Puppet Building 3-Louie: wood, wire, and plastic armature

My main design concept for the third test puppet was to try and find something similar to the sleeve anchors I used with my second puppet Huey, but that wouldn’t end up making the puppet quite so heavy in the end. The real weight to Huey was in the plumber’s epoxy I used to help fuse the metal sleeves with the wire joints, but since I don’t know how to solder and am not yet aware of a better bonding method, finding an alternative limb seemed like a good place to start.  In my wanderings through the aisles of Home Depot I came across this variety set of plastic plug anchors. They’re very similar in nature to the sleeve anchors. They are meant to go into walls, usually plaster, to help prevent the screws from pulling back out through the softer material. These ones in particular caught my eye, because unlike many of the other plastic anchors found in stores, these are not tapered at one end and have a flat cap at the other. The straight rod-like style of these anchors, makes them much more suitable for serving as firm but light weight pieces to act as the bones for my puppet.

Photo Sep 01, 5 01 14 PM

Once I knew I wanted to base the test-aspect of my third puppet around these plastic plugs, I drew up my design plans for Louie here.

Photo Aug 30, 12 17 25 AM

I used the same basic wooden torso, pelvis, and head as I did with Dewey, my control/wood and wire puppet. The altered pelvis I tried with my second puppet Huey, where I created a t-shape on the front of the pelvis but left the back solid to allow for greater mobility when the puppet lifted its leg hadn’t worked out as well as I could have hoped. I did have increased mobility when lifting the leg forward, but couldn’t match it when the leg was extended backward as you get when the character walks forward. It was noticeable too, that the leg was bending forward and back from a different point along the pelvis, which just looked awkward when the puppet was being animated.

With the second puppet, I used a combination of twisted 16 gauge wire and 8 gauge wire for different joints. With Louie, I decided to try going all out and using almost entirely the 8 gauge wire for all the main joints, using the twisted 16 gauge only on the extremities of the head, wrists, and ankles. The 8 gauge is thicker, and having not been manipulated like the double twist of the 16 gauge, it tends to be a little stronger and firmer when animating with it. For the hands, I also went with a higher gauge wire. I used the loop concept from Huey and the individual finger concept taken from Dewey. In this case, however, the fingers are made of single pieces of 16 gauge wire, whereas before I used a twisted double length of 20 gauge wire.

I also planned for a more basic foot design using 2 squares of wood with a single hole drilled though the center for the heel and toes pieces, with washers glued to the tops and bottoms to add stability, weight, and to help disperse to force of the tie down screws so it would be less likely to split the wood. When I did get to building the feet, I improvised and actually swapped out the pieces of wood on one of the feet for a set of hex nuts glued together, similar to the core of the feet in the Huey puppet, but without the plumber’s epoxy around it this time forming the outer shape of the shoe.

Photo Aug 30, 12 20 09 AM (1)

I chose which of the plastic plugs to use for the different bones, based on their width. The kit came with four sizes of plug from the smallest (white) to the largest (blue). I ended up using the two middle sizes for the puppet. The red, being the thinner of the 2 in diameter I chose to use for the upper and lower arm bones was well as using it as the plug for a potential replacement head concept. (I’ll have a separate post later about how I’m going to be dealing with the character’s head and facial animations)Photo Aug 30, 12 22 43 AM

For the legs, I used the slightly larger green plugs, though I knew they weren’t long enough for the length of the legs, so if you look closely you can see where I delineated on the plan (3 images up) where the breaks in the bone should go. I intentionally tried to keep the seams closer to the edge of the bones, so that I could use a longer length of the wire for the joints to help seal the two pieces together.

Photo Aug 30, 12 25 22 AM

Before I glued the plastic bone sections together and connected them with the joints, I did a quick test to see what would be the best method of gluing the wire segments into the plugs. If you look down the barrel of one of these plugs you can see that the central hole isn’t perfectly rounded, but is actually star shaped, with thin ridges of plastic jutting out into the center space of the plug. The concept behind it is that, when used in a wall, the screw will tear through these ridges in various places, and that the plastic will actually settle in between the threads of the screw, creating greater resistance if the screw were to start to pull away from the wall the plug is seated in. My thought was that a more varied texture on the inside of the plugs would give the epoxy more nooks and crannies as it were to fill into and would help the epoxy maintain a better grip on the plastic surface. I grabbed two extra green plugs and the accompanying sized screw from the kit. I tightened them into the vise and screwed the screw into them about halfway before pulling it back out. This did leave enough space for the wire segment to be glued in and plenty of texture on the interior of the plug to work with. However, as you can see from the picture above, the stress of the screw going into the plug not only damaged the plastic ridges on the inside of the segment, but also twisted and bent the outside of the rod as well. While the glue adhered well, after seeing the structural damage the screw did to the exterior of the plug, I was worried that it might make the plug more likely to bend under pressure, which is not what I want the bone sections to do with these puppets.

Photo Aug 30, 12 26 36 AM

So, once the first glue test dried completely. I added another segment to the end of it, this time pre-drilling a hole with the 9/64″ drill bit into the side of both green pieces as was planning to use a single piece of the 8 gauge wire for this section. (the 1/8″ drill bit is a good size to use when drilling for the double 16 gauge wire, but is just a little tight when working with the 8 gauge, so I tend to go up a size) As you can see in the above picture, pre-drilling the hole led to a lot less structural damage tho the plug as a whole so I decided to use that method for the actual puppet. We’ll just have to see how the epoxy adheres to the plastic when I get to the test animation.

Photo Oct 18, 10 48 38 AM

With Louie I also wanted to test a different method of changing out replacement heads. I drilled a wider hole where the neck would go and cut down one of the red plugs to fit inside the socket.

Photo Oct 18, 10 49 12 AM

I didn’t slide the plug all the way in when testing to be sure the hole was large enough because I wanted to be sure I’d be able to get it back out again so I could get the epoxy in there. You can also see a little of the star shape I mentioned before in this image here. Because I want the plug to grip the neck firmly but still be able to switch out the replacement heads, I decided to use the screw method I tested for this particular joint. The wooden torso provides the structural stability I need, and the rougher interior grips the twisted 16 gauge quite well without using any kind of glue. I did find in testing that I needed to use needle-nose pliers to take the head section off and put it back in, trying to do it by hand tended to cause the neck to bend rather than move in or out of the plug.

Photo Oct 26, 7 09 44 AM

Once everything had been glued together using the JB-weld, I had this view of the puppet. The masking tape on the legs was how I kept the separate leg segments together while the epoxy was setting for 24 hours. Once it was together, there really wasn’t any need to remove the tape so I left it on.

Photo Oct 24, 6 23 54 AM

For the hands I took a single piece of the 16 gauge wire, folded it in half, and inserted the two ends into the barrel of my drill like I showed in my first puppet building post. Because I was only using one piece of wire this time instead of two, it allowed me to grip the other end with the pliers a short distance in rather than all the way at the end, leaving a loop at the end of the twist for me to work with. I made two pieces like this, one for each hand. You can see from the picture that I have a pretty long segment of twisted wire to work with. It’s always better to have a piece that is too long rather than too short because you can always cut a piece down, but if it’s too short you just have to start over.

Photo Oct 24, 6 25 37 AM

Once the loop was made, I stuck it in my vise to hold it upright while I worked on attaching the finger sections. Each finger is a single piece of 16 gauge wire that I wrapped around the loop, the thumb (above) being the only one I attached further down on the twisted wire itself.

Photo Oct 24, 6 28 33 AM

When I was twisting the bottoms of the length of wire around the loop, I found it had a tendency to spin around the metal and often would be pointing sideways rather than straight up. This first finger kept falling forward, away from me. I adjusted for this, by leaving a longer section hanging down that I could maneuver through to the other side of the loop, this way whenever the finger tried to spin, the lower section would prevent it from moving because the loop was in the way.

Photo Oct 24, 6 30 46 AM

The longer stem method worked for the second finger as well, though this time I attached it facing the other way so the hand wouldn’t get too congested with wire on one side.

Photo Oct 24, 6 34 18 AM

The third finger was less cooperative so I ended up bringing in the masking tape and wrapping it around the palm section of the loop to keep everything in place.

Photo Oct 24, 6 38 23 AM

One more piece of wire and another section of tape and I had a five fingered hand. I repeated the process again with the second hand, making sure the thumb was on the other side this time.

Photo Oct 25, 3 32 13 AM

Once both hands had been shaped with the wire, I lay them on a piece of scrap paper and applied a liberal amount of the JB-weld epoxy to both of them, carefully peeling away the masking tape before I did. (At that point they were laying flat on the table, and were less inclined to spin) Once the 24 hour setting period had passed, I then flipped the hands over and applied even more of the JB-weld to the other side of the palm, making sure the ends of each piece of wire was thoroughly coated.

Photo Dec 01, 7 29 29 AM

Last, but not least I had the two separate foot designs to work with. The left foot (at the back) was made from gluing two hex nuts together for both the toe and the heel.  After 12 hours when the glue was partially set, I added the washers to the bottom of both stacks. Usually after 12 hours the pieces that are being epoxied can be carefully moved, but you shouldn’t put any stress on the connection because it’s still weak. Since the washer was just going underneath, it was not problem to add the washers early. Once the full 24 hours went by for the drying of the bases,  I took another section of the 16 gauge wire and made another loop like I did for the hands. I made sure that the loop was large enough to go around the top of the hex nut and not interfere with the hole for the tie downs.  This time I hand twisted the wire rather than using the drill so I could make sure the length was correct for the foot size and so I could leave a longer untwisted segment at the end to connect to the heel. While that was drying, I took another piece of the twisted 16 gauge (just a normal piece this time, no special modifications)  and glued into the heel to serve as an ankle joint. To keep the JB-weld from dripping out the bottom and gluing the entire piece to the table, I tilted it on it’s side to dry. Once both those glues had set I used the remaining length coming from the toe section to twist around the wire of the ankle joint and then curved it around the stack of hex nuts for added security. I glued those together, and then added extra JB-weld to the top and added the extra washer up there to give myself something to grab when manipulating that joint.

For the wooden test foot, I mostly based it on the concept of the first foot design I used on Dewey. The main difference is that I chose not to make the full shape of the foot and just use smaller wooden pieces and used a double twisted piece of the 16 gauge to connect them instead of a single piece. I placed a washer on the bottom of the toe piece to help spread out the force from the tie down. I probably should have put one on the top as well, but i wanted to see if just the bottom one would be helpful.

I found the best way to make sure that the feet were the proper length comparable to each other was to place the puppet in the vise at the height where he would be standing comfortably with its feet on the ground. I glued the metal foot in first and let it set, then I added the wooden one 12 hours later and adjusted it to match the length of the metal one. Once both were in place and the puppet was standing up straight,  I left them to finish setting for the full 24 hours.

Photo Dec 01, 7 32 11 AM

Once the feet were done setting and the hands were attached, I slotted the head into place and we were good to go! So there you have it, finished test armatures for Huey Dewey, and Louie!

The next step was to test each one out with a section of the animation from my project.  Once each puppet has been animation tested, I’ll have a better sense of what worked well based on the designs and what didn’t. From that, I’ll be able to take what worked best and use that to design the final version of my main character, Randy!  Hope these walk-throughs of my process are helpful to anyone who is interested. If you have any questions about any of them, please feel free to ask in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer if I can.


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