Monday, 21 November 2011

Elephant No. 50: Papier-mâché Clay

I found a package of papier-mâché clay this morning while poking around in my craft supplies, and thought it might be interesting to try for today's elephant. The package had been opened and a small amount removed, but I have no recollection of ever using this stuff before.

Conventional papier-mâché has been around for centuries. In Asia, it was primarily used to make painted and lacquered articles such as small boxes, trays and containers, and to produce decorative elements for armour and shields. As early as 1540, papier-mâché was being used to make dolls' heads, which were moulded from a blend of paper pulp, clay and plaster, then sanded, painted and varnished.

In the early eighteenth century, gilded papier-mâché made its debut as an inexpensive alternative to plaster and wood ornamentation for furniture and architecture. In 1772, Henry Clay of Birmingham, England, patented a process whereby laminated sheets of paper were treated with linseed oil to make waterproof panels. The panels were then used to build the doors of coaches and carriages, as well as for other structural purposes. In 1847, Theodore Jennens invented a means of steaming and pressing the laminated sheets into various shapes, leading to the extensive use of papier-mâché in the furniture industry.

Today, plastics and composite materials have largely taken over the structural role once played by papier-mâché clay. The material is now reserved primarily for artistic use, including the production of jewellery and various decorative items. 

For today's elephant, I thought I'd make something fairly simple. I was originally planning to make a whole elephant, but the instructions said I'd need an armature for something like that, and I didn't feel like playing with wire today.

I've never actually liked using papier-mâché. The kind where you lay infinite layers of glued paper over one another was something I always found pretty tedious, and I hated the lumpy look of it—or worse, the one or two obvious paper seams I always seemed to get. My hope for today was that using papier-mâché in a clay form might give me a more elegant result.

The stuff I had on hand is something called "Celluclay". I have no idea where it came from, but this pound of it cost ten dollars whenever I got it, so it's not exactly as cheap as mushing up old newspapers.

Celluclay is a sort of compressed fibrous material that looks and feels like shredded newsprint, but smells a bit like poster paint. I'm not sure what the binder might be, but it wafts a very fine powder all over the place, and definitely made me sneeze.

The instructions say to mix this material with some warm water until it feels like firm clay or a soft dough, with no lumps. You can't get rid of all the lumps completely, but I hoped a few lumps would add to the charm of the final object.

Once I had a reasonable consistency of clay, I shaped it into an elephant head. This material was surprisingly easy to work with, and shapes quite nicely. It even holds its shape better than I thought it would.

The instructions suggested that I could "saw, sand, nail, paint and waterproof" this stuff once it dried and hardened, so I wasn't too particular about fine details at this point. I shaped this primarily by hand, using a small paring knife to shape the mouth and smooth things out here and there. A bit of water on the tip of your finger will also smooth things out to a certain extent.

For "a hurry-up project" (as the instructions called it), it was suggested that this would dry faster if I put it in the oven, or blasted it with a hairdryer. I put it in the oven at 150˚C (300˚F) for about an hour. It was a bit on the thick side, so although the outside shell dried quickly, it felt a bit squishy in the middle even after I took it out of the oven. It also smells slightly unpleasant when cooked.

I started to sand it, then decided to leave it rough. It sands easily enough, but I thought the rough look might be more what the material demanded.

I painted it with acrylic paints, starting with a grey basecoat on both sides. When that dried, I layered various shades of grey, with a bit of pink in the ears, mouth and tip of the trunk, and white for the tusk. Because of the roughness of the material, I found a pointillism type of technique worked best.

I'm not sure how I feel about this material or the final result, but it wasn't difficult or time-consuming, so it would be worth another try sometime. Maybe if I'd painted it with glossy enamels or sealed it with glossy varnish, it might appeal to me a little more.

But it still smells weird, even sealed with paint, so if you try this, you might want to avoid cooking it.

Elephant Lore of the Day
"Papier-mâché is French for "chewed paper". Although elephants do not eat paper, they do eat plant materials, grinding them with teeth that are very different from those of most other mammals.

Over its lifetime, an elephant will have a total of 28 teeth. The two upper second incisors are the tusks. Elephants also have 12 premolars and 12 molars, with three of each in both sides of both jaws. 

Replica of an Asian elephant's molar, Cologne Zoo, Germany.
Photo: Sarefo

Elephants also differ from most mammals in that their teeth grow and fall out throughout their lives. The adult tusks remain in place from the time an elephant is about one year old, but the chewing teeth replace five, and sometimes six, times over the years. New teeth do not grow up from underneath, forcing out existing teeth. Instead, new teeth grow at the back of the elephant's mouth, pushing older teeth towards the front, where they break off in pieces until they are gone.

With all this activity in an elephant's mouth, abscesses in chewing teeth, tusks and jaws are common. Sadly, abscesses like this can lead to an elephant's premature death.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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