Monday, October 7, 2013

Papier Mache Pumpkin


We're all about saving a buck on home décor, especially seasonal stuff where you only have it out for all of October and part of September. Or, uh, a week or two for other holidays.

But one thing you don't want to skimp on is jack-o-lanterns. These are a Halloween decorating classic, but it can get frustrating to find just the right pumpkins every year and painstakingly craft a new spooky face or pop culture reference. So why not make a permanent one? Yes, you could go nab one of those foam carver's pumpkins at a hobby store, but what if I told you that you can get awesome permanent pumpkins for almost nothing? It takes a little creativity, a little time, and a lot of getting your hands messy. Let's get started.

You'll Need:
  • Empty plastic bags (lots of them)
  • Masking tape
  • A permanent marker
  • Flour
  • White glue
  • Liquid starch
  • Newspaper
  • Thin cardboard
  • Hot glue gun
  • (Optional) Cellulose fiber insulation
  • (Optional) Drywall joint compound, pre-mixed
  • (Optional) Dedicated craft blender
This early bit of the project is lacking in some explanatory pictures, but if you check some of my sources you should find some. I was out of town visiting A while I made this first pumpkin, and my hands were glue-y through the whole process. Apologies. It's basically the papier mache you grew up with. If you didn't grow up papier mache-ing anything, I'm so sorry. Moving on!

My approach to papier mache is largely inspired by Greg Stoll's work at Stolloween.  Start with making your pumpkin form: Grab a plastic bag and start stuffing it with other plastic bags. You want a large, lumpy, firm mass to start with. Tie off the handles and grab your masking tape. You want to wrap strips of tape around the pumpkin, top to bottom, to help define the lobes of the pumpkin. Some folks use string for this part to make the lobe definitions sharper, but I'm fine with refining the curves later in the process.

Mix up some paste. You'll want to experiment a little, but it's basically 6 parts flour to one part liquid fabric starch to one part white glue. Snatch up those big bottles at back-to-school prices or just nab it all at the dollar store. It does come in jugs at craft stores, so make whatever is your most efficient purchase. Thin this mess with warm water until you have a runny pancake batter thickness. Mix and mix and mix. The suggestion at Stolloween is to do this with a mixer, but you'll want to clean your beaters very thoroughly on this one so your next batch of cupcakes isn't half glue and the wrong kind of starch.

Tear pieces of newspaper for the initial paper layers. I use the phone book, because you don't really need it anymore. Also, I can alternate yellow and white pages as I go so that I can tell where still needs a fresh layer. Torn edges blend better than cut, so settle in for an episode of something while you just tear that book apart. For my pumpkin I made a stem out of thin cardboard, rolled into a tube or cone. Cut the stem at a few spots and masking tape the crap out of it to get the shape you want. Tape it to the top of the pumpkin and paper it all over. Dredge your newspaper with the glue mixture, and then squeegee it between your fingers to remove excess glue. Too much glue is kind of a bigger problem than not enough. If something looks dry, wet your fingers in paste and pet it into place.

The first layer will want to slide around on the plastic some, but it will get easier and easier to branch out from your initial patch. Once you have a layer on everything, switch to the other color of newsprint (or not, if you are just using boring old newspaper) and layer again. And again. At least three layers is the way to go here. Pretty soon, you'll have this bad guy:

I added a face to make him more friendly. Did it help?
Once it is dry, sketch out a face for yourself. I knew from the beginning I would lace part of his mouth closed, so I drew it accordingly. Play with the features until you like the look. It's way easier to change now than it will be later in the process.

Cut out the top like you would for a real pumpkin with a razor knife or box cutter. Pull out the innards and set them aside for a different project. (NOTE: These are not delicious when roasted. Do not roast.) Take a knife to the face you just drew and get rid of anything that doesn't look like a face.

From here, you'll notice that this paper pumpkin is somewhat thinner than your normal pumpkin. You could add all that thickness in paper clay later, but it's easier and safer to build up your edges with cardboard first. Start cutting pieces of cardboard to shape. Cut, hold it in place, decide if you like it, trim some off, compare, etc. Once you like your cardboard bits, you can attach them with a combination of masking tape and hot glue. To give the illusion of thickness, have your cardboard extend into your pumpkin by a little bit and it will trick folks into thinking your entire pumpkin is 3/4" thick. Have it extend forward to give yourself something to buttress against when you add the paper clay. I think the smoothness of the cardboard helps sell the freshly-cut pumpkin flesh, but feel free to texture it later if you want something a little more grotesque/natural gourd-y.

I yam what I yam.
You could keep building layers of papier mache over this and blend all the cardboard in, but the faster approach is paper clay. Paper clay can be bought in stores, but it is way more efficient to buy the fixings yourself and make it. This requires the optional ingredients found above. Mix six parts the paste you already made to one part ready-mixed joint compound. Sift in cellulose fiber insulation or finely shredded newspaper. (Fun fact: A bale of cellulose insulation is under $12 and is more shredded paper than you will ever use.) I tried making this stuff by hand the first time, and after a lot of gross noises, I ended up with this:

Cat owners may be having flashbacks right now.
I applied it to my pumpkin and the result was... interesting. The cellulose insulation kind of pilled on me as I mixed it by hand and the resulting texture was very pebbled. If you want a rough gargoyle look, maybe this is helpful, but I, uh, didn't want that. The answer to that, of course, is a dedicated craft blender. You do not want to try to clean this thing well enough to make smoothies in it again, so snap one up at a thrift store or literally the cheapest blender you can find locally. (I also have a dedicated craft blow dryer, too, so this stuff starts to accumulate.) Upside is you can now throw paper in the paste mix and blend it, and the blades break up the pills of paper until you get a creamy clay consistency. In hindsight, the stuff in the picture is maybe too wet and that might explain my later issues.

This is... good, right? This is what good looks like?
So I took the new, thinner celluclay and spread it over the entire pumpkin surface, evening out the weird pebbled texture. You'll notice that some of my previous pictures feature blank, staring eyes. Those are ping pong balls. I wrapped them in plastic wrap and held them into place from behind with tape to build my pumpkin right up to the edges of the eye balls. If you want the perfect fit, fill the cavity with clay, wrap the piece in plastic wrap and press it into place. This is also how I adjusted my pumpkin stem opening. The celluclay covering deserves its own before and after:



This was all well and good, but I was running out of time. To help speed the process along, I set the oven for maybe 250 and jammed the pumpkin in there. Make sure you've removed all the excess plastic! Also, ping pong balls are crazy combustible as well. But damp newspaper? Not gonna burn for another few hundred degrees (Thanks, Ray Bradbury!) I just wanted to speed the drying process a little. And I did... Sorta.

The edges got a little crispy and the thicker portions of clay shrank considerably in the process. In the end, I kind of like the pulled back dried corpse effect, but maybe that's not what you want. I'd advise a more robust paper clay, less water, thinner layers that dry naturally, and you should get the results you want.

I took my oven-dried pumpkin out back and hung it over a garden stake and sprayed the whole thing dark red. Then it got a walnut brown in the seams between the lobes, shadowed under the features, and the stem. Once those were dry-ish, it got orange sprayed down from above, leaving the brown in the recesses. Since light spray paints are somewhat translucent, the shadows in between the bulges of the pumpkin remain underneath. Let it dry, then drybrush and detail paint with craft acrylics to your heart's content.

Tape or glue the eyes (if you have any) into place from the inside and drop some LED candles in the bottom and call it a day. For mine, I used a screw driver as an awl of sorts (actual drills were ripping it up and blowing out the back) and punched some holes along the mouth and laced his smirk shut with black shoelace. These days, I'd likely replace it with old twine or leather cord, but it worked for the project at hand.





How very cheeky.
Knowing us, we can't leave very well alone with just making a pumpkin that's lasted for three years. Keep an eye out later this week for some great ideas about how to kick this project up a notch! Let us know what you think of the pumpkin, share some ideas of new papier mache projects you'd like to try this year, and we'll see you later!

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