As a puppet and props maker, a part of my job is to make sure that what I have constructed is durable enough to last through countless rehearsals, performances and restagings. One of the most useful tools I use is adhesives. With all sorts of adhesives in the market, it can get very confusing. Adhesives like hot glue guns and contact glue are more versatile, you can practically bond anything together. Adhesive like white glue / PVA glue is very useful too, especially if you are working with paper mache.
Refer to the list below for a more comprehensive guide on how to use some of my favourite adhesives.
Contact Glue / Contact Adhesive
Description: A strong smelling yellowish liquid adhesive
Advisory: To be used in a well-ventilated area as the fume it releases is toxic
Excellent bonding strength especially when bonding two different materials together
Works on most materials
Remains yellowish when dried
Releases toxic fumes
Not suitable for Styrofoam as it will corrode the material
Does not bond well if the bonding contact surfaces are too small
Best For: Metal, Plastic, Wood, Paper and Fabric
Application: Use an applicator (eg. Ice cream stick, disposable knife or anything that has a smooth, flat surface) to apply a thin even layer of this adhesive on the two surfaces that you want to bond together. Allow the adhesive to dry partially (ie. When the adhesive looks semi-matte), then press the surfaces together for a few seconds.
If you have a big tin of contact glue, you can transfer some into a glass container with a lid. The container does not have to be airtight. This way, you can ensure that the glue remains in good condition for a longer period of time as the bulk of the glue is not constantly exposed to air.
As this adhesive dries quite quickly, always keep the cover close to ensure the adhesive stays fresh.
To prevent the cover from being stuck by the glue around the rim, apply a thin layer of vaseline or moisturiser on the inner rim of the cover.
Over time, the applicator may get saturated with adhesive. Let it dry and peel it off the applicator.
Recommendations: There are many different brands available in the market. I personally prefer GP / Dunlop. It is easier to apply as it is more liquidy.
Where to buy: hardware shops and lelong shops (usually available only in small tins)
Hot Glue Gun
Description: An applicator that melts solid sticks of glue using electricity.
Avoid direct contact with the area near the tip of the applicator and the melted glue as they are very hot.
Do not leave the hot glue gun unattended. Always switch it off when not in use.
Always use the attached stand to prop the hot glue gun up.
Allow the hot glue gun to cool before packing it away.
The surfaces of the materials may be very hot after this glue is applied, especially for materials that are very good conductors of heat. Use work gloves if necessary.
Very short drying time
Suitable for most materials that are able to withstand high heat
Suitable for small bonding surfaces
Suitable for filling of gaps and cracks quickly
Can get lumpy when dry
Bonding strength is weaker for smooth surfaces like metal and some hard plastic
Bonding strength is also weaker for sponge
Best for: Paper, Wood, Hard Plastic and Fabric
Application: Plug the hot glue gun into a power source. Wait for the glue gun to heat up. The glue gun is ready for use when liquid glue is released upon squeezing the trigger. Squeeze the glue gun and apply the glue on one side of the bonding surfaces or around the contact points of the materials that you want to bond together. Press the two surfaces together. Be careful as the surfaces may be very hot, especially for materials that are good conductors of heat.
Hot glue gun is a very versatile adhesive. Its quick drying properties makes it ideal for sculpting projects that require you to shape and stick materials like paper, wood, hard plastic, metal and fabric.
It can also be used to create 3D artwork on its own as this glue solidifies when cooled.
Recommendations: Most hot glue guns have similar functions. For safety reasons, make sure you purchase your hot glue gun from a reliable source.
Where to buy: craft shops, hardware shops and bookshops
PVA Glue (also known as White Glue / Wood Glue)
Description: A whitish liquid adhesive that dries clear and slightly glossy
Advisory: PVA Glue is generally a non-toxic glue. Still, wash your hands after use.
Non-toxic (except when consumed, of course!)
Suitable for most porous materials.
Can be removed with water when it is still wet.
Cons: Very long drying time
Best for: Wood, Paper, Styrofoam and Fabric
Application: Apply the adhesive on the two surfaces to be bonded together. Press the surfaces together. Apply pressure until the adhesive is dry. Application can be done either directly or using a paint brush.
By adding water, PVA Glue can be used for paper mache. The ratio of water to glue is about 1:3. . Less water corresponds to faster drying time but it also means that the glue may be a little more difficult to maneuver as it is thicker and stickier.
PVA Glue can also be used to give the final product a thin waterproof, slightly glossy finish
It can be painted on the strings of a marionette (string puppet) to increase the strings’ durability. Only works for porous strings.
PVA coated surfaces may become sticky when in prolonged contact with water.
Recommendations: There are many brands in the market.The difference is quite minimal. While the terms PVA Glue and Wood Glue are generally interchangeable, there are some differences. For example, some wood glue may be thicker / less watery; and may be slightly yellowish when dry. Contaminated PVA glue will not dry clear too. Hence, test the glue before use.
To avoid contaminating the adhesive, always make sure you use a clean brush / applicator.
Where to buy: craft shops, hardware shops, wood shops and bookshops
Polystyrene Glue (Foam Glue)
Description: A clear liquid adhesive that dries clear and is glossier than PVA glue
Advisory: Use in a well-ventilated room (some polystyrene glue emit very mild toxic fumes)
Pros: Does not corrode Styrofoam
Cons: Long drying time
Best For: Styrofoam and Plastics
Application: Apply the adhesive on the two surfaces to be bonded together. Press the surfaces together. Apply pressure until the adhesive is dry. Application can be done either directly or using an applicator like an ice cream stick, depending on the surface area.
This glue can also be used to protect cardboard cutouts from fraying at the edges. Unlike the PVA Glue, Polystyrene Glue does not become sticky when exposed to water.
For a cheaper option, you can use the all purpose glue (more commonly known as super glue). I find the plastic twist bottle packaging (refer to photo below) for UHU All Purpose Glue very useful as the glue does not overflow like its tube counterpart. The All Purpose Glue has the same properties as Polystyrene Glue but that the latter is more effective for polystyrene / foam materials.
Where to buy: craft shops and bookshops
Disclaimer: all photos are sourced online
The best way to find out if the adhesive is suitable for your material is to test it. Once, I applied contact glue to my puppet’s leg (which was carved out of styrofoam). The moment the glue came into contact with the styrofoam, it corroded the styrofoam, leaving a gaping hole behind. A very painful lesson but it takes accidents like this to find out if the adhesive and material are compatible. Googling helps, but the information online may not always be accurate. Take note that the description on the adhesive packaging may sometimes exaggerate the function of the adhesive.
It is also very important to pay attention to safety when using adhesives. Do not let your guard down just because it is glue. Adhesives like contact glue and super glue are flammable and release toxic fumes. Use them in a well-ventilated room if you do not wish to end up getting intoxicated. Once, I used contact glue in an air-conditioned room, the fumes stayed in the room for hours. I did not notice the smell until I stepped out and re-entered the room.
Hot glue guns operate at super high temperatures and could easily burn a hole on surfaces, your fingers and even start a fire if you are not careful. I was once working in the workshop when a hot glue gun exploded! The hot glue gun sparked and let out a loud “piak” sound, causing a power trip in the workshop. Before that accident, it never crossed my mind that it was possible for a hot glue gun to explode. But according to the internet, hot glue gun explosions are quite common due to a sudden surge in the current passing through, resulting in the ceramic heat regulator overheating and exploding.
As a maker, there is no way to avoid using adhesive. Accidents can be minimised so long as you know how to use the adhesive properly. Always read the instructions on the packaging. That should provide you with a basic understanding of how to use the adhesive. With the above list of adhesives, you can glue the world!
By: Ang Hui Bin
Hui Bin graduated from the National University of Singapore's Theatre Studies Program in 2004 and has been working in theatre as an all-round artist, specializing in puppetry, for more than 15 years.
Some of her recent works include: OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya (Puppetry Designer / Puppeteer, SIFA x The Finger Players, 2020 / 2021); Community Puppetry Workshop (Facilitator, Esplanade March On, 2021); Where the Wild Beasts Feed (Set & Headgear Designer & Maker, The Arts Fission Company, 2020 / 2021); plastik – Your World and Mine (Director / Set & Props Designer & Maker, National Arts Council x Gateway Theatre, 2019 / 2020); Curious Fish (Designer, Arts Fission, 2019); Community Shadow Puppetry Workshop (Facilitator, Esplanade Octoburst!, 2019); Beam (Director / Playwright, Tiny Feat x The Artground, 2019); H A N D S – inaugural Children’s Parade (Director / Playwright / Puppetry Designer, Esplanade Octoburst!, 2018); and Itsy – The Musical (Puppetry Designer, The Finger Players, 2017).