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How to Make Anything from Paper Mache: Part 1 Volume and Geometric Shapes

Paper mache is the most affordable, versatile, accessible way to make nearly anything you can imagine. In this series, we’ll cover the basics of how to make anything you want out of paper mache. Let’s start with the basics: volume and shape.

Getting Started with Paper Mache: Paper and Paste

Most people probably remember the basics of making things from paper mache because of craft projects they did as a kid. But let’s recap: you make paper mache objects by covering them in strips of paper and paste, which dry and harden and define the object you are making. To achieve great results, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Paper Mache Paper: for smooth, organic-looking results, you need:
    • Cheap, weak, porous paper. Look for uncoated paper that is flimsy and textured. The paper needs to be fibrous and weak, so that it will easily soak up the paste and soften, conforming to your desired shape. If you use thicker, stiffer paper, it will resist softening and curving over your shape.
      • Uncoated, black-and-white newspaper. Old newspaper is great for paper mache, because the paper is so flimsy that it quickly soaks up the paste, and the paper fibers from different pieces will lock into each other, forming a more stable structure.
      • Shipping/packing paper. This paper is the texture of brown paper grocery bags, and is often sold in rolls for shipping and packing. This kind of paper is my personal favorite for paper mache, because it’s porous and fibrous, and takes paste and shaping easily, but is usually thicker than newspaper, so it requires fewer layers to form a stable shape.
      • Copy paper. You can use copy paper for paper mache, and it’s so accessible that it’s a good option for some people. Copy paper is less porous, so it should be soaked in the paste for longer, giving it more time to soften and weaken. One advantage of using copy paper (and one reason I often use it in the final layers of a project) is that it’s white, so you often don’t have to prime your object before painting it.
      • Tissue paper. Tissue paper is fussy and tears easily, and makes very very thin layers. However, it forms really easily to a shape and can create very smooth, even results if you are patient.
      • Craft paper. There is a smooth, brown paper typically sold in rolls, usually called “craft paper”. This is another good option for paper mache.
      • Coated/glossy paper, watercolor paper, card stock paper… these are not ideal for paper mache. They are stiffer and less absorbent, and can resist taking a curve or laying down flat. If you want to use a stiffer, more textured paper for a specific kind of finish, I would suggest decoupaging a stiffer textured paper at the end, and using cheap, weak paper during construction.
    • To prepare paper for paper mache, here is the most important tip:
      • Tear off the cut edges, and tear the paper into pieces. Never cut the paper with scissors or a blade. Torn edges release the paper fibers, making them more porous and absorbent, and allowing the pieces and layers to blend into each other. Always use torn paper. I use a ruler to help me tear off a strip of the paper all the way around the outside edge, so that there are no manufacturer cut edges on the piece. Then I tear the sheet of paper into pieces for paper mache. As a rule, use large/long pieces in the early stages of a project, to get a lot of coverage early and help define the shape in a way that will dry evenly, then use smaller pieces for later layers to get a smoother, more refined surface.
  • Paper Mache Paste: you can quickly whip up a paste from ingredients in your kitchen. Here are the classic DIY paper mache paste ingredients:
    • Flour. Use all-purpose flour without much gluten in it. Flour and water form a sticky paste that can be used to adhere almost anything. Flour and water also have the advantage of drying into something more powdery that releases better from a mold, unlike glue. However, if you are using a mold, check out this post for more specific guidelines.
    • Corn starch. Corn starch paste doesn’t have as much glue-like adhesion as flour, but it does have some, and it does release more cleanly when used over a mold. When a corn starch paste dries, it leaves a powdery residue that helps it release from a mold.
    • Salt. It’s always a good idea to add some salt (1-2 teaspoons per cup of flour) to your paper mache paste. Salt helps your finished project resist mold and mildew, which can happen in humid environments.
    • Glue. I almost always add glue to my paper mache paste after the first couple of layers. You can use homemade or store-bought glue. I like adding glue to the mixture because dried glue has more structure and rigidity than dried flour+water paste alone: glue makes the project stronger and helps layers bond together better.
      • Here’s my recipe for paper mache paste:
        • If I am making a paper mache object over a mold, and I want it to release, I mix together a container of:
        • 2/3 all-purpose flour
        • 1/3 corn starch (I might skip corn starch if I am not worried about releasing from a mold)
        • A tablespoon or so of salt
        • Water until I have a smooth, creamy, runny paste, something like the texture of buttermilk.
      • As you use this paste, it will naturally thicken up, because the water gets absorbed by the paper more quickly than the other ingredients. Stir it often while you use it, and add water periodically. I use this paste for the first couple layers of paper mache, and then allow it to dry.
      • When I run out of that paste and need to make more, or if I am making a project that isn’t using a mold, or if I am coming back the next day to add more layers, I make the same paste but without any cornstarch. I use a flour+salt+water only paste for the next couple layers.
      • Then I start to add glue to the paste, so I mix together flour+water and add some glue to get it to the right consistency. For subsequent layers, I use less and less flour until I’m only using glue+water, and basically decoupaging the exterior surface.

Naturally you can use all kinds of materials to make paper mache: you can use store-bought paste, or paper clay, egg cartons, and all kinds of materials instead of simple paper and paste. But simple paper and paste are a great way to start and learn.

Example of horse as geometric shapes from The Lightbox

How to Make Anything from Paper Mache: Create Volume and Shape

You can make a ping-pong ball into a beach ball with enough layers of paper mache, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, you want a fast easy way to get the object to the desired size and shape without spending your whole life waiting for layers to dry. So your goal is to quickly and easily create volume, and to do that you need to consider shape.

Choose Your Shape(s)

If you’ve ever taken a drawing class, you know that they often teach you to think of objects as a collection of geometric shapes. This is a great way to start thinking of your paper mache constructions, so you can break it down into basic components. For example, this pufferfish I made from a sphere:

Or this thing which is a sphere+cone:

Here are some strategies for creating basic geometric shapes from paper mache:

  • Spheres and domes. The classic way to quickly make a large round volume for paper mache is to paper mache over a balloon. Personally, I don’t love using a balloon because they deflate slightly over time, and if I leave it for a long time for the layers to dry, it may lose some tension and stiffness. I like using round objects as molds instead, and have collected a ton of them: toy balls, acrylic and styrofoam spheres, bowls, etc to use for paper mache. For more information about how to use a round thing to make a round paper mache object, check out this post.
  • Squares and pyramids. Straight-sided geometric shapes are a piece of cake. Cut the sides out of cardboard and glue or tape them together, and use them as the center volume for your paper mache.
  • Cones and cylinders. I usually roll paper into a cone or a cylinder, and glue or tape it together, and then paper mache over that. You can also use cylindrical objects, like a toilet paper tube, to make a fast cylinder for paper mache.

Once you have your geometric components made out of paper mache, you can glue or tape them together, and then paper mache over the entire object to unite it into a single form.

By making basic shapes that are largely hollow, with empty space inside but a rigid exterior, you can quickly make very large paper mache objects without waiting forever for inside layers to dry. This strategy also keeps your finished objects very light in weight, which makes them easier to hang, display, or transport.

NOTE: If you are making a paper mache object that is largely hollow inside, it is especially important to use salt in the first few layers of your paste. If humidity builds up inside, it can cause mold and mildew that will weaken and destroy your paper mache object from the inside over time.

This strategy of quickly building basic geometric shapes to create shape and volume at the same time doesn’t work for every type of paper mache project, but it will get you very far. In future posts, we’ll discuss other strategies for creating complex, organic shapes out of paper mache.

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