During the early production months, each puppets head was turned by hand on a lathe which was very time consuming and also allowed different shapes dependent on how the wood turner felt at the time.
Some were round, some were oval and some almost square with the corners turned off. This was a real problem for Bob Pelham and his staff.
As with many production problems, a solution came quite by accident, and as the result of something that had been going on under his nose for years.
For centuries, by ancient charter, an annual “Mop Fair” was held in the High Street of Marlborough, which is one of the widest streets in the country. Traditional side-shows had always formed a major part of this fair, ever since medieval times, and one of the most popular stalls was always the coconut shy.
Bob Pelham had always liked to visit the Mop Fair with all its noise and lights, partly for the fun of it, and partly to see whether there was anything new at it.
In October 1948, Bob came out of his factory at the end of the day and while he walked through the fair, Bob past the coconut shy, the owner, Mr Bunce, thrust four wooden balls into Bob’s hand with the customary shout of “Four Balls for sixpence”.
The reaction Mr Bunce received was not quite what he expected, as Bob turned to him saying they were just what he had been looking for.
Somewhat unnerved by this reaction, and perhaps fearing another coconut shy taking away his customers or even being confronted by a plain clothes police officer, Mr Bunce was rather unwilling to divulge his source of supply.
Bob's questions of supply proved fruitless so he went back to his factory to fetch someone he thought would help.
On their return, the ever showman Bob, had Mac Boozle jump onto the box of wooden balls, Mr Bunce’s expression changed at once.
He was fascinated by the antics of the puppet, and when he heard that the wooden balls were exactly the right size for the heads of his Puppets, Mr Bunce immediately gave Bob the name of the supplier.
Next day, Bob contacted the wood-turners, Hoopers of Stroud in Gloucestershire, and found that they were able to supply him with all the sizes he needed. So the problem of heads was solved, and the long and tedious job of hand turning them all was over. Since Hoopers could supply a hundred other shapes as well, the way was set for turning out much larger quantities and styles of puppets.
Bob and his small handful of employees could now turn out eighty completed figures a week. Although this seemed a small output compared to later on, it nevertheless represented a great deal of individual work in assembling, painting, dressing and finishing the various puppets.
The wood used was known as "underwood", which is the wood that would normally be burned as it was too small to be made into building materials.
Bob was naturally enthusiastic about increasing output, and using a standard sized wooden ball as the basis for the head in no way involved a transfer to mass-production techniques. The heads still needed individual painting and finishing, so that each retained its personal character. All that was removed was the time consuming initial shaping process.
Other early examples of “auto-mation” was the almost simultaneous introduction of a smoothing machine, to give the wooden balls a surface of sufficiently high quality to take the paint.
To produce a universally smooth surface on a flat piece of wood is quite simple as all that is needed is to pass it through a flat planning machine. To render a circle smooth is a different matter it is almost impossible to make a semi-circular concave blade revolve about a fixed line. Bob therefore adapted the principle of the potato peeler. In this, the objects to be smoothed are placed in a drum with a revolving wall and a revolving base, both of which are covered with an abrasive material such as sand paper. The base also has ramps on it, so that when both the wall and the base are revolved the objects inside are constantly thrown up and out, continually rubbing against each other and the rough wall and base. The result is a universally smooth surface, and any object that was not initially round, quickly became so. In this simple way Bob was able to prepare the heads to be individually transformed into characters.
Taken from Pelpup News 15, Summer 1968
Bob Pelham wrote:
"The story of the wooden ball heads
At first I turned them on a lathe and they came out all shapes from ovals to squarish round but as we wanted then in large quantities an alternative had to be found.
So imagine my delight when one day during the Mop Fair in Malborough High Street I came across a large box of the roundest-looking wooden balls I had ever seen. "Four Balls for 6p" the man said, thrusting them in my hand. "Just what I want" I said "Where did you get these from?" but he would not tell me - I suppose he thought I was going to set up another coconut-shy stall.
So I went off and fetched MacBoozle - he had not been born very long. Incidentally , all the puppets used to have birth dates. MacBoozle was Christmas Eve 1948, and Lullabelle, New Years Eve following.
There was "Wags", made mainly from three coconut-shy balls and a bulbous nose., The Donkey with a carrot, the Ostrich that laid an egg - they all had birth days.
Now where was I? - Oh! Yes - MacBoozle had now jumped up on the box of balls, tapped his head and said, "This is what he wants the balls for".
At that Mr. Bunce became very friendly and gave me the name of the woodturners at Stroud,
Their main job was to make wooden balls for fair men. They used "under wood" as opposed to sawn timber; this is the wood from the branches as against the trunks of the trees.
A coconut -shy ball is 2 1/8" diameter so the branches are cut up in this length, but ensuring they may be between 2 1/2" to 3 1/2" in diameter. This chunk of wood, still with its bark around it, is placed on a capstan lathe between two points. A lever is pulled and the ball is gripped by the "driving dog", which is spinning all the time. Instantly the chunk of wood is made to spin and a shaping tool is drawn to it.
There is a cloud of sawdust and bark, and a second later , out pops a beautiful round ball. To get them smooth they are put into a big barrel that slowly revolves so that the parts rub against each other until the rough spots are smooth. It sounds like waves on a steep shingle beach."