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 clay 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. (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

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

  1. Hello! I’m trying to do a series of 3 letters consisting of 6+ separate pieces making the letters like puzzle pieces. Let’s say I’m doing “ABC,” I want them to create an 18″ diameter dome shape, what grade glue and paper(tissue/toilet/etc…) would you recommend for sturdiness and durability, my goal is to make it “float” in the spherical shape with some type of support/wiring system in the back… any feedback or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    thank you

    • Hi Dorene. I haven’t timed it, but I do know you can keep it indefinitely in an air tight container if you stick it in the freezer. It will last on the counter for at least several days.

    • It isn’t edible, but your kids should be old enough to not eat their art supplies. Some school districts won’t allow it to be used as an art supply because the label warns against sanding it without a mask. (I doubt that you would let the kids sand anything, because it makes a mess.) The calcium in the joint compound can dry the skin. I never put my hands in the stuff, but some people do. Kids might prefer to spread it onto their armatures with their fingers instead of using a knife. In that case, you’d want them to wear gloves. And be sure to read the label before you decide whether to use it or not.

  2. I’ve watched this video probably three four times and I do have a question for you.
    How does the joint compound work over the crunchy foil I know you try to burnish it to flatten it or is it just better to use masking tape if you want a real smooth surface .

    • Hi Jeanne. I don’t use the joint compound directly over foil, just over dried paper mache strips and paste or dried paper mache clay. I don’t think joint compound on it’s own is strong enough to prevent cracking if it’s used alone. However, I’ve never tried it, so it might work. I don’t know which method would work best, though.

      • I was out of class one day last year. The kids told the sub the joint compound was my paper clay. Note: this was not in my lesson plan to do. But the kids convinced her they knew what they were talking about.
        The feedback I got and what I saw was a complete disaster. The sub and kids said it was very, very messy. The armatures to which they applied straight joint compound to were thrown out. A large amount of joint compound was wasted.
        On the armatures it cracked and flaked in thin areas. It was impossible to manage for detailing.
        The sub said it was an absolute mess.

        • Hi Debbie. It does sound like a mess, and the kids must have been very happy to see you when you returned to class. What a disappointing experience it must have been for them. Did they get to make new sculptures, with the right materials this time?

  3. merci beaucoup, je vais essayer de cette manière maintenant. Thanks a lot, I will try to work with this new method now.

  4. Please include a lesson on making armatures for differant projects. I am working on a paper Diary of a wimpy kid figure to hold the books for a fund raiser. I made a wire figure and wrapped it with thin masking tape before adding paper. Was there an easier way to make it?

    • Hi Veronica. There’s an easier way to make animal armatures. But that wasn’t what you were asking, of course. Debbie Court has an easy way to make figure sculptures in long dresses, but that isn’t what you need, either. How big is your wimpy kid figure? Is he large enough to wear a real kid’s clothes? Or is it just a few inches high? If it’s larger, using crumpled paper held on with masking tape may be your best option. I will try to find someone to teach us a better way, but it may take awhile. 🙂

  5. I am converting a dollar store plastic skull into a unicorn skull for my BFF’s birthday.
    I think I am ready to apply the paper clay. A little nervous as it is my first time to use paper clay.
    Go big or go home. ?

    • You can always practice on a plain piece of cardboard first. You’ll get the hang of it quickly. We’d love to see that unicorn skull – what a unique (and delightfully weird) birthday present. I hope you’ll let us see how it turns out.

  6. Hi Joni! I made a lifesize Santa for Christmas and papermached the head with a recipe I found online using flour and dipping the paper strips in and applying, I had not found your site at that time. I could not get it smoothe but I wanted it done for Christmas so I painted it and used it anyway. From across the room he looks fine but up close he is bumpy all over. Wish I had found UPM before I did him! I was wondering if the putty be applied to the painted face to smoothe it out or will I need to make a new head using this technique? Thanks for all the wonderful videos and for including written instructions too. I love all your animal creations!

    • Hi Cheryl. You might want to do a small test to see if the drywall joint compound will stick to the painted surface. It probably will, but it would be best to make sure. If it won’t stick, you might need to give your Santa a coat of acrylic gesso. The gesso will stick to the paint, and it’s slightly absorbent so it should help the joint compound stick, too. Good luck with it!

  7. Jonni, Thanks again for the tips. I used joint compound 15 years ago when making a sculpture…before the info. now available. It worked well with diy stencils and thin raised patterns on styrofoam but cracked very much on a test doll head (pva glue adds that much-needed binder and flexibility). It still waits to be finished…sigh. Love the giraffe! Smiles from Constance in Prescott Valley, AZ. PS: This zany zebra is currently in a Spoonflower contest…all votes appreciated. If you are not already there, you might enjoy this site. Storefronts (mine is called whimzpix) are free!

  8. I found this very interesting and will definitely use it in the future.

    Before I found UPM online, I only made balloon piggy banks for babies with strips of newspaper and liquid starch. They were very rough banks. It was always frustrating to me that I could not get them smooth. One day I made a small piggy bank for a friend of mine who lived overseas. She had sent me photos of her garden, and I painted some things on the pig. A photo is attached. I added a thin layer of joint compound on the pig, which made it smooth. Fear that the compound would fall off kept me from ever doing it again. It is ten years later. I must check in that the pig is okay, although I am sure she would have told me if it had cracked and fallen apart. Thanks again, Jonni. I love everything about this. Besides that, the giraffe is awesome.

  9. Jonni, I often use your gesso recipe, let it dry, then use a kitchen sponge to smooth it out. I think you taught us that…maybe in your baby animals book? That makes for a super smooth finish as well. What I really liked in this tutorial was your use of the silicone spatula to get a thin layer. Very cool and I wonder why we hadn’t thought of it before. It is similar to using the ceramic kidney to smooth things. Excellent!

    • Yes, the DIY gesso can work too, but some people get hairline cracks as it dries. I think that’s probably because the recipe isn’t precise, and we can’t really make it precise because every joint compound company uses a different formula. The DIY gesso also isn’t flexible, like the acrylic gesso is, and that was an important consideration for the muzzle of the giraffe and the cat mask. But you’re right – there are lots of different ways to achieve the same thing.

      Now that you mention it, I wonder if the spatula would work well for spreading the DIY gesso? If anyone tries it, let us know!

  10. Hi Jonni, I have yet to make my first paper mache sculpture. I am a watercolorist and want to branch into the paper mache field. Does it matter if you use joint compound or finishing compound, normal weight material or the lightweight version? I used to use joint compound on the wall sculptures that I created at my workplace and used a wetted plastic spatula to smooth the compound while it was still wet so as not to make any dust near the office desks. Would that work on the paper mache? Anyway, I am so pleased to learn from you and think you are a kick! Sincerely, Mark J. Bessermin

    • Hi Mark. I haven’t tried using a spatula to spread the paper mache clay. Until you mentioned it I hadn’t even thought of it. But it might work. I’ll try it next time I make something. You can use either regular or lightweight drywall joint compound in the paper mache clay recipes, but you do need to use the premixed formula that comes in a plastic tub, not the powdered version.

      We would love to see your mural, by the way. I’ve seen some wall art made with drywall joint compound on YouTube, and it’s an interesting idea. Do you have a photo you could share?

    • This is interesting to me. Mark, I was a watercolorists for 30 years before I discovered Jonni’s paper mache. It was a conversion, and I love doing it. This is a great site for “how to” and “what to do.”

      I have used both types of joint compound, and both types work. What does not work is the DAP brand. I mixed it once by accident and had to throw it out. Good luck. Would love to see your wall, also.

  11. Thanks a lot, Jonni. It’s so great solution to skip the sanding! I’m going to try it with the wall putty I use. I work in my ex-dinning room and sanding is always problem during the winter.

  12. Excellent thank you Jonni. Two of my latest sculptures have been textured ( a Totoro and a Spaniel) so this technique would not be appropriate I think? But the other ones (two more birds) would have benefited from it a lot. I’ll definitely give it a go with the latest Tiny Small Dog I’ve just started.

    • Hello, your finished product looks great! I was thinking of using this technique on my project. I am making Ahsoka Tano’s headpiece from Star Wars. I used Mod Podge on paper towels. I tried sanding it smooth and it’s not working that well. Would the joint compound be okay to put over the Mod podge I already have down?

      • Hi Savanna. The joint compound should stick to the Mod Podge, and will make it a lot easier to sand. It isn’t very flexible, though, so be sure to use an acrylic gesso over it after the joint compound is dry and sanded, to keep it from cracking.

  13. Thanks Joanni,
    I wish I had this recipe a month ago…I started my first ever papermache sculpture. It’s been trying and I’ve tried sanding it on a belt sander because my son misplaced my Dremmel. I used your original recipe, then half way through I found your recipe for smooth papermache. Needless to say…that worked much better! Can’t wait to try your no flour recipe and smooth paste. Thank you so much for all your info……so helpful!

    I make clay sculptures but was trying to move to a different medium that I could have total control of its outcome.

    I also paint. Now I can combine both, 2D with 3D, I’m so looking forward to testing all the possibility with papermache. I will send you pics as soon as I finish my project.

    Thanks again,
    Jane Way


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