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Papercutting Fundamentals: Essential Tools & Techniques

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Papercutting is a fabulous art form. You can create anything from simple graphic designs to incredibly detailed three-dimensional images. In this tutorial you'll discover all the tools and techniques you need to start creating your own works of papercut art.


Supplies

papercutting fundamentals supplies

Essential Papercutting Tools

1. A Cutting Mat

A self-healing cutting mat is essential to protect your table. It’s best to get the largest one you can so you have plenty of working space. It’s very awkward to make a papercut on a too-small cutting mat.

papercutting essentials cutting mat

2. A Metal Ruler

Plastic rulers are great for measuring and drawing, but if you try to cut along them with a scalpel, you’ll end up shaving chunks off your ruler! A metal ruler ensures you can cut a nice straight line.

paper cutting fundamentals ruler

3. A Pencil

Some people create papercuts freehand, without drawing them first. However, I find that perfecting the design is half the fun, so I always use a pencil first.

papercutting fundamentals pencil

4. A Scalpel

There are many different scalpels on the market. If you’re going to be doing detailed cuts, then you want something that feels comfortable in your hand for long periods of time.

For this reason, I prefer a rounded handle with a nice soft grip. This scalpel also has the advantage of being able to take any blade.

If you already have a flat metal scalpel, I recommend wrapping the handle in masking tape to make it easier and more comfortable to hold. The last thing you want is hand-cramp halfway through creating your art work.

Once you've become proficient in papercutting, you may want to try a swivelling scalpel. These are fabulous inventions but they can be very tricky to control. It's much easier to start with a fixed blade.

paper cutting fundamentals scalpel

5. Blades

Any scalpel blade can be used to create a papercut. However, as you progress with your creations you may find yourself becoming more fussy.

The ideal blade is strong, with a fine point, and has just the right amount of flexibility for negotiating curves. Swann Morton 10A blades tick all the boxes for detailed papercutting.

paper cutting fundamentals blades

6. Paper

Tracing paper is used to get your design onto the back of the paper you’re going to cut out. If you don’t have tracing paper at hand, baking parchment can be used, however working with it is not quite as easy.

You’ll need plenty of rough paper for creating your designs, and then of course some special paper for your final cut.

The type of paper you use for your final cut depends on the result you require. To create a flat piece to be framed, you could use something as simple as copier paper. If you want to show off your cut’s three dimensions then something sturdier is preferable. Watercolour paper is great because it’s easy to cut but it's also strong enough to stand up in a box frame.

paper cutting fundamentals paper

7. Backing Material

If you plan to frame your papercut design, it’s important to consider what's going behind it. The obvious choice is a sheet of contrasting coloured paper, but you could also use fabric, newsprint or pages from an old book. You're only limited by your imagination (and what fits in the frame, of course!).

papercutting fundamentals backing materials

Basic Papercutting Techniques

1. Transferring Your Design

The first technique in papercutting involves creating a mirror image of your design so you can work from the back-side of your paper. Cutting from behind gives your papercut a clean, crisp look and helps to disguise any imperfections. Also, if you draw and cut your design on the front of the paper, it's almost impossible to rub out the lines without damaging the delicate papercut.

Step 1

Use pencil to draw your design and be sure to use bold, thick lines.

paper cutting fundamentals tracing

Step 2

Place your tracing paper face-down on the reverse side of your cutting paper. Use a little masking tape to hold it in place. Firmly scribble over all the lines of your design with a pencil.

paper cutting fundamentals scribbling

Step 3

Remove the tracing paper and reveal your design. You may wish to go over some of the lines with your pencil to make them clearer. You now have a mirror image of your design on the reverse of your cutting paper. It will be the right way round when viewed from the front.

paper cutting fundamentals transferred design

2. Cutting a Straight Line

Work on the mirror image you've created of your design. For straight lines it's best to use your metal ruler.

papercutting fundamentals straight lines

3. Cutting Curved Lines

Step 1

For curved lines it's best to move the paper around, rather than your scalpel.

paper cutting fundamentals curved lines

Step 2

Here you can see how to use the reversed design to guide your cutting. Cut as close as you can to either side of your pencil line, just leaving the width of the pencil mark - which in this case is roughly 2mm - behind.

paper cutting fundamentals back view

Practice!

Now it's time to start practicing cutting lines and simple shapes. You want to cut deeply enough that you go through the paper in one smooth cut, but not so deep that you get stuck into your cutting mat. This will not only make it difficult to cut smoothly, but you could lose the point of your blade in the mat!

Now you’re ready to start creating beautiful papercuts. If you'd like some ideas and designs to get you started, keep your eye on Tuts+ for some awesome new papercutting projects! Let us know what you'd like to see in the comments below.

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