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 doesnโ€™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 youโ€™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. Itโ€™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.



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

    • Hi Kathryn. I haven’t tried it on foam, so I don’t know if it will stick or not. And the air dry clay will mold in the bowl if it’s kept too long – you can put in the freezer to keep it if you make too much to use up quickly. After it’s been applied to the armature you need to dry it as fast as possible, like any other type of paper mache. And then seal it so it won’t draw moisture from the air. My rhino and raven just went through a very humid summer, and they’re still looking brand new – the key is to keep them dry.

  1. You’re the real MVP, Jonni. I was going to use gesso but decided my paper mache surface to be smooth enough to paint. You’re videos were helpful during my first paper mache process.

  2. I am new to working with air dried clay. I am almost to the point of painting it with acrylic paints and wondered if I should use gesso first?
    Your videos inspired me to test my ability and talents by doing this project. Thank you!

    • Hi Terri. You don’t need to use gesso. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. The gesso will give you a nice smooth white ground to paint on, but the air dry clay will take paint nicely all by itself. So – it’s up to you.

      Will we get to see your new sculpture when it’s done?

      • Oh, thank you for replying so quickly to my question. I really appreciate it. And, yes, I’ll send you a photo of it when it is done. I am building a standing Santa. The stand is wood, the head is styrofoam covered in glue soaked cheese clothe. Then the clay for detail of the face. It’s my first time to sculpt in clay. I must say that you inspired me to try. Again, thank you.

  3. Hi! I need to make a half egg prop that can stand up to the eight of a one year old (25lbs)- can you recommend what compound I should use? Also, will I need a mild or can I sculpt it free form? Thank you soooo much!!! Your work is amazing!!!

    • Hi Meghan. I’ve never done anything like that. Will the child be inside the egg, or sitting on top of it? In any case, you’ll need some sort of form. The bottom half of an egg is round, so a large rubber ball would work. The paper mache clay recipe is quite strong, if applied about 1/4″ thick, but you might want to reinforce it with fiberglass mesh – you can get rolls of fiberglass mesh tape at the same place that you buy your joint compound. Because the pm clay dries so hard, you’ll need to be very careful to soften the edges of the egg so they won’t be too sharp. Also, check to make sure there aren’t any little points sticking up anywhere. The ingredients in the pm clay recipe are not originally intended to be used by children, so don’t let your little guy chew on the egg or get his hands in the wet goo.

      Good luck with it!

      • I actually used the Dap brand cuz Lowe’s was out of every other brand and for me it worked fine. I made a 2.5ft long sculpture of zeros head (the ghost dog from The Nightmare before Christmas). It dried well and is very solid, my son has knocked it over a few times and nothing has broken on it.

        • Good to know, Nikki. I think they have different formulas for different areas of the country, or different factories. Or maybe they just changed the formula since I last tried it. I have a tub of it in my studio that I just bought – I’ll try it and see if I can get it to work as well as you did.

          I would love to see that sculpture, by the way. It sounds incredible. Do you have a photo that you could share? The page on our site that gets the most views is the Daily Sculptors Page – there’s a link to it at the top of every page on the site.

  4. Hi! Love love LOVE your work and all of your resources.

    Two quick questions:

    1. How is the gesso + shop towels as far as weight after drying?
    2. If I use the shop towels on a positive mold, can I get away with one layer and then reinforce it on the inside (perhaps with your clay recipe) as to preserve the lines of the mold? Or would that be an issue when removing the clay due to lack of strength?

    I ask because I’m making a big puppet that will need to be moved around easily on stage. I’m just playing around with options in my brain. Feel free to suggest something else… you’re the paper mache wizardress!


    -Neal : )

  5. Hello Jonni,

    You’ll remember writing to me re a giant sculpture in Borneo, using paper mache paste, to draw attention to the complete deforestation here. I’m sorry but I can’t find the conversation thread, hence this random message.

    I have managed to get what I need, and had to make mechanical parts which cannot be found here. I’ve done a few tests with what I have, and the results confuse me. Would you offer some advice?

    It gets to 45 degrees Celsius here, and it rains heavily as in tropical storms. This weather cycle repeats itself endlessly. The humidity varies between about 70% and 98%. I have tried to dry samples of the mache paste in the stinging direct sun, but have to race to bring them under cover with each cloudburst. I leave the samples in a room overnight.

    On an average day, by noon the paper mache is dry and hard as cement. But overnight it softens which I presume is from absorbing atmospheric moisture. The next day it hardens again etc. I have no problems with mould, I guess because I have used a strong mix of salt and pure clove oil.

    My dilemma is how to dry the paper mache paste without it dampening. I can only think of drying it for a day, and in the late afternoon, sealing each sample with a lacquer. But the samples may not be dry right through. Also, lacquers aren’t environmentally friendly. And the problems involved in getting a tin of lacquer here in the jungle will be enormous and could take up to a year.

    Given all this, I wonder what wise ideas you may have!

    Thank you Jonni.
    PS: I keep admiring your work and hope my skill at working with mache paste will improve sometime so my own creations look splendid, as do yours.

    • Al, I understand your frustration. We just got a guest post from a sculptor who works in the Caribbean, and she has many of the same issues. Her sculptures are much smaller, of course. You might leave a comment on her blog, to see if she has any suggestions for you. There are also some YouTube videos by people who make paper mache sculptures in India. I don’t have a link for you, but you could find them easily on YouTube. They might have ideas for you, too. I live in Minnesota, where it gets humid at times, and we get rain, but nothing like what you experience.

      • Hi Jonni, again you have been very helpful, thank you. Sure, I’ve emailed Carolyn. It’s encouraging to see what can be achieved. Perhaps she and I can swap tips, and I do have a few to share now. Thanks again Jonni; if you have another idea, do let me know. Al.

      • How would a out door dehydrator work, it wood move air to help with drying and if made well it wood be water proof. I believe you can find the plans at Mother Earth News web site.

  6. I am trying to make texture on a wooden mermaid tail and hair . I bought gesso but that doesn’t seem thick enough. I seemed it used on this product but can figure out was used ?

  7. By using the joint compound/glue mixture, is this waterproof/element proof once dry? Or does this require an additional waterproof coating? If so, what do you recommend as a waterproof coating for an outdoor sculpture?

    • Neither the Elmer’s glue nor the joint compound is waterproof, so the resulting mixture isn’t either. In fact, you can smooth the dried gesso with a lightly damp sponge. I know everyone wants to find a product that can be used to make paper mache waterproof, and I’ve tried several. So far, I haven’t found anything that actually works. For outside sculptures, I recommend products that are made for that purpose, like concrete, epoxy-coated foam, or fiberglass.

      However, a reader did point out that Dan Reeder made a paper mache dragon that has been outside for years. I have not tried his method, but you can read his article here.

  8. I have two questions with this. First, could I colour it with something? I’m finding it hard to see it going on with the base colour and also when I sand it back, its hard to see how much I’ve sanded off. Second, when I wet sand it it goes a bit gooey, I let it set for a week to be sure but it doesn’t like wet sanding, dry sanding is fine but I’d rather not deal with the dust. I’m using a pretty thick consistency as I wanted the gesso to be able to fill in imperfections and then sand it back ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks Jonni!

    • Hi Rachel. Yes, you can add some acrylic paint or dry pigment to the mix. Also, be sure to check out Basil’s guest post, because he does some very nice work with the gesso mix, and he seems to be happy to answer any questions people might have about his process. And he sands his work, too, instead of using the damp sponge.

      • Thanks! So no matter how much it cures if I wet sand with sandpaper it will go gooey and sticky? I prefer not to dry sand if I can help it.

  9. For this home made gesso application, I used a paintbrush, but I can’t seem to clean the brush now. Is there a way to clean the product off the brush so I can reuse the brush?


  10. Hi Jonni,

    Another question that I have is: Is there a way to apply this paste to my entire plaster based mask so that it doesn’t eliminate the details…like I imagine that it could be thick eneough to accidentally cover a wrinkle that I made on purpose in my mask. SO basically I want to ask can I use a brush or what tool would be best to spread this clay you made with glue and joint compound onto my mask which would not put too thick a layer over it in order to not take away any facial features I created in my plaster strip mask? I just thought of a tool I could use: a tiny palet knife…but then I imagine it might still spread too thick a layer of the joint compound glue mixture, thus eliminating wanted facial features..

    Also why do you mention the Blue towels above? What is their purpose in using the joint compound glue substance?

    • You can make the gesso recipe thinner by adding a little water, and then it would add very little texture to your mask if it was brushed over the plaster cloth. I like to use a tool for spreading paper mache clay really thin – cut a half-circle out of the top of a yogurt container, round off the two corners, and then use the flexible plastic instead of a knife. You can spread the material paper thin that way.

      I think I may have mentioned that the gesso recipe can also be used as a replacement for the fast-setting paste recipe that I used in my book on masks. You can ignore that if you just want to use the recipe as a final layer to smooth out the textures on your piece.

  11. Hi Jonni,

    I have a question. Is this a paste that I can use to make facial features on top of a plaster strip mask?

    • Hi Carsuza… I’m browsing around trying to find out if this works (im considering making 2 oversized canvas and I have some compound from a outgoing reno)… Can you advise? Did you tried this? Thanks ahead of time…

  12. PVA. And Elmers are not the same at all.
    PVA is an actylic compound and Elmers. Is a casine (milk) compound. PVA is perment Elmers is not perminent

    • I don’t want to be argumentative, but I don’t think that’s true, Maryellen – but Elmer’s used to be made with casein. According to Wikipedia, the current version of Elmer’s Glue-All is a PVA glue. And according to the Elmer’s website: “Our products are derived from synthetic materials, not any type of animal or milk protein.”

  13. Thanks for your videos and recipes I enjoy your videos as your tone of voice and the pace you use to speak and explain is very good and your instructions are precised and clear. You are very talented i like your paper mache projects especially the tiger and cat . I have a big container of DAP joint compound but i read that it doesnt work for paper mache clay recipe do you know why it’s different from other joint compound? thanks

    • Hi Sylvie. I don’t have access to the formula DAP uses, but I suspect that they include boron to keep fungi from growing on their joint compound when it’s still wet in the tub. One of our readers said that you can make home-made flubber using Elmer’s and Borax – but I haven’t tried it. I do know that it’s hard to use a pm clay that’s really a bowl full of little rubber balls. ๐Ÿ™

      However, it just now occurred to me that there may be a way to use your DAP joint compound. Rich, one of our long-time readers (and a real Halloween enthusiast) created a recipe for home-made glue, and he uses it instead of the Elmer’s glue in his paper mache clay. You can find his recipe on his website, here. I have not tried it myself, but it works well for him. If you try it, please let us know if it was successful. (You might want to try a small batch, first, just in case…)

  14. I used to work with the blue shop towels as they were stretchy and tough and those elements gave things the look and feel of resin mache. very interesting. Then I didn’t use the towels for a year or so. Picked some up again, looking forward to that stretchy element for some tricky work and to my dismay the towels no longer had any real give. They must have changed their ingredients just a tad, probably to save money. sigh It was such a great product that would stretch to cover newsprint mache with large segments of toweling that provided added strength. Does anyone know of a toweling that replaces the old blue shop towels? Does anyone know what happened to the original product?? Because of this change, I looked up your recipe for air dry clay and will be using that in many projects. Thank you.

    • Hi Kate. I just checked the blue shop towels that I have on hand, and they do stretch more than newspaper. Not terribly stretchy, though. I think I may be lucky because I didn’t get a chance to try the “old” version, so I’m not disappointed. Of course, now that I know that they used to be better… ๐Ÿ™‚

      Since you have experience using the shop towels, could you tell us what paste you used with them?

    • I’ve just started experimenting with paper towels and I find that the Viva brand is really similar to shop towels.

      • Good to know, Joy. I’d never heard of that brand before, so I checked the description on amazon. It looks like they have two versions, and the label on the Vantage version says it stretches with a revolutionary V-Flex weave. The stretch of the blue shop towels is one of their best advantages. Were you using the Vantage version or the original version?

        • I’m using the original version. I’ve never tried the Viva Vantage, but from the reviews on amazon I assume they have a texture or embossing. The original variety is soft and has a smooth texture just like shop towels. They usually cost a little more but I watch for them to go on sale and then stock up.

  15. Hi Jonni,
    I just wanted to say Hi and thank you for all the information you put on these pages. You’ve been a great help with my art helping me to “make things myself”. I’ve tried all your recipes and the work excellently. You gave me a basis to go out and experiment with. Thanks again!

  16. I was wondering too about using it as gesso in the fine art sense, over MDF (medium density fiber board) do you have any idea if it is “acid free” that is if it’s ph balance will effect color over time by yellowing? Or if it will crack, MDF expands and shrinks less than other woods. I am looking for a gesso recipe for that, other than: plaster dust, pigment plus Liquitex gel medium, the gel being a little expensive.

    • Hi Ingrid. I don’t have any science background, and don’t know how art supplies are tested for archive-ability. I haven’t seen any yellowing, but if you apply the mixture too thickly, it can crack. I do think the powdered marble and glue recipe found on this page (scroll down to find it) is used by professional artists – but I found the recipe years ago online and haven’t been able to find the original source.

    • Thank you for this site, it helped me realise I don’t need to invest in massive amounts of fancy clay and such. I’m trying to make a marionette, currently just the head shape at this stage. I read about your compound cement Gesso here, but I think I will try something a little different and see how it goes, unless you already know what would happen…? I will try and mix PVC glue (white wood glue, dries clear (I’m Aus, so things are named differently)) and plain white flour as a theoretically fine gesso that I hope will apply smoothly and whitely to hold acrylic paint. Thank you for your inspiration!

      • Hi Natalie. I don’t have any idea what will happen when you mix up the glue and flour, but I hope you’ll let us know when you find out! I do know that acrylic paint crackles when placed over wet PVA glue, but it doesn’t do that when the glue is dry. Good luck with i!

        • I tried it, it’s not terrible. It dries smooth and streak free, but it’s shiny. Since then I remembered that I have cloth clay and La Doll air-dry clay as well, so I have this rather solid piece at the moment. I think I’ll use the glue mix over the top to ‘smooth’ it.

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