Paper Mache Bluebirds – A 7-Hour Gift Project

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This has always been one of the most popular posts on this site. The project is easy, and the results are lovely. These birds have been used as gifts, tree ornaments, and even wedding favors! If you prefer to use the paper mache clay instead of paper strips and paste, you can see a newer version of this post here. These birds could also be made with the brand new air dry clay recipe, if you’d like to add more detail or have a smoother finish.

Project Difficulty Level: Fairly Easy (and fast!).

Today’s paper mache project, these two little bluebirds, started out as a challenge to myself. I wanted to find out if it was possible to create a paper mache gift in just one day. I managed it in seven hours, with plenty of time while the birds were drying to eat lunch, work on a video for this site (coming soon…) and throw a ball for my dog.

My inspiration for these two little figurines were a pair of doves I gave to my mother when I was a child, (about 50 years ago), and a tiny soapstone quail my daughter gave me when she was in grade school. Since both of these gifts have stayed around all these years, I decided that a pair of birds (if they turned out nice) could be a perfect gift for someone who appreciates hand-crafted art.

To challenge myself and to make this project more fun, I pretended that the gift needed to be wrapped and presented tomorrow. I started at 10 am and took the final photo, shown above, at 5:15 pm. And I think they’re adorable.

[Note (added 5/28/09): This project works for other kinds of birds, too, so pick the colors of your own favorite backyard friends. See a paper mache junco (a type of sparrow) here.]

Step One:

The first thing I needed to do was choose a species of bird. I chose the Colorado bluebird because they have a simple shape and just two colors (plus the black for the beak and eyes, of course). If the shape was simplified considerably they would still be recognized as bluebirds. I did an image search on Google to find examples to use as models for my project.

I didn’t want to be drawn into putting too much detail on the birds – I wanted them to be as simple as possible. To keep from being sidetracked by too much detail I made two very simple sketches to work from, and didn’t look at the photos again until it came time to choose a color for the birds.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 1
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 1 & 2

Step 2:

The next step was to make two bodies of newsprint. I used one page of a tabloid-sized newspaper for each ball and taped them tightly with masking tape. The two balls are the size and shape of a small chicken egg.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 2
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 3

Step 3:

Now I needed some heads. I first cut out two beak shapes from cardboard, and then used 1/4 sheet of tabloid-sized newsprint for each head.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 4
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 4

Step 4:

I taped the head balles tightly with masking tape, and included a beak in each one. Then the heads were flattened slightly (so their shape from the side is an oval), and taped them to the birds. One bird’s head is in an upright position, as shown above, and one bird’s head was attached so that it appears to be looking at the ground. Take a look at the large photo at the top of this post to see what I mean.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 5
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 5

Step 5:

Now the birds need a flat bottom so they’ll sit nicely on a shelf. I cut two small ovals from heavy cardboard and taped one to the bottom of each bird.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 6
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 6

Step 6:

Now we need some bluebird tails. Colorado bluebirds do have fairly short tails, according to the photos I found, but I made my tails even shorter. This helps to simplify the shape. I cut two tails from cardboard. They are sort of “W” shaped, with a crescent shape cut out at the top to help them fit next to the bird’s rear-end. The tails were taped securely to each bird.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 7
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 7

Step 7:

Now I wanted wing tips, which will cross slightly over the tail. I cut out the wing tips and taped them to the birds.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 8
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 8

Step 8:

The wing tips have now been taped on, just above the tail. The very ends of the wings cross each other. Once the paper mache has been added, the edges will be much smoother.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 8
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 9

Step 9:

I now add two layers of newsprint and paper mache paste, made from flour and water. Each layer needs to be done in two steps – first, do one side, then the other, so you always have a dry side to rest the bird on. To speed up the drying, I put the birds on a cookie sheet in my oven, set to 225 F. Each layer takes at least 30 minutes to dry.

The difficult parts are around the tail, where I used one of my Loew Cornell Clay Tools to push the wet paper down between the wings and tail (a toothpick or small knife would probably work as well); and getting the paper strips to lie flat against the curve at the top of the heads. I used very thin strips in these areas, and smoothed down each piece of paper as much as possible before putting them aside to dry.

In the photo above, you can see the birds with both coats of paper mache applied and dry. The birds are lightly sanded to get rid of any high spots and they’re now ready for a “skin coat.”

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 9
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 9

Step 9:

The skin coat is used to smooth the sculptures and to add color. The first two or three layers are made from the flour and water paste that is left over from the paper layers, with a bit of carpenter’s glue and a small amount of white paint added. Regular Elmer’s glue would probably work, too. The glue’s purpose is to prevent the layer of paste from cracking when it dries on the outside of the figurines. I didn’t measure anything, but I started out with about 1/4 cup of regular paste and added about a tablespoon of glue.

The white paint helps the paste to be more opaque. I put on two layers of white paste.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 10
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 10

Step 10:

Use a broad brush to add the skin coat in thin layers to each bird. The birds are too difficult to handle if you put the paste on the entire bird at one time, so I had to do one side first, then put the bird back in the oven at 225 F to dry. While the first bird dried I put the skin coat on half of the second bird. The birds dried in about 20 minutes each time.

I then sanded the birds again, to make them as smooth as possible before adding the blue paste.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 11
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 11

Step 11:

Now we’re ready to add the color. The birds could simply be painted, but I decided to use another layer of skin coat for the color. I used the paste left over from the last step, which has some white in it already, and added a touch of phthalocyanine blue acrylic paint. (I set aside just a bit of white paste for the bird’s “bloomers.”)

Two layers of this blue paste was added to the birds, leaving a patch white below their tails.

Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 12
Paper Mache Bluebirds, Step 12

When the blue paste was dry the birds were very lightly sanded one last time, and I then turned them upside down and put one last coat of white paste to the area under the tail and to the bottom of the figurines. Then I used a wet finger to blend the white paint into the blue so there isn’t a stark line dividing the colors.

I used black acrylic craft paint for the beaks. I don’t have a brush small enough for the tiny black eyes, so I made a “brush” from a match – the kind you get in restaurants. I used just a corner of the torn end of the match dipped in black paint for each eye. When the black was dry I found a needle in my junk drawer and dipped it in white paint. I touched this tiny amount of white paint to each eye for a reflection – the eyes won’t look “alive” without this.

When all the color was dry I added a coat of water-based verathane. And the result:

Completed Paper Mache Bluebirds
Completed Paper Mache Bluebirds

Finished Paper Mache Bluebirds:

Done, even with all that drying time, in seven hours. You can see from the photo that I sanded one of the birds just a touch too much, and the white shows through the blue on it’s side. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry (just to see if it could be done…) I would have repaired it with more blue paste. Since I was in a hurry, I’m going to pretend I did it on purpose.

If I needed more presents, (and if I had nothing else to do), I could have made several more pairs of bluebirds in the same amount of time – using the downtime while the layers of paste dried in the oven. In fact, with just 14 more days ’till Christmas, I might make a few more of these little gems for the people on my list who appreciate hand-crafted gifts.

103 thoughts on “Paper Mache Bluebirds – A 7-Hour Gift Project”

  1. Wonderful project! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m in the planning stages of a piece of wall art of a flock of birds and the process you used is very helpful :).
    Stay inspired!
    Michelle

    Reply
  2. Thanks so much, I am going to make these with my students to put in their paper mache, fiber and twig nests that we are making this summer at art camp.

    Reply
  3. umm.. I tried this out… n this was the result .. hope u lyk it 🙂

    and ur tutorials are really simple and easy to follow…
    tho i couoldn’t sand it well :(.. maybe with a bit more practice I might perfect it 🙂

    Reply
  4. I have been wanting to try paper mache birds with my 5th grade classes and I love the design of these! I am imagining these birds in a multitude of colors and patterns when made by children. Thank you for putting this tutorial together, it is wonderfully straightforward and easy to follow along. Your birds are absolutely beautiful and joyful, thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  5. ES MUY LINDO EL TRABAJO, GRACIAS POR EL PASO A PASO, VOY A PRACTICAR LOS PAJAROS Y LES MOSTRARE EL RESULTADO.
    GRACIAS.

    Reply
  6. jonni..
    i have a few questions about these birds. could you make a foot-like clip to make them sit on an edge of a flower pot..im thinking ahead for gifts for christmas this year. also…do you think this would be an easier project with the paper mache clay? i cant wait to use that again. i have moved and all of my supplies are packed up in storage. when we get to our home i will post those pictures of my skeleton for you to see.
    great butterflies..my girls will love making those with me when we start up again.

    Reply
    • Hi Addie. It’s good to hear from you again.

      The clip idea sounds great. Wire bent so it would hold on to the pot, and also attached to the birds. Why not?

      You might have missed my post “Paper Mache Bluebirds Revisited.” It went a lot faster with the paper mache clay and the stick I used to hold on to them so I could cover the entire bird the first go — without having to let them dry when I ran out of room to hold them. You could easily make lots for next Christmas. Someone suggested sticking a wire on the butterflies so they would go in pots, too…

      Can’t wait to see that skeleton. I hope your move goes well, and you enjoy your new home.

      Reply
  7. Thank you so much for the great guidelines on papier mache. I am now in the process of making a small piece based on an antique bobble-head bird! I absolutely LOVE the oven idea! SO glad I found your blog!

    Reply
    • To make them into ornaments, just get a short piece of wire and bend it in half to make a loop in the middle. Then spread out the two ends so you can tape the wire to the bird before the paper mache is added. It might be a bit tricky to find the spot for the hanger that lets the bird hang horizontally, but a little movement one way or another wouldn’t hurt anything.

      Have fun.

      Reply
  8. Hi! First I want to tell you that I absolutely adore your bluebirds. My fiance and I had been looking high and low online for ideas for an invitation to our wedding that would not involve the conventional card and envelope format. It occured to me to make yellow birds (part of our theme) and tie to them a rolled up “message” with our invitation in it, then mail the package to our guests as an invitation/favor. When I found your website I decided paper mache birds would be the way to go, so for the last couple of days I’ve been working on making the paper mache yellow birds. I’m now at the final stage of some of the birds, adding the beak and eye details, and I’ve gone to the store to look for “verathane”. I haven’t had any luck at the local michael’s, so I went online to research the stuff. It seems it’s a brand of wood varnishes, so I’m guessing I’d have more luck finding it at a home repair store. However, I’m still wondering specific what kind of verathane varnish did you use? Thank you SO much! You’ve already been so much help with your wonderfully clear instructions.

    Reply
    • Hi Priscilla. What a great idea for wedding invitations! I hope you let us see them when they’re done.

      Verathane is found at hardware and paint stores. But if it’s easier to find acrylic matte varnish, go ahead and use it instead. Michael’s should have a finish that you could use – just tell them for a clear matte finish that will go over acrylic paint. In fact, you don’t absolutely have to have any type of finish if you use acrylic paint for the birds. The paint itself holds up well to handling, and they don’t need to be waterproof.

      Reply
  9. I want to be you when i grow up!! Educate me in your ways! You seem like the kind of person with lots of interesting life experiances.

    Reply
      • Jonni:

        Ran the Turkish through a translator. Essentially just saying thanks or thank you.

        Love the bluebirds!!! Been looking for a piece of jewelry from a special person. Now I can make my handcrafted bluebirds more special.

        Thanks for the detailed instructions.

        Reply
  10. Wow you’re really good! I made your birds as a present for a friend, and they didn’t turn out that bad! They weren’t as good as yours of course, but they actually looked like birds! My friend really liked them too. Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
  11. you make it look easy and much cleaner than i do when i paper machet. your birds are beautiful and i hope to get a chance to create some soon. currently i am working on a grandfather clock but i am incorporating some clay as well and it has been so much fun i would almost call it theraputic.

    Reply
    • Dawn, I would definitely call it therapeutic! We all need a few hours of creativity in our days. I think the way we need to make stuff is one of the things that make us human.

      Reply
  12. Thanks for the great tutorial!
    I tried my hand on a bird.
    For the (rare) papermache I made before I always used wallpaper paste. I love the idea that flour can be used.

    Reply

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