My paper maché method for masks, Halloween projects, etc
Published by Manning on June 17th, 2015
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:
- GH-57 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive
- Brown wrapping paper, aka craft paper
I also use lots and lots of masking tape and heavy duty Scotch packing tape, paper towels, clay, aluminum foil, etc.
Start with a base
All of my paper 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 to these kinds of tape, which means once it’s all paper maché’d and dry I can cut the whole thing open and remove all the base materials without damaging the paper maché. This is important for projects that need to be lightweight — like masks, things you wanna hang on the ceiling or walls, etc.
Wallpaper adhesive and other kinds of paste
Once my base is built and wrapped in tape, I can start with the paper 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. You can buy this paste at any big hardware store. I’ve seen it in two kinds of container: a small square container and a large jug. The small square container is great because the opening is huge and you can work right from that, instead of pouring it into a bowl. The large jug is a little 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 square container to use as a bowl, and buy the big jugs of paste and pour them into the square container.
The GH-57 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive 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 paper 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 and it seems to not dry as hard as the GH-57 Universal Wallpaper Adhesive. I’ve never tried the flour-and-water method, not since I was a little kid anyway, 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 is that projects made with flour and water can attract roaches! Eek! I’ll stick with the wallpaper adhesive. There are also powered kinds of wallpaper paste you can try, but these require mixing and just sound like more trouble, so I’ve never used them.
(Above: my violin skull mask in progress)
Okay, before we can begin paper machéing our base, we need to tear up some paper. I use newspaper, brown wrapping paper, and brown paper bags. 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 buy rolls of 3M paper for a buck at the dollar store, and they work better than nicer-quality Scotch paper that costs two bucks.
I also keep any brown paper bags that come my way, although some are better than others for paper 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.
You definitely don’t want to use scissors for this; that will create lots of hard edges that will be too visible in your paper 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.
The nice torn edges of your paper will be easy to smooth out and blend together when you’re doing the paper maché. Some people tear off and throw away the clean outer edges of the paper, because they can stay somewhat visible when your whole shape is paper maché’d and painted. For me it really depends on the project — if it’s going to be something really big I don’t think those clean edges really stand out too much, whereas if it’s going to be a small, detailed project, I might 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.
I always keep one shoebox full of torn up newspaper and another full of torn up brown paper, and alternate them when I’m working on my projects. A big mask project with 8-10 layers can take up about one full shoebox of each; that’s a lot of paper!
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 eight 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 two 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. If you’re removing the base, you’ll need more layers since the paper maché will have to keep the shape by itself.
I do 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, 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:
Preparing your work area
Okay, we’ve talked about paste and paper, but it’s still not time to begin paper 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 paper 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, coating 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.
Each layer of paper maché will need to 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.
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 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 paper 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 spread it all over the surface of the project. This last layer will dry a lot slower as a result of all the extra paste, but when it’s dry it will be incredibly smooth, and 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 paper 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.
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 I often end up throwing them out after Halloween.
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 cover up any visible edges of the paper maché 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.
Make a schedule
Because of all of the drying time involved in a big paper 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. 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!
- My painting method for paper maché masks and other projects
- Advanced tips for making big paper maché masks
- Advanced paper maché mask-making tips, part 2
- Teeth-making tips for big paper maché masks
- Craft materials — choosing the right brands
- Tips for working with foam board for art projects