Manning Makes Stuff - Halloween decorations, paper mache masks, costumes, party ideas, and more

Manning Makes Stuff - Halloween decorations, paper mache masks, costumes, party ideas, and more

Experiment: Elmer’s Paper Maché Art Paste


Published by Manning on May 9th, 2018

After several years of doing all my paper maché projects with my trusty Roman PRO-543 universal wallpaper adhesive, I’ve decided to try some experiments with other kinds of adhesives. First up: Elmer’s Paper Maché Art Paste.

Elmer’s Paper Maché Art Paste is a powder that comes in a small bag packed into a small box. As of this writing it’s around $5.50 on Amazon (sometimes available at 3 for $10.50!), and the instructions say to add one gallon of water, meaning you get about a gallon of paste after mixing, which is great! However, the math ends up being a little less favorable than that; more on that below.


The pre-mixed Roman paste I normally use fluctuates between $20 and $30 a gallon on Amazon, so that makes the Elmer’s paste much cheaper — if one were to take advantage of the 3-pack deal, that makes the Elmer’s paste like 1/6 the price of the Roman paste.

Mixing

The instructions on the box said to mix the powder into 3.8 liters (1 gallon) of cold water, but I wanted to try something a little different. Normally I prefer my paste to be very thick for paper maché, so I decided to try adding water in increments and see where I landed to get the consistency I wanted. I filled five empty wine bottles (that’s 0.75 liters each) with water and had them at the ready. I started with two bottles of water (1.5 liters) in my bucket and as I mixed I could see I needed to add a third bottle, and then a fourth, and with four bottles of 0.75 liters of water I ended up with the consistency and thickness that I wanted. So in the end, rather than 3.8 liters of water, I used about 3 liters total. This means I ended up with 20% less paste than what was described on the box, but that was my choice; no big deal. In the future, I’d just start with 3 liters of water in my bucket and mix the powder right in. So if you know you want very thick paste, you can just do that.

Safety note

Always wear a paper dust mask when mixing! This stuff is non-toxic, but you probably don’t want to go inhaling powder that turns into glue on contact with moisture.

Mixing tips

This is important! You wanna start with a good amount of water in your bucket/bowl, and gradually pour small amounts of powder into the water and mix them in thoroughly before continuing. You do NOT want to just dump the whole bag of powder into your water, or dump the powder into a dry bucket and then pour the water in. Both of these will make it much, much harder to mix everything evenly. You’ll end up with tons of lumps that are really hard to get rid of. So, again: put at least half your water into the bucket, then a little powder, mix thoroughly, then a little more powder, mix thoroughly, etc. Add more water as needed.

Although I usually prefer working with my hands for everything, I recommend mixing the paste with a big wooden spoon, or a spatula, or a strong whisk. If you use your hands, you’ll end up with a ton of very thick paste coating them, and the only way to get rid of it is to rinse it off, and that means you’ll lose a huge amount of paste down the drain. As usual, I learned the hard way! With a spoon or whatever you’ll lose much less paste.

Lumps

After mixing up this paste a few times now and being a little more careful each time, pouring the powder extremely slowly, mixing with a spoon and whisk, I still get a lot of little white lumps in the paste! It’s frustrating! However, I’ve learned that even though you can’t get rid of the lumps no matter how well you mix, the lumps end up disappearing on their own after you’ve stored the paste away for a day or two. I think the water just needs time to seep all the way into the lumps and dissolve them. So don’t despair! And don’t think you need to use a strainer and get rid of the lumps; you’ll be throwing away a lot of paste. Just mix, store, and wait.

Storage

Anyway, when I was all done mixing, I poured some of my mixture into a small bucket with a sealable lid, with the plan to work directly from that for my paper maché projects. I poured the rest of the paste into an empty 1-gallon plastic bottle for storage — I made a funnel out of an old LaCroix box and taped it in place to help me pour the paste into the bottle without spilling any.

You can see I spray painted a silver line around this jug, so I can tell this one has the Elmer’s paste in it. (Silver was just the color I had nearby.)

With any kind of mixable paste like this, I’ve always read you can store it and use it for weeks or even months. The longest I’ve kept the Elmer’s paste so far is about three months, and it always feels and behaves the same way even after all that time. I bet you could probably keep this stuff for a year and it’d still be fine.

Time for paper maché

I did a simple test using the Elmer’s art paste to see how it compares to the Roman paste I’ve used for years. I’m currently working on a large number of paper maché severed heads for Halloween, and I’d already made the base for a few heads with the Roman paste and five layers of paper. I did two more heads using the same method but substituting the Elmer’s paste for the Roman paste, and let them dry for a day.

When they were done, the new heads with the Elmer’s art paste were noticeably less sturdy than the ones I made the same way with the Roman paste. They were fine though, and if I’d added one extra layer of paper they’d probably be just about as strong as the others. So, the Elmer’s paste is much cheaper, but the results are definitely less sturdy. I think it’s a fair trade-off.

Pros and cons

Some pros and cons of working with Elmer’s Paper Maché Art Paste versus Roman wallpaper adhesive…

Pros:

  • Much cheaper than the pre-mixed wallpaper adhesive brands I’ve been using.

Cons:

  • Resulting finished paper maché objects are noticeably less strong and sturdy than what you’d get with the Roman adhesive and the same number of layers of paper. You might have to do additional layers of paper to make up for this loss of sturdiness, which also means more time/effort.
  • The finished paper maché surface is much more wrinkled than what I get with the Roman paste — although it may be possible to avoid this by working slower, using smaller pieces of paper, and letting each layer dry completely before continuing.
  • You gotta mix the Elmer’s paste yourself, which requires a little bit of time, as well as a bucket, a container for storage, etc.
  • Seems impossible to avoid getting little lumps in the paste, and you’ve gotta let the paste sit for 24+ hours for the lumps to go away.
  • Lots of cleanup after mixing.

And then there’s this other detail in the con column, regarding the low cost of this paste: Like I mentioned, a $5.50 box of this paste could yield up to a gallon of paste (whereas the Roman paste is $20-30/gallon), but I opted to use less water, giving me about 0.80 gallons of paste. So the savings get a little bit smaller there. Then, I realized in working with the Elmer’s paste, I had to use a significantly larger amount of paste to create a given project (for example, a paper maché head) than I’d use on the same project with the Roman paste. So, the savings shrink a little bit more. Then, the resulting piece was less solid using the same amount of paper, so I had to add an additional layer or two of paper and paste, meaning I was using even more paste. So, the savings shrink a little bit more.

I’m not smart enough to accurately calculate the real cost comparison with all these little factors involved, and I’m sure it still works out that the Elmer’s paste is much cheaper than the Roman paste. But, the savings definitely aren’t as extreme as I thought when I first read that one $5.50 box of Elmer’s powder yields a gallon of paste.

Other differences: The Elmer’s paste feels very slimy and slippery in one’s hands, and I thought that might make it unpleasant to work with, but it was totally fine. Surprisingly, washing my hands with an old sponge and water was actually a little easier than with the Roman paste.

In conclusion

I was a little disappointed to find that the heads I made with the Elmer’s paste felt somewhat flimsy compared to the ones I made with the Roman paste (and this has been true of all the other projects I’ve done with Elmer’s paste since), but for the low price I think it balances out. I was happy to finish using the rest of the three liters of paste that I made, and I’ve bough this paste a few more times since then. However, I always use it on projects where I have the luxury of extra time for additional layers of paper, or projects where I’m happy to leave them pretty flimsy. I don’t find the mixing and storing steps to be laborious or annoying at all; that part is kind of fun, really!

All in all I’m happy I’ve added this paste to my collection of art supplies, and it’s making my giant disposable Halloween projects a lot cheaper!

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