Random Thoughts, About Whatever...

Waterproofing Papier Mache?

I receive a lot of emails by folks who would like to put their paper mache sculptures outside. Can paper mache be waterproofed?

I’ve always said “no,” but I never actually tried it myself. Therefore, I decided that I needed to do some experiments to see if there really is a way to weatherproof paper.

I was delighted when I discovered that Jackie Hall, writing for the Papier Mache Resource website, beat me to it. Jackie tried just about every finishing material that she could think of, and carefully documented her results.

In the end, she discovered that you really can waterproof paper mache sculptures, using yacht varnish. This product may be sold as marine varnish at your local paint store.

Now that I know you really can keep the weather from ruining a paper mache sculpture, I’ve got to try it mysel. When I do make an outside sculpture, I’ll do a few things differently during the building process. These things may not be necessary, but they do seem reasonable:

  1. I would use a high-quality carpenter’s glue to stick the paper onto the sculpture, instead of using the usual flour-and-water paste. I would do this because flour is one of the favorite foods of fungi (yeast is a fungus, and you know what happens when you add yeast to bread dough). Flour is also a favorite food for animals, like mice, raccoons, and golden retrievers. The varnish might mask the odor of the flour, but I would play it safe and use the glue instead.
  2. I would keep the bottom of the sculpture far enough above the ground to prevent splashback from rain or sprinklers from covering the sculpture with a thin film of mud. Soil microbes, especially fungi, are incredibly strong, and could eat their way into the sculpture and cause it to rot. Some fungi is strong enough to work it’s way into concrete and even rocks, so a paper mache sculpture would be a piece of cake for them. To prevent the bottom from getting wet, the sculpture could be placed on top of a rounded rock that allows water to drain away. I don’t know exactly how a larger sculpture (a hippo, for instance) would be protected, but there must be a way to do it.
  3. As Jackie suggested, I would re-apply the marine varnish at least once a year.
  4. I would make sure the sculpture is heavy enough to keep the wind from blowing it away.

If you have ever made a papier mache garden sculpture, please let us know what happened to it. Did it survive out in the weather? Did the paint colors fade in the sun? I would really like to know, because I’m running out of room in my house for all the critters I’ve been building, and I’d love to fill my garden with some weird and wonderful animal sculptures.

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About the author

Jonni Good

I'm a sculptor, author, gardener, and grandma. When I'm not catering to the needs of my obnoxious cat, I make videos, create stuff, and play around with paper mache. I'm also the author of several highly-rated books on paper mache. You'll find them in the sidebar, and on amazon.com

61 Comments

  • Do you have any great ideas for how I can make a bowl to line a wicker basket I have so I can plant straight into it ? Nothing I can find in the shops will work as the bowl is very wide and quite shallow. I thought about making a paper mache bowl and then sealing it but want to plant directly into it so there will be soil and some moisture

    • Lara, I have not yet found a product that will seal paper mache from water. I’ve tried, and had some disastrous results. I would suggest that you use some Quikwall, a fiber-reinforced cement product, instead. I hope to try making some lightweight cement pots this summer, but at this point I haven’t actually tried doing it, so you might take my advice with a grain of salt.

      I think if I did it I would line the basket with some plastic, and then use the basket itself as the form. I’d place a short piece of dowel at the bottom, well-greased, so I could pull it out to make a drainage hole when the cement starts to set. Then I’d add 1/2″ or so of the Quikwall over the plastic. You could leave it rather rough at the top, for textural interest, or smooth it off just below the basket edge. Cover with plastic and leave it in the shade for several days to allow the cement to cure. I show how I used the Quikwall product in my lion mold, here (starting around 0.36).

      This probably wasn’t the answer you were looking for, but I hope it at least gives you some ideas.

  • I have been asked to make a puppet for an animal resque its a mother bird that they want to help feed some orphaned baby birds and as such needs to be washable. I make puppets out of paper mache all the time but I am worried would the varnish be toxic if a baby bird pecked at the puppet?

    • Hi Emma. I would assume that any form of plastic would not be very healthy for tiny birds, and paper mache doesn’t really like water, so it would be almost impossible to sterilize. I’ve never heard of baby birds being fed by a pretend mamma bird – is this something that rescue groups normally do?

  • I’m going to try my hand at a 9 ‘ & 7′ palm tree combo starting with a chicken wire trunk, attached to a piece of plywood, paper mache, and artificial palm fronds. then varnish (heavily) the trunk and base. I’ll send pictures if it turns out well!

    • No, I’m pretty sure marine varnish won’t help your pieces survive a dishwasher. I don’t really know what would, especially since people will assume a washable item is also safe to use with food, and most waterproofing products contain chemicals.

      Beautiful work, by the way. Thanks for telling us about your site. I hope you’re doing well with your etsy shop. Any advice for other artists who would like to sell their work?

    • Hi there Jonni. I am just enquiring I am doing a fruit basket out of paper mache as part of a B.Ed technology assignment and would like to know your thoughts on a few questions that I haven’t yet got answers for. If I use the flour n water paste, how long after completion will the paper mache start to grow fungi and would the fungi still grow if I vanished my finished product. Could you possibly give me any other ideas on what else I could use instead of vanish, I want something that’s going to last as well as give a good finish to the final product, also that is cheap and not to expensive..

      • Your bowl should never go moldy if the paper stays dry. Since it will be used with food, the bowl should have a finish on it that is food-safe. This article talks about food-safe finishes, and gives a recipe for making your own. It looks very similar to a commercial product that uses the same ingredients (a small bottle would probably be less expensive than making your own). It’s possible that coating the paper mache with one of these finishes, mineral oil and beeswax, would work as well on paper mache as it does on wood, but I haven’t tried it. If the bowl is never allowed to absorb water from the air or from washing or from fruit stored it it, it should last for years.

  • Thanks for posting. I need to do this for creating a set of horns for a cosplay but I need it waterproof in case I get caught in the rain. I’m definitely going to try this out.

    • I am so happy others are on this page who have done things like I want to do. I hope you all can help me.

      I would like to build a snowman costume to wear outside. I was thinking of using a 12″ inflatable ball, a 26″ Inflatable Ball and a 36″ inflatable ball and cover them with paper mache. I would like the head to be separate from the 2 bottom pieces. What would I used to attach the 26″ and 36″ pieces so they would stay together? Also what is the cheapest way to waterproof the design and allow the piece to be painted white?

      Thanks,

      Jason

      • Jason, you can attach the two bottom balls with more paper mache pieces. Just make sure to use really big pieces so they cover a good-sized area on both the top and bottom ball. If you’re only going to use the costume once, you could paint the costume and then use a good polyurethane varnish from the hardware store. The water-cleanup type have less smell, and would be best for a costume. The varnish won’t waterproof a piece well enough to leave it outside all winter, but it will work for temporary use.

        Can you tell us where you will be using the costume? Is this for a holiday play or something?

        • I wont have time to build the costume before Christmas, but would like to build it next year. I was thinking of doing the Freaky Snowman type skit around where I live. There is a historic district with tons of tourist that flock to the streets. I believe it would bring some Christmas cheer. The guy who built the original freaky snowman said it cost him over $500.00. I believe I can build it much cheaper.

          Thanks for the information. I loved doing paper mache when I was in elementary school. An adult project would be extremely fun!

  • Hi
    I am master student in sculpture at university of Lisbon (Portugal). I have made a sculpture with “Sisal rope” in size 2.5 meter in height. Since it is supposed to be outdoor sculpture I should cover it with a water and UV resistant material, which material do you suggest? Do you think Polyester Resin could be a good choice for this purpose? Please guide me in this case, this is my first experience with Sisal.
    Kind Regards
    Sana

    • Sana, I have no idea what you would use. Sisal rope is built to last a very long time in bad weather, but not forever. Maybe the deck or concrete sealer found in hardware stores would soak in and give more waterproofing. Resin would tend to sit on top of the rope, I think, although I’ve never tried it. You might put your question on the Daily Sculptors page, which gets more visitors, and see if anyone else has useful ideas.

  • I’ve made several paper mache characters that have lasted over 8 years in rainy conditions. Although they are only kept outside for approx. 1.5 months during Halloween. I actually cover my sculptures after paper mache with plaster, craft outdoor paint and then a coat of clear spray sealer.

  • Hi jonni,
    I am currently on an architecture project where I am required to build walls (around two meters tall ) that will be made out of paper mâché .
    I read up on paper mâché and I need to make some enquiries
    1. How am I able to make paper mâché walls using cost efficient materials like glue that require the least manpower to make the wall structurally stable ?
    2. Are there any methods to keep the paper mâché walls waterproof and fireproof too?
    3. is it possible to construct using envinmentally friendly materials or recyclable products?
    Thanks so much for taking ur time to answer my enquiries! 😀

    • Hi Sean. You have a lot of engineering questions here, and I’m not a good person to answer them. Some people have luck waterproofing paper mache using deck or concrete sealer, and then using Spar varnish after the paper mache is painted. I don’t think it’s a permanent building material, though. Do a google search for paper mache boats or canoes, and you might get some historical ideas.

      The cheapest form of glue is white flour and water. For strength using recycled materials, you may want to create a honeycomb armature with old cardboard.

      Good luck with it!

  • Hi Jonni!

    I’m doing a community art project where I am painting a 4.5 foot tall fish and want to wrap the base in newspaper (as a play on fish wrapped in newspaper). I’d like to wrap the fiberglass square base tightly as a present in the paper, but then I
    d like the paper to come up the sides (like tissue paper around a gift). My scupture will be displayed outside probably indefinitely and I’m wondering if any of the products mentioned would allow the paper to stand up straight with some crinkling and withstand the weather all the while keeping the newspaper legible…so not smearing the ink. Any advice would be appreciated!!!

    Thanks,
    Sammy

    • Ouch – the only thing I can think of that would do what you want it to do is a clear resin with some kind of UV filtering varnish over it. Since this is intended as a permanent installation, and the paper needs to be visible, that’s the only thing I can think of. You might want to give a call to the folks at the Smooth-On company, to see if they have any ideas for you.

  • Thank you for an interesting discussion.

    Rather than try to prevent water getting into my large outdoor paper sculptures, I’ve left them unsealed and more recently actually added scientifically grown fungi into the work.

    My logic is that if you compress paper (which comes from wood), it creates a durable artificial hardwood.

    In fact, initially the paper was so compressed that the water couldn’t get into to trigger the fungi growth.

    By reducing the density of the paper, I have now successfully got the fungi to grow after three years-see website.

    I have another unsealed paper sculpture (without the added fungi) outside for the last decade and there does not appear to be any structural weakness, despite it’s exposure to the elements.

  • Hi Jonni, the first couple of mixes I applied very thick, probably around 5mm so there was no shrinking to speak of. Later mixes have been thinner, almost smeared on but so far I haven’t seen any shrinking. I tend to do the upper half separately to the bottom so if I see any gaps I can patch them then.
    I’ve been thinking of using jars that a tea-light candle will fit into and I’ll be hoping to get a layer thin enough that the candle flame will show through in places.

  • Hi Jonni, love your site. I’m partway through coating some glass bottles and jars to use as candle holders and vases. Using your pulp recipe and applying by hand I’m ending up with a bark-like texture which I really like, very rough and woody looking. I’ll be painting them using acrylic paint then I need to seal the vases so they are waterproof. Recently during a web crawl I found a waterproof fabric sealer called Paverpol, paverpolusa.com Just wondering if you or any of your visitors have used it and what it turned out like.
    Thanks, Mark.

    PS: Part of the blurb from the Paverpol site: Paverpol can be used with fabric, paper, paper mache, silk, metal, air-dry clay, chamois leather, baked polymer clay, plaster, concrete, pottery, stone and more. And unlike most other hardeners, Paverpol will not deteriorate polystyrene foam.
    This one-step water-based creme gives sculptors, dollmakers, mixed media artists, painters, interior and exterior designers, theatre set crews, quilters and fabric artists a serious new medium to expand their scope of work, either indoors or outside.

    • Mark, a lot of people have recommended Paverpol, but I’m not sure anyone has actually used it yet to see if it works. It’s rather expensive for experimenting with. I also recently found foam coating, for waterproofing and protecting foam signs and sculptures, which might also be a good option for those of us who need to make sculptures for outside display. This site sells two kinds, one a plastic-based product that would be a bit slick to paint (although they say you can do it) and a gypsum-based product. They’re a bit expensive, too, so I haven’t tried either one yet. If you do try the Paverpol, please let us know how it worked.

      By the way, are you experiencing any cracking as the paper mache clay dries and shrinks slightly over the glass?

      • Hi!

        I’ve used Paverpol on a number of sculptures that I put outside and it’s amazing stuff.

        I did a huge sculpture of someone coming out of a wall all made from fabric and it looked really good on the side of a building.

        Highly recommend but not if you would like to keep some tactility to the material. I’ve used it on felt before and it just wasn’t right.

        Loving the site.

        Bree

  • Hello,

    I am a total novice to paper mache, only having trying it once for a “Pharaoh’s Mask” project I did with my daughter and using a glue mixed with water technique. I found your link by doing a search regarding waterproofing paper mache. I lead a group where we create a float each year for a holiday parade for our dance company (for Nutcracker). This year we are constructing a building that we are topping with an onion dome. The dome itself has its ribs created by cove stick, and wrapped in chicken wire. Now we want to paper mache over it and paint it metallic gold. However, being the parade could include inclement weather, I want to make sure the dome is waterproof and that the paint won’t sludge off in the rain. Finally my question. I see you recommend using carpenter’s glue. Should the carpenter’s glue be mixed with water with a 4:1 ratio like using regular glue or some other combination? Also, since the project won’t be outside long term, do you think we could pass on the yacht varnish? We plan to save the project because we will rotate it back in for use in several years so we do want longevity, but it will be stored inside.

    Any advice or perspective you can provide is most appreciated.

    • Hi Jeanette,

      If your float is only going to be outside during the parade, and will be stored inside for most of the year, I think you could just use some water-based Verathane or Minwax for the final coat. It’s a lot easier to work with than either diluted glue or the oil-based marine varnish. You would want to give it several coats to make sure you don’t miss a spot.

      I hope you’ll let us see the float when it’s done.

      • Hello Jonni,

        Thanks for your response. However, due to me being so inexperienced, I am still unclear and need some clarification. Do you suggest I use the carpenters glue with the newspaper as my first layers, then coat it at the end with the Verathane or Miniwax? I see the Verathane is a spray (had to look it up!). And do I dilute the carpenters glue for those first layers? I am such a novice I really need a clear idea of the recommended process.

        I’d love to share photos of the float when its done!

        Thanks again!

        Jeanette

        • Yes – sorry I forgot the glue part. Some people use glue as a final finish, although I’ve never done that. If you use a diluted carpenter’s glue instead of flour paste, your paper mache will be somewhat waterproof. But the paper will still get damp, so I would suggest you use a final protective finish of Verathane – which also comes as a water-based product that you brush on. With a project the size of yours, the brush-on product is probably much less expensive.

          You could probably get away with using a flour and water paste instead of diluted glue, as long as you let it dry really well and then cover it with several coats of polyurethane.

          • Thank you Jonni! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions!

            Jeanette

  • Modg Podge has a product that is an outdoor finisher. But your have to keep re-applying every year I think to keep it water proof.

    I like your idea better

  • HELLO AM SURPRISED NO ONE HAS USED MOD PODGE TO WATER PROOF I MADE A FOUR FOOT GERMAN SHEPHERD I PUT MOD PODGE IN MY FLOUR AND WATER WITH CARPENTER GLUE ALSO PUT MOD PODGE IN MY PAINT THEN MOD PODGE THE WHOLE DOG THREE TIMES I HAVE FOUR WIZARD OF OZ LIFE SIZE THAT HAVE BEEN IN FAIRS BUT MY DOG NEVER DID DRY AND DID NOT MILDEW AND HELD UP SIX YEARS SO FAR AND IS HARD AS A ROCK ALSO I BUY LARGE A GALLON OF CARPENTER GLUE ONE PART GLUE TWO PART WATER MUCH BETTER THEN FLOUR GOOD LUCK LORRAINE

  • I’ve been using slightly diluted white glue for my paper mache projects, never thought about looking for a waterproof wood glue for outside ones. Will definitely try it out!

    Thanks for your post, Jonni, and for all the helpful comments!

  • I made a papier mache Easter Island statue/letterbox, which we call Man Friday. After I finished the papier mache statue, I fibreglassed it and painted it, with sand in the paint, so it looks like a stone statue. I put a length of pvc pipe out the bottom, which is cemented into the ground. I also put some ballast foam inside it to give it weight against the wind. So far it’s been out in the weather for two years and isn’t showing any signs of wear. We love our letterbox!

  • Hi,
    I stumbled upon this site accidently and cannot believe my luck. THANK-YOU for being out there and for publishing your hard won advancements on the web. I am crazy about paper. I think it has great potential to change the way we consumme and live. I have been thinking for a long time about being able to make water proof structure for outside. There is a commercial product called “Paverpol” that doesn’t need to be recoated every year. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to experiment with it as yet. But when I do will let you. Especially about longevity.

    • I looked up Paverpol on the Internet. It looks intriguing. They call it a fabric stiffener, and they’re using it to make some very interesting sculptures.

      I’m going to try using waterproof carpenters glue in place of the Elmers in my paper mache clay recipe for outside sculptures. The tinfoil they use on the Paverpol site is a good idea for the inside form – I was worried about water getting inside and causing a sculpture to rot from the inside out. This weekend my father showed me how he connects rebar with little wires and a special tool, and showed me which inexpensive propane torch I can use to bend it easily. He uses this equipment for his concrete benches. With a rebar skeleton covered in crinkled tin foil and then waterproof paper mache clay – and then coated with marine varnish when it’s all done – I think it would create something that would be safe out in the weather. Thanks for mentioning that product – and do tell us how your experiments come out.

  • Thanks!! I am doing Halloween decorations and I wanted to put a bunch of fake pumpkins outside but they are so expensive!! I figured I could make paper mache ones but we live in Florida and it is humid and rains nearly everyday. They only need to last once season but I’m excited to try it out.

    • That’s an interesting idea. They don’t say it will make the paper mache waterproof, but it sounds like a good thing to try. They also sell, at the hardware store, premium carpenter’s glue that is supposed to be waterproof. One could use it for a paper mache project, but you’d have to leave out the flour. It would probably work to just dilute the glue with water and dip in your paper strips. The carpenter’s glue costs almost $30 a gallon – I wonder how much the plastic resin glue powder costs?

  • Hey Jonni,
    I’ve been away awhile, but am glad to see you are trying the waterproofing so your sculptures can be put outside. I was one who asked.
    I’m working on my first paper mache sculpture of a sandhill crane. I took quite a few pictures and came up with a pose I liked. I’ve been following your instructions but am having trouble coming up with base material to use for the legs. As you know cranes have thin legs but bulbous joints. The material has to be strong enough to hold up the body, but not too thin that I can’t apply the newspaper.
    I’ve wondered about wood dowels.

    • Dowels would work. I once made a 24″ high paper mache wattled crane using thin tree branches for the legs. I made sure the knots ended up in the knee area. I didn’t cover the branches, but left them natural, which I liked a lot, but a lot of people told me it was too weird.

      Another option, which would be easy to wrap paper mache around, is rebar, which you can get at your local lumber yard. You can bend it but it’s very strong, and the ridges on the bars would make it easy to add paper mache. However, I have been told that the rust from the rebar can move to the outside of a paper mache sculpture, although I’m not sure how this would happen if the material was completely dry.

      Good luck with your sculpture. We’d love to see it when it’s done.

  • Do you think that you might be able to make boats out of paper mache, using the yacht varnish? It would be really cool if you had a paper mache boat that actually worked (I’m talking mostly about toy boats, but maybe someday there could be a lifesized paper mache boat ^-^)

    • Actually, real boats used to be made with paper. A company built world-class racing shells with paper between 1861 and 1901. I don’t have all the links now but I did some online research a few months back and it looks like they used some kind of copper solution forced into the paper to waterproof it. It didn’t look like something a real person would want to do in their back yard. If you try to make a boat and waterproof it with marine varnish, let us know how it turns out! But try it out on shallow water, please. :)

    • Sorry – I don’t have an email list. However, Feedburner will send you an email whenever I put up a new post. Just enter your email address over there on the right sidebar, where it says “Subscribe.”

    • So can I use plain carpenter’s glue to paper mâché, or do I have to mix it with something else? I have a big sculpture that I need to paper mâché, and I have never used paper mâché before.

      • No, you can use a paste made from flour and water. I mentioned the carpenter’s glue because it won’t attract mold, but it would probably not help waterproof a sculpture. The final finish would have to do that. I have never been brave enough to put paper mache outdoors, so if that’s what you intend to do, you should follow the link to the original experiments that are mentioned in this post. The lady who did the experiments should be able to answer questions about waterproofing paper mache much better than I can. Good luck.

    • Bonjour,

      Je suis contente de vous avoir retrouvée, je suis dans la région de Montréal aussi. Je vous laisse mon addresse e-mail.
      Que de souvenir agréable me sont remonté dans mon coeur,
      Chantalxxx

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