Building a Dollhouse- Papier-Mache

Papier-Mache is messy. Papier-Mache is sticky, goopy, prone to warping and unpredictable. Papier-Mache is also one of the most fun art mediums I have ever dabbled in. And the results can be AMAZING. So, if the disclaimer didn’t scare you off, roll up your sleeves and prepare to become addicted to this art form.

Why Papier-Mache? Well, it is very lightweight. I injured my shoulder several years ago and cannot wrangle around giant wooden dollhouses anymore. But I can flip a giant Papier-Mache dollhouse around easily and work on it without exacerbating my shoulder injury. It is also very durable. Yes, it is susceptible to moisture and mold, but so are traditional wooden dollhouses made from plywood with paper detailing. Depending on your intended audience you can seal Papier-Mache with a variety of products that can make it practically waterproof. I try to keep my materials nontoxic so I use modge podge occasionally around the base or areas that might be prone to damage. Papier-Mache also takes paint well, clay and glue stick to it, and it can be sanded.

So how do we get started? Here is a list of materials:

  • Structure to be coated in Papier-Mache (make sure all edges are coated and it is free of dust and debris).
  • Blank Newsprint (tear into strips of various sizes. When you think you have enough tear another 1000 pieces)
  • Cold Water
  • Tacky Glue
  • White Flour
  • Wooden Chopsticks
  • Bowl you are willing to sacrifice
  • Flat Surface
  • Wood strips and clamps (if you need to control warping)
  • Heavy Books
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Paper Towels
  • Apron
  • Covered surface

To make the actual Papier-Mache solution I mix approx. a quarter cup of flour with a quarter teaspoon of tacky glue. I then stir in cold water until I get something the consistency of runny pancake batter. If it gets too watery, I just add more flour. I let this solution set for about five minutes before I start. During that time, I make sure my table surface is covered, I don my apron and one rubber glove. I also shoo my cat away from the table as she is obsessed with my art projects and kitties and Papier-Mache do not mix well.

To apply the Papier-Mache I take a strip of blank newsprint and dip it into the Papier-Mache mix. Then I run the strip between two fingers on my rubber glove covered hand to get the excess mix off. You want the newsprint to have a fine coat but to not be sopping wet. I then place the strip on the surface and smooth out all the bubbles. This process is repeated a few hundred times until the whole structure is covered. Depending on how your structure was built a single layer is usually enough.

A few pieces of advice:

  • Start with a small project first and work your way up to larger structures.
  • Keep your dominant hand uncovered to allow you to feel the placement of the Papier-Mache strips. Keep your non dominant hand covered in a rubber glove so if you need to answer the phone you can have a clean hand (you are welcome!)
  • Do the edges, corners, crevices, etc first. They are the hardest parts. By doing them first you make the rest of the process easier, and if you let them dry completely before moving to flat surfaces it helps decrease the tension on your structure and decreases warping.
  • Work in shorter sessions. I tend to do several half hour sessions spread over a few days. Not only is it easier on my body but it allows each section I do to dry before I do more which allows me greater control over the outcome. And, your hands get really crusty from the drying Papier-Mache so shorter sessions allow you to wash your hands more frequently, so you don’t get Papier-Mache boogies stuck to your project.
  • Papier-Mache can and will warp. Ways to combat this are to avoid doing a huge flat surface in a single session. If you are doing a wall do both sides of the wall so that they are both under tension from drying at the same time. If something starts to warp, try clamping it flat or using weights like heavy books to straighten out the structure. (Do not cover wet Papier-Mache as this will prevent it from drying).
  • Use a small, rounded end to gently push Papier-Mache strips into corners and crevices.
  • Don’t panic. The cool thing about Papier-Mache is that it is cheap, and you can always cut out a section that has issues and replace it.
  • Let the project cure for at least 24 hours before you move onto decorating.

Once my project is complete, I gently sand it inside and out. It is almost impossible to get it perfectly smooth. If you are looking to have eggshell smooth interior wall you can either inset a faux wall into the structure or do several layers of Papier-Mache that are then sanded vigorously. I choose to leave them rough as it suits my aesthetic.

For examples on the outcome of this process check out my Galleries on this site, or visit my Instagram account @dollhouse_smithery

Now stop reading and go get messy!

-Meghan

Small Dollhouse covered in Papier-Mache.
Backside of the same dollhouse.

1 Comment

  1. Linda Simonsen

    June 9, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    This is awesome advice. I’m so glad you put out this information! I have some old memories of doing papier-mâché over a balloon when I was a kid and am looking forward to trying this out soon! Thank You for a great written tutorial!

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