Paper Cutting Tools and Techniques

Paper sculpture owes much of its visual interest to the use of various techniques for cutting and scoring the paper. There are two types of cuts you will make: exterior cuts vs decorative/textural cuts.

In this post, I want to quick run through the exterior cuts you will make for the individual shapes in the sculpture.

I grouped the roughly cut out sections of colored paper by project and put the tracing papers and printouts on the boards behind my desk. I end up referring to these often through out the rest of the project so I will keep them handy.

It’s difficult to demonstrate HOW to cut using either scissors or an xacto knife – you will have to find your own technique and that only comes through practice.

Funny side bar: Last year I was doing a family project, probably wrapping presents or something, and I realized that both my daughters cut paper holding the scissors upside down! They were 16 and almost 12 at the time, so obviously they had held scissors this way for a long time, and it worked for them. I’m not sure where they learned that, but I guess this just shows that there’s no “right” way to use scissors!

Supplies you need for cutting paper:

Sharp scissors.

They don’t have to be fancy – I’ve picked ones up over the years from various places (probably the kids brought them home from school or somewhere) and they’ve worked great.

The one caveat to this – when I was first starting out, I read on a blog to purchase the pair on the right. These DID NOT work for me, because they cut using a very fine serrated edge. This meant that all my pieces had a serrated edge that I had to try to smooth out.

Links to the scissors in the above image (From left to right, note: the colors may vary)

Westcott Titanium Scissors 2 for $10 - a bargain!

Tonic brand is great, but make sure you avoid the ones that say "serrated edge" (shown on right).

Tonic Scissors - Large

Tonic Scissors - Small

Fine Tip Spring Cut Scissors

Xacto Tools (can come in different brands, I'm just going to call all utility knives "Xacto"):

Safety Tip: You will use a lot of blades in paper sculpture and it’s important that you dispose of them safely. I have this old gum container I put them in. When I fill it, I will either find a doctor’s office that will let me include them in their “Sharps” disposal or contact my local refuse department.

The rounded edge Xacto is supposed to be helpful in cutting curves – I personally don’t use it. To buy:

Curved Edged Xacto - I just bought some blades to swap out of a regular holder.

The basic Xacto. I’ve found the expensive blades break just as easy as the cheap ones, so I buy the cheap blades in bulk.

Sometimes you will use a larger box cutter for cutting out background supports.

Replacement blades - I've found they all break at about the same rate, so why pay more?

Xacto Knife Replacement Blades (xacto brand) $22 for 100 (at time of post)

Replacement Blades (Excell brand) $16 for 100(at time of post)

Replacement Blades (generic brand) $8 for 100(at time of post) .

Cutting Mat (24 X 36) About $30

Don’t forget the cutting mat! This is very important to protect your cutting surface, and also your blades. I’d recommend getting a large mat (24 X 26 is sufficient), because sometimes you will have to cut large sections of your paper, and it’s nice to not have to keep adjusting the mat underneath. Fortunately, mat prices have come down. You want to look for “Self-Healing” cutting mats. (They really don’t magically go away, but it’s better than just plastic under. Eventually, I do end up replacing mats).

TECHNIQUES: When to use Scissors.

I always start out cutting with scissors.

When I was in school, I remember being given the advice to “always use the biggest paintbrush possible in any given situation”. The idea is that you don’t want to be too finicky with a small brush, and it’s easier to work big to small

With paper sculpture, it’s the same thing. You want to work from the biggest pieces to the smallest. And you want to start with the biggest cutting tool. This will let you get the smoothest line and is easier on your hands.

Self- care tip: use the biggest scissors for a given piece – you’ll get a nice cut and it will be less stress on your hands.

Video One: "Cutting Paper: Exacto Knife"

Cutting Paper for Paper Sculpture (pt. 1)

I demonstrate how and when to cut 2-ply paper for paper sculpture using an exacto knife.

TECHNIQUES: When to use an Exacto knife.

If you have to turn the scissors awkwardly back on themselves it’s probably time to use the Xacto.

If you are bending the paper to make a cut, you need to use the xacto.

Cutting curves with an Xacto knife

There are two techniques:

  • One, you turn the paper as you pull the knife through.

  • The second is for tiny circles, where you make a series of overlapping linear cuts that actually form more of a hexagon or an octagon. The edges will smooth out if you emboss it, or even if you don’t, at that small size your eye will “read” a circle in any case.

Video Two: "Cutting Paper: Scissors"

Cutting Paper for Paper Sculpture (pt. 2)

I demonstrate how and when to cut 2-ply paper for paper sculpture using scissors.

Don’t immediately change blades if you break a tip – sometimes that broken tip is SUPER sharp and I’ll keep cutting with it!

Note: you are also going to see lots of paper bits in my videos and photography – I’m showing you how I truly work, not how a staged sculpture goes together. There are some beautiful images out there of putting together paper sculptures, but the reality is you will have bits everywhere, and you will need to have some system for corralling all those bits!


Most of the “decorative” cuts I will make in the paper AFTER I add some initial colorization in ink. However, when there are large structural elements I know will be cut down the road, I will cut them at this stage.

I cut out the toes on the left foot, because I knew I didn’t want to add these as built up elements, but I wanted some ability for give/take of placement. On the right foot, I cut out only the line after the third toe, because I knew that I was going to build up additional pieces on the big toe and index toe.

NOTE: even at this initial level, with little detail, you can see that the different approach to each foot is going to yield different visual results.

Also, I cut out one toenail just for demonstration purposes. I won’t cut out the other toenails, however, until I’m right ready to emboss/color/glue them. (I’ve learned they will just get lost in the meantime).

Important Tip: If I have little pieces, under about half an inch, I’ll leave them on a bigger piece and cut them right before I’m going to glue, because they are too easy to lose otherwise.

These projects actually are fairly solid shapes – if you were going to cut out eye hole, or nostrils, you would do that now.

New to Papercutting?

Sometimes, it’s nice to practice a new technique without all the extra headache and mental activity of designing the piece. Or maybe you aren’t an “ARTIST” but you’d like to try paper cutting. If so, here is a good book for you. It’s akin to a coloring book, but it’s a “cutting” book – where the templates are there, and even the paper is included.

The book is “Papercut This Book” (sometimes the cover appears different) by Boo Paterson.

Papercut this Book:

BONUS POST: Giveaway of “Papercut This Book!”

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Joni Nemeth is an author-illustrator living in Chandler, AZ | All images shown are © copyright 2015-2021 Joni Nemeth and/or respective clients. No reproduction of images permitted without written consent.