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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

69 Comments

    • I think it depends on how much damage was done. To start, I’d spray or dip the chewed bits with a bleach and water mixture to get rid of the mouse slobber. Then rework the holes just like you did when you made the sculptures in the first place. Or mix up some paper machete clay, or even some wood putty, and paint when dry. Good luck with it!

      • Hello Joni!

        Thank you for the advice/information on how to deal with the paper mache animals
        that became rodent feast, and the wonderful compliment.

        I moved all of the sculptures out of the shed, in order to clean up the wreckage, and allow the paper mache to be exposed to strong sunlight, after reading that ultraviolet rays will decrease the risk of active hantavirus.
        Have included the link from CDC on how to deal with a variety of materials/substrates that have been exposed to rodents.
        http://www.cdc.gov/rodents/cleaning/

        Funny thing happened a day after the sunbathing.
        I had checked the weather forecast for my little corner of the desert Southwest, and there was no mention of rain for a week.
        Good, that would afford me ample time to clean the shed, and seal it up so that the rodents would not be allowed access.
        Well, as luck would have it, there was a downpour at one a.m.
        Soaked all of the sculptures.

        So, after having a good crying spell, I removed all of the paper mache, stripping the animals down to the armatures, as now the risk of mold is pretty high.
        Can laugh about it now, and the plan is to re mache the sculptures that can be salvaged, and re create those that were too damaged.

        All things happen for a reason, might learn something very helpful with the restoration project.
        Thank you again!
        Ashley Fern

  • I’m trying to make a chia pet or sprout planter and I was thinking of using papier mâché, but I am thinking it would get moldy because of the need for water and dirt. Do you have any suggestions on how I could avoid this? I was thinking maybe keeping the bottom open and placing a plastic or clay pot inside it where it’s not visible, but it still won’t cause leakage to the actual papier mâché part. Varnish is a good idea, but I think it needs more. What do you think?

  • 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?

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