What Is Papier Mâché?

paper mache history and facts

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Papier mâché or paper mache is a popular crafting technique that uses paper and a paste to create a variety of objects. The method is named after the French term for “chewed paper,” which makes sense given the steps needed for any paper mache project. 

Paper mache is the layering of moistened paper and other materials onto a blank surface like a balloon. The adhesive used to wet the paper acts as a binding agent. As the paper dries, the outer shell hardens, which can then be painted and decorated. 

This craft is centuries old and is prized for its affordability and practicality. Essentially, all you need is recycled paper and a simple paste to create durable items like piñatas, vases, and jewelry boxes. 

Find out more about what papier-mache is, its history, and how you can get started on a project. 

What Is Papier Mâché Used For?

It might seem like the only paper mache options are rudimentary objects like bowls and simple sculptures. However, this method is also used to make items as large and intricate as carnival floats. In the past, paper mache was combined with other materials to make things like canoes and even auxiliary fuel tanks. 

This age-old craft spans multiple generations and countries, assisting in the making of several objects. Although the name is French, this method didn’t make an appearance in France until the 17th century. Before then, the technique was used in China and elsewhere in the world as far back as 200 BC.

  • In ancient China, this method was used to construct objects like snuff boxes and warrior helmets. 
  • The ancient Egyptians used paper mache to make death masks using linen and plaster. 
  • In 18th-century Europe, this technique was used as a less expensive option to ornamental plaster and carved wood on furniture. 
  • In modern times, paper mache has been replaced with materials like plastic, so the technique is no longer commercially accessible for decorative objects. 

How Papier Mâché is Made

The principles behind paper mache are simple: cut some paper into manageable strips, moisten the strips with a pre-made adhesive, then smooth the paper on a surface. These steps work well when you’re making simple kids crafts. However, some additional techniques help elevate the craft beyond simple bowls and sculptures. 

Decide What Form to Use 

  • Balloons — work well when creating bowls, sculptural faces, and masks. 
  • Cardboard — this material is ideal for square objects like jewelry boxes and planters. You can also make an intricate frame using cardboard to make sculptures and pinatas. 
  • Chicken Wire — create large scale projects like lamp bases or lanterns using flexible wire. 
  • Eggs — can help create the base of small dolls and other objects. 
  • Paper pulp — make some paper pulp if you want to freehand an object without a base or mold. To make pulp, you mix full sheets of paper with water until it has a pulp-like consistency. 

Choose an Adhesive

  • Mix flour and hot water. 
  • Dilute Elmer’s glue with water. 
  • Use drywall compound and glue for heavy-duty projects.
  • Purchase a pre-mixed adhesive. 

Make Something Using These Steps

  • Layer the strips of paper on the form in a cross-hatched pattern.
  • Use at least three layers of paper for durability. 
  • Allow the piece to dry completely before sanding or painting. 

Traditionally, paper mache paste is made using flour and water. However, if you decide to use this method, be aware that the project could develop mold over time. To combat this, you could opt to use diluted craft glue or wood glue. You could also add oil of cloves or salt to the adhesive mixture as a mold deterrent. 

Papier Mâché Ideas for Beginners

The great thing about paper mache is that it is a craft that’s suitable for all age groups and skill levels. It’s fun to get your hands messy, and it can be relaxing to work with your hands. The craft is similar in feel to throwing pottery, but it is much easier to make paper mache at home. Here are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

  • Start with a balloon base and make a simple hanging candle holder. 
  • Use the bottom of a balloon and some paper pulp to make an abstract bowl. 
  • Cover a cardboard letter form with paper mache to give it an unusual texture. 
  • Blow up different sized balloons to create a set of nesting bowls. 
  • Cover cereal boxes to create a fun office organizer. 

Working with paper mache is fun, but it can be messy too. Be sure to prepare your working area with drop cloths and wear an apron. Good luck!