This has always been one of the most popular posts on this site. The project is easy, and the results are lovely. These birds have been used as gifts, tree ornaments, and even wedding favors! If you prefer to use the paper mache clay instead of paper strips and paste, you can see a newer version of this post here. These birds could also be made with the brand new air dry clay recipe, if you’d like to add more detail or have a smoother finish.
Project Difficulty Level: Fairly Easy (and fast!).
Today’s paper mache project, these two little bluebirds, started out as a challenge to myself. I wanted to find out if it was possible to create a paper mache gift in just one day. I managed it in seven hours, with plenty of time while the birds were drying to eat lunch, work on a video for this site (coming soon…) and throw a ball for my dog.
My inspiration for these two little figurines were a pair of doves I gave to my mother when I was a child, (about 50 years ago), and a tiny soapstone quail my daughter gave me when she was in grade school. Since both of these gifts have stayed around all these years, I decided that a pair of birds (if they turned out nice) could be a perfect gift for someone who appreciates hand-crafted art.
To challenge myself and to make this project more fun, I pretended that the gift needed to be wrapped and presented tomorrow. I started at 10 am and took the final photo, shown above, at 5:15 pm. And I think they’re adorable.[Note (added 5/28/09): This project works for other kinds of birds, too, so pick the colors of your own favorite backyard friends. See a paper mache junco (a type of sparrow) here.]
The first thing I needed to do was choose a species of bird. I chose the Colorado bluebird because they have a simple shape and just two colors (plus the black for the beak and eyes, of course). If the shape was simplified considerably they would still be recognized as bluebirds. I did an image search on Google to find examples to use as models for my project.
I didn’t want to be drawn into putting too much detail on the birds – I wanted them to be as simple as possible. To keep from being sidetracked by too much detail I made two very simple sketches to work from, and didn’t look at the photos again until it came time to choose a color for the birds.
The next step was to make two bodies of newsprint. I used one page of a tabloid-sized newspaper for each ball and taped them tightly with masking tape. The two balls are the size and shape of a small chicken egg.
Now I needed some heads. I first cut out two beak shapes from cardboard, and then used 1/4 sheet of tabloid-sized newsprint for each head.
I taped the head balles tightly with masking tape, and included a beak in each one. Then the heads were flattened slightly (so their shape from the side is an oval), and taped them to the birds. One bird’s head is in an upright position, as shown above, and one bird’s head was attached so that it appears to be looking at the ground. Take a look at the large photo at the top of this post to see what I mean.
Now the birds need a flat bottom so they’ll sit nicely on a shelf. I cut two small ovals from heavy cardboard and taped one to the bottom of each bird.
Now we need some bluebird tails. Colorado bluebirds do have fairly short tails, according to the photos I found, but I made my tails even shorter. This helps to simplify the shape. I cut two tails from cardboard. They are sort of “W” shaped, with a crescent shape cut out at the top to help them fit next to the bird’s rear-end. The tails were taped securely to each bird.
Now I wanted wing tips, which will cross slightly over the tail. I cut out the wing tips and taped them to the birds.
The wing tips have now been taped on, just above the tail. The very ends of the wings cross each other. Once the paper mache has been added, the edges will be much smoother.
I now add two layers of newsprint and paper mache paste, made from flour and water. Each layer needs to be done in two steps – first, do one side, then the other, so you always have a dry side to rest the bird on. To speed up the drying, I put the birds on a cookie sheet in my oven, set to 225 F. Each layer takes at least 30 minutes to dry.
The difficult parts are around the tail, where I used one of my Loew Cornell Clay Tools to push the wet paper down between the wings and tail (a toothpick or small knife would probably work as well); and getting the paper strips to lie flat against the curve at the top of the heads. I used very thin strips in these areas, and smoothed down each piece of paper as much as possible before putting them aside to dry.
In the photo above, you can see the birds with both coats of paper mache applied and dry. The birds are lightly sanded to get rid of any high spots and they’re now ready for a “skin coat.”
The skin coat is used to smooth the sculptures and to add color. The first two or three layers are made from the flour and water paste that is left over from the paper layers, with a bit of carpenter’s glue and a small amount of white paint added. Regular Elmer’s glue would probably work, too. The glue’s purpose is to prevent the layer of paste from cracking when it dries on the outside of the figurines. I didn’t measure anything, but I started out with about 1/4 cup of regular paste and added about a tablespoon of glue.
The white paint helps the paste to be more opaque. I put on two layers of white paste.
Use a broad brush to add the skin coat in thin layers to each bird. The birds are too difficult to handle if you put the paste on the entire bird at one time, so I had to do one side first, then put the bird back in the oven at 225 F to dry. While the first bird dried I put the skin coat on half of the second bird. The birds dried in about 20 minutes each time.
I then sanded the birds again, to make them as smooth as possible before adding the blue paste.
Now we’re ready to add the color. The birds could simply be painted, but I decided to use another layer of skin coat for the color. I used the paste left over from the last step, which has some white in it already, and added a touch of phthalocyanine blue acrylic paint. (I set aside just a bit of white paste for the bird’s “bloomers.”)
Two layers of this blue paste was added to the birds, leaving a patch white below their tails.
When the blue paste was dry the birds were very lightly sanded one last time, and I then turned them upside down and put one last coat of white paste to the area under the tail and to the bottom of the figurines. Then I used a wet finger to blend the white paint into the blue so there isn’t a stark line dividing the colors.
I used black acrylic craft paint for the beaks. I don’t have a brush small enough for the tiny black eyes, so I made a “brush” from a match – the kind you get in restaurants. I used just a corner of the torn end of the match dipped in black paint for each eye. When the black was dry I found a needle in my junk drawer and dipped it in white paint. I touched this tiny amount of white paint to each eye for a reflection – the eyes won’t look “alive” without this.
When all the color was dry I added a coat of water-based verathane. And the result:
Finished Paper Mache Bluebirds:
Done, even with all that drying time, in seven hours. You can see from the photo that I sanded one of the birds just a touch too much, and the white shows through the blue on it’s side. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry (just to see if it could be done…) I would have repaired it with more blue paste. Since I was in a hurry, I’m going to pretend I did it on purpose.
If I needed more presents, (and if I had nothing else to do), I could have made several more pairs of bluebirds in the same amount of time – using the downtime while the layers of paste dried in the oven. In fact, with just 14 more days ’till Christmas, I might make a few more of these little gems for the people on my list who appreciate hand-crafted gifts.