' Jesson, (In the 1890's) states that he has 'Made all the gear himself..... And that other showmen do the same, they carve the heads in strong wood, and then tacks leather on to make the lips and cheeks, then paints over the top, so's the wood won't split'. - He goes on to make the same connection with Jonson's character's name. There is a book by a chap named Leach,(I think) about the show which gives a lot of this info, I saw a copy about twenty years back, -It may still be in print - Perhaps Ray Da Silva would know more.
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Postby Morris » 01 Apr 2007, 22:04

Leather to protect the wood is interesting, it used to be very common over here for childrens dolls, although the idea there was to soften the faces for when children hit each other over the head with them. It could work eith Punch as the leathjer, when painted, tended to 'age' somehow - similar to human skin it would sag and distort so that over thirty years or so the faces age at about twice the rate of a normal human face. Very odd.
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Postby Chris » 01 Apr 2007, 22:35

Sorry, I understood you to say: "Traditionally, of course, they used to tack thin leather to the wooden heads to limit the damage."
Now I realise you mean that one person speaks of adding features, cheeks and lips, with leather to a wooden head. I thought it curious that in all the Victorian puppets that I have handled none have had leather covered heads, for if it were traditional one would have expected the odd one to come my way.
I have seen leather used to reinforce puppet garments, and of course it frequently is used for hinges on the limbs of old English marionettes. I am sure it will have been used as a skin on the occasional head, but hardly sufficiently frequently to be called traditional?

Yes, the Leach book, Punch & Judy Show: History, Tradition & Meaning, while controversial, some would say fanciful, is one of the standards.

In answer to Morris's original question, yes I do know of others who use cloth heads , and with a variety of techniques - but for puppets other than Punch figures. The wooden head (or something similarly hard) is surely essential if one wants the satisfying thwack from the slapstick. Although I have seen Victorian figures where the Punch heads were virtually a mask of carved wood with the back part of the head being stuffed cloth covered by the puppet's hair or head covering. This may have been for lightness, but I have always assumed that it was because the head had been carved from whatever wood was available, and what had been available wasn't thick enough for a full head, front to back, to be carved.
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Postby johnstoate » 01 Apr 2007, 23:09

Sorry, I do tend to use the word 'Tradition' a little too loosely, as I said, I have seen a couple of examples of these leather-faced dolls. As to your comment about slapsticks Chris, I don't altogether understand why you need a solid head for the 'thwack' - Mine is made in two pieces, hinged so that they crack together loudly whenever they connect to virtually anything! -and I understand it to be a very old design.
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Postby Chris » 01 Apr 2007, 23:22

Yes, that is why it is called a slapstick.

Even so, in my experience there is a distinct difference between its use on a hard wooden head and a soft stuffed head. Plus there's the added thwack of head against head and head against playboard. You may not "altogether understand why you need a solid head for the 'thwack'" but I think most people will.
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Postby johnstoate » 02 Apr 2007, 14:30

OK. but this discussion isn't helping anyone - this is the workshop bit for helpful tips, so can we agree to (Slightly) disagree?, -At least in this forum.
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Postby Chris » 02 Apr 2007, 17:56

I think you can safely leave me to judge the appropriateness of the postings on my own site.
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Postby johnstoate » 03 Apr 2007, 23:44

OK> That sorted, where were we? Oh, yes, 'Thwack!' On the playboard, It depends on your show, surely? I love to 'Knock ' em about' but only within reason, too much knockin' on the playboard only does daft amounts of damage.If the show is 'spirited' as I hope all good shows are.That, to me, is why we have the slapstick. To create the impression. It's purpose is to give the effect of force without any actually being employed. Maybe I'm being a bit obscure here, but I think most performers will understand what I mean. - Speech is more my 'Forte' than things mechanical, That's why I don't Swazzle!.- There, I've said it!.
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