Things to consider when choosing a puppet builder…

I often am contacted by people wanting a quote to have a hand/rod “Muppet” style puppet built.  Some people are somewhat confused as to why my price is higher (or lower) than other puppetsmith quotes. The first thing I explain is that every puppet builder is unique; that the materials and processes used by puppet builders differs from one individual to another- you can give two puppet builders the same character and the end results can be very different.  So, as a puppet buyer, how do you know who to go with? Well, here is my list of things you should look for when purchasing a puppet or contracting someone to build you a puppet.

Things you need to consider when choosing a Puppet Builder…

Before going to a puppet builder make certain you get your character well thought out before asking for a quote. Arm yourself with a character sketch. If you can’t draw, get a friend/family member to sketch the character you want. Never go to a puppet builder with a vague idea of what you want. ALWAYS provide a sketch of some sort. Some Puppetsmiths might create a character sketch for you, but realize, they might charge you for their time and talent. Also be aware that we as puppet builders are trying to translate a 2 dimensional character into a 3 dimensional character. Some aspects of a character might look great on paper, but when turned into a puppet might not work properly. I’m not going to talk about the process of turning a 2D images into a 3D one; but what I will say is that there maybe some editing to your character by the puppetsmith…this should get all worked out prior to the puppet builder providing a quote to you.

Please let the puppet builder know the following information when asking for a quote:
What your puppet will be used for? Commercial work? Theatrical performances? A gift for your niece?
Size– How big is the puppet you need?
Do you want arm rods?– Rods are used to control arm movements- usually attached at the wrist.
Materials– Do you want a faux fur dog puppet? Or a dog made from fleece? Or a dog that can be used under black light?
Do you require legs for your puppet?
Any features?– Tails, ears, whiskers, teeth, nails, etc.
Any mechanical requirements? Want blinking eyes, or raising eyebrows etc?
Wardrobe?– More time can be spent on the actual wardrobe than on the puppet. Be specific, the more elaborate the costume the more expensive in some cases.
Character Traits– Really think about character; write down all the traits and back story that character might have! Any additional information you can provide the puppet builder can help during the building process. Is your character a run away puppy who speaks in a high pitched voice, loves walks and gets excited over dog biscuits? Tell your puppet builder! As a builder I love to get into the mind space of the character as I build- sometimes I’ll come up with additional ideas that’ll help with the character.
Time- What date do you need the puppet by? know that a order needed urgently may cost you more.
Shipping– Some puppet builders include shipping costs in their quote- some don’t. Make sure you ask.

Now that you have your character sketched out…it is time to do your research! Surf the web and find puppet builders who match the style of puppet you are looking for. Use the Puppeteers Unite! directory or use Google images. Once you have found a builder you like please look for the following…

1)   Portfolio– A puppet builder’s past work will tell you about their style, the materials they use and their competence with those materials. Here are some of the things you don’t want to see when looking at a “Muppet style” puppet- Hot glue, loose stitching and contact cement stains on fabric. The puppet should have a clean look and be somewhat symmetrical 🙂  One good indicator of quality is the puppet mouth. Look at a puppet builder’s past work and if you see anything questionable, they may not be the right puppet builder for you.

2) Ask to see past “Work In Progress” pictures– The inside of a puppet is just as important as the outside. Be certain to ask what type of mouth grip and mouth plates the puppet builder uses; some mouth plates are made from rubber gasket material, some wood, some various grades of plastic, even cardboard. The way the mouth is constructed will indicate to you how flexible the mouth will be. Depending on your character or your  own performance preference, it is good to indicate what mouth plate you prefer to the Puppetsmith. The mouth grip is the “pocket” your hand lies in when manipulating the mouth. There are many different mouth grips out there. Be certain to ask (or take note) as to which grip the puppeteer builds. I’ve placed my hand in plenty of puppets and you can really feel a difference from one puppet builder to another.  I’ve also placed my hand in some “not so good” puppets were I could feel hot glue and where the mouth was placed crooked in the puppet’s head- causing eye lines to be messed up and the performance of the puppet awkward. Some of these problems you won’t know unless you try on the puppet…which brings me to my next point…

3) References: Ask the puppet builder for references. Past clients should be able to tell you how their puppet build went and what the service was like.

4) Will the puppet builder send you updates?  As the puppet is being built your puppet builder should send you- picture/video/written updates via email. This keeps you abreast of the process and lets you address anything you see that is questionable.

5) Sign a contract– Once you agree on a puppet builder a contract should be made. The contract should consist of all the details discussed, a price, and a space for both parties to sign. Read the contract, it should include everything you agreed upon, and question anything that you don’t agree with. If you need time to read the contract or send it off to a lawyer then you should have ample time to do so. Take your time before signing anything!

6) Ask the puppet builder what supplies they use– Puppets can be made from anything! Some materials are usually better and more expensive than others. If you want samples sent to you the Puppet Builder should be able to do that, but at your expense.

Here is a simple description of some materials you might see:
Antron Fleece– It is a stretchable fleece fabric that can be hand dyed. Antron is amazing because it has a high pil which hides seams very well. Most Muppet characters are covered in Antron Fleece. Antron Fleece is more expensive than other fleece. Due to the hand dying process Antron may also cost a bit more than regular polar fleece.

Reticulated foam is a pourous foam used in some air conditioning systems- the foam is produced in a different way, and is a different material than Poly Foam. This makes reticulated foam lighter and the shelf life longer. All foams, regardless of make will eventually break down.  Some Puppet Builders will purchase reticulated foam it in a bolt (4ft X 150ft) which makes it extremely expensive. Reticulated foam can also be hand dyed.

Faux Furs have recently become harder and harder to find- especially longer furs. If your character requires a long fur (Shaggy Dog, Big Foot) it will cost more.

The art of handmade “crafts”  is slowly diminishing. The demand for a lot of the materials used in puppet building is simply non existent, thus, making them more expensive and harder to find. Bare with a Puppetsmith if she can’t find the exact material you are looking for.

7) Communication is key! Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to communicate everything about your puppet character to the Puppetsmith. Everything should be sorted out prior to a contract being signed. Make certain any changes to the contract are included in the contract you finally sign.  I have been both a puppet builder and a buyer and feel that the key element is communication between both parties.

8) Pay at the end– When the puppet is completed, ask the builder to send you the finished product in pictures or video form. Look closely and provide feedback immediately (if any). If the puppet is perfect, make certain the builder ships the puppet to you with a tracking number. You’ll want to get the builder to send you an email when he/she ships the puppet. Your then obligated to send the rest of the money to the builder immediately. Make certain upon receiving the puppet(s) you provide (as a courtesy)  a thank you or a “review” to the puppet builder. The puppet builder can use your feedback for their website or add to their portfolio.

If you get your puppet and are unhappy let the builder know immediately. Most puppet builders will work with you to rectify the situation. Many problematic incidents are a result of both parties not being well educated and/or not voicing their expectations prior to the project. Like I said before Communication is key!!


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