What Is a Papier-mâché?
The name papier-mâché alternatively, paper-mache, is French and means “chewed paper”. Although the art of making articles of papier-mâché, beautifully decorated and lacquered, had been known in the East for centuries, the process was first used in the West by the French early in the 18th Century.
Waste paper was torn and shredded, soaked in water and pressed into moulds, glue or paste being applied between each layer. Interest soon spread to other countries. Papier-mâché was used in England as a cheap substitute for carved woodwork, and Frederick the Great established a papier-mâché factory in Berlin in 1765.
In 1772, Henry Clay of Birmingham, England, invented a heat-resisting “paper-ware” that could be polished to a glossy surface. The body of his material was made by pasting sheets of specially prepared paper together until a desired thickness was obtained. It could then be pressure-moulded into a number of articles, especially panels for furniture or coaches.
The industry declined during the second half of the 19th Century, but the substance is still used in the manufacture of toys, masks and model scenic materials. Trays are also made from it. Two main methods are used to prepare papier-mâché. The first method makes use of paper strips glued together with adhesive, and the other uses paper pulp obtained by soaking or boiling paper to which glue is then added.
With the first method, a form for support is needed on which to glue the paper strips. With the second method, it is possible to shape the pulp directly inside the desired form. In both methods, reinforcements with wire, chicken wire, lightweight shapes, balloons or textiles may be needed.
The traditional method of making papier-mâché adhesive is to use a mixture of water and flour or other starch, mixed to the consistency of heavy cream. Other adhesives can be used if thinned to a similar texture, such as polyvinyl acetate-based glues (wood glue or, in the United States, white Elmer’s glue). Adding oil of cloves or other additives such as salt to the mixture reduces the chances of the product developing mold.
For the paper strips method, 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. 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. Before painting any product of papier-mâché, the glue must be fully dried, otherwise mold will form and the product will rot from the inside out.
For the pulp method, the paper is left in water at least overnight to soak, or boiled in abundant water until the paper dissolves in a pulp. The excess water is drained, an adhesive is added and the papier-mâché applied to a form or, especially for smaller or simpler objects, sculpted to shape.