Waterproofing Papier Mache?

  • Note – after I wrote this article, in which I claim that you can make paper mache waterproof based on articles I’d read online, I tried it myself. My results were a disaster. So I tried again with a different waterproofing product, and that sculpture died, too. I’ve concluded that paper mache does not belong outside. If you’re interested in making waterproof sculptures for your garden, see my squirrel video. I used the same construction methods for that sculpture that I use for all my paper mache sculptures, but when it came time to put the final skin on I used epoxy clay instead of paper mache. It’s currently sitting outside, in -12 F weather, surrounded by a foot-thick layer of snow, and it’s still doing just fine. It’s just as easy as paper mache. It isn’t as cheap, of course, but neither is your time.

Original article:

I receive a lot of emails by folks who would like to put their paper mache sculptures outside. Can paper mache be waterproofed?

I’ve always said “no,” but I never actually tried it myself. Therefore, I decided that I needed to do some experiments to see if there really is a way to weatherproof paper.

I was delighted when I discovered that Jackie Hall, writing for the Papier Mache Resource website, beat me to it. Jackie tried just about every finishing material that she could think of, and carefully documented her results.

In the end, she discovered that you really can waterproof paper mache sculptures, using yacht varnish. This product may be sold as marine varnish at your local paint store.

Now I’ve got to try it myself (see first paragraph above). When I do make an outside sculpture, I’ll do a few things differently during the building process. These things may not be necessary, but they do seem reasonable:

  1. I would use a high-quality carpenter’s glue to stick the paper onto the sculpture, instead of using the usual flour-and-water paste. I would do this because flour is one of the favorite foods of fungi (yeast is a fungus, and you know what happens when you add yeast to bread dough). Flour is also a favorite food for animals, like mice, raccoons, and golden retrievers. The varnish might mask the odor of the flour, but I would play it safe and use the glue instead.
  2. I would keep the bottom of the sculpture far enough above the ground to prevent splashback from rain or sprinklers from covering the sculpture with a thin film of mud. Soil microbes, especially fungi, are incredibly strong, and could eat their way into the sculpture and cause it to rot. Some fungi is strong enough to work it’s way into concrete and even rocks, so a paper mache sculpture would be a piece of cake for them. To prevent the bottom from getting wet, the sculpture could be placed on top of a rounded rock that allows water to drain away. I don’t know exactly how a larger sculpture (a hippo, for instance) would be protected, but there must be a way to do it.
  3. As Jackie suggested, I would re-apply the marine varnish at least once a year.
  4. I would make sure the sculpture is heavy enough to keep the wind from blowing it away.

If you have ever made a papier mache garden sculpture, please let us know what happened to it. Did it survive out in the weather? Did the paint colors fade in the sun? I would really like to know, because I’m running out of room in my house for all the critters I’ve been building, and I’d love to fill my garden with some weird and wonderful animal sculptures.

80 thoughts on “Waterproofing Papier Mache?”

  1. I am creating a paper mache dolphin that I need to waterproof. Thinking of using a thin coat of cement and polyurethane Any thoughts on that

    • Cement is porous, so you’d need to use a good sealer if you need to keep the paper inside dry. You’d probably want to do a small experiment first. I haven’t yet found a way to waterproof paper, but a recent guest post has a suggestion that might work. I haven’t tried it either, so no guarantees. Lately, I’ve been using epoxy clay, like Apoxie Sculpt, for my outdoor sculptures. Or you could use Pal Tiya, although it’s kind of expensive for a large sculpture. Is your dolphin life-sized?

  2. Hi Miss,
    I’m thinking of using paper mache to make a mascot head. Of cause I need a gypsum sculpture. Then I will cover it with feather fabric. Will it work ? Any recommendation ? Advantages ? and disadventages ? Thanks a lot.

  3. I made a large paper mâché elephant once and then coated it with a product called aqua resin and then painted it with outdoor marine paint…. It’s been outside in maine for 10 years and looks great. Aqua resin is sort of like a fiberglass/resin technique but way way safer and easier to clean.
    I’m going to give the marine varnish a try, sounds a little easier.

    • Hi Kristen. I’ve played around with Aqua Resin myself, and it worked quite well, although it was quite expensive. I didn’t use it for an outdoor project, though. Maybe next time I will. I have tried marine varnish for outdoor paper mache, and it was, for me, a disaster. Other people claim it works. Let us know what happens if you experiment with it.

    • I think it depends on how much damage was done. To start, I’d spray or dip the chewed bits with a bleach and water mixture to get rid of the mouse slobber. Then rework the holes just like you did when you made the sculptures in the first place. Or mix up some paper machete clay, or even some wood putty, and paint when dry. Good luck with it!

      • Hello Joni!

        Thank you for the advice/information on how to deal with the paper mache animals
        that became rodent feast, and the wonderful compliment.

        I moved all of the sculptures out of the shed, in order to clean up the wreckage, and allow the paper mache to be exposed to strong sunlight, after reading that ultraviolet rays will decrease the risk of active hantavirus.
        Have included the link from CDC on how to deal with a variety of materials/substrates that have been exposed to rodents.

        Funny thing happened a day after the sunbathing.
        I had checked the weather forecast for my little corner of the desert Southwest, and there was no mention of rain for a week.
        Good, that would afford me ample time to clean the shed, and seal it up so that the rodents would not be allowed access.
        Well, as luck would have it, there was a downpour at one a.m.
        Soaked all of the sculptures.

        So, after having a good crying spell, I removed all of the paper mache, stripping the animals down to the armatures, as now the risk of mold is pretty high.
        Can laugh about it now, and the plan is to re mache the sculptures that can be salvaged, and re create those that were too damaged.

        All things happen for a reason, might learn something very helpful with the restoration project.
        Thank you again!
        Ashley Fern

          • WOW! I would’ve bawled my eyes out! That’s tons of work but can’t wait to see your finished ZOO!!! What are they for may I ask? They are FANTASTIC!

            • I did cry, and there was a fair amount of swearing involved too, PHReed .
              These beasts were designed to be photo props for a series of drawings about endangered wildlife.

              It was just a blast to be able to use up what most folks consider landfill fodder and make a beast.
              Looking forward to restoring the damage, documenting the process for the blog, and then onto the drawings.

  4. I’m trying to make a chia pet or sprout planter and I was thinking of using papier mâché, but I am thinking it would get moldy because of the need for water and dirt. Do you have any suggestions on how I could avoid this? I was thinking maybe keeping the bottom open and placing a plastic or clay pot inside it where it’s not visible, but it still won’t cause leakage to the actual papier mâché part. Varnish is a good idea, but I think it needs more. What do you think?

  5. Do you have any great ideas for how I can make a bowl to line a wicker basket I have so I can plant straight into it ? Nothing I can find in the shops will work as the bowl is very wide and quite shallow. I thought about making a paper mache bowl and then sealing it but want to plant directly into it so there will be soil and some moisture

    • Lara, I have not yet found a product that will seal paper mache from water. I’ve tried, and had some disastrous results. I would suggest that you use some Quikwall, a fiber-reinforced cement product, instead. I hope to try making some lightweight cement pots this summer, but at this point I haven’t actually tried doing it, so you might take my advice with a grain of salt.

      I think if I did it I would line the basket with some plastic, and then use the basket itself as the form. I’d place a short piece of dowel at the bottom, well-greased, so I could pull it out to make a drainage hole when the cement starts to set. Then I’d add 1/2″ or so of the Quikwall over the plastic. You could leave it rather rough at the top, for textural interest, or smooth it off just below the basket edge. Cover with plastic and leave it in the shade for several days to allow the cement to cure. I show how I used the Quikwall product in my lion mold, here (starting around 0.36).

      This probably wasn’t the answer you were looking for, but I hope it at least gives you some ideas.

  6. I have been asked to make a puppet for an animal resque its a mother bird that they want to help feed some orphaned baby birds and as such needs to be washable. I make puppets out of paper mache all the time but I am worried would the varnish be toxic if a baby bird pecked at the puppet?

    • Hi Emma. I would assume that any form of plastic would not be very healthy for tiny birds, and paper mache doesn’t really like water, so it would be almost impossible to sterilize. I’ve never heard of baby birds being fed by a pretend mamma bird – is this something that rescue groups normally do?

  7. I’m going to try my hand at a 9 ‘ & 7’ palm tree combo starting with a chicken wire trunk, attached to a piece of plywood, paper mache, and artificial palm fronds. then varnish (heavily) the trunk and base. I’ll send pictures if it turns out well!

    • No, I’m pretty sure marine varnish won’t help your pieces survive a dishwasher. I don’t really know what would, especially since people will assume a washable item is also safe to use with food, and most waterproofing products contain chemicals.

      Beautiful work, by the way. Thanks for telling us about your site. I hope you’re doing well with your etsy shop. Any advice for other artists who would like to sell their work?

    • Hi there Jonni. I am just enquiring I am doing a fruit basket out of paper mache as part of a B.Ed technology assignment and would like to know your thoughts on a few questions that I haven’t yet got answers for. If I use the flour n water paste, how long after completion will the paper mache start to grow fungi and would the fungi still grow if I vanished my finished product. Could you possibly give me any other ideas on what else I could use instead of vanish, I want something that’s going to last as well as give a good finish to the final product, also that is cheap and not to expensive..

      • Your bowl should never go moldy if the paper stays dry. Since it will be used with food, the bowl should have a finish on it that is food-safe. This article talks about food-safe finishes, and gives a recipe for making your own. It looks very similar to a commercial product that uses the same ingredients (a small bottle would probably be less expensive than making your own). It’s possible that coating the paper mache with one of these finishes, mineral oil and beeswax, would work as well on paper mache as it does on wood, but I haven’t tried it. If the bowl is never allowed to absorb water from the air or from washing or from fruit stored it it, it should last for years.

  8. Thanks for posting. I need to do this for creating a set of horns for a cosplay but I need it waterproof in case I get caught in the rain. I’m definitely going to try this out.

    • I am so happy others are on this page who have done things like I want to do. I hope you all can help me.

      I would like to build a snowman costume to wear outside. I was thinking of using a 12″ inflatable ball, a 26″ Inflatable Ball and a 36″ inflatable ball and cover them with paper mache. I would like the head to be separate from the 2 bottom pieces. What would I used to attach the 26″ and 36″ pieces so they would stay together? Also what is the cheapest way to waterproof the design and allow the piece to be painted white?



      • Jason, you can attach the two bottom balls with more paper mache pieces. Just make sure to use really big pieces so they cover a good-sized area on both the top and bottom ball. If you’re only going to use the costume once, you could paint the costume and then use a good polyurethane varnish from the hardware store. The water-cleanup type have less smell, and would be best for a costume. The varnish won’t waterproof a piece well enough to leave it outside all winter, but it will work for temporary use.

        Can you tell us where you will be using the costume? Is this for a holiday play or something?

        • I wont have time to build the costume before Christmas, but would like to build it next year. I was thinking of doing the Freaky Snowman type skit around where I live. There is a historic district with tons of tourist that flock to the streets. I believe it would bring some Christmas cheer. The guy who built the original freaky snowman said it cost him over $500.00. I believe I can build it much cheaper.

          Thanks for the information. I loved doing paper mache when I was in elementary school. An adult project would be extremely fun!

  9. Hi
    I am master student in sculpture at university of Lisbon (Portugal). I have made a sculpture with “Sisal rope” in size 2.5 meter in height. Since it is supposed to be outdoor sculpture I should cover it with a water and UV resistant material, which material do you suggest? Do you think Polyester Resin could be a good choice for this purpose? Please guide me in this case, this is my first experience with Sisal.
    Kind Regards

    • Sana, I have no idea what you would use. Sisal rope is built to last a very long time in bad weather, but not forever. Maybe the deck or concrete sealer found in hardware stores would soak in and give more waterproofing. Resin would tend to sit on top of the rope, I think, although I’ve never tried it. You might put your question on the Daily Sculptors page, which gets more visitors, and see if anyone else has useful ideas.

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