At first thought, paper mache seems like an unlikely material for serious craftsmanship. Children’s projects, sure? But for something intricate, delicate, durable? Surely not?
And yet, for literally thousands of years, people have used paper mache to make not only small, indoor objects like doll heads and jewelry boxes but parts of coaches, sabots for artillery shells, even and canoes. In World War II paper mache disposable fuel tanks, known as drop tanks, were used to allow aircraft to operate at greater distance.
And yet, it’s just old paper, water, and something to bind it together.
My First Project (And Probably Yours)
Many, many years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I was about ten years old, I decided to construct a sort of improvised foxhole for my GI Joes. The smart thing to do would be to dig a hole outside. Maybe several. How hard could that be? What I did, instead, was take a piece of wood as a base, then tear up every single old newspaper I could get my hands on, and mash them together with wallpaper paste.
Pretty soon I had a gloppy, grey mess of old newsprint. in a bucket. It wasn’t terribly well mashed, because what ten year old has time for that? Then I shoveled it out onto the wooden board with – if I recall correctly – one of my mother’s kitchen spoons, and shaped it into a ‘U’ shape about two inches high, tapering towards the edges of the base. It looked just right for a sniper’s pit or a machine gun nest, as seen in old war movies. Then I left it to dry.
I’m not sure it ever did, really. It was too thick, and the house too damp, and I may not have had enough paste in the mix – I’m sure it was the bare leftovers of my father’s previous home improvement project. The wooden base warped. When the surface was dry to the touch, I slathered brown paint – no doubt the remainder of a shed-painting-gone-by – on the whole thing, and called it done.
Within a few months it more-or-less dissolved, the paper mache coming off the wooden base in chunks. Apparently, this was all harder than I’d thought —
What Is Paper Mache, Anyway?
Paper mache -or papier maché if we are going to use the authentic, high-falutin’ French term – is a versatile medium. It’s been around a long time. If you know what you are doing, you can accomplish amazing results. If you don’t – well, read my story above.
The first recorded use of paper mache was by the ancient Egyptians, who employed a mix of plaster and linen or papyrus – often old documents – to make something now called Cartonnage. This was used in death masks and even coffin lids.
Paper mache was commonly used to make decorative boxes and trays throughout Asia; in India and Japan it is reported that paper mache was used in the very unlikely setting of armor and shields – it’s hard to imagine a less protective medium, so one assumes this was purely for ceremonial settings where a light imitation of actual armor might be useful.
There are a lot of recipes for paper mache. Let’s take a look at some different approaches to creating a paper mache mixture.
For many projects you’ll be putting the paper mache on top of an existing shape or ‘form’, since it’s pretty formless when wet. One suggestion is a child’s balloon, which can serve as the basis for a piñata – jab a pin into the dried piñata to burst the balloon inside before you cut an entrance for the candy! Other forms include wooden frameworks covered in chicken wire.
Making The Paste
Sherri Osborn at About.com has what she calls the “No Cook” recipe. It’s a simple flour and water mix, very traditional. She adds a couple of nice points:
- If you live in an area with high humidity, add a few tablespoons of salt to help prevent mold.
- If you don’t like the smell of the glue mixture you can add a few sprinkles of cinnamon to sweeten it up.
Or else there’s the “Cooked” method. This involves more water-to-flour, and some boiling – so don’t let your seven year old be in charge of this process. Sherri says, “This paste recipe is very similar to the no-cook but it is supposed to be a little stronger and is usually a little smoother.”
Modern approaches tend to use white glue rather than flour, and some use a resin powder to make a much stronger blend. Not surprisingly, Elmers tells you how to make a glue mixture and – for those who prefer it, a video.
Adding The Paper
First of all, there are two schools of thought. One is the ‘strips of paper’ method where torn but still basically intact pieces of paper are laid onto a surface, using a paste mixture, then laid onto one another in sequence. Wikihow has a 10 step illustrated guide to doing this, with pictures. I’m a big fan of simple, step-by-step methods, since it cuts down on the chance of only finding out later that you’ve done the whole thing disastrously wrong.
An article from Moms Who Think adds a couple of details: “Dip each strip of paper into the paste and onto the form. Make sure the strips overlap and cover the entire base. It is best to lay the strips criss-crossing each other in many directions to make a stronger finished product. Each project needs three layers. Let each layer dry for 24 hours in-between applications.
The other approach is the genuine mash of paper, which demands a softer paper and more time to work the product into a smooth mix. Jonni at Ultimate Paper Mache has a recipe for a home-made mix that uses a blend of toilet paper, white glue, joint compound, white flour and linseed oil . The writer sadly notes that, “Unfortunately, the people who make toilet paper don’t expect us to turn their product into great works of art, so they see no reason to include the kind of information that would make things a lot easier for us.”
But I Don’t Want to Make It From Scratch!
You can buy a number of products that are already processed – just mix with water. The term paper clay is sometimes used for a form of paper/ceramic blend that has many of the qualities of genuine clay. Jackie hall has an article discussing the differences between these things at The Paper Mache Resource.
But I Don’t Want to Make It At All!
Let’s say that you like the idea of paper mache products for their lightness. You just don’t want to mix up a bucket of goop. Fair enough. It’s a bit like asking someone who wants to send a letter to start out making their own paper, after all. Woodcrafter have a line of paper mache complete products ready for decoration gift boxes, shapes and ornaments. All you have to do is – whatever you want to do with them!
Let’s look at a couple of easy projects that a beginner can accomplish without simply feeling that he or she has made an huge mess for no good reason.
Let’s start with an easy one – a piñata! There are probably more hints on how to make a piñata than any other paper mache project. We’ll go to WikiHow, since it’s a basic step-by-step format that’s hard to get wrong. If you have a child’s party coming up, you probably don’t want to repeat this process! In fact, there are four variants on the piñata theme:
- decorate a fish with shiny scales cut out of Mylar or tin foil;
- create a flower with petals made out of large pieces of crepe paper;
- make a fat bunny or Easter egg for Easter and fill it with chocolate eggs;
- make a big pink pig; or green turtle
You wouldn’t think that a set of tea cups could be made from paper mache, would you? Doesn’t it get soggy and dissolve? Well, probably it does – although a coat of marine varnish may fix that problem. Ann Wood shows us how to make this, with a pattern you can download. It’s all easy stuff – cardboard, tape, glue, and – of course – paste and newspaper.