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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Papier Mache

The Craft of Papier Mache

Decorative Paper Crafts, Decopatch CoursesPapier Mâché Introduction

Papier mache is regarded by many as child’s play, but the remarkable range and beauty of objects modelled from paper and glue have earned papier mache a well deserved position among the important decorative crafts. It is also easy to start, cheap to do and great fun.  

Origins of Papier Mache

This ancient craft originated in China and has been adopted by cultures around the world to make a huge range of objects from soldiers helmets in China and suits of armour in Japan to delicate pen cases in Kashmir; from ornate, inlaid tables and chairs in 19th century Britain to complete buildings, including a church in Norway.  

The basic techniques have changed little over the centuries, although styles of decoration vary from country to country. When papier mache first became popular in Europe it was for reasons that are just as relevant today: paper seems too valuable a material to throw away and it is easy to work with.  

In England papier mache began to flourish in the 18th century and factories were set up to manufacture products. Some of the pieces from this period, such as tea trays, dressing tables, cabinets and candlesticks are exquisitely decorated. The vogue at the time was to imitate oriental designs: the dried papier mache was coated with a glossy black lacquer (a process called japanning) and then decorated with mother of pearl, gold leaf and colourful painted leaves and flowers.

Basic techniques of Papier Mache

There are few rules when it comes to decorating the papier mache object, but in actual preparation  of the paper and the method of making there are time honoured techniques  that it pays to observe.  

The first decision to be made is whether to use the paper in pulp form or whether to build up shapes using paper strips in layers. Choosing which method to use depends mainly on the texture required and personal preference.  

There is also the question of how to shape the raw material; an existing object can be used as a mould, an original shape can be based around an armature or template, or a mould can be made from modelling clay.  

Making the most of what is immediately to hand is the best motto when using papier mache. Necessities include paste and glue (preferably not containing a fungicide), petroleum jelly and, of course, paper. Newspaper is readily available, although it is worth experimenting with various papers to try out different effects. Anything from tissue paper to heavy packing paper can be used.  

The surface must be sealed with primer before it is decorated: a variety of paints, varnishes and lacquers may be used to decorate and protect the surface.  

The layering mould – This involves soaking torn paper strips in adhesive and then building them up in layers with the edges slightly overlapping.  
Patience is needed as each layer must be allowed to dry completely before the next layer is applied. A papier mache dish, for instance, required eight layers on average, so it may take several days to complete the one piece.  

The pulp method – The pulp method only needs drying once. Recipes may vary but the usual method is to tear the paper into small squares, soak them overnight in warm water (or boil them) and then mash them to a pulp. This is squeezed by hand to remove most of the water before adding the glue. The papier mache can be put in an electric blender (kept specifically for this purpose) at this stage to create a finer working material. It is also possible to add a filler such as chalk of whiting which will make the finished article more dense with a lighter colour.  

Shaping – The easiest method is to use an existing mould – this could be a bowl, bottle or a balloon. To be sure that the finished object will come away easily, the mould is greased with a lubricant such as petroleum jelly or lined with cling film or foil.  
With awkward shapes like a water jug the papier mache cannot be taken off in one piece. Instead the dried piece is cut in half, taken from the mould and rejoined with more strips of paper.  

Large sturdy structures can be made by using armatures (wire frames). These give support to the papier mache which tends to sag and become unwieldy if used in too large a quantity. It is easier to work pulped paper on an armature as the damp mass can be moulded onto the frame, rather like clay. An armature can be made from any scrap of material as it is not visible in the finished product, though many craftspeople use chicken wire.  

Templates are excellent for smaller objects such as jewellery or mobiles. Pieces of thick card, coated in varnish to make the surface waterproof, provide a cheap and efficient base. Like the armature, templates are then covered by either strips or pulp.  
Objects can also be cast from clay moulds made for this purpose. The cast has to be cut in half to be removed from the enclosed mould which can then be reused.  

Whatever method is used – pulp or layering – finished items, once dry, have to be sealed before they can be decorated. Emulsion paint can be used as a sealant – it provides a good surface to decorate and stops decorative paints seeping through the porous paper underneath. It also helps to prevent the pattern of the newsprint showing through.  

Decorating – One of the most appealing aspects of papier mache is that it can be decorated in a wide variety of ways. All pieces can be individual, even those made from the same mould. Papier mache artifacts can be embossed with anything from beads, string and plasticine to sand, metal and leather. Decoupage is another favourite decorative effect and some exquisite finishes are achieved with water gliding.

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