This may be the most comprehensive post about glue you’ve ever read. In fact, I challenge you to find a more comprehensive post about glue. I’m just going to warn you that I have perhaps A LOT TO SAY about glue and jump right in. If this idea bores you, or you’re offended by glue because you are/were a horse… skip it.
First and foremost, when collaging always always always use acid-free glue. Now, this might be a moot point in terms of archival-ness as most papers that you’ll be using (magazines and so forth) are not acid-free, you absolutely want to know that your glue will not be eating through the paper and causing big fat holes ten years from now. (Or next week, or whatever.)
Second, this is not glue.
This is glue when you are five. This is not glue when you are creating artwork. It’s messy, almost impossible to remove all of the bubbles, and quite frankly just doesn’t stick properly. If this is what you’ve got in front of you right now as “glue” to make a collage – give it to a five year old and get some proper glue.
Likewise, if this is is what’s in front of you – just get up, go to your nearest art supply store, and start over. Yes, this is an improvement, but this is a big sticky mess full of fumes and will not only be a pain in your ass to work with – but if you’re using it for more than ten minutes (and if you’re doing anything remotely intricate, you will be), it’s going to give you one hell of a headache.
(If you disagree with me on the rubber cement, I will challenge you to come over here for a glue-off and you will find yourself properly schooled. I too used to believe that this counted as “glue” until I learned how very wrong I was.)
Ok, so what IS glue, then? You’ve got some options.
This is glue. If you have an acid-free glue stick, this is absolutely glue. The best glue sticks to use are the ones that say “photo mount.” In general, check for the words “photo safe” on your glue as this means “won’t eat through the damn paper.” Photo-safe glues are also less likely to tear should you need to re-position the page mid-glue. Though really, try not to need to do this as eventually, something’s going to tear and you’re going to cuss a lot.
Glue sticks come in handy for gluing small areas or layers. Gluing layers is a very, VERY advanced technique that I’m not going to recommend that you try until you’re really, really good with your glue application techniques and very, very patient with your positioning. But if you have to do it (gluing part of one element over/under another before attaching to a background) – use a glue stick. It’s the “stickiest” so your layers will attach together immediately and won’t be flopping around when you try to attach the layered element to the background.
Glue sticks are NOT useful for larger pieces or backgrounds. I mean, you CAN use it, but it takes a lot of time and glue to get it to stick properly. If you’re going to use a glue stick – for the love of Dog, smear the glue on the whole element. Do not cheat like a middle school art project and only glue the edges. This will leave your piece looking “lower” in some spots and “higher” where there’s no glue and just looks sloppy.
This is the best all-purpose collage glue there is, hands down. If you want One Glue To Rule Them All – get Mod Podge. Now, some art purist is going to come down here and get all in my face about Matte Medium. So I’m just going to head them off at the pass. Matte Medium is a painter’s medium that is also very useful as an adhesive. However. For the serious collagist… it’s not sticky enough. Matte Medium dries very fast, but can take many applications to properly “stick” especially with heavier paper. If you want to make sure that your elements are going NOWHERES, you want something stickier. Mod Podge is where it’s at.
To apply mod podge, you need a foam brush. One of those itty bitty teeny tiny hardware store foam brushes. Or rather, many of them. Your brush will eventually become saturated with glue and you’ll have to dump it. Try to have at least three on hand at all times. Dampen the brush with water and squeeze out any excess before dipping in glue. You want the brush to absorb the glue, but you don’t want the glue to get watered down and slippery instead of sticky. NEVER! use a bristle brush to apply glue. Ever. The bristles will shed and you’ll end up with bristles stuck to your paper and it’s nigh on impossible to get them OFF. If you don’t have a foam brush, use your fingers.
Which brings me to an important point about your hands. Do not try to use gloves while gluing. Just don’t. They will get stuck to something and you won’t be able to get it off and you’ll cuss a lot. Plan on having sticky fingers and washing them very, very often. When I’m working with glue, I’m washing my hands approximately twice per hour to remove a layer of glue from my fingertips. It’s nearly impossible to prevent getting glue on your hand as at some point, you’ll need to spread a tiny spot of glue very, very precisely and the only good tool for doing so is the human fingertip.
If you use mod podge, it’s a good idea to apply a thin layer of glue over the finished piece as a varnish. This will not only seal any loose edges, but will give the piece a flat and uniform look, making it incrementally harder to distinguish individual elements by their edges.
Finally, we come to Lazy Man’s Glue. I say this lovingly as I might just have a spray mount addiction. After years of putting in my dues with mod podge, I’ve come to love the ease of the spray can. Certainly nothing easier than spraying the back of your piece and WHOOMP! there it is.
However. Spray mount is not for amateurs. Unlike every other glue where you can futz the positioning a tad here and there, with spray mount you have ONE and exactly ONE shot at getting your piece in the right place before it is there for all eternity. You can not reposition after you’ve set it down. At all. That’s it. Finito. You’re done. Currently, I layer and attach any small elements with a glue stick and then spray larger pieces with the spray mount. Spray mount is the holy grail for avoiding bubbles as it will stick absolutely 100% flat every damned time. You just have to either know EXACTLY where your piece is going and have steady enough hands to get your wet, gluey piece into the right spot first try or just not care if you end up off by a few millimeters. (You may not know this, but those millimeters have been known to make me twitch and – you guessed it – cuss a lot. So I’m definitely in the bracket of “I care. I care big time.”)
So, now you’ve chosen your weapon. You need a space to apply the glue.
DO NOT EVER! EVER! apply glue on your cutting board. JUST SAY NO. I’ve done this in fits of laziness and it leads to a bumpy, messy cutting board wherein dirt sticks to the excess glue and then you get dirty cruddy glue residue all over every clean piece you go to cut and then you cuss a lot.
What you want for glue application is a piece of something sturdy and smooth (i.e. not having anything that will get stuck to the glue) that you are not using for anything else, ever, so that it can just get covered in glue and re-used when dry. I use old sheets. I place an old piece of fabric over my desk, put the piece I’m gluing face down, and apply the glue. Excess glue from the edges ends up on the sheet – not my desk or any other papers or my cutting board – and when dry, the sheet is still useable for gluing over and over again. I’ll also use old pieces of smooth cardboard (like a priority mailing envelope) in a pinch. It’s a very bad idea to use plain paper as the glue will get stuck to the paper and then the paper sticks to what you’re gluing and then you cuss a lot. A piece of glass also works well – I just prefer fabric as a drop-cloth as I’m using a lot of spray mount and it’s easier to see the giant orange piece of fabric and not get glue on my desk or the rug or the cat or whatever. And when choosing fabric – you must be certain you’ve picked a material that doesn’t have little sheddy lint bits that will end up on your glue. Regular cotton sheets are great. T-shirts and anything jersey knit is likely to accidentally stick to the glue and get a very fine layer of fuzz on everything.
So. There you go. Now you have the information to glue things to other things with the bare minimum of cussing.