Dog head for “There Will Come Soft Rains”

Draw pattern on blue foam The producer and the director of “There Will Come Soft Rains”which you should go see — asked me to build a new head for the dog in the show. We discussed budget and at one point the producer asked if I needed money up front for materials.

I laughed. “There is no materials cost for this project.”

“How can that be?”

Allow me to explain. I start by using a piece of scrap blue foam as the base for my sculpture. I just trace the profile of dog’s head on it. Now if I’d bought a piece of foam, the cost of this piece would be, maybe, fifty cents.

Cut out with Bandsaw I then cut it out with a bandsaw.

Turn 90 degrees and draw top view Next I turn it ninety degrees and draw the top view, which also gets cut out with the bandsaw.

Rough cut shape I rough cut the shape with a saw.

Trimmed and sanded I sand it a little to take off the hard edges and give me a loose dog head shape.

Clay I sculpted the details in clay. I prefer working in waterbased clay because I like the feel of it, but for this I used plasticine clay because I had it on hand. A block of clay costs between $12 to $20, but once you’ve got it in stock it gets reused.

You can see that some parts of the sculpture still show the blue of bare foam. If I were planning on casting this I’d have used clay over the whole surface to make it very smooth because the details would show up in the final. But, I was planning on doing direct mache which tends to obscure details so there was no need to go overboard in making things smooth. It took me about two hours to get to this point from the original drawing.

1st layer of mache For the first layer of papier-mache I used an old script and a couple of rejection letters — my favorite material — and wheat based wallpaper paste. The wallpaper paste is the only material so far that I’m not able to reuse. Estimated cost of the amount I used? Maybe forty cents.

The key with papier-macheing is to not get the paper too wet with paste. If there’s too much paste, it will form airbubbles as it dries. Those reduce the structural integrity.

2nd layer is different color For the second layer, I alternate with brown paper bag. It’s got nice long fibers and is heavier than the scripts so it tends to be stronger. It is also a different color which makes it easy to make certain that I have even coverage on each layer.

Each layer takes about 45 minutes to do. If I were going into a mold I could work faster because only the first layer — which is the top layer in a mold — matters. The other layers can be all wrinkly and they’ll have no impact on the level of detail in the finished product.

With direct mache every single layer and every piece of paper matters because each one obscures the original sculpture or has the potential to introduce an unwanted wrinkle.

For this, I did five layers of mache. White, brown, white, brown, white. That’s fairly standard.

The same number of layers in a mold would take about forty-five minutes total. So why didn’t I make a mold? Time. Making the mold would mean less active working time, but I’d also have to wait for it to dry before using it. A damp mold means that it would take forever for the mache to dry. So using a mold would mean less time for me, but a longer overall process. Plus, I knew this was a one-off. We won’t need to make a copy of this.

Jury-rigged hotboxEven without worrying about a damp mold, I still made a jury-rigged hot box to speed the drying process. It’s basically a hairdryer and an upside down bin. Like the world’s ugliest easy-bake oven.

Removing macheI used a mat-knife to cut the mache off the sculpture by carving right down the middle.

Warning: If you do this and discover that the mache is still damp inside, make sure you tape the thing back together and dry it. If you let the two halves dry separately they will warp, which is unpleasant.

Rejoining macheI ran a bead of hot glue down the halves to hold them together and then papier-mached the seam inside and out. The mache gives it strength, the glue would give fairly quickly.

This is pretty fast, I don’t think it took more than half an hour.

Sealing edgesI also seal any raw edges, like the ones around the back of the head. It’s prettier, but more importantly, it keeps the edges from peeling.

Painted head and drawing When the head was dry, I painted it with gesso. Let that dry. Sanded it. Painted with gesso again, one more light sanding and then started to paint. For some puppets I’ve done between five to eight sanding and gesso layers depending on the degree of polish I wanted. For this, I wanted a little bit of smoothness, like bone, but not all the way to porcelain.

Here’s a shot of the finished head and my design sketch.

Attached to dog And this is the head attached to the original dog body.

Detail of paint And here, because I like the final effect, is a detail of the paint job on the dog. All told, I spent between seven to ten hours making this and spent maybe a dollar in materials.

This is one of the hard things about making puppets, explaining that the major cost is in the labor. And don’t worry, the producer of the show totally got it. It’s just interesting that it’s a conversation that I have to have almost every time I build a puppet. I think people make estimates based on puppets they built in elementary school.

So… figuring that I’m skilled labor, how much do you think something like a simple puppet head costs?

42 Responses

  1. Dillo

    Having seen some of the masks made for Carnivale in Venice , I think I have some concept of the amount of labor involved in making a papier-mache’ puppet.
    7-10 hours is not an insignificant amount of effort and should be compensated justly.

    The tendancy to undervalue skills and effort/labor seems to be pretty universal among people not directly involved in the craft.

  2. John

    I was taught in my graphic design class that skilled creative labor should have a base pay of about a dollar a minute. This is early career freelance price, so the price starts going up from there.

    These are graphic design prices. The puppet industry could be significantly different. I expect a price between 4 and 6 hundred for a professional, custom made puppet would be fair, though.

  3. STI

    I run into this all the time working as a sound designer. Doubly frustrating is that there’s no finished physical product (unless it’s a cd, which is increasingly rarer), so i usually don’t even get asked about getting paid up front for materials. Triply frustrating is the fact that when theatres cut back on set and lights (or do a “minimalist” production) they often expect the sound design to “pick up the slack”.

    sigh…don’t mean to rant.

  4. Mr.Dandy

    Great post (and a very nice puppet)! As a fellow sculptor I can attest to the message, many people tend to forget the labor when it comes to the construction of a physical object, since they’re often thinking of prices along the lines of mass-produced items they’d find in a store. I work in the toy and collectible-figure industry, and occasionally I’m approached by collectors who want a one-of-a-kind item to display. These personal jobs rarely pan out though, if I’m thinking in the “hundreds” of dollars, they’re probably thinking in the “dozens”. I try to prorate for smaller clients when I have the time, but we all know you can only go so low.

      1. Mr.Dandy

        Exactly! I’ve been finding on the personal projects that it’s almost better not to bid on them, but say that I consider offers instead. People tend to take it a little more seriously when they have to come up with their own number, which I can then accept or politely decline. It’s not always easy to get people to make a first offer though, I’m sure some of them are thinking, “Dang, why did I offer $40 for a week’s worth of sculpting? He might have done it for $25.”

      1. Jim F

        Having the same problems as Mathieu. When I click on any of the photos it goes to your bio page. Tried it in both Firefox 3 and IE 7

  5. Paulo

    Yes, the step-by-step is awesome. It makes me want to go out and get some materials and try it. I think I will.
    Your dog head is excellent. It must be sweet having a talent like that and being able to make money with it.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      You should! It’s very satisfying.

      FYI, if you decide to use waterbased clay, make sure you use some sort of resist on the sculpture, like soap or vaseline, to keep the mache from permanently adhering to it.

  6. Mike F

    I’d say a minimum of 35 dollars per hour, probably closer to 50 with your qualifications. Of course, you can charge what you want. :)

    By the way, not sure what you changed, but I can comment on my iPod again. Which is very helpful; especially at work. :)

  7. Anca

    Hrm. It seems like the only place where crafts people can really charge amateur customers the “real” price is in the wedding industry. :)

    Thanks for the detailed description, and the breakdown. I had no idea what it takes for a pro to do this kind of job.

  8. damph

    I’m an amateur puppet maker, who works with a lot of local kids’ productions.

    I love the work, but I’ve never considered becoming professional – partly because of the physical effort (my back is always dying after a big puppet job) and partly because I realised early on how hard it would be to make a living. The kinds of prices you would have to charge to cover the labour involved would dissuade most people from hiring you.

    It’s a paradox – you can’t make a living because no one can afford you.

    Makes a fabulous and fulfilling hobby, though.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Forgive me, but I’m going to lecture you a little.

      If the puppet is hurting your back then you need to rebuild it so that it is balanced and doesn’t hurt you. I’ve worked a 125 lb. puppet and I weigh 127. No pain, because it was well-balanced.

      Second, I’ve been making a living as a puppeteer for nineteen years. You totally can do this, but it involves educating the people who do the hiring. I’d say that the vast majority of the time when I break the costs down for companies they get it and come up with the money. But yes, you have to put extra effort in to explain it to them.

      So if you have a passion for it, start charging what you are worth. You’ll be surprised.

      1. damph

        Sorry – should have clarified – my back hurts because I have a terrible habit of sitting on the floor while I’m making the puppets, and I slouch. Completely my own fault. Could be managed by some commonsense OH&S. But I am always amazed how physically draining the process of making anything is.

        And you’re right. I think I really meant to say that I’m too chicken and lazy to try to do it professionally. Plus I’m lucky in that I like my day job.

        But I have toyed with the idea of trying to go more professional, perhaps combine the two jobs in a part-time arrangement. Thanks for the good advice and encouragement.

        And thanks for the great dog head breakdown. I work mainly in foam, but I’ve never tried combining it with clay as the base for papier mache. Now I’m feeling all inspired.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal

          Oh! That. Yes, well, sitting on the floor is so much easier unless you have a massive work bench but it does sort of kill one’s posture.

          I do encourage making your hobby pay. If nothing else, it means that you can buy better toys.

  9. -e-

    I approached bidding this job as if it were a jewelry project, because that is what I’m familiar with, and came up with $750 – $950 in labor costs. Most people have an easier time paying craftspeople working with gold and platinum, even though, in some ways, that is easier than working with foam and fiberglass. Granted, a laser costs significantly more than a glue gun or band saw, and I’m carrying a hell of a lot more liability when setting a clients diamond, but most people incorrectly correlate value of material with value of labor performed.

  10. franzy

    Being a writer I always justify the rate I get paid not necessarily by the time taken to finish a piece (eg. three hours for a book review), but by the time taken to learn my craft to the point where I can produce it to the required standard (X years in education, training, blogging, learning, getting rejected, etc).

    It’s like the old joke about the plumber who turns up to fix a busted water heater, spends two minutes with a spanner and charges a hundred dollars. When asked to justify the bill he itemises it thus:
    New bolt: $1
    Labour: $2
    Knowing where to apply both: $97

  11. Greg Ballora

    That seems very fast to me. It also doesn’t include meeting times, set up and clean up…
    I say beautiful work done very efficiently.

  12. Robert

    People underestimate the value of your time and overestimate the value of physical objects – especially because they are expecting a physical item as the product. This likely has to do with a culture where wonderful and amazing things are molded from plastic in china for next to nothing. You, however, seem to underestimate the value of the physical items you use – foam, bandsaw, clay, other shaping tools, paper, ‘glue’ – all which are materials used and require purchasing (at some point). Of course, the bandsaw and clay are yours and can be reused but they sometimes need a new blade or a little more clay.

    These things should all be calculated into the costs as well as your time. Also, what you should get paid has to do with what the customer can pay and what it is worth to them. Obviously the local high school production is not going to pay a lot, but they won’t get a professional dog.

    I would say a custom dog like that should run the theater around 500-1000 USD for time and material. If they want, we could have them made in china out of plastic for 10 dollars each but they’d have to order a minimum of 1000.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      You, however, seem to underestimate the value of the physical items you use – foam, bandsaw, clay, other shaping tools, paper, ‘glue’ – all which are materials used and require purchasing (at some point). Of course, the bandsaw and clay are yours and can be reused but they sometimes need a new blade or a little more clay.

      These things should all be calculated into the costs as well as your time.

      Actually, I don’t underestimate them. On larger projects I always include “miscellaneous” line item for things like a stick of hot glue, a bit of paint. On small projects, like this one, where the total materials cost (including amortizing equipment wear) would be less than $5, it doesn’t make sense for me to spend time to make a separate materials invoice. Owning those things already is part of why I charge the rates I do.

      I’m always interested in how other people work. How do you charge for the things you already own?

  13. James

    Its a battle we all face,

    Everytime, its amazing how often the work we do is Undervalued by the producers, and directors, or who ever else we have to deal with,Good to hear this was a positive working expierence for you

  14. Diane Kordas

    Nice looking dog, Mary. I agree you should be adequately compensated for the skill, workmanship and your experience in creating the piece. $500 – $650 would be my estimate. By the way, by blue foam, do you mean the marine foam (like buoys?) Great job! Diane

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal

          Heck yeah. I got sold on papier mache after meeting a Russian puppeteer. He’d fled with his puppets tucked in a bag. When I saw them they were close to twenty years old and looked like polished porcelain. I’m using his mache technique.

          Now they won’t handle getting soaked, it’s true, but the beautiful thing about mache is that it will flex before breaking. Something like fiberglass with just crack and you don’t know it’s coming until too late. I just did a mache demonstration day before yesterday in which we threw the piece against the wall. It bounced. Danced on it. No damage. Banged it against the corner of the table repeatedly. Which introduced a shallow ding. It rocks. Is dirt-cheap and non-toxic.

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