Puppet Hand

Once the head is sculpted then I begin on the hands. As with the head, these are usually sculpted, moulded and cast.

To construct an armature for larger hands I use a heavy gauge aluminium wire, as in the photo. Click to change between the Armature and the Hand.

I have wrapped a finer wire around the fingers and thumb, this is to give the clay something to grip so that it doesn't just slide off the wire. The fingers can be bent into position and sculpted individually. The palm and back of the hand can then be sculpted around them.

For a larger puppet I will either sculpt the hands in plastaline or more often sculpey. The advantage of sculpey is that it can be heated and hardened in an oven. This means you can sculpt a couple of fingers and then harden them and sculpt the rest of the hand without damaging them. You can still make adjustments when it is hard, by carving or sanding and it is a lot easier to create a clay wall around the hand for moulding than when you use something which remains soft such as plastaline.

If I am making hands for a very small puppet, then I will probably not bother with a mould, and instead just make a one off. This will involve an armature similar to the one above, but much smaller, made out of thin steel wire. In place of the wooden support in the photo, I use a small length of nylon chord or bungee chord for the wrist joint, attached securely to the wire in the palm of the hand. The armature is attached to a length of piano wire, projecting from the side of the wrist, which will ultimately have a small wooden handle for operating. For the smaller hands I use milliput for sculpting, as with the larger hands, I start with the fingers and thumb, allowing them to harden individually and then add the palm and back of the hand.

Hand Mould

The moulds for the hands can be quite complicated, depending on the position they are sculpted in. If the hand is in a relatively open position, and the fingers are not too bent, then you can create a simple two part mould. However as soon as you start to have the fingers bent towards the palm, then you may need to consider a three part mould, in order to be able to remove the hand from the mould.

Hands in clay
Hand in clay

A mould for the hands follows a similar process to the head mould. I will usually rest the hand in a bed of clay built halfway up the side of the hand and in line with the wooden support projecting from the wrist. When the hand is later cast, the wood will be replaced with cotton or nylon webbing which acts as a wrist joint. The exposed side of the hand is covered with silicone rubber and when that is cured, encased in a jesmonite and fibreglass shell. The clay wall is then removed and silicone is brushed over the other side of the hand. This too is covered with the resin and fibreglass. It is important to use a release agent between the two halves of the mould. Before applying silicone for the second part of the mould, I spray a wax based release agent on the exposed edges of the existing mould. When the silicone has cured I apply some vasaline to the rim of the resin shell, before brushing on resin and fibreglass for the final part of the mould.

Casting the Hand

I used to cast the hands by laminating them in fibre glass and resin in the same way as I cast the heads. The main reason for this was that a solid resin cast without fibreglass (which would be a lot easier to do) is too brittle, even with an armature to support the resin it will crack. However, laminating the hands is a very time consuming and fiddly process, as the fingers are inevitably quite slim it is difficult layering up the fibre glass and it can take some time to join the two halves of the cast together, which has to be done out of the mould to be able to insert a webbing wrist joint before assembly.
I now use a polyurethane resin which is far stronger than polyester resin and which cures very quickly. The resin I use is called Easyflo 120 which I get from a company called Mouldlife. You simply mix the two parts of the resin in equal quantities by volume and you then have a couple of minutes to pour the resin before it begins its cure. You can mix polyurethane pigments into the unmixed parts to get a base colour which is closer to flesh. This is useful as the resin doesn't take paint terribly well, acrylics seem to rub off quite easily with a minimum of handling.
If you are casting quite large hands then this method is probably not going to work as they will most likely end up being too heavy. The problem with heavy hands is that they are difficult to handle and can pull down on the puppets shoulder when they are left unoperated. For larger hands I would probably laminate them and for very large hands (if you only need one pair) I would sculpt them as one offs from a material such as airex and then cover them with an epoxy resin to give them a durable finish.

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