Paper model builder at-large Thomas Garbutt returns with the second lesson in his series on tools and techniques. This time he outlines best practices for cutting out the sometimes intricate pieces found in Pellerin paper models.
by Thomas GarbuttDuring my sophomore year in high school, my class was assigned a novel to read—Little Britches, by Ralph Moody. The title smacks of something from the 19th century, but the book instilled in me a timeless piece of advice: “Measure twice, cut once.” This rule has served me well over the years, and has helped me realize that even seemingly simple tasks like cutting paper deserve proper attention and equipment if we hope to do a good job.
The right tools make all the difference. I’ll go over the uses and merits of several cutting tools in this article, but there are some useful pieces of cutting equipment that aren’t even sharp. A good cutting mat is one of them, and is essential when using an X-Acto blade. Without it, you’ll slice lines into your tabletop or end up shredding whatever old newspapers or magazines you place beneath your model sheet. An 11x14-inch cutting mat should be adequate. They usually come in green and are sold alongside the rest of the cutting tools at the craft or hobby store. Look for one with gridlines and other guiding marks printed on it, as they will help when you need to line up long cuts along a straight line or at right angles.
Not everyone thinks to prepare for the cutting stage. After you’ve decided what to make, why not just pick up a pair of scissors and start cutting? But a bit of thought before you make your first incision will help you avoid frustrating mistakes later on.
It’s best to look at the intact model sheet and make a mental note of which pieces will need what sort of work. Certain types of lines show where the pieces are to be cut, and other lines indicate folds. You don’t want to confuse the two, as that can lead to avoidable “field surgery” on your model. Use scissors to cut up the large sheets into several pieces, each one about the size of your open hand, perhaps, leaving margins as wide as possible around the individual parts of the model. You’ll find these pieces easier to handle than trying to wrestle with the full sheet while you cut out the smaller bits.
Scoring the fold lines before you even cut out the individual pieces will make your folds much easier and cleaner. All papers have a nearly imperceptible “grain” which allows them to be folded more cleanly in one direction than the other. It’s usually impossible to tell in which direction a particular paper’s grain runs until you actually fold it. And because paper models have fold lines running in every direction, the act of scoring—using a dull instrument to break the paper fibers—will give your model’s folds more uniformity. I’ve found that wooden tools usually used in clay sculpting work very well. You can also try the smooth edge of an old kitchen knife, the kind you would spread butter with. It is always better to score the long pieces first, then fold while the scrap side (the portion of the paper which will eventually be cut off) is still intact. After you have created the fold, make your final cuts to the piece.
The actual cutting out of the individual model pieces can be a fairly straightforward task, but there are a few caveats. The most important of these is to always use a sharp blade. Of course, one can opt for using scissors, but for my money nothing beats the X-Acto knife with #11 blade combination. If you keep a very sharp blade, then you are less likely to bear down hard when cutting. For cutting along lines, I use a straight metal edge. These are usually nothing more than thick steel rulers. Keep away from wooden rulers when choosing a straight edge—even wooden rulers with a metal edge tend to lose their straightness over time.
Count your fingers before you begin. You should try to end up with the same number once your model is finished. Sharp blades cut fewer fingers than dull ones, because the less pressure required to make a cut, the less likely you are to slip. I speak from experience when I say that even dull blades are plenty sharp enough to take off a piece of a fingertip. One of the more creative moments in a model builder’s life is coming up with things to say when that happens.
Some model makers I know like to use disposable scalpels. I find that these blades, although very sharp, tend to snap in two because they are thinner than the #11 X-Acto blades. It is also a good idea to get one of those triangular plastic caps that fit over the end of your blade. (Many X-Acto knives come with one.) This protects you from cutting yourself when you reach to pick up the blade or rifle around in a pencil cup which also holds a knife, and the cap keeps the knife from rolling around on the table. Uncapped X-Acto knives tend to roll very easily. Because of the way they are weighted, if one should roll off your workspace it will fall point down. Speaking again from experience, it really hurts when one happens to land on the top of your foot.
When using a blade to cut something thick like mat board, corrugated cardboard, or foam core, it is advisable to make several lighter passes with the knife rather than trying to make the cut in one go. Foam core can be particularly difficult to cut cleanly with a dull knife, so always use a new blade when working with it.
Scissors are a good choice for cutting smaller curved pieces. Really small scissors such as those used for manicures can help you get into tight places. Another cutting device that works very well on small pieces is a pair of toenail clippers. Curved and straight styles are available, and they are powerful enough to make small cuts in thick modeling material such as mat board. You’ll find yourself using this tool more and more for delicate work. A pair of pinking shears is also convenient to have, especially when cutting along edges with a great number of glue tabs. And hole punches in various diameters are also helpful. Your basic 1/4-inch punch is useful for making clean, small holes, and a 1/8-inch punch is also good if you can find it.
If your model sheets came in a plastic bag, you can use it to keep the pieces together once they’re cut out. If your model has lots of small parts to keep track of, you might want to use more than one bag, especially if it is a multi-day project.
That wraps it up as far as tools and techniques for this stage of paper model building. The only question left now is, “Can you cut it?”
Read Thomas Garbutt’s tips on glues and adhesives. Our interview with Thomas on his experience working with paper models can be read here.
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