Poseable Hand Armature for Paper Mache Clay

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I’ve been working on a chimp sculpture for the last week or so, with no real progress to show for it. Right now I’m waiting for UPS to deliver some more supplies so I can finish the head. However, I did make a poseable armature for the chimp’s hand this morning, and with some minor changes in size and proportions, this could easily work for a human hand, too (or zombies, for that matter). It won’t be covered with the paper mache clay until the entire armature, including that unfinished head, are all assembled.

Cutting wire for “bones.”

Chimpanzee Sculpture - Hand Armature Step 1

I first drew the chimpanzee’s hand onto a piece of paper, using several references that I found on the Internet. Then I cut 10 pieces of tie wire for the “bones” of the hand. Tie wire is cheap, it’s easy to bend and cut, but it rusts. I like using it for smaller items like this, where you don’t really need the strength of heavier wire. However, you do get rust all over your hands and clothes if you aren’t careful. And it needs to be completely covered before anything wet is added to the armature, or the rust will migrate out through the final layer of paint and ruin everything.

Twisting the wires together to form a wrist.

Chimpanzee Sculpture - Hand Armature Step 2

I used two pairs of pliers, one to hold all the wires together at the wrist, and the other one to do the actual twisting. I continued to check it against the drawing to make sure the wires were still in the right place and the fingers were still the right length.

Marking the joints.

Chimpanzee Sculpture - Hand Armature Step 3

I want to be able to bend the joints of the armature before deciding on the final pose. To make sure the bends go in the right place, I wrapped the wire with masking tape, and then marked the joints. The tricky ones are the first knuckle of the hand, where the fingers separate from the palm. Looking at my own hand, I saw that the actual joint is below the line shown on my drawing, which was drawn from the palm side of the chimp’s hand. I want the fingers to bend at the joint, not at the top of the webbing between the fingers, so I marked the joint below the line on the drawing.

Adding aluminum foil.

Chimpanzee Sculpture - Hand Armature Step 4

Now I’m almost done with one hand. I added aluminum foil to the palm and between each joint on the fingers and thumb. The dips between the aluminum foil will mark the joints after all the padding is in place, and the aluminum foil will help stiffen the bones. I made sure to leave plenty of space between the fingers so I can add paper mache clay without making the fingers too fat.

Final taping.

Chimpanzee Sculpture - Hand Armature Step 5

I covered the aluminum foil with masking tape to make sure everything stayed put. Once the hands have been firmly attached to the rest of the chimp sculpture’s armature, I’ll be able to choose a pose I like before adding the paper mache clay.

I do hope the UPS truck shows up today – I’m really anxious to see how the chimp’s head comes out. I hoped that I could use Super Sculpey over the hollow resin skull I made, but it didn’t work. The Sculpey cracked, and couldn’t be repaired. (Maybe I should have read the Sculpey instructions before starting the project!) My current plan is to use paper mache clay over the resin skull instead of Sculpey. The aqua-resin that I used for the skull (and which I’ll also use as a final protective coating) can be painted, so I hope that also means that the paper mache clay will stick to it. However, I wanted to make a few changes to the skull itself before I re-sculpt the head. Sometimes it’s good to have an excuse to start over, because I get a chance to correct errors that I probably would have been too lazy to fix if everything else seemed to come out OK.

And now my break is over, and I’m off to finish the other hand armature.

21 thoughts on “Poseable Hand Armature for Paper Mache Clay”

  1. Hi Jonni,
    I hope you’re still checking on this post. I am going to do a commission work leaning towards a mother’s hand cupping a baby. My medium is polymer clay and i have never attempted to create just a single hand and a large one at that. My figurative dolls are usually from 8-12 inches in height and I create busts figures as well. I was wondering if your hand armature tutorial would pretty much cover up a human hand as well?

    • Hi Rach. Our hands are very much like the chimp’s hand, so this should work just fine. You’d want to look online to see the bones of a human hand (or just use your own hand for a model.) I don’t use polymer clay myself, but if you can use it over a foil armature, this should work. By the way, congratulations for getting such an interesting commission. Do you sell your work through a website?

      • Hi Jonni!
        Thank you oh so much. I went back and read the tutorial and I probably speed read, and didn’t see the line where it says “this could easily work for a human hand, too.” =) I’m good actually. I printed a human hand, with bones showing through. The size is perfect for this commission piece.

        • I’m glad it will work for you. I hope you’ll come back to the Daily Sculptors page when the sculpture is done and show it off. We’d all love to see how it comes out.

  2. hi my name is Mary I’m in middle school and I’m am going to be doing a paper mache model of a hand to represent an impotant factor within my book does anybody have any ideas in which I could do the arm part of the hand along with the hand itself

    • Hi Mary. I would form an arm-shaped armature, using crumpled paper and masking tape. If you need a more solid form, you could crumple up some cheap aluminum foil, instead, and when you have the shape you want, cover it with masking tape so the paper mache will stick to it.

      Good luck with your project.

  3. Hi there,
    I am a student teacher and I am going to make these hands with my 9 and 10 year olds. When they finish they will then stick words from magazines onto them. Would just standard paper mache work over top of the masking tape? (is there a way of making the paper mache stronger without costing too much as there is 25 students in the class) I have attached a picture similar to what I want them to do, but I would like them to follow your plan.

    • Hi Nardia. I took a close look at the white hands in the photo, and it looks like they were made using plaster cloth. That would be very strong, but it would be rather expensive and messy. Ordinary paper mache, using paper strips and paste, should be plenty strong. If there is support from inside the fingers (as with the aluminum foil inside the hands in the tutorial on this page) they could get away with three layers of newspaper and paste. I found that the raw flour and water paste is just as strong as any other paste I’ve tried, and it’s the easiest one to make.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with the project!

  4. Form wire is great, but if you want to avoid the potential for rust, stop in at any welding supply house and ask for stainless steel brazing rod. In the smaller diameters it is relatively inexpensive and usually comes in 3′ lengths. Five or ten dollars would buy enough “wire” for dozens of armatures. Dry is relative… the humidity level in your house is eventually reached no matter how much “waterproofing” efforts you do. The stainless steel wire ought to last a couple hundred years…

  5. Hi Jonni!

    It happens all the time exciting things on the site that is very interesting. But I as a beginner struggling with the basics to get ahead, and my bad English.
    There were a few small misses on my cat but I can live with. But the face I’d like to do before I paint gesso and paint. Aluminium balls on the nose was too big. Should I cut up and make the armature or try to build on the clay, if so, what clay do you suggest? Grateful for advice. * Gisela

    • Hi Gisela. If the balls used for the armature are too big, and they can’t be squished into smaller balls, about the only way to fix it is to remove them and start over. Just that one place, of course. Then you can get the face looking the way you want it. It’s hard to redo something that you spend a lot of time on, but after fixing it to your satisfaction you’ll be happy you did.

  6. The instructions for making the hand armature is very interesting. I can’t wait to see the finished project – or the step by step stages to completion. So I hope UPS do get there this afternoon.

    I was also very grateful for the timely warning about not using plaster of paris as a cast. I have a bag of the stuff and, yes, I was wondering about using to make casts of body parts. Especially hands and feet. So thanks Gea for bringing this up.

    Still working on my masks for the competition. Enjoying every minute.
    I used fast drying, non-shrink, plaster powder instead of the ceramic powder in my mix.
    I wondered if the Jonniclay would dry quicker as a result. Only now do I realise I wouldn’t know anyway………durrr…….

    My very first (and only) previous attempt was made to a cardboard mix from another site. That…took about 4 days to completely dry! But I can say the Jonniclay dried within 24 hours at room temp.

    I will upload some photos when I have figured out how to shrink my pics enough.

    Hope life is lovely where you are…… here, in the UK we are ‘enjoying’ the soggiest draught since records began! There, typical limey Talking about the weather :)


    • Hi Anne. Good info about the clay using plaster powder in the mix. That’s something I’ve never tried.

      Most cameras will allow you to change the settings so they “save for the web.” On my camera, that automatically gives a small-sized photo that will easily upload to the site. You might try that. We’d love to see what you’re making.

    • Hi Anne

      It will be nice to see your work. What competition are you entering, I am curious?
      I also put powder plaster in my clay often.
      Have you tried Jonni her fast setting technic already. I am verry curious what paper towels you get. Jonni her ” Scotts shop towels” are not available and ridiculously expensive if I would shipped it in … So please let me know what pruducts you use for I have family in England that can posted it to me … can you also name the brand of your joint compound ;-)

      about the paster of Paris. Nice that my comment helped! but don’t stop experimenting I use stips of plastercast on my face to make a mold and that was painless ;-) Jonni her tip with alginitelooks interesting ! thanks for that Jonni!

      To speed up the drying proces you can put work in into the oven on a low tempature max 150 degree. ( I do for I am impatients and the Dutch weather is moist, but not as floody as yours YET… below sealevel is scarry ;-)
      Also the microwave can help. I use it for little things (like small heads) for 30 sec to 60 sec. It does get hot but the water seems to evaporate quickly.
      Bmask inspired me with her remark on her jar of heads ;-) Here are a few of the heads I have made.

      Bye Gea

  7. Again, Jonni, you are just so creative! Thank you for sharing the chimp’s poseable hand – what a great idea! That chimp is going to be amazing!

    • Thanks Terry. I do hope it comes out as well as I imagine it, although that rarely happens in the real world. I’m learning a lot, though, and the process has been a lot of fun. The UPS shipment didn’t get here today, so I can’t finish the head as soon as I really wanted to. Oh well…

  8. Hi Jonni

    Thanks for sharing your idea’s again! this will help me a lot with a plan I have.
    I want to make a hand myself close to human as possible for a plan I have.
    I tried making one from a plastic handglove and filled that with crumbles of toilet paper and then coverd it with papermache clay and formed it . It looks like a hand but not good enough so I didn’t finish it.
    I may still try filling a glove with filler foam and then form it when its a bit hard and see what that will do.
    In my search of ” hands” I found an artical of an art student from the Giles School of Church End, Old Leake, Boston) she lost her hands by sticking her’s in into plaster of paris
    so that put me of the idea of sculpting a hand with plaster and worned me at least never to try that!

    • Ouch – yes, plaster of Paris gets incredibly hot, and since it’s also hard at that point, there would be no way to get your hands out fast enough to avoid being very badly burned. (A hammer would be needed, I think.) I think the plaster companies try to warn people on the label.

      However, alginate is a wonderful product for making a hand casting. It’s made out of algae, so it’s perfectly safe. It sets up like jello, and you then pull your hand out and fill the empty space with plaster. Here’s a good video, in case you’re interested. And although this isn’t really related at all, I keep intending to mention a book I found about life casting, with a very long title: Body Casting Manual: A complete body casting tutorial explaining in details how to make a realistic, life size and very elegant plaster sculpture of someone’s torso (or any other body part.). Last year we got a lot of people interested in making life casts, and I keep intending to mention it.


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