Saturday, October 4, 2008

How to make cardboard furniture

Cardboard Chic
(Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Oct. 4, 2008)

Today marks my fifth anniversary writing about crafts for the Sentinel, and I’m glad to say that writing this column has never been a chore for me. It gives me the chance to do what I love most—figure out how to make something I’ve never made before and share it with other.

Sometimes it’s exhausting, rounding up all the materials and working to complete a project in the space of just four weekends. And sometimes it’s stressful worrying about whether the finished project will be newspaper-worthy. But mostly it’s what I look forward to doing at the end of each workweek. And luckily I’ve got an indulgent family, who never complain that the kitchen table is cluttered once again with newspapers and paint and there is no room to eat (like now).

When I first Googled “cardboard furniture,” there was a lot more out there than I suspected. You can make chairs, stools, benches, bookcases, room dividers, tables, lamps—one site even had a cardboard house. One of my favorite designs is an easy chair with ottoman made early in his career by the celebrated architect, Frank O. Gehry, which actually looks like it might be comfortable as well as a great conversation piece. (

Another innovative cardboard furniture designer is Giles Miller, who creates beautiful designs on simple compressed cardboard tables and lamps by “fluting” the internal corrugations of recycled cardboard. (

If you want to know how to make cardboard furniture, Leo Kempf offers instructions for making his “speech-bubble coffee table” and two other projects on his website. Inspired by the work of Frank Gehry, Kempf’s technique uses laminated single-ply cardboard and plywood spacers, for a very solid construction.

You can also find plans for making children’s furniture from folded cardboard at And on YouTube, Gomi Style’s video shows how to make a legless chair from reused compressed cardboard.

I learned another technique from cardboard furniture maker Eric Guiomar in a step-by-step DVD “Cardboard Furniture.” Guiomar teaches classes and is part of a French collective, the Cartonnistes, who make whimsical pieces in bright colors with curvy shapes you wouldn’t ordinarily see in wood furniture. Instead of using multiple layers of cardboard for strength, the Cartonnistes use a tab and slot construction technique that requires a lot less cardboard, but is still sturdy and durable. (order DVD from

Besides allowing freedom of form, the Cartonnistes’ furniture illustrates other advantages of cardboard furniture over wood: it’s lightweight, inexpensively made from reused materials, and requires only a few hand-held tools. The DVD provides clear instructions for making a cabinet, complete with drawers and a cupboard door. For my first project, however, I opted for a simpler piece—a small coffee table.

What you need:

  • Cardboard (I used double-wall sheets for the framework and single-wall for the outer surfaces)
  • Hand-held jigsaw
  • Metal wood rasp
  • Glue gun with glue sticks
  • Gummed paper tape (try Wild Rose Artists’ Supplies or Lenz Arts)
  • Scissors, sponge, paint brush, box cutter knife, pencil, paper
  • Tape measure, ruler, yardstick
  • Wallpaper paste or adhesive, wood glue
  • Pressboard
  • Tissue paper
  • Polyurethane, water based
  • Acrylic or latex paint

What you do:

  1. Sketch the design of the table profile on paper. Don’t create areas that will be too narrow for taping or painting.
  2. Transfer the sketch to the cardboard as a full scale drawing, with the corrugation pattern vertical.
  3. Trace over the final sketch with black felt pen.
  4. Cut cardboard into four rectangular pieces, the size of the scale drawing.
  5. Tape edges of cardboard together with design on top
  6. Use jigsaw to cut out all four profiles. Retape as you cut to avoid shifting; the profiles should be identical. Use a wood rasp to file irregularities on the edges of the four profiles. Put two profiles aside.
  7. Mark notches in pencil across the top and bottom of the other two profile sections about six inches apart; this will determine the location of each strut.
  8. Measure the height of the cardboard at each notch and record the measurements in pencil. Mark the center of the measurement and cut slots to the center points, about ¼ inches wide for double-wall cardboard.
  9. Determine the depth of the table. Cut each strut to match the depth of the table and the height of the cardboard measurements taken at each notch. Cut slots along the width of each strut at 1/3 and 2/3s of its length, to the center point of its height.
  10. Fit the struts into the slots cut into the two center sections of the table profile.
  11. With the table on its back, attach the front and back profiles to the struts using the gummed tape, moistened with a sponge. Use a level or yardstick to be sure the four table profiles are aligned perfectly around the perimeter. Use heavy books to weight the top pieces so it stays in place while taping.
  12. Cut a long strip of single-wall cardboard, as wide as the depth of the table, and wrap it around a tube so it will bend around the curving parts of the profile. Glue the long edges of the strip to the outer profiles, gluing a little at a time until the table is completely covered. File edges where necessary for neat corners.
  13. Cover all exposed edges with the gummed tape, cutting slots to fit nicely around curved edges.
  14. Cut a piece of pressboard to fit on the top of the table, and glue down with wood glue, weighted overnight with heavy books.
  15. Mix wallpaper adhesive with paint for a translucent effect. Paint a small area of the table, add a piece of tissue paper, then paint over the tissue paper. Don’t over-brush or the tissue paper could tear and bunch up.
  16. When the piece is completely covered, allow to dry overnight. Then paint with 2 or 3 coats of water-based polyurethane.

French designer Eric Guiomar began sculpting furniture from discarded corrugated cardboard boxes 15 years ago and became enchanted with the material. He's involved with a group of Parisian designers which calls themselves cartonnistes, after carton, the French word for cardboard.