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Surface-Smoothing Technique for Paper Mache Masks – Guest Post

Two-Faced Devil Mask
Steve Gabany has very generously offered to show us his special technique for getting a porcelain-smooth finish on his masks. Thanks, Steve!

© Steve Gabany 2011

Jonni has been very generous sharing her wisdom and time. So, when she asked if I’d be willing to describe my surface-smoothing technique on her blog, I was more than happy to oblige.

First, recognize that I’ve only been making masks since January. If some of the pics of some of my masks look amateurish, it’s because they are! Sources of the materials I refer to are scattered throughout and summarized at the bottom.

Elmer's Wood Filler
Elmer’s Wood Filler

I used paper mache (PM), plaster of paris (POP) and Boneware for my first masks. I got a 4-lb box of white Boneware clay from Dick Blick for about $10.00. POP was pretty smooth out-of-the-mold, but PM and Boneware were not. I’ve done a bit of woodworking, so it was probably inevitable that I’d bump into my old container of Elmer’s Wood Filler. A pic of Elmer’s is shown below. The container I used has 16 oz at Lowes It costs about $5.00, and it goes to go a LONG way.

The filler had dried out, and was hard as a rock. Having nothing to lose, I filled the it with water and, lo and behold, after a few days, I had goop. I added water until the goop was neither as thick as originally, nor so thin that it ran when applied. I’ve used the goop on PM, POP, and Boneware. It adheres just fine to all of these materials, it’s simple to apply, simple to sand, takes additional coats as desired, is non-toxic, and it takes paint no differently than the mask’s base material. Here are a few of my PM and Boneware masks. I used the same mold for the first mask as I discuss below. The tiger/lion is Boneware.


Paper Mache Devil Mask
Paper Mache Devil Mask
Paper Mache Mask, Close-Up
Paper Mache Mask, Close-Up
Paper Mache Horse Mask
Paper Mache Horse Mask
Paper mache half mask
Paper mache half mask
Paper Mache Cat Mask
Paper Mache Cat Mask

Once the goop was soft, I poured it into a small margarine container and covered it with plastic wrap by pressing the wrap to the surface of the goop, and then making sure it was tight against the edges of the container. It seems to be quite airtight, but, if need be, I can add water to thin it again.

Here’s an example of how I’m using it with Jonni’s PM Clay recipe (the one WITH linseed oil). The first pic is the mold I used. I got it at Hobby Lobby for about $8. It’s fairly rigid, but not enough so I could press the PM Clay hard enough to eliminate gaps and holes in the surface.

Mold for Paper Mache Mask
Mold for Paper Mache Mask

These next two pictures show the mask as it came out of the mold. The results of not being able to press the PM clay hard enough is obvious. I’ll have to make some clay or POP molds if I’m going to continue using the PM Clay. The mask is supposed to be one of those that you hold up with a stick, which I don’t like. I filled the hole below the mouth with 2 coats of goop.

Mask Just Out of the Mold

A Closer Look
A Closer Look

The following two photos shows the results of applying the goop. Since there were so many holes and gaps, I covered the whole surface. For other masks, I’ve found that if I don’t need a bunch of the goop, I can just scrape my gloved finger across the plastic wrap after I remove it. In this case, I had to dip into the container a few times. The thickness of the goop is probably little more than 1/16″. All I’m trying to do is fill holes and gaps, not build-up the surface.

Unless I’m applying very little goop, I let it dry overnight. If you try to sand it before it’s dry, well…chaos! And, I’m retired, so I’m not in any hurry.

Applying Elmer's Wood Filler to Paper Mache Mask
Applying Elmer’s Wood Filler to Paper Mache Mask
Close-Up, Before Sanding
Close-Up, Before Sanding

Here’s what the mask looked like after I sanded off the goop the next morning. If you compare it to the raw mask above, you can see the improvement. A word about sanding. I almost always do it by hand. The PM Clay is so hard that I started with 100-grit, and left very few sanding marks. I sanded them out with 220-grit and moved on to primer. But, if you’re going to use goop on a PM piece, don’t start with anything coarser than 220-grit. Be VERY careful to sand just to the surface. I don’t know about you, but I found trying to sand PM was a disaster. I created more divots than I filled!

After Sanding
After Sanding
Closer Look
Closer Look

Finally, here’s what the mask looked like after I has applied one coat of white acrylic (both sides). I don’t know how PM Clay will act in the rain, and I don’t want to find out. I’ll give the back at least two coats of primer.

Normally, of course, I would have sanded the hole in the chin before I painted, but it wasn’t dry, I wanted to get these photos to Jonni’s blog as soon as possible.

Next, I will use a very fine-grit sandpaper (400 or 800) to take off dust or whatever stuck before the primer coat dried. If I want to get out more divots, I’ll fill them using a toothpick so as to put on only as much as I need. Then I’ll lightly sand, again with either 400 or 800. If you have little blobs of goop, say, less than 1/4″ in diameter, use fine sandpaper. 100-grit and maybe even 220 will tear the blobs right off the surface.

Primer Added to Paper Mache Mask
Primer Added to Paper Mache Mask
Closer Look
Closer Look
Craft Paint and Valspar
Craft Paint and Valspar

I imagine all of you know about these products, but I include them just to be complete: I use acrylic paints — including metallic. Hobby Lobby Online sells a 2 oz bottle, like Anita’s, for $.67. Cheap enough for me. I also use Valspar Clear Gloss spray. You can get it for about $8.00 about anywhere.

Finally, I’ve been using Rolyco Ethnic molds that I got through Dick Blick, and some mask molds I got at Hobbly Lobby. You get 2 molds each of five ethnicities from Dick Blick for about $10.00. They’re a little smaller than the human, adult face, but would work well for children. These are flimsy molds, and, again, I will make a clay or POP mold from them if I was going to use them with PM clay.

Molds for Paper Mache Masks
Molds for Paper Mache Masks

Finally, I expect to use a miniature jigsaw/scroll saw that I’ve had for quite a while to trim the PM Clay. My wife and I used it to cut gourds back in an earlier life, and with the large transformer, it worked very well. I think it will be the easiest way to cut the garbage off the PM Clay masks. You can get both the saw and the transformer from Micro-Mark for $59.95 and $62.50, respectively.

miniature jigsaw/scroll saw
miniature jigsaw/scroll saw

I’m certainly open for comments and questions. My email address is docgabany at gmail dot com.

Steve Gabany

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  • Hello Jonni,
    I am confused as to why the Rolyco Ethnic molds are being contrasted with “human, adult molds”–are these particular masks used to re-create non-human,non-adult faces? I suppose a more distinguishing characteristic about the molds would be more clear. Thanks

    • Charlie, I don’t know if the author of this guest post is still following comments. It’s possible that he uses that particular brand because they’re less expensive, or because they have more interesting facial features than the usual mass-produced plastic mask. Any plastic mold could be used with his method, I’m sure.

  • If I may add to this, using spackling is another alternative that I’ve found to be really nice because of how light it is. I used DAP’s Dry Dex on my John Egbert head (for a recent cosplay convention), which is a little over $4 at Walmart. You smear it on your project just like you would ice a cake and wait for it to turn white before sanding it. Admittedly, it took a while to get my head totally smooth (about two days, including drying time), but I was in a time crunch and didn’t want to waste time nitpicking at details I could just sand down later…

    Before spackling the head I spray painted it white, which gave a strange pebbled texture that looked terrible. I had scraped off the majority of the paint globs, which helped a bit, but the texture was still on the face. The head was also dropped on the ground in the middle of being sprayed, which left a large crack that is about four inches long.

    I encountered two problems after using the spackling:
    1) When I repaired the crack with both spackling and duck tape I hadn’t accounted for the fact that spackling is not waterproof, therefore my perspiration caused the spackling to crack after returning home from the convention. It can be fixed, but I’ll be sure to fully cover any open areas with duck tape and acrylic paint before using it again.
    2) I used the spackling to make John’s glasses frames and painted them with black acrylic paint, but did not realize that the paint would rub off. So, for the entire weekend I had to constantly touch-up his face with the black paint before I could go out in full cosplay again. I’ll have to experiment with other substances, but I’m hoping that paper mache clay or something similar will work better with my next head.

    I’m posting an image of the head before I finished sanding and painting the glasses along with this comment for anyone who would like to see. The crack is located under the left eye, and it starts at the base of the head. I already painted the hair and the face with matte acrylic paint before taking this photo.

  • I realize this is an older post, but I have a question. I tried using wood filler on two of my papier mache projects and it only worked on one. The successful project was mostly rounded with little detail, I used the filler to minimize the lumps and bumps. The second project had more “grooves”, I used the same technique and wood filler. I let it dry and lightly sanded it, then I applied gesso. Today I checked on it and it has hairline cracks all over! Is this somehow a reaction between the gesso and the filler? Should I coat it with something else before priming it to paint?


    • Hi Holly. I don’t know if Steve is still subscribed to comments on this post or not. Are you using acrylic gesso? If so, there shouldn’t be cracks if the wood filler was completely dry when it was applied.

      I wish I could help more, but I’m just not familiar with this technique. But this is one of our most popular guest posts, so maybe another reader will jump in and answer your question, if Steve doesn’t happen to see it.

      • Hey Jonni!

        Thanks for the response. I let the wood filler cure for a couple of hours before sanding and then applying the gesso (and yes it’s acrylic). It’s really confusing considering it worked so well on my other project, the only difference is the amount of wood filler used. I used way more on this larger project. I also noticed it was kind of dusty, the wood filler would crumble a little if over-handled. I’m wondering if something happened when applying the gesso over top of the filler, maybe it created air pockets? Hopefully I can figure it out!

        • I wonder if you could reduce the dustiness and crumbling if you mixed just a tiny bit of wood glue into the filler before you apply it? It might be worth experimenting with a really small spot.

          • I wondered that too, I’ve tried experimenting with mod podge I’m just waiting to see if it makes a difference, I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

  • Hi, I’m so excited and delighted to have found your words of wisdom and put them to use. It all started when I saw the giant paper mache elephant video on youtube. I was so intrigued that I built a rinoceros. The rino is 2′ 7″ tall and 6′ or 7′ long like a limozine bull . I tried to upload a photo but I guess my pictures are too large to upload. I put 1/8 inch of the PM and then another 1/8 inchPM on top of that. For things like the horns that need to be relatively smooth, I am going to use your wood filler trick. I can’t wait to get into the fine detail, I purchased taxidermy eyes for a rino and theylook really cool. My neighbors all say they love what I’m doing. I just hope the damn thing sells cause I need the cash and need to know if there is a bigger demand for the sculptures verses the murals I paint.

    • Terry, I hope you’ll edit your photo and try again – I’d love to see that rhino. Will you be showing him at a local gallery? We have a new discussion going on about selling art online – if you have any experience in that I hope you’ll join in.

  • Hi
    Love the smoothness of the mask.
    Do you what tools Steve used to apply the wood filler ? Just a putting knife ? The masks are not plane surfaces, any tricks ?
    I want to achieve the same result !!

    Thanks for your answer

    • Sorry, should have read my message one more time before sending it :
      It should say :
      Do you know what tools….

      • He probably did use a small knife – it looks like he did a ton of sanding. I think it’s probably easier to get the clay as smooth as you can while it’s still wet, and when it’s dry cover it with several coats of gesso. You can find recipes for home-made gesso here. The gesso is easy to sand, and even easier to smooth out with a slightly damp sponge.

  • Hi!
    Thanks for the post!!
    About the wood filler, I’m just wondering if anyone has tried woodfiller that isn’t elmer’s.
    I’m doing a 30in high sitting child. Wanted to smooth him out a bit ^^.


  • Steve just sent a photo of his finished mask, so I edited his post with the finished mask at the top. That way, everyone is sure to see it. The final finishing steps, per Steve:

    “What I did after my last step in the blog was to use a toothpick to fill remaining “chigger bites” with goop, and sanded smooth again. The painting, etc., is probably standard stuff among your readers. While it could always be better, I’m pretty pleased with it.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share.


  • Thank you Steve, Very interesting and easy to understand.

    Not being much of a woodworker Elmer’s Wood Filler would have never entered into my thought process for use with PM. I look forward to adding this to my options working with PM and Plaster of Paris!

    • I agree – Steve did a great job of presenting his techniques, too. In a few days when all the scary news about Japan has died down, I’ll go back over his post and study it a little better. It’s hard to concentrate on fun things like paper mache masks when two nuclear power plants are entering meltdown – what a day!