Fine Art From Cardboard




About: I am a perpetual student, researcher, and hopelessly dedicated skill collector. I hope that you can find something inspiring or useful in the instructables I publish.

I've been watching the 123DMake software and output for a while - seeing all the cool cardboard, wood, and plastic structures other folks have made was inspiring.   I wondered if I couldn't use that technique as a starting point for a "fine art" piece - or - a less expensive way to make a large-scale rapid prototype (although now having gone through the process, the word "rapid" doesn't really apply - lol).  I decided to do a "proof of concept piece" to see if it was a viable technique - and to see just how much work would be involved.

I picked a model that would be pretty challenging (all curves) but not ridiculously complex.  There are limits as to how delicate your details can be and still come through on the "printed" core - but adding details would be easy later on in the process.  It is a great way to obtain the overall structure of a piece.


Even though it's dramatically less expensive than having a rapid prototype printed (3D print), it's still not terribly cheap.  I got 40% off on my laser cutting and it still cost $115 for the service.  You *could* cut out all of the pieces yourself, but I'm in favor of retaining all the sanity I can - lol.  Once everything is added up, you could be looking at a few hundred dollars once you add in filler, primer, paint, sandpaper, glue, etc.  The price will be dependent on the size and complexity of your project (you pay by the linear inch of cut for the laser cutting service as well as materials) and whether you decide to go for less expensive materials (paints, primers, etc).


Cardboard "core" sculpture
Body Filler (I used the Evercoat brand as it's the smoothest I found)
Plastic spatulas (some way to spread and mix the body filler)
Glue (I used yellow glue because it allows for some movement as you place layers of cardboard)
Weights (some way to clamp the layers as they dry)
A few pins (used to align the layers with each other)
Sandpaper (I didn't use very much, really - maybe a sheet of each - 80, 150, 220, 320, 600 grits)
Primer (a good quality FILLER primer - I used a catalyzed filler primer by Keystone - #8882)
Paint (if you want it - could be rattle can paint - or something more exotic)
Sureform or Rasps (used to shape the rough filler)
Misc (this is the catch-all category - tape, drop-cloths, etc)

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Step 1: Process Your Model

Before you import your model into 123D Make, be sure to think about any ways you might need to support it while working on it.  In my case, I knew that I needed a way to "hold on" to the model without actually touching freshly painted parts, so I booleaned a 3/8" hole into the core of the model in my 3D software before exporting it to 123D Make.  This hole was then laser-cut into each layer (far easier than drilling it later) and when the layers were glued up, it allowed me to insert a 3/8" steel rod to act as a "handle" while working on the model (especially painting).

Once you import your model into 123D Make, the first thing you'll probably want to do is to choose the material and thickness that you intend to use.  Knowing the thickness of the material you plan to use is *critical* in order to get the best (non-distorted) results.  Next, you'll want to set your scale - overall dimensions of your final model.  Next choose the best layer orientation for your model - one that will minimize or eliminate unconnected parts or leave you with small or unsupported structures.  When you are happy with your results, export your templates and either cut them out yourself, or have a laser-cutting service do it for you.

Step 2: Assemble the Core

If you send your templates out and have them cut, you'll want to understand how the layers align with each other.  Each layer you receive (most of them) will have four pinholes.  These pinholes are for aligning the layers.  The "trick" is: Not all of the holes are used from layer to layer.  You will use *two* holes to align any two layers, not all four.  The two pinholes that aren't used on one layer, will be used on the next layer up.

For Example:

Say you have four layers - A, B, C, and D.  Each layer will have four holes - roughly in the 3, 6, 9, and 12 o-clock positions.

Layer A is on the bottom - it may only have two holes - but let's say it has four.  When you place layer B on top of layer A, only two holes will align correctly  with the two of the holes in layer B.   Let's say it's the holes at the 12 and 6 o-clock position.  Spread glue on the bottom of layer B, and using pins at the 12 and 6 o-clock positions, align the layers and press them together.

Now, when placing layer C on top of layer B, the alternating set of holes will align - the 3 and 9 o-clock positions will be your reference points.

When you place layer D, you will again use the 12 and 6 o-clock positions, etc.

This should be a bit clearer when you have your parts in front of you, but it escaped me until after I had several layers glued up - so it's worth noting.

Between each glue-up, I would put a board topped by a 5-lb weight on top of the stack to hold it all tightly together until that layer dried (about 20 minutes between layers).  I don't recommend building separate stacks and gluing them together - they may be hard to align, or have a slightly different warp to them and not glue up tightly.

The final core is pretty tough - but I wanted to make it a lot more robust and make it easier for the body filler to bond to it, so I coated everything with clear urethane.

Step 3: Filling and Smoothing

There's really no way to sugar-coat this part.  Filling and smoothing is a bit on the tedious side.  What I was doing was mixing up small batches of filler, smushing it into the cardboard core, smoothing as much as I could before it started to harden, and then following up with Sureform-type rasps while it was still soft.  Once everything was filled, I started focusing on the smaller dips and crevices - adding thin layers of body filler, letting them cure, and sanding them down. I always used the edges of the cardboard layers as my landmarks - trying to change them as little as possible. 

I tried a few types of filler and found that the Evercoat brand was the smoothest and easiest to work with.  BTW - All of your filler should be mixed and used with plenty of air circulation - outside if possible - and it'd be a good idea to wear an organic vapor respirator.  You don't HAVE to, but I prefer to NOT smell polyester resin for the rest of the day - it's one of those smells that seems to get into your nose and lingers even when you're nowhere near the stuff.

Early on, I considered using spray foam to fill the voids - and I think that's a possible solution - but I wanted something that was going to be *very* smooth and *tough* - so I went with body filler.  I'll try foam next time ;)

The first few layers were just for overall shape - the whole process is one of refine, refine, refine - don't expect it all to be smooth in one step and you won't get frustrated.  Take your time, keep moving around the model, don't get focused on one area.  Eventually, you'll only have small imperfections to fill - and that's the job of filler primer ;)

Step 4: Priming and Final Smoothing

The first coats of primer are a lot like the first coats of body filler.  I shoot heavy coats of primer and don't really care about runs or sags.  I want a heavy coat of primer so I have a lot to work with as I sand most of it away :)  Be aware of how the primer you're using cures - I use catalyzed primers because they cure well even when they're stupid-thick.  Rattle-can primers have to be used more carefully to get a good thickness build up without making a gummy mess.

Again, it's all about refine, refine, refine.  I sprayed something like six coats of primer (spray two, cure, wet sand, spray two, cure, wet sand, etc)

In regards to sandpaper:  Most of the sanding I did was with 1"x1" squares.  I cut 1"x3" long strips, then fold them in thirds.  This gives you three fresh surfaces to work with.  Always let the sandpaper do the work, don't use too much pressure.  You want the paper to glide over the high spots and take them down - using too much pressure can scar the surface, and will force the paper INTO the low areas which pretty much defeats the purpose of sanding.  A good way to judge pressure is to rub your finger quickly along the inside of your wrist using the pressure you think is good - if you don't generate a lot of heat, that's about right.

Once you think you're all smooth, it's time to focus on high spots, rough spots, and pits.  I use semi-cured primer as a filler for the pits I find - it works better than glazing compound.  Sit by a strong source of light and carefully pick out the problem areas - I mark them with a pencil and a visual code that lets me know what the problem with that area is.

Step 5: Painting

I have to admit - I was conflicted with the idea of painting - I kind of like the look of the primer.... but in the end I went ahead and painted it with a three-stage finish.

A three-stage finish is one that consists of a base coat, metallic coat, and a clear coat.  The finish I chose was a pearl white from a 2002 Cadillac.  I don't have pictures of the finishing process - mostly because it's a fairly frantic process and  I was working under less than optimal conditions (windy, cold) but overall I'm pretty happy with the finish.

At this point, I'm probably going to pull molds off this model and do some castings - maybe some cold-cast bronze, resin, ceramics ... even wax(?)  Sounds like another Instructable to me :)

So, would I do it again?  I think so.  It's a lot of work, but I think that next time I'll be able to streamline the process and probably do it in about half the time.  It seems like you always get better results the second time around :)

Thanks for your time!  I hope you found it interesting ... and maybe even ... inspiring :)

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55 Discussions


6 years ago

I don't think the back can bend that way... But the piece is beautiful, just makes me a little uncomfortable to look at because it makes me feel like my back is breaking..

2 replies

Ah, never underestimate what the human body is capable of. You might want to check out the Ross Sisters to see some stuff that will make you rethink the term "flexibility":


3 years ago

Hi Joe,

Your solution should work as well - i.e. coating with resin. You don't have to coat with urethane. I used urethane because it was what I had lying around - not that it has any special properties (other than it would reinforce the cardboard). Polyester resin will reinforce the cardboard as well - you just won't have a lot of work time ;)

An additional step you might consider is skinning the areas where flex is a concern with a layer of fiberglass mat or cloth. If possible, you'll want to fiberglass the model on opposite sides where flex is a concern (e.g. front and back surfaces) - this will create a "torsion box" structure where any bending forces are turned into stretching forces, making the area very rigid (as long as you have good bond with the cardboard core).

I used Evercoat "Metalworks" - P/N 100420 - which they may have morphed into a different product. What I used came in a squeeze-tube - not a can - so hopefully that will help narrow it down.


3 years ago

Hi Jwilliamsen.

I have a question. I'm making a 4 foot architecture model for my college project. Since its so long and a bit flimsy, i'm worried that if the cardboard flexes it could crack the Bondo. So instead of using a urethane coating before applying the bodyfiller, could I just coat my whole thing in fiberglass resin before applying bodyfiller or do I still need a urethane coating over the fiberglass resin???

in other words: fiberglass resin > urethane > body filler OR Resin > Bodyfiller? Also did you use Evercoat liteweight or Evercoat Rage? Thanks for the tutorial!


4 years ago

Beautiful man! Would love to see more of your work

1 reply

Reply 4 years ago

Thanks! Well, if you REALLY want to, you can check out my online
portfolio: - it's been offline for about a
year, but I finally forced myself to slog through and update it - lots
of different kinds of work there.


5 years ago on Introduction

Hi tonioram,

I just downloaded, extracted, and opened the file in both 123DMake V1.1 and V1.4 without a problem (Windows 7 64-bit on PC). What I would try first is to re-download the file and see if you still have the problem. If you do, I would then try to find an example 3dmk file and see if you can open it. Not trying to insult you, but you did extract the file from the ZIP first, right?


5 years ago on Introduction

I get an error open the .3dmk file.

"Sorry, the application could not open the file because it is not valid 3dmk file."

How can I open the file in 123D Make?

Thanks in advance.


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

Evercoat is a brand of plastic "body filler" sometimes referred to in generic terms as "Bondo" (the first company to produce talcum and polyester filler). "Body filler" or "body plastic" consists of a powder suspended in a polyester resin and has a paste-like consistency. Once mixed with a catalyst or "hardener" you will have about 5-7 minutes of working time (depending on how warm it is) before it starts to firm up and is too stiff to spread. Body filler should be available at any store that sells car body repair supplies. There are several brands available in the US that vary in quality and workability, and in this case I found that the Evercoat brand seemed to be the easiest to work with and sand.

I hope that answers your question - if not - just clarify what part is confusing and I'll answer what I can ;)


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

I knew a guy how used it to fix a radiator leak. just forma a golfball sized glob of it and pressed it into place over the hole. It worked until he sold the car a couple of years later.


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

Not really. Putty would be too difficult to work with, and mastic is more of an adhesive. Body Plastic is designed to fill, be easy to feather, and easy to finish. Here is a YouTube video of someone applying body plastic to a car body : Applying Body Filler


Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

thanks I was investigating the body filler online and look at these page:
it says these: "Mixing the filler on cardboard isn't a great idea, since the paper itself will absorb some of the styrene solvent and upset the chemistry. Also, the styrene will release any trapped chemicals in the cardboard, so unless you know precisely where the material came from and how it was handled, use a sheet of glass or plastic or freezer paper."
just one you to let you know hehehe thanks for the help! I´ll seek alternative