Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Big Secret

A favorite medium of mine is papier mache. I create in both the strip method (layering glue soaked strips of paper onto a shape) and with pulp (a mash of paper broken down in water to function like clay). I use these simple, centuries-old techniques, and then I finish them off with my own modern visions for surface treatments, often taking a cue from ceramics, stone, wood, metal, and other materials. I think I take a sort of trompe l'oeil approach, because I like people to be surprised when they discover a piece is made of salvaged paper.

That being said, I sometimes get the impression that some people are skeptical about how simple and basic the mache aspect of my pieces is. I've read about and seen plenty of methods that incorporate emulsifiers, fillers, etc., and I have even tried some of those techniques. But I always gravitate back to the purest, simplest way to make papier mache (because the surfaces are where I get really complicated, not the forms!). So I wanted to share the steps to make the pulp I use to make many of the things you'll find in my online galleries and shops. Maybe you (yes you!) can give this a try yourself. It's not a state secret, and it's super simple!

You need: newspaper, water, white glue*

First thing's first. I start by hand tearing the newspaper into skinny strips, dropping them into a big paint pail. When I first started making pulp years ago, I followed someone else's instructions to tear into 1in squares. All that is really not necessary, lol.

I like to fill the pail up as full as possible, and if I'm short on newspaper, I will mix in white paper from the shredder, no biggie. I will note, however, that my preference is newspaper, because it's softer and easier to pound into a fine pulp. But shredded junk mail will do in a pinch.

Once I've torn enough paper to fill the pail, I start pouring water in over the paper. The temperature doesn't really matter, room temp. is fine. Some resources will tell you to boil the paper in water on the stove to break down the fibers better, but again, not really necessary, especially if you're okay with putting a lid on it and letting it soak for a couple days. Don't be in a hurry with this. If you're in a hurry, go to the store and buy mache mix or paperclay.

I make sure that there's enough water to cover all the paper, then slap the lid on and forget about it for a few days while I do other stuff. When I return, PRESTO!!!
Looks the same as before I put the lid on, lolol.

Now is the point where I would recommend you've had your Wheeties for breakfast and done some stretches, because this stage calls for some gusto. Now that the paper has soaked and softened, I sink my hands in and start tossing, kneading, pounding and mixing. You really have to put some muscle into it, like you're kneading dough, washing clothes the old fashioned way, or grinding corn. It's called pulp for a reason, lol, so beat it into one! The more time and energy you invest in this stage, the finer, softer, and more clay-like the end result will be. As you knead and pound, the mix will begin to look like this:

Notice the excess water in the pail. I've got two solutions for that. Either drain most of the excess water out, leaving enough to keep the pulp malleable, or do as I've started doing more recently: as I'm kneading, I will continue to sprinkle shredded office paper into the mix and kneading it in. This absorbs the extra water and makes an even bigger batch of pulp, which is great, because I always have a cue of assorted projects going at one time. Either way, the more water that is absorbed or removed, the less shrinkage your pieces with exhibit as they are drying. The water makes the paper puffy, then as it evaporates, the paper fibers shrink and harden. The lower the water content, the less correcting up in size you will have to do to your pieces to allow for shrinkage. 

The last step is to add glue. I don't add a specific, measured amount.

I just add a generous amount, then mix it in with my hands. I know I've added enough when the pulp feels smoother and begins to hold shapes, or hold together like clay. At this stage, it's like mixing up a meatloaf.

More energetic kneading (this is a great thing to make when you've had a bad day, need to blow off steam, or just burn calories, lol.), and I arrive at this:

I harp on spending plenty of time on kneading because the finer the texture of the pulp, the finer the details you can achieve when you sculpt with it.

paper fiber and glue: a fine texture can be achieved

And there you have it. That is my one and only papier mache pulp recipe. You can use pulp to make all kinds of awesome things, limited only by your imagination. Give it a try!

*The only way I ever deviate from this recipe is to sometimes add baking soda. Paper, after all, tends to take on a strong *ahem* "character" after soaking for a few days, so I sometimes toss some baking soda in to alleviate the smell. I don't think it really makes a difference to any other aspect of the pulp.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out my YouTube channel for video tutorials on topics like this. Subscribe to see more!


  1. Very informative and interesting. Thanks! Keep up the good work!

  2. Finally, a simple recipe!
    I am starting with paper maché and was a bit overwhelmed with the variety of stuff people put in their pulps. xD

    1. Glad you feel that way! I like to stay basic with this, but as you experiment with this, you may come up with your own preferred method, including types of paper to use, and additives you like. Have fun with it!

  3. ohh boy! u put in great deal of hardwork! thus grinding the wet batch pf paper and kneading later gives same results?