Paper: 2D to 3D

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One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is the sort of principles one should adopt in a MakerSpace.  And one of those critical principles is this one:

Principle #2: 2D makes 3D

What does that mean? It means that a student or an adult should take a 2-dimensional material, such as paper or fabric or plywood or sheet metal, and turn it into a 3-dimensional object. (I watched a video of Adam Savage making a box using a metal brake recently, and it was inspiring to see a box made so easily. [see about 6:33 and following]).

It’s better if that object has a fold or a bend or a twist in in, or has some sort of functional purpose — but just folding or bending or shaping a piece of paper in a deliberate or conscious way can turn a flat thing into a product. Sometimes it’s a box, sometimes it’s a house-shape, sometimes it’s a bag, sometimes it’s a yarn-winder. Sometimes it’s a question of folding or stacking pieces, sometimes it’s bending them.

What does that look like?

How do we know when a student’s efforts at working Principle #2 have succeeded? How do we know when our own efforts have succeeded?

How do we succeed if we don’t have a metal brake in the workshop (or a hundred bucks of leather for each and every student to make their own Chewbacca bandolier??).

It’s worth remembering the cheapness and versatility of that key material:


Paper is enormously versatile.  I think I got a sense of that with the Paper Roller Coasters people, and the work of Rob Ives.  You can do amazing things with paper.  But pop-up cards have tremendous versatility as a way of teaching the basics of 2D to 3D thinking. In these few cards, you can see one that turns into an easel, several that turn into steps, and several that turn into folded panels. There’s even a Japanese envelope-letter: write on one side of the paper, and then fold it, and it becomes its own envelope.

What are the benefits of working with paper first, before working with metal or leather or cloth? First it’s a lot cheaper.  A sheet of paper starts at around a penny a square foot (though it can get more expensive), while fabric starts at around a penny a square inch.  Paper is the place to teach conservation of materials, 2d to 3d, and the principles of cutting and measuring carefully. This is where the work begins. This — and drawing.

If you have to equip a MakerSpace, and you only have a $100 budget for the year, start with a lot of paper in a lot of weights, and invest in cutting and folding tools like Xacto knives, rulers, and bone folders.  You can download all the origami and pop-up card designs you could possibly want from the Internet.  Measure, cut, fold — make templates ,and cutting and folding diagrams, and set up production lines.  Teach the industrial revolution, Hallmark card-style, and reinvigorate letter-writing culture at the same time.

(While you’re at it, teach students to make the Platonic and Archimedean solids — geometry learning should go along with Maker learning. That’s practically standard).

Remember: No matter what you build, it’ll be a beginning. And everything you teach about folding, cutting, bending and scoring will ultimately be useful when you do get around to having a metal brake.

Design Lab: Sawhorse


Lunch hour sawhorse It turns out that you can build a sawhorse in an hour.

Or, at least, I can.

It helps that you’ve built an adirondack chair and a quartet of tables first, of course.

The construction is pretty simple: I looked at a bunch of plans on the internet, and found most of them overly complicated.  It’s not that they would be hard to build, although with the hinges for folding and the angled cut to make the legs level and so on, they might be a little tricky.  It’s that they would be difficult for students to recreate.

And as I noted in my post about the second pair of tables, I want everything in the lab to be replicable.  I want a kid to come into the room and say, “Could I build that?” And I want the answer to be “yes!” The little ones might say “maybe,” but the big kids should be able to say “Yes, definitely!” by the end of their time with me.

That should be normal.

Lunch hour sawhorse But that means that I also have to be confident that I can do it. So, today, I printed out one of those pictures/diagrams with the sawhorse measurements on it, and I built one.  All of the skills that I learned in building the Adirondack chair at Eli Whitney Museum came to the fore:

  • How to cut lumber square
  • How to square lumber before attaching it
  • How to square elements of a larger construction before attaching them
  • How to level elements
  • How to measure (three different ways, at least twice)
    • Using a tape measure
    • Using a bevel square or speed square
    • Using an exemplar already cut correctly
  • Pre-drilling
  • driving screws
  • working with a level
  • working with a power sander.


The tool-set is not complicated. The patience and care are… not exactly easy to learn, but come with practice.  The sense of transformation and accomplishment that result? Well worth the time.  Plus, it’s amortization of the circular saw, which cost around $100…  At eleven cuts per sawhorse, and sixteen per table… let’s see… one sawhorse, that’s 12, four tables that’s 64 and 12 is 76.  It’s cost us around $1.36 a cut for the use of the circular saw.  Given that we’re making three more tables (48 cuts), three hutches (estimated 22 cuts each or 66), a storage cabinet (30 cuts), and another sawhorse (12)… 76 cuts + 156 more cuts…  $100/232 cuts is forty-three cents per cut.

More than that, though… I’m beginning to feel that if we were told, “you have to be in the new design lab by Friday of next week,” we could do that. We’d move our stuff in, abandon what we’re going to abandon, and finish construction of our remaining equipment in the new space.

And that’s empowering to me.  I feel like I can pack up and move rooms, and not fall behind in my program.  I feel like I have power to get this done.  I feel like another couple of days of construction and we’ll be ready to go in a new space and new place.