Papier-mache is one of the oldest forms for creating puppets and so a lot of people think that there must be something better out there. Actually, there are very few contenders. Done well, papier-mache is light, strong, fast, and non-toxic. I know, we’ve all had the experience of the lumpy paste, and corners that stick up and a thing that requires years of sanding to even resemble smooth. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll show you a technique that will only need three layers and can be danced on.
The first thing to do is make sure you’re working with that right stuff.
- Wheat-based wallpaper paste. Why wheat? It has glucose in it, which binds with the cellulose in paper making a much stiffer and stronger wall, so you need fewer layers.
- Brown paper bags & other paper. The important thing here is that you don’t use newspaper. The fibers are short and it has no structural integrity of its on. Mostly it’s used as a counting layer. You do need paper that’s two different colors so you can tell what areas you’ve papier-mache and what you haven’t. I use either leftover printer paper (recycling) or scrap pages out of my sketchpad. As long as it’s not the same color as the bags, a similar weight, and it is uncoated it will work.
- Tissue paper. Yes I do mean Kleenex or toilet paper. We will use this to separate the paper from the form. Regardless of whether you are doing direct papier-mache or working into a mold you don’t want it to stick when it’s dry.
- Plaster mold (optional) If you know how to make a plaster mold it is easier and faster to work into a negative than to papier-mache directly on the form.
- Mix your wallpaper paste in a shallow container like a pie-plate (anything will work this is easiest). Make a small batch. (Trust me, you will appreciate having to stop and wash your hands to make more.) Cover the bottom of the pan with cool water. Shake a SMALL amount of the paste onto the water. Add more if you need to for the right consistency. I use the Zen method of mixing till it feels right, which for me is like cream of wheat or a melted milkshake.
- Tear the paper into 6″ pieces (approximately). Don’t cut it. You want a soft edge on the paper so it will adhere better and more smoothly to the other pieces. If you’re using heavy paper, like paper bags, put the pieces in a bucket of water to soak. (Printer paper with disintegrate if you do that, so, um, don’t.) This is much like the stage where you soak fabric before dying it. It helps the pores open up and absorb the paste better. It also makes the paper more pliable for going around corner. And finally, it makes the paper swell slightly. As it dries you get a tighter bond with fewer air bubbles.
- Place the dry tissue paper in the mold (or on your form). After it is covered with a single layer, sprinkle it with water. I’ve splurged on art tissue before and it doesn’t work as well as facial tissue because, well, facial tissue is designed to withstand snot. It holds up better.
- Pick up a piece of brown paper bag and touch the bottom of it to the wallpaper paste so that when you pick it up it’s got maybe two inches covered with paste. (The biggest mistake folks make is to use too much paste). Smear it on both sides of the paper and crumple the piece. We’re trying to break up the fibers in the paper and work the paste into it. All techniques do this it’s just faster to do it with a large piece than lots of small pieces. What you want is for the paste to work inside rather than sitting on the surface.
- Tear off a piece and place it in the mold or on the form. In a mold this is the layer that will be seen so it’s the only one that has to be neat. (On a form the last layer is the visible one so all layers have to be neat. You’ll just repeat all steps except six). Make sure that the piece is small enough that it doesn’t form wrinkles. Start in the center and work out. Overlap the pieces, pressing to remove airbubbles. When you get to the edge of the mold or form, go outside by at least an inch. You’ll need this to grab hold of when it’s time to take the papier-mache out.
- MOLDS ONLY. After the whole layer is covered in brown. Get another piece of the bag, wet it in paste, and crumple it as before. Wad it up and shove it tightly into the detail areas. For instance, if you’ve got a nose, push it as far into the nose and nostrils as you can. What will happen is that the detailed areas will suddenly have ten layers of mache and the surface is smoother so your next layer will go faster.For this photo, I switched to white paper for my second layer and did the wads of paper with the brown so that it was easy for you to see.
- Repeat steps 4-6 with the other paper, when it’s covered go back to the brown bag. Do this until you have between three to five layers. IMPORTANT do it while the layers are wet. They adhere better and you will have fewer airbubbles.
Your final layer will be with whatever your first layer was. I only do three layers. You can see how much smoother the details are on this one than on the first layer.
- Let it dry. Put it the sun. Be patient, you can put it in front of a space heater or bake it (250 degrees) but you risk the layers drying at different rates. I have to admit that in the winter I usually force it dry, because I’m not patient.
What works really well, if you can find it, is an old standing hair dryer. It circulates the air and helps the thing dry evenly and pretty darn fast. The biggest challenge. If the top layer dries before the bottom layer — the one touching the plaster — then it will seal the moisture in and slow the bottom layer’s dry time. Make sense?
- It will reach a stage we call leathery. It’s still flexible, but it’s dry, like leather. This is the best time to pull it out. Be careful, if it’s too early and you see wrinkles happening, don’t do it. It’s better to wait until its completely dry.
- Peel off what tissue paper you can and the rest smooth down with the paste.
- Trim the edges and then wrap them in papier-mache to keep them from peeling up.
You have to take some care with that first layer, but after that the subsequent layers go really, really fast. I can usually crank a single part mold out in forty-five minutes to an hour. It’s a pretty good ratio and the materials are dirt cheap.
I’ve dropped puppets from the second floor, hurled them against walls, and even stood on papier-mached pieces. Done right, the durability is surprising. The detail, going into a mold is pretty crisp, too. As a testament to that, here is the finished face of the wood witch.