Building a Marionette – Making a Marionette Controller


Keeping a strict schedule and routine is what kept me sane while taking care of Norm in the last five years he suffered dementia. My caretaking duties fine tuned my time-management skills. The drawback is that things can get boring with the same type of work all the time.

Along Comes Puppetry

To break the monotony, I add a few “little hobbies” or interests to my activities. For a while I have been learning about the allied art of puppetry or marionettes.

Meeting Marionette Artists: Scott & Lisa Land

Scott Land in his studio
Scott Land in his studio He was one of the main consultants and master puppeteer for the movie Team America World Police

I met puppeteer Scott Land circa 2010 here in Las Vegas while he was visiting, at one of our magicians’ lunches in town. Scott has been a marionette artist all his life and is a wealth of information on the craft.

A few years later, he moved to Las Vegas, and along with his partner Lisa, opened a studio and school of puppetry. Scott still performs his act, and from his shop he and Lisa make customized figures for clients around the world, and teach puppetry to those who are interested in the craft.

I am not interested to become a marionette artist. I am more fascinated with the creation of the puppets and the mechanics of them. The fact that you can create a character out of wood or urethane components, paint it and bring it to life with a bunch of strings is really interesting to me.

That is why I have taken so many of their classes.

Learning How to Create a Marionette Puppet

The very first class I took was one about silicone molds and making the parts for the puppets. Subsequent classes have been about creating the “classics” of the marionette world: The Clown with the balloon, the break apart marionette, and even a juggling character.

Through our relationship they knew that I did woodworking in the magic props Norm and I made for a living, and we have a fully equipped shop for that purpose. So they asked me to work on a batch of marionette controllers for the students in their upcoming classes.

It was truly a fun project.

About Marionette Controllers

A friend told me that the cross design of the marionette controller was invented by a puppeteer called Tony Sarg. However, from watching Scott perform and build many marionettes, I have come to appreciate the rationale behind the basic design that he has chosen for the marionettes he builds for his classes.

Although it is a simple design, it is a very clever device. The controller holds the entire heavy mass of the puppet by balancing the head and shoulders of the figure. The horizontal bar is the head bar and its size is determined by the distance from ear to ear of the puppet plus 1 inch for leverage. The vertical long bar’s length is determined by the distance between the extended hands of the puppet when the elbow is bent to the tail or butt of the figure.

The rest of the controller, is shaped so that it will fit comfortably in an ergonomic way in your hand.

Making Marionette Controllers

Normally, if I were to make only one controller, simple workshop tools would suffice: A band saw, a belt sander, a spindle sander, a palm sander, a drill, etc.

However, in this case, we purchased approximately 18 board feet of wood, and decided to make as many controllers as this amount of wood would yield.

The wood was milled to the correct thickness. I then made a computer file of the desired profile, and we took the wood to my friend Denny’s workshop to be cut at his CNC machine.

This process alone would saved us an entire day of cutting and shaping the pieces.

Component for marionette controllers.
These are the components just after they came out of the CNC

The rest was time consuming but simple.

I rounded up all the edges to make them comfortable to the touch.

Initial assembly for marionette controller
Initial assembly for marionette controller

The pieces employ a lap joint that would assemble them together in a cross pattern. They were glued and pinned.

Finally, all the holes for the strings were drilled in the controller.

The last step in construction is to make a horizontal “leg bar” which is the section of the controller that is strung to control the feet of the puppet.

The entire batch of controllers was primed, and then painted with flat black lacquer paint.

Marionette controllers painted with primer
A coat of primer has been applied to the marionette controllers
Marionette controllers painted black
These controllers have a coat of flat black lacquer paint

Here is a video that depicts the entire process of making Marionette controllers:

Most marionette artists are more interested in character creation and the manipulation of their puppet. Their controllers are made quickly, and because no one is going to see them, they are normally crude, yet efficient, in nature.

You are looking at a really fancy controller. Lol! I take pride in my craftsmanship and endeavored to make a nice looking tool for marionette artists.

Finished marionette controller
Finished marionette controller

A huge thank you go to Scott and Lisa Land for commissioning this job from me, and to my pal Denny who saved me a lot of time with his CNC wizardry.

If you are interested in learning this craft, you can also check our their school: Scott Land School of Puppetry Arts and Design.

Scott and Lisa Land with Norm and Lupe Nielsen
Here I am with Norm and Scott and Lisa Land

Stay tuned… if you liked this post, you’ll love my next blog post:

Painting and stringing the marionette.

-Lupe Nielsen

(July 12, 2020)