How I work

In this post, I'll try to explain how I work as a Paper Engineer and answer some common questions that have been asked a lot of times. I hope this is useful for others, who would like to know more about what I do.

The tools I use

When it comes to working with paper, it really helps when you're using the right tools. Especially when you have to work precisely. This is a list of all the tools I use to make my pop-ups.

• Cutting ruler
• X-acto knife / precision blade
• Basic hobby knife (break knife)
• Scoring tool (that can be used with rulers)
• Two-sided tape (Yellow Scotch no sheet)
• Artist tape 12 and 20 mm
• Plastic ruler (scoring and drawing long straight lines)
• Steal ruler that starts from 0 (for measuring inside a build)
• Scissors used for "just paper" or "paper and tape"
• Geo triangle used for short scoring and drawing angles
• Mechanical pencil and eraser
• Self-healing cutting mat and tiny self-healing cutting mat

The tape I use is "artist tape". It's expensive when you compare it to regular masking tape that is used for painting, which is almost exactly the same. But I like the artist tape better because it's white and looks cleaner on my concept builds. The benefits of using this tape are that the fibers behave like paper so it's perfect to use for hinges. It's also easy to cut and apply or remove. You can draw on it with a pencil or Sharpie but not with alcohol markers.

Glue vs Tape:

I prefer to use tape because you can remove it most of the time. This makes it less stressful to assemble a build and making a mistake doesn't ruin the project. Glue also can cause the paper to get too weak, heavy, stiff, or wobbly. Clear tape can dry out and break over time so artist (masking) tape is the best choice for building concepts.

How do you get those clean and smooth cuts? Do you do this by hand?
It’s all hand cut with an x-acto knife. The trick is to not push too hard. If you do that, the knife will dive deeper into the self-healing cutting mat. That way it’s harder to cut round shapes. Some people apply extra pressure when they do concentrated cuts. I did that too. But it makes it harder to cut clean. I use 160 g/m paper and I trained myself (pay attention) to cut with the least pressure needed. Also, replacing the blades for every new project. I use about two blades per week.

Throwing away used knife blades (and other sharp stuff) cuts and damages the trash bins and also can be dangerous. So I safe all my used blades in a jar. It takes forever to fill and I have a safe place to keep this.

This is my trash bin. It's just a box so I can stick leftover tape to the edges. Saves me a lot of time cleaning the bin and I empty it once in a while. I've got attached to it so much, that I don't want to replace it with a new box. It became part of my setup and I sort of like it this way.

I would like to recommend the book "The Elements of Pop-Up" that has real working examples of all base techniques. Tip 2: Look up tutorials on YouTube by The Pop-up channel and the masterclasses by Matthew Reinheart. They teach a lot of basic techniques I’m using.

This is what I mostly start with. A base that can be expanded with other mechanisms. The subject for this pop-up was "Big wave". So from that idea, I started with one wave and a surfer on top. With that decided, I have to work my way around this and turn it into a scene that makes it more obvious what's going on.

This is the result of the complete design with other mechanisms combined with the main mechanism. A fun detail in this pop-up is the timing of the palm tree. It folds out last when opening and folds in first when closing, so the waves have all the room to lay down flat. It's details like this that make it really fun and challenging to make these designs.

Question: What paper do you use?

Answer: It totally depends on the project I'm working on. For concept builds I like to work with uncoated 160 g/m white paper. It's cheap, easy to draw on, color with markers and because it's uncoated, the tape will go off more easily, which makes it faster to work with and there's also room for adjusting. Colored paper has a rougher fiber and because of that, tape won't come off without damaging the paper. When I make something out of colored paper, I have to be extra careful to not mess up my project because once it's glued, it won't come off.

My Nintendo LABO pop-up piano for example (Youtube video deomnstration), is completely made out of colored paper. I've tested all parts with concept builds and after that, carefully added part by part. I couldn't resist using this as an example because it's one of my favorite projects. I've posted some detailed updates about this project before.

Question: Why do you record and upload your audio? There's not much to hear except paper making noise.

Answer: I'm really not into the whispering ASMR stuff but I do like the sound that paper makes. My pop-ups don't make sounds on purpose* but I think it's interesting to hear how the paper works and how the mechanisms move. The sounds of friction, bending, snapping, and sliding tell a lot about how well a pop-up design works.

Tip: Use laser prints for artwork. Inkjet prints smudge and make the paper fiber weak. Laser prints (toner) are perfect to use for artwork.

Image above: Gravity Falls pop-up card (Youtube video link)

All my designs start with a white concept. I use this as a study to take apart and trace all the parts. That way I can reproduce the design and add the artwork to it.

The orange sheet contains all the parts with notes and marks so I know how to re-build the design. I'm also adding notes of where I want the glue tabs to be. I like to trace the parts on a colored background because it makes it easier to find the contours of all the shapes. I scan these sheets and trace the scan in Adobe illustrator.

The end result. It's subtle but it's a cat that uses his paw to clean. I like how the carpet and cat are hiding most of the centerfold and mechanisms. So it doesn't look like it's build-up from the centerfold. (tutorial video link)

Question: Do you have the template so I can make it myself?

Answer: I've made a couple of templates but only basic designs. Complex designs take a lot of time to explain and even more, time to take apart and trace. And just a template is not enough. So a step-by-step tutorial is needed witch is also really time-consuming to make. Most of my designs are concepts and experiments that I'm not planning to take apart because of this.

Little Red Riding Hood pop-up scene. The first white concept with rough artwork sketched on the design. I will use this design to trace and measure all the parts so I can rebuild it in color.

Little Red Riding Hood artwork: After making the concept, I used photo's to recreate the artwork in color. By tracing the sketch lines I also know roughly how to place everything, build up in layers.

Little Red Riding Hood Nesting sheet: All the parts traced from the first concept. The next step is to add color to this, using the artwork as a reference.

Little Red Riding Hood: first built after tracing. I'll post more updates about this project soon.

Mr. Puckett pop-up card

By using this sketch, I can also measure the right proportions that are needed to hide the main mechanisms so it looks more natural. I used alcohol-based markers for the coloring.

The result: this happy Mr. Puckett tribute card. 🙂

If you would like to learn this yourself, I would advise you to look up tutorials on YouTube by Matthew Reinhart or the Pop-up channel. They both share useful tutorials that explain basic and more advanced techniques. There are also a lot of free templates available that will give a good insight into how mechanisms are used.

Support my work and make a donation

You can support my projects by buying me a cup of coffee, or any donation you think is suitable.

Thank you!