Can You Help Me Answer These Paper Mache Questions?

I’ve recently been stumped by some comments and emails I’ve received from readers. Paper mache can be used for so many different kinds of projects, and I have to admit that I’m not an expert in every single one of them. I thought it would be useful to compile a few of the more common questions here, in case you and other readers might be able to offer some suggestions. So – here goes:

1. How do you  make a paper mache tree? This has been asked a number of times. Some people would like to know how to make realistic bark textures (I always suggest using the paper mache clay and using real bark as a stamp, but you may have other ideas). Our latest commenter wants to put a very large tree in her classroom, and the first thing I think of when I hear about that type of project is “how do you  make it safe?” If you’ve made a paper mache tree for your home or classroom, please offer your suggestions and advice below.

2. Have you ever used expanding foam (the kind used to insulate cracks in walls) to make a paper mache sculpture both strong and light? This has come up several times lately, and one reader suggested it to Joanne, who makes life-sized figures with paper mache. But so far, we haven’t heard from anyone who has given step-by-step instructions that we can use for our own projects. If you’ve used this product for a paper mache project, please let us know how it turned out, and how you did it.

3. The foam question actually fits in with this next question, too. As you might recall, I originally intended to use my baby elephant as an experiment to see if it really is possible to make paper mache waterproof enough to stand up to the weather. I chickened out after spending several weeks making her. I even wrote a post linking to another artist who has done smaller experiments and who claims that marine (spar) varnish will protect paper mache outside.

So here’s where the foam fits in – I think I’ll do a smaller sculpture (one that takes days rather than weeks), and use the paper mache clay instead of paper strips and paste. Once the clay is dry, I would remove the crumpled paper and masking tape form, to reduce the possibility of mold growing inside, and replace it with expanding foam. Then I’d paint the sculpture and protect it with marine varnish. Has anyone ever tried anything like this? If so, I’d love to know how it turned out.

4. Have you ever tried using either the make-it-yourself paper mache clay or a commercial paper mache product to make a three-dimensional painting? Brynn is making an acrylic painting on canvas and needs to add paper mache. Will it stick? Should something stiffer than canvas be used for this type of project? Have you tried it, and did it work?

5. Denise would like to know if  liquid starch can be used as the paste for a paper mache project. I’ve never tried it. Have you? (Her class is making a river dolphin. How fun is that?)

That’s enough questions for today. If you have the answer to any of the questions, please enlighten us in the comments area below.

68 thoughts on “Can You Help Me Answer These Paper Mache Questions?”

  1. On the tree question: The entrance to my daughter’s room is through a hole in a paper mache tree that I built in the hallway. (There is also a door for grownups elsewhere.) I’m now building a tree with a seat in the hollow part at the Child Advocacy Center where I work.

    I made a rough armature mostly out of construction scraps, with some plastic bottles and wire hangers, and other random objects that were on hand helping shape the branches. (Any branches low enough that maybe someone would try to hang on them are wood, and screwed in to the armature just in case.) I taped and wired everything together as needed, then covered it with chicken wire, with expanded metal lath at the edges. I could sculpt the shape of roots, etc. easily with the wire. Then I stuffed any big spaces under the wire with balled-up paper.

    Then we applied a coat of structolite plaster to the lower part of the tree.. This makes the tree strong enough to withstand getting kicked by excited kids. When the plaster dried, I could apply paper mache strips directly (after making the surface damp by misting it with a spray bottle).

    I got a decent bark-like look by using brown paper grocery bags for my last layer. I spent a lot of time “distressing” the paper by crumpling and twisting it before tearing it into strips (this was easier when I got the bags damp first).

    The tree at our house was a fun project, and is holding up well to the kids sliding back and forth through the hole. The second one is still in progress, but I hope it will be an attractive perch when it’s done.

    • Debbie, your trees sound fantastic. Do you have any photos you could share so we can see how they look? And would you have any interest in writing a guest post for the blog showing how your current tree is being made? I know that’s a lot of work, but we get so many questions about how to make a tree, and I can’t help much – I’ve never done it myself. If you’re interested in writing a how-to article, just let me know. 😉

  2. I am trying to attach paper mache lanterns to my pop corn ceiling. Clear scotch tape and thumbtacks don’t work. The scotch tape won’t adhere and the concrete ceiling is to hard for the thumbtacks. I tried using gray masking tape which works okay, but this looks ugly. Do you have any suggestions. Thank you

    • You might need to scrape away some of the texture to give any glue more flat surface area to stick to. Have you tried hot glue? Do you intend to use the lanterns as a permanent installation, or is it temporary? If the lanterns will stay there for a long time, you might try using an epoxy glue. If you do, you might never be able to get it off, but a bit of paint over it would probably repair the ceiling well enough when you get tired of the lanterns.

  3. I am making an outdoor water adventure for my sons birthday. Made paper mache lanterns out of tissue paper… then realized they are not water proof. Its a pool party with squirt guns. I have jelly fish… turtles… octopus…fish… all kinds of things planned. Applied modge podge sealant today. If it isnt waterproof tomorrow ill try the marine varnish you suggested…

    My question..is..has anyone ever done paper mache with plastic table cloths? Havent found anything online… found wonderful waterproof ideas mostly using plastic table cloth so i was curious of this might solve my delema…i love the sea creatures too much to abandon the idea

  4. Hi Jonni. I am working at a sculpture, and I need some help, and I hope you (or someone else) can give me a tip. At the beginning I planned to paint the sculpture, but now I kind of like the unpaintet sculpture. But I have to seale it in a way that don’t distroy the organic feeling. How about using wax? Do you have any thoughts about this.
    Hanne from Norway

  5. Help!!!! Can you paper machete over foam board the thin kind you get from the craft and hobby stores? I want to make mountains outcomes paper and plaster strips any and all help is needed ASAP!! Thank You.

    • You can put paper mache over foam board, but if it’s a flat thing, and you want it to stay flat, you could have problems with warping. If you tape the boards into shapes, like pyramids or mountains, it should work just fine. Plaster gauze would work the same way, but might not cause warping on flat pieces of foam – although I haven’t actually tried that so I don’t know for sure.

  6. I am in need of some help, I worked with paper mache as a child and now have a child of my own who I am throwing an Alice in Wonderland Themed party. I decided I was smart enough to make life size (5’+) mushrooms. I used chicken wire and paper strips dipped in flour and water. At first it was going really well everything was looking great, until it dried. The ends have warped something awful, I realized I did not put anything over the chicken wire (masking tape, filler etc) I did put a grocery bag stuffed with paper remnants inside the cap to keep the shroom shape. In my attempt to repair the warping I added a single layer of paper mache wrapped over the edge of the existing and I was able to flatten it back out significantly. I woke up this morning and seen that one side is still drying in a warped upright position. Any advise on how I can fix this would be greatly appreciated I do not have the time or desire to start from scratch, I trimmed the chicken wire back quite a bit on the underside so pinning it down to the chicken wire is no longer an option. I did not mache the underside of the mushroom cap in any way I had originally used a papasan chair (upside down) as the base that I started with Please help!

    • Hi Destiny. It sounds like the paper on the edges is curling up as it dries, which is sort of what paper does… I think if I had to fix this, I would “cheat,” by using a bit of plaster cloth around the edges. Or, if you can clip into the paper just enough to flatten it back down, it might work if you use some masking tape, or even duct tape, along that edge, and then put on a few more layers of paper mache. That would keep the bottom of the paper mache from drying too fast, and it might stay where it belongs.

      Good luck!

  7. Hi my husband and I are working on a scary tree for Halloween. I found out how to do it on a search for scary props……..its not hard to make a scary paper mache tree…..we need to finish the trunk of the tree. We have two 6′ trees in progress at the moment. Next I plan to construct a 10ft tall tree I can change for the seasons like just happy thanks giving carved out of it, or just to have a tree hanging out all times

    • Brandy, I would love to see your trees, even if they aren’t finished yet. Do you have a photo you could share with us? We get lots of questions from people who would like to make a tree of their own. And would you be able to give us a link to that website where you got the instructions?

  8. My husband and I are making scary trees for Halloween I found how to do it on a website. I’d like to share my scary paper mache trees we are in the process of building its not that challenging. We still have to finish the trunk……..

  9. I’m just wondering if paper mache can be used as a mother mold for pouring projects to keep a soft mold from stretching. In other words, what is its holding strength i.e. weight…..
    Thanks
    Kiki

    • Hi Kiki. You might be able to use the paper mache clay recipe for this purpose, if you use several 1/4″ layers (allow to dry completely – it will take a long time for that thickness). Paper strips and paste are probably too flexible to be used for a mother mold.

  10. I am new to paper mache but I use a lot of dry wall mud to shape and add detail. It can be thickened with a bit of flour and made to act more like clay. It can be sanded, carved into and blended. When I add it to a paper mache sculpture I then take a wet paint brush and blend it onto what I am working on.
    I would love any hints on elephant eyes as I have made an elephant’s head and can’t seem to get the eyes painted right. I am thinking bout looking for glass eyes.

  11. i want to make a small scale over pass bridge using paper mache what would be a good base or frame to put it over.

    • You could use cardboard, or, if you have a jigsaw, you could use thin plywood or Masonite. Any time you put paper mache (or any wet substance, even paint) on just one side of a flat piece of thin wood or cardboard, the piece could warp when the paper mache or paint dries. With a bridge, you probably have enough supporting beams or other engineering things to help prevent that from happening.

      • If the bridge doesn’t have to support weight, another material that may work would be Styrofoam insulation sheets. I have used the “blue” insulation foam for building armatures with great results.

  12. Me and my friend have to do this for spanish class and we have to do gir from invader zim. How would I make the surfaces flat for his head and body?

  13. I always fill in my base shape over my wood armature with the expanding foam, then I add my more detailed shape with wadded up newspaper and masking tape..finishing off with the paper mache clay. it is very important to allow plenty of dry time before painting or sealing..but works very well and makes it very sturdy!

    • Cat, do you use the foam in a spray can from the hardware store, or do you use the two-part foam, like the kind Smooth-on sells? The foam would be a lot lighter than crumpled paper for large projects, and I’ve been wanting to try it for some time.

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