Making Sculpture in Papier Mache

Q: How do you make the paste for papier mache? Is it just flour and water? What can you build it on besides balloons?

A: The trouble with wheat-based papier mache items is that they are irresistible to bugs, so don’t expect to keep them very long. Also, if you aren’t going to use wallpaper wheat paste, which is pre-cooked but contains poisonous chemicals (like arsenic) to discourage the insects, it helps to cook your flour-water and salt paste over the stove for a while. But if you want to make something more permanent, use white glue instead of wheat-based paste. There are white glues made for labeling jars that work well, dry fast, and are easy to clean up. Elmer’s “School glue” is similar.

I have found that making one’s form in pottery clay—it can be clay you dig from a construction site, as you aren’t going to be firing it—then covering it with thin plastic film like the bags dry-cleaners use, enables one to produce a thin contoured shell that can be fairly detailed, dries quickly, and pops off the form readily. You can make objects in the round this way, cutting the shell off the form when it has hardened, then rejoining the pieces with additional strips of glue-soaked paper. You can also build armatures using heavy wire—spanning the gaps with strips of glue-soaked cloth instead of newspaper will result in a stronger product.

by Andrew Werby