I used to sneer at paper mache, but these days, I'm a convert, it just needs to be done properly.
Most paper mache you see only uses newsprint, which is a lightweight fragile paper. Most paper mache you see is hollow which is fragile unless it's spherical or egg-shaped. When you give it a foam core, it resists deformation, and deformation is what leads to cracks. Most paper mache you see looks horrible, because no one has bothered to properly surface it. Surfacing is the process of hiding all the seam lines wrinkles, dents, and other flaws so the surface is ready to be painted.
So make it out of styrofoam, wrap it 3 layers of heavy porous paper, such as grocery bags, saturated (but not oversaturated) in paper mache paste. If you get any airbubbles that can't be pressed down, they weaken the piece and ideally need to be cut out and filled in once it dries. So really try to push out all the air bubbles. Scrapers help with this. Once dry, you can fix any major flaws with lumps of paperclay or wood putty. Apply it in excess so there's a hill to sand down. Major highspots can be sanded away with 80 grit sandpaper (give or take) but it's often easier to build up with a putty and sand that then it is so sand through paper strips. Anyway, once major flaws are adressed, to get a smooth surface, you can either brush it with layer after layer of gesso, or as I prefer, water down some paperclay with white glue and a bit of water until it's like heavy paint. Brush a layer all over the the surface and let that dry. Then sand the surface lightly with 180 grit then 220. If you think it's smooth, paint it with primer. This reveals flaws that are harder to see. If you see flaws and want to fix them, then repeat the steps as needed, otherwise, you are ready to paint. Some flaws are appropriate; you'll never see a flawless mallet in the real world.
You might want to look at a piece of wood and use a liner brush to paint natural grain lines over your wood-colored basecoat of choice, or you can just paint it brown or black and leave it be.