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How to make paper mache:

Two methods to your madness


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Around 100 A.D., the Chinese invented paper - a combination of bark, hemp, old cloth and fish net.  Very soon, they were combining it with natural glues to fashion objects like trays, boxes and figurines.  It took the French to give it a proper name of papier-mâché ("chewed paper").  It reached the height of its popularity in Europe in the 18th century.  Paper was still a precious, handmade commodity, and paper mache became a creative way of recycling.

Paper maché is actually several thin coatings of paper and hardener (paste) applied to the surface of a structure or armature.  Virtually anything can be an armature, from an object like a vase or a truck, to a construction of wire or aluminum foil -- or a balloon, as we all did in elementary school.  

Two basic methods are used in paper maché - one using paper strips, the other, a cooked paper mash.

Paper strip method

The paste

The traditional concoction is a simple paste:
  • 1/2 cup of flour
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup of water
Mix the dry ingredients into the water a little at a time until it is creamy.

Many people swear by wallpaper paste.  This is available at hardware stores in powder form, and is mixed 1 part powder to 10 parts water.

Then there is diluted white glue, thinned 1 part glue to 1 part water.

We have discovered a simpler solution that results in a superior final product:
  • liquid starch
You can purchase it in 48-oz bottles with brand names like Sta-Flo, Niagra, or Linit.  Pour it in a bowl and you are ready to maché.

By the way, if you want to fireproof your craft (and why not?), stir 1 teaspoon of sodium phosphate (from the drugstore) into each cup of paste or starch.

The paper

Choose your paper.  Virtually any kind of absorbent paper will work.  Most common is newsprint, being virtually free.  Paper toweling is strong and flexible, and the edges are less likely to show.  Tissue paper is difficult to work with because it is fragile, but it imparts a soft texture to a final layer.

We prefer the ever-handy newspaper.  Do not cut strips with scissors. Tear them using a straightedge.  The rough edges will mesh to make a smoother surface.  The length and width of the strips will depend on the size of the object you are covering, but keep them in the 1" X 3" range.

If you are using liquid starch, you don't need to soak the paper for more than a few seconds before you apply it.  Keep a damp rag or sponge nearby to wipe off excess starch as you work.

Apply the strips randomly, smoothing out bubbles and wrinkles with your fingers as you go.  Overlap strips, but try not to apply more than one layer of paper.  When you have completed a single layer, let it dry overnight. You can speed this up by placing the object in a very low oven for an hour. Repeat with up to four layers.

Helpful tip:  Sometimes it is hard to figure out if you have covered everything with your later layers.  Change the color of your paper - use regular newsprint for the first layer, and the full-color comics section or the Yellow Pages for your second.  You'll be able to see immediately when a layer is complete.

Embellishments

Dimensional embellishments can be added after the final coat of paper. Soft paper, like paper towel, can be braided, soaked in glue, and applied. Several layers of paper towel can be soaked in glue and embossed with rubber stamps, buttons, found objects, cookie cutters - anything - and left to dry.  Paper mash can be used to mold edging or raised, embossed areas. 

Finishing

When it is finished and completely dry, sand the surface smooth (unless you want the paper texture) and paint it with water-based paint. To make it waterproof, finish with a spray or brushed varnish, or several coats of lacquer.

Mash method

Paper mash coatings have less texture, and when sanded, can emulate wood or pottery.  To make a quart of mash:
  • Tear four large newspaper sheets into small pieces.  Soak them in 2 quarts of water overnight.
  • Put the mixture in a pan and boil it for 20 minutes.  With a whisk, whip the paper until it is pulpy.
  • Put the pulp in a strainer and jiggle it to shake out the water.  Squeeze it gently with your hands until it is just moist.
  • Put that blob in a bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of white glue and 2 tablespoons of wallpaper paste or starch.  Stir out the lumps.
You can use the mash to coat an armature, or mold it like clay.  It is good for adding dimensional features to an object.


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