Saturday, September 3, 2011

3-D letters

Finally! I have promised for weeks and now to celebrate the start of the new school year I present....recycled 3-D letters. Last spring I wanted a project that was 3-D and did not require me to buy any supplies. Earlier in the year I had found pictures of cool 3-D letters from Wilmington Middle School. I could tell they were paper machie and cardboard. That was all I could find out. So I experimented and figured out a way to make the letters and did the project with my class.
NOW, before I get sued for "stealing" their lesson. I have learned that Blick has a written and video lesson plan for making large cardboard and paper machie letters and numbers. Where was that video when I needed it last year?! The Blick video is very helpful. The method I figured out is similar but different at the same time. They use small paper cups inside the letter for support and paper tape(?) to make the sides.
I have yet to try the paper tape. I don't know where to buy it and it is sold out on Blick. It looks like a interesting alternative to paper machie.

So this is my way of doing it. You will need a roll of tape, printer paper, a ruler, newspaper, super snot (see below), a cereal box (or railroad board or tag board) and some paint.

So I like doing these with a cereal box and one sheet of printer paper because they match up pretty well. And the cardboard is free, and easy to cut and you are promoting recycling! Have students draw a large block letter or number that fills the page. Curves are harder to deal with so I suggest block letters. The letter T is really easy so it will be our sample. Cut out your paper letter
cut your cereal box so you have the front and back and make sure to KEEP the sides. Trace your letter on the the two sheets of cardboard (or tagboard or railroad board) and cut them out.
remember to keep the sides of your cereal box...or if you are using tagboard or have a large class cut lots of tagboard strips ( I suggest 2 or 3 inches wide) so the kids can come grab them as needed.

The next step requires math and problem solving with my method. In my world that is a good thing. I want to incorporate other subject matter into my art room (math) and I believe strongly in using art to develop problem solving skills. HOWEVER...if after reading this, and trying it yourself, you think my method is too hard for your kids then this would be a good time to use the Blick method. My 6-8th graders were able to problem solve with occasional construction help from me.

Choose a side to start on. I'll start on the lower side of the T. Measure (math!) how long that side is and then take one of your strips of cardboard and measure a length that matches. And cut. And take a piece of masking tape and put it half on the edge of the cardboard strip and half on the back of your letter.
You are making the depth (side) of your letter. The tape, half on the side and half on the letter, makes a little hinge. Now measure the next section of your letter and cut a cardboard strip to match. Tape it onto your letter and keep going side to side till you have gone all the way around your letter. Anywhere there is an angle you will need to tape the side strips into the angle shape (hard to describe...easy to figure out and do)
Ok see how I'm basically making a T shaped box? When I have all the side standing up it is time to take the second letter you cut out and drop it on top of your box like a T shaped lid and tape it down to the sides. This is also easy and will straighten out any sides that have gotten a little wonky.
Here it is! It should stand up on my own and be pretty solid...but should get a layer or two of paper machie to make the seams nice and tight.

I don't like the feel of paper machie goop so I teach my kids how to brush on the goop, lay a strip of newspaper on top of the goop, smooth with a brush and then put one more layer of goop on with the brush. You get a nice smooth look using the brush and strip method.
"I love super snot!"
And now a word about SUPER SNOT!!! Super snot is the paper machie mix we use in my classroom. Things go moldy really easily here in the rainy Pac NW. Yet, when refrigerated, this stuff doesn't get moldy and it is not chunky. I make super snot (as the kids call it) by mixing equal part of flour, Elmers glue and water. You can use a little less water if you want. Stir let sit overnight in the fridge. Super snot dries good and hard AND will make newspaper stick to plastic milk jugs!

And back to our project. Let the paper machie dry for a day or two and get nice and hard. Then paint all surface areas with a layer of white paint...this priming step makes the end product look much better. While waiting for things to dry have the kids sketch out their design for their letter.

You can paint these or collage or use sharpies or put rhinestones and puffy paint on them...whatever you want. The key is to think 3-D and create a design that wraps all the way around the letter. I decided to go with a tribute to Piet Mondrian. My design wraps all the way around the letter and is painted with acrylics.

I used a black sharpie to outline my shapes and clean everything up. I really liked the the style of....and so the next two letters I made were also tributes. I'll photograph them on Tuesday at school.

I love my letter T !!

PROBLEM SOLVING issues.... you and your students may run into these problems:

Q. My letter has curves (like the letter B) and I can't measure the curves. What do I do?
A. Get a long strip of tagboard and just start taping it on along the curves. Cut off the extra when you reach the end of your curve area.

Q. There is a small space inside my shape that is hard to measure, cut and deal with (like the letter A). What do I do?
A. Don't bother making sides for it. When you cut the inside of the shape, snip and fold to make little flaps.
This will help with strength and be easier than trying to cut the full shape out.
Then use strips of tape to create the rest of the wall or side. This would be a really good time to find some of that paper tape stuff.

Q. Why are the front and back of my letter D or N or T not matching up?
A. They probably got flipped around as you were working. Trying flipping them over or rotating them and see if they fit better.

Q. I want to make the letter O but I'm having a really hard time. Help!
A. I think the letter O is the hardest to do. Use the Blick paper cup method and then use long cardboard strips.

Q. I have student's who got done way faster than everyone else. What should they do?
A. Well they could help other students...OR I had my early finishers make the numbers 0-9 and then we donated them to the Kindergarten classroom so the kids have large numbers to manipulate and play with. I wish we had made a plus and equals sign for them also. If your class was really ambitious you could make the entire alphabet for an primary grade classroom!


  1. What a great project.
    When I first saw the picture I thought they were Lego blocks.

    Thanks for the tutorial.

  2. I make these with my 5th graders. We stuff the inside with newspaper. It does a good job of keeping them from collapsing when they use too much paper mache. I like the idea of numbers for kindergarten. I finally have enough samples that spell "Artist" that are now hanging in my room with the "art rules".

  3. I do this as part of a typography unit with my 7th graders. I use the little 3/4oz cups from Cash n' Carry to structure the inside. I also bought brown gummed packing tape (I used it for this project a couple of years ago) but we went back to using masking tape and then gesso'd over the tape if students were using a light base color. The kids love this project!

  4. On average, how long does it take kids to complete this sort of project? It looks like so much fun, and I definitely want to do it, but I'm curious for long term planning purposes. Thanks!