Uh Oh – Tortoise is Sick…

Paper Mache Tortoise Shell
Paper Mache Tortoise Shell. Flaking

At the beginning of summer I made a Ploughshare tortoise out of paper mache clay, to test how well it would hold up out in the garden. For many months it did just fine – through rain, downpours, sprinklers, and lightly filtered sun. He lived under a rose bush, since I didn’t think he’d want to be out in the middle of the path, where some clumsy old lady (who could that be?) might trip over him.

Then a few weeks ago I moved the rose bush, and the area around the tortoise was temporarily bare. Within just a few days I saw the flaking that you can see in the photo above. The direct sun caused damage, even though all the rain did not.

I guess that means he’s waterproof (I used spar varnish) but not weatherproof.

Dang – I had a whole menagerie planned for my garden and yard. I thought it might keep me busy this winter, when I couldn’t be outside digging in the dirt or hanging out with the chickens. More research is needed.

This should not be insurmountable. Boats have been made out of paper, and they were fine, waterproof craft. And paper mache is not much different than any composite wood product.

Britta left a comment today, including a photo of her new Indian elephant, which she made the same way as the one in my elephant video, but using mortar instead of the paper mache or paper mache clay. If some concrete waterproofing stuff was painted over the elephant, she should last a very long time outside. But can the mortar be painted for brightly colored storks and other odd critters?

The failure on the tortoise is in the paint and varnish shell, not the paper mache clay beneath it, so perhaps acrylic paint would cause the same issues on a mortar sculpture. In fact, maybe it isn’t a problem of weatherproofing paper mache, but simply a matter of finding the right kind of paint to go on over it.

Any ideas? I know there are a lot of folks out there who want to use the paper mache clay or traditional strips and paste for outdoor art, but so far I haven’t found the solution to the weatherproofing problem. Your ideas will be much appreciated. (I think a sculpture garden would be so much fun!) If you think you know the answer to this problem, please leave a comment.

54 thoughts on “Uh Oh – Tortoise is Sick…”

  1. Any updates yet on the weather proofing? I can’t wait to hear about it!!! I’m so excited to have found your website BTW!! I will be getting your book asap from Amazon as well! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing all your info!

    • I have not yet had a chance to do another experiment. I have found a product that looks really promising – it filters UV light, has epoxy so it’s supposed to stick really well to the item it’s put over, it’s clear, and it’s supposedly “green.” It’s intended for decks, but if I can find some locally I think I’ll give it a try. Many people have had good luck with marine spar varnish.

      I hope you enjoy the book! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hi Jonni, I just had a look at Scott Stoll’s site as he has a section called Q and A which tells about his attempt to waterproof PM. He uses latex paint and then Spar Urethane, and says it works well. I don’t know of this product, but it may be worth a try. Look on his site at the Basics. http://www.stolloween.com

    Thanks for this great site, it is truly helpful and interesting.
    Kind regards, Lesley from Australia.

    • Hi Lesley. I know many people have good luck with spar varnish. I’m not sure why my own experiment failed. I’m going to try a clear deck protecting product that’s UV resistant, contains epoxy, and says it’s green. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it, though…

      • I thought the latex paint underneath the spar urethane may have helped as it might have some stretch in it, rather than acrylic etc that just cracks, possibly causing the top layer to crack as well.

  3. Hi from England,

    I made a elephant to go in the garden a couple of years ago using pulp papier mache with PVA adhesive. It was fine until after winter when the paint started to peel. I have repainted it using fibreglass paint that you use for house / garage rooves. It is available from DIY stores and is quite expensive, but you do get a large tin. It is quite smelly, so you have to apply it outside, but it is very easy to apply; you do need an old paint brush though which needs to be thrown away afterwards. You can also paint and varnish over it. It is a lot better than using fibreglass, which I, like Elizabeth, have considered using. I will let you know after this winter if it worked.

  4. Seems to me that if you use exterior-grade paint it should be fine. After all, think of all the wood (buildings, signs, etc) throughout the world that has been painted. Exterior paint stands up to the elements and UV light for years. True, not forever, but for many years. You said that PM is basically a wood-based product, so I should think a QUALITY exterior paint should be a good option.


    • Yes – but it rarely rains petroleum products, unless you live too near the Gulf…

      It does say it’s solvent-based, so I guess that explains it. It probably isn’t “green,” but I read that the process of making acrylics is environmentally unsafe even though the finished product dissolves in water, so acrylic paint isn’t green either – and I use it all the time.

      Unfortunately, the Pebeo site is in French, and I’m too lazy to get babelfish to translate the whole thing so I can find out more about this product. I’ll let you know what the label says when it arrives in the mail.

  5. I did some more checking, and paperpol recommends a varnish or other sealer over their product if it’s to be used outdoors. This doesn’t seem necessary, since Mikaela has such good luck with it, but while surfing around I found another product that seems to have some good possibilities. It’s called Solvent-based UV Absorbent Varnish by Pebeo. It’s specifically recommended by the manufacturer for artwork displayed outside, and the UC absorbency should help with the sun destroying the finish (the problem with poor, doomed tortoise.) So I ordered some. Now I have to make an outside sculpture to try it out on – gives me a good excuse. Now, where are those photos of that stork?

  6. Hi again, I did mention that the paverpol will cover over acrylic yes! check out the web sites I mentioned. GOOGLE: PAVERPOL USA AND PAVERPOL CA.

    • Hmm. I used marine varnish for my tortoise. Maybe I did it wrong somehow. I’ll check out their research – they have tons of wonderful paper mache-related tutorials on their site.

  7. HUmmmm Well I think I will try it. I am in charge of my Art Alliance Fund Raiser for next year which will be mail boxes. So I am going to try different things that will hold up for the elements in NE PA. If anyone has any suggestions please let me know and I will also share back my findings. Jonni thank you for having this site

  8. I have yet to try the paper mache and I have just joined but when you talked about your paint and acrylic’s I just wanted to mention that I use Liquitex Acrylic BASICS because is water resistant and flexible when dry. I have used it on painting on purses which have held up well. Was there a site mentioned about where to buy the PAVERPOL?

    • It looks like Amazon.com has some. I’m not sure how we’d use it – would we paint the PAVERPOL over the finished sculpture, after it was painted? Would the product stick to the acrylic paint?

  9. I would also like to do outdoor sculptures in paper mache. I’m thinking of some sort of marine varnish. If I find that it doesn’t hold up well, I plan to move on to resin. In fact, part of me is interested in just skipping the paper, and working in fiberglass mesh and resin – it would be completely waterproof then, but it would be shiny. And you’d have to complete it rather quickly, as the resin hardens quickly.

    I know this isn’t a solution for those of us wishing to use paper, but it might be an interesting alternative.

    • The problem I see with fiberglass resin is its toxicity. People die using the stuff in their closed garage. But if one were careful, it would definitely make a waterproof sculpture.

  10. Yes it can indeed. It’s just amazing the possibilities with this product. Check out the web site, I know it only gives some basic info (they are very secretive!) but if you have a look at all the pictures of completed work you will see what I mean, it can be used for so many things. I would very much suggest you try a bit. The clear would obviously work the best, maybe two of three coats just to be safe but it’s great. People have experimented with it applying it to an acrylic painting and leaving outdoors, so far so good. We live in Ireland so you can imagine what a beating it will take!!!

  11. I am pretty new to any paper mache, but am very eager to experiment with the paper mache clay. But, when I bought the ingredients, I learned that linseed oil left on cloth in the open air can be quite a fire risk. Is the paper mache clay subject to any concerns related to this? Is there a different kind of oil that would work just as well? Any feedback appreciated.

    Thanks much, Kathy

    • Hi Kathy. Linseed oil has been used by artists for hundreds of years, and I’ve never heard of an oil painting suddenly bursting into flames. The fire danger comes when someone uses the oil to polish wood, completely saturates his rags, and then throws the rags in a heap on the floor of the shop. In a few hours, whoosh – no more shop.

      However, there’s no need to use the linseed oil if it worries you. Either replace the oil with glycerin, which works just as well, or simply leave it out. Your clay will still work just fine.

  12. Hi there, I can see you are struggling to find a solution to your weather proofing problem? Well I have been using a product for a while which is used to make garden statues and believe me, it works like magic!!!! It’s a fabric hardner but it’s poymer based and dried rock hard in two weeks (dry by end of day). Once you have finished applying it to your product then it will dry usually by the end of your craft day and is then left to harden and cure for two weeks, the result is a completely, wind, frost, snow, rain and sun proof product. It really works. There are distributors in US and Canada. It’s called PAVERPOL. You might have heard of it already if not then have a peek, google paverpol USA. Or paverpol Canada. It has given my art new dimension and has taken it to another level. Have fun!

    • Ooh – that sounds like a real possibility. Can it go on over acrylic paint? Or would we need to use some sort of water-based paint that soaks into the paper mache clay, and put the Paverpol over that?

  13. Have you heard of or tried Aqua Resin? It’s green, non-toxic. No fumes. Yay. It’s opaque tho … so you’d coat the paper mache with Aqua Resin and then paint that. Apparently if you paint within the 24 hour cure time, the paint becomes becomes a permanent part of the hard coat of the aqua resin.

    I found it initially on a plaster statue site talking about the ways they can coat their plaster statues for outdoor use. It’s also commonly used in amusement parks to coat foam sculpture. There aren’t very many brick and mortar stores that sell it … but online sculpture suppliers seem to carry it. The best price I’ve found so far is at Rtvmoldmaking.com, but Compleat Sculptor (Sculpt.com) has a small trial kit.

    I haven’t ordered any yet … mostly because I need to wrap my head around thinking about it as both a sealer and perhaps a detail coat before painting? So far I’ve been using my final layer of clay as the detail coat, then painting, then adding a clear sealant (Shields All from Hy-Tech).

    • I wonder if this works much like the paverpol that Mikaela suggested. Now we’re getting so many suggestions, it’s going to get expensive to try them all. I like the idea of having the paint become part of the weather proof finish.

  14. This might be a wild idea, but you said it might be a failing of the paint. If you used an acrylic, have you considered fabric medium? The kind you mix into acrylic paint so you can paint it onto clothing. Fabric Medium is a sort of plasticizer, isn’t it, so that it can be washed in the washing machine? Maybe the medium would make the paint elastic enough to withstand the weather????

    Just an idea…

    • Interesting. Make the final finish elastic – it sounds like that might prevent the cracking that occurred when the tortoise’s shell was exposed to direct sunlight.

      Whew – you guys have all been wonderful, suggesting all these ideas. I could fill my yard with all the experiments, and then see which sculpture is still standing by this time next year….

      • I got a wee bottle of the fabric medium (About 4 ounces) in the crafts section of my WallyWorld, and it was less than a dollar. I’m sure it would be enough for a test, and it wouldn’t break the bank! Good luck.

        • It’s on my list of things to do. I should be busy for a while, at least as soon as I get all my current projects done. If anyone does any experiments with any of the ideas we’re receiving for weatherproofing paper mache, please let us know if they worked. I suspect some of you are a bit faster than I am, at the moment. (My new garden area is almost finished, and now gets to sit and moulder until next spring, so I should have a few spare moments soon.)

  15. Hi Jonni — when I read about the tortoise, I figured it was doomed, but that was possibly because I’m used to living in high humidity tropic areas, where Spar is not enough, especially if there is a drop of moisture left underneath, as perhaps in the clay itself. Since you have things like snow, all that would have to happen is a tiny crack in the varnish somewhere and it would allow moisture in, perrhaps the dew on the grass, etc., has been enough?

    So either a waterproofer mixed with the original clay or a coating strong enough to waterproof the sculpture is what you need, and I think a waterproofer mixed into the compound would be the best. On the other hand, have you tried spraying a totally dry sculpture with Thompson’s Water Proofing Agent? It is meant for things like work and ski clothes, and would not hurt your colours. Then, after several coats, try Spar or even better, Envirotex?

    Spar was originally a ship varnish and it is not used for boats too much anymore, as there are better products on the market that don’t yellow. The polyethelene resin coating I think would be better?



    • I haven’t seen anyone try the polyethelene resin, but I might look to see if they have any here in town. It was definitely just the varnish and the layer of paint underneath that split in the sun, so perhaps a coating that has UV protection would be good, too. We’re getting lots of good ideas – many more things to try.

  16. I wonder if a weather proof stain would work? Like concrete stain?

    Jonni, on a side note, I made my first paper mache using your “clay”. It was so much fun…you are so generous to share so much information. ๐Ÿ™‚ thank you.

    the only issue I’m having at the moment is being patient enough for it to dry. It’s only about 1/4″ thick. I put it in the oven for about 1.5 hours (with the newspaper stuffing) at 200 degrees then I let it set in the sun for a day.

    I removed the paper this morning and the inside was wet. i was afraid the birds would get to it outside so I left it in my hot car to finish curing. I’m thinking it will be “done” today. I made it on Sunday so maybe that isn’t too bad. I took some pictures and will share soon after I finish it.


    • Hm – maybe concrete stain over paper mache clay? I have some in the shed, so maybe I’ll try it. Good idea. I think I have some colored concrete waterproofing stuff out there too, but the colors aren’t very bright. It would be worth a try, though.

      The clay does take a long time to dry – about the same amount of time that a similarly thick layer of paper and paste would take to dry, except you only have to put on one layer of clay vs. eight or more layers of paper and paste. I think it all comes out even. But it’s really vital to let it dry all the way through. Putting it in the car was a good idea. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.


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