The most frequently asked questions about paper cutting are ”What kind of paper do I have to use? Do I need a surgical scalpel? What can I cut on?”
First of all, there is no right and wrong answer. I consider the first and most important unwritten rule of art is to use materials you want to use and feel comfortable with.
However, it always helps to get an idea of where to start so I decided to put everything about supplies in this post. Sometimes you need to look at different sources and websites to get this information which can be time-consuming and unnecessary. All the items from the list below are completely customizable and some are obligatory, try them out to see which ones you would like to use in future.
- paper or cardstock
- surgical blade, craft knife, scalpel or a utility knife
- a shallow container for paper scraps
- cutting mat or glass
- optional: a small sponge tube, a scrap piece of paper, tracing paper
Image source: LCI paper
If you join any paper cutting groups and discussions on social networks and websites, you’ll notice how many people ask other members what paper they use.
It’s very tricky to answer. Most likely, you will use several types of paper and create with all of them. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to only one type, for example 120 GSM pearlescent white. Over the past few years, I have seen a few who only use black paper and nothing else. Perhaps they experiment with different thickness, but they stick to one color which defines their style.
On average, cutters like to use 120-160 GSM paper. The color, size, finish (mat, glossy, metallic…), type (photo paper, kraft, cover, cotton bond…) and texture are a matter of preference.
If you want to learn more about what papers you can purchase, you can easily find charts and useful information on websites of companies specialized in printing. Some also offer examples for a low price which is perfect if you find a paper type you would like to try out before purchasing a ream.
You can choose between a smooth and a hammered or textured surface. Hammered looks very appealing when the papercut is framed and is easily cut. I prefer to use smooth paper as it is easier to find in hobby stores and is considerably thinner.
What is GSM?
It is an acronym standing for grams per square meter. It’s quite simple to use it. The higher the number, the heavier the paper. If you come across a ream in a store, try to compare 80 and 120 GSM paper. You will see there is not much difference when you look at it, you can only feel that 120 is slightly thicker when you pull out a sheet.
When buying online, I strongly recommend asking for free samples. You will hardly be refused as many print suppliers encourage customers to ask for a sample and make sure it is exactly what they need before taking a leap to buy a huge amount.
Here is a quick guide to GSM:
- 35-55 newspapers
- 80-100 printer/copy paper in households and offices
- 120-140 perfect for paper cutting as it is not too heavy nor too flimsy like printer paper so it does not rip that easily. Other use: posters and flyers.
- 200-300 offered by print suppliers, most home printers cannot print on them. Use: premium, sturdy flyers, magazines (especially covers)
- 350-400 sturdy card for card making, wedding invitations and business cards
When you are a beginner, it’s best to start with 80-100 GSM paper you surely have at home or in your office. It’s inexpensive which makes it perfect to practice on. If you are interested in what I like to use for my own papercuts, you can watch the video Paper cutting Basics #1 on Youtube, where you can also see the difference between several types commonly found in stores.
Tip: when using double-sided black paper, you can use tracing paper to transfer the printed or drawn design.
My first papercut was made using a virtually blunt utility knife and sketchbook paper. Utility knives are very inexpensive and often come with spare blades. Some come with a long blade with indents which tell you can snap the blade off at those lines using the cap on the bottom and have a new sharp tip. Another advantage is accessibility, but unfortunately they are only good for cutting big papercuts without tiny details.
If you plan on making an A4 or a bigger papercut, you can probably use it and get a good result. The problem with these is the tip of the blade. It is thin but wide and hard to hold when cutting miniature parts.
Craft knives are a better alternative. You can find them in any hardware or hobby store and they also come with spare blades. I tried to use them, but haven’t had any luck as the tip broke very easily which can be dangerous. You need to be extremely cautious when using them as they often get stuck in self-healing mats and, if using glass, they glide very easily which can again lead to an injury.
If you would like to purchase it, please consider going after a high quality product like Fiskars or Maped. They are a bit more on the expensive side, but the blade should be durable and safe.
Finally, what I have been working with for years are surgical scalpels and blades. Found in pharmacies and online, these are sterile, sharp and have just the right blade shape that will make cutting enjoyable and easy.
Image source: Swann Morton
I haven’t experienced any broken blade tips and it works the best when the blade is slightly blunt. Having a new blade can be a bit challenging as it’s super sharp so again, you need to be careful, but after an hour or two of cutting, the blade is exactly what you’re looking for to achieve a neat and intricate papercut.
They come in form of disposable scalpels (with a plastic handle) and a steel handle with spare blades. Blades come in pack of 100 which is enough to last for a couple of months if you make papercuts often. It’s always a good idea to have spare blades because the tips quickly get blunt to the point you can’t use them any more.
Blades suitable for paper cutting are #10a, #11 (frequently used) and #15a.
If you’re using a disposable scalpel with a plastic handle or any other scalpel that is not comfortable to grip, you can wrap a piece of soft material such as sponge, or use a small sponge tube on the top part of the handle, near the blade where you will be putting your thumb, index and middle finger. If you use it without anything covering the hard surface of the handle, you might see red spots on your fingers or blisters.
To dispose used blades, you can find a sharps container in your local pharmacy.
Tip #1: for miniature papercuts or very intricate pieces, you can also use a detail or swivel knife.
Tip #2: common surgical scalpel brand cutters like to use are Swann Morton. One of my favorites is Aesculap.
Self-healing cutting mats are perhaps the best thing you can invest in. They come in various sizes, colors and also feature grids and degree guides which can help you see the size of your papercut and make cutting straight lines effortless. Plus, those mats are rotary-cutter friendly so you can cut fabric as well and are non-slip bottom which is very important.
One thing to keep in mind is to look after them. Once in a while, soak them in cold water and let them dry on air. Do not put anything hot on them (like a cup of tea, or work with a hot glue gun), do not put them out in the sun to dry or bathe them in hot water.
If they come in contact with any form of heat, they will warp and you won’t be able to fix them.
Using a cloth to wipe off excess water is also not a good idea as the small fibers will get stuck in the small cuts. Water helps the mat heal itself and close most of the cuts, but they don’t live forever. When you notice the surface is too scratchy to work on, it’s time to buy a new one.
Glass is easier to maintain but can be challenging to find. I have been using a slightly curved glass plate found in a dollar store and it works great. There’s no need to buy a glass mat with grids if you do not plan on using those extra features. To prevent slipping, I put foam circles under the plate corners.
When cutting on glass, it’s good to know that the blade glides easier. Your movements should be slow and precise to prevent ripping your papercut or cutting your hand. I like to save blades I used on self-healing mats and use them later on glass, once they are not as sharp as before.
I hope this guide to basic paper cutting supplies helped you get an idea what you need to have in order to start creating papercuts. I must warn you that once you make one, you won’t be able to stop so be prepared to create a lot of beautiful intricate paper pieces that you can use as wall decor or gifts for loved ones. If you have any questions or have difficulties finding supplies and templates, feel free to leave a comment.