Home-Made Gesso Made with Glue and Joint Compound

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Home-made gesso

This is a very simple mixture, but it can make a big difference when you’re making a paper mache sculpture.

Home-Made Gesso Recipe:

  • “Some” Elmer’s Glue-All (PVA glue)
  • “Some” Drywall Joint Compound (if you’re not sure what that is, watch this video to see how it’s used in home remodeling projects.) Use any joint compound except Dap brand, which doesn’t work. Walmart sells non-Dap joint compound in their paint department.

That’s right — there’s no specific amount of either ingredient in this “recipe.” In fact, I just pour some glue and plop some joint compound into a bowl and start mixing. If you use more glue and make it runnier, the gesso will tend to self-level and make a nice smooth surface on your sculpture. If you use more joint compound and make it thicker, you can use an old brush or sharp tool and create fur and other interesting textures. If you apply the gesso too thickly, it may crack as it dries – but you can fix that with a bit more gesso, or by using a damp sponge to smooth things over.

You can add a dab of white acrylic paint if you want the gesso to be more opaque, to cover the printing on newspaper, for instance.

Also, you can sand the gesso if you want the surface of your sculpture to be really smooth, but if you do sand it, be sure to wear a mask. The dust is really fine, and it contains silica, which you don’t want in your lungs. I never sand, just because I don’t like the dust flying around the house. I prefer to use a lightly damp sponge and “wet sand,” instead. If a kitchen sponge doesn’t seem to be working, you can use one of those sanding sponges that you buy in the hardware store. Since I’m not that serious about getting anything perfectly smooth, the kitchen sponge works just fine for me.

This mixture can also be used as paste with blue shop towels. The gesso is a variation of the fast-setting paste that I use for my masks. I used the gesso mixture as paste with shop towels for the first time when I made the green witch mask for Halloween, and I was quite impressed with it. However, the gesso is so heavy, I don’t think it would work well as paste with lighter papers, like newspaper. (Haven’t tried it, though, so I could be wrong).

By the way, several years ago I tried making paper mache clay using the DAP brand joint compound, and it turned into little balls of rubber. I tried it again with the gesso recipe, and it didn’t work for that, either. Use any brand of drywall joint compound except DAP.

Note: Drywall joint compound is created for the construction industry and is not edible! Do not use this gesso if you’re working with small children who may put the gesso or the joint compound in their mouths, or if you’re making a toy for a baby. It’s also important to wear a mask if you sand your paper mache after it dries, because the calcium carbonate in the joint compound is mined in areas that also contain silica, and fine silica dust is not good for your lungs.

Powdered Marble Gesso recipe:

For a thicker home-made gesso, you can use calcium carbonate (powdered marble) and white glue. The traditional proportions are 2 parts PVA glue (Elmer’s or an archival book-binder’s PVA glue if you worry about pH), 4 parts water, and 8 parts calcium carbonate. To make it nice and white, add 1 part powdered titanium or zinc white pigment. If you want to thicken the gesso to cover bumps faster, you can use more powdered marble. This mixture dries very hard, but sands easily. This recipe uses materials that are not readily available, and they can be rather expensive, but this was the first gesso recipe I used, and it does work really well. You can see someone making this gesso here.

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121 thoughts on “Home-Made Gesso Made with Glue and Joint Compound”

  1. I am curious what makes DAP joint compound not a good choice to make gesso with. Also is the DAP plaster of paris the same, not a good brand. I was talking to a friend and they said that the plaster of paris hardens fast and the joint compound doesn’t harden as fast. I would like to know the whys of it all before I make my gesso. I am a all the round craftswoman and I had been painting Day of the Dead masks. I have a surplus of about 30 so decided to paper mache them into different masks. I am working on 14 and coming close to the gesso stage. I love your cooked paste by the way. I am making Indian ones, monsters, a bear and some old people. Having a blast but I like to know the whys of stuff I do. By the way, I think you are amazing and love your web site. Debbie Strahm

    • Hi Debbie. DAP is a ‘good’ brand, and that’s probably why they’re taking over most of the US market. But their drywall joint compound contains an ingredient that, when mixed with Elmer’s glue, turns the mixture into Flubber. It’s probably boron, which reduces fire danger and eliminates mold. Good stuff – but not good for paper mache clay or DIY gesso. Plaster of Paris is entirely different. As your friend says, it hardens quickly when mixed with water. The pre-mixed joint compound that we use, the kind that comes in a plastic tub, will only harden as it dries.

      Have fun!

  2. Hi Jonni your gesso recipe is absolutely great! Cannot wait to try it on my paper mache vase… however can I use the dry joint compound instead of it being already mixed.. cheaper when it comes dry… Otherwise would the dry compound dry faster or do you add water to get the consistency you want for gesso

    • Hi Pearl. I haven’t tried the powdered version. You might need to add a little water, and mix the joint compound before adding glue. And some versions harden very fast because they contain plaster. Get the slow kind to experiment with. We’d love to know how it turns out, so please let us know.

    • Hi pearl, I work in the drywall industry and I do not reccommend using the dry powder joint compound. It’s what we call hot mud and will fire very fast, they actually make it by the min, 90 min 40 min or 20 min mud. This mud can actually fire while submerged in water so nothing will slow it from hardening. In fact adding more water to it once it’s been mixed can cause it to react and fire faster. It’s great when I’m at work and need my mud to dry fast and extremely hard but when I’m sculpting I like to take my time, and I like to be in control of my clay or gesso not the other way around. Premixed all purpose mud works the best for this clay or gesso, I can keep the premixed mud in a bucket and as long as I keep water on the surface in an air tight bucket it will never harden. Keep in mind If stored longer than a year it can start to spoil and stink. Hope this helps.

    • Yes, if you keep it covered so air can’t get in, it will last a very long time. However, it isn’t flexible, so it might crack when you turn the pages. Give it a try – but you might find that an acrylic gesso will work better for your journal. You can get a small container of drywall joint compound in the paint department at Walmart – most places only sell it by the gallon. And remember that you don’t want to buy the DAP brand, because it doesn’t work. Good luck!

  3. I found this site because I was attempting to find out what Franz West used in his paper mache sculptures.
    The main interest in wanting to know this is that he died at a fairly early age of liver cancer.
    It’s been my experience that sculptors seem to perish of either lung disease or organ cancer, which may indicate bad stuff is either being breathed or absorbed into the skin.
    With that in mind, wouldn’t gloves be a basic precaution?
    (Not that sculptors take health precautions)

    • If you like getting your hands in your gesso, gloves would be a good idea. The calcium in the joint compound dries out the skin. And the label clearly states that it shouldn’t be sanded without a mask. As for Mr. West’s paper mache formulas, his work looks quite large, so he probably just used flour and water paste. He painted them, of course, and may have used various solvents and other products. And it looks like he used a great number of different sculptural media in addition to paper mache, so it seems impossible to know which one (if any) led to his illness.

      When you imply that sculptors don’t take health precautions, are you speaking from personal experience? Are you a sculptor?

  4. Hi Jonni,
    I just found your site thru your YouTube videos, and I have to say You are amazing!Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  5. Hello!

    Thank you for your insights, my gf has taken to referring to you as “the craft god”!

    When we used your homemade gesso recipe, upon drying the gesso began to crack. Is this simply because we applied it in too thick of a layer?

    Thanks again!

    • I’ve had other people tell me about the cracking, but I haven’t been able to duplicate it. Since there’s no real recipe, it could be the proportions of glue and drywall joint compound that cause the cracking. Or it could be the thickness of the layer. Another coat quite often covers the cracks. If you do any experimenting with the proportions, I hope you’ll share what you discover.

    • Aconteceu isto comigo usei o gesso no papel e rachou tudo só gates tempo e dinheiro, prefiro a massa corrida, para dar forma suáveis.

  6. Im making a dinosaur skeleton out of wood and I want to use a homade way to fill around the wood to sand it until I have the desired shape of the bone.I have drywall compound but I want it to be stronger as it dries.What can I add to the compound.Any thoughts?

    • Hi Stix. Do you want the material to remain on the skeleton after you’ve finished the woodwork? Or do you hope to remove it? The original paper mache clay is very strong – much stronger than plain drywall compound. It dries about as hard as plastic, and harder than most wood. It also sticks really hard, and it would be very difficult to remove.

  7. Hi Jonni,

    It has been awhile and I hope all is well.

    I recently created 2 plaster life casts of a head. They were fairly thin, maybe 2 layers of plaster cloth. I then used “great stuff” expanding foam inside to give them some stability. I allowed them 24 hours to dry completely before attempting to smooth their surface with the gesso recipe. I am pretty sure I was too heavy handed with the gesso and developed a large crack and tear in the temple area of one of the heads. I went ahead and applied some joint compound to the crack directly and then re-gessoed with another layer of home made gesso, this time adding more glue to the recipe. Now that this has happened I am wondering how thick is safe to apply the gesso and not get cracks. I did apply it with a fan brush, as my initial batch was about the consistency of pancake batter.

    One other piece of information that might have influenced the outcome. I used Elmer’s wood glue and not the white “glue all.” So, that might have played a role as well. But I do think I may have been heavy handed with the initial application.

    • That is possible, although I’ve tried the Elmer’s wood glue for other projects that included joint compound in the recipe, and it didn’t work very well. A thick layer will crack, though, because the joint compound shrinks as it dries. Try again with a layer that’s about as thick as you would normally use when painting. For thicker sculpting, the paper mache clay recipe works better, because the paper reinforces the mixture and reduces the possibility of cracking. It will also add strength to the thin plaster cloth shell.

      • Thank you Jonni,

        This will give me an an opportunity to try your paper mache clay recipe for the first time. Thank you for your feedback. I will keep you posted on how it all turns out.

        Thanks again and please know I really value your site. I just purchased your books and look forward to referencing them for some masks and small sculptures I plan on making for Halloween. Your site and videos provide such a wealth of information. Keep up the good work. 🙂

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