Small Pond Arts Puppet Wagon (1/24 scale model)

I dreamed up the Small Pond Shipyard for my fanciful scratch-built sci-fi airship creations (which still only exist in sketch/Photoshop mock-up form (and boxes in my closet) for now), but more and more ideas kept coming (this wind turbine, for example, will be part of a rather elaborate diorama I'll be working on this winter). But the Puppet Wagon was a sleeper surprise, to be sure.

[Really, though, I don't know why I was so eager to build this right away since I was planning to slowly develop my modelling skills with simpler builds first and the work my way up to more complicated projects.]

Not all parts were used/needed.

Most of these ideas have come from watching modelling videos online, and when I saw a review of this sweet little Japanese "Ramen Shop" food truck by Aoshima (right-side drive!), my brain started making jokes about customizing it to the weird food truck ideas I'd been posting on Facebook. But the more I thought about what the concept would be (bachelor food? wine pairings for your lunch? fast food sneak-away?), the less the idea of a jokey food truck appealed to me. Then I somehow hit upon the idea of a portable puppet theatre, which made more sense and tied-in nicely to the overall concept of Small Pond Arts itself.

To get my ideas in order I did a few conceptual illustrations in Photoshop using photos of the completed food truck I found online. The finished vehicle is pretty close, considering my novice modelling skills are still developing at this stage.

Chopping the shadow side.

Chopping the hand side.

The customized truck would use the openings present in the model but I needed to open them up more to allow for better puppetry; one side hand puppets, the other shadow puppets.

This model is made from plastic that's quite hard and brittle and the walls were pretty thick. I made dozens of close-together holes (see the first chopping pic for the excised parts) with my pin vise in rows along my desired resized openings then carefully cut between them with an X-acto knife. I then smoothed the edges with a metal file.


I put the body (the cab comes attached to the cargo area) together with the chassis and wheels to see how my enlarged windows looked and if there were any problems with fitting.

Filling holes and reinforcing cracks.

I used Bondo glazing applied with a toothpick to fill the locator holes I wouldn't need (there were lots of parts like signs and lanterns for the food truck kit I wouldn't be using (see the image on the box)). I had to cut a hole for my LEDs to exit the van and get attached to the awning on the hand puppet side, but the brittle plastic cracked, so I reinforced the weakened area with some plastic leftover from enlarging the windows.

Production value!

Not having done any lighting of this kind before, I was equally excited and nervous about it. I knew it would look great if it worked out according to my plan, but there was a very high probability of really messing this up, so I decided to take it slow and carefully plan every step. I hoped the whole thing could be self-contained, with the batteries living inside the truck, but there was so little room for all my puppet staging as well as two big 12-volts...and accessing them later on would be difficult (do I build an access door in the back? in the roof?).

Here, you can see one switch in place (but not finally installed, as I would be doing lots more work and the wires would get in the way) and the hole cut (rectangle on the left) for the other one. The lighting kit was custom-made (i.e. I chose the number of LEDs per strip, their colour (warm white), and the length of the wires) by a company in the UK.

I consulted my boss, who builds models himself, about my battery problem and he suggested building a trailer for them. This was the perfect solution: the batteries would live in the trailer and I could access them easily to disconnect/replace them at any time in the future.

Mock-up for safety.

I researched real trailers online and got some good reference images for my build (I felt it would be more fun to scratch-build this rather than look for a kit to buy), then I carefully measured and built a mock-up out of cardboard.

Test-fitting and test-lighting.

I thought about building a hatch that swung open, but a cap that lifts off easily was easier to build and looks just as good. Making cardboard mock-ups is a quick, cost-effective, simple, disposable, instructive, and fun method of working out ideas in three dimensions before committing to styrene.


This is the sheet styrene version of the trailer. The wires are pretty stiff, so I cut a hole for each in the bottom (instead of the single hole used in the mock-up) so the batteries would lie flat in the container.

Test-fitting the set-up.
This sort of gives me the feeling like the trailer's up on blocks, but the box had to be built first to be the right size for the batteries; the frame, wheels, and installation of the front panel would come later.

Screenless lighting test.

Still proceeding slowly and carefully, I did a quick lighting test of both sides in the new Trailer Configuration to see if there would be any problems. I would end up doing lots of light-blocking to get rid of all that glow by painting the inside with several coats of black acrylic.

Taped-up lighting test.

I taped the LEDs to the underside of the hand puppet side awning (which is, itself, taped into position on the truck) to shine down on the puppets that will be inside.


The trailer box was custom-built to fit the batteries, then the trailer frame was custom-built to fit the box. I used rod styrene based on trailer frame images found online and measurements of the battery box. I thought the rod styrene I bought was square in cross section, but it turned out to be slightly rectangular, but it still looked good for the frame.

Another test.

I put the trailer back "on blocks" to see how the overall set-up looked. The truck is 1/24 scale, but my trailer was improvised based primarily on the size of the two 12v batteries, not taking into account actual scale (except "by eye" and intuition), but going for verisimilitude –as long as it looks believable, it'll work for me...and it does.


For the hand side, I decided to recreate the penultimate scene of Krista's sock puppet opera short film The Perfect Match (for which I did the storyboards, so I've sorta come full circle, design-wise). The hands are courtesy of a Tamiya 1/24 scale mechanics set I got for another diorama (which contains so much good stuff I'm using bits and pieces all over the place already).


The trailer needed to latch onto the truck somehow, so I used an extra bit of chromed sprue from my C-3PO build and heavily reinforced the inside. It looks like it sticks out too far, here, but I tested the fit with the truck body to make sure it cleared the bottom of the cargo section.


I chose Tamiya's Italian Red spray paint for the red portions of the puppet wagon and it was naturally perfect for the trailer frame and cap (below). Everything was primed with Tamiya's grey spray primer first.

Nice, but...

I liked the red and black scheme (the black is from a Tamiya spray can, flat), but felt a touch of silver was in order (see trailer cap trimmed with silver below) for that extra magical touch.


So many little bits and sub-assemblies done, but still not ready for full assembly. The red and black scheme extended into the cab interior and the sock puppet stage was painted –all parts were done with Tamiya acrylics from those little jars. The truck was spray painted flat black, waiting for its red trim...


The Italian Red looks different and a little darker/richer over the black compared to the red-over-primer of the trailer parts, but I thought it looked quite nice...that is, until I peeled the masking tape off!


I must've hit the truck too hard with the red and it bled under the tape (and/or the tape wasn't burnished properly). Anyway: disaster. You can see the effect I was going for, but the black would need to be re-done.

Sock puppets!

Each sock has met its match (I just realized I need to add a watch on the one on the left! I'll fix it and show it in the update I plan when I get some shots of the truck outside in the daylight). The hands were bare and the arms covered by the long sleeves of their mechanic's jumpsuit. I used tissue paper soaked with white glue, applied with a paint brush, to make the socks. Then I hand painted them with Tamiya flat acrylics.


I simplified the door scheme and repainted the sides using Tamiya gloss black spray this time which looks better and richer. I then added some silver trim for accents all 'round. Once the paint was fully cured I installed the cab interior and windows.

Hand side assembled.

The puppet opera stage was installed and the awning (with LED strip super-glued underneath) was attached (also with super glue) to the hand puppet side. The LEDs light up the scene very nicely!

Solution to the solution.

First, I realized the two 12v batteries couldn't conveniently go inside the truck, so I built a trailer for them. Then, once the wheels were attached to the trailer, I found the batteries were back heavy! It wouldn't stay hitched! I could have solved this problem by attaching the wheels so they didn't roll, but the truck's wheels were active (the front ones are even linked to be posed as though turning left and right), so I felt the trailer's wheels should roll, too. I split the axle on the toy car the wheels came from and built a new, wider axle out of tube styrene to fit the width of the trailer. I then used metal from a Coke can to attache the axle to the trailer's frame so that the wheels could roll.

Edward, who suggested building a trailer in the first place, suggested attaching something heavy to the front of the trailer, like a jerry can or a spare tire, which I had from other kits. But, better still, I found a heavy duty case in that mechanics set that worked perfectly and still looked appropriate. For weight I filled it with as many small nuts as would fit.

Final pre-assembly.

Getting very close to completion, here's the shadow side about to be installed with the LED strip super-glued to the wall that would, along with the hand side wall, sandwich all the wiring. The nut-filled case is at bottom right and that flat red bit at bottom will close up the back window (temporarily left off in case I needed to fiddle with the insides after the chassis was attached).

Really final pre-assembly.

This was actually the last chance I'd get to make adjustments before attaching the shadow side lighting wall and the chassis. On a piece of sheet styrene I painted an image of Guy Doucette from the shadow play Unjustly (also written by Krista) –I used a bit of a paper clip for the rod on his arm– and super-glued that in place.

A better look at the finished trailer.

I used the metal from a Coke can for the hitch and the wheels came from a toy car I got for free from a hobby shop in Belleville. The dangling wires kind of bug me, but I want to keep them loose for battery disconnection/replacement in the future. I guess I could tuck them in a bit better somehow. We'll see...

Semi-complete and lit.

I still need to add a few more things like a sign for each play, licence plates, and tail light painting...maybe some silver trim clean-up, here and there, too, but I may forego the weathering of the tires for this model since it's so cumbersome...again, we'll see. The chassis didn't get any attention, either, since no one will see it and the two light switches are down there, anyway.
Yeah, those dangling wires look bad...

Shadow side.

The shadow figure's a little soft, but sometimes shadow puppets are a little soft. I could have made the image sharper by trying other, thinner translucent materials like vellum, but I was eager to complete the wagon. I'm happy with it. I also don't mind the light leak under the van; it adds a bit of drama and interest (the rest of the truck is fairly well light-blocked).

Dramatically red.

Seen from the front, the puppet wagon is pretty bold, which is a conspicuous contrast to the darkness of the sides (deliberately dark so as not to interfere with the respective shows, of course).

Seen only from office windows in tall buildings.

The idea, of course, is that the awning would be retractable when there isn't a hand puppet show going on, but that's not within my modelling skills right now...certainly not at this scale!

Hand side stays handy.

Shadow side stays shadowy.

I'll post an update when the rest of the puppet wagon is put together, but it's about 98% complete at this point. I'll shoot it outside soon, because models looks great outdoors in the sunlight and/or with natural backgrounds. Stay tuned...


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