Paper Mache Recipes, Tips, Techniques, and Experiments

Home-Made Gesso Made with Glue and Joint Compound

Home-made gesso

This is a very simple mixture, but it can make a big difference when you’re making a paper mache sculpture.

Home-Made Gesso Recipe:

  • “Some” Elmer’s Glue-All (PVA glue)
  • “Some” Drywall Joint Compound (if you’re not sure what that is, watch this video to see how it’s used in home remodeling projects.)

That’s right — there’s no specific amount of either ingredient in this “recipe.” In fact, I just pour some glue and plop some joint compound into a bowl and start mixing. If you use more glue and make it runnier, the gesso will tend to self-level and make a nice smooth surface on your sculpture. If you use more joint compound and make it thicker, you can use an old brush or sharp tool and create fur and other interesting textures. If you apply the gesso too thickly, it may crack as it dries – but you can fix that with a bit more gesso, or by using a damp sponge to smooth things over.

You can add a dab of white acrylic paint if you want the gesso to be more opaque, to cover the printing on newspaper, for instance.

Also, you can sand the gesso if you want the surface of your sculpture to be really smooth, but if you do sand it, be sure to wear a mask. The dust is really fine, and it contains silica, which you don’t want in your lungs. I never sand, just because I don’t like the dust flying around the house. I prefer to use a lightly damp sponge and “wet sand,” instead. If a kitchen sponge doesn’t seem to be working, you can use one of those sanding sponges that you buy in the hardware store. Since I’m not that serious about getting anything perfectly smooth, the kitchen sponge works just fine for me.

This mixture can also be used as paste with blue shop towels. The gesso is a variation of the fast-setting paste that I use for my masks. I used the gesso mixture as paste with shop towels for the first time when I made the green witch mask for Halloween, and I was quite impressed with it. However, the gesso is so heavy, I don’t think it would work well as paste with lighter papers, like newspaper. (Haven’t tried it, though, so I could be wrong).

By the way, several years ago I tried making paper mache clay using the DAP brand joint compound, and it turned into little balls of rubber. I tried it again with the gesso recipe, and it didn’t work for that, either. Use any brand of drywall joint compound except DAP.

Powdered Marble Gesso recipe:

For a thicker home-made gesso, you can use calcium carbonate (powdered marble) and white glue. The traditional proportions are 2 parts PVA glue (Elmer’s or an archival book-binder’s PVA glue if you worry about pH), 4 parts water, and 8 parts calcium carbonate. To make it nice and white, add 1 part powdered titanium or zinc white pigment. If you want to thicken the gesso to cover bumps faster, you can use more powdered marble. This mixture dries very hard, but sands easily. This recipe uses materials that are not readily available, and they can be rather expensive, but this was the first gesso recipe I used, and it does work really well. You can see someone making this gesso here.

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109 Comments

  • Hello!

    Thank you for your insights, my gf has taken to referring to you as “the craft god”!

    When we used your homemade gesso recipe, upon drying the gesso began to crack. Is this simply because we applied it in too thick of a layer?

    Thanks again!

    • I’ve had other people tell me about the cracking, but I haven’t been able to duplicate it. Since there’s no real recipe, it could be the proportions of glue and drywall joint compound that cause the cracking. Or it could be the thickness of the layer. Another coat quite often covers the cracks. If you do any experimenting with the proportions, I hope you’ll share what you discover.

    • Aconteceu isto comigo usei o gesso no papel e rachou tudo só gates tempo e dinheiro, prefiro a massa corrida, para dar forma suáveis.

  • Im making a dinosaur skeleton out of wood and I want to use a homade way to fill around the wood to sand it until I have the desired shape of the bone.I have drywall compound but I want it to be stronger as it dries.What can I add to the compound.Any thoughts?

    • Hi Stix. Do you want the material to remain on the skeleton after you’ve finished the woodwork? Or do you hope to remove it? The original paper mache clay is very strong – much stronger than plain drywall compound. It dries about as hard as plastic, and harder than most wood. It also sticks really hard, and it would be very difficult to remove.

  • Hi Jonni,

    It has been awhile and I hope all is well.

    I recently created 2 plaster life casts of a head. They were fairly thin, maybe 2 layers of plaster cloth. I then used “great stuff” expanding foam inside to give them some stability. I allowed them 24 hours to dry completely before attempting to smooth their surface with the gesso recipe. I am pretty sure I was too heavy handed with the gesso and developed a large crack and tear in the temple area of one of the heads. I went ahead and applied some joint compound to the crack directly and then re-gessoed with another layer of home made gesso, this time adding more glue to the recipe. Now that this has happened I am wondering how thick is safe to apply the gesso and not get cracks. I did apply it with a fan brush, as my initial batch was about the consistency of pancake batter.

    One other piece of information that might have influenced the outcome. I used Elmer’s wood glue and not the white “glue all.” So, that might have played a role as well. But I do think I may have been heavy handed with the initial application.

    • That is possible, although I’ve tried the Elmer’s wood glue for other projects that included joint compound in the recipe, and it didn’t work very well. A thick layer will crack, though, because the joint compound shrinks as it dries. Try again with a layer that’s about as thick as you would normally use when painting. For thicker sculpting, the paper mache clay recipe works better, because the paper reinforces the mixture and reduces the possibility of cracking. It will also add strength to the thin plaster cloth shell.

      • Thank you Jonni,

        This will give me an an opportunity to try your paper mache clay recipe for the first time. Thank you for your feedback. I will keep you posted on how it all turns out.

        Thanks again and please know I really value your site. I just purchased your books and look forward to referencing them for some masks and small sculptures I plan on making for Halloween. Your site and videos provide such a wealth of information. Keep up the good work. 🙂

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