Waste Not, Want Not – Cardboard, the Ultimate Building Material

“The affordability, availability, sustainability, and forgiving nature of the medium of cardboard have influenced a new genre of artists to not only experiment, but to spark their imaginations and render a utilitarian material sometimes unrecognizable.”

The Art of Cardboard, by Lori Zimmer

Cardboard is cheap, and in most cases free. After a few purchases on Amazon, the saved boxes provide all the material needed for that next project. Cardboard is easy to cut, shape, fold, and stack. Due to its corrugated design, in one direction it serves as strong support material, while in another it is extremely pliable. Objects built with cardboard can simulate a delicate flower or an industrial cityscape. Cardboard can be painted and varnished, or left in its raw form. It truly is the ultimate building material for makers of all ages.

Cardboard Types
When looking to build with cardboard, it is important to note that there are a number of types from which to choose. This blog post on the Different Types of Cardboard dives into specifics, but the key to remember is that thickness varies, and depending on what you are building, you will want to select accordingly. Thinner cardboard is easier to cut but may need to be stacked for strength. Thicker cardboard may work better for pillars, trusses and other support needs.

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Corrugation visible through the crosscut.

I usually save all types of cardboard so that students have a choice when constructing their prototypes and projects.

Techniques
How can we best use cardboard to our advantage when it comes to design and building? While you can fill a book or two on this subject alone, I wanted to highlight just a couple of techniques I use in projects.

Cutting across the flutes: A key factor to consider when cutting is the direction of the corrugation, or flutes that run along one direction of the cardboard. In looking at any packing box, you notice that the corrugation is almost always upright, giving the box standing and stacking strength. When building parts like legs, walls, or other support structure, look to cut your pieces across the flutes so that the corrugation runs up and down.

Cutting with the flutes: In contrast, by slicing along the flutes, you can flex the cardboard to create rounded or curved shapes, as seen here.

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Vertical cuts align with the corrugated flutes. This method allows you to flex and bend the cardboard into curved shapes or corners.

Building Supports: To keep corners strong, it helps to add support pieces, glued to the insides. Small triangular cutouts, as seen below, can give that extra support and help to maintain the predetermined angle of the joined sides.

IMG_6669
Cut out small triangles for support in corners.

 

Stacking: When you need greater strength than what a single layer of cardboard can provide, stack the boards together with their corrugation running perpendicular to each other. This same approach is used when making plywood. This technique not only builds strength but can help to keep the pieces from warping.

IMG_6670
Stack cardboard by lining up the corrugation at right angles to each other.

Youtube: For more techniques and design methods, head to Youtube. MudbrainsTVDIY has two introductory videos, a Basic and an Advanced version, giving brief tips for working with cardboard and techniques to ensure the most reliable bonds and connections. The entire Mudbrains Youtube Channel is worth a view, as it dives into costume and prop making, along with home accessories that you can make from cardboard.

For even more in-depth descriptions and techniques on modeling, check out Jude Pullen’s Design Modeling Playlist, which includes cardboard alongside other building materials.

Tools
When working with cardboard, there are several tools that serve specific purposes well. For adults, using an X-Acto knife or box cutter may work just fine for most needs. However, for the younger set, we need tools with additional built-in safety features. Take, for instance, the Klever Kutter, a simple tool for doing long, straight cuts on cardboard. Because of its design, the blade is hard to reach with fingers, but it cuts into the material with ease. For other cuts that might involve smooth curves, try Canary Cutters, which work like a tiny saw to cut through the material.

klever2
Use Klever Kutters for long, straight cuts.

For finer cuts, students in the middle grades and higher can use Fiskar Craft Snippers, which function just like scissors but require much less force to cut through the material. And a much safer replacement for X-Acto knives are the Slice safety cutter products. In particular, I have used the Slice mini cutter to cut through cardboard and the Slice safety cutter which cuts through cardstock and is excellent for cutting through just one side of the cardboard while leaving the other side intact, as demonstrated previously in the curved cardboard photo above.

When attaching cardboard pieces together, glue is often a messy solution and does not allow for reuse of the material. There are other methods for connecting cardboard pieces, some of which would enable the new connections to move. For example, you may need to build a door that swings out, or wings that flap, or a head that turns. I enjoy introducing tools like MakeDo and Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets for kids to use while building, as they bring new design options into the mix. The reusable MakeDo screws hold two or more pieces together and can be unscrewed when deconstructing, while Mr. McGroovy’s rivets allow for a more permanent attachment between two or more boards.

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Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets fasten well, yet can still be removed (for reuse) with the claw side of a hammer.

Inspiration
Need a little inspiration? Take a look at iKatBag, How to Work with Cardboard to see how this innovative craftswoman approaches the medium of cardboard. Her blog details the various cardboard types and goes in-depth into techniques for how to cut, shape, and connect them.

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In the book The Art of Cardboard, artists use cardboard to create incredible works of art, from the ordinary and life-like to the surreal. One particular project highlighted in the book is from Mykl Wells, which involved an entire community creating and displaying cardboard lanterns on their streets.

As with just about any other craft related topic, Pinterest users have curated helpful resources, like this one.

 

In this post, I share a project that my daughter and I created for Halloween, a larger than full-size R2D2 that she could ride inside while trick-or-treating. While the dome was made of cardboard, I also used corrugated plastic in the same manner as cardboard for the body.

On your next cardboard project, consider the many ways you can shape, join and cut this versatile, cheap and ubiquitous building material. Do you have any techniques to share? I’d love to learn from you.

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