Wood Filler: A Real Body of Woodwork

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Marionette puppet

“Dad, I don’t wanna sound like a wimp, but that thing makes me nervous when I’m trying to sleep.” My son, a swaggering teenager at the time, and a fanatic for horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween—was not generally one to admit to nervousness. He was pointing to a corner of the room where, hanging from the ceiling was a carved wooden marionette I had recently completed. The design of the joints on this string puppet cause it to move in an eerily lifelike fashion that some find unnerving. And this particular little fellow—with his pointed ears, jaundiced eyes, and impish grin—seems to emanate particular menace. In fact, he has had his character insensitively assailed on a number of occasions. 

Anyway, summoning up my best condescending-parent voice, I assured my son there was nothing to worry about as long as the puppet was hanging in mid-air. “He can’t get off his strings,” I explained.

“Real funny, Dad,” he said, and headed off, probably to play yet another monster-inspired prank on his hapless little sister.  

For a long time, marionettes were the most refined and lifelike characters in the realm of puppetry.  These days, the apex of the craft is represented by the digitally enhanced creatures seen in recent Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes films. I don’t think anybody would sleep with one of those in the house. They’re probably a bit pricey anyway. However, a good marionette can be made by any patient and determined woodworker.

When I was creating marionettes some years ago, I often spent as much time on one as I spend on some pieces of furniture. Many of the same challenges are there: executing appropriate joints, carving, sanding, and finishing. It’s one of those projects that can be as involved as you like. I’ve seen cleverly engineered string puppets that can juggle balls and perform acrobatics. I’ve even watched one transform itself from a doddering old lady into a snarling dog in an instant (for people who like to play with their cats.)

There are few woodworking projects that involve the spectator as much as a marionette. Just hanging around, it can be appreciated in the same way as a finely crafted table: admired for the design of its carving and for the technical execution of its joints. But tables—at least those with sound joints—don’t walk around. When you operate a puppet, you engage the viewer’s imagination, bringing out their own wonders and fears. I don’t worry about a rambunctious toddler grabbing or smacking a puppet as though it was the family cat. Instead, they generally regard it with suspicion before either crying or approaching it cautiously. Often, they become fast friends and insist on goodbye kisses.

I have to admit that, when making marionettes, my imagination got the best of me sometimes. When a little guy was laying on my bench, his body parts strung together and flopping about like a corpse as I turned him over, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like Doctor Frankenstein. When his pupils were finally painted, it was as though he had snapped his eyes open to regard his maker for the first time. A little weird, granted, but nothing to worry about, as I never heard “Are you my mother?”

Anyway, Geppetto might be pleased to know that his vocation has continued down through the generations. Myself, I’m just pleased to have contributed a few characters to run amok in the imaginations of a few kids. 

By the way, I did take the marionette down that night for my son. As he lay there snoring, I carefully placed it (in his sister’s honor) so that his first sight in the morning would be that of a once-too-often insulted puppet crawling across the nightstand toward his head.

More stories wanted! Do you have a humorous or inspiring) story with a woodworking theme? Email your submission to editor@woodcraftmagazine.com, and put “wood filler” in the subject header. 


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