I am often asked what kind of paper to use for origami. There is no single answer; it depends on what you’re folding. On this page, I’ll talk a little bit about the most common types of paper for origami and my own experiences with them.
One of the things that first attracted me to origami as a child was that the tools were all around me; all I needed were my hands and a sheet of paper, and I could find paper anywhere! For many years, I used pads of obsolete business forms from my Dad’s business, cut to square. Nowadays, the equivalent paper would be copy paper—used or unused. And all it needs is to be cut (or torn) to square, and you’re ready to fold.
For simple folds, copy paper works very well. It takes a crease nicely and doesn’t easily wrinkle. And you can find it almost everywhere. But as the world of origami has progressed over the last few decades, the complexity of origami designs has grown, and for many designs—and almost everything I compose these days—copy paper is just too thick. You’ll need to look for other sources.
Magazine and Newsprint
Even more ubiquitous than copy paper is magazine paper and newsprint. Both are tempting, particularly because they are generally much thinner than copy paper. But if you try them out, you’ll find that magazine paper and newsprint are really lousy papers for origami. They have two big weaknesses: they are weak (and so tear easily), and even worse, they don’t hold creases very well at all.
Second Sheet, Manifold, and Airmail Paper
For many years, my paper of choice was a type called “second sheet” or “manifold.” These names came from the days before copy machines, when business forms came in packets of several sheets with carbon paper between the layers, so that when you filled out the form you were making multiple copies. Manifold paper was quite thin (9 lb., using the American system of paper weights; see here for conversions), but unlike newsprint and magazine paper, it was crisp and took creases nicely. Alas, multicarbon forms seem to be a casualty of the commercial photocopier. Although I’m still working on the first 1000-sheet ream of manifold that I ever bought, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it in stationery stores. But airmail paper is very similar—thin, crisp, and strong—and email has yet to kill it off.
Traditional Origami Paper
I regularly get asked, “do you have to use that special Japanese origami paper that comes in the little square packages?” It’s true, there is paper made especially for origami, and most art or craft stores carry it. It’s relatively thin, brightly colored (most packages contain an assortment of colors), and, conveniently, it is already cut to square. (Or nearly so; more on that in a minute.) It seems like this paper must be the ideal paper for origami, possibly made by hand according to ancient tradition and used for origami for perhaps hundreds of years!
The truth is somewhat less inspiring. What we think of as traditional origami paper—generally called kami—was actually developed in the early 20th century for use in schools, using inexpensive, western-style machine-made paper. It was colored on one side, because that’s cheaper. The paper is not archival, and the dyes are unstable, so it degrades over a period of years. And while it is fairly thin (thus using less material, making it cheaper per sheet), it is not very strong, as generations of folders attempting to use it to fold insects, can attest!
And it is not always square, to boot. This is not necessarily due to imprecision in manufacturing, though. Kami, like all machine-made papers, has a definite grain, which comes from the manufacturing process. It is made on a continous belt moving through a paper pulp slurry, and the motion of the belt tends to align the paper fibers along a given direction. (You can easily see the effect of this alignment by trying to tear a sheet of newspaper; it will tear much more cleanly in one direction (with the grain) than the other (across the grain).) Paper absorbs moisture from the air, and a change in humidity will cause a slight change in the size of the paper. But because of the grain, machine-made papers swell more in one direction than the other. That means that even if the paper was square when it left the factory, it might not be square when you open the package if the humidity is different where you live.
So kami is not very stable, not very strong, and maybe not very square. Why use it at all? Tradition, and convenience. There is a history of using kami for origami; many folders honor that tradition by continuing to do so. And it’s convenient to be able to just pull out a sheet and start folding, square or not. (And for many folds, being half a millimeter out of square is not going to make a significant difference.) Kami is most commonly available in two standard sizes: 6 inch (15 cm) and 10 inch (25 cm), and these are so common that if you ask any origami person, “hey, do ya have a square of six-inch on ya?” they’ll know exactly what you mean. (At least in America, where we still use inches.) But if you look around, you can find it as small as 1″ and as large as 15″, and nowadays, there is an enormous variety of colors, patterns, gradations, and prints.
(A side note on terminology. The word kami is Japanese, and simply means “paper.” The word “origami” is derived from oru, meaning “to fold,” and kami, meaning paper. So, to a Japanese speaker, the word kami can refer to any type of paper. However, in English-speaking countries, kami is used informally in a narrower sense to refer to the pre-cut packaged squares, no matter where they come from.)
One drawback of kami is shared by most of the other papers I’ve talked about. It’s very difficult to make curved surfaces. For the paper to take a crease cleanly, it should be a bit springy; and if it’s a bit springy, and you try to curve it, the springiness will straighten out the curve. (There is a folding genre, called “curved tension folding,” that overcomes this problem by creating locking mechanisms in the folding.) In the early days of modern folding, that didn’t matter; most origami was flat. You could close every figure in a book, and so curves weren’t even contemplated. But as people became more familiar with the works of the great 20th-century Japanese origami master Akira Yoshizawa, works that were delicate, 3-dimensional, organic, and curved, people realized that curved folds and 3-dimensional shaping were major elements of artistic folding. Traditional papers didn’t allow this type of shaping (and Yoshizawa didn’t use traditional papers for much of his folding). This led origami artists, individually and collectively, on a journey: the quest for the perfect paper! In the next couple of pages, I’ll discuss some of the candidates.
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.
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:
- a roll of household aluminum foil
- several sheets of tissue paper (or similarly thin paper)
- a can of artist’s spray adhesive
- some newspaper
- a roller or artist’s brayer
- a sharp knife or scissors.
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:
- Lay down a sheet of newspaper or two to cover an area larger than the sheet you’re making.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Lift (or cut) the two-layer sandwich free; turn it over and set it, tissue side down, on another sheet of newspaper.
- Repeat steps 4–5 with another sheet of tissue foil.
- 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).
- 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 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:
- If you unfold a valley fold, the paper does not easily open out flat, but leaves behind a small pucker where the valley fold was. You have to run your fingernail or some other hard smooth object over the fold to fully remove it.
- Once you’ve removed the fold, there is truly no trace of it; making a new fold, there is no tendency of the fold to form in the location of the original valley fold. This property eliminates the value of pre-creasing for “setting up” a subsequent complicated collapse.
- If you haven’t completely removed the valley fold and you try to make a mountain fold at the same location, the mountain fold will form on one side or the other of the original valley fold; in other words, it will fall somewhere that is guaranteed to be not where you want it! This contrariness can be extremely frustrating.
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.
When the great Japanese master Akira Yoshizawa began visiting the West in the latter half of the twentieth century, his audiences were astounded at the organic, lifelike forms he had created. Much of the magic arose from his folding technique; rather than making every crease sharp, he incorporated soft creases, curved creases, and gentle, rounded forms. And yet, despite the softness of form, the folded figures themselves were often rigid, almost shell-like; they easily withstood the rigors of travel and retained their original form. The secret was a folding technique invented by Yoshizawa, called wet-folding.
Nowadays the term “wet-folding” is used to refer to any of a family of techniques, and the original techniques developed by Yoshizawa have been expanded upon by many artists. The common element to all members of the family of wet-folding is the application of water to the paper to soften it during the folding process. This allows the formation of both soft and sharp creases and lets you easily form curved surfaces; then when the paper dries, it retains its shape, becoming rigid and resilient. With thin papers, wet-folding allows one to compress multi-layered flaps to a much finer degree than with dry folding, allowing a much more realistic expression for legs and antennae in arthropodic subjects. I took up wet-folding over 20 years ago, and over the years, have become enthralled by its capacity for variation and expression, to the point that nowadays, nearly everything I fold for display and most of the figures on this site are wet-folded.
There are now many different papers for wet-folding and many different styles of wet-folding. While you don’t need to know a lot to wet-fold, if you’re planning on exploring the technique, it is helpful to understand why it works, if only to understand why some papers work and other papers don’t.
The thing that enables wet-folding is sizing. Sizing is a water-soluble adhesive that is—sometimes—added to the paper pulp during its manufacture. The sizing agent acts to bond the fibers of the paper together as the paper dries, resulting in a stronger, crisper sheet. Paper manufacturers use different types and amounts of sizing in their papers, depending on the properties they’re after.
For the origami folder, sizing is what makes wet-folding work. When you dampen the paper, the water dissolves the sizing, making the paper softer and more malleable; when the paper dries, the sizing bonds the paper fibers together in their new configuration, making the resulting shape permanent. The more sizing there is in the paper, the greater the contrast between foldability when wet, and rigidity when dry. Thus, wet-folding requires usage of sized papers, and the greater the amount of sizing in the paper, the more suitable that paper is for wet-folding.
So, how (short of interrogating the manufacturer) do you tell if a paper has enough sizing to make it good for wet-folding? There are a couple of answers, but the easiest is, with a little experience, you can tell by feel, particularly with thick papers. If the paper feels fairly stiff, crisp, and a little springy, then it probably has been sized. You can also experiment: dampen a sheet (by wiping with a damp cloth); if it becomes noticeably easier to manipulate, then the dampness has dissolved the sizing, and it will probably be good for wet-folding as well.
You can also just work with known good wet-folding papers. Perhaps the most readily available paper that works well for wet-folding is watercolor paper, available from many art stores in a variety of colors. I particularly like the Canson Mi-Teintes brand, which comes in a wide range of colors and has a nice surface texture. I’ve also found that calligraphy parchment works very well for wet-folding; its only drawback is that the range of colors is somewhat limited.
However, my favorite thick paper, by far, is Wyndstone Marble paper (in Europe, this is sold under the name Zanders Elephant Hide). This paper is very dense and smooth, and has a mottled appearance that looks like marble (hence one of its names). It becomes very malleable when damp, very rigid when dry, and is fairly resistant to getting fuzzy along folded edges (a hazard of the technique). (Interestingly, because of its elegant appearance and springiness when dry, Wyndstone Marble is a favorite paper for “dry tension folding”, a completely different style in which curved surfaces are held in place by folded locks). It is available from many art stores and numerous sources on the Internet.
Whatever the paper, if it is relatively thick, you can use a similar approach for all such papers. I’ll describe my own technique here; other folders have their own favored variations. I use the following tools:
- A damp cloth (I prefer disposable dishclothes, which I discard when they get dirty);
- A bowl of water (to dampen the cloth);
- A cutting mat, sharp knife, metal-edged ruler, and triangle (for cutting squares).
When I start to fold, I dampen the cloth, then use it to wipe the surface of the paper to dampen the paper. The most important aspect of the whole process is the dampness of the paper. Too little, and the paper will be too stiff; curves will spring apart, and sharp creases will break along the fold line. On the other hand, if the paper is too damp, that’s even worse; the paper will start to come apart, getting fuzzy along creases and potentially splitting at stress points. The optimum level of dampness gives the paper the feeling of leather; a bit floppy, but not soggy. If the surface is shiny, that’s too wet; set the paper aside and let it dry a bit to bring it back to the right consistency.
Starting out, you must get the paper to the right stage of dampness; thereafter, you’ll periodically redampen parts as they dry out. I usually find that three complete wipes gets it to the right stage to start; wipe one side, turn the paper over, wipe the other side in the opposite direction, then flip the paper over and re-wipe the first side. Of course, this depends on how damp you made the cloth to begin with. I usually start by dunking the cloth, then I wring it out enough that if I hold it loosely crumpled, it doesn’t drip.
The reason for the cutting supplies in the list of materials is that it’s better to cut the paper to square after you have dampened it. All of the papers I’ve mentioned above are machine-made papers, and all machine-made papers have a grain, which means that when wet, they swell anisotropically. If you cut a square dry and then dampen it, it will become noticeably non-square. It is a great disappointment to make your first fold along the diagonal and find that the corners no longer line up! So I always cut my paper a little larger than I need, dampen it, then quickly cut it to the proper square and begin folding.
As you fold, the paper will be constantly drying out at a rate that depends on where you live. (Here in California, it’s pretty fast.) You’ll have to keep an eye (or rather, a feel) on the dampness/stiffness of the paper, and re-dampen parts as they dry. Edges and corners tend to dry out faster than the middle of the paper. Once you’ve folded very much, some of the layers will become inaccessible to re-dampening, so I find that I pretty much have to fold a figure in one straight shot (which can necessitate 6 or 8 hours of straight folding; no coffee beforehand). If the figure won’t hold its shape on its own, you can hold the paper into position while it dries, a process you can hasten by holding it in the airstream of a hair dryer. (However, this technique must be used carefully; if the figure dries nonuniformly, it is likely to warp and buckle.) I also use strips of drafting tape to hold things into position as they dry. Once the figure is fully dried, it will be quite rigid, and will hold its shape for a long time to come.
Wet-folding as I have described it requires heavily-sized, fairly thick papers. There are many beautiful papers in the world, but relatively few of them are suitable for wet-folding because they are too thin, lack sizing, or both. Furthermore, there are many origami figures that exploit the two colors on opposite sides of the paper. Traditional origami paper is colored differently on the two sides, but most art papers are not. Yoshizawa developed a folding paper that solves all three problems at once: in English-speaking countries, the technique is called back-coating. it consists of gluing two thin sheets of paper together using a water-soluble adhesive. The result is thick enough to wet-fold, can be colored differently on each side of the paper, and best of all, the adhesive material acts as the sizing agent, permitting the resulting sandwich to be wet-folded.
To backcoat two sheets of paper, you need two thin sheets, a flat surface, and a water-soluble paste; wheat starch is a common material. The first sheet is glued down to the flat surface around its edges, using a bit of the paste. The top surface is then coated with the paste, and the second sheet laid down over it. The entire sandwich is rolled to eliminate any air bubbles and to insure a good joint between the sheets; then the result is allowed to dry. (Gluing the first sheet down by its edges is a necessary step; it holds the paper flat during drying. Without this step, the paper would curl and buckle as it dries.) When the entire sandwich is dry, it is cut away from the backing, and trimmed to square. From there, one can wet-fold the material as described above.
Backcoating allows one to wet-fold a much larger variety of papers, including a huge variety of art papers from all over the world. However, it necessarily results in a sheet that is twice as thick as the paper you start with. For many origami figures, that’s not a problem. But for the most complex figures—insects, spiders, crustacea, and anything with a great deal of detail—the added thickness is not tolerable. One would like to be able to apply the techniques of wet-folding to single sheets, and quite thin ones at that.
On the surface, wet-folding and thin paper would seem to be at cross purposes. After all, in wet-folding, we rely on the thickness of the paper to help the model hold its shape. Furthermore, many of the beautiful thin papers that are available have little or no sizing at all. While sizing is normally incorporated into the paper during the manufacturing process, it is also possible re-apply sizing to the sheet even after manufacture, thus allowing wet-folding and a remarkable degree of shaping.
The most common sizing agent used when resizing a sheet is a material called methylcellulose; it is also called bookbinder’s paste and is a major ingredient in wallpaper paste. (In fact, as a thickener, it is an ingredient in a lot of other things too, ranging from cough syrup to fast-food milkshakes.) Paper itself is made from cellulose; Methylcellulose is cellulose that has been chemically altered to make it water-soluble. Because it is chemically inert and water soluble, it is often used in paper conservation; aging studies have shown little change over decades.
Methylcellulose, or MC, comes as a white powder that must be dissolved in water, forming a solution that can range in consistency from cough syrup (of course) to “alien slime.” (In fact, Hollywood studios use the stuff by the case for exactly that purpose.) To resize a sheet of paper (or to size a sheet that was never sized to begin with), you simply paint a solution of MC over the sheet, allow it to soak in, then dry.
A small complication is that with many papers, and most thin papers, the solution of MC will soak through the paper and wick between the sheet and your backing surface, thus gluing the paper down permanently. To avoid this problem, I do my resizing on a sheet of glass (a trick I learned from origami and paper artist Michael LaFosse, more on whom in a minute). I tack down the sheet with a little MC around its edges; then paint more over the entire sheet, smoothing out any ripples and rolling out any bubbles; then let the whole thing dry. When it’s dry, you can peel the entire sheet cleanly off of the glass. MC is a nice resizing agent because it soaks in completely; the top surface will look the same as it did before you started. The bottom side will have shiny spots, which comes from the polished surface of the glass. You can either fold the paper with this side inside, or if it will be exposed, wiping the paper with a barely damp cloth will take off the shininess without actually dampening the paper (which would introduce ripples).
Wet-folding with resized thin papers calls for a different folding technique. The paper itself is too thin to sustain dampening it completely before folding. Therefore, I usually fold the paper dry as far as possible; then when it comes time to shape, I selectively dampen just the part that is getting the shaping, using a fine paintbrush dipped in water. These figures can be extraordinarily delicate once dampened, so I often fold a single body part, then let it dry completely before going to the next part. Folding a figure in this fashion can take literally days until it’s complete, but the results are well-worth the effort; most of the insects on this site were folded using this technique. Instead of using plain water, you can also dissolve some MC in the water used for dampening; this will add additional strength to thin features after it has soaked in and dried.
Methylcellulose is probably the most common sizing agent used in wet-folding, but there are several others. Less easily obtained is Sodium Carboxymethylcellulose, a.k.a. CMC. Chemically, CMC is more polar than MC, which makes it bind more tightly to the cellulose fibers of the paper. In layman’s terms, the paper is stiffer when it dries. Even stronger than MC and CMC are the various starch-based adhesives, with wheat starch being the most common. All three are used in book conservation and have a good record of longevity. However, starch-based adhesives are attractive to vermin; no origami will survive being chewed to death by insects. Wheat flour is about 10% protein, which makes it particularly attractive to our multi-legged friends; MC and CMC are relatively inert (and I only use them in my own work). In any case, a few mothballs tipped into the storage box will keep the nasties away.
Now that you know what to do with them: what thin papers should you use? There is an enormous variety of wonderful thin papers from around the world—far too many for me to discuss. But I will mention here a few of my favorites.
Many of the good thin papers for folding are handmade, and most of them are made from plant fibers other than wood pulp. In general, you should avoid papers made from wood pulp (which takes in the vast majority of the paper made in the world). Wood pulp for paper is made by grinding up wood chips by one of two processes. Thermo-mechanical processing (TMP) primarily uses heat, steam, and grinding to break the chips down into individual fibers; chemical pulp uses acid and other harsh chemistry to break down the cellulose and lignins (and incidentally, gives paper mills their distinctive, and long-ranging, smell). TMP must grind the chips into small bits for the steam to do its work, and so, despite its (relative) environmental friendliness, the paper fibers are shorter and weaker than those in chemical pulp. Most commercial paper is made of a blend of the two, with lower grades (like newsprint) having a higher proportion of the short-fibered TMP pulp.
Short fibers are bad for folding, and they are really bad for thin papers for folding. Thin papers usually mean complex figures, and complex figures usually mean the paper will be put under stress, and stressed short-fiber paper tends to split, leading to even more-stressed origami artists. Fortunately, many of the most interesting art papers are not made from wood pulp; instead, they are made from various plant fibers. Owing to either the nature of the plant, or the relatively more benign process used to extract the fibers from the plant, these types of pulp can have very long fibers, giving paper that is thin, uniform, and strong. As an added bonus, pulps provided for artisan papers are usually carefully pH-balanced and contain none of the lignins common in wood-pulp papers (which turn yellow fairly quickly). A pH-balanced paper (so-called “acid free”) will not degrade over time; in fact, artifacts made from handmade paper have been found in Japan that are over 1000 years old!
Occasionally, you will find that paper has been labeled by the pulp from which it is made. Common plant source fibers include mulberry, which is the traditional material for most Japanese handmade paper. The Japanese name for mulberry is kozo, and some of the best papers in the world are made from it in Japan. A similar plant fiber is gampi, which produces another high-quality paper. Korea also has a tradition of handmade paper, using kozo fiber. They don’t call it that, of course; the Korean word for such handmade paper is hanji; I use a great deal of hanji in my own folding, and you can find various sources for it on the web. Other papers made from mulberry include unryu; there are many varieties, so you’re best off to find a store where you can browse the paper directly and examine its thickness, crispness, and other feel.
One of the most interesting plant fiber papers for origami comes from Nepal; the plant, and the paper, is called lokta. There are numerous sources for lokta paper on the web, and I’ve also found it in the occasional art store. I don’t know if it’s due to the fiber, or the specific process they use in Nepal, but lokta sheets often have a subtle mottling to them that is just distinct enough to be interesting but not so bold as to be distracting. The thickness of the sheet is highly variable. In fact, the thickness can vary substantially across a single sheet. This makes it a bit of a challenge to fold, especially if the thick part of the sheet shows up in a part of the figure that should be thin, but a little advance planning can avoid that. For some models, it’s just the thing: the Bull Moose in the heading of this website was folded from lokta. One caution: at least some of the lokta I’ve seen is dyed in garish colors that are almost certainly unstable dyes; this calls into question the color stability of the entire line.
I have, naturally, saved the best for last. Without question, the best thin paper for origami in the entire world comes from Haverhill, Massachusetts, from the Origamido Studio, home base of Michael LaFosse. Michael is well-known as one of the world’s great origami masters. But he is also a master paper-maker, and over the years he along with his partner Richard Alexander has developed recipes and techniques for making paper for origami that is thin, strong, crisp, takes a crease, and isn’t overly weakened by folding; in short, it’s as close to perfection as I’ve ever seen. Michael primarily makes paper for his own works, but a couple of times a year, he makes paper available for sale to the rest of us. It’s only in stock occasionally—and when it is, the world’s origami artists fairly quickly buy him out—but if you’re serious about folding complex figures, hie yourself over to Origamido, and try folding the very best. All the papers are pH-balanced. Even more important, the colors come from mineral pigments rather than (potentially unstable) dyes. This paper will last a lifetime.
That’s a rapid tour through the range of papers for artistic origami. Not a complete tour, by any means, but a sampling of what’s available and what to do with it. But it’s possible to fold many things other than paper, and it’s possible to fold things considerably outside the breadbox-size range of most artistic origami. In the next section, I’ll touch on a few other folding media used for special purposes.
Origami includes many genres: one uncut square (the most common form), many uncut squares (which takes in both modular and composite origami), triangles, rectangles, even the occasional slitted shape. The common element of origami is that folding is the primary means of creating the form. And it’s usually paper. But not always.
In fact, many materials can be folded using the techniques of origami; all that is required is that the material come in sheets and that it can form creases. Within that broad category, a wide range of materials have been folded over the years with results that are novel, interesting—and sometimes even delicious.
Cloth would seem an unlikely subject for origami, because most cloth won’t take a crease. But in fact, there is an entire genre of origami that uses cloth: napkin folding. Many people have probably attended formal dinners where the cloth napkin was folded into a bird-of-paradise or other decorative shape. This version of the art goes back hundreds of years in Europe; it is mentioned in a book, “Il Trinciante” by Vincenzo Cervio which was published in 1581! (There is no known connection between Renaissance napkin-folding and the Japanese paper-folding tradition, but cloth napkin folding is arguably as old as the Japanese art of origami itself. Origami researcher Joan Sallas has traced European napkin folds back to the 1600s, including the first recorded use of the terms “Mountain Fold” and “Valley Fold” in this context.)
Today you can find many books and articles giving techniques for folding napkins into various decorative shapes. All that is required is a fairly heavy, stiff cloth, like a linen napkin. Even so, such material does not hold creases very well, and only relatively simple shapes can be folded therefrom. Starching a cloth makes it stiffer and more able to hold a crease, and more complicated forms can be folded. (Not too surprising; adding starch to cloth to make it stiffer is analogous to adding sizing to paper to make it stiffer.) Samuel L. Randlett’s landmark book, The Art of Origami, showed several plates of elaborate pleated forms created with starched cloth. In more recent time, origami tessellation artist Chris K. Palmer has created elaborate patterns of intersecting pleats in thin raw silk, patterns reminiscent of Moorish tilings. Chris’s technique, using tiny stitches to gather and hold the pleats while using steam and pressure to set the folds, is described in his book, Shadowfolds. This is similar to a technique uncovered by Eric Joisel, which has been practiced by F. Ciment Pleating, a family firm for over a hundred years. In their approach, cloth is sandwiched between two sheets of paper; the entire sandwich is pleated in an elaborate pattern, then pressed and steamed to set the folds; then the paper is peeled away, leaving the pleated cloth form.
Cloth napkins are now only seen in formal settings; they have been replaced by paper napkins in everyday life. Not surprisingly, many of the folds suitable for cloth napkins can be replicated with paper ones. But there are also folds that are especially well-suited to paper napkins, which makes them also good folds for impromptu demonstrations of origami when there is nothing else around. One of my favorites is Vincent Floderer’s Mushroom. (Alas, I am not aware of any published instructions for this, but Vincent is a common presence at origami conventions and frequently teaches it in his workshops.)
All this talk of dinner settings leads naturally to the next novelty material: edible origami. The general rule of origami is, if a material is sheet-like and accepts a crease, it can be folded into something. Sometimes, it can be eaten, too!
Edible sheets for origami should be thin, of course, and flexible; many materials meet these criteria. The tougher criterion is that it should take a crease. Most edible sheets are not very forgiving of creases. Flour tortillas can be folded into simple shapes if they are steamed first; otherwise, they tend to crack. I have also heard of people using won ton wrappers for folding. One of the more interesting, but finicky materials, is phyllo pastry, which is extremely thin, but becomes incredibly brittle once it dries out. It also tears easily in one direction; for that reason, when I’ve folded from it I use two sheets. The first is laid down, brushed with melted butter (which acts as a glue), then the second sheet is laid crosswise. The resulting sandwich is cut to square and folded—quickly, before it dries and cracks. The folded figure is then baked to a light golden brown. (Baking is also the appropriate finishing treatment for tortilla folds.) In general, simple folds work best, like flowers or geometric shapes. However, a particularly impressive display comes from folding the aforementioned phyllo sandwich into the traditional Japanese crane. Other edible materials can be folded; I’ve had some fun with “fruit leather” (although it tends to stick to itself). I should also mention David Lister’s discussion of icing sugar origami. The nice thing about all of these materials is that you can eat your mistakes.
Origami artists are familiar with folding metal as part of foil paper or tissue-foil laminates and their ilk. While these materials include paper as part of the sandwich, it is also possible to fold metal directly. The closest to traditional paper folding is to use thin foil, such as household aluminum foil. It is very difficult to fold this material neatly, however; all but the simplest origami from foil ends up looking wrinkled and cluttered. (The paper in foil paper or laminates provides much-needed stiffness that helps resist small-scale wrinkles.)
Heavier-gauge metal resists wrinkling better and provides a sturdier folded product in the end. However, it is harder to work with and only simple shapes can be folded. One artist, Joe Spears, has found an elegant solution; he creates origami shapes from heavy-gauge steel, cutting them apart into facets and then welding the facets back together along the folds. Another artist, Lane Allen, has developed a folding style he calls “origane,” based on folding from metal mesh. The mesh can be folded into surprisingly complex shapes and can be curved like wet-folding, but provides substantial structural rigidity (and a pleasing heft).
A third possibility is to fold from paper and then replicate the folded shape in metal, which is how I and my collaborators created my origami bronze and stainless steel metal sculpture. The origami figure can be folded from any type of paper, then a mold made from it, either directly, or using the lost-wax (or rather, lost-paper) process. If you use the latter process, you should be sure to use an all-cellulose paper, not a clay-coated paper, as the latter will leave inorganic residue in the mold after it has been burned out.
As you can see, origami artists have been an inventive lot over time, and this discussion has only begun to touch on the materials that can be folded. For commercial design work, I’ve also folded shapes with Kapton, Mylar, and other polymer materials. For another take on the assortment of materials that can be folded, see David Lister’s essay on folding materials on the BOS website.