For Christmas this year, I decided to make my son a puppet theater. I recently saw a vintage Guignol puppet theater from the 1800’s in France for kids. The design is SO cute! But you can’t buy them anymore so I decided to make a DIY puppet theater. I hope my son loves this! If you want to make one for a child in your life too, here’s the instructions.
how to make a diy puppet theater
Let’s start with the video tutorial so you get an overview on what I did. Then, I’ll dive in with more details below:
If the video doesn’t work here, you can watch it on YouTube here. I’d be so grateful if you subscribed to my YouTube channel! Videos are actually released on YouTube first (usually the night before they’re published on the blog). Thank you!
what is a Guignol theater?
Laurent Morguet is the creator of Guignol. He lived in Lyon, France in 1797 where he was a dentist. He set up a puppet show in front of his dentist’s chair to attract patients. By 1804 his puppets were so successful, Laurent gave up being a dentist and became a professional puppeteer.
The puppet shows were originally put on for adults, but over time they were altered to become tailored for children. You can still see Guignol puppet shows in Lyon, France to this day!
In the 1800’s, as the puppet shows became popular, toy puppet theaters were produced for children to be used at home. Each have the name “Guignol” painted on it. Some were for use on a table top, some were taller and free standing. Each had decorative molding, fabric curtains, and a fabric backdrop.
Note, this vintage Guignol theater is currently available on eBay. It has the measurements listed as 47″h x 23″w x 3.5″d. I had a hard time finding measurements for vintage theaters, so that was helpful (though I did go bigger).
- 4 Brass Hinges
- Cat Printable Art
- 24″x36″ Canvas
- Trim for around Canvas
- Shell Center Onlay (main top one)
- Right and Left Onlay (on either side of main shell one)
- Round Rosettes
- Shells on the top left and right
- Banner Onlay
- Mini Corbels
- Rope Trim
- Egg and Dart Trim
- Rub ‘n Buff Gold Metallic Finish
- Drapery Rod Holder (mine were found thrifting for $4 for both). Alternative Rod Holder Choice
- Mint Paint- Frosted Sage
- Four 2×4’s
- Baseboard Trim that’s 4 1/2″ high
- Craftsman Trim (to go behind baseboard trim)
- 1/2″ Plywood
- Ledge Wood
- Mod Podge
- Alphabet Stickers
- 36″ long dowels for backdrop and curtains
- Velvet Fabric- color arctic 1/2 yard
- Fabric for the sides of the theater (discontinued- similar option linked)- 1 yard
- Fabric trim to cover staples– 1 yard
- Gold Tassels
- Ivory Ribbon
- Tapestry Pillow Case (antique shop find- similar option linked)
- Puppet Animals and Puppet Guys
- Ball Knobs
- Dowel Screws
step 1- cut list
Start by cutting all the wood and trim to size. Here’s the cut list for making this exact theater-
Use the Miter Saw to cut the below. Do 90 degree straight cuts unless noted-
- Four 2×4’s– cut to 64″, 64″, 53″, 53″, 29″, 29″, 29″, 12″, 12″, 12″, and 12.”
- Baseboard trim- cut to 36″
- Craftsman Trim– cut to 36″
- Rope Trim- cut to 30″, 30″
- Ledge Wood– cut to 30-1/8″
- Egg and Dart Trim- cut to 21″ (miter one end), 21″ (miter one end), and 30″ (miter both ends)
- Trim for around Canvas– cut to 23-7/8″, 23-7/8″, 36″ and 36″- miter both ends on all pieces
Use the Table Saw to cut-
- Plywood– cut to 15″ tall by 36″ wide
Use the Jig Saw to cut-
- Ledge Wood– notch out two corners 1-1/2″ high by 9/16″ wide
- Banner Onlay– trim top off the banner onlay
step 2- build the frame
Next, after the wood is cut, begin building the frame. First, screw the bottom support piece of 2×4 (the one that’s 29″) in to the two sides of the theater (the pieces that are 64″). We only had 3″ long screws on hand, so we used a drill to attach them diagonally through the two pieces of wood.
Note, having a 5″ long screw would be easier so you could go through the side of the wood.
Then, screw in the next support piece 28 1/4″ up.
Once that’s in, nail the craftsman trim to the front of the bottom 2×4. This is a spacer piece that will push the baseboard out so it’s in front of the canvas.
Nail the canvas on top of it. The canvas makes up the front of the bottom of the puppet theater.
On top of the spacer craftsman trim, nail the baseboard onto the bottom of the puppet theater.
Use screws to attach the ledge into place. The ledge goes above the middle support piece. Note, we originally tried nailing it into the 2×4, but it was flimsy. So we stitched to screws for attaching the ledge and it feels very sturdy.
Last, screw in the top support piece of 2×4. This one goes in 12″ down from the top of the puppet theater. There should be a 20″ high by 29″ wide opening for the puppets.
Once that’s in, the front frame is officially complete!
step 3- add on decorative trim
And now, start installing the decorative trim on the DIY puppet theater. First, nail in the rope trim so the top is touching the canvas. The bottom should be even with the ledge.
Next, nail in the egg and dart trim around the opening- next to the rope trim and around on the bottom of the highest support 2×4. This will frame in the opening for the puppets nicely.
Note, we next used a filler piece above the rope trim as spacers for the rod holders. Your rope trim should be longer than what we used if you follow the cut list so you can skip this step. We only had two scrap pieces of this trim and it wasn’t quite long enough so we made do with the filler piece.
On the back of the top supports, nail in the piece of plywood. This creates the top of the puppet theater.
Put the rod holders in place. These will hold up the curtain for the puppet theater. To attach the rod holders, screw them in from the back of the puppet theater.
Now, for the fun part! Use a nail gun to attach the onlays. I looked at lots of pictures of vintage children’s theaters and tried to replicate the look with the onlays I used. Rosettes on either side of the top.
Shells for the top side pieces.
Mini corbels for the bottom of the rope molding.
A large onlay for the top center. We nailed that in from behind. If needed, glue can also be used to attach the onlays.
I used glue for attaching a few of the top onlays to make them extra steady. I needed wet q-tips for cleaning up excess glue.
The puppet theater really comes to life with all the trim attached!
step 4- finish work on the front of theater
Now that the bones of the front are in place, let’s move onto the finish work! First, I’m using a print I bought on Etsy to cover the canvas. I had it printed at my local FedEx print shop onto architectural paper. The art plus printing it cost me $40- which is not cheap. But my son will love the cat art! A cheaper alternative would be to thrift an already painted canvas.
To attach the print to the canvas, I first covered the whole canvas in Mod Podge.
Then I layered the paper on top of the canvas and it immediately got a bunch of wrinkles! I couldn’t get most of them out, but I decided to be fine with it as it really added to the aged look.
Then I covered the front in more Mod Podge to give it a nice finish. Just as a warning- it’ll look like you ruined your print when the Mod Podge is first applied. It looks cloudy and gross. But it’ll dry clear and give the art some protection by having that extra finishing layer.
Next, paint the trim that’ll go on top of the canvas. It’s best to paint it before installing it since it’d be super tricky to paint the edges without getting paint on the art.
Fill all holes on the puppet theater with wood filler. On the trim and onlays where nail holes created holes, use the wood filler so they are no longer visible. If the holes are extra big or deep, apply a second layer of wood filler after the first one if dry.
Nail the trim onto the front of the canvas when the paint and Mod Podge are dry. Fill those holes with wood filler too.
Sand the dried wood filler until it is smooth.
Then paint all of the trim and wood and onlays your color of choice. I went with Frosted Sage by Behr.
Next, use calk to fill the seams where two pieces of trim touch.
Give the whole puppet theater a second coat of paint. At this point, we stood up the front of the puppet theater to see how it looks! It’s very easy to see how the theater is coming together!
step 5- more finish work
Use gold rub and buff to highlight the details on the trim and onlays. I like to put a piece of scrap fabric over my finger to protect it during application (no one wants a gold finger). Another option is to use gloves or a small paint brush. This is such a fun step because it immediately looks old and interesting!
If you want, paint the ribbon onlay white. I wasn’t happy with how it blended in while the mint color so I just painted it white. It took a few coats fo paint, but it really popped when complete.
Use a Cricut to create a theater sign in gold vinyl. Another option is to use alphabet stickers to get the same look.
I cut the letters out with my Cricut Joy. Then I weeded out the extra vinyl. Over the top of the letters I added transfer paper.
Then I peeled off the transfer tape with the stickers attached before putting that on the front of the ribbon onlay. I pulled off the transfer tape for the perfectly placed letters. I LOVE how this looks!
To finish the theater sign, I used more of the gold run and buff to highlight the details. Now it’s starting to really look like a DIY puppet theater!
Step 6- Side supports
Now that the front is pretty much done, let’s build the side supports. These are really simple, screw the 12″ pieces of 2×4 into the top and bottom of the 53″ 2×4. Create two of these- one for each side.
Then, attach a hinge to the ends.
Next, attach the hinge to the puppet theater.
The side supports have three functions- they keep support the puppet theater so it stays standing up, they give a place for the back drop to attach to, and when fabric is added, they hide the puppeteer.
Use a drill bit to create a hole for the backdrop in the side support pieces.
This makes it so the backdrop can hang behind the opening for the pupped theater.
Note, our backdrop is 5″ from the front of the 2×4.
Paint the side supports so they blend in with the rest of the theater.
We figured out this project as we went. It’d probably be easiest to create the side supports after the frame for the front of the puppet theater is complete. Then all finish work can be done more efficiently at the same time.
After the side supports are painted, use fabric to cover the sides. Fabric is perfect because it acts like a curtain to hide the puppeteer, but it can be moved so you can easily get in and out of the puppet booth. To prep the fabric, serge all the edges. Then, hem over the bottom three edges. For the top edge, use a staple gun to attach the fabric to the top of the side supports.
Last, glue fabric trim to hide the staples.
step 7- curtains
For the curtains for the front of the DIY puppet theater, use velvet fabric to make them. I cut the fabric down 24″ long. Then I cut it in half to make two curtain panels. I used white velvet because I love how they look. My local Joann Fabrics had a bunch of colors of nice velvet fabric in the upholstery section!
I began by serging all sides of the fabric. Then I folded the edges over to hem three sides. For the top, I folded it over about 3″ and sewed it to create a pole pocket. But I put in on the dowel and it was hard to open and close, so I decided to try another solution. This time I used ribbon on the back of the curtain panels to create tabs.
I ended up using 7 tabs on each curtain panel. One thing I wish I would’ve done is cut the ribbon longer and fold it over at the top and bottom. It would’ve been more durable that way. Here’s how the back of the curtain looks once installed on the dowel.
For the end of the dowels, I added a wood knob to act as a finial.
That was attached with a dowel screw (which is pretty much a double sided screw).
I really wanted the curtains to be able to be held back and opened easily by a child. This is a detail that takes time, but I think makes it special! With another piece of ribbon I sewed a piece of string on the end that I tied in a knot.
Then, in the side of the DIY puppet theater, we installed a cup hook to hold the curtains open.
Last, I sewed the other end of the ribbon on the side of the curtain. Now, it’s easy for my son to just un-hook the ribbon and the curtains will close!
For the backdrop of the puppet theater, I used a pillow case I bought from an antique shop for $3! I thought it would be perfect! First I un-picked all the seams so I had a piece of fabric.
Next, I serged all the edges so they’d be finished. Last, I folded over the top edge and sewed a pole pocket with my sewing machine.
That way it can fit nicely on a dowel for the backdrop.
Ta da! Here is how the puppet turned out. Isn’t it so special?! I cannot wait to show my son on Christmas morning! I envision watching many puppet shows here. And I’m so excited!
I’m really proud of how this came out. We worked so hard to get every detail right. I think it looks like the inspiration, but tweaked to work for our house.
The trim details are my favorite part of the DIY puppet theater. I think they look old and interesting. I’m so proud of this project.
For this DIY puppet theater. project I bought- 4 2×4’s at $3.75 each for $15 total. 4 Brass Hinges at $3.93 each for $16 total. Cat printable art– the art is $5 and printing it is $35 for $40 total. 24″x36″ Canvas– I got this on sale at my local craft store for $15. All of the Onlays were $105 with tax (the biggest splurge of this project).
I had most of the trim on hand as well as the drapery rod holder, mint paint, plywood, ledge wood, mod Podge, and caulk.
The Rub ‘n Buff is $8. The dowels cost $6. Velvet fabric cost $13. I spent $7 on clearance fabric for the sides of the puppet theater and $1 on fabric trim. I bought gold tassels for $4. Ivory ribbon for $5. For the puppets, I got two sets for $37 total. I got wood balls for finials for $8 and dowel screws for $2 to attach them. $3 antique shop tapestry pillowcase.
For this project I spent a total of $284. Which is a lot! I tried to do it as affordably as I could while still getting the look I want. I wish it’d been less than $200, but what can you do?
So there you have it! My DIY puppet theater! It took me about 6 days working on this. It was more work than I thought it’d be, but I’m very happy with it. I hope Don will always remember the Christmas he got a puppet theater for a gift. I sure hope it’ll be a special memory for him.
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