Here’s my trusted recipe for papier-mâché, sometimes spelt paper mache, that I use for landscape building on my model train layouts, railways and wargaming boards.
It’s simple to make, easy to work with, very strong and the ideal base for painting, adding grass and buildings to.
Firstly, let me be clear about what I’m describing here.
What is papier-mâché
This recipe is for the quick and easy papier-mâché many of us played with when we were kids and which forms the basis for a huge number of landscapes and hills and elevated terrain on war gaming boards, model train and railway layouts and the odd Warhammer board. The one involving strips of newspaper.
It’s not the papier-mâché paste used for more sophisticated scenery modelling and figure making, I’ll cover that another time.
Also, before going further, it’s worth pointing out that papier-mâché isn’t used for the body of the hills and mountains; it’s the skin you apply to a shape or form you’ve already built. I use packing foam – the favourite of self-assembly furniture – for the basic shape forming. Read my guide to landscaping for details of this now.
My recipe for papier-mâché
Anyway, having clarified that, let’s get on with it. Here’s the recipe.
First, you want some newspaper. Printer paper won’t work. Neither will glossy magazines and newspapers. Here is one occasion where cheap is best. Get papers where you can see the fibres when torn.
Once you have some of this, tear it into strips or squares if you’re working on detail areas. And tear it, don’t cut! The rough edges will help the strips to blend into one another.
You’ll want loads, I typically make up twenty or thirty strips for an area of about half a foot square.
Next for the paste.
Kids and crafty activities often suggest using water mixed just with flour but instead, I use white glue, PVA to its friends and flour.
Using glue and flour instead of only flower will produce a stronger finish that’s less prone to cracking, gapping and rotting in time. This doesn’t matter for kid’s crafts but for model train layouts we want something that will last. The flour isn’t strictly needed because it adds a ground cover texture which helps when painting.
Mix water, glue and flour together with a whisk in a ratio of 2:1:.5. If you make too much you can store it in sealed bottles for days, even weeks.
With the paste produced, spread some of this over the structure. A standard brush can be used to apply this; just paint it on.
For the paper itself, dip each strip of paper into the mixture and then lift it out. I find it helpful to drag it over the edge of the bowl the mixture is in so excess fluid is wiped off and dribbles back into the bowl.
That’s the recipe really. Just drape the strips of paper over the structure until you have it covered. You may find that sometimes the paper drops between gaps in the underlying shape. If so just layer more paper across until you have your desired shape.
Let it dry for a day or so and then paint and add scatter, static grass or whatever surface material you want.
Let me know how you get on. If you’re looking for an alternative, but just as messy 🙂 alternative, to papier-mâché take a look at my guide to making your own plaster cloth. Read the guide here.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.