Paper Mache (French term Papier-mâché) is an ancient type of craft dating back to lacquered war helmets made in China around AD 200. While some artists and crafters specialize just in paper mache ornaments, sculptures and even furniture, it's a craft worth learning no matter what your arts and crafts area of expertise.
Paper mache is an inexpensive craft and easy to learn. More importantly, it's an extremely pliable craft that can be incorporated into many other types of arts and crafts.
Paper mache is ideal for making custom doll heads and parts for mobiles. You could glue pieces of paper mache to a watercolor picture or to collages adding three dimensional surface interest. I know of many jewelry designers who incorporate bits and pieces of paper mache into their fine jewelry designs.
There are two different methods to make paper mache: laminating and pulping.
Lamination Method Basics to Make Paper Mache
Tear newspaper or newsprint into strips. What's the difference between the two? Artists and crafters having the daily newspaper delivered have a free source of this printed raw material. Newsprint is the same paper albeit unprinted - before it became a source of news.Don't use scissors to cut the strips! You want to make the paper mache surface as smooth as possible. If you use a straight-edge to tear the strips (creating a somewhat ragged edge), your paper strips will melt together better giving you a smoother surface. Use your hands or a sponge to coat each strip with paste before placing the strip on your paper mache form. Allow to dry, usually overnight will do it.
Pulping Method Basics to Make Paper Mache
Put your newspaper or newsprint through a shredder, soak it in water overnight then mix with paste. Strain the pulp until it has a doughy consistency. Ever baked bread or rolled out a pie crust? Those are both good examples of what your paper pulp should feel like. Not a baker? The best description I have is that it should feel spongy. Then smooth the pulp over your paper mache form. Once again - allow to dry.
Paper Mache Pastes
You can use either liquid white glue or wallpaper paste. If using a good quality thick liquid glue, mix it one part water to one part glue. If using wallpaper paste, follow the manufacturer's instructions - usually one part paste to 10 parts water.
Paper Mache Forms
For me, building the form or armature is the most time consuming part of doing paper mache. It's worth the time though, because a great foundation goes a long way towards making the finished product look exactly as you want it to.
I like to use galvanized wire I purchase on a spool at the hardware store. Balloons come in many different shapes and sizes, so they make wonderful armatures too. You could also ball up paper or aluminum foil. Other suggestions are to create shapes with cardboard or plastic, paper towel rollers or modeling clay.
Paper Mache Surface Design
After your shape is dry, it's time to sand it until it's smooth (if that's the look you're going for) and decorate it. You can paint paper mache, glue fabric or decorative paper to it - pretty much the sky's the limit.
Check out this Armature Resource!
Looking for some stellar info about building armatures? Check out my review of Designing the Doll. It has a whole section showing images and giving suggestions for constructing armatures that you can use for paper mache too.