About Paper Mache

Paper mache is a cheap art and sculptural medium that uses torn pieces of paper glued together with paste made from flour and water. That sounds pretty simple, and it is. But the final artwork doesn’t have to be simple – in fact, it can be just as complicated and creative as you want it to be.

Paper and Paste
Paper and Paste

The best thing about paper mache is that it’s cheap. You can create to your heart’s content, without spending all your money at the art store. The only expensive things you’ll need are paints, and one set of good acrylic paints can last a long time.

Another good thing is that you can do almost anything you want with paper mache. You can create silly little piggy banks, or you can get much more sophisticated and create a sculpture or textured painting fine enough for an art gallery. Most people start with the fun, silly stuff, and work their way up.

Oh yeah – the third best thing about paper mache is that it gives you an opportunity to make a wonderful mess. Just make sure you clean the mess up yourself, before any of the slopped-over paste dries onto the table or the bowl. And definitely don’t leave the mess for somebody else in the family to clean up. If you do, it could be the last time you get to make anything out of paper mache.

Each project that I’ll be adding to this site will have three main phases:

  1. The basic shape is created. Most of the sculptures I make are first formed out of wadded-up newspapers and masking tape.
  2. Strips of torn newspaper are carefully glued to the form in several layers, using a paste made from flour and water. For smaller projects, two layers of paper are usually enough.
  3. The sculpture is sanded smooth and then painted.

Feel free to copy any of the projects on this site, or use the ideas and process instructions as a starting place for your own ideas.

14 thoughts on “About Paper Mache”

  1. Hi.

    I’m fairly new to the paper mache game, but I wanted to know about reinforcing it. You mention “use a thin plastic mesh” as reinforcement. The obvious material seems to me to be fibreglass cloth /mat. Could it be used without the resin component? I wonder about the bond strength between PVA glue and the glass fibres as they are non porous, and I believe that PVA adhesives prefer porous surfaces. It might be a way to achieve some of the strength of fibreglass without the issues resins create. What do you think please?

    • Hi Paul. I have not tried the fiberglass matt with paper mache, although I do have some down in the basement. I was referring to the plastic mesh that’s used for deer fencing, or the type of bag that onions or oranges come in. The paper mache doesn’t stick to it, as you mention, but it provides some crack-resistance in the few areas of a paper mache sculpture that might need it, like the connecting point between the ear and the body. I don’t know if the paper mache could be forced down into a fiberglass matt, but it may be possible to use the glass fibers that come loose in a bag, perhaps as a substitute for the paper in the paper mache clay recipe. It would be an interesting thing to experiment with.

  2. I am making a Nativity diorama in pm and painting with acrylics. Do I have to use an isolation coat before varnishing? If so, would you, please, suggest what to use. Thank you.

  3. hey, i was wondering me and my girlfriend make some props for a halloween costume about a year abo, and for some reason they are falling apart, as if the paper is being eaten away, is they a reason why? and if so how can i prevent this from happinging in the future

    • That would probably depend on who’s eating your props. Clove oil is said to keep mold away, and pepper in some form or other might keep away the ants. I keep my paper mache critters in a dry house, so I don’t have much experience with the kinds of paper mache items that are stored out of sight for most of the year. You might try asking this question over on the Yahoo Paper Mache Art group – there’s lots of folks there who are really into Halloween.

  4. Hi Jonni!

    I am trying to make a turtle shell for a Halloween costume (teenage mutant ninja turtle) and it seems as though you are a fountain of wisdom when it comes to paper mache. I have a few questions that I’m hoping you can help me with…

    1. The turtle shell will be worn on my son’s back. Will a normal paper mache process (applying strips of newspaper with flour/water mixture to the base) leave the shell sturdy and strong enough to hold up during a neighborhood party. I do not want to put a lot of time into this project just to have it fall it apart when he starts acting out ninja turtle fights. If the shell won’t be sturdy enough, do you know of any techniques to reinforce the structure (i.e. wire)?
    2. I have come across a few websites that suggest using a varnish. Is this step really necessary? Does it help make it stronger?
    3. If I were to use brown paper bags, will the original color of the bags be the final color of the shell or will the flour/water mixture change the color? I was considering buying a olive spray paint anyway so this isn’t a huge issue.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, in advance!! I would greatly appreciate any insight you may be able to share with me.

    Em

    • Another fun Halloween project. I love seeing what kid’s are coming up with this year.

      1. Paper mache, when dry, is almost as strong as the same thickness of a laminated wood product. If you use 8 or 9 layers, it should be plenty strong for a costume, even if horse turtle play is expected. However, you could reinforce it, if you want. I like to use a thin plastic mesh that I found in the garden center, which is made for deer fencing. The holes are about one inch wide, and the strands are very thin. It’s easy to put the mesh between layers of paper mache, or embed it in a layer of paper mache clay. It won’t stop the shell from being flattened, if your son works at it hard enough, but it would keep it from falling apart. And it won’t stab anyone, the way chicken wire could do if the ends become exposed. Since the fencing comes in a very large roll, you’ll end up with a lot left over. Maybe your son’s school art teacher could find a use for it.

      2. Varnish would make the costume more waterproof, but it won’t add any strength. Acrylic varnish would make the shell nice and shiny, and it would protect it somewhat if it rains on Halloween (doesn’t it always?) Or you could use a water-based Verathane or other product from the hardware store. I believe Bob suggested spar varnish for a costume, but I think that was for a costume that is quite elaborate – more of an adult collectible than a fun costume for a kid’s party. For your purposes, a water-based product should be fine.

      3. The brown paper would be a perfect color for the shell. The flour and water paste will add a mottled overlay of off-white, but you may actually like that – it’s a very organic look. If you want just the paper to show through, you can use diluted white glue for your final layer, which will dry fairly clear. Either way, you can paint it if you don’t like the way it looks.

      I hope you have fun with this. Send us a photo when it’s done.

  5. I am making a Mark V scuba diver helmet out of paper mache fo my sons Halloween costume. After the flour and water paste dries, do I need to seal it before painting? Should I sand it a little? It is about 5 layers thick.(didn’t want it to be too heavy) We planned on using spray paint. The craft store recommended painting it with the spray paint, then sealing with a clear polyurethane. What is you take on this? My concern is that it will withstand a little bit of weather if it should drizzle on Halloween. By the way, this is my first time since elementry school that I have done any paper mache’ and I can see how it could get addicting. It really is a lot of fun.

    • I agree with the craft store. You can sand the helmet if you want a smoother surface. Then paint it, and when the paint is dry use an acrylic varnish or a water-based Verathane or Minwax finish. It always seems to rain on Halloween, but the water should run right off.

      Paper mache is fun, isn’t it?

  6. I was wondering if you can waterproof a papermache item so it can be used in an outdoor garden. I have a friend who loves elephants, and wants one for her garden. This seems to be the cheapest way I can make one for her. Any recommendations on a sealant for outdoor use if possible?

    Thanks,
    Tammy.

    P.S. Love your work btw.

    • Hi Tammy. I am just now in the process of putting together a post about putting paper mache in the garden. I made a tortoise this spring for a test, and he did really well – up until this week, when the paint began to flake off. Watch for the post – it should be up tomorrow. The short version – more experiments are needed before we find the right solution for outdoor paper mache. I would love to make a sculpture garden (I don’t have room for any more sculptures inside) but we need more great minds to work on this issue.

  7. Can you please tell me how to make them paper mache cats your making, ASAP. Mostly the one thats standing up:) Thanks

    • I make a cardboard pattern in the shape of the cat’s body and legs, pad the cardboard patterns and tape the legs onto the body, and then cover them with paper mache clay. You can see how they’re done in my new book, and on several tutorials on this website.

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