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Arm Rods and Posable Hands

Arm rods are an absolute must for any hand puppet. If you are reading this tutorial, you are probably already quite familiar with the purpose and general mechanics of arm rods. Briefly, arm rods are just that - rods attached to the puppet, usually at the wrist, that allow the puppeteer to manipulate the puppet's arms, wrists, and hands. In this tutorial, we will describe a method of adding permanent arm rods to any puppet character.

Along with adding arm rods, this tutorial will outline how to add a posable understructure for your puppet's hands. Posable fingers can prove to be very "handy" in a puppet performance, allowing the character to make more specific gestures or to hold small objects.

Preliminary Adjustments

Before beginning, please note that one simple but very important change must be made in the sewing of the puppet's arms and hands. For this tutorial, we'll be using the Arm and Hand Pattern that is included with the Glorified Sock Puppet Pattern available at Project Puppet. Leave an opening, not only at the top of each arm (which is usual), but between the wrist and the base of the finger opposite the thumb side of the hand, as shown in the picture below. Take the opportunity to determine and mark where the puppet's wrist lies on the pattern for future reference. This will eventually be the arm rod's point of entry.

The Patterns

Before you can build the inner structure for the posable hands and attach the rods, two patterns must be created - the Foam Hand Pattern and the Palm Support Pattern. Both patterns should be based on the original shape of the fabric hand pattern (without a seam allowance).

First, draw a few guides on which to base the two patterns. Start by tracing the original fabric hand pattern, stopping at the wrist line determined previously. Next, sketch a centerline down each finger and the thumb as well as a line to determine the base of the puppet's palm.

The Foam Hand Pattern

Create the Foam Hand Pattern by drawing a line on the inside of the original hand shape, leaving a 1/8 inch space from the edge, except at the base of the palm.

The Palm Support Pattern

Draw the Palm Support Pattern within the confines of the Foam Hand Pattern. Leave a 1/4 inch space from any applicable edges of the Foam Hand Pattern, again with the exception of the base of the puppet's palm. With small circles, mark the points where the florist wire (which will enable the posing of the fingers and thumb) will eventually be attached to the Palm Support Piece. Draw the circles in line with the centerline of each finger and the thumb and about 1/8 of an inch from the Palm Support Pattern's edge.

Take a look at the figure above to see the relationship between the original hand pattern, the Foam Hand Pattern and the Palm Support Pattern. Click on the picture for a full-size printable version - wink, wink.

The Materials

Upholstery Foam

Lay 1/2 inch thick upholstery foam flat. (Reticulated foam may also be used.) Position and trace four Foam Hand Pieces. Cut out the foam pieces with an X-Acto™ knife or razor blade. Make sure the blade is sharp. Hold the knife perpendicular to the foam as you cut. With the exception of corners, try to keep the knife's blade on the foam, cutting in a continuous motion with minimal starts and stops.

Chipboard or Cardboard

We'll be using chipboard for the Palm Support Pieces in this tutorial. By the way, chipboard is the cardboard you find on the back of most writing tablets or notebooks. It comes in a variety of thicknesses. Be sure to use a thickness that is fairly rigid.

Position and trace two Palm Support Pieces on the chipboard. Cut the pieces from the board with an X-Acto™ knife. You may also use the knife blade to create the small holes for the florist wire. Insert and twist the point of the blade in the marked locations to create the small openings.

For a more durable palm support, you may choose to use thin rigid sheet plastic. Styrene plastic sheets at 1/16 inch thickness work quite well. Appropriate tools should be used to cut and drill plastic sheets.

Additional Materials to Gather:

  • Two wire rods 12-16 inches in length (heavy coat hanger wire/insulation supports/piano wire)
  • Florist wire (fairly heavy 12 to 14 gauge)
  • 5-Minute Epoxy
  • Contact cement
  • Wooden dowel rod
  • Electrical tape/gaffers tape

Now we're ready for the assembly!

Step One

Step 1-1

First, cut eight pieces of florist wire at 2-3 inches in length. (Remember, this length is specific to the hand pattern used in this tutorial. Use the Foam Hand Pattern as a guide to determine a good length to cut the florist wire. In general, cut the wire an inch or so longer than the thumb and fingers to ensure plenty of wire with which to work.)

Step 1-2

Using a pair of needlenose pliers, bend a loop at the end of each piece of florist wire. Lay one Foam Hand Piece flat with the Palm Support Piece on top in the correct position. Center each of the wire pieces on the foam thumb and fingers with the loop end toward the tip and the other end in line with its respective hole in the Palm Support Piece. Mark, bend, and cut the latter end of each wire to create a fish hook shape as shown above.

Insert each hooked end through the appropriate hole in the Palm Support Piece and pinch closed to keep the wires from moving. The picture above shows the backside of the Palm Support Piece with the wires pinched in place.

Step Two

Step 2-1

Next bend the arm rod. In this particular case, the rod was marked at 1 3/4 inches from the end. About 1/2 inch was bent at an approximate 45° angle and then bent again at a 90° angle on the 1 3/4 inch mark.

Step Three

Step 3-1

Use 5-Minute Epoxy to set the florist wire and the arm rods in place permanently, as shown in the picture above. Be generous with the epoxy. Remember, although the epoxy sets in five minutes, it does not reach a usable strength until eight hours later and fully cures only after twenty-four hours. Allow the epoxy time to fully set, preferably overnight.

Note: If the Palm Support Piece is plastic, it's a good idea to roughen the surface with sand paper to ensure a strong bond when the epoxy is applied.

Step Four

Step 4-1

Once the epoxy sets, position and attach one side of the Palm Support Piece to one of the Foam Hand Pieces. You may use hot glue or contact cement to do so.

Working with Contact Cement

Contact cement can be purchased at your local hardware or craft store. You may try DAP Weldwood Contact Cement™, which should be fairly easy to find. For a stronger bond, you may want to try Barge Cement™. A quick Internet search should bring up several supplier choices.

Apply the contact cement to both surfaces and allow to dry. The dry time can be affected by the temperature and humidity, but usually a few minutes is sufficient. Dry contact cement will feel tacky and appear glossy. Make sure the contact cement is dry for maximum bond strength.

Carefully align the two surfaces, as the cement will bond upon contact, and press together.

Be sure to work in a well ventilated area. Contact cement vapors are toxic. Remember to follow all safety guidelines recommended by the contact cement manufacturer.


Step 4-2

Using the contact cement, glue the other Foam Hand Piece on top. Apply the contact cement to both surfaces using a craft brush. Allow the adhesive to dry until tacky. Then glue the pieces together, lining up the edges of the hand, thumb, and fingers. Make sure the florist wire runs down the center of the thumb and fingers as you glue the top Foam Hand Piece in place.

Step Five

Step 5-1

Now we'll round out the foam hands. Apply contact cement to the edges of the foam hand, thumb, and fingers. Once the glue has dried, carefully pinch the outer edges of the top and bottom Foam Hand Pieces together. You may find it helpful to use a straight pin or an upholstery needle (as shown) to press down the foam between the two edges. Continue around the edge of each hand, with the exception of the base of the palm, until complete.

Step Six

Step 6-1

Insert the completed foam hand into the fabric hand through the opening you left earlier. This may be a bit difficult, but not impossible. Here's a tip. Start by putting the foam thumb into the fabric hand thumb, then the foam forefinger into the fabric forefinger and so on.

Step 6-2

Hand-stitch the opening in the fabric hands using a ladder stitch. Start from the base of the finger and work back, tying off the stitch right before the wire rod enters the puppet's wrist.

Step Seven

In reality, a handle or grip can be added to each arm rod by simply cutting a wooden dowel to an appropriate length and securing it to the end of each rod with strong tape. That's as simple as it gets and technically all that is required. The following steps are slightly more involved in an effort to ensure the handle's sturdiness and improve the rods' manipulation possibilities to some degree.

Notice, also, that a square dowel is used. This not only makes building the handle an easier task, but improves the grip of the completed arm rod. A 1/2 inch square basswood stick was used for the handle in this tutorial. Basswood, in a variety of shapes and forms, should be readily available at your local hobby shop.

Step 7-1

First cut the wooden dowel to an appropriate length. In this particular case, we cut the dowel at four inches.

Next, drill a small hole about 3/4 of an inch from the top and centered on the dowel. The drilled hole should be large enough for the wire rod to fit. Cut a groove parallel with the dowel from the hole to the top of the handle. Basswood can be easily cut and carved with an X-Acto™ knife. The groove will subsequently help keep the wire rod in line with the handle.

Step Eight

Step 8-1

Bend the wire arm rod at a 90° angle as shown. The length of the arm rod above the bend is your choice. Consider the final use of the puppet and what is most comfortable for you personally.

Step 8-2

Cut the wire rod just past the bend. To gauge where to cut the rod, keep in mind that once the rod is inserted into the hole in the handle, it should not extend out of the opposite side. Use the 5-Minute Epoxy to secure the rod to the handle. Allow the epoxy time to fully set.

Step 8-3

Tape the handle for added strength and a better grip surface. We have found gaffers tape to be excellent for the job.

That's it! You've just added permanent arm rods and posable hands to your puppet character!

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