Dedicated to my mom and her support, Even Bregman, and Jon Risinger (may his hair flow forever).
If you are reading this, you must have enjoyed my Muppet version of Jon Risinger on the latest episode of On The Spot. Well, rejoice! For I am here to tell you how I made him so maybe you can make your own Muppet Jons! Or Burnies! Or Guses. Or whomever you would like to Muppetfy. Maybe even yourselves!
First, I would like to give a HUGE thank you to Muppet Central, Adam Savage on Tested (who made his own Muppet in Jim Henson's Creature Shop), and a bunch of random Google images which gave me an idea on how to do what I wanted to do. This was actually my first time making a Muppet, and both of these sources were amazing in educating myself (and others) in different methods of creating Muppets.
I have admitted that I am no expert in making Muppets. I’m kind of a “adaptable” artist. If there is something I want to do, I figure out how to do it. Which brings us to our first step in Muppet making: research. Yes, hold your groans. Seriously, there is NO shame in looking up how to do anything. And after reading this, if you feel a deep and burning desire to make a Muppet, I encourage you to look up other tutorials, methods, and construction diaries. It seriously helps a ton, and will probably help you in OTHER artistic endeavors as well. I actually say art is a lot like math. If you know the basics, you can kind of figure out the more advanced stuff as you go.
The second thing I am going to admit is I made mistakes. I will include them in here so you can learn from them like I did.
After doing much research, I bought supplies. My advice here is COUPONS COUPONS COUPONS. Stock up, look them up online, stuff them in your wallet. Coupons mean less stress in your bank account and therefore less stress on you.
1. Needles, pins, and thread
2. Paper and sharpie
3. 1” high density foam (other Muppeteers suggest ½” foam, but I just used what I already had)
4. Scissors or other cutting device (safety first!)
5. Hot glue sticks or contact cement (I used hot glue)
6. Spray adhesive (Make sure to read up on what you are getting to make sure it doesn’t melt polyurethane foam. I used 3M Super 77.)
7. Some gasket rubber
8. A few yards of polar fleece
9. Synthetic dye (optional)
10. Ping pong balls
11. Red, black, and pink felt
12. A wig
13. 18-gauge wire
14. Two strings of glass beads
15. Acrylic paint
16. Two tomato sticks (or other pole-like device)
Step 1: Sketch Character Designs
I then did some quick-and-dirty character designs. I looked at many pictures of Jon Risinger from all different angles (it’s hard to find a good side shot of Jon, so I had to guesstimate his nose shape) and drew how I thought he’d look as a Muppet. When I felt satisfied with my sketches, I actually moved right to the construction.
Step 2: Mouth Plates
I began immediate work on the “mouth plates,” which is what Muppet makers call the upper and lower sections that make up the Muppet mouth. In my research (again, thank you Muppet Central), I found that people suggested gasket rubber as the best material for Muppet mouths, as it does not deform or easily degrade. For a quicker or less expensive option, people also use thick cardboard, lightweight wood, or plastic container lids. If it’s moderately stiff, it’s been used in a Muppet mouth. That… didn’t sound… right, but it’s true.
I took my two squares of gasket rubber (found in the plumbing section of Lowe’s hardware store, they are about 6”x6”) and I used a compass (the geometry tool not the directional tool) to get a good-sized semicircle out of the squares. I made them as large as possible because I figured Jon would probably perform with it, and thus needed to be larger than what my hands would grab if I did the duck shadow puppet thing where you flatten your four fingers then place your thumb against them. I have tiny fingers, so I sized it up by about 1.5x.
I put the two pieces on a piece of felt, with the two straight edged sides facing each other, and about an inch (maybe less) of space between them. Then you hot glue the gasket semicircles to the felt in that pattern.
I actually messed up here, but it was more of an inconvenience to me than detrimental to the puppet. It actually might have helped. I was SUPPOSED to glue it to the red felt (for the inner mouth palate to be red, with a black cutout representing the throat and a pink piece representing the tongue). Because I had the black felt attached instead (oopsie), I just hot glued the red felt over that. Then on the unfelted side you glue… another piece of felt! I used the pink since I was just going to use it for a tongue anyway.
Quick note, I DIDN’T glue the gasket semicircles right in the center of the felt; I kind of put them off to the side with about ¼” of fabric extending beyond the rubber gaskets themselves. If you sew, you know this extra fabric around a pattern is called “seam allowance.” If you don’t sew, now you know. When you space your pattern (or in this case, gasket pieces) in a way that uses as little fabric space as possible, you can be more efficient and have more excess fabric to use for other things. I call this “fabric management.”
Once everything was glued, I cut around the gasket pieces, maintaining that ¼” seam allowance. Remember that extra piece of felt? It helped out here. That “felt sandwich” acts almost like a spring. It causes some resistance when you bend the plates together in a “>” shape so the mouth always springs back open. (That’s what that space between the plates was for, by the way. It was so you could bend the plates from this shape: “ŒD” when laid flat, to this shape: “<” when held, as seen from the side view.) That extra piece of felt added some extra spring.
I then sewed the pink and red pieces of felt together using a “Henson stitch.” Named after the Muppet Master himself, this stitch allows the fabric to pill around the fleece when you run a needle over the seam, so the seam can be hidden. It might be a little complicated to explain (I actually recommend watching a YouTube video on how to do it), but I will do my best.
Henson Stitch Tutorial
First off, it might help to watch this video to get an idea of what this looks like:
Knotting a piece of thread (I always use upholstery thread because I think the materials will fall apart before that stuff does and it is super hard to snap), you thread the needle through the underside of the fabric you are sewing so the knot is on the “hidden” side of the fabric (the fabric that will not be seen once it is tucked in). We will say this is the pink felt, for instance. Then you stitch over into the front side of the other side of the fabric (in this instance, the red felt) so that it is parallel…like this: “|” where one end of the line is where you started and the other end is on the other piece of fabric. Your needle should be UNDER the OPPOSITE piece of fabric/red felt, right? Then you move that needle under a bit horizontally on the same piece of fabric (red felt) and poke it through so there is a line like this: “_” on the underside of the fabric (we are talking about the red felt still). Now the needle is ABOVE the fabric again, and we actually take it and stick it through the ORIGINAL hole where the knot is (pink fabric). Pull a bit to tighten the seam and then take that needle and push it through so it comes out again in the same direction you did the red felt line, like this: “_” where the “_” was under the fabric, but go a little further. Then repeat the above steps.
Step 3: Hand Straps
Once the entire felt mouth has been sewn around the gaskets, you can attach the hand straps. Some people make cone-like covers, or strips of fabric. I just took a 2” piece of elastic that went halfway across the “upper” plate and sewed it to either end of the semicircle, parallel to the straight edged back. I now have an elastic strip. I sewed off a 1-2” section in the middle of the strip (so the strip had a break in it like this: [_||_] ). This way the performer could slip his pointer, ring, and pinky (not the middle, so you can move that around for more stability and comfort) fingers into the elastic band and have a firm grip on the upper plate.
I did the same thing for the lower plate, except I made the space in the sewn-in middle section larger so you could hook your thumb in it (although I discovered the puppet worked fine without this, I thought as an option it would be nice). Make sure to sew the strips on the side you DON’T want to be the inside of the mouth. I sewed it on the pink side so the red side was the inside of the mouth. In the < shape, the pink is the outside, and the red is the inside.
At this point, I shamelessly started snapping the mouth open and closed and making outrageous noises. You can do this too, if you want.
Step 4: Paper Pattern for Foam Head
After my break, I moved on to the paper pattern for the foam. I first measured from the edge of one plate to the middle of the curved edge, to get half the circumference for the “mouth” of the foam. I did this to both sides. I drew straight lines with those measurements in a L shape, and then drew an oblong circle with little slices cut out in certain places. The idea is this, if you cut a “V” shape and have the lines slightly curved OUT, it will result in a rounded shape. If you have lines that curve slightly IN, it will result in a curved, dipped shape, like a bowl. By adding curved OUT slices in various places where I thought a head would be rounded, I could make a rounded head out of two pieces of flat foam.
It helped to think of this as making a 3D foam head with a center seam directly through the center face, but trying to render that in a flat 2D paper pattern. This takes practice, effort, and in my case, guesswork.
Step 5: Foam Assembly
I’ve worked with foam and hot glue a lot for other projects, so I can mess with it somewhat organically, which is in fact what happened. My foam head came out very cone-headed when I glued it, but the chin was very nice and Jon-like; I just needed to trim back some excess foam neck-fat. So I took scissors and reduced the top of the head by an inch or so, and made more gently curved OUT lines, which rounded the head more. I took the area under the chin and cut it a bit more so the lines turned IN, which tucked in the under-chin area a bit. Through this process, I refined my original pattern.
I DID make a BIG mistake here, though. When I drew the mouth lines in my pattern, I did them at an easy 90º angle instead of 45º. This put WAAAY to much stress on the foam when I tried to close the mouth. The combination of high density foam and overextended angle meant I could not close the mouth without the rest of the foam deforming HORRIBLY. LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE. 45º angle. ½” foam. This is the PROPER way to do things.
Frustrated, I walked away for a little while. When you feel like you’ve hit a wall with a project, it helps to just not work on it for few minutes. After calming down, I just cut the bottom jaw off (and cleaned some of the excess foam and hot glue away from the mouth plate), trimmed it a TINY bit so it better matched the cuts I made separating it from the top jaw, and then I reattached it with the mouth plates at a 45º-ish angle. AND IT WORKED. I might have let out a maniacal laugh. Just a tiny one. Another thing I would do differently is glue the foam so it hugged the outside of the mouth plates, instead of gluing the foam to the TOP of the mouth plates. I think I could have had more expression if I had done this, but I also don’t think it would have worked with the 1” foam, so I made do and will experiment more in the future.
Anyway, now I had a foam head shape. EXCITEMENT.
Step 6: Facial Features
Next, I took a blue sharpie and drew on where I wanted the eyes and nose to go. Then I took some foam scraps and carefully cut them into different shapes with scissors. I made lips, noses, brows, different chins, and then pinned them on in different configurations to see what would look the most like Jon. I eventually settled for a VERY CAREFULLY carved nose (where I glued together a block of foam, drew his nose from the side view on the side and the front view on the front, and then carefully cut away until it looked like his nose) a top lip, and a bottom lip. I glued the lips on the foam head (the nose I left alone for now).
Step 7: Body
For the body, it was the same process as the head except I just took a pattern that looked like a curved out flat-topped triangle and cut out three of them from the foam. After I glued them together, I again cut and re-glued the shapes until I felt it was the right shape and size.
Step 8: Hands
For the hands, I actually drew my hand pattern, traced two of them onto the foam, cut them out, and VERY CAREFULLY cut them in half. Yes, I cut 1” foam into ½” foam. Yes, it would have been easier to buy ½” foam and just cut our four hands. Yes, I made do. And it worked! I now had four ½” foam hands.
Using the same paper pattern, I bent 18-gauge wire into the general shape of the fingers, then twisted the wire so for every finger there was one twisted wire. I then glued that to a cut side of the hand foam. Then I glued the other half of the cut foam hand to that one so it was once again a 1” hand, but I left an open pocket near the heel of the hand on the pinky side. I repeated the process with the second hand. Then I glued the edges of the foam hand and fingers together so there was a curved seam instead of a straight edge (leaving the pinky-heel pocket open). I now had poseable hands.
I then took a string of glass beads and glued one end to the inside of the foam hand pocket, and the other into a hole I poked into the shoulder of the body. I repeated that for the other glass bead string and hand. The hands were now attached to the “arms” of my puppet. The beads act as a weight leading to the floppy characteristic of a Muppet.
Step 9: Fabric “Skin”
It was all coming together! Now I needed to cover the foam in fabric.
Unfortunately, none of my local stores had skin-colored fleece, so I had to dye my own. I bought a warm-toned ivory fleece to start. You CANNOT dye fleece (which is a polyester product) with normal dye. The exception is if this fleece is something called Antron fleece, which is what professional Muppet makers use (and is super SUPER expensive). Antron fleece is nylon, and nylon CAN be dyed by normal dyes (which I just thought was an interesting fact, and good to know if anybody out there has a nylon whatever they want to dye). Since my fleece was polyester, I had to buy a polyester dye (which they do make and sell). The two brands I know of are Jaquard’s iDye Poly and Rit DyeMore. These brands WILL dye “synthetic” fibers. SO I grabbed some DyeMore in red and sandstone (a greenish-yellow).
I did some proportional color tests using ¼ teaspoons and a mug in the microwave. I found that when added to water, a stronger proportion of sandstone was needed. So I gathered up my fabric (prewashed for better dye adherence) and a plastic bin. I ran the tub water until it was at its hottest and added the entire container of sandstone and less than half of the red. I then stirred the fabric in the hot water until the water became just warm, and the color appeared slightly darker than what I wanted. I then grabbed a corner of the fabric and washed out the tip to make sure the color was still what I wanted even after washed. It was! So I heaved the fabric out of the bin, washed out most of it in the tub, then rinse cycled the rest of the dye out. Flesh toned fabric!
I used the same patterns I used for the foam head, body, and hands, and cut that out of the fabric. I also cut out four strips for the arms and a large piece for the neck and body “tube.” I pinned the fabric on and trimmed it to the foam (again leaving that ¼” allowance). I cut an extra piece for the nose, and adhesive sprayed the fleece carefully to the nose. Then I Henson- stitched the “face” part of the head, all of the body, the arms, and the hands. I sewed the “face” part of the head fabric to the felt mouth plates, then took spray adhesive and CAREFULLY sprayed the foam and inside of the fabric, and tugged, stroked, and tacked the fabric to the foam as tightly as possible. I then Henson-stitched the rest of the head up, leaving (and actually cut a bit larger) the hole where the hand goes in the back of the head. I did the same thing to the body, fitting the fabric like a “glove” over the foam then spray gluing it down.
Now, I just had to attach the features…
Step 10: Ears and Eyes
The ears are just “C” shapes Henson-stitched onto the head. The eyes are just ping pong balls, with a blue felt iris. I painted the pupil black and added a white highlight. I also added a lighter blue highlight and a dark ring around the iris, for more depth. The felt iris is just glued on. I took some fleece, and glued a black strip of felt to one side. This served as the eyelid and eyelash. I then glued the “eyelash” part to the ping ball in the style I wanted (a relaxed eyelid look). I didn’t glue the fleece part just yet. I cut away some fleece from the head where I wanted the eyes and nose to go. I glued the nose to the open foam, and then Henson-stitched the nose to the face. I dug out little craters where the eyes were going to go, so they could set back in the head a bit more. I glued the ping pong balls into the craters, making sure they were looking in the same direction. Then I glued the eyelid fleece to the ping pong ball, stopping short of where the ball meets the head fleece. I trimmed the excess eyelid and eyelash fabric away, then Henson-stitched them to the head.
I sewed one end of the neck piece around the head opening on the body (where the hand goes), and stuffed the rest of the neck into the body hole. After checking the head and neck were facing the right direction (using the hands as guides, thumb forward means front) I then attached the other end of the neck piece to bottom of the body, this time just using a basic stitch that still tucked the seam down. I then sewed the neck to the upper body hole using the Henson stitch. I sewed up one side of the arms (Henson stitch) and then sewed the other side while it was around the beads, so when I finished sewing the beads would be on the inside of the tube arms. Then I lightly stuffed them, and attached them to the hands and body using the Henson stitch. The fleecing was complete!
Step 11: Hair
Next, I took the wig and cut two small wefts for the sideburns.
Then I took the front of the wig and bent it under toward the back, so the hair wefts remaining in the wig all faced backward instead of forward and hid the wig’s bangs. I then tacked the wig down in certain locations and cut it to the appropriate length. Using a fabric pen, I dotted the fleece to create facial stubble. I also added black felt eyebrows. The final touches were attaching the final black throat piece and the pink tongue felt to the inside of the mouth, and putting a small On the Spot t-shirt that I made onto the body.
Step 12: Arm Rods
For the arm rods, I took a small clear tube and bent it into a curved shape using more wire. Then I inserted the curved tube into the hand pocket and glued it in. I Henson-stitched the fleece around the resulting tube hole snugly, then took a tiny amount of hot glue and adhered the fabric to the tube. I found some tomato sticks (green poles with a flat bottom to hold on to) and painted them black, and slightly bent the tips. They fit perfectly into the tubes and work as great removable puppet rods, so the Muppet’s clothes can be changed easily.
So that’s it! The story about how I created Muppet Jon. I honestly can’t wait to try and make some more puppets in the future. It might have been a difficult first project, but I learned a ton, and had fun doing so.
Thanks for reading!