Buildng an Owlbear puppet

A version of this post was originally published on Patreon, on October 26, 2020 – I have no idea why I forgot to share it over here for so long.

The big project I worked on through October has been possibly the most difficult to keep under wraps, because it was so fun to build. But, since it was a birthday present for a friend’s spouse of their owlbear character Craigory, I was strong and kept quiet. However, the esteemed Craigory arrived at their new home today so I can finally share the process!

I’ve built puppets before, but they were a classic foam base (like most Muppets) and although I grew up around a lot of what are basically stuffed animals that are puppets, I’d never made one before. I fiddled around and eventually worked out a pattern and got to work. Because I am who I am I had all the stuff I needed (minus some dye, eyes and feathers), which means a selection of faux fur for the outer body.

Two pieces of faux fur laid on a wooden floor. A dark brown faux shearling folded into a square at the head, and a partly sewn thick grey wolfy fur laid out for a body.

Puppets can have a lot of parts, this one has an arm tube that connects to the mouth, then inner basic cotton structure, batting, and then fur. Puppets can also look like nightmares in pieces (which is basically the point of the Incomplete Puppets Tumblr), so we’ll just focus on the cute stuff. Before everything can be sewn together though, the outer skin needed to get finished up. I knew I couldn’t get the grey fur dyed a perfect dark brown, the annoyances of dyeing synthetic fibre, but was able to tint it to a soft brown.

Two blue-gloved hands hold a wet mass of brown-dyed faux fur.

Now for feathers! I got a pack of 300 and ended up using about 200 of them, I think. I hadn’t sewn feathers before but found that sewing onto short faux fur (faux shearling, to be precise) makes the process a lot nicer looking because you can tuck the quills into the fur and it adds a nice bit of loft to the finished work.

Split image: on the leve a hand holds packets of small brown speckly feathers of different types. On the right a hand disappears into a faux brown shearling head shape with feathers partly sewn on.

The feathers came with three packs of different kinds. I used one for the bulk of the head and then another to frame the eyes—Craigory is modelled after a Great Horned Owl. The first step was sorting all the eye feathers.

A series of feathers are sorted by size and type on the pink lid of a storage bin.

The final result was perfect, even with the creepy no-beak and temporary eyes look it was currently rocking.

An owl-ear tufted puppet head covered in feathers sags, with a slit for a mouth.

Finding the right material for the beak was difficult until I remembered that I had a stash of faux leather from a pair of knee high boots I wore to bits.

A hand experimentally bends sewn pieces of grey few leather in something like a wide beak shape.

Acrylic paint loves faux leather (and regular leather too, tbh), so it was easy to paint the beak black. Sewing it in was not as easy but once it was in, Craigory’s little face was looking so good!

A partly finished owlbear puppet rests against a pile of craft supplies. The head is brown feathers with tufted ears, big yellow eyes and a black beak. The body is grey-brown shaggy fur.

Sculpting the feet and hand claws was a pleasant change of pace from so much hand sewing. Made from Sculpey clay over a foil base, I based them off of owl claws while also making them a little stylised to pop against all that fur and be more expressive.

Split image: on the right a hand holds cartoonish for-fingered hands sculpted in white clay. On the right, the same hand tests clawed feet in the same clay against teh lower part of the puppet's body.
Split image: Both sides show different progress of painting clay hands and feet, with finger pads on the hands and the impression of fur on the feet.

Painting them was a little tricky, since I had so many browns from the feathers and fur to complement. The claws were coated with a gloss finish because Craigory is fancy and takes care of their nails.

A painted clay claw with glossy black talons sits on a cutting mat, with a curved needle paused as it takes thread through holes at the sides.

After that, it was just sewing the hands and feet in (which was its own sort of trial), and it was done! It was such a fun month of evenings watching this pal come together in pieces and then finally come to life.

A  moiré-d image of the back of a camera showing a puppeteer manipulating the owlbear against a blue background.

Packing up the puppet and then waiting for it to arrive was both a joy and a torture, because that’s the anticipation of giving someone a gift. But Craigory arrived safe and sound and is now much loved and I hear is going to have a custom chair built for their place on Foley’s desk.

The owlbear puppet packed into a cardboard box, with plastic carrier bags and bubblewrap surrounding him.

I wish I’d logged how many hours this pal took, just out of curiosity. Though I do think sewing those feathers took the bulk of the time! Patreon supporters will get a video of the process, which should be fun!