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Anything can be a Mold: Molding Objects with Paper Mache

3D molded object

Molds are a great way to create or reproduce objects, particularly if you want to replicate them over and over. But you can turn nearly anything into a mold for replication with paper mache, and it’s easier than you think. Let’s look at how.

No matter what your craft of choice may be, there’s huge value in repetition and replication. For example:

  1. Repetition allows you to build the muscle memory that lets you do the same thing over and over. The only way you can make really pleasing objects in quilling is by quilling the same shapes over and over and over.
  2. Replication allows you to craft pleasing, symmetrical, professional decorative elements, like motifs on a box or bowl.
  3. Repetition and replication allows you to make a series of objects, like if you want to make a collection of masks.
  4. Repetition allows you to gain speed, which you need if you want to make crafts for selling: speed lets you bring down your working time, which brings costs into alignment with what customers are willing to pay.
  5. Replication allows you to make DIY versions of things you like. If you simply like the shape of an existing vase or bowl, you can replicate it and have as many as you want.

For all those reasons, making and using molds can be incredibly useful. There are a lot of great tutorials about how to use silicone and other objects to make your own molds, or use plaster or clay to mold objects. But you can also turn nearly anything into a mold for paper mache, and replicate almost any object. Here’s how:

some examples of molding from my own craft projects. Excuse my messy desk.

How to Turn Anything into a Mold for Paper Mache

The most important thing to note is that, depending on your glue or paste, most paper mache adhesives won’t stick to plastic. You can use this to your advantage when replicating objects. In the examples shown in this picture:

  • Molding a Styrofoam skull: I picked up this styrofoam skull for a few euros at some craft store a few years ago. I wanted to use it as a mold, so I carefully covered it in clear tape, making sure to press the tape tightly into all the contours. Because it’s now covered in tape, I can paper mache over the top of it, and then remove the paper mache.
  • Molding a plastic bowl: I really like the size and shape of these little plastic bowls I got at the grocery store, and want to replicate them for trinket bowls, potpourri, and the like. In the image above, I have wrapped a bowl in tin foil and am placing polymer clay over the top of it, creating a 3D shape that I can bake off. (This is my first experiment with polymer clay, and I am getting used to working with it.)
  • Molding an acrylic sphere: I ordered this large, 2-part acrylic sphere online, and have used it for many projects, including the paper mache puffer fish in this picture. For most of my projects, I wrap it tightly in cling film and use tape to stick the cling film smoothly to the surface. As you can see, I have also placed tape lines inside one half of the sphere, so I can use them as layout lines for mandala-type patterns.

These strategies: covering something in clear tape, wrapping an object in tin foil or cling film, placing objects inside plastic bags, or placing templates inside plastic folders, all allow you to work over the top of the object with paper mache to replicate it.

Tips for Replicating 3D Objects with Paper Mache

In order to make this technique work successfully, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Work small and smooth. If you want to capture fine details, like the teeth in the skull, you need to use small, thin pieces of paper and smooth them very tightly into the contours. Working on small areas at a time, using very thin paper, keeping things smooth, and being careful, allows you to pick up the fine details and replicate them in your paper mache. The more layers you do, and the less precision in every layer, the more detail you lose.
  • Use the right paste. This is crucial, since not all pastes and glues will release as well as others. I use a progressive method of pasting, that gradually turns my paper mache layers into decoupage. Here’s how I do it.
    • For the innermost layer, against the object I am molding, I use a paste made of approximately 1/2 flour (I have to use patent flour here in the Netherlands, because cheap all-purpose flour is incredibly glutinous) and 1/2 corn starch (because corn starch dries back out into a powder). Add a heaping spoonful of salt (because salt keeps finished paper mache projects drier, reducing the effects of humidity and preventing mold or mildew), and water until it’s the right texture. Water allows the flour and corn starch to penetrate into your paper fibers, so they take on the contoured shape and are stiffer when they dry. However, flour and corn starch are not themselves sticky, so they never adhere to plastics once they have dried.
    • Once the whole surface is covered in paper mache using this flour/corn starch paste, I make another batch of paste using the same formula, except that I add glue to the mixture, and then water to thin it out. This makes the second layer adhere better to the first layer, and glue also adds some structural reinforcement as it dries. I use this paste for the second layer.
    • For every progressive layer after that, I use less and less flour and corn starch, until I am just using watered-down glue to adhere a new layer of paper over the previous one, and I am really just decoupaging instead of paper mache-ing.
    • This system allows the paper object to have shape and structure, but the innermost layer always releases cleanly from whatever I am molding.
  • Plan ahead for release. In the case of spheres or bowls, release is easy: once your paper mache is dry, you can just tug on the edges of the cling film and free it from the underlying shape. In the case of the skull, release is more complex because of the many contours in the underlying shape. To fully replicate the skull, I had to use a craft knife to slice through the paper mache, slicing it into three pieces, so that I could pull the face part off by lifting forward, and the sides by pulling them to the sides. Once I have the three paper mache pieces, I can just paper mache them back into a single piece. It’s also important to go back over the cut seams in the styrofoam and tape over them again, so that future attempts to mold the shape don’t stick at those seams.

Using these techniques, you can replicate nearly any 3D shape in paper mache, and make identical copies of almost anything you want to.

We’ll take a closer look at other mold-making techniques, and working with polymer clay, in future posts.

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