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flight of folds
euthysanius beetle
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Metallic Papers

Foil Paper

Paper-folders are often inveterate problem-solvers; following an origami diagram sequence is like solving a series of little puzzles. One of the biggest problems facing the origami artist seeking to fold three-dimensional and/or curved shapes in the middle 20th century was, how can one routinely make curved folds in arbitrary places and have them stay put? Because the springiness of the paper (or its slower relaxation over time) took out any curves that weren't locked into position. Some origami artists developed techniques that utilized locking folds to hold curved shapes under tension; Joseph Wu and Leong Cheng Chit are two modern folders who specialize in this technique. But during the 1960s and 1970s, this problem faced a great many folders who were seeking to advance the natural appearance of their own works.

At least by the 1960s, a solution was found: foil-backed paper—a material that to this day is bound to provoke controversy and harsh words among origami aficionados. Foil-backed paper, usually called "foil paper" or even just "foil", is a laminate: a thin sheet of paper, bonded to an even thinner sheet of (usually) aluminum foil. Many artist supply stores carry large sheets of it (usually in silver and gold), but it can most commonly and easily be found as wrapping paper. When I was young, the day after Christmas found most people exchanging gifts and buying toys on sale, but it found me hitting all the Christmas shops to buy the unsold wrapping paper at 50% off! Nowadays, you can also buy foil paper packaged and pre-cut to squares from the same people who bring you pre-cut kami.

Foil paper is often quite thin and is usually fairly strong, but the big property that it brings to the origami artist is that it is malleable. Or rather, the metal part is malleable. This means you can shape the paper into curves and crimps, and it will hold its shape. Thus, foil paper allows one to fold curved, organic shapes that have a much more natural appearance.

Or at least they do if you consider "shiny and metallic" to be natural. (For certain beetles, it is.) A big drawback of folding with foil is that the shinyness gives the folded figure a harsh, cold look, and the irregular reflections from the surface are distracting and give a cluttered appearance to figures folded from it. Nevertheless, it can be an acceptable tradeoff, given the ease of manipulation. The 1970s were the heyday of foil; its suitability for complexity (due to its strength and thinness) and shaping (due to the metal) led to major advances in origami designs by Elias, Rohm, Crawford, Hulme, and others. People either ignored the shininess, or folded so that the colored side was mostly hidden and the white side faced out. White was bland, but it was an improvement over shiny metal. And several folders (notably Mark Kennedy) developed techniques for dyeing the white side with colors and patterns, which allowed one to combine curved folding and shaping with more natural—or at least, more interesting—color choices.

Even today, I still use a lot of foil paper—for practice, not display. Its combination of thinness, strength, and malleability makes it the most forgiving all-around paper when I'm developing a new design. For large squares, I buy large (20"x30") sheets from art stores; for smaller squares, I buy pre-packaged squares. A good mail-order supplier of foil is OrigamiUSA's The Source. OrigamiUSA sells two kinds of foil, labeled "Japanese" and "American" foil. Unfortunately, American foil, like "American cheese", is an ersatz imitation of the real thing. "Japanese foil" is what you want. If you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you should stop at The Paper Tree on Buchanan Mall; they carry one of the largest varieties of foil and kami around, along with books and other Japanese goodies.

Tissue Foil

In my own designs in the early 1980s, I found that the malleability of foil paper was nice, but it wasn't malleable enough. If I was folding an insect and needed to compress the legs to thinness, even with foil paper, they still sprang apart. The problem was that the springiness of the paper overcame the malleability of the foil. What I needed was a foil paper that was a bit more foil and a bit less paper.

Nothing like what I wanted was available in stores; I would have to make my own. Not having access to a paper factory, I improvised. Using artist's spray adhesive, I laminated sheets of tissue paper to one or both sides of a sheet of household aluminum foil. The resulting material was quite remarkable: I could easily make curves and rounded shapes that held their shape. Furthermore, I could compress insect legs to a remarkable degree, allowing me to realize the contrast between the rounded body and the narrow legs and antennae to a degree I'd never previously been able to achieve. And by using different colors—and even patterns—of tissue paper, I could also achieve a wide variety of colors and textures in the paper. When I used thin tissue, the shininess of the foil showed slightly through the paper, but far from being an annoyance, it actually created a slightly iridescent effect that was quite pleasing.

If you'd like to make this paper yourself, it's quite easy. You'll need:

You'll also need a location with no wind but where you can insure good ventilation; the fumes from the spray adhesive are pretty nasty. (I use my garage and then open the door when I'm done to let it air out.) Here's what works for me:

  1. Lay down a sheet of newspaper or two to cover an area larger than the sheet you're making.
  2. Give a light spritz of the adhesive over the newspaper so that it's just the tiniest bit tacky; this will hold down the foil.
  3. Unroll a sheet of foil from your roll; lay it down over the newspaper. Smooth it down with your hands, working from one side so that it doesn't wrinkle.
  4. Spray the foil with a uniform layer of the adhesive. You should cover it thoroughly; there should be no shiny spots left. It's okay to overlap the edges of the foil; that's what the newspaper is for.
  5. Take a sheet of tissue paper and "waft" it over the sprayed foil, letting it settle over the foil, starting from one edge. You only get one shot at this: as soon as the tissue touches the foil, it is stuck and removal is very difficult to do without introducing buckles and wrinkles! Let the tissue settle over the foil, using your hands or the roller to smooth it down, working in a single direction, to minimize the formation of pockets (which will become wrinkles).
  6. Lift (or cut) the two-layer sandwich free; turn it over and set it, tissue side down, on another sheet of newspaper.
  7. Repeat steps 4–5 with another sheet of tissue foil.
  8. Again, cut the sandwich free. Lay it down on yet another sheet of newspaper and go over it everywhere with your roller to eliminate any air pockets (they will become wrinkles, but hopefully, they will be few and far between).
  9. Cut the material to square, and fold away!

I wrote up this material, now called "tissue foil," in British Origami Magazine in the mid-1980s and began using it in my display models at conventions at about the same time. And for one reason or another, the material caught on and developed a following that continues to this day. I don't know if I was the first to try this—the concept of laminating paper for origami goes back to Yoshizawa (as does so much in our art)—and in retrospect, it seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but I did play some role in popularizing it. As with many technological developments, others have expanded and refined the concept in subsequent years, trying different adhesives, different gauge metals for the filling, different backing papers for the outside, and a variety of post-folding glazes and treatments. (For some of the most amazing origami that is paper-foil laminate at heart, see this and other works on Eric Joisel's web page.

For a couple of years, I played with my new-found toy of tissue foil, folding everything I could from this amazing but recalcitrant material. It looks great, but is very hard to work with for complex folds. Because it is so malleable, precreasing—a staple maneuver of complex origami—is very problematic. With most papers, any crease permanently weakens the paper, so that once you've made a valley fold and unfolded it, if you subsequently make either a valley or mountain fold, it tends to form on the existing fold. With tissue foil, three problems arise:

Despite its annoyances, I folded with tissue foil almost exclusively for several years. But not any more. As I got over my initial infatuation, I eventually began to perceive problems in this material.

There was the precreasing problem, of course, but that could be overcome with time and care. I also found that my figures tended to change color and fade over time, as the unstable dyes in the cheap tissue I was using faded. And sometimes, the paper would delaminate from the foil, as the spray adhesive I'd used also degraded. Both of those could be mitigated by using better-quality materials. But a deeper problem lay in the inherent malleability of the material. Tissue-foil would change its shape under my hands during the folding process; but it would also change its shape for the rest of time, due to the small bumps and nudges of transportation and handling. This property became particularly apparent when I flew across the country for an origami exhibition. What went into the box as a pristine work of art arrived (after the tender mercies of airline baggage handlers) a dimpled, crumpled mess. In fact, tissue foil as a medium created a new bonding ritual among its practitioners when we set up our exhibitions: pull the figures out, then start laboriously straightening the legs and smoothing the dimples incurred in travel. But not everything could be straightened out, and my folded works inevitably degraded over time. I eventually reached the point where the crumples and dimples of tissue foil dominated my view of my own figures. And so, I quit using it.

At the same time I was folding with tissue foil, I had been exploring other papers and folding techniques, and one, in particular, I'd heard good things about: it was called "wet-folding." By the time I had my falling-out with tissue foil, I had learned to use this new technique, and on the next page, I'll tell you about it and the papers that let you exploit it.

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