Design Thinking: Paper Engineering

The insight that led to this post was founded on a discovery from the mathematics department at our school, and a post on Tumblr.  The Tumblr post (if you don’t have time to go read it) is about how to use paper in magical workings of various kinds, from drawing sigils on the paper to folding the paper, to learning calligraphy or making specialty inks.  The insight from the mathematics department I’m a little more leery of sharing, lest I get myself or someone else in trouble.  But the upshot of this insight is that I feel I need to spend a greater amount of time in my lab helping kids learn to use geometer’s compasses, rulers, protractors and other similar measuring tools.

The combination is such that I returned to the library of books in the Design Lab in order to figure out some ways to integrate these skills the math department wants children to practice, with the paper artistry suggested in the Tumblr post.  Because if we think of magic as willful changes in consciousness, then this is in part what teachers (especially Maker-teachers, like ourselves) are expected to do — indeed, what we want to do. We are out to induce a phase change in our students, from being regular students to being Maker-students.

And accordingly, this post.


Papercraft libraryI think that one of the first things I would recommend either to the Maker teacher or the budding magician is this series of books, The Pocket Paper Engineer, volumes 1-3, by Carol Barton (from  Each book explains how to do three or four basic structures on the fold of a piece of paper: tables, box folds, and triangle folds in the first book, and gradually becoming more complex.  There’s a sample one for you to do inside the book itself, and then some variants are offered alongside.  These are in my school’s library, so I simply built mine alongside the book rather than in the book, but you can do as you like with your own copy.

Barton travels all over the US giving workshops, and you can of course seek her out and take her workshop to learn more.

Papercraft libraryEsther K. Smith’s book, How to Make Books, is another gem in this collection. It explains the materials and tools that you need to be a bookbinder. And while it doesn’t go into how to make the contents of books interesting, it does explain how to build more interesting books.

Of course, just because you read this book, doesn’t mean you’ll know how to make books. I read this book a few years ago, and I did a few of the simpler projects, and I thought, “Oh, cool, now I know how to do this!” And I don’t, really. It’s taken me a while to come back to some of the later projects in the book, and discover that just because I can fold a little book doesn’t mean I really know how to do it. There’s a lot more to it than just folding paper. I even learned a little carpentry to build a book cradle for stabbing pages with an awl, and it still took a professional bookbinder to explain what I was doing wrong.

All the same, Esther is enough to get you going. From Amazon.

Papercraft libraryThese two are up next in my collection.  The one on the left is an example of the sort of school-project teacher’s helper book that on the surface looks sort of cutesy and silly.  The recommendation, of course, is that you build all these things out of cardboard and duct tape and glue; or that you not worry too much about how high-quality the work is.  But I found/find that when you combine Esther Smith’s ideas about bookbinding with some of the techniques discussed here, you’re able to build something between them — something better than the typical sixth grader’s Sunday-before-it’s-due project, and something probably not quite up to Esther’s standards but good enough for some oomph.

The book on the right is a useful addition to the pop-up book and card processes described and laid out by Carol Barton; she explains how to build and gives examples; Duncan provides better examples of the geometry and measurement involved in making pop-up mechanics work in larger circumstances than just books and cards (how to make a pop-up business card, for example, which increases the likelihood that someone will keep it).


The BoxesI wish I’d thought to take a photograph of the tool-set I use.  It’s pretty simple. An exacto knife or a utility knife with a sharp blade. A T-square, a ruler, both of metal.  A triangle and a protractor, both plastic.  A green rotary cutting mat. A rotary cutter.  A bone folder (which is a piece of bone carved, shaped and sanded into a tool for making sharp creases in paper).  A book cradle that I built myself from a sheet of craft plywood. An awl, for punching signatures, and preparing to bind them.  Bookbinding needles, for threading the signatures into the binding of the book.

It’s a pretty simple tool-set, all in all. Some of the tools are expensive, but many of them are not.  All of them can be used in a ‘magical’ way, too — the bone folder is wand-like, and made of a wand-y material.  The awl is a nasty-sharp long pin of a tool.


The supplies are pretty simple, too. Paper and cardstock in various weights, patterns, and colors.  Waxed thread and linen bias tape for bookbinding (is it called bias tape? or just bookbinding tape? I forget, I haven’t bought any in a while). Book cloth, for fancy covers.  Glue.  A few other odds and ends.

It’s easy to do with cheap materials, but then the final product looks cheap.  It’s easy to do badly with expensive materials, so then the expensive materials look cheap. Doing it well with expensive materials is a master’s work.  I am not a master.

For Maker Education

Pop-up: High Priestess
a high priestess between two pillars.

All the same, I think that paper engineering is a great place to start a kids’ program.  It teaches why precision geometry matters, for one.  It teaches deep knowledge of a material, paper, and how that material interacts with other materials like glue and rubber cement and modge-podge and string.  It teaches patience; bookbinding and pop-up card-making is easy to do poorly, hard to do well, and results are not guaranteed.  It teaches kids how to think in two dimensions-to-three-dimensions: in other words, how a 2D material like paper can be cut and folded and shaped to become a 3D form.

More than that, though: paper is cheap.  It’s a lot cheaper than electronic parts.  The knives and scissors are scary, I know, but they carry with them the benefit of teaching proper use — or self-injury results. As a friend of mine says, “Children who don’t know how to use tools become inept adults.”  And teaching children to make pop-up cards and books teaches them a degree of self-reliance and capacity to learn to use tools, and to apply the mathematics which they learn in school to a practical activity which they cannot unlearn.  If you want quality work, paper engineering says, you have to know math.

Geometry book: progress shotsIt’s possible, for example, to build all the Platonic and Archimedean Solids as paper-engineering projects.  These are the only regular forms that we know of, with numerous examples found in nature and in human construction. There are models of them that are 50,000 years old, formed by human hands and left in caves in the Dordogne region of France.  And yet, when teachers and colleagues tell me “oh, we can’t do that project… we have to study real geometry!” I roll my eyes.  How do you think children will learn geometry if they don’t build the figures that geometry teaches us how to build?

Geometry, we’re told, was invented to solve boundary disputes among farmers in ancient Egypt — it exists for profound legal and spiritual and cultural and economic reasons.  It exists not as a generic form of mathematics for solving complex puzzles, but as a practical means of showing relationships between one type of thing and other types of things — VISUALLY. IN MATERIAL FORM.  So teach it not as an abstraction, but in material forms.

For Magic

Dodecahedron in progressThe attentive will notice that while I’ve not said much about magic in this post so far, the examples of images that I’ve chosen in my photographs speak volumes about paper engineering and its relation to magic.  Maybe you came for that information, and you’re upset that it’s not here — that there is only information about how to apply the teaching of paper engineering in schools, as a way of growing student capacity and resilience.

I say you’re not looking carefully.

For at least some magical practitioners, the act of bringing down something from the high heavens into material reality involves imagining some thing, some object, some desire, and then rendering it more and more real by incorporating more and more elements into it — drawing some from personal creativity, and some from the symbolic landscape of the knowledge and experience of humanity, and some from realms known only from the intersection of those two realities.

Paper is the cheapest way I know to make visions from the highest heaven manifest in material reality, so that I can show those visions to others and help them understand those visions. Paper can create masks or books, pop-up cards or elements of costumes, dollhouses or geometric solids, altars and shrines or Bear mask and costumeor really any kind of thing that you might want to use in ceremony, in ritual, as an amulet or a talisman.

You might say, with Monty Python, “It’s only a model.”

But that’s true of many things that we create in magic (or in school, for that matter, for teachers who read past the “for magic” heading). They’re only models. But Models Have Power. To model a thing is to claim to understand it; and the quality of the model shows the depth of understanding and the level of effort that went into understanding that model. A number of years ago, I built a model of a force pump that was a much more successful learning experience for a student than simply reading the definition in the book.

Model of a force pumpAs these things go, it’s not particularly complicated: some paper towel roles, some tape, a dowel and a wooden disk, and some sharpie marker for explanatory text. It’s more effective than a drawing or diagram in a book, though, and far more effective than the formal definition of a force pump:

force pump — nouna pump used to move water or other liquid under pressure.

Consider how a simple paper ‘talisman’ shifted a student’s thinking around Force Pumps.  This wasn’t some magical device: this was a series of tubes (like the Internet), with a plunger and some plastic o-ring gaskets.  It was a tool, a man-made thing, not an imaginary device from on high

Did it change the student’s thinking? Yes.  It caused a change in consciousness by will.

Kavad 4.6 - ToPAnd isn’t that what magic (or teaching) does? Cause changes in consciousness? That’s what paper engineering can do, if correctly applied by the trained mind.   Paper engineering is not by itself a magical art, of course; though there are grimoires, of a sort, that train you how to make pop-up books, no one will teach you how to do magic using one.

The real delight comes when magical knowledge and paper-craft knowledge are combined and recombined.  Then is real change made possible, when the Art is wedded to art.

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  1. […] Paper Engineering — For a while, I was running a school MakerSpace.  I’m not sure I’d go back to that work, though I do miss it.  One of my long-range key insights was that if you have a large supply of paper, you really have a lot of what you need to teach Maker methodologies, particularly drawing and thinking in three dimensions.  There’s not much that you can’t do with paper that doesn’t apply to other kinds of Maker learning. […]

  2. […] Design Thinking: Paper Engineering — Want to start a maker-space in your school?  You should really think about starting with paper engineering.  You will learn a great deal about the tools and materials you want to work with, you’ll learn about what you should do yourself and what you should teach kids directly, and what you should make them learn for themselves. […]

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