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My Paper Maché recipe is 1:1 mix of white or school glue to water.
If gluey hands give you the icks, apply paper maché paste with a cheap, firm bristled, synthetic brush.
There's nothing wrong with making a mess to make some art. BUT if you're wanting to do some paper maché and keep the mess under control, here's how I make paper maché in a less messy way!
I set a plastic placemat down on my work surface. You can grab these at your local discount store, or get a pack here. When I do paper maché with my daughters, I find this helps not only to protect my table, but to give a visual boundary to stop the mess from spreading all over.
Traditionally, people teach paper maché with a paste made from a mix of flour and water. This works great and is super affordable, but it can grow mold and/or attract bugs, and the odor is off-putting for some. My less mess paste option is a mix of white glue (either Elmer's Glue All or Elmer's Washable School Glue) and water. I go through a lot of glue, so I usually check my local big box store for sales during back-to-school season. My recipe is 1:1 glue: water.
Newspaper works great for paper maché, but it does tend to shed ink everywhere, making the hands and work surface a bit grungy. If this bothers you, switch to paper machéing (that's a word, I swear) with the brown or off-white paper used to protect items during shipping or moving. Thin paper lunch bags work great. I find heavy-duty paper grocery bags are too thick.
You may have been taught to dip your strips of paper into the paste to saturate them, but in my experience this gets far to much glue on the project, leaving a sloppy mess that takes forever to dry. Glue-covered hands also cause as case of the icks in some people, so I recommend a firm-bristled synthetic paint brush (I use the red one from this value pack.) Lay a strip of paper onto the brush to coat the front and back with paste. The strip should be wet through, but not sopping wet with glue. Use the brush to smooth the paper onto the project. You can use a bit more glue to help smooth it on if needed.
Brushes can be easily cleaned up while still wet with a bit of dish soap and warm water. If you accidently let the glue dry on the brush, soak it in a bit of soapy water overnight.
I clean off the plastic placemat with a few spritzes of a mild all purpose cleaner, let it sit for a few minutes, then scrape it down with an old gift card and give it a wipe. This works for me even if the glue has dried!