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.ย  (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. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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

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

  1. Hi Jonni, I’ve smoothed my piece with the joint compound technique. Would I need the acrylic gesso or can I use your homemade gesso with it.
    Thanks for all of the inspirational info,

    • Hi Terri. I like to use an acrylic gesso, because the joint compound is quite fragile. The acrylic seems to help support it, and prevents cracking. But if the skin of your sculpture is well supported by an armature, you can probably use a thin coat of the diy gesso instead. You won’t have some of the advantages of the acrylic product, such as reducing the amount of paint you need for a vibrant color, but it should still work.

  2. I’m curious to the process on the Giraffe’s eyes because I am making the cow and will cover it with clay but I suspect the eyes (and ears) should be done with strips to get more definition. Though here on this video it seems there’s something that isn’t styrofoam and i’ts been painted directly since there isn’t any paper marche at any point as you’re already applying the final layer of joint filler.

    • Hi Alexia. I did put paper strips over the eye on the giraffe. The eyes themselves were made with Styrofoam balls. When the paper mache was dry I added a very thin coat of the drywall joint compound to make everything smooth, including the eyes. I hope this helps. Have fun with your cow sculpture!

    • Hi Alexia –
      I use contact adhesive from time to time. The sort that you apply to both surfaces and leave for 15 minutes before pressing them together. I’ve found that it works well with virtually all surfaces, with the exception of plastic sheeting. Since both the gesso and the fabric will likely be porous, it should work well for your project.

  3. Hi Jonni!
    I’m working on small paper mache ornaments (I used your flourless mache recipe!), of which I’ve covered in two layers of thin newspaper. They’re dried but I wanted to give them a smooth finish before I start to paint them-would it be possible to use the joint compound on them if I didn’t use a paper mache clay? I don’t want to add more weight to the ornaments, as they’re meant to be lighter in weight, but wanted to give myself a smooth and neutral canvas to work with!

    I appreciate your advice-you’re my “go to” paper mache guru!

    • Yes, Nicky – a very thin layer of the joint compound works just as well over paper strips and paste. I try to put it on paper thin. On small objects, that’s easiest to do if you use gloves and smear it on with the edge of a finger. Let it set up for a few minutes until it isn’t shiny, and then go back over it with a lightly damp finger. You can get it really smooth that way, without adding much weight.
      By the way, we’d love to see your ornaments when they’re done. You can share photos on the Daily Sculptors page, and you can always find a link to it in the menu bar. Have fun!

  4. Morning Jonni!

    I just now got the idea to maybe try paper mache, thanks to your informative column on “Making Paper Mache Smooth Without Sanding” Last time I tried working with paper mache, the worms ate it!! Never touched it again since and that had to be well over 50 years, ago.

    Problem: I promised my best buddy I’d make a special doll for her OR if she had anything special in mind, I’d certainly do that for her, instead. To my surprise, she said she wanted Pinocchio! Funny thing is I have always had it in mind to one day hand carve him, as well, but out of wood!

    I know; we’re both 80 year old kids entering our 2nd…um…third childhood!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Let me explain that I am an artist/craftsman and have worked in a great many genres over the years – carving being one of them. But I haven’t carved in years since I joined the Art League and now all I mostly do is paint – think my knives got all dull and rusty anyway! One of the other things I do is I knit and crochet; it’s my chill pill. And all I EVER do when I knit is I make dolls, and I so enjoy doing that. Naturally, when I told my girlfriend I’d make her any doll she wanted, she assumed it would be a knitted doll. So, now she is expected a knitted Pinocchio.

    This puts me in a quandary because I wanted to hand carve him, NOT knit him…just doesn’t seem right to knit him! Then again, I don’t trust my hands working with knives anymore, getting too careless the older I get.
    When I read your column, I decided this might be the way out. But I have questions:
    I am meticulous when it comes to detail. Will your method allow me to get the detail I need? And as you know, Pinocchio is a puppet, and so I will be creating him like a puppet – with articulated limbs and such. Not sure if I will be applying strings…will see. I was thinking to first make a mold out of aluminum foil, then mache it. Will going by your method give me a doll/puppet, roughly 24″ long, that can endure??

    I am thinking “yes” because I know you know your field, well and trust your judgement.

    • Hi Patty. I have some sculptures in my house that were made years ago, and they still look the same as they did when they were first made. But we don’t have paper mache-eating worms in this part of the world (at least I’ve never seen any) and the sculptures just sit quietly on their shelf. I don’t know how they would hold up if someone was playing with them.

      For Pinocchio’s head you might want to use the method that I used for my baby animal dolls. It’s an easy way to make a strong, hollow head. His nose is longer than a kitten’s, of course, so the method would need to be altered somewhat – but the air dry clay over the plaster cloth is really strong. Both the air dry clay recipe and the original paper mache clay recipe dry extremely hard. But they do need to be used in a thin layer over an armature.

      Good luck with your project. We would love to see how it comes out! You can show it off on the Daily Sculptors page. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Thanks Jonni for your prompt reply!! Well, ok, then…paper mache it is!! That time the worms ate mache? Well, that mache was made from flour and paste as that was the only recipe I could find at the time. Kids, stuff!!!! Anyway, I will let you know how it goes. Will need to accumulate some things, first. Hope I don’t disappoint!
        Thanks so much, again,
        Btw, love this website!

  5. Hi Jonni,
    I love your work, your sculptures are beautiful! You inspire me to create in paper mache, so thank you and thanks also for being so generous with all you have learned. Your video’s are like mini workshops of great information.
    I am currently working on little snowmen, out of paper clay, only about 5 inches. I haven’t tried your recipe yet but will soon. I woke up today wondering how do I smooth some areas and found your video! Will give the joint compound a try. Thanks again and I look forward to learning and doing more in paper mache.
    Tracy Stewart

  6. Hi Jonni;

    I’ve been using your recipe to cover Halloween Skulls to look like my Grandchildren.

    I won’t go into the long details but I did find that after you get the clay just the way you want it, I use a cleaned out plastic sauce cup from a take out dinner. I add water and dip a finger in it. I run my wet finger over the areas needing to be smoothed. The only thing I need to be careful of is how wet my finger is. To wet causes the clay to start smearing.

    Also I use a very light touch.

  7. Hi, Jonni!
    Thanks so much for all your information and videos. I tried my first papier mache project and I…I went big. I ended up with a 5 1/2 foot wide by 3 feet tall Halloween spider for outside my front porch. I used the recipe that combines wet toilet paper, drywall joint compound, Elmer’s glue and flour. I applied the mixture over tin foil and duct tape wrapped around wire and pool noodles and of course cardboard for the body. I ended up with an interesting texture that looked right for a giant spider. However, the second I picked up my creation to bring her to the front yard, she cracked in multiple places. She is very dry and flaky. I spray painted her with acrylic paint but she is very unstable. I live in Arizona and noticed that even in my mixing bucket, my papier mache clay left on the sides and bottom had dried and cracked. Am I in too hot and dry of an area to safely craft that particular kind of papier mache clay, especially for an outside project? Is there anything you’d suggest for this climate? I did do a layer in places of drywall joint compound alone to see how that would work and it cracked after drying pretty much immediately. I’d love your advice. Thank you! I’m a huge fan.

  8. Hello Jonni, This is a great and easy-to-follow site, so thank you.
    I am creating a sculpture for outside and have made the frame from chicken wire. Is there a way, using paper mache, to ensure it’s hard wearing and weather proof?
    Keep up the good work! Stirling from Hertfordshire in England.

    • Hi Stirling. I don’t know of a guaranteed way to make any paper product completely waterproof. A lot of people do say that Flex Seal works for them, but other people have tried it and it didn’t work. We have no idea why it works sometimes but not others. The other thing to consider is that any tiny pinhole, like from a bird pecking it or hail, will let water in and your sculpture would be ruined. If you just need the sculpture to be outside for a holiday display, you can use a good outdoor varnish and then bring it back inside to dry it off. The paper mache will get wet, even under varnish, but you can usually save them if you dry them off fast enough. But for permanent outdoor sculptures I don’t recommend paper mache. Have you seen my garden gnome videos?

  9. Good Morning Jonni
    I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how to make feathers out of paper mache? Would you use very thin pieces of cardboard or is there something else to use to get a realistic shape.
    Any help would be appreciated
    Love all your animal sculptures

    • Hi Kim. That’s probably how I would do it. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, you might get good results by applying paper mache clay very thinly over a strip of cheesecloth, and letting it dry while resting on something with a slight curve. I haven’t tried it, but it might work.

  10. Jonni,
    Thank you for creating this site!!!

    I am interested in making hollow puppet heads. I need 50.

    I have a sculpt made of polymer clay which has been baked.
    I am thinking of making a 2 piece silicone mould of the sculpt, front and back.
    Then pressing paper mache clay into the mould half’s once cured putting the two together.

    – What is the best mixture for a nearly archival paper mache (no flower) clay that will be strong and look good grabbing detail and be smooth?

    – Should the inside of the head be coated with Glue All before joining together?

    – And how can acrylic paint be used on the outside with out reactivating the clay?
    – Should the acrylic paint be mixed with Glue all?
    – Do you think Krylon acrylic sealer spray would be a good sealer after painting the out side?
    – And maybe Krylon acrylic sealer on the inside after the two pieces have been joined rather than Glue All?

    Tada, lots of questions artist to artist.
    I am looking forward to your insight.
    Thank you,

    • Hi Tom. I did something just like this years ago when I made the heads for my baby animal dolls. I changed the method when I published my book about the dolls because the molds are expensive and the paper mache product I used in the past was difficult to use correctly the first time. However, if you need that many, you could make your puppets the same way I made my doll heads years ago. You might need to make a few practice heads at first to get used to it.

      I made two-part silicone molds and attached them together before making the castings. The molds had a fairly wide hole in the neck area so I could get at least two fingers inside. That did away with the need to glue the halves together after the paper mache dried.

      I didn’t use ordinary paper mache, either. I used one of the powdered commercial products. The one I used (can’t remember the brand name) was made with plaster of Paris and ground paper. Plaster is not mentioned on the package label, but “instant” is often used on the label as a clue. We had to work fast, putting a small ball of the mixed material into the mold and pressing it firmly against the sides with our fingers. We would get an occasional void in the casting, but they were easy to fill in with a small amount of the instant paper mache. Using cold water helps to slow down the hardening of the product, and I think I’ve read that vinegar helps, too. Although the product gets hard very quickly (too quickly the first few times until you get used to it) each head will take a long time to dry. However, the plaster lets you take the damp heads out of the mold within a few minutes, and then you can use the mold again for your next casting. If you used the paper mache clay recipe you could only make one casting every two days or so.

      There is a recipe for the paper mache clay without flour, but whenever I’ve tried using any version of my paper mache clay in a mold it gives a very bad casting. The air dry clay works much better in molds, but we don’t have a version that doesn’t use flour or corn starch. You might be able to use powdered marble in place of the flour, but you’d have to experiment with it. And because air will only reach one side when it’s in the mold, it will take a long time before they’re dry enough so you can remove them from the molds.

      I’ve never coated anything with glue, except when using a mixture of water and glue to make the surface of a sculpture smooth. The Krylon spray is an excellent choice for a sealer.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with your project!

  11. Hi Jonni,
    LOVE your videos and tips ~ thank you for sharing so much helpful information. Haven’t started my lion mask yet, but I’m eager to make one. I have a couple of questions: First, because I want my paper mache sculptures to be finished with just paper (wrapping, brown craft, old papers, fancy handmade, books, sheets of music etc) I was wondering if you had recommendations for that non-painted approach. Also, can I paper mache over the very smooth joint compound surface in this video once it is dry? Still learning ~ and having fun along the way. Thank You!

    • Hi Gayla. Yes, you can use paper mache over the joint compound. If you’re using the paper as the final finish, you’ll want to use a glue or paste that dries clear. The options for clear paste are Mod Podge, Elmer’s Clear, Elmer’s Art Paste, and cooked flour and water paste. Try several options with your paper on a test item, to see which one you like best. You might also want to watch some YouTube videos about decoupage – I haven’t watched any, but I’m sure there are some good ones out there. And for some inspiration, check out Natalie’s guest post about her decoupage bowls. Have fun!

      • Thank You! Will check out Natalie’s post and experiment with the different clear paste.
        Your excellent tips, recipes and help does make this fun.

  12. I am wanting to make a tree. Can I form the base with wire, then wrap the wire with masking tape. Then after that do the paper mache. I need to have it tall and I am going to have it grounded with roots wrapped around a rock. Any ideas?

    • Hi Beth. It sounds like you already have a great plan. I don’t use chicken wire myself, but there are a lot of people who do. Wire isn’t very easy to form into fine details, but you could add some rolls of newspapers to add some bark-like textures.

  13. I’m working on a paper mache creature for a small mardi gras parade. We covered a shark pool float in two layers of paper strips and paste. Then, we added a layer of duct tape and another layer of paper strips. We’re running low on time and I was wondering if adding the dry wall join compound, gesso, then painting will give us a structurally sound shark. I know it’s difficult to tell without looking at it, but in your opinion does this sound like it will be enough? We hope that it will last for next year’s parade as well.

    • Hi Carolyn. The joint compound has no structural strength at all. The paper mache clay recipe, which contains drywall joint compound, paper and glue, is very strong, and a thin coat would be enough to make a very long-lasting structure. The joint compound was used in this post just for filling in a few shallow dips in the texture, but it doesn’t add any strength.

        • You’ll need to give it several days, at least. I like to use a very thin, almost paper-thin layer, so it will dry quickly. If you can put it in a place where it’s warm and air is moving, that will help. For such a large item, you’ll find that the top dries fastest. The moisture tends to migrate down towards the lower parts, so test in many areas to make sure it’s all dry before you paint it.

  14. I have fiberglass push molds used for reproduction fish.
    what do i would have to use for a mold release so that the mache wont stick ?

    • You’d need to experiment with different types of oils. Petroleum jelly might work – but test the pieces after they dry to make sure the oil doesn’t make it difficult to paint them. Most people who use my recipes with molds use the smoother air dry clay recipe with silicone molds, with don’t require a release.

  15. I saw on your YouTube video and joint compunds and how dap doesnโ€™t work with paper mache, what other bands would you recommend?


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