Building Brad: The Reconstruction

The Rebuild


To summarize the previous posts, my goal was to convert a ventriloquist doll to look like our company's CEO, Brad.  I knew I didn't just want to repair Lil' Brad back into a working entry-level pull-string dummy with no head movement (no nodding up and down, no turning side to side).  I wanted a figure that moved like the ones I saw on TV and in films.

The term I was looking for (and found) is "semi-pro".  This generally indicates a figure that has a hollow body with a control stick inside to make the mouth and head movements vs. the entry level stuffed body with only a pull string coming out of the neck to open and close the mouth.

As mentioned above, this is what I was starting with: a soiled, worn-out looking "Tommy Talker" doll with an old homemade suit and the yellowed remains of a what was once a fancy, frilly shirt.  Oh, and a broken jaw.. :|
 

(Note: Tommy Talker was actually a 26" tall doll, but I will refer to him as a 30" doll since the conversion parts are sized for 30" and to distinguish from a pro 2T or 3T size figure.  Braylu's 30" conversion parts and clothes can be made to work for any of the 24"-30" size range toy ventriloquist dolls.)


1. Start with a clean doll.  


Per Arlie's instructions, I needed to wash him off by hand with a mild detergent solution.  [Warning: naked dummies ahead.]

I removed the old clothes and though I was tempted to trash them, I saved them in case I needed to scavenge anything later.  (Unlikely since Brad's body would be a different shape and size when I was done, but you never know.)
Some of the clothing was stitched to the body, so I had to carefully cut it away.

I washed decades of "play wear" (aka schmutz), from his molded vinyl head and hands. 

'Before' picture: Wash your face!

I also spot-cleaned his cloth body as best I could.  This was not that critical since the body would always be hidden, but I wanted to be thorough and honestly it decreased the nasty factor a bit.  It did not make much of visible difference, but I felt better.  Turns out most of the torso was discarded anyway, read on.

FRONT
BACK

2. Fit the doll to the frame

The next step was to take the cleaned up doll and convert it to a control stick semi-pro dummy using the "RETROFIT KIT FOR 30" DOLLS - SET A" from Braylu.  

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who are able to photograph and document everything as they are doing it, so there is a gap here of when I cut apart the body, but here is an illustration showing where I cut:




After making the cuts very carefully (think dummy surgery here), I removed all of the body stuffing, leaving only the stuffing in the arms and legs.

My original plan was to kind of wrap the old cloth body around the wooden frame, leaving the back open, but that did not work out - it just would not fit.  So I removed the arms with a fair amount of the shoulder fabric for a "tab" to attach the arm to the frame.  Then I removed the whole area below the waist/belly of the dummy, including butt, lower belly and leg areas - basically it looked like a pair of pants with feet.  I made sure to leave a lot of fabric for attaching -you can always cut away excess later.

I attached the arms to the wooden frame with a staple gun, using the extra fabric length from the shoulder area to attach it.  I reinforced the attachment "tab" with (gasp) duct tape.  


FRONT

I attached the butt/leg assembly to the bottom of the frame with the staple gun.  I cleaned up the excess fabric later.


BACK



3. Modify/customize the frame

The next part of the basic torso conversion was adding some additional vertical "ribs" to the front with dowel rods, so the figure would more of a filled-out look, and I would be able to cover the front of the torso with a fabric skin more easily.  I just carefully cut these to size and glued them in place with regular white glue.
(Note: The extra ribs are optional, but I think it adds some depth to the torso.)


mmm, Ribs.

Next I covered the front and side of the torso with white craft felt from Wally World, using my lil' friend the staple gun once again.



Starting to look good..

  


I made a neck lining piece out of chamois cloth; this smooths and quiets the movement of the rounded neck transition piece against the body's neck socket.  I did not get a picture of this before the shoulder pads were attached, but it went on before/under the shoulder pads:



I also added body and shoulder padding from Braylu ("Body Padding-2T"), but I removed some of the stuffing to slim it down to fit my 30" doll.  
I carefully made a slit in the back of the padding with an X-acto knife and covered the slit with duct tape after removing some stuffing.

I also had to creatively fold it to fit the 30" frame.  As I learned, most things in dummy creation or rebuilding require modification of some sort.


careful cutting
Ready to staple.





Fortunately, the duct tape was hidden once the shoulder pads were in place:
yeah, I work out..

 



4. Can we talk? - Head conversion and mouth control

The standard straightforward approach for converting the head would be to attach the head with small screws to the wooden disc  at the top of the controller setup after drilling a hole for the pull string to come through and attach to the mouth trigger.  

You want to carefully determine the best location to drill by looking at the drop angle of the string that will produce the smoothest action.  There may be some trial-and-error of hole and trigger placement to achieve the best result.

Here is the standard wooden control stick setup sold by Braylu


photo from braylu.com

For whatever reason (could be something unique to the Tommy Talker configuration), I could not get a string setup to work satisfactorily, so I opted for a custom brass control rod and custom wooden trigger to control Brad's mouth action.






The one thing I would have done differently is coat the brass rod with a clear sealant before fitting it to the jaw and trigger: it gave off a smudgy dark residue as I handled it, and I got some on the neck and head.  I was able to get most of it off with alcohol and a rag.

Another photo miss: I realize I do not have a photo of the control rod attachment to the jaw.  I will add one if/when I have his head apart for maintenance.  Basically I bent the rod into a loop that goes through the hole for the pull string on the jaw, then theaded it through a hole I drilled in the neck transition and onto the trigger.  This took hours of trial-and-error to get it just right, but I was very satisfied with the smooth, quiet operation that resulted.

The head/neck/controller assembly sits on top of the body and is held in place by a rubber band attached to eye hooks on the control stick and the inside bottom of the body. (see above picture, just below my hand.)  I may upgrade this to a more reliable material at some point (like sewing elastic), but it is fine for now.

Lastly, you may notice I have a screw in the back of the head between the neck material and the transition, thus pitching the head forward a bit.  This is intentional, since if I put the screw through the plastic neck the angle of his head when assembled to the body was too far back, to my eye anyway.

Normally the two side screws would hold the head fast to the transition, but the neck of my doll would not sit flush on the transition, so the extra/third screw was necessary to prevent unwanted back and forth play of the head.



This concludes the nuts-and-bolts rebuilding part.  The remainder is painting and wardrobe.  

Here is me proudly showing my wife the "beta" version of Lil' Brad (the video/audio quality is terrible - I blame Brad):




5. Repainting: hair and eyebrows

Once I had Brad's body and mouth mechanism rebuilt, it was time to move on to aesthetics.  His now clean head and hands looked OK, and his rebuilt torso and limbs would be covered by clothes, but his painted-on hair and eyebrows were worn off and the wrong color.

I used discount store acrylic paint and custom-mixed the shade of whitish-gray I wanted.  Another regret: I should have spent a bit more on some decent paint; the cheap paint was tacky to the touch days after application. After about a week, I purchased some ModPodge clear sealer and sealed off the still-sticky paint.  

I'm not sure if painting vinyl was the problem or the paint type -I will be more careful next time.  I now have multiple extra heads of various vinyl figures to experiment on before my next project.

There isn't much else to detail here that the pictures don't show:









6. Wardrobe

Dressing a ventriloquist doll is surprising difficult.  The clothes they are sold with are custom made, and dolls in the 24"-30" range don't really match any ready-made human sizes.  Baby clothes are acceptable if you find the right item, but babies are kind of wide and chubby, and entry-level ventriloquist dolls are long and thin, compared to the head size.  
(Of course the dummy's head is where the attention is, so skimping on the body is an understandable economic compromise.)

Braylu sells some basic replacement clothes for 30" dolls, and ThrowThings.com sells replacement shoes.

I was able to use the pants sold by Braylu in a basic khaki color and a 6-month size baby shirt to dress Brad in a typical CEO "business casual" look.
The shirt was too wide and long so I had to roll up the sleeves and fold/staple it in back to make it a decent fit.



I also made a custom turtleneck for him for a company event out of a 6-month size "onesie". I trimmed off the bottom part and hemmed it to make it into a shirt. The side snaps for the neck make getting it on and off easy.  I also cut out an access hole in the back and hemmed it in, so I could avoid the clumsy method of sticking my hand up the back of the untucked shirt.
I used gaffer's tape to hold down the edges of the hem inside.
The letters are iron-on.

original garment

Outside back

Inside back

Show time!

I don't know how to sew, so I used various methods to alter the clothes: staples, iron-on hem tape, safety pins, etc.  I really need to learn how to sew.


7. That's all folks..

Well kids, that is everything I currently know about converting a 24-30" size range toy ventriloquist doll to a semi-pro dummy.  The main thing I learned is - you learn by doing.  If you have basic DIY or crafts skills, you can have fun making or converting figures.  Honestly, I probably spent more money than if I had just bought a converted figure, but my needs were very specific.
The added benefit is my family and coworkers now think I'm nuts.

I have several other dummy projects in planning stage, mostly mini-me versions of friends and family.  I will post them to the main blog page when I have some progress.

Please feel free to add your comments or questions below.


Before and After pictures:


From scuzzy...
to snazzy!





Research and Resources


OK, did I mention I had zero experience repairing or converting ventriloquist dummies?  Well, I had no idea where to begin, so... to the internet I went.

It's been over a year since I did my research and decided on a general approach and the parts needed, so some of the details escape me now, but several resources I found invaluable were:


BRAYLU CUSTOM CREATIONS website at http://www.braylu.com/

  • They sell semi-pro figures and build kits and supplies for all levels of figures.
    • I ordered the Retrofit Kit - For 30" dolls - Set A
    • The Braylu staff were very helpful and answered my novice questions with patience.
    • I also ordered the Body Padding - 2T.  Even though it was not strictly necessary for a 30" doll conversion, I felt my figure needed to look a little beefier, and I did not want the wooden frame showing through the clothes.
    • Braylu's FAQ page provided some basic info on how-to and also links to some of the more detailed info available on the web, such as..


    “The Fred Project” website at http://www.alstevens.com/ventriloquism/fred.html
    • Awesome step-by-step instructions on a kit build.
      • A great list of supplies and where to get them are on this site also.
      • The kit Al Stevens used and an awesome book are available through...

        Figure Making Can Be Fun?!?, the above-mentioned book by Michael Brose.
        • 200 pages and lots of pictures.  Indispensible.
        • The perfect companion to “The Fred Project”.
        • Added bonus for me, it gave a photo credit to my old college roommate -small world. 


        Arlie Everett's articles on identifying and repairing entry-level/toy ventriloquist dummies at http://www.ventriloquistcentral.com/ventriloquism-tribute/ventriloquist-toys/index.htm
        • Also linked from the Braylu site.


          ThrowThings.com website at https://www.throwthings.com/gallery2.asp?search=101 

          • It has a good video explaining the difference between the different levels of dummies. They also sells dummies and accessories (and a lot of other stuff). 
          • In addition to gaining some knowledge about the different levels of figures available ready-made, I found some replacement shoes for Brad. 

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