Sarah’s Paper Mache Ceiling Tiles

Sarah's Paper Mache Ceiling Tile

We’ve never seen a project like this before – Sarah Manchester is making some very large paper mache ceiling tiles for her home, and she agreed to show us how she’s doing it.

I’m really impressed with the amount of detail she’s able to achieve with her beautiful design – she’s capturing every shape of the original clay sculpture.  In fact, her advice for using paper pulp in a plaster of Paris mould could be used for all sorts of projects. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this project with us!

I’ll let her take it from here …

How to make paper mache ceiling tiles in a plaster mould.

©2017 Sarah Manchester

This is the first time I’ve worked with PM but it won’t be the last! I have previously cast in plaster and cement. Once this project is finished I have several more in mind. Smaller though.

The ceiling panel project came about from a desire to make my kitchen ceiling more interesting. I have decorated the kitchen in a Victorian/Gothic style with hand painted ‘Pugin’ tiles and Gothic cupboard doors. I love looking at ornate period plaster ceilings and thought I’d try to create one of my own.

During my research, I discovered 17th century ornate ceilings were actually made of Papier Maché and not plaster, which became widely used later. I have never used PM before and found Jonni’s wonderful website full of useful information. I determined to have a go.

I wanted the panels to be as light as possible to make installation easier. I have installed large plaster ceiling roses and cornicing in the house before but it is very tricky and heavy work. A whole ceiling would be a nightmare to do and the weight would be excessive. PM seemed like the obvious choice.

I began by modelling the first quarter in clay. This part was to be repeated four times so to make the process quicker and to avoid modelling the same pattern over and over, I made a plaster mould and pressed clay into it to create the remaining three quarters. Left overnight, each piece could be removed easily from the mould without too much damage. Here is the piece ready to have plaster poured over to make the mould.

Modeling the tile in clay.
The clay model ready for the plaster to be poured to make the mould.

I continued modelling the rest of the panel having carefully drawn the outline of the quatrefoil on a plastic sheet to make sure the overall shape was correct. The whole thing is 30 inches square.

Completed clay model of the paper mache ceiling tile.
Completed clay model of the paper mache ceiling tile.

I repeated the mould making process with a cardbord and clay wall around the outside, plaster poured in, and because it was so large, I reinforced the top by adding wooden batons. This made it possible to turn over when the plaster had set, without the risk of it breaking. Set plaster is still soft and fragile until completely dry, which can take days or weeks.

I removed the centre seed pod piece , cut it in half and made a separate mould of it to save on the amount of plaster needed. Once the mould had been turned over, I removed all the clay and washed the mould to remove any clay residue. I left the mould to dry for a couple of weeks before sealing it with several coats of shellac.

In the time the mould was drying, I set about making the paper pulp. I used everything that came through the door. Cardboard boxes, newspapers, glossy magazines, envelopes, office waste paper and egg boxes. I tore everything into pieces and filled a large plastic dustbin. I added cold tap water and left for a couple of days before using an electric drill with a mortar mixing attachment to reduce it to a pulp.

I couldn’t decide whether to use the pulp plain or with glue added. I was concerned the glue would make it difficult to remove from the mould. I had read instructions about using a layer of unglued, damp paper first when using paper strip layers in a mould to make removal easier and had come across plain pulp being used to fill a mould solid, using a sponge to remove excess water. Eventually, I decided to go ahead with plain pulp. I processed the pulp a large jugful at a time using a stick blender and squeezing out as much water as possible through old tights, using up each batch before making another. That way the remaining pulp stayed in the large bin further breaking down in the water and not requiring extra storage space. I must say, after three weeks, it started to smell a bit strange so I added a little floral disinfectant to remedy this.

I greased the mould with petroleum jelly. I had read instructions to use as little as possible as the residue can make it difficult to paint afterwards, so I just brushed and smeared as thin a layer as I could. I was satisfied that I had covered every nook and cranny and started to press the pulp in. It took me a whole week, pressing pulp in a thin layer as hard as I could in order to make the finish as smooth as possible. I used a flat wooden tool to help do this. I added three layers of glued paper to the centre because it seemed too large an area to just use pulp. I glued sheets of newspaper over the top to form the backing to the panel.

Disaster …

After several days, the pulp was dry and I tried to remove it from the mould. It was almost a complete disaster. The pulp has stuck in many places making it impossible to remove without breaking up.

The small areas that did come out, I was pleased with. The pulp had taken on the intricate detail very well and was quite smooth. The only area that came out easily and didn’t break up, was the centre. This was no doubt thanks to the reinforcing layers of paper and glue. I was disappointed that all my hard work had ended up in pieces, but I was pleased with the little successes and I had learned a very valuable lesson.

I started again …

This time, I slathered the petroleum jelly on as thickly as I could. I made the pulp mix a little wetter so that it went on a little easier and quicker. This was after a bit of experimentation using the small mould. I had achieved success.

The extra water and petroleum jelly enabled the piece to shrink away from the mould, better enabling release. I also cast the sections separately. I put bits of clingfilm between areas that joined and the whole thing was reinforced with three layers of paper strips and glue. Here is the piece in progress.

Adding paper mache to the plaster mold.
Adding paper pulp to the plaster mould.

I made the layered backing separately and as I removed the pieces from the mould, glued them onto the backing. The outside quatrefoil, each of the four quarters and the centre were all removed separately with very little damage. To ensure a good stick, I weighted the pieces with tins and jars full of water as they were drying onto the backing .

The tile after removing it from the mold.
The tile after removing it from the mould, and drying.

I repaired the damage using pulp with glue added which makes it easier to shape and decorator’s filler for the cracks, then gave it a coat of ordinary emulsion paint to seal it and fill any hairline cracks. I am using up leftover paint from previous decorating projects.

If I was only making one or two of these panels, to use as centrepieces on the ceiling, I might have been tempted to use filler and sand to a really smooth finish. As I am using them all over the ceiling and making approximately 20, I didn’t think this was practical. I am pleased with the quality of the finish as it is for my purposes.

I used acrylic paints for the final coat, including the metallic golds. The paint went on without any problems regarding any petroleum jelly residue. I tested acrylic colours on the original broken panel pieces without the emulsion coat and they went over the residue without problems too.
Here is the painting in progress.

Painting the paper mache ceiling tile.
Painting the paper mache ceiling tile.

Once the panel was painted, I trimmed the excess paper from around the edges, glued the backing and installed it on the ceiling using screws through the pulp into the plaster ceiling. I put a bead of decorator’s filler around the outside edge to achieve a smooth join with the ceiling and supported it overnight.

The completed paper mache ceiling tile.
Here is the first panel in-situ.

As you can see, I’ve positioned it so that it will take two panels to frame the ceiling light centre. That way, I didn’t lose the beautiful panel centre which would have had to be cut away to position it centrally around the ceiling light. The areas of the ceiling showing between the circles when the panels are fitted touching each other will be covered in layered newspaper cut to shape and painted. I will post a picture of this when the next panel is up.

I hope you have enjoyed my post. I welcome any questions and comments.
Thanks, Sarah.

63 thoughts on “Sarah’s Paper Mache Ceiling Tiles”

    • Hello Barbara,
      I’m in the UK! If it is a small area you could try making repairs with your equivalent of decorator’s filler or plaster of paris mixed with a little paper pulp.
      Sorry I can’t be of more help.

        • Barbara, if I could jump in here –
          If you don’t want to try to repair the ceiling yourself, you might want to contact a local contractor. If your ceiling has decorative designs that need to be copied into the damaged area, one of the art teachers at your local university might be able to help, or a sculptor. A gallery that shows sculpted works might be able to point you in the right direction. If your house is very old, an antique dealer might know of an expert in paper mache repair. Just show Sarah’s reply to you to the person you choose, and they should be able to figure it out.

    • Hello Barbara,
      I don’t actually do work for others. My skills are limited to my own home renovations and decor. Jonni is right, You need to find a plaster craftsman.
      Hope that helps,

  1. That is astonishing! I admire your dedication so much. I think I would have given up first tile in! Thank you for taking the time to do a progress report it does help to inspire others to have a go at making something.

    • Thanks Penelope, I wanted to give up after the first four tiles! I am so glad I persevered. It was a real test of my self discipline. I loved the process of modelling the panels in clay and discovering the use of paper pulp, but repeating the tiles over and over, 27 times, was a real chore. Worth it though.

  2. At last the ceiling project is complete! It has taken a little over two years from the day I started to model the panels in clay to the day I finally put down the paintbrush formthe last time after adding some shading to the air-dry clay gargoyles in the corners.. I am delighted with the finished ceiling. I hope you like it too.

    • Wow! What an amazing project. I hope you’ll post one of your photos and a link to this post over on the Daily Sculptors page, too. A lot of our newer readers probably haven’t seen your post, and I don’t want anyone to miss seeing how your ceiling came out. And those gargoyles — outstanding!

      • Thankyou Jonni. I was doing it as your email came in. I hope everyone enjoys the pics. I had no idea the project would take so long when I started! There were several breaks of a couple of weeks taken for celebrations. I had to do the fanned vaulting in the corners and around edges as the plaster mould disintegrated before I had made enough panels. I needed another 4. However, it made a more interesting ceiling in the end and gave me the opportunity to make some gargoyles. I had great fun!

  3. Wow Sarah Manchester..I’m blown away by your skill and dedication to your artistic vision..absolutely tremendous. Thank you so much for sharing your photos of your projects. Good luck with your future artwork and do consider sharing that too please,!

  4. Hi Jonni I am so happy to find your web site. I have a metal mould about a inch deep and over a foot long with intricate details. I want only to fill it with your Paper mache clay recipe. My question is since the mould is not flexable would I use lots of petroleum jelly like Sarah did for her ceiling tiles as a release agent?

    • Hi Eve. You will probably need the release. Also remember that the paper mache clay will shrink while it’s drying, so some of the details might catch the drying pm clay and break it apart. Do a small test first, to make sure it works the way you want it to. And let us know how it turns out!

    • Hello Eve, I have found I can use less petroleum jelly than I originally thought, as long as I leave the mould to dry very thoroughly. I think you could use a thin smear of petroleum jelly but make sure you get into all the nooks and crannies. As Jonni says, the clay will shrink away as it dries, you just need a little jelly to help the release. As you are using a proper mould, it will have been made to easily turn out with no undercuts etc. Good luck.

  5. Here is an update. I have completeld approximately 1/3 of the ceiling and two new panels have just gone up. Here is a picture of a block of four panels to give you an idea of how the ceiling will look. I hope to have the whole project finished by the end of this year.

    • Hello Jessica, I’m afraid not. Perhaps I’ll put something together over the winter months. I have quite a few sculpture projects completed. I didn’t bother taking progress pictures for most of them though. When I have time, I will post some pictures on the daily sculptor’s page. I have a couple of papercrete garden pieces but apart from that, everything is made of plaster or cement. Thankyou very much for being so interested in what I’ve done.

      • I certainly don’t mind seeing different materials, personally. If you’re able, please get in contact or leave a comment here if you do create a website or social media page. I’d love to follow it and see your other projects. Thanks for getting back to me.

  6. Here is the second panel up. I have tried a copper background. The spaces between the panels will be painted the same as the background. With the light on, the copper positively glows! What do you think?

      • I’m glad you said that. Already repainted. I’ve got a stiff neck to prove it! 🙂 Will post a pic when I’ve painted the insert and covered the screws. The third panel is out of the mould with no damage and stuck to the backing. The petroleum jelly is really working well.

          • I don’t think I’d like the invasion of privacy. It’s nice to share artistic elements with a select few but otherwise home is our sanctuary. I do it all for the pleasure and for our (my husband’s and my) enjoyment. Nice of you to think it worthy though, thankyou. 🙂

        • Here are the first two panels with the insert painted. Imagine the whole ceiling done like this! I’m very pleased with the effect.

    • Hello Autumn,
      I leave the panels to dry in the mould. A week at the moment, although the British winter might make that longer. As I am using a fairly wet mix and lots of petroleum jelly, the pieces shrink enough to make the removal process easy. I paste three layers of newspaper together for the backing and then glue the panel pieces onto it while the layers are still wet. I have found that there is less puckering in the background if I don’t leave it to dry before gluing the pieces on. Then I use small weights dotted all over to keep the whole thing as flat as possible and to ensure a good stick to the background layers. Overnight is long enough for everything to dry ready for painting. The panels are fairly flexible when finished and are screwed to the ceiling so any warping is not really a problem. Although I haven’t noticed warping in the panels. I hope this answers your question. Feel free to ask more if I haven’t made it clear enough. Here is a picture of the weighted panel. I use anything to hand.

  7. I’m so glad you’re going to post more progress pix ?? May we see the entire kitchen? Your gothic cupboards intrigue me aswell. Lovely clear directions. Thanks Sarah and Jonni.

    • Hello Sally,
      I will be posting more pics as the ceiling progresses. I can show you the rest of the kitchen as long as Jonni is happy for me to do so. I have sculpture and hand-painted walls as well as the Gothic cupboards. I’m glad you like the post.

        • Here is a sample of the kitchen cupboards. I decorated plain cupboards with MDF strips and pieces cut with my jigsaw. The quatrefoils were made using a circular cutter drill attachment. The additions on the top were made using strips of plain coving and MDF strips with quatrefoils cut out. They were painted up using eggshell paint and ‘distressed’ with a contrasting colour.

        • Jonni, The kitchen was done several years ago now, although it is always evolving. The ceiling is the last of it. I left it for a few years trying to decide what to do while I decorated the rest of the house inside and out. I have a project every year, usually resting from Dec to Feb. I love Christmas. By Feb, I’m itching to get back to creative work. The tiles in the kitchen are old white ceramic tiles that had already been painted over when we came here. I just painted over them again with acrylic eggshell paints. The red and gold is acrylic stamping paint. It is all very hard wearing and can be scrubbed, bleached and steam-cleaned without issue. All the base cupboards were already here. I added the wall cupboards when someone offered them to me free when they were upgrading. I don’t care for modern kitchens and much preferred to do up my old cupboards,which date from the 1950’s I think. The original worktops were a bright yellow! All the walls are painted with acrylic eggshell paint which has very low fumes and is very hard-wearing. Eggshell is usually used just for wood and metal but it went on the walls very well and goes a long way. The colours are all Victorian and Edwardian heritage colours in different shades of green from Eau de Nil to Lincoln. Edwardian Lemon Yellow was used on the cupboards, not acrylic but smelly oil-based eggshell. I ‘dirtied’ the colour with wood stain when the paint was dry, but only just so the stain did take, enough not to wash off anyway. The edges were all roughed up a bit with sanding and then I rubbed in a contrasting eggshell to give it all a worn look. The frieze above the sink was stuck onto the painted tiles using a cartridge glue called Hard as Nails. It squishes out around the edges and seals them when smoothed so no water can get behind. I used a special effects metallic green acrylic paint from Dulux which unfortunately is no longer available. I am always looking out for anything I can use in projects and apart from the wall paints, all the paints were obtained from discount and excess stock stores. When the ceiling is done, I will take some nice long shots taking in the whole kitchen to show the overall effect. I regard the whole house as an art project, now almost complete. It is something I have to keep doing. I still have some paint embellishing to do on the painted woodwork in the hall and landing, then the house will be done. However, I have several outside sculpture projects already in mind and I really want to make some gorgeous Nativity figures for my Porch. PM is perfect for them. I have enough to keep me occupied for years to come! I’ve put this comment here as there was no ‘reply’ button after your comment and questions. The second panel is going up today. I have changed the background colour and would love your opinion as to which you prefer. I can’t quite decide. I’ll post a picture later.

    • Thankyou Penelope,
      If the second attempt had failed, I would have been tempted to give up. Although, I do not like to be defeated. I enjoy working things out. I like the challenge. Thankfully, it is now all going very well. The third panel is ready to be removed from the mould.

  8. Wow Sarah! This is amazing! I am so glad about this post and the hard work that you did. You actually answered some questions for me that have been on my mind regarding paper pulp clay in plaster molds. Thank you so much for this share- good work! Your creativity and work has shown me that I can (probably) make some projects that I wouldn’t have considered before.
    — Jonni– thank you so much, too, for your site and your amazing work. I am so glad that you do what you do. You are encouraging, a blessing and an inspiration!

    • Hello Leslie,
      Don’t forget to use LOTS of petroleum jelly as a release agent.
      I’m glad you like it and are inspired by it. I agree about Jonni and this wonderful website. I think all the contributors are amazing and inspirational.

  9. Hi Sarah
    As soon as I saw your post and Jonni’s wondering if you’d be willing to write about your process that I became looking forward to it.
    Final result is amazing! Are you planning to fill the space around the lamp with 3 more ?

    • Hello Pedro,
      I am planning to cover the whole ceiling. The second panel is being painted now and the third is nearly ready to be pulled from the mould. I estimate I will need 18-20 panels to complete the project.
      Thanks for your comment.

  10. This is absolutely stunning and plan on trying it this weekend as soon as I can get a mold that is similar Thank you so much for sharing LOVE LOVE LOVE IT


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