Easy, Illustrated Instructions on How to Paper Mache

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Introduction


Paper mache is the cheapest way to make a sculpture. All you need to get started is newspaper, flour and water.

The flour and water get stirred together to make cheap, thin glue. The newspaper strips are dunked in this glue and draped over some form, creating a skin. When this skin dries, it maintains its shape. Shazam! No chisels, no kiln, and no fumes.

Unfortunately, the lifespan of paper mache is short. The paper skin is flammable, susceptible to moisture damage and attractive to insects. You should not let this discourage you. I've found that the temporary nature of paper mache projects encourages fun and experimentation, two pillars of studio art.



Get Started!

You should try to draw it first.
I suspect that most people reading these instructions will already have a project in their mind, and they are just looking for the paper mache glue recipe.

Here it is:
Paper Mache Recipe
3 cups water
2 1/2 cups flour

For other people, this is when they should expand upon their project idea, to get a clearer idea of how their project is going to look when it is completed. One way to do this is to draw it. Another way is to print up a few images from the internet. I suspect that some people reading this might protest having to draw their project first, but I still encourage it. By attempting to draw it, you will face and solve a bunch of little design challenges before you get your hands dirty.

For example, if you have the idea to make a paper mache alligator, and you don't draw it out first, you will probably start building a long body shape, and attach legs after that is finished. For example, the legs might end up poking out perpendicular to the body, because the design will be made up as you go.

Prepare Armature
As you probably know, this type of newspaper mache is usually only used for the skin of your sculpture. A skin covering something else, for example a balloon, a chicken wire figure, or a bunch of cardboard boxes taped together. This internal structure is called the armature.

Balloons
Balloons are the easiest to use for small projects, such as hats, cats or masks. Regular-shaped, extra-large and the long balloon animal kind can be combined for a lot of different shapes. The rounded surface makes a nice finished product.

The downside is that balloons tend to deflate in one or two days, so any projects built with them need to be completed and dried in that time. Quick-drying techniques can also backfire with balloons, because they can expand, busting through the new paper skin. I've also used a couple cousins of the balloon to build an armature: Inflated plastic packing pillows and bubblewrap.


Cardboard
Cardboard alone is not usually used as an armature for paper mache. It is already flat and strong, so there isn't much reason to cover it with more paper. However, if you are, for example, creating a robot with a bunch of angular cardboard panels taped together, a new paper mache skin can smooth the places where the panels meet.

Other heavy paper is well-suited for building an armature, such as cardboard tubes from wrapping paper rolls and Fed-Ex shipping tubes.

 


Chicken wire
For anything bigger than Donald Trump's head, I suggest using chicken wire for the armature. Chicken wire is the name for lightweight metal fencing, typically with a hexagonal pattern. It is sold in 10-foot rolls for about $6. A typical use is to cut wide strips and roll them into cylinders to form bodies and limbs.


Chicken wire isn't that easy to work with. From a material-handling point of view, it is sort of a cross between sheet metal and fabric. Also, the wire ends tend to poke you. I usually use a pair of wire cutters to cut rectangles to work with. Wherever the chicken wire needs to attach to itself, the loose, pokey wires along the edge can be easily bent into each other, twisting up a tight, permanent seam.

You will probably find that gloves will be more trouble than they are worth, because your fingers have to dance through the holes as you work.

 

Past the size of a laundry basket, a chicken wire structure is too flimsy to support the weight of wet newspaper. Therefore any large sculptures will need a skeleton underneath. I recommend using 1x2 lumber and wood screws.

1. the skeleton for your sculpture will need to be very close to the surface of the skin.
2. You will be stapling or tying chicken wire directly to the skeleton.
3. Large flat areas of chicken wire are usually weaker than curvy areas.
4. If the bare skeleton can stand up by itself, the finished sculpture will probably stand up too.

People, plants and animals look more natural if they aren't made up of 90 degree angles. It isn't as easy to screw them together at odd angles, but they will look a lot better in the final result.

Two-liter soda bottles, fed-ex shipping tubes, the plastic from sour cream tubs and crumpled aluminum foil are also good choices for building cheap armatures.



Protect your work area
Blah, blah, blah, lay down plastic or an old sheet, or work outside. The flour and water mixture really will dry like glue, and be impossible to remove from your clothes, shoes, tv remote and floor.

Make paste
I've seen a dozen different recipes, but I've never noticed an important difference in them. I recommend using just flour and water.

 

 

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