Creaturiste's Laboratory

Techniques, works in progress, and everything that doesn't fit in the portfolio. Comments and questions are encouraged, custom orders are welcome!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Easy Marionnette Articulations

EUREKA! It took all of last night, but I figured how to design wooden puppet joints on cardboard! No risk to the wood, or our sanity! No calculations! No guesswork! It's easy! It works, I tested it!

I used to spend a lot of time, for every new pair of wooden puppet leg, to figure out angles and positioning of the pin. No need for that long waste of time and materials now!

All excited, even though I had not tested it in 3D, I showed the cardboard mock-up to my best friend this morning and he barely blinked. He's a sculptor who's been raised with traditional tools of all sorts, so for him it's rather obvious. He seems to act like everyone knows that method. Well, I'm glad for them that they know, but since I'm not everyone, and I never saw anything resembling this method, (and you know I collect techniques), I guess the method should be shared!

I'm going to write a tutorial about it soon as I can (and when have a functioning photo camera again). If people are interested in the method, let me know, it would probably boost the article's priority level.

NOTE: I have figured it out on my own, but I don't claim to have invented it. I'm pretty sure some similar methods are out there. I just never saw any. The marionette pros must have this shortcut or something simlar, or better! I didn't read it any of the few marionette books I've had access to.

I just can't wait for tomorrow to make my first pair of marionette legs in this model!
Since I can't use the noisy machines tonight, I'll write a first draft of the article right now:
In short, the method involves drawing silhouettes of the leg, and because it's in cardboard and has a thickness, it can be articulated. I used cardstock of the same type as packaging for cereal or cookie boxes. Worked really well.

It involves drawing a circle with a compass, of the size that would fit with your actual size puppet schematic. The circle becomes the knee, with the center hole (used a compas) indicating precisely the position of the pin on which the two-part knee will rotate. Drawing the leg shape around that circle is easy.

The two leg parts are made separately that way, then linked together on a soft surface with a pin going through their "bull's eye". The leg can now rotate, but needs stoppers up front and in the back of the knee. These stoppers are pieces of cardboard that are glued into place. A triangular piece is positionned on the upper leg piece at an angle, to act as a stopper for the leg bend, and the tip of it, sticking out of the circle, becomes the stopper to prevent the leg to open fully when at full extension. A much smaller triangle is added in the same way to the front of the lower leg, creating the matching stopper for the full extension stopper. In other words, the wedges dictate the angle at which the leg can be when fully opened. To have a leg already bent slightly less than 90 degrees prevents the leg from snapping when a walking movement is started, as it's already on the way.
Extra fun: These two pieces can be shaped like a knee.

Then the pieces can be used as silhouette patterns to draw onto the wood pieces, which are then cut as is. The next step is to carve the grooves, and free the tongue, but the measurements for them are already all there on the cardboard. This is the only part that requires a little logical figuring out, but if I could do it, anybody can. All you need is to have a drawing or picture of the finished joint to figure how to cut the grooves. Care has to be taken, when cutting the upper leg's stopper, to not do so in the middle-front of the knee, as we want that tongue to come out seamless from the top knee. Another precaution is to avoid cutting the lower leg's groove too deep in the front of the leg, because we want to avoid having a large gap. I've seen that gap on many beautiful pro puppets, but I feel it catches the light and distracts the eyes when the puppet is performing. Of course, if you want to feature the joints as important visual features of the marionette, that precaution should be disregarded, and the gaps exagerated, as the contrast would make all the joints pop out nicely, especially with focused stage lights.

I made my first test in dense styrofoam, so as not to waste wood (and not make noise in the evening). Total success. Even though I did it quite impatiently, so excited was I, it is the smoothest-looking and functioning hard articulation I've ever made.
What a relief to have a method that works so easily!

Update: Here's a test I made the next day with scraps of wood.
Only the lower leg is really carved after the block shapes were articulated.
No need to finish this one, as I know how to do this step.
I can move on to my actual marionette as soon as I get a thinner blade and a proper adjustable fence on my band saw.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shop Vac Wood Dust Danger

Hi all.
The previous post was about making a wooden mallet, and some steps of it required the use of power tools, namely a band saw, and a Dremel with sanding disk.

By necessity, I work in my small apartment, and therefore keeping good air quality is very important for my health. I don't even use toxic solvents in the winter.
I got sick on fine dust particules from clay many years ago (I knew nothing of health hasards of Art materials), and that was enough of a lesson for me.

While workiong on the mallet project, I had my shop vac plugged into the band saw's dust expulsion tube. Once activated, it did a pretty good job of keeping dust propagation to a minimum. Well, on the machine at least...

The system failed! For one simple reason: I had not checked my shop vac's filter bag before starting. It had become dislodged inside the tank since my last use. I probably banged it too much when moving furniture around.

So in effect, all the dust that was absorbed by the shop vac just twirled into the container, and was powerfully redistributed into the air. A fine dusting of extremely fine maple wood dust was coating half of my apartment's floors and low surfaces! Not to mention my lungs, no doubt. I took an hour to clean the whole place as much as I could.
I also removed the filter bag, and washed the shop vac's container. Those should always be kept clean and dry, to prevent mold growth.

One exposure to so much fine dust is probably not that big of a deal, but I won't let it happen again. I'll make a point of checking my filter bag everytime I start working with power tools.

I never had that problem before, as I use really good filter bags, designed to filter the finest of nocive particules, including plaster dusts. They cost extra, but since I've been using them, I've had good air quality in here. One dislodged bag is enough of an example to make an impression.

Lesson learned!


While all fine particules can be damaging to our lungs (including baby powder!),
some wood dusts are much more toxic than others. I'm told mahogany and particule boards (MDF, HDF) are particularly nasty to the lungs, which is why I refuse to carve or saw those in here.

I'll also make sure I only work with wood that seems clean and sound, without mold or traces of insect attacks.

Wooden mallet

I apologize for the bad picture quality. My expensive photo camera's USB output has died last week. I'm told it's a common problem with digital cameras. It's the evil Planned Obsolescence problem again. Having it fixed (still under warranty) would have me without a camera for a month, which I can't do because I constantly have to photograph my work before I hand it to customers. Until I get a memory card reader, it's going to have to be webcam shots... sorry.

I made myself a round wooden mallet today.
I needed one for wood sculpting when using chisels and gouges.
The one at the specialty store was too perfect-looking.
And from experience, it's much more fun for me to make my own tools.
I learn plenty about it and the materials as I'm doing it.

It must have taken me 4 times as much time it would have taken me if I had had an electrical lathe. Oh well, it gave me an excuse to use my band saw for the first real project, as all my chisels turned out to be too dull, and I didn't feel like installing the new buffing wheel on my grinder to learn how to sharpen them. I just felt like making a mallet!

Safety warning: I'm told it is common knowledge among woodworking pros that it is dangerous to cut round dowels and logs on a band saw. The following shows me taking a bit of a risk, so you have been warned, take the proper precautions, and make sure you are alert and focused whenever operating machinery. Never operate any kind of powertool when you are tired, unless you really want to hurt yourself badly.

Even though the maple table leg I used was round, the large head of it was square, and the whole object was so massive, heavy and long that I had no problem keeping it steady, without kickback, without use of any real force. I went slowly, and only cut thin strips at a time, to be safer. I'd never attempt this with anything totally round and smaller, of course. I would use a proper specialty jig and clamps.

Bad Commercial practices can cause problems:
It was extra difficult to fine-finish it by hand because I did not think to check for wood grain back at the store. I found out only last minute that the turned table leg was in fact made up of 9 small pieces of wood glued together. It would have been fine if the pieces had been laid in the same grain direction, or in a logical succession, but it turned out the manufacturer didn't care for that. So from one inch to the next in the horizontal direction, my wood grain inverted! It made knife carving and sanding very difficult. Extra difficulty, but extra education! Next time I need to make a big tool like this, I'll make sure I check the grain at the store. I finished the job with a big craft knife, files, a Dremel with sanding disk, three grades of sandpaper, and a liquid beeswax finish, which I stained a bit darker with a dab of oil paint.

I signed the head of it with a woodburner.
I love the fact that it looks hand made, and not perfectly smooth. I'd imagine a chisel like that in Gepetto's workshop. From testing it just now on a piece of pine, the mallet has good weight and balance. Even a dull chisel cuts pretty well, with this mallet. It compares well with the ones I've tried before.

Most of the wood chips (not the dust) produced during the process could have gone as mulch to hide a large patch of dirt on the front lawn of my apartment. Hopefully the neighborhood cats would find it uncomfortable enough to avoid relieving themselves there from now on. The smell gets really awful int the summer. It's right under my window!
Sadly, I did a test earlier tonight, and the mulch looks very bad next to the lawn, due to its light color. I'm sure the landlord would demand that I remove it pronto.
Red cedar would have been fine.

I got the wood chip into mulch tip by watching an online video of a bowl turner, who does that in his yard. I can't remember the source, I watched a lot of them, and it was months ago.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quick Healthy Snacks

For the Artists who works too hard.

As working artists, we need to take breaks and also eat a snack, but a lot of us get abosrbed by the work, or are pressed by time, and neglect it until we get prematurely exhausted.
Having yummy snacks to look forward to helps encourage the taking of breaks...

Here are four snacks I often make for myself and the occasional guests.

Raw Apple Sauce
Just peel apples, rinse, then grate on the finest surface of the grater.
Dash or two of sea salt, pinch of cinnamon, and the optional tang of a splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Eat immediately, to benefit from all the good nutrients.
If you are preparing it slightly in advance, make sure to use a bit more lemon juice, place in an air-tight container, and place in the fridge.

Baked Apple Sauce
Apples, freshly squeezed lemon juice, touch of water.
In order to retain taste and as much nutrients as possible, I recommend cooking the mixture at low temperature for long enough to soften the apples a bit, with a few lumps remaining. Finish with a potato masher. The texture and taste are ALIVE!
Sweeten and spice after the baking is done, with a touch of maple syrup, cinnamon, and a pinch of sea salt. Can be enjoyed hot or cold.

Apple-Pumpkin Puree
Pumpkin pie filling mix (preferably organic) + the equivalent of half that quantity of fresh apples, cut in small pieces. First bake the apples the same as previous recipe, then add the pumpkin, mash together! Enjoy hot or cold, your choice.

Raw Carrot-Apple Puree
Same as above, but use half carrot, half apple puree, with dash or two of sea salt.
A handful of raisins adds a bit more depth.

Frozen Grapes
Can be done with any kind of sweet grapes. I choose green grapes, for their slightly tangy taste. Detach grapes from stems, remove the bad ones, wash very well, and place in the freezer. About 8 hours later, you'll have super sweet semi-hard sweet candies!
Can be eaten by themselves, accompany kefir or cereal, or to replace ie cubes in drinks!
Very refreshing, but don't eat too fast (brain freeze!) or too much (2 litres is too much for me, had one instance of mild tummy ache).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Paper Mache experiments and leads

Or... getting back to old forgotten methods.

Here I'll be talking about Corn Starch Glue, Waterglass, and an appeal for traditional paper mache methods of the past.

Corn Starch
I'll soon be trying corn starch glue for paper mache very soon.
I was prompted by a constant inclination to move towards more natural and basic materials.
Non toxicity also has a strong appeal to me. I've met too many artists with health problems related to toxic art supplies. I was lucky to learn about proper safety practices early enough in my career to only suffer from dry hands as a long term condition. Before I knew the danger, I was instructed by my employers at a store to wash metal shelves regularly with methyl hydrate! It lasted a few months (maybe one session every two weeks) before I learned the danger. I've been dependent on hand creams ever since.
But I digress...

Corn starch again...
If corn starch is good enough for Bread & Puppet Theatre, how could I refuse to try it for so long? Well, there are the traumas of the past, when using food-based adhesives in paper mache (mold growth issues) , that caused me to stop their use altogether.
That and the risk of insects and rodents attacking my creations in storage.
And the fact that those food-based adhesives have a very limited shelf life. I like convenience of use, and hate wasting. Of course now that I actively compost everything I can, I could very well stop considering spoiled glue as a waste...

I am still wondering what the advantages would be of using corn starch over that of using methyl cellulose, which I already know from experience has an indefinite shelf life and nice handling properties. Methyl cellulose also gives a nice smoother result. I have yet to test it properly for strenght on its own. I abandonned its use years ago, from lack of proper knowledge about paper mache and how it's made. I thought the result was too weak, and the first layer was too much trouble to apply. I moved on to using diluted white glue because it was so tacky and strong. I was a total beginner, frustrated with no access to proper information, so I blamed the glue, but now I know it was my innapropriate methods. Live and learn. Nowadays, I make pretty much anything with paper mache, and it remains my favorite category of mediums.

I'll have to try corn starch glue to find out if it's what I really need. If not for all my purposes, maybe for some specifics. I was delayed in this experiment by getting another contract which required synthetic materials (a plastic) as the base, so I opted for a synthetic adhesive, to ensure proper adhesion, as there was no time for experimenting. I shall be done with this project shortly, so the corn starch experiments should come soon.

In my internet searches recently, I stumbled upon an interesting chemical named Sodium Silicate, also known as "Waterglass".
It has many uses in a few industries. Some of them: crackling glaze for ceramics, fresh egg preserver, waterproofing paper and fabrics, and as an ingredient in a recipe for a home-made cement like super-glue.
This really got my attention, as I am always searching for truly waterproof finishes for my paper mache creations. If i can make a waterproof glue to paste my strips with, maybe I'll get something similar to the old industrial results, when they used to make fine lacquered furniture.
My interest doubled when I found out my pigment supplier happens to carry sodium silicate!
I'll get some soon, and keep you updated.
In the meantime, some info about Waterglass:

"Frogotten" Traditions
What appears to be second nature to some artists living in the old European countries, still seems a mystery to us Canadians and North Americans. We seem to be limited to using flour pastes or pva glue, and fuzzy methods at best, compared to what used to be made in paper mache in the past, and is still produced by a select few in the old countries.

Artists in countries such as Russia, Czech Republic, and Italy, have mastered the art of high quality paper mache. They have come to a point of making their creations look like detailed porcelain or wood or plaster, their results are strong and lihtweight, , and some of them can create these items extremely fast. I currently know of one such method, but it's not a true traditional approach, as the artist who uses it already has converted to diluted white glue.
I don't dismiss the use of modern materials, I believe in convenience and economy, but I'd rather know the original recipes, in order to have all the information to make my own decisions.

The dream is this:
Ideally, I'd love to see videos of the entire process of some of these traditional high quality paper mache methods. Of course, text descriptions with images would still be appreciated.
Rest assured that the information I receive will keep on spreading here on this blog, and shared with my colleagues and students. Every effort counts in the goal that paper mache can come back in full strenght in the Art world's field of vision. Because right now, it's hardly ever seen as more than a cheap, disposable arts & craft method. It's only gained this bad reputation because of neglect. The plastics industry has been blamed before for the downfall of paper mache industries, but that excuse does not stand the test of reason. Many other "obsolete" methods still thrive, because artists have kept working them, and have elevated them to the status of Fine Art methods and materials. If art printmakers had stopped using copper plates, stones, presses and paste inks when the advent of industrial machines came, we wouldn't have the Art Print businesses we have today.

I think the over industrialization, and the constant application of Planned Obsolescence practices have caused a major loss of quality and originality in the world.
For a a fascinating and infuriating read about today's consumer world:
Planned Obsolescence.

Part of the population is now becoming sensitive again to hand-made, unique and durable objects. Something more tangible, in a world where most of our posessions are from a store, and we are mostly left in the dark where exactly they come from, who made them, what processes were used, what environmental impact did it have, and what it's made of.

Paper mache is one answer to all these problems.
It can be made in ways that are non toxic, economical, environmentally friendly and very durable. It is such an extremely versatile medium, it can be used as a main materials, as a finishing product, and as a link between various mediums. It can be made in very small scale, and giant sculptural applications. Houses and the occasional boats have been made with it. Combined with lacquer, paper mache was once used to make armors in Japan.