So you want to build paper models. Good choice. In this article, I will go through all the tools you need (there are not many) and the basic techniques used for building paper models, at least in the roleplaying realm.
If you do not want to build paper models, check out why you should be using visual aids in your roleplaying games. Then come back and find out how to make them from paper! Not only are paper models and minis a good way to save money and space, but they are also a handy tool to have in your “utility belt” and give you a wide array of options to choose from.
The Tools & Techniques to build Paper Models with
Whether you want to make some basic 2D miniatures or set out to tackle a huge dragon head (like this Deathwing bust (external link & not my work)), the basics are always the same. Here I share with you how I tackle each step, and what other options there are. Of course, your mileage may vary, so feel free to experiment – that is one of the main benefits of working with paper, after all. If you mess up, you simply print another page.
The right Paper (Spoiler: use Cardstock)
Every build starts with the right building material. For starters, the basic printing paper that most printers are laden with is generally too thin for proper models. Anything you print on this stuff will not last you long. There are applications where that is okay – for example when it comes to maps. Or for models that you make with the intention of smashing them, because why not? But in general, you should opt for something heavier, more stable.
I recommend using 80 lb cardstock (or 220g/m² paper) for your paper models.
I know others who have also had good results using thicker photo paper, which certainly improves the visual quality of your models or miniatures. For me personally, the flat look of cardstock looks better in an encounter than the matte sheen of photo paper. But that is something you could try if you want a different look.
Actually, photo paper might be the way to go if you want to use a professional printing service and take advantage of getting your prints delivered. They might not offer basic cardstock, but you can probably get photo paper.
Printing your Model
Once you have your paper, you need to actually get whatever you want to build onto it. Virtually the only way to do that is a printer. What printer you use depends largely on what you have access to. I have used inkjet printers exclusively for all my models, and it worked fine. A laserjet would most likely work just as well.
One important thing here is to replace the cardstock with the regular paper after you are done so that you do not accidentally print your next important letter on cardstock instead. If that happens, though, just keep it and print a model on the back at a later time.
If you do not have a proper printer, or you are not happy with the print quality of the one you own, you can always look for copy shops or other places that print the files you have to your specifications. As mentioned above, there are online services that will ship the finished prints to you. Since there will likely be a shipping charge you should only use those if you have a number of pages that need printing.
Scoring the Folds
Most papercraft models require you to fold paper at some point. Paper is easy to fold in general (which is lucky if you enjoy bunching up a bad sketch and dunk it into the trash bin). Folding it accurately and precisely is a lot harder – at least without a little help.
This help comes in the guise of scoring the fold. Those lines are usually marked by a dotted line on the model. I have come across two different techniques to score a fold. And I know which one I like better.
Either way, you need a straight edge or a good ruler to build paper models. I prefer a metal ruler with cork backing because it will not slip on you as easily while you work with it.
Now, the first method I do not recommend, but it appears to be widespread. It involves using a hobby knife and running it lightly along the fold – with the help of the ruler. That cuts open the top layer of the cardstock, and it produces a good fold – but it also reveals a white line where you can see the “inside” of the paper.
So what do I recommend? Take a butter knife and use the back of the tip to score the fold. I use a metal letter opener so my wife does not complain about me using the cutlery, but in effect, every not-too-sharp edge will do. This way, you compress the paper fibers where you want it to bend.
Admittedly, this is slightly less easy to bend than the cutting method, and you need a little practice to place the ruler right since the dull blade will be wider than the thin hobby knife. But you do not damage the texture of the model that way.
No matter which method you chose, make sure to have a crisp fold. Use your fingernails or the/a dull edge to crease the fold hard, even if it does not need to be 180° in the model. This will remove any tension that the model might otherwise suffer from later.
Also, there are mountain folds and valley folds. Basically, these terms refer to what you get when you fold along that line – a mountain or a valley, holding the piece texture up. This is another advantage of the blunt scoring method. For valley folds, you need to take extra steps when scoring with a knife in order to know where you need to score on the back of the paper. With the blunt method, you can score both just the same and fold accordingly.
Cutting (the) Edge
Again, there are two methods – three if you consider cheating, although that only works if the model comes prepared.
The first method is using a hobby knife and your trusty straight edge and cut along the outline of the model. I have not made the best experiences with that, and while I think I could master this technique eventually, I am just not fond of craft knives.
Thus, I cut all my models the old-school way – with scissors. I use a standard kitchen scissor and a smaller one originally meant for nail trimming, because the pointy ends can come in handy at times as well. You can do straight lines with very little practice, and you do not need to be that exact in any case for most models.
Also, scissors allow you to cut into corners without all the reverse-gripping that knives would require in my experience.
The “cheating” method is using a cut plotter, like the Silhouette SD or the CraftRobo. These are basically CNC machines for paper. They have a small knife, and if the model you want to make comes with cut marks – basically corners printed in the corners of the sheet for alignment – you can feed the paper through the plotter and it will do the cutting and the scoring (by cutting dotted lines) for you, They do work, but I find that unless you are doing stacks of the same pages, I prefer cutting by hand.
Gluing the Flaps
Once you have the model all cut out, scored and folded, the next step is to glue it up. There are basically two kinds of glue-ups. Let us call them the Sandwich and the Flap.
The Sandwich means gluing two pieces back to back. This is mainly used for paper miniatures where you end up with front and back of the figure on the two sides of the finished piece.
To glue this one up, apply glue to one (in)side of the fold, then put it on a flat surface and but the two sides together. Starting from the fold, use your fingers or the back of a blunt edge to apply pressure moving outward. If you want to be thorough (and you should be), flip it over and repeat the process to prevent warping.
On a side note, I recommend leaving some excess material around the piece when gluing up sandwiches and only cutting to the final shape when the glue has dried. This way, you can cover minor imperfections in the alignment of the fold.
The Flap is probably something you have seen many times before. It is a fairly widespread method of connecting pieces of paper and can be found in many papercrafts for children. Its main use is to connect faces at an angle.
To facilitate this glue-up apply glue to the flap, then place the connecting face on a flat surface. Put the flap in place on top of the edge, and apply pressure to it either with your fingers or your trusty blunt edge. Some flap-connections might be trickier to get to, and you will have to improvise – like holding the piece and pressing the flap in place with a finger or two.
Pro-tip: before you actually build paper models think through the glue-up in advance and consider which flaps you can reach more easily before others are glued in place. In many cases, the right sequence of flaps can make the glue-up – and your life – much easier. This is something that I will probably go into more detail in a future article.
Color me impressed (or impressive)
Once you have finished your model, you can use it right away. But there is a simple way to make it look even better. All you need are some felt-tip markers to paint the cut edges of the paper – which are generally white and stand out quite a bit.
This is a big concern with Sandwich folds, especially miniatures since they have a double-thickness white line all around the model. Here, black works well in general, but depending on the model you can go fancy with greys, greens, or browns. I should add that I prefer my minis to have a black outline. Others may prefer them white, in which case you do not need to edge them.
For flap-glued models, you can apply the marker before the glue-up to make things easier, especially since the glue might prevent the ink from sticking. Also, it is easier to paint along a single edge without having to worry about marring the face next to it.
If you chose to score using a hobby knife or use a cut plotter, this will also come in handy to cover up those cuts in the paper which will otherwise stand out quite a bit.
Modifying Paper Models
Next to price and repeatability, being able to easily modify your models is an important point in favor of paper models. If you mess up you can always print a new sheet, and most things can be fixed with a bit of glue as well.
In addition, this allows you to build paper models to fit your needs, in ways that few other materials do. This is probably easiest with miniatures. You can cut off pieces like unwanted weapons or appendages, or you can color over them with the black marker.
In turn, you can add things from other miniatures, like that cut-off appendage, or a selection of banners and flags. You can add extra elements like wings (generally referred to as 2.5D), scale pieces up or down, and frankenstein aspects of several models into one. You can easily do this on paper, but with a little practice you can also make these changes in the computer – just make sure to ask for permission if you are planning on releasing your inspired work in any way.
The same holds true for more complex models, although it is obviously a bit trickier to pull off. Many models actually give you options for this using layers in the pdf-file. You can always cut out pieces in one spot and add them to another, like seals, windows or trophies.
More advanced ways to add your own twist would be to change the geometry of pieces, or to cut holes and put two pieces together that were not meant to go together, but these are tricky to pull off and require way more time spent on them than frankensteining a miniature, so I will not go into them here.
If you have something that you would like to do but do not know how, I would be happy to help! Just contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thanks again! And as always, remember to be Inspired!