Creaturiste's Laboratory

Techniques, works in progress, and everything that doesn't fit in the portfolio. Comments and questions are encouraged, custom orders are welcome!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Creaturiste Paper Mache Methods

I have never been fully satisfied with PVA glue in paper mache, because of the instability of the result when confronted with extreme temperature changes. The piece become brittle when exposed to cold, and can break during that time. They become potentially saggy when exposed to extreme hot or moist weather. They return to their normal strenght when the comfortable temperatures come back, but during the time they were at risk, they may have gotten damaged!

I am currently researching and experimenting with boiled Wheat Paste to find a temperature-stable alternative. It seems to be temperature-stable so far. I'm so glad of the results that I plan to use it for all my projects instead of PVA glues.
Latest article about this:

Until I am absolutely sure that I solved all the issues, the following is the set of methods I recommend for the strongest and most durable paper mache I have ever seen.

My Definition of The Best Paper Mache:
A paper, a glue (or adhesive), a sealer and some textural and colored finishes combined to create an accurate, durable and lightweight piece of art that is strong enough to be a performance object.
Ideally, the best Paper Mache would be made with natural ingredients only, in order to be healthier, and not dependent on a highly specialized industry. So it could be made in most any situation, independant on the economical or commercial availabilities. In my personal endeavours, acrylic paint remains the most practical paint to use (fast drying, readily available). I have hopes to make it work on top of my natural paper mache approach, but also need to find a completely natural paint that will be just as water resistant, or better. Oil Paint is the next best thing to acrylics, so far, yet it takes too long to dry for the consistently rushed delivery times. I create for customers. This would be a non-issue with hobbyists or people who have no specific deadline to respect.

Best papers I've tried:
•coffee filters (thin yet very strong, applies smoothly, edges disappear like magic)
•Kraft paper (various thicknesses, great for quickly building thickness and strength
•Paper Towels (used as a smooth or textured finish)
These three papers are the best for my purposes. Your purposes may have you require other papers.

Best Glues/ adhesives I've tried
•Wheat Paste (current favorite).
It has all the properties I need for the best paper mache, except I have not found an appropriate sealer that will be compatible with it, and acrylic paints.

It is a higher quality than any other PVA adhesive I tried. It dries clear, is flexible, acid free, and scratch- resistant. It also resist water better than other PVA. It is also ideal as a base coat for acrylic paint, which never seems to separate from it (other PVA make acrylic paint crack, which is a great effect only when one wants and controls it). I use it as a sealer for my pva-glue paper mache projects, it is a great base coat for acrylic paint, contrary to all other PVA glues I tried. Added to joint compound and water, it makes Monster Bone, which is what I finish all my paper mache project with, for an infinity of textural possibilities. Added to the paint, it makes it scratch resistant, but add a bit of gloss.
Not great for building stable hollow structures, because it is too flexible, but that flex makes it ideal to cover or repair flexible materials.
PVA glues (aka white glue: Elmer's, Lepage, Mastercraft, etc)
They all work well, except for the major instability under temperature changes. They are brittle when cold, and saggy when hot. Still usable in most situations, but that extra worry must be eliminated.


Paper Mache Pulp
I very rarely use pulp nowadays. It is too much work, too much weight, and too much brittleness for my purposes. However, sometimes I use it to texture an already strong object. In this case, I usually soak small pieces of paper in water for an hour or two, then mix it by hand or drill mixing attachment, to reduce to pulp. I drain it of most of the moisture, add some PVA glue and some other fillers (usually a bit drywall compound) until I get the texture and consistency I need.

Paper mache Strips

Strongest of the two paper mache types. Process: Laminating pieces of paper by overlapping , making the fibres facing different directions, creates a very strong shell, which can be hollow or protect an already existent object or armature.
See method below.

Paper Mache Bark.
A Textural Variation of Paper Mache Strips. Larger strips of paper are pasted on both sides (or dipped and drained) with glue, then wrinkled to form a bark-like piece of paper, which is lain over the form.
Each piece overlaps with the previous, just like regular strips. The paper bark can be wrinkled linearly like a strip of clay, or uniform, by crumpling into a flat ball. The texture is controlled to look like what is intended. It can be squished down to create a semi smooth appearance (best with uniform crumple). It can be left rough for a bark-like appearance.
Full Article Here

Monster Bone.
Mixture or pva glue, drywall compound, water, and colors.
Full Article Here

My main Method, which can be used over positive forms, or within a negative mold.

1. modeling a form.
I use plastalina, which is an oil based clay. Water based clays can also be sued, and are easier to shape, but are messier, produce harmful dust, and tend to crack as they dry.
If I intend to apply paper directly to the form, I protect it with plastic wrap, which leaves no residue, contrary to oils or soaps that may soften your paper overtime.

If I intend to use a negative mold (plaster or silicone or Flexwax 120 or latex), I will make said mold, using appropriate methods. This would be the stuff of another article.

3. I choose my papers. I prefer coffee filters, because they are very thin yet VERY strong, apply smoothly and their edges disappear easily. When building larger pieces, I like to alternate between layers of coffee filters and thin Kraft paper (same grade as lunch paper bags), which I soften by soaking in water and wringing out as much water as possible. For the smoother finish once my paper mache pieces are assembled, I like to use brown paper towels (made from recycled paper).
I tear my paper strips in advance, to save time later. Smaller pieces are better to avoid wrinkles and warping, because they more readily lay flat. The more complex the shape to cover, the smaller the bits of paper. I find slimmer strips are better than the same surface area in a square.
I keep all the pieces of the same size and shape in a clean box, getting a handful at a time, so I don't risk contaminate the rest with spills of glue.

4. I prepare my glue. I just dilute some pva glue (I prefer exterior wood glue) with enough water to make it penetrate the paper. When too thick, the glue stays between layers of paper, making a weaker bond.

5.Applying strips
I use a firm hogs bristle brush to apply the glue on my form. It is faster than applying it on each individual strips. If the pieces do not lay flat, the glue may be too thick, so I dilute it more.
First layer is harder to apply, especialy on non porous surfaces. To help with this, I paint a coat of glue all over the object, and let dry fully. The strips will stick well now.
After three layers, it is thick enough to be smoothed down with a smooth hard sculpting tool, to get into all the details and gain accuracy. When using PVA glues, I find that 8 layers of coffee filters is sufficient strength for most of my projects.
However, when I feel extra strength is required, I won't be afraid to add extra layers.

5B. Detail pinch. When the paper is semi dry, it can be pinched into more accuracy, especially at the summits or edges. I also use a bit of the Paper Mache Bark to create more defined areas, such as eyelids, sharper points, and even hair or fur. Right after te bark is applied, a single layer of unwrinkled paper can be added to smoothen the effect, just like skin over muscles.

6. Drying.
There is no need to wait for each layer to dry before adding the next. I find that up to 8 layers is safe if done in one sitting, and will dry (enough to separate from form) in about 8 hours in front of a fan, at lowest setting. Without this air circulation you'd be looking at a few days of drying, and that would increase the risks of mold/mildew problems within your paper mache.
Do not use heat to dry paper mache, unless you want shrinkage and warping. I used to use an oven for this. Not anymore!

7. Freeing from form.
Some forms remain inside the paper mache shell, These are called armatures.
When you are in no need of an armature, you must free the shell from the form.
When dry enough to pull from the shape, do it. Some shapes may require cutting to free the shell from the form. Make sure that you have the time to cut and assemble the pieces in one sitting. If you leave cut pieces separate for any extended period of time, they will warp in different ways, and be less compatible when re-assembling.

8. Re-assembly.
I use masking tape to hold the pieces together temporarily. I add more of the same paper strips where there is no tape. When strips are dry, I remove tape, and add paper there.
When dry, I can shave off the bigger wrinkles, and add more paper, until the seam is invisible.
For deeper crevices, I like to use a softer version of Paper Mache Bark, which is brown paper towel and glue.
I wrinkle it in a ball or strip, and squish it into the detail to fill it. Then I immediately apply a strip of the same brown paper towel (unwrinkled) over the patch.

9. Second drying.

10. Trimming & Closing Edges.
this is when I cut the paper mache where needed. Every cut edge must be closed with more paper strips (I use two layers), otherwise the moisture can get inside, and cannot escape without causing warping.
My Paper Mache Pumpkin mask thought me that lesson, years ago. It had a wide open mouth.
No edges were sealed with paper, only with a bit of glue. The mask was worn in the rain for three evenings, and the moisture in the air was high. Next time I looked at my mask, a week or two after the event, his mouth had closed completely, the head was slightly squished, and his eyes were more squinty.
I never have had this problem again, since I now close all my cut paper mache edges by overlapping with two layres of the same paper paper.

11. Third Drying.

12. Smoothing Paper
I often cover the entire paper mache surface with an extra layer or two of paper. This paper is the brown paper towels. It gives a very smooth result, if well applied, in small pieces.
It can also be wrinkled on purpose, for a very nice organic skin-like result.

13. Fourth drying.

14. Sanding. If necessary, I use a file, or sandpaper. 150 grit is usually what works for what I do.

15. Sealing.
I use Weldbond, diluted a bit with water, to make it penetrate. I avoid touching it until fully dry.
If I have access (such as a mask), I seal the inside of the piece as well. If I don't have access (such as a puppet head), but know the moisture could get in, I close off the holes where moisture could access, let that patch dry, and then proceed to seal everything.
Two or three coats of the diluted Weldbond is more than enough. Some people use Acrylic Gesso as a sealer for their pva-based paper mache. I strongly reccommend against it. It softens the paper mache and makes it more brittle in a few days.
All other PVA glues I tried for sealing were not compatible with acrylic paint.
Weldbond is perfect as an undercoat for acrylics.

16. Monster Bone.
This is what I use to smooth or texture further. People tend to think my pieces are made of wood, or cast latex or resin. they never guess it is paper mache.
Monster bone Article, here.

17. Painting.
I use matte acrylic paints, which I make myself, by using pigments, GLOSS acrylic medium, and he occasional paint in a tube. Adding an excessive amount of dry pigments creates the truly matte finish.
No commercial matte paint I've ever tried was as matte as mine.
It is much cheaper to make your own acrylic paints, and very easy. I make them as I need them.
My supplier, which also delivers:

18. Antiquing
Every painted 3D job in my studio requires an antiquing wash. It brings out texture, and turns an otherwise "clumsy" surface texture into a positively vibrant and rich feature that I could have never done on purpose without the wash. This wash is simply a very liquid, very matte and dark acrylic paint made with a color appropriate for the effect I want. I usually go with Raw Umber, but sometimes I mix it with Burnt Umber as well. The object needs to be sprayed with a mist of water to help the paint flow without drying too quick. Then I wipe the surface quickly with a clean cotton rag, trying to remove only where I want to, leaving some of the wash into the crevices and textures. Second pass is when I go back with the rag tight on my fingers, wet with a bit of water, and wiping only the summits or areas I want to lighten up again. If the paint is too dry already to be wiped, I go back with the same tight rag, but with rubbing alcohol.

If the antiquing has darkened the work too much, some highlighting is necessary.
For this, I use dry brushing, make it dry, then lightly antique over that.

19. Varnishing
I usually go with a matte acrylic sealer in a can.
I have sometimes used shoe polish in cake form (mid-brown, light brown, neutral).
It gives a wonderfully natural warm finish, which is just like en encaustic or an oil painting.
It also makes some of my pieces look like they are made of leather or old wood.
The shoe polish is heated with a heat gun to make it liquid, then brushed on, then wiped with a clean lint-free rag until even. A re-heating of the entire form can eliminate brush or rag marks. This works best on paint jobs that are still porous, because it give grabbing power to the wax. Bare in mind that this wax finish will change over time (which is good in some cases, makes it look authentic) and will require a re-application eventually. It tends to get glossier as it rubs against people and fabrics.

20. Displaying, Travelling, or Storing
Well-Made and well sealed paper mache is stronger than many other materials.
Its enemies are:
•Water or excessive moisture (do not soak in water, or store in the bathroom or the shed outside)
•Excessive heat (if it's enough to cook an egg, it's enough to damage a lot of things)
•Sweat In the case of puppets or masks, make sure the paper mache areas that touch the sweaty skin are protected with something that is sweat-proof. I use small tabs of L200 (also known as Fun Foam or Foamies). For masks, I place Fun Foam pads that make the sweaty areas stand away from the mask, making an area for air circulation as a bonus. These need not be insanely thick to work. Th finer the better, for a better visual fit.

•Rodents and insects: Depending on what ingredients were used in the making of the paper mache, it could attract rodents or insects, as well as bacterias. Proper sealing is a big help, proper storage is even more important. Good storage means you appreciate and respect your pieces. Improper storage denotes a negligence that should mean that you don't care about what happens to them.
You can always have pest repellent storage cases (they seem to hate chewing through thick storage plastic bins with strong lids), add some bay leaves into your container (repels some insects), and make sure you are not storing your work into a basement or attic that gets too damp or too hot or too much like a pest watering hole. Good containers will protect your work in the case of moderate flooding too.

Carry your projects in storage containers that are obviously labeled, so as not to be confused with other people's possessions, luggage, or garbage.

I've heard of plenty horror stories of people losing their prized possessions because someone mistook them for garbage or recycling, especially in the puppetry field. So, do NOT carry your creations in garbage bags or non-labeled boxes, or they may be carried away by a distracted or even a well-meaning person!
Invest in a suitcase or a sturdy plastic bin with padlock, if you are going to travel with your creations.

Basically, a good paper mache project can be extremely durable, and may outlive you or your children, if well taken care of. Pieces of paper mache made hundreds of years ago are still in private collections and museums, and some were made by people who didn't know the science behind why their paper mache withstood the test of time. We live in a time of easy access to materials and information.
We'd be fools to not take the opportunities to make it all better!

This is the best set of methods I currently have, and have been using for years.
You can see the results on my portfolio. These methods are all very good indeed, but I am always working actively to find even stronger, faster, more accurate, and more natural methods. Your help would be much appreciated, and the resulting methods would be shared here.
See an article about this here.


Janet said...

I want to work with paper mache, however from reading several articles, they say it attracts insects. Hate insects!!! HOW CAN I DEFINATELY PREVENT THIS?????

DavidO said...

Don't use food based glues. Flour paste is an absolute no-no and I guess wheat flour is likely to be the same. CMC is best, wallpaper paste as an alternative. See the article on Paste on

Nate said...

Are you worried about acid in the paper? If so what brad of paper do you buy to prevent acid damage?