A Beginner's Guide to Paper Cutting




Introduction: A Beginner's Guide to Paper Cutting

Here is a simple guide to get you started making paper cuts.

I have been making them for several years now and have discovered that they are a really good way to make a beautiful card, especially when time is against you. I make these each time a birthday or holiday comes around because if the design ends up a bit iffy, the lace-like delicacy of the paper stops anyone from caring. (And you can get away with not drawing your own design*)

In this tutorial I will walk you through the basics along with some tips and tricks to make it that much easier.

*Within copyright laws

Step 1: What You Need

Here's an overview of what you need, we'll go over it in greater detail in a moment.

-Cutting Board
-Card or paper
-Gluestick (preferably a bad one)
-Masking Tape
-An image you want to cut out
-Clear sticky tape
-Plain white paper (or in a contrasting shade to your card)


Scalpel: Any scalpel/cutting knife will do (x-acto etc) so long as it comes to a sharp point and is flexible. A stanely knife/box cutter (typically) just won't do the job: it is too clunky to get all the fine details. I bought my scalpel at the local art supply shop and prefer them to X-acto because the blade doesn't break on me.

Spare blades: Can be bought wherever you got the scalpel. Take a note of the number (10 A etc) of the blade that comes supplied as this one will definitely fit. There are lots of different types of blade shape but I haven't noticed much difference in performance.

Card: I have made paper cuts with paper as thick as 385 GSM (about 2 mm thick) and have seen artists use rice paper in their work. The thinner the paper is, the easier it is to cut, but the less it will tolerate mistakes and tearing. The thicker the paper you use, the harder it is to cut shapes out, but the more abuse you can put it through. For cards like this, newsagent card stock works pretty well. I like to use blacks, dark blues or purples as they have a high contrast.

The Image: It is easiest if you have your image printed in another piece if paper, that way you don't have to erase any lines. You can draw your own, or like I did, find an image online and cut it out. Line art from the 1900's works pretty well as a lot of the thinking is done for you (also, depending on your country, it should be out of copyright).

Step 2: Changing the Blade

This does not have to be done every time you make a new paper cut, but my blade was blunt so now is as good a time as any to mentioned it.

I used to do this just with my fingers, and if you only pinch the flat of the blade you can do it with only very cosmetic scratches. However this way is super easy.
First wrap your blunt blade in a few layers of masking tape, making sure only to cover the blade. Then use your fingers to push down on the tip, pulling at the same time. If it doesn't come off, apply more pressure and wiggle.
Then tape your new blade and repeat the whole process in reverse. The blade should pop in with a satisfying click. It should not wobble. If it does give the blade another push or tape it in place. Un-stick the tape on the blade and you are ready to start.

Step 3: Prepare the Card

In Western countries cards have the fold on the left hand side. Make sure you get that right or else it is embarrassing. We however, are going to open the card up and stick the image on the left hand face. This is because the cuts are always nicest on the side opposite to the one you cut and we want everyone to see the prettiest side.

Take your terrible glue stick and sporadically apply the glue. Do not go overboard, but try to get the important areas. A dot at each corner and a few dots in the middle should do it. If your glue stick is good let the dots dry for a few seconds before you stick it down, this way it won't bond so much and the paper can be peeled off later.

Step 4: Start Cutting

Decide which parts of the card you want to be solid colour and which should be cut out. I tend to leave any skin as solid and clothes etc. cut out. The key thing to remember with paper cutting is that paper is really strong in tension (if you pull it from each end) but fails quite easily in shear (if you push on a point). This means that any bits without a few supports will bend and get broken very easily. My rule of thumb is to make sure every piece is attached at at least 3 places to the larger image. This can change depending on the size, length of the piece etc. but you will get a feel for what needs support the more you cut. (For more examples check out step 9.)
You can choose to leave the background solid or cut out, but if you cut it out make sure to cut in all your support lines first! I have a tendency to forget them in the heat of the moment which makes my cards a bit tenuous.

Step 5: The Fiddly Bits

Remove the pieces as you cut them out; this means you know for sure that your cut has been successful*.You can use your knife to lever out the sliver of paper and then pull on it with your fingers. If it doesn't come away at first you can pull it with a little pressure. Often this will rip the piece out, leaving a little burr of paper, but no one is going to notice. If it still won't come out use your scalpel to 'stab' the corner that is keeping it in, along your previously made cut lines. This should sever any remaining links.

*If you look at the first image in step 9 you will see a lot of black - I have actually cut leaves into that, but didn't remove the paper as I went. As such I did not realise that I had missed a lot of little corners and in the end it was easier to just leave them attached than go and sever every join.

Step 6: Tight Corners

Sometimes (a lot of the time) it is easier to move the paper, not the scalpel, to cut out a piece. This is most true when elements come to a point. Get used to swiveling your card around and see how much easier it is to make those hard turns.

Step 7: When Things Go Wrong

Your scalpel will slip, it happens to the best of us (or in my case it will slip and snap*) but don't despair. If you sever an element of your design it is really simple to fix. Just cut a thin piece of sticky tape and affix to the side your design is on (after you have removed the paper with the design on it). Use your fingers to put pressure on the tape join and then cut away any excess with the scalpel. No one will notice.

You can also glue a thin sliver of card over the break, if sticky tape doesn't work. Just make sure to wait until the glue is completely dry to trim the excess bits.

*I swear this is the first time that's happened to me.

Step 8: Finishing Off

Now your card is done. Carefully pull off the paper design, pressing your fingers on any bit of the card that might want to go with the paper.
Fold your card so that it now opens the correct way.
Fold a white (or contrasting) piece of paper in half and press into the fold of the card. Using some glue or sticky tape, affix to the inside of the card.
Use a ruler or set square and scalpel to cut off any excess card and straighten the edges.

Remember to sign your work and put the date on it. Sometimes I cut my initials into the card, but this can have mixed results.
Now your card is finished! Fill it with lovely words and give it to someone special.

Step 9: Extra Tips

Cutting things out, especially big pictures, can become tedious and tiring. Remember to take breaks regularly and stretch your hands.

Sometimes not everything that was in the original picture needs to be in your paper cut. Stop every 15 minutes or so to look at your work and check the composition. An easy way to do this is to take a photo of it and then examine the photo. For some reason this stops me missing the forest for the trees.

Paper cutting can be scary because it seems so final. It is very hard to fix if you make a mistake. But here is a secret - everyone will be so amazed that your picture holds together that they won't notice any defects in composition or style.

If you make a mistake, or something doesn't look quite right, don't try to fix it immediately. This very often makes things worse. Go on to another part of the picture, come back and then decide if it really needs to change, bearing in mind what I said before.

Hope you are now ready for the wonderful world of paper cuts. Here are a few other pieces I have made*. All these tips I learnt in the process of creating them, I hope I can save you a few troubles as a result. If you make anything because of this Instructable I would love to see it!

*All images belong to me and are not to be distributed.

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    5 years ago

    I've seen these around the last few years and have been wanting to try it. These look amazing. Thanks for the tips!


    7 years ago

    How did you do your wasps? I notice i looks like its jigsaw pieced together or am i missing something in regards to making sure there are supports with this one. It sure is awesome x


    Reply 7 years ago

    I think this one might look a bit jigsaw-y because I attached supports to the wasps' (wobbly looking) legs at some points. But there is no difference in technique. I decided where my cloud was going to be, cut the supports to there and then was able to cut out the wasps and negative space. Does that answer your question?

    I think I missed this one. Congratulations for the judge's prize. Your tricks are totally worth learning :)

    Giulia Art
    Giulia Art

    7 years ago on Introduction

    Congrats on making finalist! How was your sleep until now?Are you waiting for the big announcement? What prize would you like to receive? :D


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Looks awesome. Paper can be made into such art.


    7 years ago

    This is great stuff. Reminds me of scroll saw work.
    Very nice.