Using Wire & Metal Armatures in Model Making
I've always had an interest in both modelmaking and stop-motion animation, and these two skills go hand-in-hand. This page focusses on the art and craft of creating jointed, poseable puppets from scratch, from the simple figures to the high-tech constructions.
The puppets you create must be able to be manipulated into a wide range of poses in order for you to breathe life into them and for them to take on 'character'. The versatility required of the puppets is perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to the building of them.
Below you will find a list of materials and processes you can use as well as some tutorials from experts. I have also included some techniques for creating art dolls, as there is some cross-over in techniques between the crafts, although art dolls are artistic rather than functional so can't be used for stop-motion. This is because even though art dolls are often jointed, the limbs are loose so that they lie naturally (and are usually held together at the joints with string).
I hope you find the tutorials, videos and guides on this page useful :)
Mould Making & Casting Claymation Puppets
The puppet body is sculpted from clay first of all. Then this is used to make a 2-part plaster mould. The mould is filled with latex foam (together with the metal armature) and cured to make a poseable figure. The head is created separately (see below).
Photo and puppet by Sean Duran.
Model Making & Animation Books
Books are, in my opinion, the best all-round resources you can get, and the selection below are 5 of the best. All of them are full of tutorials, tips and expert advice that you can read through in your own time.
Nearly all animation puppets contain a metal 'armature', which is effectively the skeleton of the puppet. These can be as basic as just a single strand of wire, or can be made up of many metal joints and sophisticated components. The puppet's features are then build up over this armature.
When filming stop-motion it is important that a puppet is durable and holds their pose between 'frames', so having stiff joints (made from wire or using ball-and-socket joints) is vital. Another important thing to consider is how the puppet is going to balance on the 'stage'. For instance, if you are filming a puppet walking, then the puppet will have to balance on one leg for many of the shots. The normal practice for this is to use tie-downs or magnets; see the rest of this page for more details. If you need your puppet to fly, there are rigging systems available to buy for this.
The time and skills required for building a puppet depends mainly on the look you want for it; realistic or cartoony, simple features or detailed sculpted faces, clay or latex....the more complex designs will of course require more techniques, and often more expense too. The planning stage is important in puppet-making, so make sure you have thought through how you are going to make all of the parts first so that you don't run into problems later.
Lots of skills can be incorporated into this craft, including a range of moldmaking techniques, as well as metalworking, sculpting, painting fine details, sewing miniature clothes and props, woodworking, set building etc. It's a very satisfying hobby, a fantastic outlet for creativity and imagination and it allows you to get a taster for a large number of different manufacturing techniques - on a small scale. Of course, if the story of the animation is your main focus, then you can easily choose to use simple techniques only, and make characters from basic materials like wire, clay or even paper. There's lots of versatility and choice!
The Parts of the Head
The head and eyes were sculpted out of baked Super Sculpey so that they are solid. The eyebrows are made with Fimo Soft, as are the eyelids and mouth area. These areas are soft so that they can be animated (usually many mouths are created for each model in animations - one for each expression - and so the mouths are switched between frames.)
The head is painted in acrylics.
Photo and puppet head by Sean Duran.
Model Making Options
Photo by Andrea Hale - Showing puppets in the stages of production: you can see epoxy putty being used for the 'bones' of the skeleton.
- The simplest technique is just using a blob of modelling clay/plasticine and moulding it into simple shapes. Animation using clay is referred to as 'claymation'.
- An armature is a metal 'skeleton' which is used within a puppet to keep its shape intact. A simple armature can be created with (plastic-covered) wire that is manipulated into the shape of the puppet you are making (one strand of wire for the legs, one strand for the arms etc - with the wire wrapped together at the joins) and then plasticine/clay is added around the wire to build up the model. If the puppet is not skinny, you can build the puppet up with aluminium foil around the wire armature before the clay/plasticine is added all over.
- A more advanced armature can be created with two strands of (usually 1/16") aluminium wire twisted together (to add strength), perhaps with pre-made metal armature components such as foot blocks and hip blocks used in the structure also. Hip/shoulder blocks can alternatively be built up from scratch using epoxy resin. The body can be built up with clay (and foil), or with cushion/upholstery foam or padding. If foam is used, it is shaped using scissors before clothing or a liquid latex outer skin is added. Instead of making clothes, there is another method called felting that you could use, where clothing-like designs can be formed directly on the surface of the puppet using wool roving. Felting can also be used to make puppet hair or even faces for some kinds of teddy-bear-like puppets.
The exposed areas such as the hand and face can be made with wire and clay, silicone, latex and/or epoxy putty. Heads are created solid and immoveable in wood or resin, or they are sculpted in polymer clay (such as Sculpey or Fimo) and baked to become solid and hard. If you would like part of the face to be movable, such as the eyebrows and mouth, space can be left for these areas and soft clay can be added onto the hard baked head section and sculpted last.
- An armature can be built using a kit, which still involves twisted wire but there are more components used including metal tubing and multiple drilled blocks. Components can be machine drilled or bought pre-made.
- A completely pre-made armature can be bought - with no twisted wire used, just solid metal rods and joints. The hands will have individual movable fingers and overall these armatures are more robust. Often these armatures are used in conjunction with foam latex. The puppet is first sculpted in clay, then a 2-part plaster mould is constructed around the clay shape and this mould is used to replicate the shape in latex (with the armature embedded in the latex). Foam latex is flexible and easily manipulated, but is quite expensive and therefore is usually used by only professionals and serious amateurs.
Flexible urethane cold-foam products are easier to use than foam latex but they aren'tt self-skinning (i.e. the resulting surface is not smooth) - so a skin can be created separately using liquid latex and attached onto the foam body. Silicone rubber is also a possibility.
- Custom made armatures can be ordered, but these come at a high price and are pretty much only used by professionals. Sophisticated articulated heads are also available.
NOTE: In puppetmaking, the puppet's feet are keep attached temporarily to the 'floor' of the stage with either magnets or tie-downs. This keeps the puppets in the correct place when you are adjusting their limbs. Tie-downs are the less expensive option and use nuts and bolts; a nut embedded in each of the puppet's feet, and then a bolt is feed through a hole in the 'floor' of the stage and into the nut in the puppet foot.
TIP: When casting a hard object (for instance the puppet head), use a soft material to make the mould - such as silicone. When you're making a soft object (e.g. from latex), use a hard material to make the mould - such as plaster.
Useful Guides & How-Tos
- Nathan Flynn
Great website showing model making processes with lots of photos.
- Making a Lizard Puppet
How textured skin is created with latex and then added to the puppet.
- Animation Supplies
You can have a browse at the components that are available.
- Corpse Bride Puppets
Interesting information about the Tim Burton puppets.
- Sewing a Jacket
Puppet costuming information and tutorial.
- Semi-Professional Latex Puppet
Very useful tutorial for making a cold foam latex fish puppet.
- Advanced Art of Stop-Motion
Brilliant excerpt from a book - all about building puppets.
- Low Cost & Low Tech Puppet
A walkthrough of making a puppet using the thermoplastic 'polymorph'.
- Animation Handbooks
Useful resource for all aspects of animation - worth signing up for!
- Building Puppets & Sets
Multiple how-tos on many areas of stop-motion movie making.
- 3D Character Inspiration
Loads of photos to browse and get ideas from.
- Brilliant Article
A great resource on building puppets, complete with photos.
- Making a Puppet
Fantastic book excerpt with lots of detail and information about animation.
- Tabletop Animation
Tips on lighting, sets and puppets.
- Building Ball and Socket Joints
A walkthrough of how an armature is built from scratch.
- Sculpting & Props
Photos showing the making of a foam latex puppet and a model sofa.
- Craft Skills for Model Animation
Excellent book excerpt about creating your own character.
A List of Common Materials & Options
- Plastic (flexible beaded variety) or metal armatures
- Foam (upholstery / urethane type or a type of foam called Plastazote)
- Wire/wire mesh
- Polymer clay - Super Sculpey, Sculpey Premo, Fimo and Cernit - this clay must be conditioned/warmed up by kneading before it is used. Running it repeatedly through a pasta machine really helps with this, as just using your hands is very tiring and time consuming. When you have finished sculpting polymer clay, it is baked at low temperature in the oven and hardens into a plastic-like consistency.
- Epoxy Putty - plumber's epoxy, Magic Sculpt, Aves Apoxie Sculpt, Apoxie Clay, Milliput, Devcon etc. Epoxies come in two parts that have to be kneaded together thoroughly to begin the chemical reaction that will result in their hardening. Wear gloves preferably when doing the kneading. If you only need a short working time, epoxy putty will work, but if you need longer then choose to use polymer clay.
- Plasticine (an oil-based clay that doesn't harden) - Van Aken, Claytoons, Chavant types for instance - usually only used for the parts of the puppet which need to be continually manipulated such as the hands and face.
- Aluminium foil
- Wool roving for needle felting the outside of puppets
- Liquid Latex (for the puppet skin)
- Foam Latex (used for the puppet body) which needs to be baked in a mould to form the required shape. Foam latex comes in 4 parts; latex base, gelling agent, curing agent and foaming agent, which all need to be mixed together, cast and baked. You will need an oven and food mixer purely for using with foam latex (they cannot also be used for food).
- K&S (square brass tubing which comes in different sizes - it strengthens wire and makes the 'bones')
- Aluminum wire
- Nuts and bolts - for tie-downs for instance
- Enamel paint
- Acrylic paint
- Plaster (mostly for mould making) - a very popular product is gypsum based 'Ultracal-30'
- Fabric for clothes
- Various joints, rods and plates if you are building an armature
- Neodymium/rare Earth magnets - very powerful and quite expensive magnets used to secure the puppet's feet to the (steel) stage.
- Resin - this is cast into moulds (cold - no heat involved) to produce solid shapes such as feet. Resin can also be used as a mould material when making silicone or foam casts (remember you use a solid mould-making material like resin for casting flexible/soft parts and a flexible mould like silicone for casting solid parts).
- Silicone - can be cast cold just like resin, but the resulting castings are smooth, springy and rubbery. When mixing silicone you can create a range of colour shades.
Extra Tips & Info:
- Heads can be made from hard materials like polymer clay (Super Sculpey, Fimo) or wood, or cast from resin.
- Armatures can be covered in clay, fabric, latex, foam, or silicone - or a combination of methods. If using foam or latex, you can paint these materials with a mix of acrylic paint and a medical adhesive such as Pros-Aide. Nothing sticks to silicone so it can't be painted - instead, the colour is created in the mixing process by adding a tint.
Chakura Demon Puppet
The Basics of 4 Different Armatures
There are quite few different materials and techniques for each stage of puppet production - just try a few different ways and stick to what you like best.
Padding Out The Puppet Body
This needle sculpting technique for shaping a body is an alternative to traditional sculpting and casting, and therefore bypasses many production steps.
For the puppet in this photo, batting was wrapped around a wire armature before stuffing was applied over the top. Nylon pantyhose have been used on the outside to hold the batting and stuffing in place.
Photo and puppet by Perpetual Plum.
Art Doll Tutorials
Although art dolls are not poseable usually, I think it is interesting to have a look at the techniques used for this artistic craft as a lot can also be used for animation models (such as how to make the eyes, hair and faces).
- Mad Sculptor
Interesting sculpting examples, tips and tutorials.
- Paperclay Art Doll
A good material to work with on small scale items like this.
- Works In Progress
Various stages of production for a poseable art doll.
- Soft-Bodied Clay Creatures
Brilliant instructions for creating a feathered dragon creature!
- Making a Mohair Wig
How to make and attach locks of mohair to a wig cap.
Puppet Sculpting Videos
Latex & Wire Hands
These hands have a wire armature, and then embroidery thread has been wrapped around the wire to create the subtle shape of the hand and fingers. Then the hands have been dipped in latex (which is flexible and therefore allows the hand/fingers to move).
Photo and hands by Clara's Animated World.
Epoxy Putty & Latex
These hands have a twisted wire armature base, with epoxy putty applied for the 'bones' and (flexible) latex in the spaces in between. The whole hand will then be dipped into latex several times.
Photo and puppet hands by Clara's Animated World.
Building a Monster Puppet
Puppet Making Products & Tools
There are plenty of materials available that can be used to make models and puppets - some are specialized whilst others are made for crafts in general but can easily be used for any modelling purposes:
Twisted wire armatures have a hard cure putty added onto the places that won't need to bend during animation. Strong magnets are embedded in the feet so they won't fall over (there is a hidden steel plate on the floor of the set), and then plasticine is sculpted over the top of the putty and the wire. Finally clothes and yarn hair are sewn together and attached to the puppet.
Photo and puppets by Emma McIntosh.
Other Videos of Interest
Please Leave a Comment!
kato-tamas-3 on January 18, 2014:
thank you very much! this is just the information i needed. i learnt so much from you, thanks fo uploading this article :D
TanjaCrouch on November 14, 2013:
This is an amazing lens. I want to make a character!
nonya222 on November 06, 2013:
Very impressive! I love animation of all types and this is amazing!
Wakerra LM on February 06, 2013:
@AnimForKids: I second that notion. Seems everything today is either CGI, or those flash cartoon styles. (and to top it off, most of them aren't even that GOOD) Oh the days of Jim Hensen, Walt Disney and Rod Serling! What are they now but memories and nostalgia....
Wakerra LM on February 06, 2013:
compLEX! Sheesh! I remember watching some behind the scenes with Corpse Bride, and they went as far as having an entire joint-like system in the character's faces. they'd take off parts of their heads, and tighten or loosen something inside with a screwdriver like tool, and it would open/close their mouths, make them smile or frown...
So many crafty things I want to do, but alas, I lack workspace, materials, tools, money, and know-how...
AnimForKids on January 28, 2013:
Thanks for this...it take me back a few years. A friend of mine used to make his own armatures and models for stop motion. I was always more of a 2D kind of guy myself but loved the tactile nature of stop motion.
Just wish there was more of it out there these days - would be great to see instead of all the CG stuff. Don't get me wrong I like CG, but it would be nice to some variety again.