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How to Cut Cardboard (Prototyping with Cardboard Part 2)

Now that you chose your cardboard (as detailed in Part 1 of this series on cardboard prototyping), let’s see how to cut cardboard.

Sometimes a simple cut can make a design. Studio and store Art Lebedev created the Flashkus, a USB key made of a simple sheet of cut cardboard. Flashkus keys are disposable and recyclable.

Flashkus cardboard USB keys by Art Lebedev. Image: Art Lebedev

Flashkus cardboard USB keys by Art Lebedev. Image: Art Lebedev Studio

In this second part, I explore how to cut cardboard and what are the best cardboard cutting tools available to date. Scroll down to the end of the article to get a summarized recap.

Manual Cut

Cardboard Scissors

Having good cardboard scissors will save you time and pain. Main scissors brands are Fiskars, Titan and Westcott. Canary offers cardboard-specialized scissors. From a few bucks to more, not all scissors are the same.

Chris Gilmour is a cardboard sculptor who makes astonishing replicas of everyday objects, like this awesome Italian coffee press. He uses scissors among other tools.

cardboard-italian-coffee-machine-Chris-Gilmour

Cardboard sculptor Chris Gilmour made this Italian coffee machine using scissors and utility knives. Credit photo: Chris Gilmour

Another cardboard project… Engineer James Hoyle prototyped a seat for military tanks that are now in use.

Tank seat prototype. Credit image: PageOne for DailyMail

Military tank seat prototype. Credit image: Courtesy of PageOne for DailyMail

Another tank-related example with this cardboard project… a small tank made for a cat. Scissors were the right tool to use, as prototype didn’t require perfect clean cuts.

cat-cardboard-tank

Cat tank made out of cardboard, using scissors and utility knife. Credit image: TigrisLis, on Instructables

I compare below main scissors depending on the type of cardboard you’re working with.

Scissors for paper, cardstock and thin cardboard;

Best light cardboard scissors: Fiskars Recycled. Great price, large handle, recycled.

Details:

BrandProduct Name ProsConsType of cardboardPrice
Fiskars Recycled cardboard-scissors-fiskars-recycled Handle 100% made of recycled plastic 8 inch blades Very low price bend after a while not the sharpest Paperboard cardstock paper $3.89
Westcott 8 inch cardboard-scissors-westcott-8 Titanium 8 inch blades two per pack Cheap breakable plastic pivot handles small for big hands Cardstock paper $9.88

 

Multi-purpose cardboard scissors, for chipboard and light corrugated cardboard:

Best multi-purpose cardboard scissors: Fiskars Cuts+More.

Details:

BrandProduct Name ProsConsType of cardboardPrice
Fiskars Cuts+More cardboard-scissors-fiskars-cut-more Excellent heavy duty cuts multi-purpose 9 inches blades can be taken apart Extra wire cutter blades tend to separate when large cuts Paperboard cardstock paper $13.23
Titan Elite cardboard-scissors-titan-elite Tempered stainless steel ultra sharp blades / excellent for cardboard cereal boxes cardstock Grip could be thicker and softer / can bend after a while Cardstock paper $13.35
Fiskars Razor Edge cardboard-scissors-fiskars-razor-edge Very sharp blades 8 inch blades Handle not so comfortable mostly conceived for fabric $16.26

 

Scissors for thick cardboard, like corrugated cardboard:

Best corrugated cardboard scissors: Fiskars Amplify. Light and strong, designed for thick cardboard.

Details:

BrandProduct Name ProsConsType of cardboardPrice
Fiskars Amplify cardboard-scissors-fiskars-amplify Specially conceived for thick material / Corrugated paperboard cardstock paper $16.37
Fiskars ShopBoss cardboard-scissors-fiskars-shopboss Multi-purpose super strong / Corrugated paperboard cardstock paper $19.94
Canary Cardboard Scissorscardboard-scissors-canary Specialized for corrugated cardboard Small blade expensive for what it does Corrugated paperboard cardstock paper $20.68

 

To recap (Fiskars is definitely the top scissors brand for cardboard!):

Utility Knives

For cutting through flat cardboard by hand, best tool to use is a utility knife. It will allow for clean cuts, and will also come in handy for cutting boxes apart.

This is the first prototype of the credit card. A very simple design made with card and utility knife. It was made by IBM researchers in the late 1960’s, and sold in 2012 by Sotheby’s auction firm for more than $23,500 (so think of archiving your prototypes!).

cardboard-prototype-credit-card

First prototype of the credit card. IBM.

Utility knife was also used to cut this cardboard prototype of an Ambiant Stack Machine:

cardboard-prototype

Ambiant Stack Machine prototype made during a practical course on Physical Computing at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München . Credit image: FredericPK from SketchingWithHardware

Maker Sean Charlesworth created a cardboard replica of his camera for an Adam Savage’s contest, using utility knife among other tools. He shared his whole process on Tested:

camera-cardboard-prototype-tested

Cardboard camera. Credit Image: Sean Charlesworth on Tested.com

There are lots of good brands of utility knives, among them: Stanley, Irwin, Gerber, DEWALT, Alltrade, Bessey, Greenlee, TEKTON or Olfa.

To recap:

See below for all details:

Foldable utility knife

Brand Product name Pros Cons Price
Gerber EAB lite cardboard-utility-knife-gerber Pocket size / stainless steel handle Too small for big projects $9.99
DEWALT DWHT10035L cardboard-utility-knife-dewalt Highly reliable / durable / multi purpose / easy to open with one hand Blades can be hard to change $11.99
Milwaukee 48-22-1901 cardboard-utility-knife-milwaukee Overall excellent Screw can be loose on the long run $14.85
Husky Folding Lock-Back Razor Knife cardboard-utility-knife-husky Foldable / reliable / multi purpose Heavy $16.43

Fix sturdy utility knives

Brand Product name Pros Cons Price
Irwin 2082cardboard-utility-knife-irwin300 Simple / reliable / bright color low price $7.31
Stanley 10788 cardboard-utility-knife-stanley  Cast metal core / multi purpose Blades hard to change $8.89
Stanley 10-779 cardboard-utility-knife-stanley-yellow Simple / reliable / bright color Could be heavier $9.13
Alltrade 150003 cardboard-utility-knife-alltrade Blades easy to change / retractable / sturdy / $11.78

Rotary Cutters

Next step is to get a semi automatic cutting tool. Good to cut cardboard without breaking a sweat. Electrical rotary cutters also helpful to make straight and sharp cuts.

Paragon, SKIL and Simplicity are the main brands making rotary cutting tools.

  • Paragon is half cheaper but only works with paper and light card.
  • SKIL is the top rotary cutter, light and long-lasting battery, great for thick cardboard. It will work with a vast array of materials, for a thickness less than 0.5mm (3/16”).
  • Simplicity is more stable as it stands on a desk, but also somehow too weak for anything stronger than paper.
Brand Product Name Pros Cons Price
Paragon Rotary Cutter cardboard-rotary-cutter-paragon Multi purpose / blade locking mechanism Paper only $19.88
SKIL 2352-01 cardboard-rotary-cutter-skil Light / extra long battery / great for cardboard Heavy / sometimes slow $44.99
Simplicity Rotary Cutting Machine cardboard-rotary-cutter-simplicity Desktop machine Paper only / blade not sharp enough $43.51

High speed cutting

For serious jobs, get serious tools. A Dremel Multi-Max could be the best solution for cutting through very thick large sheets of corrugated cardboard.

Brand Product Name Pros Cons Price
Dremel Multi-Max cardboard-rotary-cutter-dremel-multimax Cut through very thick corrugated cardboard More expensive $109.63

 

Like this guy:

Computer-Controlled Cutting Tools

Now that we saw the most popular manual cutting tools, let’s see what your options are regarding computer-controlled ones.

Automated cutting machines are perfect for speeding up your work and giving you professional results.

Paper Cutting Machines

Paper cutting machines are computer controlled tools that are very useful to create details and typography. They don’t use a laser but actual physical blades that cut through the paper.

Silhouette Cameo is an extremely popular paper cutting tool that costs less than $250. It has the qualities of a small laser cutter, enabling for computer-controlled high precision cuts. It will cut through thin cardboard (typically: card), but also vinyl or fabric. It can also be used to etch glass.

silhouette-cameo-cardboard-prototyping

Paper-cutting machine Silhouette Cameo

Very similar in size and price to an inkjet printer, they come in handy for all kind of projects. They are much smaller and cheaper than laser cutting machines.

Let’s look at an example of how to use your paper-cutting machine for prototyping. Cutting letters and creating packaging are the most common use, such as this jam packaging made with the Silhouette Cameo.

paper-jam-packaging-silhouette-cameo

Jam packaging made with a Silhouette Cameo.

Laser Cutting Machines

Laser cutting machines are the real deal when it comes to sharp cuts. These CNCs are among the most popular machines in Fab Labs and maker spaces in general. Usually pretty big and expensive, it often makes more sense to rent time on them than to buy one.

Below is a laser cutting machine used to make parts of a robotic arm, Cardboard Pincher. Project was created at the Center for Bits and Atoms at the MIT by Z. Taylor.

Laser Cutting Machine cutting parts of a cardboard robotic arm. Credit Image: cba.mit.edu

Laser Cutting Machine cutting parts of a cardboard robotic arm. Credit Image: Z. Taylor, Center for Bits and Atoms MIT

Results are excellent, and allow for clean complex assemblies. This piece is an iPhone scanner designed by industrial designer Kyle A Koch and made at Ponoko.

Cardboard iPhone Scanner made by Kyle A Koch. Credit Image: Kyle A Koch

Cardboard iPhone Scanner made by designer Kyle A Koch. Credit Image: Kyle A Koch

Kranium is a helmet made out of cardboard… and stronger than plastic ones.

Kranium cardboard helmets. Credit image: Kranium

Kranium cardboard helmets. Credit image: Kranium

Where to find a laser-cutting machine?

  • find your local Fab Lab, sometimes hackerspace
  • ask nicely the closest design/engineering/architecture school if you can use their machine
  • have it done by a professional laser-cutting service such as Ponoko.
  • Check this list of services freely available on ThomasNet here.
  • Ask a Fabber from 100K Garages to laser cut a part for you.

Cardboard cutting tools at a glance

Let’s see who the winners are in each category.

Best overall scissors: Fiskars Amplify.

Best overall utility knife: IRWIN.

Best rotary cutter: SKIL.

Best paper-cutting machine: Silhouette Cameo.

 

If you only need two…

IRWIN & Silhouette Cameo are your cutting tools essentials!

Happy prototyping,

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3 Comments

  • CNC routers can also be practical for large or complex cardboard cutting jobs.

    Normal wood cutting bits are not ideal though.

    I’ve had good, fairly precise results cutting lots of C flute corrugated cardboard with rasp-like PCB router bits, which are meant for cutting fiberglass panels. The ideal diameter seems to be around 1 mm to 1.5 mm.

    • Mike, can you tell me more about your experience cutting C FLUTE CORRUGATED w/ PCB router bits on a CNC machine? I’m looking for the best way to prototype a product that is made of corrugated c flute. I’ve been researching laser, oscillating knife, and now I’ve seen your post. Can you tell me more about your set up?

    • I’ve got a 24″x12″ CNC Shark router (sold at Rockler woodworking
      stores) that I bought to cut parts for my cardboard surfboards. It
      worked well enough to develop my concept and make prototypes.

      If a
      CNC router is all you can access or afford, those PCB rasp bits work
      well. I’ve probably cut a few kilometers of cardboard with them.

      I’ve since built a lasercutter, and it’s much nicer for prototyping in C flute. Go with a laser over a router, if you can.

      There
      are also large format router/knife machines designed for prototyping
      boxes and other packaging and display structures, but they might be
      harder to access than a lasercutter. Look into Kongsberg/Esko for that
      sort of machine, and packaging design companies for access.

      But, again, I’d try laser first.

      I’ve been building a map of publicly available lasers. Maybe there’s one near you:

      http://sheldrake.net/cardboards/map/

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