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Archive for December 1st, 2010

Paper-Cutting Tutorial: Hanukkah Lamp

Posted by Avital Pinnick on December 1, 2010

Paper Cutting: Hanukkah Lamp

My only qualification for writing a tutorial on the art of paper-cutting is that I consider myself a beginner and the learning process is fairly fresh in my mind! Since Hanukkah starts tonight, I thought a Hanukkah lamp would be an appropriate subject.

One of the biggest hurdles, I find, is drafting the actual design for cutting. If you’re a natural artist and can sketch anything you like, then skip the main part of the tutorial and go straight to the cutting tips. If you’re not sure of your drawing abilities, this tutorial will show you how to turn a photograph into a paper-cutting.

The image I used is an 1873 silver Hanukkah lamp from the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was lent to the White House for Hanukkah, 2009. I chose this design because the photo was clear and the design seemed suitable. You’ll have to judge your own tolerance for fiddly details!


  • Photograph (digital image)
  • Xacto knife With No. 11 blades
  • Self-healing cutting mat, 18 x 24 inches (this is a good size because the corners of a small mat can snag the edges of the cuts when you are turning the paper)
  • Paper for cutting (I used ordinary printer paper. You can use something else as long as it’s not too thick or delicate)
  • Stapler
  • Staple remover
  • Pencil with hard lead (e.g., 2H or 3H, so that the lines don’t smear)
  • Tracing paper (tracing paper comes in different weights. A thin weight is easier to see through)
  • Paper for backing
  • Glue stick
  • MagEyes with #7 (2.75X) lens (optional, but they make a big difference)


1. Insert the photo file into an MS Word document. (I chose Word because it’s readily available and allows you to resize the photo. Also, Word compresses graphics, which will make it easier to print than if you were using a graphics program like Photoshop or a photo-editing program like Picasa.)

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 1

2. Print the page (yes, I know I need to replace my toner cartridge).

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 2

3. Staple thin tracing paper to one half of the design.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 3

4. With a sharp, hard-lead pencil, trace the outlines of the design. Remember that you don’t have to reproduce the design slavishly. If some parts are too fiddly to cut, feel free to simplify. Where there are areas of overlap, for example, between the oil cups and the back plate, you’ll have to figure out how to interpret the design. The design must remain interconnected so that pieces don’t fall apart, unless you plan to glue them in later.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 4

5. Carefully remove the tracing from the printed sheet with the staple remover.

6. Fold your paper-cutting paper in half.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 5

7. Staple the tracing to the folded white paper, aligning the fold line and the edge of the tracing.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 6

8. Cut the small bits first. On the right side of the photo you see my MagEyes. I strongly recommend getting a pair because they really reduce the eye strain and make it much easier to see fine details.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 7

9. Lattice-work is easier to cut if you draw the criss-crossing lines as bars and then cut out the spaces between the bars. You get a more accurate representation that way. The blobby finials at the top were turned into fleur-de-lis because it was easier for me to cut them.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 8

10. Carefully cut out the design, working from small pieces to larger areas. Occasionally turn your work over to check the accuracy of your cuts.

Paper-Cutting Tutorial 9

11. If parts of your design are asymmetrical (e.g., the shamash or lamp on the left side), leave that area uncut. You will work it after the symmetrical part has been unfolded.

12. When you are finished cutting the symmetrical parts of the design, carefully unfold and flatten the piece.

13. Cut asymmetrical design elements.

14. You’re not finished yet! Go over the design carefully and neaten the edges, cutting wispy bits away, straightening corners, and refining curves.

15. Use glue stick to glue the cutting to a background paper or card stock. Don’t try to apply glue to the entire cutting. A dab in each corner will be sufficient. Note: I recommend that you wait a few hours or a day before mounting your paper-cutting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mounted a piece and then noticed something that I wanted to fix, after it was already glued to the backing.

16. Last but not least: Sign and date your work.

Cutting Tips

  • Before you dive in, make some practice cuts on a folded piece of paper. Curves will be harder than straight lines but eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
  • Cutting a double thickness of paper requires a bit more force than a single layer, but avoid pressing too hard with the knife. Beginners tend to use too much pressure, causing the blade to sink into the cutting mat. This creates drag on the blade and makes cutting curves a lot harder. Try to use just enough pressure to cut through all the layers of paper without sinking the tip of the blade into the mat. Remember that you’re not carving a linoleum block!
  • Each time you cut out a small piece, gently poke it out of the folded paper. I use the knife tip to pin the cut-out bit to the mat, while gently lifting the folded paper. It should make a satisfying little popping sound if your cuts are clean and meet at the corners. If you encounter any resistance at all, stop. This usually means that some of the cuts don’t meet at the corners. Turn over the folded paper and cut from the other side. Do not use force to separate the cut-out because you may tear the paper or leave feathery little fibers at the corners.
  • After you have poked the cut-out piece, sweep it out of the way. You must poke these bits out so that they don’t get caught between the paper layers and interfere with the cutting. If a piece does slip between the layers, gently open the layers and shake it out. Every now and then, stop to brush the cut bits into a wastepaper basket. This is a very messy craft!
  • If you are cutting lots of similar motifs like the candle flames, do each part assembly-line style. I cut the central flame for each candle, followed by the left part and the right part. This makes repeated motifs more consistent.
  • If you mess up a part of the design, considering cutting it out or changing your design on the fly. I frequently change my mind about a design while I’m cutting it.
  • Repeated rectangles: Cut all the straight parallel lines in one direction first. Turn the cutting 90 degrees and cut the straight parallel lines perpendicular to the first set of lines. If you’re not sure whether your cuts are meeting at the corners, turn the design over and go over the corners from the back side.
  • Curves: Work slowly with the knife (don’t press too hard!) and anchor the paper close to the curve with the fingernail of your left index finger. This will reduce the chances of the paper tearing or stretching (paper is surprisingly stretchy).
  • Long, skinny shapes: Cut the long sides first, without cutting the ends. Then cut the ends.
  • Corners: Generally, it’s easier to start at the corner and work outwards.
  • Intricate edges: For designs like the fleur-de-lis finials, cut them at an early stage without cutting away the entire background. Leaving the background attached gives you a more stable piece to work with. When it’s time to cut away the background, you’ll only have to cut the simpler curves and edges.

Good luck! If I’ve forgotten anything, please tell me.

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