Making Papier-Mache Pinatas for Profit

Design, construct and decorate papier-mache pinatas, plus how to decorate and market them for profit.
By Connie Arellano
November/December 1983
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Papier-mache pinatas like this one are not only fun to make, but they can also become the basis for a great home business.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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In seventeenth century Italy, celebrations often centered around decorative earthenware pots filled with gifts. As these pieces of art dangled from a rope, blindfolded children (and adults!) would take turns trying to break open the mysterious crockery . . . and when the lucky blow was struck, all of the partygoers would join in a mad scramble for its store of prizes.

The festive pottery later found its way into Spain, and that nation's explorers brought the crocks to the New World. As the tradition caught on, the demand for pinatas increased, and the original earthenware containers gave way to easier-to-make, low cost papier-mache versions.

However, though these delightful party favors have been around for centuries, I've found that few people (other than those of Latin origin) have ever actually enjoyed the delights of a papier-mache pinata . . . and fewer still know how to make on . Well, I decided to take advantage of that situation. And — with more time invested than money — I now clear at least $100 a week by introducing this old custom into my own culture. You can do it, too! And think about this: Because the work can be done at home, you won't even have to hire a babysitter while you're running the business!

Here's What You'll Need

The main ingredient in pinatas is papier-mache, so if you subscribe to a daily newspaper, you're ahead of the game. (Should you lack a supply of your own, I'm sure your friends and relatives would be willing to pass their already read tribunes your way.)

You'll also need plenty of flour-and-water paste. Most households will have enough flour on hand to get started (approximately four cups). However, if you plan to jump right into mass production, you can cut your costs by buying in bulk quantities from a wholesaler . . . and perhaps purchasing generic flour. Just remember that the food quality of this ingredient isn't important: Recently I was fortunate enough to "inherit" 50 pounds of old, weevil-ridden flour, and that windfall saved me nearly $10, providing me with enough fixings to construct almost 100 pinatas.

Once you go into production, you'll be using the flour-water-newspaper combination to cover inflated balloons. Though round 9" balloons are likely to be used the most, you'll find that having a package of assorted sizes and shapes on hand will give you more opportunity for creativity. You'll also occasionally want to bind two or more inflated balloons together, and I've found that any of the now common cyanocrylate glues do that job well. If you need to purchase some of this fast-drying adhesive, keep in mind that a small bottle costing around $2.00 contains enough glue to make 20 to 30 pinatas . . . depending, of course, on the complexity of your designs.

Twine or yarn is used to hang the gift-filled globes, and you'll find that yarn is usually less expensive and more attractive than twine. (Don't hesitate, however, to scrounge and recycle any suitable string you might have on hand.)

Crepe paper provides the color that brings these papier-mache-covered figures to life . . . but don't use the pre-cut, streamer kind. Not only is it difficult to handle . . . it also costs twice as much as does the same material sold in sheet form. You can count on using at least one or two packages of sheet crepe paper per pinata, though your consumption of this material will depend on the size of your creation and on the number of colors you decide to use. Large quantities can be bought from a paper wholesaler at less than 50 cents for an entire sheet . . . which is about half the retail cost.

When it comes time to add the final touches to one of my creations, I most often use construction paper. This, too, can be purchased from a wholesaler . . . but an assorted package selling for less than $1.00 at most retail outlets contains enough paper to decorate 50 to 60 pinatas.

In addition, I've found that plain old white household glue is best for attaching the crepe and construction paper to the papier-mache mold. A four-ounce bottle will carry you through your first project . . . then, if you decide to go into business, you can buy the adhesive by the gallon, saving 6 cents to 9 cents per ounce.

Now, just round up a few more items and you'll be all set to start production. You'll need an old, flexible paintbrush (no less than an inch wide) . . . an empty margarine container (or something similar) . . . scissors . . . a crochet hook (size H or I) . . . a sharp knife . . . a felt-tipped pen or crayon . . . and a small paintbrush (the type used for water or oil paints).

Making the Mold

As noted above, my pinata molds are built around inflated balloons. Only one air-filled globe is required to make a simple toy representing a ball, an egg, or a character's head, but complex animal shapes — or whatever — normally call for two or more balloons. After inflating and tying these, I secure them together with three or four drops of quick setting glue at each "joint".

To prepare your papier-mache, tear newspapers into 2"-wide strips. (Anything broader is difficult to work with.) I've found that it's easiest to keep the papers folded, and to peel off several layers at a time.

Approximately 2 cups of paste will be enough to construct an entire pinata, so-in the margarine container-mix 2 cups of flour with 1 cup of lukewarm water. Should you mix more paste than you need, it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Next, using the larger paintbrush, you can begin to cover the strips with the flour-water paste. As you do so, apply them one at a time onto the inflated balloon, making sure that each piece overlaps its neighbor. Cover the mold completely with two layers of papier-mache (adding a few extra paper-and paste strips to support the joints on a multiballoon version).

Then cover the entire mold with a thick layer of paste to seal the seams and to keep the pinata from cracking as it dries. The drying process will take about 24 hours. (Don't try to speed it up by placing the mold on a heater or in the sunlight, or the air in the balloon will expand . . . possibly splitting the pinata's skin.)

Once the first double-thick layer has dried thoroughly, you can add more papier-mache coats . . . letting them, in turn, dry between applications. Be aware, though, that if the pinata is made of more than four layers, it will be too difficult for small children to break. I usually employ a two- to three layered mold when preparing a toy for preschoolers, and make a tougher, four- to five-layered one for older children.

Facial features, such as noses and ears, can also be made of papier-mache Just build up several layers of paper and paste, shaping them into the desired form. Once the piece is dry, you can attach it to the original mold with more strips of paper and paste. When your papier-mache work is finished, soak the paintbrushes overnight in soapy water and then rinse them. (Warning: The goo never washes out completely . . . so, once a "paste brush", always a "paste brush".)

Get Ready to Decorate

Before you "dress up" your pinata, you'll need to make an opening through which candy, prizes, or gifts can be inserted. So use your knife to cut three sides of a 3" square in an area at the back of the mold near the top, leaving the uncut side at the top to serve as a hinge. After making the opening, you can reach in and remove the burst balloon.

Every pinata also needs a loop to hang by, so — at the very top of the mold — mark two spots about 2 inches apart, and penetrate each of these with your crochet hook. Now, thread 2 to 3 feet of yarn (or twine) through the openings with the hook, and tie the cord's ends together. To conceal the knot, pull it inside the mold, and hold it in place by putting a drop of household glue at each hole. (Allow this adhesive to dry before the pinata is hung.)

For the final preparatory step, use a felt tipped pen or crayon to draw your pinata design onto the surface of the mold.

Colorful Creativity

When you're ready to begin decorating your creation, start with a full sheet of crepe paper, leaving it folded as it was in its package. Cut a 1" to 1 1/2" piece off either end, creating a "streamer". Then, leaving the ribbon folded, use your scissors to make 3/4" slits into one side, spacing the cuts approximately 1/4 inch apart.

Unfold the streamer, and — with the little paintbrush — spread white household glue over a small section of the mold. Apply the streamer, uncut edge down — zigzag fashion — in a continuous, 2"-wide strip, making sure that no newsprint shows through. (Don't be discouraged if this task seems frustrating at first . . . it'll become easier with each pinata you create.)

The Finishing Touches

There are many pinata designs that call for arms and legs . . . and I've found that cone shapes are best for such appendages. To make them, I scissor a solid circle from construction paper, and then cut along the radius of that disk. It's easy, then, to form the circle into a cone and to secure the shape with glue, which is also used to affix the cone to the mold. (To hide the connection, apply crepe paper around the base of each arm or leg.)

Facial features can be clipped out of various colors of construction paper and attached with glue, too. Since eyes can make your pinata look mean, sad, happy, and so on, try to put as much expression into them as possible. (Look at cartoons and comic books to get a few ideas.)

At this point, there's one more step to complete before you can hang up your finished work of art: Glue a colored strip of construction paper (approximately 3" X 1/2") to the inside of the pinata's opening, leaving half of it on the outside. This allows both you and your customer to pinpoint the "secret" entrance. (With each papier-mache creation that I sell, I also include a small typed card that explains a bit about the history of pinatas and describes the game.)

Now, Let's Play!

As few as two people can play the pinata game . . . but more participants make for a merrier time! Hang the toy in an open space (be sure there's ample swinging room), and let the blindfolded guests take their turns at trying to whack the pinata with a stick. (Older children and adults should first be spun around two or three times, to add to the challenge.) Once the pinata has been hit a few times, it'll break, and everyone can join the scramble for the goodies that shower down.

A Successful Adventure

For the past year, I've been marketing my pinatas, for $15 to $21 each, in my hometown and the surrounding community (although I understand that they'd bring even higher prices in a more urban locale). I started my enterprise with only two samples, and solicited business at several gift shops . . . not quite knowing what the outcome might be. To my amazement, I obtained orders for 15 pinatas almost immediately, and just seeing my creations displayed in that store's windows helped to build my confidence.

As the months went by and many orders were filled, I began running an ad in the local weekly paper. Then my business really took of! That advertisement now runs regularly . . . and brings a continuous response.

In addition, of course, I'm very busy just before each holiday . . . with Santa Clauses, Easter eggs and bunnies, valentine hearts, jack-o'-lanterns and witches, and Thanksgiving turkeys. Other occasions require such pinata designs as footballs for homecomings, animals for Scout troops, and a variety of models for birthday parties. Elementary school teachers are high on my list of customers (that is, when making a pinata isn't a classroom project).

Today, my business is as big as I currently want it to be. I can settle for private orders coming in from my ad, or I can — with a little exertion — find a retail outlet. During warm weather, I sometimes load up 20 to 25 pinatas, head for the nearest flea market, and set up a booth. On a busy weekend, this can prove very profitable. Right now, by making two pinatas a day, I can clear $500 a month! (And that figure doesn't take into account the fact that the car I bought for sales and deliveries, and the use of part of my home for business, both provide me with income tax deductions!)

Don't, however, expect your business to boom in a few short weeks. Your skill with papier-mache, and the resulting demand for your product, may come slowly at first . . . but you can use that slack time to develop your artistic skills and to stretch your imagination. After all, it's originality that'll guarantee a successful pinata business.

So go ahead! Make a pinata . . . and make a profit!


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