Turtle Puppet and Foam Sculpting Tutorial

I originally set my goal to make a post a week but I seem to have already fallen behind. Finishing the end of semester projects ate more of my time than I thought, but now that I finally have a minute I will make this post a long one! I’m going to try my hand at making a tutorial, so let’s see how this goes…

Because all animals look cuter with a bow tie
Because all animals look cuter with a bow tie

Meet Mr. Turtle. I spent the last few weeks of my life scrambling to get this little guy done along with the witch project and all my other work. After spending a week with my teacher for marking I finally have him back. This poor guy was a little bit neglected at times due to the fact that I made him around the same time all of our moulds were due, so it was a very labor intensive couple of weeks for me. There are some things I wish I could have taken more time and done a little better, and I may go back and touch up his shell later when I have the time, but all in all I am happy with the result.

This guy has a body of reticulated foam to give the Muppet Fleece its shape, and his hard shell is made from layers of ridged insulation (primed and painted of course.) He can come out of his shell with a little bit of fighting and maybe a curse word or two. As part of my (eventual) repairs I will sand the inside for a less snug fit. Oh well, better than the shell being too large and him sliding out all over the place.

As part of this week’s post I am also going to share a brief step by step of how to sculpt using ridged insulation. This stuff is versatile, lightweight, and you’d be surprised the level of detail you can get out of this stuff. Don’t believe me? do a quick Google search of foam or ridged insulation sculptures and prepare to have your mind blown.

Things you will need:

  1. White or pink ridged insulation foam (I find pink gives better detail since it is denser but use whatever you prefer working with)
  2. White school glue
  3. Utility Knife
  4. Marker
  5. Surform tool
  6. Sand paper
  7. A space in which you can make a giant mess. I do not recommend doing this on carpet.
Tools for making ridged foam sculpture
Tools for making ridged foam sculpture

As you can see here I have gathered all my materials on the kitchen floor. I have a garbage bag ready for my inevitable mess, and a roll of paper towel I will actually be using to make a pattern. The paper towel is optional, but a helpful trick. If you aren’t sure what shape your next layer should be cutting it out in paper towel or newsprint is an easy way to test a shape without any costly waste of your foam. I also have my dismembered puppet body handy should I need to compare sizes.

Making the templates
Making the templates

Using my already finished puppet body I decided to work from the inside to the outside. This means I am making the stomach and the pieces that go under his arms first. Start at which ever point makes sense for your personal project.

Trace and cut out the pattern
Trace and cut out the pattern

When you are happy with the shapes trace and cut out the pattern. Keep in mind how thick your foam is. Working with thicker foam will mean less cutting, but probably more sanding in the long run since your blocked out piece will look more chunky. Thinner slices can give you a more accurate shape right off the bat. I am working in 1/2″ foam here since my overall shape is not that complicated.

Make a giant A** Mess
Make a giant A** Mess

Now time to make one of many giant messes to annoy your parents, roommate or significant other. You’ll probably want to keep a garbage bag handy to sweep up the pieces as they pile up. This is actually not even the messiest part. That is saved for the sanding.

Line up the pieces and start assembling
Line up the pieces and start assembling

Once the pieces are cut out you can start assembling. I recommend white glue since it is non-toxic and it won’t melt foam. Be careful what type of glue you use since there is a laundry list of things that will melt and ruin all your hard work. Once this dries its pretty strong anyway so don’t sweat it. For larger projects allow for at least a day or more to dry properly as more surface area + lack of oxygen between large layers = longer drying times than one would think. Also, be wary of the “steps” created by the layers of the foam. Gradually staggering them will give you a rounder shapes, but overdo it and you will have to sand down a lot to get a smooth finish.

The turtle shell assembled and pre-sanding
The turtle shell assembled and pre-sanding

When you are done gluing the layers together you should end up with something that vaguely resembles your sculpture if it were in an 8 bit side scrolling video game. If things aren’t cut perfectly or are glued together a little wonky it can be fixed with sanding; within reason. If it looks awkward its easier to fix it now than to kill your hands sanding. Putting something heavy on top or tying a string around it is a good idea for holding things in place and keeping stuff flat while drying.

Making a bigger mess
Making a bigger mess

Sand, sand, sand. This is where the surform tool comes into play. You can pick one up at most hardware stores. The surface might look a little rough, but that is what sandpaper is for. Needle files, also available at most hardware and home improvement stores, are extremely helpful for detailed work. I used needle files to define the natural ridges of the shell. Be prepared for the itty bitty bits of foam to get EVERYWHERE. This stuff will cling to every conceivable surface of your home so don’t work where you aren’t going to be able to easily clean. The pink foam especially creates a fine dust when you use fine grit sandpaper, and it is a pain to sweep.

Finally, when everything is done, you can paint your product, but for the love of everything good DO NOT USE SPRAY PAINT. The acetone in spray paint, even the primer, will melt your beautiful foam sculpture. If spray paint is what you want to use then the foam has to be coated in a thin layer of white glue or spray glue adhesive first. The white glue will make a plastic coating that will protect the foam, and then you will be able to spray to your hearts content. I used plain old acrylic paint for this turtle shell. I used Gesso to prime it first, since pink was not the base colour I was going for with a turtle shell. If you are unsure if your particular type of paint will melt foam test it on a scrap piece first. As a general rule, if it has a strong chemical smell it will probably eat foam.

The finished shell from the back.
The finished shell from the back.

There you have it. My longest blog post yet, and also my first ever tutorial. If anyone has some more specific questions I did not cover in my explanation feel free to ask away. There are also a lot of other cool foam sculpture tutorials floating around the internet, but probably not many about making a foam shell for a puppet.

Starchip13.

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