A few days ago I received an email from Barbara Bell, a doll-maker from Kingsport, TN. Barbara uses a technique for making armatures for paper mache puppets and doll heads that I’ve never seen before (but I’m definitely going to try it!). She graciously agreed to let me publish her email (and a few photos of her wonderful dolls).
Hello, I found your site today while looking around at papier-mache sites online. The following is something I wanted to share, as I have not found it anywhere online.
Years ago I had a craft book, (one of those A to Z encyclopedia collections–one is sent the first volume free and must pay $20-30 apiece once a month to receive the others, titled The Complete Encyclopedia of Crafts, published in 1975 by Columbia House, New York) that told how to model papier-mache puppets’ heads over an “armature” made by sewing a small fabric bag and firmly filling it with clean cat litter clay granules.
A wooden spoon handle or other dowel-shaped object is shoved down into the bag of cat litter, then the bag is tied tightly (or rubber-banded, or taped) around the dowel to keep the litter in, the dowel is stood up in a holder and the papier mache is laid on over the bag. When the papier mache is dry and hard, the bag can be untied, the cat litter emptied out and the bag loosened and removed. Both the bag and the litter may be re-used if desired.
Has this technique has been commonly used amongst other papier-mache dollmakers and puppeteers? I haven’t found any evidence of it outside that one old craft book. It’s become my method of choice as the hollow head does not need to be sawed in two in order to remove the armature, and the materials can be used again. Also, the cat litter absorbs moisture from inside the head while air circulating around the head dries it from the outside, so it can cut down on drying time.
I usually start by creating head “blanks” to which I add the features after each blank is completely dried and easier to handle. The papier mache pulp is rolled between layers of waxed paper or cloth until it’s evenly compressed, then I lay the stuffed bag/armature on the pulp layer and form the pulp around it, lifting the cloth or waxed paper and pressing it into shape. (This is kind of like rolling sushi in a bamboo mat, if you’ve ever done that!)
Recently, I made a set of bags shaped like the profile of the dolls’ heads I wanted to make. That way I have some idea of the placement of nose, eyes and chin, even though the actual details must be finished and refined later on.
I’ve also made a frame for holding the doll heads while they are being shaped, dried or painted. Not sure how most people do this, but I’ve spent years wrestling with a dowel stuck in a weighted glass jar, trying to keep the whole thing from tipping over…there are dollmakers’ wooden stands made for this but I could never afford to buy one. Recently I realized I could take apart the yarn-winding swift my husband made for me from PVC pipe, and use the parts (with the addition of a few slightly different joints) to make a nice little frame that holds 4 heads at a time.
Click on the images below to see the full-sized photos.