Composition Papier-mâché paste is the substance that holds the paper together. The traditional method of making papier-mâché paste is to use a mixture of water and flour or other starch, mixed to the consistency of heavy cream. While any adhesive can be used if thinned to a similar texture, such as polyvinyl acetate based glues (wood glue or white Elmer's glue), the flour and water mixture is the most economical. Adding oil of cloves or other additives to the mixture reduces the chances of the product developing mold. The paper is cut or torn into strips, and soaked in the paste until saturated. The saturated pieces are then placed onto the surface and allowed to dry slowly; drying in an oven can cause warping or other dimensional changes during the drying process. The strips may be placed on an armature, or skeleton, often of wire mesh over a structural frame, or they can be placed on an object to create a cast. Oil or grease can be used as a release agent if needed. Once dried, the resulting material can be cut, sanded and/or painted, and waterproofed by painting with a suitable water repelling paint.
HistoryThe basic principle of papier-mâché, the making of three dimensional objects out of paper pulp, has existed for as long as the art of making paper. Papier-mâché industries have been in vogue in many places and times.
Middle and Far EastPapier-mâché has a long history in the Middle and Far East. In Persia and Kashmir, it has been used to manufacture small painted boxes, trays, and cases. Japan and China also produce laminated paper articles using papier-mâché. In Japan and India, papier-mâché was used to add decorative elements to armor and shields.
EuropeStarting around 1725, gilded papier-mâché began to appear in Europe as a low-cost alternative to similarly treated plaster or carved wood in architecture. Henry Clay of Birmingham, England, patented a process for treating laminated sheets of paper with linseed oil to produce waterproof panels in 1772. These sheets were used for building coach door panels, and other structural uses. Theodore Jennens patented a process in 1874 for steaming and pressing these laminated sheets into various shapes, which was then used to manufacture trays, chair backs, and structural panels. This laid the groundwork for making furniture and other large objects out of papier-mâché, usually laid over a wood or metal armature for strength. The papier-mâché was smoothed and lacquered, or finished with a pearl shell finish. This industry lasted through the 19th century. Russia appears to have also had a thriving industry in ornamental papier-mâché. A large assortment of painted Russian papier-mâché items appear in a Tiffany & Co. catalog from 1893. Martin Travers the English ecclesiastical designer made much use of papier mache for his church furnishings in the 1930s.Papier-mâché was used for doll heads starting as far back as 1540, and continued to be used into the early 20th century. The heads were molded in two parts from a mixture of paper pulp, clay, and plaster, and then glued together. The head would then be smoothed, painted and varnished.
North AmericaWhile papier-mâché has long been used for decorative purposes, it was put to far different use in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Papier-mâché was one of the first composite materials and, using the right techniques, it can build surprisingly strong, lncreasingly powerful.
Paper boatsOne common item made in the 1800s in America was the paper canoe, most famously made by Waters & Sons of Troy, New York. The invention of the continuous sheet paper machine allows paper sheets to be made of any length, and this made an ideal material for building a seamless boat hull. The paper of the time was significantly stretchier than modern paper, especially when damp, and this was used to good effect in the manufacture of paper boats. A layer of thick, dampened paper was placed over a hull mold and tacked down at the edges. A layer of glue was added, allowed to dry, and sanded down. Additional layers of paper and glue could be added to achieve the desired thickness, and cloth could be added as well to provide additional strength and stiffness. The final product was trimmed, reinforced with wooden strips at the keel and gunwales to provide stiffness, and waterproofed. Paper racing shells were highly competitive during the late 1800s. Few examples of paper boats survived. One of the best known paper boats was the canoe, the "Maria Theresa," used by Nathaniel Holmes Bishop to travel from New York to Florida in 1874–1875. An account of his travels was published in the book "Voyage of the Paper Canoe."
Paper masksCreating Papier-mâché masks is common among elementary school children and craft lovers. One's own face can be used as a mold as well as a balloon. This is common during Halloween time as a facial mask complements the costume.
Paper observatory domesPapier-mâché panels were used in the late 1800s and early 1900s to produce lightweight domes, used primarily for observatories. The domes were constructed over a wooden or iron framework, and the first domes were made by the same manufacturer that made the early paper boats, Waters & Sons. The domes used in observatories had to be light in weight so that they could easily be rotated to position the telescope opening in any direction, and large enough so that it could cover the large refractor telescopes in use at the time.
Paper sabotsPapier-mâché was used in a number of firearms as a material to form sabots. Despite the extremely high pressures and temperatures in the bore of a firearm, papier-mâché proved strong enough to contain the pressure, and push a sub-caliber projectile out the barrel with a high degree of accuracy. Papier-mâché sabots were used in everything from small arms, such as the Dreyse needle gun, up to artillery, such as the Schenkl projectile.
New usesWith modern plastics and composites taking over the decorative and structural roles that papier-mâché played in the past, papier-mâché has become less of a commercial product. There are exceptions, such as Micarta, a modern paper composite, and traditional applications such as the piñata. It is still used in cases where the ease of construction and low cost are important, such as in arts and crafts.
Carnival floatsPapier-mâché is commonly used for large, temporary sculpture such as Carnival floats. A basic structure of wood, metal and metal wire is covered in papier-mâché. Once dried, details are added. The papier-mâché is then sanded and painted. Carnival floats can be very large and comprise a number of characters, props and scenic elements all organized around a chosen theme. They can also accommodate several dozens people, including the operators of the mechanisms. The floats can have movable parts, like the facial features of a character or its limbs. It is not unusual for local professional architects, engineers, painters, sculptors and ceramists to take part in the design and construction of the floats. Italian float makers are some of the best in the world, and New Orleans Mardi Gras float maker Blaine Kern, operator of the Mardi Gras World float museum, brings Carnival float artists all the way from Italy to work on his floats.
Theatrical usePapier-mâché, while losing ground to modern plastics, has been and remains a good medium for theatrical use, both for sets and costume elements, especially when budgetary constraints rule out the more expensive alternatives. Cardboard or wire mesh can be used to create the armature.
Military drop tanksDuring World War Two, papier-mâché auxiliary fuel tanks were constructed out of plastic impregnated paper, and used to extend the range of aircraft. These tanks were plumbed to the regular fuel system via detachable fittings and dropped-free of the aircraft when the fuel was expended, which allowed short-range aircraft such as fighters to accompany long-range aircraft such as bombers on longer missions as protection forces. Two types of paper tanks were used, a 200 gallon (758 l) conformal fuel tank made by the United States for the P-47 Thunderbolt, and a 108 gallon (409 l) cylindrical drop tank made by the British and used by the P-47 and the P-51 Mustang.
Taylor paper-glass compositeWhile not actually papier-mâché, the paper-glass composite developed by Moulton Taylor for the Aerocar Micro-IMP homebuilt aircraft in 1978 did rely on a laminated structure of fiberglass and paper held together with a polyester adhesive to build the fuselage. The unique construction was intended to allow the home builder to purchase full-scale plans, printed on heavy paper, and use the plans themselves to build the structure of the aircraft.
In contemporary artA number of contemporary artists have made use of papier-mâché for their sculpture. Examples include Kiki Smith and John Connell.