A Model Way to Play, Part II

This is Part II of a 4-part series that reviews a bit of the history behind papercraft, provides direction on where to begin, and then delves into some expert tips and tricks.

In Part I, I talked a little about my background in papercraft and pointed out some of the highlights of its history. I also briefly touched on some of the main players and discussed their role in how the industry has evolved. Lastly, I provided a few places for the budding papercrafter to start.

Part II doesn’t jump into the thick of things just yet. When beginning as a cardstock modeler, there are a number of items to procure. Though not all of the following need to be purchased right away, it’s a handy list to fall back on when you decide to dive in fully.

Tools of the Trade

Anyone who works with their hands will tell you that you need the right tool for the right job. Likewise with papercraft, superior tools will last you for years and produce high-quality work. Though the price of each individual item isn’t great, it can add up due to the sheer amount of gear that is necessary. I’ll detail each in turn, and go over some of my thoughts and insight into the choices I’ve made.

  1. Metal Ruler: A good straight edge is essential for papercraft. I use a 12″ metal, cork-backed ruler; it resists cuts from the hobby knife much better than a wooden ruler and the cork backing keeps the metal from scratching your prints. Above all, it doesn’t slide around on the cardstock, which can be disastrous when using the razor blade for scoring or cutting.

  2. Scissors: Papercraft junkies swear by their razor blade and scoff at even the thought of using scissors. After being buried under cardstock for eight years, I can emphatically say I’d be lost without a good pair of scissors. Razor blades are wonderful for making special, detailed cuts, and of course, for scoring. However, for the bulk of your work, grab a pair of scissors.

  3. Razor Blades: At the beginning of my papercraft career, I started with an X-ACTO knife. I do not recommended these. First of all, any time I pressed too hard, the tip of the blade would snap off—which dulls the overall effectiveness of the knife. Second, I’ve had the entire blade break off from the handle and go flying. Suffice it to say, I quickly returned to the well to find a better option. These days I use a utility knife any time I need a detailed cut, or when I’m trimming foam core. The blades are sturdier and keep their edge much longer.

  4. Sharpies: The greatest overlooked tip that can be given to any papercrafter is to edge his models with colored pens. Sharpies, though one of the most expensive alternatives, is the only brand I use. Keeping one of every color is a smart move because you never know when a model with brick red, marigold, or pink lemonade will need to be edged.

  5. Spray Adhesive: Mounting tiles to foam core is essential; not only does it give the finished product a professional look and feel, but without something to weigh down the cardstock, tiles would just shift around or curl up at the edges. I’ve used several brands of spray adhesive and to my disappointment, each time the cardstock would peel up from the foam core. Finally, I discovered 3M Super 77 and never looked back.

  6. Glue: I finally realized the reason my models were warping after years of using Elmer’s Glue—its high water content. When you’re putting together models with large surface areas, such as walls, you can’t afford to have the rippling effect that glue can sometimes cause. After searching through various craft and hobby stores, I happened upon UHU Twist & Glue. Now after gluing, I receive a smooth, even finish.

  7. Craft Sponges: I keep a small supply of craft sponges handy for gluing large surfaces; even glues with a high water content should work fine if you’ve got a steady hand and use craft sponges to apply a thin, even coat.

  8. Hot Glue Gun: Having a hot glue gun handy is great for adhering pennies, rocks, and popsicle sticks to the inside of your models.

  9. Brayer: Plenty of models contain large areas that are folded in half and then glued to create a piece with textures on both sides. Because most of these types of models have large surface areas, a brayer comes in handy to roll out the air and make everything nice and flat; it doesn’t hurt to put the glued piece under a ton of books for a few days, either!

  10. Cutting Mat: A self-healing cutting mat will be one of the best investments you make. Not only does it make cutting much easier, it will prolong the life of your knife blade—and table.


Like your tools, high-quality materials will ensure clean, even builds.

  1. Cardstock: Cardstock (also known as cover stock) is the lifeblood of your models. The thicker it is, the more sturdy the model; purchase the thickest that will run through your printer without jamming. Personally, when I print my projects at FedEx Office, I request Hammermill Color Copy Cover 100 lb.

  2. Foam Core: Foam core not only adds stability to your builds, but it also lends a certain amount of professionalism to the look. Though many modelers use white foam core due to its cheaper price tag, I highly recommend sticking with black for all builds. It adds a certain undefinable quality to models and doesn’t draw attention to itself.

  3. Glue Sticks: Your hot glue gun won’t go far without a large package of glue sticks.

  4. Popsicle Sticks, Pennies, and Rocks: 99.9% of my models have added weight and structural support provided for by popsicle sticks, pennies, and rocks. Popsicle sticks and pennies are easy to get, but rocks can be a little trickier. First of all, they need to have a flat bottom, and their weight must be evenly distributed so as not to damage the model from the inside out. Rocks from urban tram or rail stations are perfect, as typically these rocks are tooled down to small squares and rectangles.


For someone simply looking to print and build, the only software required is Adobe Reader—and even that isn’t strictly necessary if you simply take your files to a copy shop for printing. However, advanced builders will want the capability of modifying their files to create new and exciting builds.

  • PDF to JPG: Companies that sell cardstock models provide them in PDF format. Adobe Reader cannot edit PDFs to the extent that is necessary for advanced users, so you’ll need a way to extract the images. Adobe Acrobat does this, but is very expensive. GIMP, a free graphics editing program, can also extract images from PDF files.
  • Graphics Editor: Once you have extracted the images from your PDFs, you’ll need a graphics editor to manipulate them. I use Corel PaintShop Photo Pro X3, but there are many other options available, such as Adobe Photoshop. Again, a free option available to you would be GIMP.

Does Not Compute

Though at this point it’s possible to begin cutting, folding, and gluing, I’m going to next take you through the software side of things. As an advanced papercrafter, I’ve found it’s best to look through the files provided by the company to see if there are any graphical tweaks I want to make before I begin printing—which is where Part III is going to pick up.