How to Restore Antique Dolls with Paper Mache Clay

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We have a very interesting guest post today. Karen Musson is going to show us how she uses paper mache clay over spray foam. She’s using this method to restore the legs and arms on antique dolls, but I can imagine hundreds of different sculptures that could be made using her techniques. She also uses a product from Home Depot to make her doll’s arms so smooth. Read more below to see exactly how she does it:

©Karen Musson

Restoring Antique Dolls with Paper Mache Clay

I enjoy taking old things and making them like new again.  One antique I have fun with is the composition doll.  These dolls are made of saw dust and glue compressed in a mold resulting in a durable doll that out lived the love of a child.  Composition dolls can be found in antique shops and bidding sites.  These dolls have survived the years but show their age.  Exposed to the elements, the composition deteriorates and fingers, toes and sometimes entire limbs fall apart.

Here is a photo of a doll I purchased on Ebay. She has no limbs so I am going to make them out of spray foam insulation covered in Paper Mache Clay.

Antique Doll

Here is how I am going to do it………

Some hints before you start:

•    The spray foam is nasty stuff.  WEAR GLOVES.
•    Have a can of Acetone near by.  It is the only thing that will clean up spray foam. (Fingernail polish remover does not work)
•    If you do not use the entire can of foam for your project, you must clean the nozzle and the tip on the can.  Use pipe cleaners/chenille stems dipped in Acetone to clean them.
•    I recently discovered if you spray the foam into a disposable container  like a shoe box, the foam will dry with fewer holes.  Fill the box half full and secure the lid.
•    I like the Paper Mache Clay (recipe here) to be really creamy.  I put the toilet paper in a blender with enough water to spin the mixture.  Let it run for  5 mins.+.  Strain the mixture and wring out the water until you have 110 oz. Put it a bowl and add the glue and dry wall compound.  Using mixer beaters, blend together until creamy.  Add the remaining ingredients.  Store in a plastic bag and refrigerate over night.
•    Sculpting the foam is very messy.  It flies everywhere.  Have a vacuum on stand-by.  You’ll need it.

Supplies for repairing antique dolls


1.    Make a paper pattern. (Click the images to see them in a larger size).

Paper pattern for antique doll repair project

2.    Spray some  foam insulation on to some newspaper and let it dry.  The amount should be equal to the length and width of each limb. Let it set for 24 hours – it takes that long for it to set up completely.  It may look dry on the outside but it is still liquid on the inside.  (TIP: half fill a cardboard box with foam and seal the box.  Let dry.  Cut away the box.  The foam will have fewer air holes.)

spray foam
spray foam

3.    Using the paper pattern and a large serrated kitchen knife, cut out the general shape of the limb. Just a note…this process is very messy.  The foam is electrostatic and the shavings fly everywhere. Have a vacuum standing by.

Pattern over foam, for antique doll repair

First leg rough cut from foam

4.    The best knife to use for shaping the limbs is a tomato knife.  It is a narrow knife with very small teeth.  Carve the foam until you are satisfied with the shape.  It will be rough with uneven edges.

tools for carving foam

5.    Take a sanding block and sand the shape until it is nice and smooth.  There will be holes.  If they’re large, you can stuff some of the foam shavings in the holes.

doll leg sanded smooth

doll's foot

6.    Using a butter knife or other smooth tool, apply a very thin layer of Paper Mache Clay.   Let it dry completely.  (do not put your sculpture near a heat source to dry.  The foam will expand and destroy all your work)

7.    When everything is dry, add a second thin layer of Paper Mache Clay.  Sculpt in the fingernails and toe nails at this time.  Let dry

8.    I like my sculpture to be as smooth as possible.  I found this amazing product at Home Depot (the only store that carries it).  It’s called Pro Finisher Wood Filler, water base, white oak.  It’s the consistency of dry wall paste.  Spread a coat on the entire sculpture and let it dry.  Sand the sculpture smooth.  You can use sand paper, a sanding block or a wet cloth.  It fills in the imperfection and does not add much weight.  I love this product.

Using Pro Finisher Wood Filler in restoring antique doll

9.    Paint with acrylic paint.  Brush blush on the knees, elbows, back of the hands and top of the feet.

Restored antique doll lets, painted
10.    Spray with a semi-gloss, clear acrylic finish.

The arms:

Follow the same directions except push 20 gauge wire into each finger.

paper pattern for antique doll arm

rough cut arm for antique doll

foam arm before finishing

restored arm for antique doll

Note:  I cut the fingers with scissors.

She’s all together again.  Now all I have to do is dress her.

Restored antique doll

Feel free to ask question!

30 thoughts on “How to Restore Antique Dolls with Paper Mache Clay”

  1. Best information on restoring dolls. I have and old doll that had rubber arms and legs that exploded and will be sure to replace her arms and legs with this method. Thanks so much for great details on how to go about it. You saved another sweet dolls life????????

  2. have you tried using a hot-wire cutter or a craft type blade heated up to cut out the foam. no mess compared to sanding. if you are careful you can use a blowlamp to burn a shape into your block

    • Hi David. This is a fairly old post, and I’m not sure if Karen is still watching for comments. But I have a question for you – I haven’t used foam for my own work because I don’t like the mess of the little bits of foam floating all over the house when it’s cut, and I’m worried about the fumes from the heated cutter. But maybe that is an unreasonable worry. Are there any safety concerns when using the hot-wire cutter with foam?

      • hi.i dont think there are any probs with a hot wire . It can be powered by two 9v batteries so it is safe from shock, there is most prob. more danger from a hot-glue gun as they get very hot. you can use a heated screwdriver or knitting needles etc…. to get rid of bigger chunks. As it only takes seconds to cut you can do it inside or out for the fumes (you will get more fumes just crossing the road nowadays. i have been meaning to thank you for the Baby Elephant pattern which i am making at the moment. I have gone over the top and at the moment she looks more like a hippo from the back so i am putting her on a diet,cheers,david

      • Could you sculpt the legs from sculpting clay then make a silicon mold from the sculpted leg? Once this is done you could simply spray the foam into the mold.

        This method might eliminate the messy need to cut and saw into the foam.

        • The silicone would work, but you would probably want to use one of the two-part foam products that are made for this sort of thing. They are as hard or soft as you you want, and they will form a skin where they meet the silicone mold. Spray foam from the hardware department doesn’t make the skin, and getting a good print is really difficult. It’s also pretty easy to break or pull apart. The commercial products made for the purpose would work really well, though. Here’s a video about the flexible foam used in a mold: https://youtu.be/BKkAmazCIkA

          • You could also use a release agent prior to spraying the foam into the mold. This would stop the foam from sticking to the sides of the mold thus making it easier to remove?

            • I think that would depend on the material. I’m not very familiar with foam, but I don’t think it will stick to silicone. It does stick to everything else, so you’d want to read the labels. Some release agents might affect the skin on the foam – but I don’t really know. The people who sell the two-part foams are usually really good about answering questions.

  3. Great post !I like to make altered art dolls and this is great for making antique looking doll parts.Marionette puppets are made using wood filler ..wood filler activator (which is mostly acetone and wood filler)makes the dried filler so smooth you hardly have to even sand it ! this is so useful I am definitely going to try this method…Thanks so much!

  4. Hi there,
    You’re right Jonni, it is a matter of experimentation; second batch and I got the mix right, It all boiled down to the correct joint compound, as I had followed your recipe to the letter during my first attempt, but it came out all ‘orrible’ as out neighbours across the pond will say. Up here in the frozen white north (Canada), for this recipe I had to use LePage all- purpose white glue, and Easi-Fil all-purpose dry wall compound, which I bought at Lowes Hardware.

    • Thanks, Charles. I’m glad the recipe worked well this time. And by the way – I hope you aren’t near the fires we’ve been hearing about up north. Here in Minnesota our sky has been filled with smoke from the fires in Canada and Alaska. I can’t imagine what sort of damage the fires must be doing to the plants and wildlife up there. I heard the permafrost is burning, but that doesn’t sound right. Is it true?

  5. Jonni, this is a great post. I have a really busy work period coming up but when it settles down I will give this a try. It will be interesting to see what I can make with it.

  6. Hello my Teacher!! el ultimo proyecto que hice de maché, fueron la cerdita Pepa y Su Hermanito George, para mis sobrinitos; que son fanáticos de estos personajes de Disney chanel; los cubrí con cola vinilica,teñida con pintura acrílica.Están muy felices con sus muñequitos, misión cumplida de mi parte,te adjunto su fotito con sus respectivos muñecos.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing that! I have been thinking of that expanding foam for a while, but then I saw one post advise against it. Now I see that it just depends on the mode of employment and the various techniques used! Your work is highly motivational!

  8. How inventive is that? I would never have thought of the insulation foam for doll limbs. It leaves you wondering what other mache projects you could use it for. Thank you Karen for sharing.

  9. Hi Jonni,
    as well as up-cycling furniture, I’m also an altered doll artist. I just wanted to say what a wonderful ‘How to’ this was. I’ll be giving the expanded foam idea a go, though more for re-sculpting existing parts. Combined with paper mache the possibilities are endless 🙂
    Thank you so much for sharing

    kind regards


    • Hi Colin. I agree – Karen wrote us a great how-to article, and I can’t wait to see how people use her techniques in their own work. If you try these methods, I do hope you’ll share the results with us.


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