Paper Engineering

how pop-up books are made

People often ask me “How do you do that?” when looking at something I’ve made. So I thought it would I try and answer that, as well as give an overview into the process of how pop-up books are made.

I usually begin the process of designing a pop-up by staring at a sketch that either I, or an illustrator, has made.  Sometimes it can be just a written brief supplied by a client.  My mind goes through the numerous mechanics I know and try to decide which one would be most suitable for what I’m trying to achieve.  I weigh up the pros and cons of each one and make numerous little diagrams of what I might build.  This is really just thinking by scribbling, because everything always works on paper!  It’s only after you’ve drawn, cut, and assembled the mechanics, do you realize that you got it wrong!  There are always several ways that a pop-up or scene could be created, and it’s up to the paper-engineer to explore the options and come up with the best solution.

Although I know some of the other paper engineers, I’ve never discussed with them how they go about creating their work. All I know is that my process is a matter trial and error.  To borrow a well-known phrase from the movie industry “things really do up end on the cutting room floor!” Sometimes you hit it right first time, and other times you can spend hours, even days, trying to get something to work properly.

Example of a die. ​ The thin strips are the blades and the black pieces are the rubber that pop the printed sheet off the die after being cut.

I once saw an exhibition of Marvel Comic artwork and I was amazed at how messy it was!  It was made up of several layers of paper for each rework the artist made, complete with lots of non-reproducing blue pencil lines.  That’s sort of how my initial pop-ups look.  I start out with my initial clean, nicely measured mechanic, and slowly glue new bits to it, or cut bits away, until it evolves into quite a developed messy piece.  Finally, the time comes when I have to pull it all apart and remake it from scratch to create a clean version.  I’m always reluctant to have to make that step because I feel like I’m restarting and it’s also time consuming. But in the end it’s always worth it, and of course, essential to the design whole process.

Once I have a clean mock-up that works well the next step is to create some dielines.  Dielines are the lines that a die-maker follows to make the cutting blades (dies) that cut out the pop-up pieces.  Dielines used to be drawn by hand but are now drawn in the computer.  These electronic dielines also double as a guide for creating the pop-up artwork in the right size and position.  Whoever is illustrating the pop-ups draws their preliminary artwork so that it fits within the dielines.  This can be a to and fro process, sometimes requiring dieline modifications, to accomodate a better solution for the artwork.  When both the preliminary artwork and the dielines work together then the final artwork can be begun.  Sometimes, in the case of artwork created in the computer, that only requires minor tweaking, or has already been achieved.

The final composite of artwork and dielines is then sent to the printer for print production.  The next step involves reviewing both white assembled mock-ups made by the printer, and flat color proofs of the artwork.  When both are approved the printer will sometimes produce advance color mock-ups from the proof sheets prior to final print production.

Then begins the long wait to see your book in the store!

Click on the following links to see some development images from some of my projects:

Making The Castaway Pirates

Creating Eric Carle's Advent Calendar

Creating Paper Blossoms