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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59 Responses

  1. emma fisher
    emma fisher at |

    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?

    Reply
  2. Beth
    Beth at |

    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!

    Reply
  3. epicyclo
    epicyclo at |

    Waterproofing paper mache is an old technique, and lightweight racing boats were built this way up to 100 years ago. Proper varnish is actually more impermeable than modern resins.

    Take a look here:
    http://www.cupery.net/SH.html

    Reply
  4. Dawn
    Dawn at |

    Currently making bowls, jewelry and wall hangings sold at http://www.etsy.com/shop/paperprezzies
    My question is have you found a way to put papier-mâché in a dishwasher? I’m thinking marine varnish won’t quite do it.

    Reply
    1. Chevolee
      Chevolee at |

      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..

      Reply
  5. Catherine
    Catherine at |

    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.

    Reply
    1. Stlouisx50
      Stlouisx50 at |

      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

      Reply
  6. sana
    sana at |

    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

    Reply
  7. How to Protect Your Exterior Art | Blog.Woodcrafter.com

    [...] mache products outdoors, many of them completely unsuccessfully! But here’s what Jonni at Ultimate Paper Mache came up [...]

  8. Debbie Morrow
    Debbie Morrow at |

    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.

    Reply
  9. Sean
    Sean at |

    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! :D

    Reply
  10. Samantha
    Samantha at |

    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

    Reply
  11. Graham Hay
    Graham Hay at |

    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.

    Reply
  12. Mark
    Mark at |

    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.

    Reply
  13. Mark
    Mark at |

    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.

    Reply
  14. John Tate
    John Tate at |

    You might be interested in the staying power of papier-mache in this article. http://www.arm.ac.uk/history/moore/Part03.html
    It wasn’t perfect but the dome did manage to survive the Irish weather for a number of years!

    Reply
  15. Jeanette
    Jeanette at |

    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.

    Reply
  16. Debbie B
    Debbie B at |

    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

    Reply
  17. lorraine
    lorraine at |

    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

    Reply
  18. Eirien
    Eirien at |

    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!

    Reply
  19. Sue
    Sue at |

    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!

    Reply
  20. Robyn
    Robyn at |

    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.

    Reply
  21. Wendy
    Wendy at |

    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.

    Reply
  22. Bobtannica
    Bobtannica at |

    What about making your paste up using plastic resin glue powder ala this web site… http://familycrafts.about.com/od/papermache/a/resinpmpaste.htm. I am on the verge of experimenting with it having just purchased some. You could use the paste in the pulp mixture.

    Reply
  23. Angelle
    Angelle at |

    The elephant fountain at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans is largely made up of paper mache structures. I believe they were then fiberglassed.
    Here is a pic:
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/25010622

    Reply
  24. Xan
    Xan at |

    Painting the rebar first with a rustoleum type paint would also keep that from happening. :)

    Reply
  25. Carol
    Carol at |

    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.

    Reply
  26. HooTessaOwl
    HooTessaOwl at |

    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 ^-^)

    Reply
  27. Rose-Andrée Sauvageau
    Rose-Andrée Sauvageau at |

    I would like to be on your mailing list
    Tahnk you

    Reply
    1. Otto Pfaeffle
      Otto Pfaeffle at |

      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.

      Reply
    2. Chantal Laniel
      Chantal Laniel at |

      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

      Reply

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