Paper Clay – An Alternative to Paper Mache for Young Artists

Since this is a blog devoted to paper mache, what I’m about to say may seem like blasphemy–I’m going to suggest that paper mache may not be the best craft material for very young children. First, I’ll tell you why I think that’s true, and then I’ll tell you why I think paper clay is a better alternative.

Paper Clay - A Craft for Very Young Kids
Paper Clay – A Craft for Very Young Kids

I realize that traditional paper mache, (strips of paper with a paste made with flour and water), does has two very positive points in it’s favor: it’s really cheap, and it’s wonderfully messy.

But I think there are also reasons why it’s not the easiest or most intuitive craft material for very young kids. First of all, paper mache needs to be layered around some kind of form. Balloons are often used for this purpose, but they’re difficult to handle, (they slide around and jump off the table), and you can only make something that is shaped like a balloon.

Also, traditional paper mache needs several layers to make it strong enough, and the second, third and fourth layers of paper strips can get a bit boring for young attention spans. (OK, I admit it – I get a bit bored after the first few layers myself).

Some preschool and kindergarten teachers have asked if my paper mache clay recipe would be a good alternative for toddlers and kindergartners, and my answer is always “no.” This home-made “clay” is made from products normally used in the construction industry, and the hardware store is not a place where you’re likely to find child-safe materials with a non-toxic rating. The clay was developed to replace traditional paper mache, but it should be used only by artists who are old enough and mature enough to know they can’t eat the stuff. It looks a lot like cookie dough, so it would be perfectly natural for a young child to sneak a taste when teacher isn’t looking. (I don’t recommend using wall-paper paste with paper strips for this age group, for the same reason.)

Plus, the paper mache clay still needs an armature, just like paper strips and paste, because it won’t stand up on it’s own. It can be spread over a found object, but that has the same problems as I discussed before. And although it’s fairly easy for an older child or adult to spread the clay onto an armature with a table knife, this does take a little more manual dexterity than very young children might have – and that can be frustrating instead of fun.

Paper Clay - An Alternative to Paper Mache for Young ArtistsPaper Clay - An Alternative to Paper Mache for Young ArtistsSince all types of paper mache require an inner form, the actual sculpting is done before you begin using the paper mache itself.  The sculpting is the fun part, and I make all my armatures with crumpled paper and masking tape, because it can be formed into any shape you want. I highly recommend that method to all my older readers – but I do admit that it isn’t very intuitive, and managing the paper and tape can be a real challenge for small fingers.

Give a child a piece of paper, and they don’t immediately think to start crumpling and squishing it to make an elephant or a cat.

But give them a lump of clay, and that’s exactly what they do.

And now I get (finally) to the point of this post: I suggest that paper clay is a better alternative sculptural material for very young children. You make it by mixing ordinary low-fire pottery clay with recycled paper pulp.

Clay from Georgies.comThere are a number of commercial products with very similar names, so I want to be clear that I’m talking about ordinary pottery clay that has paper pulp mixed into it. A 25 pound bag of clay costs about $25 – $30, if you can find it at a local pottery supply store (shipping is expensive, of course). Many pottery stores sell clay that has paper in it, so ask for it as “paper clay.” 25 pounds of clay, with paper pulp added to it, will make a lot of small, child-sized projects.

Or mix your own:

Paper clay can be made with any sort of recycled paper, although it might be fun to use colored construction paper if you use a white clay that lets the bits of paper show through.

  • The clay does not need an armature like paper mache, because it can stand up on it’s own.
  • Small children will enjoy playing with the clay and forming it into little animals and people — it’s as intuitive as making mud pies.
  • The clay dries quite hard without being fired. The finished pieces won’t be as durable as fired pottery, of course, but they hold up surprisingly well unless there are long skinny pieces, like tails, that could break off.
  • When the pieces dry they can be painted with water-based paint.

Although it does dry with less cracking than most pottery clays, if the item is quite thick, the clay might still crack as it dries. For smaller objects, this shouldn’t matter.

I found a very good description of the process of how to make paper clay here.

You would need to make up your clay at least a day before your young students start their projects. If you use a red clay with a high iron content, the clay might stain clothing, so the kids should wear old t-shirts on their project day. White clay will not stain. Clean-up is easy (lots easier than cleaning up spilled paper mache paste after it’s dried onto the floor).

The little pinch sculptures the kids make will take several days to dry completely, and once they’re dry, the little artists can paint them with water-based paints. Dry the pieces again at least overnight. If you want to go one step farther, teacher might want to give the pieces a final protective finish of acrylic varnish. You’ll be quite surprised by how well these little sculptures will hold up without being fired.

So there you have it – my recommendation for an easier, more intuitive alternative to paper mache for very young artists. Let me know what you think — your comments are always helpful.

20 thoughts on “Paper Clay – An Alternative to Paper Mache for Young Artists”

  1. Not finding a link to recipe using ceramic clay to make paper clay for children only recipe for joint compound recipe & yahoo click bait page. Where can the ceramic & paper air dry clay recipe be found?

    • This site is about paper mache, and I have no experience with ceramics. I think you’re looking for a natural clay that has paper added. A lot of people call my recipe for paper mache clay “paper clay,” but it isn’t the same as the ceramic clay you’re looking for. This pottery website might be more helpful for you.

      • No, actually just looking for the recipe for the above:
        “And now I get (finally) to the point of this post: I suggest that paper clay is a better alternative sculptural material for very young children. You make it by mixing ordinary low-fire pottery clay with recycled paper pulp.”
        The links on this page don’t lead to this recipe. I think the other recipes on the site will be quite useful for me, but hoping to have this one for kids

        • OK, now I think I see what you mean. When I answer comments on the back-end of the site, I don’t always notice what page the comment was written on. I just now checked the link you mentioned, and you’re right – it doesn’t work anymore. That was to a Yahoo answers page, and I think they took that entire section down. However, the instructions on that old page did show how to make real paper clay, like the one on the pottery website I linked to in my previous response. I don’t include the recipe for actual clay with paper on this site, because I’m not an expert when it comes to ceramic clay of any kind, and I can’t really answer any questions about it. But that other website should be more helpful. I’ll change that old broken link so it will take people to the pottery page, instead.

          For older kids, the paper mache clay recipe will work just fine, as long as they have good eye-hand coordination so they can spread the material in a thin layer over an armature. It’s not nearly as intuitive for younger kids, though, and that’s why I recommended using real clay for that younger age group.

  2. Hi Jonni, first off, I love your Make. Animal Sculptures with Paper Mache Clay book. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I did have a question though regarding working with joint compound. I’m planning on making a couple of paper mache animals to sell at a farmers market. I’m wondering if it would be safe to sell these, since they use drywall compound, and if I should give a warning to potential buyers that they are not children’s toys.

    Also I’m wondering if you would suggest the type of paper clay you discussed in this article to be put around an armature if it’s intended to be a toy for children?

    Thanks for your great book, site, and advice!

    Alex S

    • Hi Alex. I never make toys for kids and I’m not a chemist, but the drywall joint compound is an industrial product, and most of the labels don’t tell us exactly what’s in the different formulas. The Elmer’s glue is supposed to be non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it. Most parents would not want their babies to eat something made with paper mache clay.

      I don’t have a recipe that was designed for making toys, and I don’t know of a commercial product that is labeled for that use. The paper clay mentioned in this article is made with pottery-type clay, which is essentially mud. Kids love making sculptures with real clay. Most kids won’t eat it, but if they do, a little bit probably won’t hurt them. If you want to use it yourself to make sculptures, it would need to be fired in a kiln. If you’d like to use it that way, this book shows you how it’s used and fired.

      • Thanks Jonni, I’ll have to give it a look over. I just got a copy of Fast Faces and am in love with it!!!! You should do a book on how to paint all your paper mache creations. I bet you have a great technique that others could use! 🙂 I did get Blue Yellow don’t make Green and am excited to dive into painting my new creations. I’ll post to the Daily Sculptors when I’m done and if they’re any good!

        • I can’t wait to see them! But no, I don’t have a great technique for painting. I just play with the paint until I like what I see – not very professional, for sure. Fortunately, the sculptures themselves do most of the work, so I can get away with it. However, when people really do know how to paint it makes a really big difference. 🙂

  3. Just found your site while looking for ideas for a 3D workshop I am having soon. Love your work and how successful you are!

    • Hi Jonni,

      I’m going to do a project at the end of February in a class of about 30 children. I’m an art teacher in Belgium by the way :-). They wanted to create something with clay, but that is very expensive and I have no oven to bake the clay in afterwards. So I was very happy when I found this blog and your recipes for a convenient and cheap way to make clay. I have visited your blog the last few weeks full of interest and read a lot. The paper maché recipe I’ve just made. Later today I will let my children play with it, to see how it works:-). However, today I saw a recipe that makes it possible to work with young children without underlying structure so that they can work with it as with ordinary clay. Which I find more awesome of course, because I’m going to teach children I don’t really know. But ‘pottery clay’ what is that? Is that allready a clay, or does it come in powder form? I want to go make a harlequin with them, complete with bells on, a human figure is already not the easiest so if they don’t need to make an underlying structure in iron wire, that would come in handy :-).

      Thanks for all the inspiration that you give to very many people I presume and I look forward to your answer.

      Kind regards, Mieke

  4. I have made two projects using your original paper mache recipe and am making one project with your ‘ultimate’ paper mache recipe. Altho, I used powdered porcelain powder.
    I can not seem to fine a precise recipe for paper clay, using clay and paper pulp. (The clay you mentioned in this article.) Any help would be appreciated.
    Thank you for sharing your recipes and ideas, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the new mediums!

  5. Thanks a lot for your clear and detailed instructions. Before know about you me and my younger students (5 to 10) start with the project “foguera de sant Joan” a 3,5m life tree made with paper maché . The 23th of June it was burnt at Sant John´s Nigth in Altea. You can see the process in my blog: http://aquarelaescoladart.wordpress.com/foguera-sant-joan-2012/ (sorry only in spanish language)
    In the last moth we ´ve try with the paperclay. We love it!
    Thanks again!!!!

  6. I am so happy I found your page. I make beads from paper clay and am going to try your recipe as soon as I can.

    I use small molds, what experience have you had with the clay sticking to molds? Thanks

      • Thanks. My mind has been busy dreaming up things to do with your clay!
        I love taking something that would be tossed out and turn it into something beautiful. I admire your talent.

  7. Bit too long, could do with some sub-headings, i wanted to know more about the paper clay. Please don’t mistake this for calling it boring because you made some good points,

  8. I just discovered that if you sign up for the email newsletter offered at http://arthobby.co.uk/ they’ll send you full instructions for making paper clay. It’s worth giving them your email address to get the freeby, if you’re interested in using this material.


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