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Prototyping with Cardboard (Part 1)

Cardboard for prototyping presents 3 big advantages:

  • it’s cheap
  • it’s sturdy
  • it’s recyclable

It’s one of the most practical skills you can learn for designing products. Almost free, easy to find, easy to manipulate, cardboard prototyping is also super fun.

Where to Find Cardboard for Free?

Besides looking around your house, there are a few ways to get cardboard for free. Ask you local grocery stores and supermarkets (Walmart, Costco) if they have boxes to spare. Best timing is in the middle of the day or in the evening when staff is stocking shelves and hence emptying boxes.

For large size free cardboard: try kitchen stores, bike stores and dollar stores. However, many stores are not allowed to give away boxes because they have agreements with recycling centers.

2 online free cardboard resources:

Free cardboard is cool because, well, it’s free but it’s not always the best for prototyping as it comes already used, folded and printed on.

For better prototypes, you will need clean large sheets of cardboard with a neutral tone or in plain color. I detail below the main types of cardboard (cardstock, chipboard, corrugated and honeycomb) and where to find each of them.

Choose your Cardboard

First and foremost, you need to choose the type of cardboard that will work for your project.

The word “cardboard” is just a generic term that doesn’t say much. It defines a paper that is thicker than 200 GSM (grams per square meter). This article will help you understand the different types of paperboard.

Engraved chipboard and corrugated packaging created by the Bureau of Betterment. Image: Bureau of Betterment

Engraved chipboard and corrugated packaging created by the Bureau of Betterment. Image: Bureau of Betterment

Assuming you already have a prototype idea in mind, maybe some drawings and even schematics of how your product could look like, cardboard can then be used to visualize your idea in space and create a first 3D visualization, or even mechanical prototype of your idea.

Type of cardboard you use will greatly change your ability to fold, bend, glue, draw, drill or paint it.

Criteria to pick your cardboard:

  • thickness

Thinner cardboard (such as cardstock or chipboard) is easier to fold, lighter and better for details. Thicker one (such as corrugated fiberboard or honeycomb board) is more sturdy, resistant to impact and allow for bigger projects.

  • surface

A white or brown surface will change the overall aspect of your prototype. Coated surfaces (such as cardstock or white liner chipboard) are easier to print on or use stickers on, brown ones (such as corrugated fiberboard) easier to paint on.

  • sturdiness

Prototypes made for demo or exhibitions require a stronger material and well-finished details (with colored cardstocks for example). Furniture, objects carrying weight need sturdy cardboard as well (such as honeycomb board or corrugated fiberboard).

Let’s see what your options are. I compare

1 – Cardstock

cardstockThe thinnest type of cardboard is simply called cards. They are the type used for making business cards, catalog covers, postcards or playing cards.

Cardstock is an excellent type of board for prototyping. It’s sturdy but easy to cut and drill, has a great smooth surface, comes in multiple colors, is pretty inexpensive and easy to find. Tools to work with cardstock are the usual suspects: scissors, utility knives and pens (see part 2).

cardstock-car-prototype

Model of Autocar Truck (1914-1917) made out of 65lb cardstock by Cutandfold.info

Wrench prototype made with cardstock and X-Acto knife. Instructables:

Wrench prototype made with cardstock and X-Acto knife. Credit image: Buchananwp

Cardstock suppliers

Neenah, Array, Wausau, American Crafts and GP are the main brands of cardstocks. Sheets usually come in big stacks of 100 or 250 sheets, in packs of white or colored cards. Standard card size is 8.5 inch x 11 inches.

White:

  • Neenah: 250 sheets of white 65lb cardstock costs about $12
  • Wausau: 250 sheets of white 110lb cardboard costs about $14

Color:

  • Array: 100 sheets of 10 color cardstock is also around $11
  • American Crafts: 60 sheets of heavy weight color cardstock for about $12

 

2 – Chipboard

white-line-chipboardWhite Lined Chipboard (abreviated in WLC, GD, GT or UD) is usually made from recycled paperboard. It’s made of a top layer of bleached pulp and a middle and back layer of recycled waste paper. One side is coated multiple times, and the other side only once. Inside is grey. White back version is known as Triplex board.

White Lined Chipboard advantages are its price and its printing abilities. It’s an inexpensive type of cartonboard that is also great for prototyping.  It’s easy to draw on, glue and cut. Sheets are thin and easy to fold while sturdy enough for small prototypes with details.

Thicker than cardboard, chipboard is typically a good paperboard for cutting typography and decorative details to add to your prototype. I detail in part 2 of this article what are the best cardboard cutting tools.

Below are some examples, such as these letters cut in chipboard:

Letters and shapes made out of chipboard.

Letters and shapes made out of chipboard. Credit image: ChipboardLetters.com

Or this sheet of chipboard cut in the shape of a vintage frame. Top layer is made of cut cardstock glued on the chipboard and then painted with silver spray.

white-line-chipboard-frame

Fake silver frame made with painted chipboard. Credit image: Shelly Hickox.

Holes have been punched in the sheet of chipboard below to prototype future stamps:

stamp-chipboard

Stamps prototypes out of chipboard. Credit image: DebbieStamps.com

Chipboard suppliers

Chipboard sheets are usually more expensive than cardstocks because they are thicker and need multiple treatments, even if recycled.

  • EcoSwift: 200 chipboard sheets 8.5 x 11 inch for about $22
  • ThunderBolt Paper offers slightly bigger sheets, but for a much bigger price (25 chipboard sheets 12×18 inch for about $25).

 

3 – Corrugated Fiberboard

corrugated-cardboard-sheetCorrugated fiberboard is the king of paperboard for prototyping. It’s also used for final products.

It’s made of corrugated board, a wavy-looking board called the “flute”, sandwiched between two pieces of linerboard (usually kraft linerboard). The flute is made of a kraft containerboard usually over 0.01 inches (0.25 mm) thick. Overall sturdiness and thickness of corrugated fiberboard varies from 1/32 inch (0.8 mm), called “F” flute, to3/16 inch (4.8mm) for a “A” flute. Most common corrugated cardboard is “C” flute, with a thickness of 5/32 inch (4.0 mm).

Primary use of corrugated fiberboard is to make boxes, which is why it’s so easy to find and popular among product designers. It’s a strong and versatile cardboard that has interesting design properties.

corrugated-lamps

Pendant lamps made out of corrugated cardboard by design firm TudoAndCo.

Corrugated fiberboard is strong enough for final product. It lets air flow while offering great see-through capabilities, depending how you cut it.

corrugated-cardboard-laptop-case

Corrugated cardboard laptop case created by designer Gilles Miller in 2006.

Google launched Cardboard, a low-cost DIY Virtual Reality headset made out of thin sheets of corrugated fiberboard. You can make Cardboard yourself or buy a kit online. I AM CARDBOARD store is specialized in Google Cardboard headsets.

cardboard-google-vr

Google Cardboard VR

Artist Chris Gilmour creates giant sculpture out of cardboard, like this impressive wheelchair:

cardboard-wheelchair-chris-gilmour

Wheelchair sculpture made out of cardboard by artist Chris Gilmour. Credit image: Chris Gilmour

Pieces of laser-cut corrugated cardboard assembled in a geodesic sphere prototype:

Jared Tarbell's geodesic prototype made out of corrugated cardboard. Image credit: Jared Tarbell

Jared Tarbell’s geodesic prototype made out of corrugated cardboard. Image credit: Jared Tarbell

Corrugated cardboard suppliers

For nice large clean sheets of corrugated cardboard (not moving boxes), count about $16 for a pack.

Neutral brown:

  • Inergroup Packaging: 8 sheets of corrugated cardboard 1/2 x 11 inch for about $16.99
  • Aviditi: 5 sheets of corrugated cardboard 48” x 24” for $16.36

Color:

  • Hygloss offers colored corrugated sheets 8.5 x 11 inch for about $8 a pack

 

4 – Honeycomb Board / Hexacomb

honeycomb-boardHoneycomb board, also called Hexacomb, is a type of corrugated cardboard that is particularly rigid. It’s a grid of honeycomb-like paper sandwiched between two sheets of light cardboard. It can be use in indoor and outdoor projects, has a strong resistance to impact. Surface is smooth and solid.

Honeycomb board is used in automotive, packaging, industrial design and construction. It requires strong tools and space to work with.

Cardboard bicycle functional prototype made by English designer Phil Bridge out of Hexacomb. Waterproof, it can resist a daily use up to 6 months.

cardboard-bicycle-prototype

Cardboard bicycle by Phil Brudge. Credit image: Phil Brudge

Dutch artist Filip Jonker made the “De Furie”, a cardboard boat out of honeycomb board, as a way to demonstrate cardboard sturdiness and durability.

cardboard-boat

“De Furie”, honeycomb cardboard boat by Filip Jonker. Details here.

Honeycomb board suppliers:

  • Hexacomb is the company making honeycomb boards, contact them for custom orders.
  • MrBoxOnline sells hexacomb panels (1 sheet of 40x48x1 for $11)

To sum up

Type of cardboard Description Type of prototype Suppliers
Cardstock Thin paperboard that comes in all colors / easy to find Ideal for lettering and details as well as smaller prototypes made on a desk Neenah (white) / Array (color)
Chipboard Thicker recycled coated paperboard with white and/or brown sides / requires good cutting tools such as rotary cutters or laser-cutters Ideal for small sturdy prototypes / Easy to paint and print on EcoSwift
Corrugated cardboard Very thick and sturdy popular cardboard / Easy to find Ideal for prototyping and even final products / Can be used in many waysInergroup Packaging
Honeycomb board Extra sturdy thanks to the honeycomb shape of the board Used for large-size strong prototypes Hexacomb

 

Do you use cardboard for your prototypes? Share your experience in the comments below!

Part 2 of this series is about cardboard cutting tools for prototyping: “How to Cut Cardboard”

Part 3 is about Various Cardboard Shaping Techniques

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8 Comments

  • I have used foam-core in the past for prototyping, with tutorials from http://cardboardmodeling.com/ (by an ex-colleague, Joep Frens from TU Eindhoven).

    A couple of weeks ago I was design a circuit board, and realised that printing the design on paper is also a great way of getting the size and form of the board right: http://blog.openpump.org/work-in-progress-pump-shield/

    • Interesting, what do you usually do after the cardboard/paper prototype? Go directly with manufacturing a test board? I see a lot of desktop PCB machines nowadays but doesn’t seem worth the investment and pain so far.

    • I’ve just received the first board back (2 weeks turnaround time including shipping) and will be soldering it today :)http://instagram.com/p/vBUm5mwH4K/?modal=true

      At my local hackspace we’re busy setting up a CNC mill specifically to make PCBs. Should be a bit cheaper to iterate on designs compared to £10 per test board and much quicker. Would love to get an Othermill (https://othermachine.co/othermill/features/), but a bit on the expensive side.

  • Where does the cardboard used in food containers such as breakfast cereal fit in with this information? Would it be considered another kind of chipboard? Is it heavier or lighter than normal chipboard?

    Bill

    • Cereal boxes are made of Solid Unbleached Board (SUB), which is a paperboard that has a few layers of coating on one side but only one on the other side. Solid Unbleached Board is also used for packaging frozen food, shoes or toys for example. Its properties are very close from White Lined Chipboard (mentioned in the article), usually a bit lighter.

      It’s a great type of paperboard for prototypes as it’s both easy to work with and to draw on. The less coated side allows for better gluing and folding, while the coated side is great for printing graphics.

  • I have prototyped in paper and card and also clay. For my last project some of the end components ended up in card as that was the cheapest option for laser cutting.

    I agree with Gerrit that it’s a great way to check your PCBs out. You can lay the components on the board and ensure you’ve enough space between them.

  • I have a great idea that i would like to make a prototype in cardboard.
    Does this company do this.

  • I need a desktop plotter ti cut paperboard for prototype.
    I look for silver bullet plot but I’m not scure it’good for me.
    Can ‘u help me?

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