There were body parts everywhere: scattered legs and tails, heads with glassy eyes and a table full of fur.
At a warehouse in Ocala, Bob Walker, 51, makes puppets so lifelike people treat them like pets.
“They’re called Woodbabies,” Walker said of his creations. “You don’t buy them. You adopt them.”
What started out as a one-man summer hobby quickly turned into a full-time profession when a friend introduced Walker to Renaissance fairs. Now, six people work with him to create Woodbabies, sold at Renaissance fairs around the country.
His puppets were an immediate hit.
The first fair of the year, Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, begins in Gainesville on Saturday. Of the 165 artisans booked for the event, Walker’s company, ‘The Midsummer Knight’s Dream,’ is the only one that sells puppets.
“They’re one of a kind,” said Hoggetowne events coordinator Linda Piper. “The product is very special, a little dragon or medieval character that has a contraption that goes under your shirt. The creature can look like it’s moving.”
Each Woodbaby is resin-casted, sanded, carved, painted and embellished with colorful fur. Each fox, owl, dragon or unicorn is unique, set apart by a smile, curve of the cheek, or color of the fur. Because of the intense building process, created completely with American-made materials, they can range in price from $28 to $150 and in size from 5 to 12 inches tall.
Those who adopt the Woodbabies seem to get fiercely attached to the creatures, Walker said. He recognizes some of the creatures perched on people’s shoulders at fairs 20 years after he sold them.
Each adoption comes with a lifetime warranty should anything go wrong. Some Woodbabies are sent in for repairs with food and blankets so they can be warm and eat on their postal-service journeys, according to Walker.
“It really is a lot of fun,” said Veronica LaCoure, 21, a member of the Midsummer Knight’s Dream staff. “This is my first job, so I had the blessing of never having to work in the craze of corporate everything. I like what I do. I work on things like armored dragons.”
The Midsummer Knight’s Dream team is made up of specific stages. LaCoure does specialty painting and carving to make the Woodbabies seem alive. Walker mostly does the original carvings. One person acts as the “front office” to field phone calls and orders. Another sets up future events.
“It really is like a big family,” Walker said. “There’s an impression that we’re like carnies; we’re not. We get thrown into that same thing because we travel, but most of these people are hardworking. They’re there to do a job.”
Walker takes his Woodbabies to up to 25 fairs a year— most of them in Florida. Each time, his favorite part is seeing customers’ eyes light up when they meet the Woodbaby they will soon take home.
“They’re well received because they’re not lifeless,” Walker said. “They’re the pets you can’t get anywhere else. I used to say I make homes for souls, and it’s kind of true. They all seem to have a life.”