Paper Cut
October 17, 2010 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Any tips on starting some intricate paper cuts?

I'd love to make some paper cuts for my new baby neice's room. I've done some intricate carving in the past but never with paper. Any tips on where to start with paper choice and knife selection? So far, i've been using 20lb laser printer paper and some exacto blades, but i'm sure there are better choices out there. Thanks!
posted by AutoPilot83 to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've gotten somewhat into papercutting over the past few years. I've tried different cutting instruments -- ceramic blades, tiny swiveling blades, etc. -- but I really find a standard exacto blade to be the best choice. A nice sharp exacto blade can do anything that a fancier blade can do, and at a much lower price (so you can use a fresh blade for every project). Make sure you have a handle that's comfortable and padded, because your finger joints can really start to hurt after a while!

A self-healing cutting mat will be VERY helpful for this. Or you can get a cheap frame and use the glass as a cutting surface, although that will dull your blade more quickly.

In terms of paper: I find computer paper really difficult to cut. I find that it tears very easily. Jeff Rudell recommends watercolor paper, which is heavier than standard printer paper. Cardstock is another option, but I've found that it frequently has multiple layers, which can make cutting it really difficult (you don't want to apply too much pressure when you're cutting because then you can't move the blade around as smoothly, so you wind up having to go over everything twice if the paper has two layers). My absolute favorite cutting paper is this one made by the Paper Company; it's kind of like a thick (but not too thick!), opaque vellum with a pearlescent sheen to it. I buy it at Joann's, in the scrapbooking section. It cuts smoothly and it's strong enough to support very delicate designs. Let me know if you'd like more information about how to find it.

I suggest going to the scrapbooking section of a good crafts store and buying a variety of papers in different weights, textures, etc. Then you can test them out and see which you prefer.
posted by pluckemin at 11:08 AM on October 17, 2010

Response by poster: OP here: thanks! I am the experimenting type so I'm gonna try everything you mentioned :) Do you have any of your work online?! I'd love to see.
posted by AutoPilot83 at 11:14 AM on October 17, 2010

I did a lot more paper cutting in college, but I've kept it up a little bit, and I swear I still have calluses!

The key is, if you feel like you're working too hard to get an intended result, it's either your tools or your materials that are wrong for the job, not your talents as a craftsperson.

Like pluckemin, I've found that a sharp exacto blade is my favorite tool. However, I've been to opening exhibitions of paper cutting artists who have told me that actually, scalpel blades, which you can buy at specialty medical supply shops, are their go-to tool. That's crazytalk, though, for someone who is doing it non-professionally. Also, I've known colleagues who much prefer different tools for their different hands. I have relatively small hands with short fingers and I hold my pencil in a strange why I've never been able to unlearn; different styluses have ergonomic bumps and whatnot in places that are wrong for me but perfect for others. That's probably why I got calluses! Additionally, I have a few pairs of scissors I revert to sometimes. Scissors are better for gentle curves, straight lines, and a few other things that I find blades are just not quite right for. I only use them for cutting paper and only for precision jobs, and I found the ones with the sharpest, thinnest taper and tips with the smoothest motion. They aren't sewing scissors, though, they're these heavy delightful things that I can't recall where I got them, in three different sizes.

Paper is something you're going to have to experiment with. If you're looking to create something that feels more like interior decoration and less like a scrapbooking activity, I suggest coloring paper to the right hue that you want, instead of depending on commercial availability. The application of pigment is going to break down the paper a bit, though, so you'll need to wait a few days for your material to completely dry and cure. They are lots of ways to apply color, with ink or pigment or dye or crayons, but since the end result is likely going to be fragile you'll want to do color first, then cutting.

Computer paper can vary widely, almost as much as the rest of the paper out there. Don't be afraid to try the cheap stuff, actually - although watercolor paper can have a nice heft and bevel to it, the ease and pleasure of cutting through something like onion-skin, if you have a deft enough hand and a sharp enough blade, is delightful. Vellum is also a pleasure, but the really good stuff is so pricey (there's less brilliant vellum that doesn't take pigment as well and can be unevenly thick, don't let it fool you!) that I only use it for final products and not for messing around.

I've found a self-healing mat to be indispensable, not just in paper cutting but in 99% of my other crafts and activities as well. They can get a little grippy or slippy, though, so depending on my paper I've put substrates that I can hack up between my paper and mat. For a while I experimented with light dusts of adhesive spray, but that ended up curling things more than helping. I've stolen a trick from the kitchen though - I put a dish towel or a silicon mat between the mat and my table, which keeps the mat really stable, and changed the way I apply pressure on the paper for the better.

Best of luck on your project!
posted by Mizu at 12:28 PM on October 17, 2010

Are you familiar with scherenschnitte (paper cutting)? I know it as a Pennsylvania German folk craft; Googling on scherenschnitte (pattern/template/supplies) may be a help. Also: YouTube tutorial.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:33 PM on October 17, 2010

Try out the Fiskars Fingertip blade. It is super comfortable to use. If you want to try one, stop by a scrapbooking store and ask. I used to work at Archiver's, and they will open just about anything and let you try it before you buy. They sold these the last time I checked, but they don't have an online store.
posted by wwartorff at 1:17 PM on October 17, 2010

I do a little papercutting, and I use a sharp X-Acto knife like the other folks here mentioned. If you're working on very thin, fine areas of a design, press the blade down through the paper rather than dragging to cut, which may tear the thinnest parts of the design. Press down, cut through, pick up the blade and move it over, press down, cut through, etc. It can be tedious, but this method gives me the best results. I recently did a series of papercuts of my family including my pets, and their whiskers took forever to cut out but I was really pleased with how it turned out.

Also, if you're having trouble cutting smooth curves with your blade, you can rough cut it with the blade and then round out all the angles later with small scissors, like cuticle or embroidery scissors.
posted by illenion at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2010

Almost forgot, if you're doing detail work by pressing through the paper like I mentioned, it helps to have a piece of corrugated cardboard underneath for the blade to sink into. Make sure you change your blade often or else it can tear the paper or crush your edges into the cardboard.
posted by illenion at 1:32 PM on October 17, 2010

Or if you are lazy like me, you can invest in a Cricut. It's a fun machine; and you can cut any vector graphic images you find online. Buy the machine off ebay/craigslist and buy the software (make-the-cut) that run on the PC and communicate with the machine. Don't buy Provocraft expensive pattern cartridges.
posted by curiousZ at 3:15 PM on October 17, 2010

Just going to throw this one out there: At one time, for lack of alternatives, I had a lot of fun cutting (with a standard xacto) standard colored file folders. They come in an array of colors, keep a nice bend and are super durable. They also glue and layer well, and each one comes in a bright (the outside) and a "heather" (the inside). All depends on your goals. But for a baby's room, things like flowers and swirls turn out great. Have fun!
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 4:28 PM on October 17, 2010

You might find some useful info and inspiration on the blog All About Paper Cutting.
posted by various at 6:31 PM on October 17, 2010

Ever thought about Japanese (handmade) paper? Very long-fibred, so intricate designs hold together very well. Visually, tactile-ly much more interesting and elegant than copy paper or file folders.
Available, ultimately, from here (you can't go wrong with these folks).
Also, this.
posted by segatakai at 7:46 PM on October 17, 2010

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