Paper Engineering

Tools of the Trade

If you want to experiment making your own pop-ups you only need a few simple tools to begin:

  • A hard sharp pencil like a 2H to mark out the paper, and a soft 2B pencil for sketching out ideas.
  • A ruler and protractor for measuring sizes and angles.
  • A pair of scissors, and ideally an X-Acto style cutting knife.
  • A steel edged ruler if you use an X-Acto knife.
  • Some glue.
  • Some pins, and Bulldog clips (used occasionally).
  • Ideally a burnishing tool for making scores in the paper.  You can use the back of a dinner knife but that’s a little awkward!  A drained ballpoint pen also works well, but there’s never one around when you want one, and it takes a long time to deliberately drain one – believe me, I’ve done it!
  • Colored markers or pencils if you want to decorate the pop-ups.
  • And if you’re feeling really keen (or flush) you can buy a cutting board and a small light box, but that’s not a necessity to begin.


You can make pop-ups from any material that you can cut, and that has a certain amount of rigidity.  Apart from the professional grade papers that are out there I’ve found that 80lb cover paper works well.  You can usually find that at any good paper store.  Failing that, experiment with whatever you can find at the art store or office supply store.  The professional paper world is a big and complicated place, so unless you’re in the business, it’s best avoided!

There’s no right or wrong thicknesses, just remember that the thinner the paper the floppier the pop-up will be, and that the thicker the paper the harder to cut and fold it will be!  There’s lots of free material available, some of it right in your recycling bin – like cereal and snack boxes, toy cartons, store gift boxes, etc., etc.  You could even use some of the graphics from these cartons as decoration for your pop-ups.

Try adding other materials to your paper, such as aluminum foil, feathers, gift wrap paper, plastics, maybe you could use thin balsa wood or ice lolly/popsicle sticks?!  As long as it folds fairly flat who cares!  Create something unique and mail it to a friend – it beats an e-card any day!

Most of all – be creative!