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A walk around the factory

By Frank Lawton

Frank Lawton was asked by Bob to do a tour of the factory in 1973, this was featured in Pelpup News issues 26,27,28 and 29.  The photos accompanied the articles.

Moulding Room

Moulding.  As Many of you will know, some of our heads are round wooden balls, but we also have a process for moulding shapes which cannot be made from wood.  The first picture shows Ron filling up a hollow metal mould from a heated tank, using a "sugar tap".  This is a special tap which will not get clogged up when sticky materials are used, and gets its name from the fact that in another industry it is used for pouring hot sugar.

The mould is made from aluminium alloy, usually in two fitted halves and is chilled by placing on a bath of ice, which is behind Ron in the picture.

The material is a mixture of gelatine (which is very much the same as the table jelly you eat - but doesn't taste as nice!) and pumice powder.  Pumice is one of the kinds of rock which is blown out of a volcano when it is active, and our supply comes from Italy.  However, it cannot be mined until it has matured for 3000 years.  When Ron has filled his mould, he immediately up-ends it on the rack above the tank, where you can see two moulds, in order to empty out the spare mixture.  This leaves a thin layer of mixture on the inside of the mould, which is then returned to the ice.  There will be up to forty moulds in use at any time so that from the placing of the mould or "cast" maybe up to ten minutes.  this is plenty of time for the cast to become hard emnough to handle.  It is placed in a tray and the trays are put in the drying cupboards, which you can see (with numbers) at the back of the picture. There the casts stay for twenty-four hours, drying in a current of air provided by two big fans; then the hollow casts are ready to go on to the next process, which will be described in a later issue.

In the second picture, Rosita and Mrs. Hands are making pressings of puppet feet. This process produces a solid cast and is useful for hands, feet and Skeletons, all of which have to be heavy. The materials used are similar to the ones described above, but are not so fine. Thus, we use ordinary pellet glue, and not gelatine, and this is "filled" with an ordinary white mineral powder, as opposed to expensive pumice powder. The warm mixture is made into a dough, which you can see being placed in a flat-sided mould. After Rosita has filled the bottom half of the mould she will place the top half on it and Mrs. Hands will press it, using the press (on the right of the picture) which exerts a pressure of 1000 lbs. per sq. inch. The mould is then put on the ice-bath (back of picture) to cool and is then opened and the contents taken out and put in racks for drying. As the pieces are solid they will take up to ten days to dry properly.

Machine Room

In the Machine Room there are a number of woodworking machines, including four circular saws, two bench drills, a double-headed sander and some special drills which will drill several holes at a time. All those machines are connected with an extraction system which collects the saw-dust, and a local butcher takes it away to use in his shop.

The bodies are made of Parana Pine, a timber which is hard and "clean", that is, free of knots. Top bodies are cut four at a time in 2" pieces from lengths of timber measuring 14" x and lower bodies from 1" x 1" timber, in 14" lengths. These lower bodies are then slotted with a special wide saw to allow for the insertion of the legs.

All these parts are put in a large wooden barrel or "tumbler" which is rotated so that they knock against each other and the side of the barrel and are cleaned off and smoothed. Next, the parts are put into jigs for drilling. These jigs ensure that all holes are drilled in exactly the right spot. In the picture Iris is using the circular saw and the jig in which body blocks are placed to ensure operators are safe from damage. In the background of the picture Mrs. Smith and Pam are drilling bodies.

The last picture shows the Assembly Room, so called because it is in here that all the body parts from the machine room are put together to make up the required number of bodies. Peg Stroud and Edna Locke work out from the programme how many of each character are required. The only difference at this stage is the colour of their boots, with the exception of course of Mac­Boozle's brightly checked legs and heavy boots (as we call them) for Gepettos, Pirates and Hansels.

Cleaning the Mouldings

In the last Pelpup News, we saw how moulded heads and other shapes are made. This picture shows three of our ladies pre-paring the "casts", as they are called, for painting. First, any small holes have to be filled, and unwanted seams (where the two halves of the mould joined) filed off. Then the head is sand-papered, to give a smooth surface for the paint which will be put on later in the Dipping Room. We sometimes call this the Artistic Restoration Department!

Secondly, two small holes must be drilled, and screw-eyes inserted, usually just above the ears, where the black strings will later be attached. A hole 1" in diameter is then drilled in the neck, and a wooden plug inserted, and glued into place. After the glue has set, a screw-hook is put into the neck, and the head is ready for the Dipping Room.

The Dipping Room

All the basic painting is done in this room, which has a long table down the middle, with sets of wires above, which you can see in the picture.


The head is dipped in the large pot of paint, and hung up so as to drip on the tray beneath, which can later be emptied back into the paint-pot. Alice can be seen taking the last drips off a batch of Goofy heads with a paint-brush.

Nearly all heads receive one coat of semi-gloss paint, which gives a good surface for painting the features later, and this special paint dries in about three hours. We try, however, to let it dry for at least twelve hours, and usually the heads are left on the racks overnight, and collected each morning. Several thousands of heads and bodies go through this department each week.


The paint is, of course, completely safe and non-toxic.


Animal Assembly


This is a different process from the body assembly we described in the last issue of Pelpup News, and has its own separate department.


One difference which you can clearly see in the picture is that the parts have all been painted by the time they get to the assembly table. The important difference is, however, that animals are jointed together with a special string instead of hooks and eyes.


This special string is very strong and heavily waxed. It is interesting that it is identical with the string used for the release mechanism of certain types of parachute. For our purposes, the wax is very useful in "lubricating" the joints of the animals, and this prevents wear.


On the left of the picture is a pot of glue, which is used for sticking-on such things as the horse's mane and poodle's fur.


About a thousand animals a week are assembled here, and don't forget that there are eight leg-pieces, four feet and a neck, apart from head and body, in each animal.


The Clothes—First Stage


The first thing to do when you are going to make clothes is to cut out the material. Something like five thousand sets of clothing are produced each week for this factory, and you can see that this has to be mechanised to some extent, otherwise someone would get very tired using a pair of scissors!


The photograph shows Megan operating a Press, which speeds up this process of cutting-out. On the wall at the back of the photograph you can see just some of the cutting knives we use. The idea is that you select your knife (say, for a blouse sleeve), and then fold the material you are using so as to get up to 16 thicknesses under the knife. This material is placed on the base-plate of the machine, and the white top-plate is swung into position on top. Then the two buttons (one on each black handle) are pressed, and down comes the top-plate on the cutter, which slices through the material underneath, thus producing 16 blouse sleeves in a very short time.

Sewing and Dressing


After cutting, the pieces go to the sewing machines. There are nine machines, of which you can see three in the picture, and they are bigger and faster than the kind in general use in the home. The motors are running all the time, and the foot-pedal simply connects the running motor to the sewing part of the machine, just like the clutch on a car. The lady in the middle of the picture is Doris, who has been with us for many years.


Next, the sewn clothes are turned and pressed, and passed on to the Dressing Table. Here, the clothes, and the bodies from the Assembly Room come together, the dressing being completed by hand-sewing. In the foreground of the picture, you can see Betty finishing a Gypsy.


Some of this work is done outside the factory, and may have to be stored in the "coffin" until it is needed. This is a very long, high cupboard with lots of wires stretched from back to front. The dressed bodies are hung on these wires, and in this way kept clean and creaseless until they go to the finishing table.




After leaving the Dipping Room, the next stop for heads is the Headpainting Room. "Headpainting" also means in many cases, bodies, arms and legs. We have at the moment 22 headpainters, 11 of whom work at home, having spent time at the factory, perhaps before getting married. Remembering that there are over 70 characters and that something like 10,000 puppets are produced weekly, you will see that headpainting must be done quickly and accurately.


In the picture, Valerie is painting in the white parts of the eyes of Fairy heads, and you can see some round wooden heads and Donald Ducks in the background.


Hair and Hats


Almost all of the 70 characters we make must have either a wig or hat or both. The Skeleton, of course, is the shining exception!


The most usual way of putting on a wig is to stick it on with glue, and you can see this happening in the picture. We use beads of bone glue mixed with water in a pot which is put in an electrically-heated water container.


The glue starts to harden as soon as it cools, so the job must be done quickly, and the hair pressed down onto the glued head before the glue gets cold. The great advantage of using this kind of quick-acting glue is that you do not have to sit holding the hair and head pressed together for ages while the glue sets.


We use a number of different materials for the wigs, including sheepskin, rug wool (as in the picture), nylon "hair", and even felt for Woodenheads.




Between the Dressing and Hair and Hats Tables comes the Finishing Table (not illustrated).


This is where the body joins the head and the hands are attached. It is also the first moment at which the various parts which we have been following round the factory become actual recognisable characters.


The picture shows Pam Waite stringing up a Womble, and I am sure you will recognise Great-Uncle Bulgaria. Pam is one of nine stringers working in the factory, and we are able to call on others who work at home, when we need extra help. Great-Uncle Bulgaria is one of the three Wombles we are producing at the moment, the others being Orinoco and Wellington.


Stringing and packing are the two final operations in the sequence. For stringing, we use linen thread, which is much stronger than cotton would be. The controls come through from the Assembly Room (see Pelpup News No. 26) and the puppets from the finishing table (No. 28). As you can see in the picture, the control is clamped on a stand with the black head-strings already attached. These head-strings are cut on a special board, so that they are all exactly the same length. Once the puppet is hanging from its head-strings the coloured strings for back, legs and arms can be attached. Then the puppet is released from the "gallows", tested for movement, and hung on a line ready to be boxed.

While all this is going on, the two packers are making up boxes and they start packing the puppets as soon as the lines start to fill with finished puppets.

Each day's production of puppets is put into the Production Room, and the following morning, is counted by members of the Despatch Department, so that we know each morning what the previous day's production has been. Then the production room is cleared ready for the next day's work, by taking the puppets through to a store, from where they are selected as required.


We have a special section of the factory producing large puppets, and the photograph shows Syd Long cleaning up some parts. The puppets stand between 2 and 3 feet high, according to character, and are generally made to special order for shops like Hamleys, Harrods and Biba in London.

The parts are moulded in a rubber com-pound. This is a quite different process from what is described in Pelpup News No. 26. The method is, to pour a cold rubber com-pound into a Plaster of Paris mould, and allow it to stand for about 30 minutes topping-up the level of rubber in the mould from time to time. The liquid (mainly water) in the compound is absorbed into the plaster leaving a skin of solids on the inside of the mould. When the mould is emptied, it is placed in an oven for about 2 hours to dry out.


Then the "cast" or model is removed from the mould and returned to the oven to dry out still further until it becomes hard. Then it is ready to. go to Syd's room, where it is cleaned up and assembled.

Syd has another job apart from the large puppets. He prepares the Animated Units which some of you may have seen in your shops. They need checking, repainting, and in some cases re-stringing before they go to the shops for what may be 3 months continuous activity.


Working in the same room with Syd, is a team making all the vent puppets. Five ladies, including Doreen Siney in the picture, holding a Clown, do almost all the work in this room. There are three other characters, Boy, Girl and Dog (Fido) as well as the clown. There are sewing machines for making the clothes, and a painting section, as well as the tools necessary for assembling the puppets.

The original vent puppets were legless, but after a time we introduced legs, and this led to a further development, which was to make a new series of 2-foot puppets fully strung. These characters are proving very popular particularly for export.


 Those of you who have Pelpup News No. 27 will have read about "Animal Assembly". The photograph shows another assembly table, specialising in large animals, and other puppets requiring non-standard bodies, such as King, Queen and Giant. Among the animals are Wolf, Mother Dragon and, in the picture, Baby Dragons being finished off by Miss Stratton and Mrs. Harding.


The tour of the factory is over, and you have looked over my shoulder at nearly everything that goes on in the making of puppets. How does it all get on to the shelves of the retailers at home and abroad ?

We have a number of Agents both in UK, and in countries abroad, principally Europe and America. They send the orders in to our office, where they are processed before being sent out to the Despatch Department which is in the charge of Pam Masters. The orders are put together, packed, and sent off by GPO, BRS, Rail or Air, as required.

Finally, there would be no Pelham Puppets at all if it were not for PELPOP, who keeps us all on our toes here at the factory. I am sure you would like me to thank him on your behalf for letting you take a "walk round Pelham Puppets".

Ron pouring into a mould
Rosita and Mrs Hands making hands
Mr Smith drilling holes.
Assembly Room.
Alice n the Dipping Room.
Preparing the casts.
Megan using the clothes press.
Animal asembly.
Valerie painting heads.
Sewing Room.
Betty Dressing a Gypsy.
Hair and hats added.
Baby Dragons being finished.
Doreenwith a Vent Puppet.
Syd working on larger puppets.
Pam stringing a Womble.
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