Puppet Building 2- Huey: wood, wire, and metal armature

Huey was my first attempt at a redesign to try and make the puppet building more efficient as well as more durable.

In professional animation studios and feature productions, highly sophisticated and custom made puppet armatures are used. They are most often made with metal limbs connected to a pelvis and torso, the flexibility and thickness of which is determined by the character design. The parts are often designed and machined for each specific puppet. I had trouble finding any actual numbers online, but I know that sometimes these puppets can cost over a thousand dollars each. For characters that appear in a lot of scenes in features, there are often several copies of the same puppet that are made to allow multiple animators to work at once, as well as provide a backup in case something breaks. There are also lots of replacement parts in case only a small part of the puppet needs to be swapped out, to allow the animators to maintain the position of the puppet in front of the camera, and hopefully keep them from having to restart their shoot from the beginning.

I, being the poor college student that I am, cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on professionally fabricated puppets, but I do want to try and see how close I can get on my own. Without the knowledge or facilities that would allow me to custom build my own armature pieces, I spent a good amount of time wandering the aisles of Home Depots and various craft stores looking for strange or interesting items that might be useful for my needs. My design concept for Huey, was largely based on finding a metal piece on a low shelf in the hardware store called a sleeve anchor.

Photo Aug 16, 2 03 20 AM

I figured it had to be a good sign that the brand name for these pieces was Red Head given my own ginger-fied state. (Remember dear readers, it’s not that we redheads don’t have souls. It’s that we gain one freckle for every soul we steal. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!)

Photo Aug 16, 2 02 14 AM

So, with the sleeve anchors in mind to provide the structure for the arms and legs. I came up with this design plan for my second puppet. I kept the wooden head, torso, and pelvis, and decided to try some different weights of the aluminum wire at different joints to see how they worked out.  The neck consists of a single piece of 16 gauge wire. The spine is a single piece of 8 gauge as well as the original plan for the ankle joint.  I ended up grabbing the wrong wire when I got to the final gluing stage for Huey and by the time I realized that I had used the twisted 16 gauge instead of the 8, the epoxy had already set and I decided to just let it go for the time being.  The design also calls for feet made from stacked nuts within a shaped plumbers epoxy foot, and a foam based hand with the wire structure on the outside that would get further tested later in the building process.

My first step was to shape the wooden pieces and drill the appropriate holes for the joint attachments. Huey’s head and torso can be seen on the left side of the image.

Photo Aug 16, 2 57 49 AM

Again, I used the J-B Weld epoxy to affix the wire joints into their appropriate sockets on the armature.

Photo Aug 16, 2 59 30 AM

Here are the first set of glued pieces setting.

Photo Aug 16, 3 10 50 AM

In the second gluing session I was able to add the shoulder joints to the torso, and the hip joints to the pelvis. Because the sleeve anchors are  hollow. I left a larger than normal length of wire to attach to it. You can also see in the image below that I was trying a different type of pelvis design, actually cutting out the front sections in the hopes that it would allow the puppet to have a greater ranger of motion in the legs, coming up higher on a step or shifting out sideways, to try and get it closer to the range of movement people have in the ball-and-socket joint of the hip.

Photo Aug 17, 1 53 23 AM

Once I had the central form of the puppet glued and setting. I began to prepare the sleeve anchors to be attached next.
Directly out of the package, the sleeve anchors look like this.

Photo Aug 16, 2 03 52 AM

But what I was able to figure out in the store, was that the top screw section can be removed.

Photo Aug 16, 2 04 33 AM

And once that attachment is off, it’s a simple matter of popping out the center rod section.

Photo Aug 16, 2 04 57 AM

Leaving me with a nice hollow metal tube to use as my arms and legs.

Photo Aug 16, 2 06 16 AM

Now the one thing I noticed right away, was that the tube was wider in diameter than the diameter of the twisted 16 gauge wire I was attaching it to. I needed to plug the extra space, but the liquid nature of the J-B Weld before it sets, made it unlikely to stay where I needed it and to fill the width of the sleeve anchor properly. So I decided to try plugging the ends of the sleeve anchors with plumber’s epoxy.

Photo Aug 17, 12 48 49 AM

Plumber’s epoxy works in a similar manner to the J-B Weld in that It has 2 components that are malleable when by themselves, but create a chemical reaction when combined that causes the substance to begin to harden.

Photo Aug 17, 12 49 36 AM

The main difference between plumber’s epoxy and the J-B Weld is that the plumber’s epoxy starts out in a clay-like state and begins to harden much more quickly. This allows you to actually shape the epoxy into whatever form you need before it sets and becomes hard. I wanted to test the best way to attach the wire to the plumber’s epoxy plugs I was going to make for the sleeve anchors so I decided to test a sample piece of epoxy first. I shaped a chunk of the mixed epoxy into a rectangle about the side of my character’s shoe, and stuck a toothpick through one side, to see if I would be able to remove it once the epoxy hardened, possible leaving a hole in the epoxy that I could use to attach the wire.

Photo Aug 17, 12 51 15 AM

The removing the toothpick part ended up not working out as the epoxy hardened tightly around the wooden toothpick, causing it to break when I tried to pull it out.

Photo Aug 17, 12 51 45 AM

So the next thing I tried was seeing how well I could drill though the hardened epoxy. I wanted to see if the epoxy would be too hard and might damage the drill, or if, conversely, it would cause the shaped epoxy to crack and fall apart. Because the piece I was working with was so small, I secured it in the vise before I went after it with my drill.

Photo Aug 17, 12 53 26 AM

The good news was that the epoxy is still soft enough to drill through it where you need to make holes.

Photo Aug 17, 12 54 49 AM

Ta-dah, a clean hole right though the test piece.

Photo Aug 17, 12 56 45 AM

I also tested my ability to shape the plumber’s epoxy after it had hardened. I found that it can be sanded to the shape you want, but that you want to be careful that the epoxy has hardened all the wall through before you try, and don’t use a metal file that you plan to use on other items again in the future. The clay-like particles I ground off the side of the test piece embedded themselves in the groove of my file and hardened very quickly so I was unable to clean them out. So now one side of my file is all smooth and seems like it’s covered with clay. Poor file.

But, now that I knew that the plumber’s epoxy can be drilled though and shaped, I mixed several small blobs of it, and squished it into the ends of the sleeve anchors to make a plug for the opening.

Photo Sep 01, 5 01 49 PM

Once the epoxy hardened, I then drilled holes through the plugs to fit the wires, trying to keep them as centered as I could. The one thing I noticed right away was that the epoxy in particular made the limb pieces a lot heavier that I had anticipated, and the thinner sections of it on the outside of the sleeve anchors had a tendency to crack and crumble a bit when I was handling them and drilling through them.

Photo Sep 01, 5 02 08 PM

Once I had all my limbs properly plugged and the holes drilled for the wire segments. I started the next round of J-B Welding and started piecing together the rest of the armature for Huey.

Photo Aug 22, 5 54 44 PM

Here he is, sitting on the wrong piece of loose leaf while the epoxy sets with his limbs all attached, and just waiting for his hands and feet.

Photo Aug 27, 9 04 32 PM

For the feet, I continued working with the plumber’s epoxy. I formed the  rough shapes of the heels and toes by shaping the epoxy around 2 stacked hex nuts (size 10-24/ m4.8-1.1) that I had glued together with the JB earlier. Once those pieces had hardened I drilled to holes for the connecting wire between the heels and toes and then of course, placed and glued the wire in place.

Photo Aug 30, 12 27 56 AM

Photo Aug 30, 12 28 23 AM

Once the feet were put together, I attached them to the lower legs, and then added the wire for the eventual foam and outer-wire based hand design I have, which at this point in the process just consists of a loop at the end of the wrist wire. And voilà! Huey is complete and ready for action.

Photo Dec 01, 7 46 18 AM


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