Pop-Up Design

A basic guide to paper-engineering!

It seems that designing and making a pop-up book is now part of the syllabus of many design courses at GCSE level and above in the UK. As a consequence, I frequently receive emails from students asking for information and advice. While I'm always happy to answer one or two specific questions on the subject, I don't have the time to respond to some of the more detailed requests for drawings and information that I receive.

However I have put together some general information on this page that that I hope is of use.

Designing the Pop-ups

I learnt all of my paper-engineering by trial and error and by studying mechanisms from existing books and adapting them. I occasionally get emails from people wanting me to send them "instructions for designing a pop-up", but even the simplest mechanisms offer many variations, so there is no simple response to this.

However, I can recommend these reference books that offer more detailed advice. The first two books are relatively inexpensive, but if you (or your school) can't afford them, ask if your local library can get them for you instead.

Paper Engineering

for pop-up books and cards

by Mark Hiner

I think this book is ideal for GCSE students. It is printed on stiff paper and contains ten basic pop-up mechanisms that can be cut out, assembled and then glued back into the book.
As well as instructions, each mechanism is accompanied by a page of "Technical Considerations" that highlights relevant design principles and suggests how the mechanism can be adapted for various uses.

ISBN: 0 906212 49 9 RRP £4.95*

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US


A manual of paper mechanisms

by Duncan Birmingham

This is a comprehensive manual of paper engineering that covers all the basic mechanisms along with many variations, before going on to demonstrate how mechanisms can be combined to produce more complex effects.
The book is filled with hand-drawn diagrams, but they are for instructive use only and too small to use as templates. So a little drafting skill, either with a drawing board or a CAD system, is needed to turn them into usable pop-ups.
This is an excellent book for the ambitious student or the aspiring paper-engineer.

ISBN:1 899618 09 0RRP £6.95*

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

The Elements of Pop-UP

A Pop-Up Book for Aspiring Paper-Engineers

by David A Carter and James Diaz

If you are serious about paper engineering and are prepared to spend a bit more money, then this book is an excellent investment. It is the only pop-up manual that I have come across that actually has the pop-up mechanisms included in it. The book contains working examples of 42 different mechanisms ranging from simple parallel folds to relatively complex pull-tab mechanisms, with the principles of each mechanism thoroughly explained.
One apparent shortcoming of this book is that, while the book does include instructions for making each mechanism, templates are not included in the book. However the templates for all 42 mechanisms can be downloaded in PDF format from David A Carter's website.

ISBN: 0 689 82224 3 RRP $35.00*

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

*These are the recommended retail prices in the country of publication as of October 2003

You can find a far more comprehensive list of pop-up manuals on this page of Robert Sabuda's web site.


Making the Pop-ups

For best results, make your pop-up out of thin card - about playing card thickness (between 150-220gsm, if you want to get technical).

All of my designs are drawn on my Apple Mac using CAD software and then printed onto the card. If you do print out your designs, bear in mind that you may need to set your printer to the 'envelope' setting to take the thicker card.
Alternatively, you can draw-up your designs by hand. Drawing accuracy can be very important though, especially for complex mechanisms, so it's best to use a drawing board and an adjustable set-square if you can.

Before I cut any of the pieces out, I always 'score' the creases so that the pop-up can be folded easily in the right places.
You need to use something hard and pointed for scoring. I use a piece of copper wire in a clutch pencil, but you can use a nail file, an old ballpoint pen (in which the ink has run out) or even a knitting needle. It's best not to use anything too sharp, such as a knife, or the crease will tear easily.
Score carefully, using a ruler, along the line of each crease. You need to press hard enough to make a dent in the paper, but don't cut into it.

I prefer to cut the pieces out using a sharp craft-knife or a scalpel rather than scissors. A knife gives a much smoother edge and allows you to create quite intricate outlines. Scissors are safer, but tend to deform the card and are useless for small holes and tight internal corners.
If you do use a knife, be careful and make sure that you cut on top of a cutting mat or other suitable surface (not the dining room table!).

When you have cut out your pieces, you can fold in the creases. It is usually a good idea to fold each crease both ways several times. This will make the crease easier to open out and will make the design pop-up more fully.

Finally, you can glue your pieces together. I use a strong solvent-based paper glue, which dries almost instantly. Non-solvent-based glues are safer for young children's use, but are generally weaker, take a lot longer to dry and can cause the card to ripple and bump.

For step by step instructions (with photographs) of how to make a pop-up, check out the examples in the 'Make Your Own Pop-Ups' section.

Page Size and Proportions

Think about the size and proportions of the pages (portrait, landscape or square). Don't just choose a size and proportion that suits the first pop-up you make and then force all the other pop-ups to fit this. Choose a size and proportion that will maximise the effect of the ALL pop-ups in the book.


Once you have come up with your pop-ups, I think the best way for beginners to bind them is to use what is called a concertina binding. This means that all the pages are joined together in one long folded zig-zag This is how I usually make my first prototypes. It has several advantages:-

  • You can make up each spread separately and then just tape them all together at the edges when they are finished.
  • It allows you to attach the pop-ups to the spread using slots and tabs which is more precise than just gluing them to the page.
  • It allows you to use concealed mechanisms (such as pull-tabs) which can be hidden behind the page.

The one disadvantage of concertina binding is that it uses up lots of card, substantially increasing the cost of the book, which is why a conventional, stitch-bound binding is sometimes used instead.

If you want to make your project look really professional you could give it a proper Hardcover cover. The cover artwork needs to be done on thin paper (ideally covered in transparent book film or sticky-back plastic) which is then wrapped around three pieces of grey board (the stuff you get on the back of writing pads) one large piece for each cover and a thin piece for the spine. You will need to leave a gap of about 10mm between each piece so that the book will close properly. Have a good look at an existing book to see how this is done.

Commercial Design and Production

If you want to find out more about the design and production of a commercial pop-up book, here are links to two excellent articles on Robert Sabuda's web site:-

The making of The Night Before Christmas - Part One: Designing

The making of The Night Before Christmas - Part Two: Artwork and Production

Pop-up book producers David Hawcock Books have produced a well-illustrated 6 page PDF document which outlines the whole process from design to production. Click here to download it.

There is also some good information on pop-up design and production at Mark Hiner's site.

Click here to see my advice for aspiring children's authors

Back to the Pop-Up index page