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How to Make a Papier-Mache Volcano for a Science Fair

I have worked in afterschool programs and zoo education departments and spend a lot of time with my school-age daughters.

Building a papier-mache volcano is a bit messy, but it can be fairly easy. It is a great way to give children a chance to exercise their artistic abilities and learn some science at the same time.

Materials You Will Need

Here is a list of the materials you will need:

  • newspaper
  • empty plastic bottle
  • liquid laundry starch
  • paint and paintbrushes
  • cardboard square
  • baking soda
  • vinegar
  • funnel
  • food coloring - red
  • tape
  • tray (to hold starch)
  • cup (to hold vinegar)
  • plastic cover for your workspace
Inside the volcano.

Inside the volcano.

How to Build the Volcano

  1. Using the tape, attach the empty plastic bottle to the center of the cardboard square. The size of the bottle and the size of the cardboard will determine the size of your volcano.
  2. Next, crumple up some of the newspaper into balls and position them around the plastic bottle. This will add volume to your volcano.
  3. Pour some of the liquid laundry starch into the tray.
  4. Tear some of the newspaper into one or two-inch strips and dip a strip into the starch tray. Smooth off the extra starch so the newspaper strip is not dripping and put it on top of the balled-up newspaper.
  5. In the beginning it is tricky to keep the balls in place while applying the strips. Just keep going. It will take a couple of layers before the volcano will start to take shape.
  6. Continue to add layers until your volcano looks like a mountain.
A completed papier-mache volcano.

A completed papier-mache volcano.

Painting the Volcano

When you are finished with the papier-mache process, allow your volcano to dry completely (about 24 hours). Once it is dry, you can apply paint. For a more realistic look, paint green near the bottom and brown or grey closer to the top.

How to Make the Volcano Erupt

  1. After your volcano is dry, use the funnel to pour some baking soda into the plastic bottle.
  2. Put an equal amount of vinegar into a cup.
  3. For a more authentic-looking volcano, add red or orange food coloring to the vinegar. (The baker’s gel food colorings will provide a more rich-looking color.)
  4. Take the volcano outside or to another space that can be easily cleaned.
  5. When you are ready, quickly pour the vinegar into the bottle and watch your volcano erupt!

The Art Connection: A Brief History of Papier-Mache

French for “chewed paper,” papier-mache is a technique of binding pieces of paper or pulp with an adhesive. Traditional papier-mache paste is a mixture of water and starch-like flour. Sometimes oils are added to prevent mold. Once dry, papier-mache can be cut, sanded, or painted.

  • In ancient Egypt, coffins were made from cartonnage which is layers of papyrus or linen covered with plaster.
  • In Europe, gilded papier-mache was used as a low-cost alternative to gilded plaster or wood.
  • In Asia, papier-mache was used to make small boxes and trays as well as to add decoration to armor and shields.
  • Papier-mâché - Wikipedia
    Check this out if you would like to learn more about the history of papier-mache. It's pretty interesting!

The Geology Connection: How Volcanoes are Formed

Volcanoes are usually formed where tectonic plates are diverging (moving apart) or converging (coming together). The movement of the plates creates a weak place in the earth’s crust where melted rock known as magma can escape from below the surface along with gasses and volcanic ash.

To demonstrate the movement of tectonic plates for children, fill a clear plastic tray with water. Cut a few shapes out of craft foam and drop them in the water. This will help you show the kids how the thin crust of the earth floats on top of the liquid mantle.

Some volcanoes are formed where the earth’s crust is stretched and a thin spot is created. You can demonstrate this using a sheet of plastic wrap and pulling on opposite sides until it stretches to form a thin spot and eventually a hole.

The Chemistry Connection: Why Baking Soda and Vinegar Erupt

When the baking soda and vinegar in this activity are mixed the volcano erupts because of the chemical reaction, but what is really happening?

The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a base. Vinegar (dilute acetic acid) is an acid. When they are mixed together an acid-base reaction takes place wherein the acid and base neutralize each other. In the process, carbon dioxide gas is formed. The immediate formation and release of the gas cause the eruption.

© 2012 Camille Diaz


Leah Lefler from Western New York on May 31, 2012:

We're definitely trying this one during the summer. My boys will LOVE it! Adding this to our summer project list!