How to Make an Armature for Doll Heads and Puppets – Guest Post

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A few days ago I received an email from Barbara Bell, a doll-maker from Kingsport, TN. Barbara uses a technique for making armatures for paper mache puppets and doll heads that I’ve never seen before (but I’m definitely going to try it!). She graciously agreed to let me publish her email (and a few photos of her wonderful dolls).

Edit: I thought about this post for a long time, and some of Barbara’s ideas helped me come up with the easy way of making the armatures for the dolls that appear in my latest book – How to Make Adorable Baby Animal Dolls. Thanks, Barbara!

Barbara wrote:
Hello, I found your site today while looking around at papier-mache sites online. The following is something I wanted to share, as I have not found it anywhere online.

Years ago I had a craft book, (one of those A to Z encyclopedia collections–one is sent the first volume free and must pay $20-30 apiece once a month to receive the others, titled The Complete Encyclopedia of Crafts, published in 1975 by Columbia House, New York) that told how to model papier-mache puppets’ heads over an “armature” made by sewing a small fabric bag and firmly filling it with clean cat litter clay granules.

A wooden spoon handle or other dowel-shaped object is shoved down into the bag of cat litter, then the bag is tied tightly (or rubber-banded, or taped) around the dowel to keep the litter in,  the dowel is stood up in a holder and the papier mache is laid on over the bag. When the papier mache is dry and hard, the bag can be untied, the cat litter emptied out and the bag loosened and removed. Both the bag and the litter may be re-used if desired.

Has this technique has been commonly used amongst other papier-mache dollmakers and puppeteers? I haven’t found any evidence of it outside that one old craft book. It’s become my method of choice as the hollow head does not need to be sawed in two in order to remove the armature, and the materials can be used again. Also, the cat litter absorbs moisture from inside the head while air circulating around the head dries it from the outside, so it can cut down on drying time.

I usually start by creating head “blanks” to which I add the features after each blank is completely dried and easier to handle. The papier mache pulp is rolled between layers of waxed paper or cloth until it’s evenly compressed, then I lay the stuffed bag/armature on the pulp layer and form the pulp around it, lifting the cloth or waxed paper and pressing it into shape. (This is kind of like rolling sushi in a bamboo mat, if you’ve ever done that!)

Recently, I made a set of bags shaped like the profile of the dolls’ heads I wanted to make. That way I have some idea of the placement of nose, eyes and chin, even though the actual details must be finished and refined later on.

I’ve also made a frame for holding the doll heads while they are being shaped, dried or painted. Not sure how most people do this, but I’ve spent years wrestling with a dowel stuck in a weighted glass jar, trying to keep the whole thing from tipping over…there are dollmakers’ wooden stands made for this but I could never afford to buy one. Recently I realized I could take apart the yarn-winding swift my husband made for me from PVC pipe, and use the parts (with the addition of a few slightly different joints) to make a nice little frame that holds 4 heads at a time.

Barbara Bell
Kingsport TN

Click on the images below to see the full-sized photos.

28 thoughts on “How to Make an Armature for Doll Heads and Puppets – Guest Post”

  1. Hello… we use cat litter to add weight to cloth puppets (Fabric Marionettes) to add ballast and stability. We use the “Clay” type litter that absorbs moisture and paint directly onto the fabric with acrylic paint. some of the moisture goes through the cloth, swelling the cat litter clay and firming the structure. I’ve never used it for heads (We needle sculpt) but I’ll give it a go… sounds like a great idea.

  2. I saw this today. It brought so much joy to whoever saw it. I thought of sharing it here when I saw this brief video. It is so sweet. It is a marionette type of sculpture. A moveable puppy playing with a toddler. So much talent in the way it is sculpted and the art of moving the puppet to play with the little girl. I just wanted to share it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


    • What a nice video! My (real) dog and I met a little girl outside the local store yesterday who would love that puppet. Wouldn’t it be fun to make a dog like that, and then to watch children reacting to it?

  3. Hi Jonni, I’ve seen this armature technique described in Susanna Oroyan books on dollmaking…except she uses sand instead of cat litter. I guess sand would be easier to use in smaller scales. Susanna has some pretty good suggestions for the “sand sock” with head and torso in her book “Designing the Doll”.

    • Hi Mary. I have one of Susanna’s books, but I don’t remember seeing that idea. I’ll have to go back and take a closer look. I’ve been wanting to try this technique, but just haven’t found the time.

    • Thanks for this information. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen it anywhere else but in this one old book, but apparently it is still being used.


  4. I’m thrilled to find your paper mache clay recipe Jonni. I’m a sculptor and have always had difficulty making armatures. This fox is created out of styrofoam and paper with rebar supports. You see my son helping me with the project. It measures 36″ tall and 54″ wide. In this photo I’m getting ready to put rebar in the base. The sculpture will be outdoors of course so I’ll re-enforse it with cement. I would encourage artists to use the angel soft rolls of toilet paper. It’s the easiest way to have accurate measurements. I will have to Love your work Jonni and your videos.

  5. This is an awesome idea. I can’t wait to try it myself. Been making a few dolls with paper clay but I’ve yet to do one with paper mache. I love all of your creative ideas. thanks for sharing

  6. Thanks, everyone, for the kind remarks!

    I am planning to take photos of the different steps and send them along–pictures can help a lot. Rob: You’re right, the head-shaped bags are made in profile with a center seam. The ones I have made are a bit narrow and need quite a bit of building up of pulp on the sides and back, but at least they provide something to start with. Perhaps I’ll make them wider front-to-back next time. Claudio: the heads are hollow when this method is used, which means they dry faster, are lighter in weight and use less papier mache. (Not sure if this answers your question or not.)

    Again, thanks, everyone, and thanks, Jonni, for posting this!

  7. I love the input. I’ve been playing around with making dolls and I haven’t heard of any of these methods before. I also would love to see this armature setup. I don’t like what I’ve come up with or seen on the web. Maybe you could share a picture so I could get a better idea of how it looks? Great dolls you have there! Thanks!

  8. Great idea especially for speeding the dying of the interior and preventing warping. I’ve seen sand-filled conical “bags” used as molds for making horns. The fabric was dipped in plaster and paint, and not recovered after hardening.
    Beautiful faces. Thanks for sharing.

  9. What a great idea – definitely beats cutting those heads in half and getting them back together!
    I’d be interested in seeing some photos of the bags (pre-pulp-cover). It sounds like they are made in profile with a centre-seam and they have some broad shape which helps to get the form started.

  10. Thanks for posting such an interesting solution to an issue we all face. I will definitely give this a try! I enjoyed Barbara’s dolls! You are both very inspiring!

  11. good evening,I just had my first experience sculpting a small paper mache cat.About barbara´s dolls,which are very expressive,my question is about the bag with cat litter.is this procedure needed just to have a lighter piece?I ask this ,since I sculpted a solid cat,and still had a lightweight and very hard piece.I just used glue and putty,sculpting directly.I´m impressed how a paper mache sculpture can last!I intend do make a copper wire armature
    for the next pice,have a first layer put around all of the armature, wait for it to set and completly dry,then sculpt on top.

    • Yes, it’s to make it lighter and also to make it dry faster. With the cloth bag filled with cat litter, it dries from the inside as well as from the outside, at the same time. Being hollow, a head such as this one also uses less papier-mache than a solid head.

  12. WOW!!!! That was AMAZING!! I haven’t been around here in a while and I’m thinkin’ I need to come visit more often!!
    Yes, thanks Barbara!


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