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Make Paper Mache Clay Smooth Without Sanding

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cat mask pattern
paper mache cat mask smoothed with drywall joint compound.

It can be difficult to make paper mache smooth – even when you’re using my famous paper mache clay recipe. Fortunately, this method of making paper mache clay really smooth is really easy. In fact, it works just as well with the traditional paper strips and paste.

Now, before I get to the steps I should mention that many people use a thin layer of paper mache clay for their first layer, and then they mix up a batch of the Silky-Smooth Air Dry Clay to use as the final layer. That’s how Rex made his pumpkins, and you can see his post here.

But I’m lazy, and I’m always in a hurry to finish a project. This method of smoothing the PM Clay with a rubber spatula and drywall joint compound is much easier and faster, so this is how I’ll be doing it from now on.

If you’d like to watch this on video, scroll down below.

Step 1 – Apply a thin coat of paper mache over your armature.

In this image I’m using the new recipe for paper mache clay that doesn’t use any flour, but you can do the same thing with the original recipe, with the silky-smooth air dry clay recipe, or with paper strips and paste.  (I know the image makes it look like I’m working in the dark, but that’s because I bought a new camera and I was still learning how to use it. 🙂 )

Adding a thin layer of paper mache clay to the giraffe armature.

I never measure the thickness of the layer of paper mache clay I apply. I just make sure none of the armature is showing through. Both of the recipes for paper mache will dry very hard and strong.

Make sure your paper mache clay is completely dry all the way through before you move to the next step.

Step 2: Apply a super-thin layer of drywall joint compound with a rubber spatula.

Apply joint compound to make the paper mache clay smooth.

You could also use a knife to apply the drywall joint compound, but the flexible spatula makes it so much easier. It doesn’t leave any marks, and you can push the joint compound deep into the dips in the paper mache clay without leaving very much joint compound on the surface. This way, you aren’t adding much weight to the sculpture, and the joint compound dries quickly.

For this project I wanted a lot of texture on the mane and ear tufts, so I didn’t add any joint compound to those areas.

Step 3: “Sand” the joint compound with a lightly damp rag or towel.

Using a damp rag to smooth the joint compound on the paper mache clay sculpture.

Drywall joint compound can be smoothed with a damp rag. In fact, this is how I “sand” joint compound when I’m doing a small remodeling project around the house. The benefit of doing it this way is that you don’t end up with that fine dust all over the place, and you don’t have to wear a mask to keep it out of your lungs.

Sanding joint compound on paper mache clay giraffe.If you absolutely can’t help yourself and you just have to use sandpaper, you can use a sandpaper sponge, like I’m showing here. But I just did this for the picture – I would never sand joint compound (or anything else) in the house. It makes a big mess and I hate wearing a mask.

You must use a mask if you sand drywall joint compound Read the label! No mask is needed if you use the damp towel, instead.

Step 4: Apply one coat of acrylic gesso.

Applying acrylic gesso to paper mache giraffe.

Acrylic gesso is like a primer for acrylic paint. All acrylic paint companies also make gesso, and I think you can even buy it in the craft department at WalMart. It protects the drywall joint compound, seals the sculpture, and creates a really nice white ground for your paint. The colors you add will be much brighter and cleaner if you put the gesso on first.

In the video my daughter made when she painted the cow mask, she pointed out that gesso also saves paint. On many types of surfaces, much of your acrylic paint would be absorbed into the canvas or paper mache, and you’d need to use more paint to get nice bright colors.

Allow the gesso to dry completely before painting.

Step 5: Paint your sculpture.

Paper mache clay giraffe sculpture, painted.

After the gesso is dry, your paper mache clay sculpture is, essentially, a three-dimensional canvas. If you’re making an animal sculpture, as I almost always do, you can find excellent painting tutorials on YouTube for your particular animal.

Painting a sculpted animal is quite a bit easier than painting the same animal on canvas because you don’t have to worry about getting the shadows right. The light from your lamps or windows will cast natural shadows.

Here’s a video showing how to make paper mache smooth with drywall joint compound:

Play Video

The giraffe pattern is now available, by the way. If you’d like to make one of your own, you can find it here.

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Smooth paper mache without sanding

106 thoughts on “Make Paper Mache Clay Smooth Without Sanding”

  1. Hi!
    Your videos have allowed to me to get some robot sculptures out of my head that I’ve had for such a long time. It’s so great! I’m so glad I found your site!

    When you rub the joint compound with a damp cloth is the joint compound still dry or is it wet?

    Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Hi there.
    You are a great teacher. Your inviting voice and tone makes it enjoyable to listen to, and lends a confidence as I try and make this paper mache creation.
    Here is what I have done so far and my question with the new technique i discovered from you.
    I started with chicken wire I found in the garage.
    I made a paper mache mix from flour, water and glue.
    I’m about halfway there.
    Should I start over and do a cardboard form? Is there a way I can salvage this?
    I spent quite a while on it, however, I’d rather start over than spend too much time on something that may not work .??

    Reply
    • Hi Jana. I haven’t used chicken wire for sculptures yet, but mostly because I use it to build fencing for my chickens, and the cut ends poke holes in me. So I prefer cardboard myself, at least for small projects. But many artists do use chicken wire – it’s a traditional way to sculpt with paper mache. The paper mache will probably fall through the holes, but you can cover the wire with masking tape first, and then add your paper strips and paste. If you’d like to show us what you’re working on, you can share photos on the Daily Sculptors page. Have fun! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Hi!! this is awesome! I was wondering, could I use Plaster of Paris?
    In the past I used Plaster of Paris on top of papier mache, but it cracked. Will joint compound not crack? Could I mix Plaster of Paris and glue for a similar result, or should I just buy joint compound and ditch the Plaster of Paris?

    Reply
    • Hi Alice. The joint compound won’t usually crack if it’s applied thinly, over a completely dry paper mache sculpture. However, it will crack if the underlying paper mache is flexible, because it doesn’t have any structural strength or reinforcement. I have used a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue for paste, combined with thick absorbent paper strips. Author James Cochrane, author of Paper Sculpture, uses a mixture of plaster of Paris, water, PVA Glue and acrylic paint as a top coat for the projects in his (out of print and currently over-priced) book. So yes, you can use plaster, but I don’t think you can make it smooth with a damp sponge after it dries. It would need to be sanded.

      Reply
  4. Hi! this is wonderfully useful and easy! But I was wondering if I could apply this medium thicker? or in multiple layers perhaps? I have already made a traditional paper Mache sculpture but the base was slightly misshapen and id like to round out areas by applying your paper clay.

    Reply
    • You can apply both the drywall joint compound and the paper mache clay in layers. However, the joint compound cracks easily, because it doesn’t dry hard and isn’t reinforced. If you need a fairly thick new area, it would be best to use the paper mache clay if you have the ingredients.

      Reply
  5. Hi. Love your work. Do you sand the joint compound while it is still wet or do you work on it after it has dried?

    Reply
  6. Fantastic!!! I’m so happy I came across your YouTube channel, thank you very much! For making this. Would this work to finish a pregnancy belly cast (plaster material)?

    Reply
  7. This method may be the missing key to a current project. But I can not find this brand of ‘ProForm’ joint compound in my city to purchase. Would SheetRock or Dap brands joint compound work as well? Or is there another brand you have used?

    Hoping for the same smooth results.

    Reply
  8. The wet rag “sanding” technique is brilliant! I had a tough time with the silky smooth PM recipe, but I didn’t have a scale. This will definitely be put into practice.

    Reply
  9. Holy moly, what a revelation. I’m in the midst of a project and unhappy with the current texture…so excited to try this method to create a smoother surface! I thought I’d be adding more layers and dry sanding…this looks much more effective. Thanks so much! I’ll update with a “how it went” post after I complete the next steps. 🙂

    Reply
  10. Hi Jonni,
    After years of playing around with PM, I’m committed to improving the craft of working with the materials and have 2 questions:
    1) Am I the only person whose work is punctured with tiny holes made by tiny round bugs? How do I prevent this?
    2. I will use your method for a smooth finish with drywall, thank you, but am also seeking a glass-like finish and have had good luck with an epoxy resin mix. Do you have a better idea? Thanks so much!

    Reply

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