Project Difficulty Level: Challenging
Making one paper mache Christmas tree ornament is fairly easy – you simply use the techniques shown for other projects on this site. Each ornament you make with torn paper and paste will be a true original, and your family will treasure it for years. Or, you could use the paper mache clay recipe to make one ornament at a time.
However, sometimes you need a lot of ornaments, and making them one at a time would take too long. In this post I’ll show you how to set up a small ‘production line’ and create multiple versions of the same design. You can use this technique to make as many ornaments as you need – to fill a whole tree, to give away as gifts, or even to sell at a craft fair.
All the other projects on this site can be made using items you probably already have on hand. Very few additional materials need to be purchased to make ordinary paper mache sculptures. However, the ornaments shown here are made using products that you can find only in an art store. They are not terribly expensive, but there is a small investment in supplies for these ornaments.
I believe the casting product we’ll be using for our paper mache ornaments was originally developed for doll-makers. The things you’ll need are:
- Super Sculpey clay, to make the original designs. (Actually, you can use any kind of clay).
- Plaster of Paris, for the molds. (You can buy it at the hardware store).
- Activa Li-Qua-Che Pourable Papier Mache, a pourable paper mache casting compound.
To begin your project, you’ll need a small box to hold your plaster mold, and a board to hold your clay models. Cut or find two boards or pieces of cardboard that are the same size. They need to be at least 1 inch wider than your biggest finished ornament.
The first board will be the bottom of your box. Cut long strips of cardboard at least 4″ wide and long enough to go around the outside of your board. Use masking tape to attach the strips to your board, creating sides. Use extra masking tape to cover any cracks or seams so the plaster can’t leak out.
Cover your second board with a piece of plastic. I used a piece of plastic cut from a tall kitchen bag. You need the plastic to be large enough so it will extend out at least 4″ beyond the edges of the board. Tuck the extra edges of the plastic under your board (you can use a piece of tape to keep it from slipping around), and then use your clay to create you models on the plastic-covered board.
When I make small items like this, I use my small wax carving tools, but you can also use common items like knives and toothpicks to work your clay. When your models are cast, the mold will capture every fine detail that you put into your model.
You can copy favorite ornaments or toys, get inspiration from antique ornaments online, or just get creative. You could even use Christmas cookie cutters to create simple shapes. Just be sure that the clay is pressed firmly on to the plastic around the edges, so the models won’t ‘float’ when plaster is poured over them.
The only rule is that there must be no undercuts. Look at your model carefully to make sure there are no undercuts, especially around the edges where the clay meets the board. Undercuts make it difficult to remove the cast paper mache.
Once you are happy with your clay ornaments, carefully pick up the board and place it in the box you created, draping the extra plastic over the sides. Use a few pieces of masking tape to keep the plastic from slipping down into the box. Make sure each ornament model in the box is centered, and not touching the sides of the box.
Now mix up some Plaster of Paris, using the instructions on the container. (If you’ve never mixed plaster before, you can use the instructions shown on this site. Pour your dry plaster into the water, allowing it to soak for a few seconds before stirring. Mix completely so there are no lumps, and make enough so the clay models will be covered by at least one inch. Slowly pour the plaster over your models. Then tap the box gently on the table to dislodge any small bubbles that may form. (If you do end up with bubbles, don’t worry – they will show up as little bumps on your cast ornament and can be easily sanded off).
Now you wait until your plaster is set. It will firm up, and then begin to get hot. After it cools down again, it should be strong enough to remove you clay models. Tip the plaster out of the box and pull the clay out of the plaster. You may need to use a tool to carefully lift up the clay from the middle of the model – you will lose your original model, but an exact duplicate can now be created with the pourable casting compound, using the mold you’ve just created. Carefully inspect your mold to make sure you didn’t miss any undercuts that would make it difficult to pull the finished ornaments out of the mold. If you find any undercuts, carefully remove them with a knife.
Allow your new plaster mold to cure overnight before using. In the meantime, you can create another batch of Sculpey models, using the board and box you used before, and make another mold.
Now mix some water and Activa Li-Qua-Che Pourable Papier Mache according to the instructions on the container. The casting compound should be about the same consistency as cream. If it’s too thick, just add water. Carefully pour it into your mold, filling each one completely. In the photo below I am pouring Li-Qua-Che into one mold, and another mold has been filled.
You will now wait for about 15 to 30 minutes while the water from the casting compound is sucked into the plaster mold, creating a ‘skin’ around the edges. You want this skin to be from 1/16th to 1/8 inch thick. If the plaster is quite dry, this process will go much faster, so be sure to check often.
Now turn the mold upside down and drain the liquid compound into the original container. If it would be easier, you can drain the compound onto a baking sheet, and then pour it into the original container. This is a little messy. Use your fingers to push all the extra compound that collects on the top of the mold back into the container – you can see in the photo below that it will collect on the mold during the pouring process, but it can be easily pushed off into the container or baking sheet.
Once the extra compound has been drained from the mold, turn the mold upside down and allow it to dry for at least 30 minutes. The amount of time it takes will depend on how dry your mold was when you started and the temperature of your room. When the compound is ready to be removed from the mold, it will shrink away from the sides of the mold, and will be firm, but still fragile. You can now pull the ornaments out of the mold and allow them to dry completely. As soon as the first batch of ornaments has been removed from the mold you can begin again.
This next step may not be needed. When the Li-Qua-Che is completely dry it is remarkably sturdy, but I still reinforce the area where I’ll be drilling a small hole for the hanger. I do this with very small bits of brown Kraft paper stuck to the back of the ornament with carpenter’s glue. You should do some experimenting on your own to see if this step is actuall needed.
You can now drill a small hole for a hanger. I used a small clay sculpting tool for this, but a toothpick might have worked, too. Just be very gentle so you don’t crack the paper mache, which is probably still rather fragile.
I painted the back of all my ornaments black, so you can’t see them when the ornaments turn around backwards on the tree. Dark green might have been better. This is entirely up to you.
And now we’re ready for the fun part! You can paint your ornaments with acrylic craft paints. Let the paint dry completely. I like to add a protective finish coat of water-based urathane varnish, or you could use a spray can of clear varnish.
The Completed Paper Mache Ornaments: