Bringing The Cozy, Cabin Feel Home For The Holidays

A DIY Paper Mache Fireplace

Once you get beyond the “why?” this is a great project, though not a fast one — one you’ll knock out over a single weekend (turns out making 60+ hollow paper maché rocks requires quite a bit of time. Who knew?)

OK, “why” isn’t an unreasonable question. Simple answer: our apartment doesn’t have a fireplace, but we always enjoying staying at cabins that do, so, yeah, we’d need to make our own. Plus, Christmas stockings are where it’s at. (why paper? Because… cheap, easy(?), and landlady would evict us if we built one of real river rock)

I’ll dispense with offering much advice, and besides, this isn’t a tutorial. This is more “what I did weekends for two months last fall” (besides, everyone paper maches differently, plus I tend to obsess — thus the photos showing numbered rocks — so you’re probably better served winging it on your own than following my lead).

I will list a few, well, not tips, but “these works for me” suggestions.

  1. Flour-and-water paste is gold. Ya don’t mess with gold. I like a pea soup consistency, but you do what ya like. Remember, all paper mache’s strength comes from its glue, not the paper.
  2. Alternate papers for each layer. Do one of newsprint, the next of YellowPages, the next of plain brown kraft paper, repeat (this 1,200′ roll from Amazon is perfect for paper mache, and at about $30 will last you years).  Why alternate papers? You’d be surprised at how easily you’ll loose track of whether you’ve finished a layer. Much easier to count completed layers if they look nothing alike. It’s also a nice check on your form.
  3. Create your river rock forms not as over-sized loaves of bread or baked potatoes: include some flatish-surfaces.
  4. Wrap your rock forms with plastic cling wrap to make removing the dried shells from their forms painless (if you really wanna be cautious begin with a first layer of just wet paper — no paste — but I never experienced too much difficulty)
  5. Measure twice, cut once.
  6. You’ll never sweep up all those bits of ball-foam, so accept it. But use it on long-edges, making a cardboard-styrofoam-carboard sandwich — you’ll be amazed at its added strength (see my mantel).
  7. You don’t need a different form for every rock: cheat on the sides and just repurpose — and squash — the forms you created for the front face.
  8. Do 5 – 8 layers on everything. Now, some may tell you that allowing every layer of mache to dry completely is necessary. They’re lying. Or they live in Portland, OR, but if it’s not wet and swampy where you are, well, you do all those layers and put the rocks out on cookie drying racks in the warm shade and get on with your life.
  9. Everything you papermache will wind up being about 10 – 20% larger, so those tight gaps between stones? Yeah, make ’em slightly bigger than you think you need. (I actually was fine with just a finger’s width since i’m not aiming for true realism)
  10. Put a fresh blade in that utility knife. Really.

I’ll add a couple “you might be tempted to but don’t”s:

Don’t paper mache over real rocks. Why? Well, they’re beautiful, and perfect, and oh so, you know, rock-like, but…

Getting your shell off the rock is gonna be a bitch-and-a-half, really. I tried this.

Plus, you need a LOT of very different rocks, so unless you’re going to copy someone’s existing rock wall or fireplace (yeah, I definitely considered this), you’ll need 60+ rocks. Rocks are heavy. Really heavy. And being heavy make lugging them around or laying them out to dry difficult.

Don’t paper mache on top rocks.

Here’s my naive sketch, just China (grease pencil) on kraft paper, to get scale.

Looks so simple, doesn’t it? I really thought I’d be done within two weekends. Had no idea that I should be allowing about 45 minutes per rock.

The basic components would be:

  • hearth (a single slab of stone or concrete, let’s keep something simple)
  • mantel shelf (modeled on “live edge” log I’d seen hiking up around Mount Baldy, smoothed by the river coming down Ice House Canyon)
  • firebox (old skool rectangular fire brick)
  • legs (aka pillars or jamb) topped with header (lintel) (this is the money shot, my round river rock surround)

I’d be able to disassemble the fireplace into these pieces, and build it in these stages, too.

Here’s a paper river rock’s life, from wadded-paper form (taped to cardboard templates, the rock’s outline) to final paper maché shell:

Nothing wrong with verifying they still fit as intended:

I made some mid-course corrections here, already reducing the number of rocks because you always end up with bigger objects than you planned.

Here’s the hearth, seen from below. You can see the scratch bead styrofoam (packing from a bookshelf shipping box) used to make a double-walled sandwich. This is shockingly strong.

Below, the legs and header get hot glued together (each is merely a sturdy cardboard box, with a few shelves each as cross braces).

You can see how the pillars slip down into slots in the hearth, making assembly easy, but sturdy. The bottoms of all surfaces have felt glued all ’round, so we can slide around on the wood floors without scratching.

(if your tastes run more toward a rock-free cardboard fireplace look you might enjoy Bartek Elsner’s elegant all-cardboard fireplace)

Now that we have the 3D shape, last opportunity to adjust placement and assign each rock (the orange gaffer’s (paper) tape) its orientation and final position. Note that at this point the rocks have no “sides” — they do not wrap around/over the edge. That comes soon enough.

This was a dark hour of the soul: would I ever get done? Adding the “edge wraps” took much longer than anticipated. Thankfully I’d saved all the rock forms, so some chopping and in they went. But another delay.

This aren’t wooden Dutch shoes, these are the edge or corner rocks that need to wrap two pillar surfaces.

Finally something truly easy: the firebox. Just a simple inset with firebrick. I used quite a few different cardboard thicknesses, even tearing and layering to make aged brick. Also scratched edges and surfaces with utility knife and tools.

If I had it to do over I’d not align the bricks to the corners and I would have made them thicker, the “mortar” further back. And distressed the surfaces more. Though in this light the effect plays well.

Next task is building the mantel. Since I didn’t have card stock of sufficient length I had to extend the boards, and I used an old carpenter’s trick of zig-zagging the seams and cutting the pieces together so they fit together snugly and quite strong.

This is, admittedly, an over-the-top mantel log, but why not at this point?

Since the mantel will receive a heavy bric-a-brac layer once done it needs to be strong enough to support fairly heavy goods, thus we do another foam reinforcement (foam snaps, but this stuff is dense enough that it resists compression rather well).

Yeah, again, getting carried away with the fussy, knobby bits.

Finally, a test for fit. I love how this looks back in our spare room, which has this incredibly low ceiling (it’s reclaimed bit of the garage roof/porch) that already feels like a cozy cabin.

Yes, those are battery operated candles — the irony of a dangerously flammable paper fireplace is not entirely lost on me.

The entire structure weighs less than what one actual rock would weigh, plus it comes apart for transporting/storage.

And here it is in the living room, just in time for Christmas (for some reason I forgot to take a photo after we’d hung up our stockings), but you get the idea.

Oh, you noticed we never painted it. Yeah, that had been the plan, but time constraint aside everyone seems to enjoying seeing that flour-dusted paper finish, so we’ve left it that way. For this year at least.