Papier-mâché (French for 'chewed-up paper' because of its appearance), sometimes called paper-mâché, is a construction material that consists of pieces of paper, sometimes reinforced with textiles, stuck together using a wet paste (e.g., glue, starch, or wallpaper adhesive). The crafted object becomes solid when the paste dries.
Carton-pierre (French for 'stone cardboard') is papier-mâché that has been decorated to resemble wood, stone, or metal, and is used as decoration.
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 wood 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.
The 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 East
Papier-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.
Starting 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
, patented a process for treating laminated sheets of paper with linseed oil
to produce waterproof panels in 1772. These sheets were used for coach building 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.
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.
While 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, lightweight structures.
One 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
to provide stiffness, and waterproofed. Paper racing shells
were highly competitive during the late 1800s. Unfortunately, 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
in 1874–1875. An account of his travels was published in the book "Voyage of the Paper Canoe.
Paper observatory domes
Papier-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 that the could cover the large refractor telescopes
in use at the time.
Papier-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.
With 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
Papier-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.
Papier-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.
Taylor paper-glass composite
While 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.