Papier Mache Rediscovered

By Ronnie Burkett

Composition came into widespread use, as a material primarily for dollmaking, during the 1800s. Puppeteers, both professionals and hobbyists, have used varying recipes made from paper and sawdust for years, long before the widespread availability and use of plastic-based materials. Papier mache is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, as it is becoming clearly evident that resins, fiberglass, latex rubber and other such artificial substances are harmful to not only the craftsman, but the environment as well. Pulped composition provides a very satisfactory solution. It is an exciting, versatile medium., When wet, it is like clay. It can be pressed into molds or modelled over an armature. When dry, it has many of the properties of wood. It can be rasped, sanded and carved. Unlike clay, it does not require firing or baking (unless, of course, you are in a hurry and need to speed up drying in the oven). Acrylic or "homemade" gesso, paints and varnish provide an excellent durable finish for the surface. It is also lightweight, and has a very long life span.

Pulped paper is a good material for the beginning puppeteer. It provides the novice the chance to "try the craft on for size" while investing little in supplies. The main ingredients included in the composition recipes that follow are free or relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, the entire puppet head and/or body parts can be made at the kitchen table. A blender (or better yet, a Cuisinart!) is the only recommended piece of equipment other than the kitchen stove. If you have a strong arm and a wire whisk, even the blender can be dispensed with.

Making a composition pulp can be as easy as soaking and shredding newsprint, straining it and adding flour as an adhesive. While it takes a long time to dry, and in turn tends to become sour and moldy, it does work for direct modelling and casting in molds. This is certainly the most economical and least "scientific" approach. By adding fillers for strength, adhesives to bind and other additives to prevent souring, the basic recipe can be elaborated upon to provide a very dependable compound.

The pulp method of making papier mache, although it involves a little more preparation work than the layering method, has some major advantages. Because there is only one main stage in the production procedure, the object needs drying only once. It also allows for direct modelling, whereas the layered method indicates a need for a sculpture to be layered over. It is suitable for both "one-offs" and mass-production work. For that big Greek chorus or mob scene in your next puppet epic, a batch of core heads can be produced onto which specific features are then directly sculpted on with pulp. Composition is slightly more substantial than layered papier mache, especially if a filler has been added. The filler can be plain, for example chalk (whiting) or cellulose filler/spackle, or it can have an interesting texture of its own, such as sawdust. The later is an interesting choice if other parts of your puppet are made from wood, in that you can use the shavings and sawdust created from carving and sanding the wood as an integral part of the puppet head construction. In the previous century, dollmakers used all sorts of materials as fillers, including rags, rice, potatoes and bread. In 1883 a British patent was granted to the firm of Johnson and Maloney to use broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I'm currently collecting dryer lint as a possible source of composition filler material!

You can make pulp from a variety of papers including newspaper, sugar paper, tissue paper, corrugated paper, egg cartons and all that junk mail - both plain and glossy. Newspaper will produce a coarse pulp. Thin paper, such as tissue or toilet paper, will produce a fine pulp that results in a porcelain-like finish. With a little experimentation, you will be able to use different types of paper for specific characters. An elderly person or a troll could have an interesting rough surface texture, while the leading lady or child might have a smooth "skin".

The first recipe described herein is one that I originally got from the famous American puppeteer, Frank Paris. Near the end of his long career, he used this paper composition recipe to cast puppet heads, as well as body parts. He found it to be an extremely economical way to produce puppet parts, and although it takes a while to dry (as all paper-based modelling materials do) and can be quite pebbled in texture, the surface can be gessoed and sanded to a smooth finish. It is very strong, and will survive sanding, carving, rasping and being dropped. Although the results were beautiful and very applicable, I was caught up in my Twentieth Century zeal to use all the lovely, expensive and toxic casting materials available to my growing mastery of the craft.

When I was building the first Theatre of Marionettes show, Fool's Edge, a papier mache artist named Arin Murray jumped in and saved my life by sanding, painting and refining head details lost in a series of bad molds. Arin uses a simple mixture of blenderized newspaper and flour to create amazing jewelry and sculptures. He even created the entire set and all the props for a play from papier mache, which was certainly more inexpensive and innovative than most theatrical design tends to be!

Years later, after numerous episodes of having the studio overwhelmed with fumes and my body covered with fiberglass dust (which does not leave the lungs once it gets into them!) I found the recipe used by Frank Paris in the book Making Original Dolls of Composition, Bisque and Porcelain by Charlene Davis Roth, who also wrote The Art of Puppets and Marionettes. I'm glad that I saw the result of Frank's use of this recipe first, as Ms. Roth's dolls and puppets as illustrated in her books are quite ugly and belie the great possibilities of this composition. Teaching puppetry at the University of Calgary during the summer of 1991, I had the students cast a simple mixture of pulped paper and flour in plaster molds. This process worked, although during the incredibly long drying period (up to a week)the pulp invariably turned sour or warped. What works for smaller objects such as jewelry and direct-modelled sculptures wasn't exact enough for reproduction in molds. Intent upon finding a better way for this technique, I've been scouring my collection of puppetry books, doll- making books and specific writing on papier mache, and have found basic formulations that produce a pulped composition meeting three general criteria: cheap, lightweight and environmentally friendly.

In the past two years, I have also been drawn to the work of two great contemporary American doll artists, Robert McKinley and Van Craig. Both use a commercial papier mache pulp called Celluclay in their work. Bob tends to favor Celluclay as a basic sculptural filler over wire and cardboard limbs and over styrofoam skulls, then covers this with other materials (Paperclay or Sculpey) which gives a smoother finish. Van Craig sculpts his figures entirely from Celluclay, bakes them in the oven, and aside from burnishing with the back of a spoon during the drying process, does nothing to conceal the inherent rough surface of Celluclay. After years of striving for a flawless "porcelain" finish on my marionettes (and driving my sanding assistants crazy with this obsession), I finally realized I don't really like the cold look of porcelain. The surface texture obtained from mache pulp is decidedly more interesting when sculpting faces, and a dream to paint.

While there are several different brands of commercial mache pulp available in craft and art stores, Celluclay is the best. Others tend to have unwanted additives which add additional weight, and also tend to "set up" too quickly. I have used Celluclay both as a direct modelling material and in molds. The former technique works best if you create a skull or armature first, such as a big wad of aluminum foil or styrofoam. Using a styrofoam ball or egg shape, you create the basic bone structure of the head, and lay a "skin" of Celluclay over this, building up features as you go. Because of the drying time with mache pulp, the use of this skull prevents a solid mass of pulp which could take weeks to dry, and which would also weight much more than desired.

The only time you may want to take a bit of precaution and wear a dust mast is while mixing the dry Celluclay with water. The fibers tend to "dust" upward, particularly into the nostrils. While not written in the packaged instructions, the manufacturer suggests that once you have mixed the dry Celluclay fiber with water, it is best to roll it out between two layers of wax paper with a rolling pin. This "mushes" the fibers together and will result in a very strong material.

The instructions which come with Celluclay recommend oven drying at a relatively low temperature, although both McKinley and Craig boost the heat as high as 300-350 degrees Fahrenheit. It is very important to note, however, that if you have used styrofoam as an armature, you must not put this in the oven, as it will melt the styrofoam and release toxic fumes. This is an absolute no-no! It is best to let the sculpture air-dry for a couple of days, then carefully cut and pick the styrofoam out through the (puppet) neck hole. If you are into instant gratification, both Bob McKinley and I simply pour a bit of acetone (solvent) into the head, which almost instantly dissolves the styrofoam. Be sure it has all evaporated and dried before sticking it in the oven.

Celluclay works very well in molds, but the trick to success here is in giving yourself (and the mold) considerable drying time. Mold drying takes much longer than direct modelling - up to a week or two. Many favour plaster molds, as (unsealed) plaster molds will draw water from the pulp through the mold. However, because my sculpting tends to be heavily undercut, I use rubber molds almost exclusively. Now, rubber molds are not porous, so lining them with Celluclay or another version of Mache pulp can result in a drying time of up to two or three weeks, which for most of us is unrealistic and unbearable. There is a great time-saving trick to beat this timetable, though. Pack the rubber mold tightly and completely (to the top) with Celluclay, then stick the filled mold in the freezer until frozen... I give it about five hours, or overnight if there are pronounced undercuts in the mold. When taken from the freezer, carefully remove your casting by peeling the rubber away from the Celluclay. You may have to make several small repairs now, or replace a nose that refuses to come out of the mold (depending upon any undercuts and the length of freezing time). Now, put the Celluclay on a cookie sheet and stick it in a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour. Don't leave it there to dry completely. After an hour, take the Celluclay out of the oven, and hollow out the back or bottom of your casting with a spoon. You are now creating a shell, rather than a solid mass. When you get it as thin as you want or as thin as the sculpture will withstand, stick it back in the oven and dry it completely. You can reuse the Celluclay which you've hollowed out. Regardless of your choice of molds, it is important to grease them generously with a separator of some sort... I brush in an even coating of vaseline or floor wax, followed by a coating of "Pam" vegetable cooking spray.

Even though I forever seem to be working against a deadline and need to rush various processes, I now use Celluclay almost exclusively for marionette head casting, and have recently stop- ped carving hands in favour of those sculpted from Celluclay. It is safer to work with and finish than other materials, much more interesting to paint (which is my favourite process of all), and actually much stronger than fiberglass, plastic wood or automotive plastics. I have had to allow for the material's stubborn drying qualities, and so I simply sculpt and line molds at the beginning of the process now, and carve bodies and begin costuming while the drying takes the necessary time.

Following are "homemade" recipes for papier mache pulps which possess the same working qualities as Celluclay. The advantage of these is that if you are tenacious enough, you are truly creating your material from scratch, and it also tends to be cheaper. While I am decidedly "old world" in many of my techniques, I sometimes find it easier simply to go to the art store and buy a bag of Celluclay which I can mix up in quantities as needed. But there is a certain aesthetic delight in making your own pulp, aside from economics, and with experimentation with fillers and binders, you can easily create your own "secret recipe", which is one of those things puppeteers and dollmakers historically love to do!

Recipe #1 is a light gray modelling compound, coarse-grained and extremely tough when dry. Recipe #2, the basis of which is toilet paper, produces a white, fine-grained material. The finer texture allows more accurate reproduction of detail in molds. Recipe #3 is a bread-dough composition. It is quick and easy to make and can be stored in the refrigerator. It is useful primarily for patching or applying last minute detail only. Recipe #4 is taken from Papier Mache Artistry by Dona Z. Meilach, and is similar to #1, although it does not use the combination of gloss and kraft paper. Recipe #5 is from The Art and Craft of Papier Mache by Juliet Bawden (a beautiful and inspiring book!), and is a heartier cousin to Recipe #4, especially good for direct modelling over an armature for larger pieces. There are many other papier mache and puppetry books, each of which contains yet another "definitive" pulp recipe. Some add clay to the paper pulp, others mix in all sorts of additives like flaked glue size and so on. I include these differing methods simply to illustrate their similarities and the subtle differences. Again, these are "starting places". Your own preferences and access to materials will dictate deviation from these recipes. Some people more familiar with paper-making choose to bond paper without any addition fillers or binders, citing the adhesives used in commercial paper as strength enough. I am personally interested in finished objects that have extraordinary strength and durability in performance. If you are creating a puppet or sculptural object in pulp that is only going to be used for a short period of time, perhaps a recipe formulated for strength and long life is of no interest. However, if you're "on the road" and continually packing and unpacking your puppets, doing a rough and tumble Punch and Judy show, or planning to use the pieces outdoors, a more substantial pulp recipe is called for.

As you will see, the basics herein are the same. The general similarities are three-fold: paper, adhesive and filler. With experimentation you will be able to produce a pulp suitable for your own needs. The quantities can be varied considerably. More filler (whiting, spackle or sawdust) gives a whiter or denser pulp. The paste and glue serve as binders, and adding more gives a stronger finish. If you find the mixture is too watery, add more wallpaper paste. You can experiment with a variety of glues, such as wallpaper paste, bookbinder's glue, white glue or the acrylic-based plastic adhesives and media on the market. Linseed oil makes the pulp easier to work with and provides added toughness. Oil of cloves or wintergreen prevent the pulp from going sour. This can happen quite quickly if the pulp is untreated and is a waste of materials, time and effort. Store any unused pulp in a plastic bag or airtight plastic sealer in the refrigerator. An easier approach altogether is to use instant pulp, a variety of which can be purchased from craft shops, such as the previously discussed Celluclay. These commercial dry mixtures contain all the ingredients to bind and fill as discussed and need only the addition of water. They are touted as "perfect for school groups", although I personally think that making the pulp is a very interesting activity for children in and of itself. Why teach them to buy something they can make themselves?

Large pieces of pulp must have warm air circulating around them in order to dry without excessive warping or distortion. A fan-assisted oven or the kitchen oven, set on a low temperature can be useful for drying small objects. If you are using a plaster mold, be sure that it has had a week of drying by itself, as a wet plaster mold will crumble under this sort of heating. A warm radiator, window ledge or outdoors in the sun also work, but you must, more than anything else, be patient!

Pulp dries slowly, and a piece can take from one to three weeks to totally dry and cure. Attacking the piece with a hair dryer is a common solution, although this tends to only dry the surface of the pulp, leaving the core of it still wet. And, as with most other materials which rely on evaporation and drying of a water-based substance, varying climates and altitudes do affect the drying time of pulp. In a last-minute attempt to quick-dry pulp in molds, one of the students in my puppetry course experimented with her microwave! If there's a deadline, we will go to extraordinary lengths to pull a mold before its time. It is always preferable to allow the pulp its due drying time, no matter how maddening the wait. It's a good idea therefore to create the parts of the puppet that are to be modelled or cast in pulp as the first step in your building process. While these are drying, you can get on with making bodies and costumes, building scenery, or learning the script.

Dried pieces can be gessoed to give them a stronger surface and act as a ground for painting. Many practitioners prefer the natural pebbled surface of the dried pulp, and choose to not apply gesso. Others, who initially shied away from pulp because of the uneven surface associated with papier mache, apply gesso in two to five coats, sanding between coats. Depending on the amount of gesso and sanding used, a very fine surface can be achieved. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, gesso was used as moulded decoration on chairs, mirror frames and the legs of pier tables, and was often gilded. For producing the exuberant curlicues popular during the Rococo period, it was found to be easier to model gesso on a wire base than to carve the designs from wood. You can make your own gesso as described in various books, or alternatively you can purchase it in liquid form from any art supply store. After using gesso, soak any brushes in warm water immediately afterwards for ten minutes, then wash the brushes in soapy water and dry thoroughly. When gesso dries, it becomes as hard as stone and can be sanded to a porcelain-like appearance; that is why it is often used as a coating prior to painting. Gesso not only strengthens the papier mache, but also dramatically changes its appearance. By using a number of coats of gesso, drying and sanding between each, a rough or textured piece of pulp composition work can become very smooth.

The entire range of paints and pigments - from water colours, gouache, oils, enamels and acrylics to felt tip pens, pencils and dyes - can be used on papier mache. You can experiment with adding powdered tempera to the still-set pulp to give a basic "skin tone". Your painting would then be merely an exercise in shadow and highlight without the need to slather the whole puppet head in paint. Similarly, colour can be added to the liquid gesso prior to application. I have actually stopped using white paint on puppet heads altogether, and instead now mix my skintones and shading colours with gesso.

After painting, you may want to apply a finishing and waterproofing treatment to your completed work. There are a number of these available commercially, and include water-based Varathane in a variety of finishes from matte to high gloss, lacquer, acrylic medium and so on. Ideally, you are protecting your painted surface and providing it with a finish that can be wiped down if need be. Choosing a medium that is either too shiny or too thick can defeat your initial modelling rather than enhance it, so be careful.

There are a number of sealers and finishing surface treatments available commercially, and individual craftsmen have created some amazing recipes of their own. Instead of gesso, Frank Paris created something he called "Glop", which was a mixture of equal parts plastic wood, acetone and lacquer thinner. It was painted over the entire surface and sanded. It work beautifully and sanded like a dream, although the fumes were a killer and it is extremely flammable! Unless you are suitable armed with high-quality masks and ventilation systems, I wouldn't recommend using it. Many of the old puppeteers I knew when I was growing up have since died of varying lung diseases and cancer, so given what we now know about harmful work substances and conditions, it behooves us to search for effective techniques that promote not only art, but life. While the "plastics generation" love the access to materials used in industry for the creation of craft pieces, I'm beginning to think that it is ulimately more satisfying to work with a material that you can create "from scratch". Given that the texture of compostion is a result of your own preferences and choice, it makes for a more satisfying experience than simply opening a can of commercially produced material. Making pulp is in and of itself an arts and craft process, one that makes the overall building of a puppet a total "hands-on" endeavor.

The great Canadian husband and wife team of Arlyn and Luman Coad (Coad Canada Puppets) recently shared their pulp technique with me, which is so cheap and simple I didn't actually believe it could work! They simply take cardboard egg cartons, rip them up, soak them and mash in a blender. That's all. Once the excess water is squeezed out, they line plaster molds with the pulp and allow to dry for a couple of days. I asked them what they use as a binder (glue) in the wet pulp, to which they replied "nothing". Because the egg cartons have previously been formed, even after soaking and mashing it, enough wax remains in the cardboard to serve as a binder in re-molding. Once pulled from the mold, the piece can then be coated inside and out with white glue or gesso. I have since seen this type of pulp used for direct sculpture by several of my students, and by adding a few spoonfuls of white glue to the pulp the result was a very tough dried surface.

If you are new to puppetry, or work exclusively for television, no doubt the wealth of "20th Century materials" on the market will turn your head or lead you to think that the more expensive the material, or the more difficult it is to work with, the "better" it is. If, however, you embrace the vibrant theatricality of puppetry (which does not dictate camera close-up slickness), and are sick (both aesthetically and physically) of toxic materials and their growing costs, then paper composition pulp may be for you. There is a great liberation that comes with not having to create through a ventilation mask, with an air-drying material that can be sculpted or molded into heads, hands, body parts, props, masks, jewellery, relief figures... whatever you and your artistic vision decides to create!

Click here to return to the contents page.

This page was designed by Karsten Johansson, Internet Marketing Services