Sunday, August 20, 2006

Paper Models (December 2004)

Before you even start reading this column, you might as well dash out for some card stock and a fresh color ink cartridge, because your printer is about to get a workout. Whether you and your kids are into space ships, fancy buildings, amazing moving contraptions or cute animals, make-your-own paper models you can print off the Web are like having the world’s largest toy factory right in your computer. Keep these links on hand for a boring winter afternoon, and in no time everyone from toddlers to grownups will be happily cutting and pasting away. They’re irresistible.

We started making paper models as hands-on projects in math, science and social studies, but now we make them just for fun. The first models we made, and good practice for novice model-makers, are geometric nets. (A net is what you’d get if you ran over a three-dimensional shape with a steamroller.) Cut the net out, fold and tape or glue the edges together, and you’ve got your original shape back – but you don’t have to settle for the plain solids we started with. Jill Britton’s Polyhedra Pastimes activities page has links to sites with dodecahedrons covered in tessellated (interlocking) designs and multi-colored magic fortunetellers (#4), folding and unfolding cubes (#27) and lots of other cool stuff.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you’re ready to move onto planes, trains, buses, rockets, robots, and castles – an entire universe of paper objects just waiting to be printed and put together, some of it intricately detailed. Fantasy game players and LOTR fans can find environments for their characters to live (and battle) in, while model railroad builders can fill in their landscapes with HO-scale stores and houses. Some good places to look for links are Free Paper Toys, which says its listings are “100% Kid Safe;” the Paper Model WebRing, featuring sites from around the world; and 3D Paper Model, a site based in Taiwan. Don’t fret if the model you want is printed in Japanese, German or another foreign language. It’s not that hard to follow the directions solely from looking at the diagrams (Lego maniacs do it all the time). And it’s interesting to peek at pop culture from other countries. Just as the U.S. has bobblehead dolls of famous athletes, in Japan “hako,” or box-headed figures are all the rage. There are hako cartoon stars like Superman and Sailor Moon, as well as caricatures of known artists and world leaders.

NASA offers dozens of paper models of spacecraft, including the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. There’s a list of links to models at NASA’s Solar System website kids page. (NASA’s Spacelink website also has models tied to lessons on flight, but some of the files are 100 pages or more.)

Paper Toys, designed by a Texas man calling himself “Papermeister Dooney,” is a good site for models of buildings like the Sydney Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and Bill Gates’ mansion. He also has cars like the DeLorean, the Porsche 911 and the PT Cruiser. Paper Paradise, a commercial site, has a free airplane it says is capable of barrel rolls and loops that comes with directions for a rubberband launcher. For younger kids, the printer company Canon has Print Planet, with pinwheels, paper dolls and an entire paper town, with cars to drive in it, while rival Hewlett-Packard has undersea, outer space and dino dioramas.

Our best models so far include the free pop-up galleon from the commercial Heritage Model site; the Asian-influenced folding and unfolding cube toy by Ellen Yi-Luen Do; and Jill Britton’s Polyhedra Earth Map (we did the cubist globe). The kids enjoy creeping out their friends with a dragon that appears to watch you wherever you go, from Grand Illusions, and I’m very proud of my adorable moving woodpecker from Sasatoku. I haven’t yet decided what color paper I’ll use to print my 3D 2005 desk calendar, courtesy of Robert Simm’s Neat Math Page, but over in the kids’ room I hear plans afoot for a miniature movie set with the buildings, spaceships and robots. Guess I better lay in more supplies of heavy paper and ink...

Tips on techniques: The Card Modeling FAQ is the hobby’s bible. At minimum, you’ll need a B&W printer, heavyweight business-card-thickness printer paper, scissors and tape or a glue stick. For more advanced models you’ll want a good color printer, special readers like Adobe Acrobat, an X-Acto knife and a straight edge, a blunt pointy object like a knitting needle to “score” fold lines for sharp creases, and craft glue. Go easy on the Elmer’s; a dab’ll do ya, and hold the pieces together for a minute or two until set. And save the scraps -- they sometimes have important instructions on them. Then clear some shelf space, because your personal toy factory is ready to roll!


  • JavaGami software by Ann and Mike Eisenberg of the University of Colorado has models of sushi and other shapes and lets you custom-design your own.

Check these out:

Polyhedra Pastimes (
Free Paper Toys (
Paper Model WebRing (
3D Paper Model (
Paper Toys (
Paper Paradise (
Heritage Models galleon (
Sasatoku (
Dragon Optical Illusion (
The Toymaker (