Monday 16 February 2015

The Making of My "Fawkes the Phoenix" Puppet - Part 2

The next few steps of my Fawkes build...

Step 7 Nailing down the puppet mechanism

So, the puppet mechanism was where things started to get complicated. My initial trials showed that whilst the push/pull of brake cable translates easily, the twisting action is soon lost, requiring multiple turns of the control end and resulting in jerky, inconsistent movements at the puppet end. 

I did some more research and learned that the control rods used in model aircraft are favoured by builders of these types of puppets, so off I went to the internet and ordered in a variety of rods to try… only to discover that although the back and forward movement of these was super smooth, they were so stiff they could not be rotated in their sleeves at all! 

Realising I had to rethink this part of the build I decided to research alternate puppet mechanisms, which led me to a new control method: servos. This had not initially been my intention as I knew that in addition to developing the electronic aspects it would require a robust mechanical action, but I thought I would explore the option. The more I looked into it the more feasible it seemed.

Early sketches of the mechanism design

I bought an Arduino circuit board, a couple of servos, constructed a basic mechanism out of lego and started testing some actions. My first successful test also fried one of my servos when the mechanism took a dive off a table, but with the theory proven sound I felt comfortable investing in some higher quality components. In addition to buying electronic parts I also sent off for some more technic lego parts as using them seemed a lot simpler than trying to fabricate mechanical components from scratch. 

Once everything had arrived I built a test outside the body using the new parts. This highlighted a few problems. For instance the up down mechanism was under the centre of gravity so it was having to work pretty hard. To rectify this I turned everything around. The rotational support I placed under the centre of the head, the up down mechanism I placed at the back of the head. This meant that the head was balanced and the up/down servo was no longer load-bearing. 

After I had ironed out the kinks I fitted the mechanism inside the skeleton and glued it all in place. I felt kinda bad doing this to lego.  

Step 8 Fleshing out the body

And here we are on even more unfamiliar ground, sewing wadding over the skeleton. I made a bit of a hash of this but like the skeleton before it, this would not be seen under the feathers. I built a door into the side of the chest just in case maintenance was required on the mechanism. Hopefully this would never be needed but best to think ahead. 

I sewed two layers over him to help hide the harsh wire frame body, then had one of my friends sew a layer of fine net over the result. I used curtain netting with the intention of using this as a base to poke feathers into. 

Far neater than my attempts at sewing, sure you'll agree

Step 9 Feathering the bird…

The colours of feathers you can buy stock are pretty limited so I bought some bags of white feathers with the intention of dying them myself. After a significant amount of research I ended up ordering two bottles of Jacquard acid dye to colour them, one red and one yellow.

The instructions were all written in American so I had to do some translation to get them to work. For anyone else who prefers using the easily repeatable decimal system instead of measuring quantities in horse beads and absorbent weasels, here's a working ratio of dye to water to vinegar:

10g Feathers = 0.5 teaspoon dye + 355 ml water + 17ml white (distilled) vinegar

I put the water and the dye in a pan and stirred it with a plastic spoon until all the dye dissolved. I then heated it on the stove until it was near boiling before taking it off the heat and adding the vinegar and feathers. I used a plastic "thingy" to submerge the feathers and left them to soak for ten minutes or so.

Once I felt the feathers were sufficiently soaked I carefully lifted the feathers out of the dye solution and rinsed them in bowls of clean water a few times to wash the excess dye away and spread them out on kitchen towels to dry.

I thought I would have to fluff each feather individually but when I came down the next morning I found the feathers had dried nicely without me.  

The yellow feathers worked out fine and I had some nice variation in the tones achieved. The red and orange feathers proved more tricky. For whatever reason it was quite hard to get a strong red using the acid dye and I had to run the feathers through the solution a few times. Even after that they still turned out paler than I might have liked.

In addition to the white body feathers I had bought I also acquired some primary quills to tip the wings and some rather expensive Lady Amhurst pheasant feathers for the tail. The pheasant feathers were darker than I'd hoped so the dye didn't show on them so clearly.

Once I'd got a few tubs of different coloured feathers it was finally time to start sticking them in Fawkes. I started at the tail end, overlapping them as I went. I used a sharp knife to enlarged holes in the netting and locked the feathers in with superglue. This had the added bonus of helping prevent runs in the net.

I cobbled together a temporary stand for him so he was stable while I worked. 

As you can see, I stained the netting with acrylic before I started feathering to help disguise any gaps. 

Never having done anything like this before I was making it up as I went. Things that I have learned:

1) cut the quills at an angle so you have a sharp point to stick in the net.
2) don't leave the quills too long, they can snap and bend when you're trying to insert them.
3) strip away the fluffy areas at the base buy pinching a clump and tearing towards the quill end.

Kinda wish I'd made his skeleton a little skinnier as the feathers really plumped him up!

I hadn't been sure what to do about feathering the head and covering the gap in the neck but in the end this was far easier than I'd thought. I simply glued some fluffed wadding to the back and sides of the head and used this to anchor long feathers across the gap.

Unfortunately whilst testing the movement I hit a bit of a snag: one of the rods inside detached itself from a servo. Glad I left that door in the side now, just a bit of a problem getting to it through a layer of feathers... I'll let you know how it goes. 


  1. Replies
    1. Part 3 is half written but I'm sorry to report Fawkes is still not completely finished. I fixed the internal issue and made him some wings but they are not attached. Other projects have become more important. Perhaps I will publish a Fawkes update so at least everyone can see where he's up to.