How to Carve a Wooden Doll (Puppet) Out of Wood (8 Step Tutorial)

Among the most rewarding projects that any woodworker can undertake is one that results in an item you can use. If you’re an experienced woodworker, you’ve likely tackled such projects already. Carving a wooden doll is one of the projects that many skilled carvers attempt in search of new and unique projects. If this interests you, one of the most unique – and fun! – projects that you can try is learning how to carve a puppet and bring it to life using wood. 

However, keep in mind that learning how to carve a puppet is not the same as learning how to carve a ventriloquist dummy. Ventriloquist dummies require more allowances to allow the puppet master to control them with a single hand. On the other hand, a traditional string puppet or marionette can be controlled using a wooden marionette control bar.

How to Carve a Marionette

When it comes to carving marionettes, the first thing you need to do is draw out the puppet’s design. You can create a design of your own or opt to find a design online. Once you have the pattern for the marionette ready, you can start carving.

1. Choose the wood for your puppet:

It’s always best to start with limewood or basswood. Both lime and bass are softwoods that are easy to carve and can be handled by both beginner and expert carvers alike. Furthermore, the close grain structure of lime wood means that this wood has high workability, further making it easy for carvers to handle. 

2. Separate your design into sections:

By diving your design into grids, you can better understand how you will carve each part of the marionette. Make sure to leave accommodations for the marionette’s joints, as those will require extra material to carve. You can get an idea of how to do this by looking at this video very instructive 12 minute video:

3. Transfer the designs to wood

Make sure to do this for all the sections of the marionette that you have drawn out. Each section should be drawn out on a different piece of wood.

4. Drill the holes:

The holes will ensure that the parts of the marionette fit into each other. Furthermore, your marionette parts will need additional holes through which the wire will run in order to help you control it once you have finished your project. You should use a drill to create the holes to ensure that you have control over the carving and that each hole is the right size.

5. Start carving:

Now that you have finished drilling the holes, you can finally start carving your marionette. Carve each piece separately using your marionette design as a guideline. You can use either hand tools or power tools to carve these pieces. While power tools have their advantages, however, it’s always best to opt for hand tools, thanks to the additional level of control they offer. Additionally, many carvers find it easier to create the level of fine detail that a marionette requires using hand tools. For carvers looking to limit the number of tools used, you can complete most of the carving using a drill, a bandsaw, and a chisel with a flattish sweep. 

When carving, ensure that the jointed areas are carved to the correct dimensions so that they can fit into each other properly. Furthermore, pay attention to the carving of the hands, legs, and head, as these are the portions of the marionette where your audience will focus. While you can cover up mistakes on the torso by dressing your finished marionette in clothes, hiding imperfections on the other parts of the body will not be as easy.

You may have to widen the joint holes you created at the start of the carving process in order to ensure that the joints fit properly.

6. Create the joints

Some of the most important parts of your marionette are the joints of the puppet. These are what will help your marionette move smoothly. Your joints will likely be ball and socket joints, as these are the easiest to create and manipulate when working the puppet. When creating the joints, it is important to have precise measurements. As this video shows, if you go wrong with these measurements, you risk the chance that the pieces of the marionette will not fit into one another when you construct the puppet:

7. Making the controller

Now that you have the marionette itself carved, you can move on to creating a controller for the finished project and stringing it all together. To create the controller, you will need wood that is big enough for your marionette but also easily fits into your hands. You will also need steel rods – the thickness of the rods is dependant on the length of your puppet.

Drill through the center of one piece of wood, making sure it’s big enough to slide the rod through the middle. Glue the two pieces of wood together, with the rod running through them. Create a loop on one end of the rod to help you control the hands. Drill two holes on the side of one piece of the wood for the leg strings.

You can look at this video for more detailed help in creating a marionette controller:

8. String the puppet together

Once all the parts of the puppet have been carved and assembled, you can string them all together and attach the final piece to the main controller. Once this is done, all that’s left to do is take your new wooden marionette out for a test drive! 

How to Carve a Puppet Head

Perhaps the most important part of your finished puppet is the head. It is the head that first draws the attention of the audience, and ensuring that it is as perfect as possible will help make sure that your completed marionette gets the attention that it deserves. 

Related article: Detailed Guide To Carving Faces

One of the biggest decisions you need to make regarding your puppet head is whether you want its mouth to move. Keep in mind that if you choose to opt for a moving mouth, the controller needed and stringing process will be different compared to a puppet without a moving mouth.

If you do decide to create a marionette with a mouth that moves, you will have to carve the head of your puppet in two pieces – the head and the jaw. Once that is done, you can attach the two sections in such a way as to ensure movement. 

There are two ways in which this attachment can be done. One utilizes the natural weight of the jaw piece and the force of gravity in order to create a moving mouth. In such a face, the jawbone will go inside the channel of the rest of the head and will rotate around the point. You can hold the jawbone in place with the help of two metal pins. The biggest advantage of this option is the ease in which it can be created – depending on the design, you may not even need to create a channel in the skull through which to attach the jawbone and will only need to use the metal pins. 

The other to attach the jaw and the head is, in some ways, the opposite of the first – gravity is used in order to keep the mouth closed, as opposed to open. In this method, the jawbone is counterweighted, with the weight being placed within the jawbone. As with the first option, you can attach the jawbone and head and keep them in place using a metal pin. This option offers more control when you move the puppet, and it also provides a more natural, “talking” action. For more information on creating moving mouths for your puppets, check out this 6 minute video for a more visual explanation:

Once you’ve decided on which type of mouth you want, you can get to carving your puppet’s head. In general, the method for carving the head is more or less similar to carving any other three-dimensional face in wood, particularly if you choose to have a mouth that does not move. You can use a design or pattern in order to create the general outline of the head and carve it with the help of a chisel, a carving knife, or power tools. 

However, many carvers prefer to add more detail to the faces of their puppets. This helps them stand out from other marionettes and also helps develop a character. The more detailed the face, the easier it is for the audience to connect with the puppet.

Once you have the general shape of the head and face chalked out, you can spend time refining the design more. A good way to do this is by practicing face carving on scrap pieces of wood before working on the head of the marionette.

Final thoughts:

Carving a puppet or a marionette is a time-consuming and complex project. Given the many separate pieces that combine to form the final product, it is important to know your own limitations before you start working on it. If you are a beginner, it is recommended that you learn more about woodcarving in general before attempting to craving a three-dimensional puppet of your own – overall, this project is best suited to intermediate and expert carvers. 

To finish the article, we would love to share with you one scene from the movie sound of music. It is only 3 minutes long, and we are sure that by watching it, your day will be a little bit merrier. Thank you for reading our article, and enjoy the video:

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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