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

My paper maché method for masks, Halloween projects, etc


Published by Manning on June 17th, 2015

how to make a paper mache skull mask

Paper maché (aka papier-mâché aka paper mache) is the foundation of most of my Halloween decorations, Mardi Gras skull masks, etc. Everyone who does paper maché has their own favorite materials, recipes, and methods. I’ve tried a ton of combinations and this is the best paper maché recipe and process I’ve found. The main materials I use are:

  • Roman Pro-543 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive (I used another brand, GH-57 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive, for years, but Home Depot switched to the Roman stuff so I’ve been using that for a couple years now and it produces the same results.)
  • Newspaper
  • Brown wrapping paper, aka craft paper

I also use lots and lots of Scotch masking tape and Scotch heavy duty shipping tape, as well as paper towels, modeling clay, aluminum foil, etc.

Start with a base

All of my papier maché projects start with some kind of base. This might be: a shape made out of foam board and poster board, a shape made out of clay, a shape made out of chicken wire, a shape made out of crumpled-up taped-up blobs of newspaper, or even a combination of several of these. I always write about the specific base materials I use in all my articles about my projects, so be sure to check out a few of them to see the different ways I’ve built my starting shapes.

Once my base is made, I usually cover it completely with masking tape and/or heavy duty packing tape. The reason for this is that the paper maché I use doesn’t stick very firmly to these kinds of tape, so they act as a release agent — meaning once the base is all papier maché’d and dry I can cut the whole thing open and carefully remove all the base materials and the tape without damaging the paper maché. This is important for projects that need to be very lightweight — like masks, things you wanna hang on the ceiling or walls, etc.
See my paper maché sea serpent commission project here

Recently I’ve gotten into covering my base with a layer of aluminum foil whenever possible, as this acts as a much better release agent than the tape. This works great for large projects with no tiny details, but it doesn’t work for anything small with a lot of detail; the foil tends to cover and fill all the little dents, and you lose lots of detail in your paper maché. So, for a huge skull, the aluminum foil works great! For a small intricate mask, not so much.

Wallpaper adhesive and other kinds of paste

Once my base is built and wrapped in tape, I can start with the papier maché. I use a kind of pre-mixed wallpaper paste called GH-57 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive — it’s the best paper maché ingredient I’ve found, and I’ve tried a bunch (see my note above about replacing GH-57 with Roman Pro-543 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive; for my purposes they’re basically the same thing). You can buy this paste at any big hardware store. I’ve seen it in two kinds of container: a small bucket and a large rectangular jug. The small bucket is great because the opening is big and you can work right from that instead of pouring it into a bowl. The large jug is cheaper per volume but you need a bowl to pour it into. Since I’ve done so many of these projects I just keep an old bucket-shaped container to use as a bowl, and I buy the big jugs of paste and pour them into the bucket to use.

The wallpaper adhesive I use doesn’t need any water or any mixing; you just open it up and you’re ready to go. It’s a thick white smooth paste that looks and smells a little like Elmer’s Glue, but in my opinion it works much, much better than Elmer’s for papier maché projects. Some people swear by Elmer’s glue for paper maché, but I’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked well for me. It’s much thinner and stickier on your hands and it seems to not dry as hard as the wallpaper adhesive; finished pieces also seem to soften in humidity. I haven’t tried the flour-and-water method very much, but I hear that’s a good way to go too. One caution I’ve had from artist friends who live in hot/humid areas like New Orleans is that paper maché projects made with flour and water can attract roaches! Eek! I’ll stick with the pre-mixed wallpaper adhesive. There are also powdered kinds of wallpaper paste you can try, but these require mixing and just sound like more trouble, so I’ve never used them.

violin-mask-3(Above: my violin skull mask in progress)

“Do you wear gloves?”

I don’t. However, I’m not recommending that YOU don’t. You have to make your own decision about this, or if you’re a kid, talk to your parents about it. The adhesive that I use, Roman Pro-543 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive, has a safety document on their website (here’s the pdf) that states, “This chemical is not considered hazardous by the 2012 OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200),” and another a bit lower that says, “The product contains no substances which at their given concentration, are considered to be hazardous to health.” However, lower down in the same document, there’s the line about California proposition 65, “This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

See my paper maché baby chicks project here

I do make sure to wash my hands very thoroughly every time I work with the adhesive, and I work in a well-ventilated area. If you’re concerned about safety, you can stick with Elmer’s Glue or flour and water and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Paper

Okay, before we can begin papier-machéing our base, we need to tear up some paper. I use newspaper, brown wrapping paper, brown paper bags, and recently I’ve started working with “packing paper”; basically blank newspaper. I grab a ton of free weekly newspapers from the boxes in my neighborhood, and I buy rolls of brown wrapping paper, aka craft paper, from the dollar store. I’ve found that cheaper brown paper is more porous and works better than more expensive paper; I get rolls of 3M paper for a buck at the dollar store, and they work better than nicer-quality Scotch paper that costs two bucks.

paper maché cupcake sculptureSee my paper maché cupcake commission project here

I also keep any brown paper bags that come my way, although some are better than others for papier maché. Bags made of thinner paper are better; sometimes larger paper shopping bags are too thick and stiff. Sometimes I’ve received paper bags that have a weird slightly plasticky/waxy texture, and these I just throw in the recycling. You want the paper to be thin and porous. I’ve found that Dunkin Donuts bags are perfect! When I work with paper bags, I always throw away the bottom part with all its weird folds, and the seam that runs down the side. Those parts are too thick and layered and weird and they can create weird textures in your paper maché.

Now then, time to tear up tons of paper. I find it useful to tear up lots of strips of paper in different sizes, and set them aside in piles — big pieces (around 4″ square) to cover big, relatively flat areas, medium-sized strips (about 1.5″ x 4″) to work around big curves and corners and irregular shapes, and tiny pieces (around 0.5″ x 2″) to cover the smallest details. I’ve even gone smaller than that for tiny things like the teeth on my skull masks.

paper maché twin skull masksSee my paper maché twin skull masks project here

You definitely don’t want to use scissors for this; that will create lots of straight edges that will be too visible in your papier maché. Torn edges are much much better. I also recommend against tearing multiple sheets of paper together at the same time, because they’ll often get kind of stuck together and are annoying to separate. Tearing individual pieces is slower but will save you this hassle. One trick I use sometimes is to tear multiple pages of newspaper together, do a large quantity of these, and then put them in a shoe box and shake it around a lot to separate the pieces. Even with this method, a lot of pieces remain stuck together, which can be really annoying when you’re working with paste and you’re trying to grab just one piece of paper. Something about tearing the pieces together makes their torn edges want to lock together.

Anyway, the nice torn edges of your paper will be easy to smooth out and blend together when you’re doing the paper maché, whereas if you use scissors the straight edges remain somewhat raised and visible. Some people tear off and throw away the straight outer edges of the paper; for me it really depends on the project — if it’s going to be something really big where I don’t think those clean edges really stand out too much, I’m fine with using them, whereas if it’s going to be a small, detailed project, I try to avoid using those edges. Another thing you can do is use all those strips of paper with clean edges on your earlier layers of paper, and make sure to avoid them for your final layer. Depending on how crazy I feel like being I sometimes set all the clean edged pieces aside in a separate pile and make sure to use them only on the inner layers.

paper maché wolf skullSee my paper maché wolf skull mask project here

I always keep multiple shoeboxes full of torn up paper — one for newspaper, another for brown wrapping paper, and another for torn up paper bags; sometimes I’ll even have one box for large pieces of newspaper, another for smaller pieces of newspaper, etc etc etc. With all these separate boxes I can easily alternate between boxes for all the layers for whatever project I’m working on.

As I mentioned above, I’ve started using packing paper — basically blank newspaper — for some projects as well. I order this stuff on Amazon; it’s not very expensive but it feels weird to pay for this stuff when I could use regular newspaper for free. These days for me a typical project might have alternating layers of newspaper and brown paper all the way through, and then I’ll use the packing paper for just the final layer.

More about layers

You’ll probably need to put several layers of paper on your project, depending on how sturdy it needs to be. For my masks I always do at least seven to ten layers, because I need them to very hard and durable. For a project that’s going to be a decoration that no one’s going to touch, you might be able to do just three or four layers. If you’re going to leave the base inside, you can usually have fewer layers, because the base will help keep the shape nice and sturdy. If you’re removing the base, you’ll need more layers since the paper maché will have to keep the shape by itself.

paper maché cuckoo clock skull maskSee my paper maché cuckoo clock skull mask project here

I use alternating layers of newspaper and brown paper, mostly just so I can visually keep track of which areas I’ve covered. I’ve tried doing multiple layers of the same paper and it gets very confusing!

I always make sure that my last layer will be brown paper or packing paper, because when it’s time to paint the thing, you’re much better off starting with a solid-colored surface. You’d be surprised how much newsprint can show through spray paint, especially white.

Here’s my conjoined twins skull mask for Mardi Gras 2014, with the last layer of brown paper finished, insides pulled out, holes all cut, and before painting:

My conjoined twins skull Mardi Gras mask

Preparing your work area

Okay, we’ve talked about paste and paper, but it’s still not time to begin papier machéing yet. I live in an apartment and the only space I have where I can do paper maché projects is my dining room table. Before I begin, I cover the table with big sheets of newspaper, and I tape them down with masking tape. Then I cover that with long sheets of wax paper, and tape them down with masking tape.

Finally, we can start paper machéing!

If you did papier maché projects with flour and water in school, you might have worked with a relatively watery mixture, where you could dip the strips of paper in the paste, squeeze the excess off with your fingers, and then apply that strip of paper to your base. The wallpaper adhesive that I use is too thick for this method, and I’ve found that a different method works much better. First, I scoop up some paste with my fingers and apply it directly to my base, smoothing it onto a small area. Then I scoop up a little more paste with my fingers, grab a strip of paper, and apply the paste directly to that. I place the paste-covered paper on the paste-covered base, and then smooth it down with my fingers. Voilà! Repeat until the whole base is covered — well, you might have to leave the bottom surface uncovered until this part dries, then flip it over and do that part.

Drying

Usually you’ll want to let each layer of paper maché dry completely, for several hours or even a full day, before you can do the next layer. I’ve found this drying time can vary a lot depending on the weather, what kind of base material you’re using, etc. I live in New York and during our cold, dry winters I can usually do two layers a day, one in the morning and one at night, and they have time to dry completely during that time; I’ve even squeezed three layers into one day a few times. My friends in hot/humid New Orleans usually have to wait a full 24 hours between layers. In summertime on sunny days I can let my projects dry quickly in the sun (turning them once an hour) and do many layers in one day; as many as five or six!

paper maché bat sculptureSee my paper maché giant bat project here

I’ve also experimented with doing two or three layers at a time and letting them all dry together. If the weather is dry this works pretty well and can save you a little bit of time. Two layers done at the same time definitely take longer than one layer to dry, but less time than it takes to do one layer, let it dry, then another, and let that one dry. An electric fan can be a big help! Just point it at your project and rotate it every hour or so.

If your base material is porous and hollow (like chickenwire or cardboard) drying can usually be pretty quick, whereas if it’s non-porous, like aluminum foil, plastic, etc, it’ll be a lot slower. I’ve done a few projects with papier maché over plastic cling wrap and that can take ages to dry.

One last layer of paste to smooth everything out

A technique I’ve started using recently is this: Immediately after I’ve applied the final layer of paper maché, I grab a huge glob of wallpaper adhesive, and I use my hands to carefully spread it all over the surface of the project, really pressing down all the paper and smoothing everything out as much as possible. This last layer will dry a bit slower as a result of all the extra paste, but when it’s dry it will be incredibly smooth, and even somewhat shiny. If you want to try this method, take a couple photos to see what a different it makes: first take a photo of your project after the next-to-last layer of papier maché has dried, and then take another photo after this last layer with the extra paste has dried. You’ll really see a difference in the smoothness and evenness of the texture; the torn paper edges really disappear into each other.

I only use this technique for projects that have a lot of detail and need to hold up to some degree of scrutiny, like my Mardi Gras masks. I don’t usually bother with this step for a lot of my Halloween projects, as they’ll be displayed in low lighting and they often actually benefit from being a bit rough-looking and having more texture to them.

paper maché alligator sculptureSee my paper maché alligator project here

One more method to get your finished shape even smoother is to coat it in gesso; either the kind you brush on or the spray kind. This thick coating will help cover up any visible edges of the paper maché, sometimes completely. I wouldn’t bother with gesso on a big project that no one’s looking closely at, but it can help on projects where you really want the surface to be perfectly smooth. I actually wrote a whole article about working with various kinds of gesso; it’s here.

Make a schedule

Because of all of the drying time involved in a big papier maché project, it’s important to make sure you’re giving yourself enough days to get your project done on time! I’m usually working on projects for either Halloween or Mardi Gras, so I always have a hard deadline — failure is not an option! I plan the whole thing out weeks ahead of time to make sure I’ll have enough days for all the layers, all the drying in between, and then all the other stuff like painting, letting the painted project that air out for a few days, then applying a sealant, letting that air out for a few days, etc. I actually make a schedule for all of this, and I include several extra days for all unforeseen problems, which I promise you will happen!! You can plan lots of little non-paper-maché tasks to do during all those many long drying periods.

That’s about it! I’ll get into a lot more specifics in my articles about individual projects. Have fun!

Further reading

Does all this sound like too much hassle? Hire me!

I’ve been doing tons of commissions lately! See my page about custom paper maché masks, sculptures, etc. Drop me a line and let’s chat!

20 Responses to “My paper maché method for masks, Halloween projects, etc”

  1. maria Says:

    I really like your skull mask. How can I make an alien mask. I need one that is the size of a big big bobble head. Now how can I make a giant size head with chicken wire? Where do I begin?

  2. manning Says:

    Hi Maria! Chicken wire comes in a roll that’s about 3 feet tall, so I bet you could start with a piece that’s about 3×6 feet and curl it into a huge cone shape, like an ice cream cone, and then take another piece about 3×3 feet and bend it over the top like a dome, and attach it all together with twist ties or wire. BE VERY CAREFUL when cutting chicken wire! It’s very easy to cut yourself, so wear thick work gloves! And then once you’ve got this ice cream cone shape, you can pull and stretch and bend it to make it a typical alien-like head shape. You can cut off the pointy part at the bottom to make a hole that’s big enough for your head. You could then cover the chicken wire with paper mache directly, but you’ll get a much smoother surface if you first wrap the whole chicken wire shape in bubble wrap (with the smooth side out) attached with tons of masking tape, and then paper mache over that. Good luck!

  3. OurmanFlint1 Says:

    Manning, You’re a real artist. Your planning and attention to detail are exceptional. I’m make a giant Sugar Skull for a Dias de los muerto party. Mostly a hack job with lots of chicken wire and cardboard. I had a roll of contractor paper (the brown stuff they put down to keep from harming floors during construction) It’s $10 for 150′ x 3′, I was just wondering if you’ve ever used it?

    Cheers

  4. manning Says:

    Hey, thanks OurmanFlint1! I’ve never used contractor paper before but I suspect it would work fine. One thing to look out for is: is it very porous? Try wetting some with water, leave it alone for a few minutes, and see if it get soggy or not. If it does get soggy/mushy, it’ll probably be a great medium for paper mache, but it might take a long time to dry (two days?) and the end result should be nice and strong — the thicker the paper, the more glue it’ll take, and the stronger the end result will be — probably similar to two or three layers of the cheap dollar store wrapping paper I use (which is something like 3’x30′ for $1 — that’s half the price of your contractor paper, but probably half as strong) If it doesn’t do well with the water test it might be made with a small amount of plastic mixed into the pulp, in which case it will probably not do well for paper mache. I would love to hear how it goes, and see some pics! Good luck and be careful with that chicken wire! Wear gloves!

  5. June Says:

    Can holes be safely drilled in the dried mask for hanging without cracking the mask?

  6. manning Says:

    Hi June! Usually, yes! I’d recommend reinforcing the holes with washers or plastic zip ties or something like that, to keep them from stretching/tearing. Also, if the mask is heavy, the whole shape of the mask might warp or sag over time, but this can be reinforced on the inside with copper wire or any other sturdy material.

  7. Andy Says:

    Great tip about the cheap dollar store kraft paper – much easier to work with than the thicker stuff!
    I used it with boiled flour & water paste (2 Tbsp flour per cup of water) which is smoother than unboiled and dries clear. It turned out so nice I don’t even want to paint it now.
    Thanks for all the great tips and photos on your site!

  8. manning Says:

    Hey Andy, thanks for your comment! I totally hear you about the texture being so nice you don’t even wanna paint it! I’ve had the same dilemma on a few projects. For things like monsters and mummies and old bones and stuff the brown paper texture/color on its own is perfect; better than any paint job I could ever do.

  9. Ziyada Says:

    Hi, I am trying to make some sort of halloween contest where we can decorate our violin, and case, and bow, but can’t physically attach anything with tape glue, etc…But we can wrap it around with an elastic band.So I was hoping to make a skeleton and its casket. or make a vampire with its casket. Please include everything from the curly top to the bottom.When I go online and try to search up violin costume ideas, it only shows me peoples violin costumes. Not ideas for a real violin costume contest.please reply by October 28, or 29, 2017. Because the contest is on halloween, October 31, 2017. Thank you!:)

  10. Ziyada Says:

    Oh and can it be very detailed plz. I would like the casket to say R.I.P if it’s a skeleton.also I would like the bow to somehow interact with the violin in some way. If its a skeleton , maybe a bone. if its a vampire ,maybe blood, or a hand?
    Anyways Thanks!:)

  11. Ziyada Says:

    P.s.
    I loved your paper mache mak for the fake violin or real violin. I thought it was a real violin. it looked like it would win that contest for sure!!!:):):)

  12. manning Says:

    Hi Ziyada! I’ll email you!

  13. Skye Says:

    So the wallpaper paste is okay to touch with your bare hands? I’m just curious as I really love your paper mache and I’m looking for more tips for my senior project in college x:

  14. manning Says:

    Hi Skye! The brand of wallpaper paste I use says on the label that it’s non-toxic. I hesitate to give any safety-related advice because I’m not an expert, but I do use this stuff without gloves. I doubt it’s as 100% non-toxic as Elmer’s Glue, for example, but I’ve always been careful to wash my hands very thoroughly after using this or any other kind of paste and I’ve never had any problems. I’ve read about some other brands — mostly powdered brands that you mix with water — that state specifically that they are NOT non-toxic, and I’ve always just avoided those brands.

    Edited to add: I just added a link in the article above to the pdf that addresses safety for the wallpaper adhesive that I use.

  15. Ziyada Says:

    Sorry could you plz reply on your website or send it again.Bcz I ddnt know when you would reply back.It has been 5 days, then I got desperate and reloaded tha page and say that you relied to me 1 day after I gave you the message.Sorry I tend to delete all emails on my account unless I know the source!Sorry again. (Plz send it to me again or reply),THANKS!!!:):):)

  16. manning Says:

    Hi Ziyada! My email was just to say: I’m afraid I’m 100% booked right now through the end of the year. I’m not sure if you were looking to hire me to make something for you, or asking me to write up a tutorial about making something like this, but unfortunately there’s just no way I’d be able to do any of that this month with all the other deadlines I’m currently looking at. It sounds fun though! Good luck!

  17. Ziyada Says:

    Its okay thanks. I already have a walkthrough of what I want to do. Thanks again!:)

  18. Susan Lilley Says:

    You referred to a sealant when your project is completed. What type of sealant would you recommend? Thanks, in advance, for taking the time to respond.

    Regards,

    Susan

  19. Susan Lilley Says:

    You referred to using a sealant on your piece after it has been completed and dry. Can you recommend a product?

    Thank you,

    Susan

  20. manning Says:

    Hi Susan! For most of my paper mache projects, I just use a coating of matte spray to protect the paint job. If you’re trying to make something more waterproof, I’ve used spar urethane for that. It’s not really possible to make paper mache 100% waterproof, but even just spray paint and matte spray will make a light rain roll off rather than seep in — I’ve worn my skull masks in very light rain for half an hour or so and they’ve been fine. Spar urethane would help for a piece you want to leave out for days/weeks, like let’s say a Halloween decoration on your porch, but the weather will definitely ruin any paper mache sculpture after a while. It really depends on what you’re trying to do!

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