Build a portable kids puppet theatre

This puppet theatre for your kids is easy to make and take down, all in the name of fun

By Rick Campbell

puppet theatre

Photo by Tracy Cox

This easy-to-build puppet theatre should provide hours of imaginative play for the young kids in your life, and it tucks out of the way between dramatic productions. That’s because the unit comes apart in minutes, making it perfect for hiding under a bed or in a closet.

The secret is interlocking slots that allow the walls to go together without the need for tools or mechanical fasteners. A lightweight fabric roof, supported by crossbars, adds to the jovial look without adding much weight.

I made this project using two and a half sheets of 1/2″-thick Baltic birch plywood, but you can substitute hardwood-veneered cabinet ply. The advantage of Baltic birch is it has fewer voids between the all-hardwood layers, plus more than twice as many plies as conventional plywood. It comes in unconventional 5 x 5 sheet sizes, which actually work best for the dimensions of this project. Avoid using veneered particleboard: it’s much heavier and not nearly as strong–an important consideration when it comes to all of the playhouse’s interlocking slots.

Instructions

Frame the House

Begin by cutting out plywood panels for the walls, the roof peaks and the window ledges using a tablesaw or a circular saw guided by a straightedge. Don't cut the angled top edges of the roof peaks just yet, though: leave these parts square for now.

Next, prepare the interlocking slots that connect the panels. I used a dado blade in a tablesaw with a board clamped to the fence to serve as a stop.

Start by setting up your dado blade to form a slot that will receive the plywood without binding or excessive side-to-side play. Finding the right slot size may require experimenting on scrap wood with different combinations of chippers and shims.

Assembly

Continue by clamping a small block to the fence to limit slot length, then orient the slot position relative to the plywood part edges by adjusting the saw fence. For consistency, complete all slots requiring the same setup before repositioning the fence and stop block for the next bunch due to the curvature of the blade. Remove this with a sharp chisel and mallet after completing the cuts on the sides with a jigsaw.

Once the slots are done, cut the angled top edges on the roof panels and roundover the top corners of the wall panels and all four corners of the ledges. Removing the exposed sharp corners is important for safety reasons.

Now it's time to cut the oval openings in the wall and roof panels that receive the roof and curtain rails. Each one is 3/4"-wide x 2"-high, with rounded ends. Complete the ends first by drilling holes using a 3/4"-dia. spade bit. To avoid tearout, drill halfway through the plywood, then flip the panels over and finish from the other side. Connect the edge of the circles with scribed pencil lines, then cut along the inside with a jigsaw.

Tackle the windows next. You can cut the openings with a jigsaw, but a tablesaw does a better job. Start by drawing window shapes with horizontal and vertical lines extending all the way to the edge of the panels. Next, make reference marks on your tablesaw fence relative to the leading and trailing edges of the saw blade. Position the fence for the first cut and you're ready to proceed. Turn on the saw, then plunge the panel over the raised blade using the reference marks on the fence and layout lines on the panels. Just be sure to keep your hands away from the area where the blade penetrates the plywood. Complete all four sides before using a jigsaw to finish off the area in the corners that couldn't be reached by the curved saw blade. If you're not comfortable making the initial cuts with a tablesaw, you can get a similar effect with a circular saw and a straightedge, working from the top of the panel.

For safety and appearance, round most of the edges on both sides of the panels using a 1/4"-rad. bearing-guided bit installed in a handheld router. Leave the bottom edge of the window openings and walls square for better stability. Finally, assemble the panels to see how everything fits.

The rails that support the fabric for the curtains and roof are made from two-inch-wide strips of solid wood. I used birch, but any material you have on hand will do just fine. Reduce the thickness of the material so it fits easily in the 3/4"-wide oval pockets prepared earlier, then roundover the edges with a 3/8"-rad. bearing-guided bit to match the ends of the openings. To prevent the rails from sliding out when playtime gets a little too rambunctious, cut 1/4"-deep notches on the ends to hook over the plywood panels.

Finishing Up

Finishing the playhouse involves making it safe. Prepare for painting by sanding all panels with 220-grit paper. Examine the edges for splintering. Splinters can break off, creating a potential danger for children. Remove any loose material and fill the voids with wood filler before resanding the area.

To brighten and protect the panels, I applied two coats of brightly coloured latex paint. Select a paint that's both washable and safe for children. As you work, avoid getting paint into the slots, where it can rub off on the opposing panels during assembly. If some does find its way into the openings, just scrape it off with a sharp chisel after it dries. I protected the rails with four coats of wipe-on polyurethane, but you can paint these as well if you prefer.

A sewing machine makes short work of the fabric panels for the curtains and roof. Sew sleeves on the ends of the roof panel and tops of the curtains to receive the wood rails. It's also a good idea to hem the edges to prevent fraying.

Assemble the plywood panels and install the curtains and roof. If you find the added thickness of the paint is making the panels difficult to fit together, try rubbing a wax candle inside the slot openings.

Your kids will be thrilled when they see what you've built in the shop. And rest assured that all your hard work guarantees you a front-row seat for the premiere performance at the new pint-sized theatre.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

Side walls Baltic birch 1/2" x 34" x 43" 2
Front wall Baltic birch 1/2" x 46" x 18" 1
Roof peaks Baltic birch 1/2" x 46" x 18 1/2" 2
Side ledges Baltic birch 1/2" x 6" x 22" 2
Front ledge Baltic birch 1/2" x 6" x 46" 1
Roof rails birch 3/4" x 2" x 29" 3
Curtain rails birch 3/4" x 2" x 37" 2
Roof fabric 2 yards 1
Curtains fabric 2 yards front, 3 yards back 2



* Length indicates grain direction

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Build a portable kids puppet theatre

Illustration by Len Churchill

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