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How to Make Anything from Paper Mache: Part 2 Balance and Weight

paper mache octopus

In the first post in this series, I discussed how to visualize the thing you want to create as a collection of geometric shapes. You can create each shape individually in paper mache, and then attach them to each other to make your form. In this post, more ways to create volume, and the considerations of balance and weight.

One of the wonderful things about paper mache is that it is incredibly lightweight. However, this also poses problems in the finished project, especially if you want it to stand independently. From the very beginning, it’s important to consider questions of balance and weight.

Designing Paper Mache for Balance

From the very first stages, consider how you want to display your final project. Whether you want it to stand independently, or you want to hang it, balance is something to consider from the outset.

For example, if you want to hang your piece, it’s best to embed a hook/loop/string inside the initial construction of the object. Embedding it deep inside the layers of paper mache makes the hanging connection much stronger, and less likely to come apart over time. But embedding it in the early stages of construction can pose a challenge, because the weight distribution will change over time as you finish the object. For example, when I made this fish:

paper mache goldfish

I embedded the hanging loop inside the structure, coming out through the top fin. When I was doing this and testing it, it leaned really back-heavy, because I hadn’t yet started working on the head. I knew the head would add more weight and pull the hanging hook more toward the center, but I wasn’t sure how much. As you can see, it still hangs a bit back-heavy and not level.

The best way to fix balance issues is… you guessed it: weight!

Designing Paper Mache for Weight

The weight of a paper mache object changes constantly as you work on it. Paper mache is heavier when you first apply it, and then becomes lighter as it dries. All your decorations, embellishments, and additions add weight and affect the balance.

If you want a piece to stand independently, it needs to be both balanced and bottom-heavy, so it doesn’t easily tip over. If you are making something to wear, like a mask, you don’t want it to become too heavy over time.

Let’s look at some design techniques and their weight considerations

Paper Mache Organic Shape Techniques: Newspaper + Tape

As mentioned above, designing for geometric shapes is a great way to begin construction. But if you are making something that is more organic, and trying to quickly achieve volume, the best way to do it is:

  1. Wad up wads of newspaper/craft paper to create volume
  2. Tape the wads of paper together to create a shape
  3. Paper mache over the paper+tape structure

It looks like this when you are making it:

from Gourmet Paper Mache – great progress pics!

And this when it’s done:

Finished Ice Dragon from Gourmet Paper Mache

This technique is a great way to get your volume and shape in place quickly and easily, when you can’t just blow up a balloon or fold paper into a cone. It also allows you to anticipate weight and balance issues from the very beginning.

Paper Mache Organic Shape Techniques: Armature + Paper

Another great way to achieve organic shapes that will stand independently with paper mache is to create an armature. An armature is a kind of skeleton that holds up the rest of the structure: sculptors often use them inside ceramic sculptures, and they are also inside stop-motion puppets.

Stop motion armature from Young Animators Club

For paper mache, you can make an armature out of wire, or consider making an armature out of twisted lengths of tin foil, which is cheaper and more volumetric. Either way, you can create a skeleton that allows you to adjust the pose and position of a figure before you paper mache over it.

Paper Mache Organic Shape Techniques: Cardboard

As we all know, cardboard is one of my favorite art materials, and it’s easy to use it to create a base shape for your paper mache. I like to create the silhouette of my design with cardboard, and then build up wads of paper over it for volume, like this:

then this:

(you can see more about this particular fish in this post)

Troubleshooting Weight and Balance Issues in Paper Mache

It can be hard to fix these kinds of problems after the fact, so it’s always a good idea to test as you go, anticipating and correcting along the way. Here are some solutions to these kinds of problems:

  1. Paper mache won’t hang evenly. Some solutions to “won’t hang evenly” include:
  • Add balancing weight. If you have a hollow form like my goldfish above, and it won’t hang straight/flat/level, the best thing to do is add some balancing weight inside. It many cases, I have just done this by adding a bunch of layers of paper mache on the inside of the structure, pulling the weight distribution in a different direction. To get the same result faster, consider adding something heavier to the inside, using glue and paper to secure it. Washers are a great choice, because they are flat and easy to embed in paper mache, but you might also use screws or anything relatively heavy for it’s size. This is a good solution for making small corrections, and not a good solution for solving big problems: if you add so many heavy metal bits, you’ll make the whole thing heavy and it may break or fall apart.
  • Move your hanging mechanism. If the center of gravity has shifted, it may be just as easy to add a new loop/hook/hanger, or move your existing one to a new place.

2. Paper mache tips over. There are a few solutions to paper mache constructions that tip over. Some things to consider are:

  • Add a base. Adding a base is a great way to create a stable, heavy platform for your paper mache. It also makes the piece more formal and sculptural, since it has a built-in pedestal. If you used a wire armature, you can wire your paper mache object to a heavy base. You could also simply glue it.
  • Add weight. Making the bottom of your piece very heavy is also a good way to make it more stable and less prone to tipping over. For objects that stand (rather than objects that hang), making it too heavy isn’t as much of a problem, so you could use really heavy things like curtain weights inside your construction to add weight. This is a great solution if you are using the wadded paper+tape technique. I recently made a paper mache vase and it was so light that it felt insubstantial, so I hot-glued a glass jar from the recycling bin to the inside of the vase- it added weight and made it feel more substantial.

3. Paper mache slides around. Welcome, my friend, to the world of mask making. I have often made really ambitious masks that start to get heavy and unbalanced and won’t sit on my head.

book mask

TBH, I have no solution for this one. I think you need to alter the design to add a counterbalancing weight, or start over with a better plan.

paper mache octopus
for this guy, there was no way to balance it, so I built it on a skewer – it can sit in a vase or plant pot

To sum up, it’s easy to run into balance and weight problems when you are making something with paper mache. Try to anticipate them and solve them early, because they only get worse over time.

  • For geometric volumes that hang: add counterbalancing weight to the inside
  • For standing objects with an armature: attach the armature to a base
  • For standing objects made from paper+tape: embed a heavy thing in the center bottom of the wads of paper
  • For everything else: practice!

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