Ultra Lo-Fi Debossing and Embossing

Embossing from a negative shape
Embossing from a negative shape

Everyone likes a bit of blind embossing and debossing. Not everyone has die cut metal plates and hot foil machinery at home. Luckily, there is a way to do it yourself with cardboard and a bone folder. Basically. This guide will take you through step by step, and at the end you will find two downloadable files with illustrated instructions for you to save or print.

1. Tools and Materials*

  • Paper
  • Cardboard or loo roll
  • Pencil
  • Bone folder
  • Clips
  • Scissors
  • Scalpel

Optional but useful:

  • Carbon Paper
  • Paper masking tape
  • Small paint brush
  • Embossing tool

* Not all of these are essential. You can use loo roll tubes if you don’t have cardboard at hand. Use a bone folder or the tail end of a paint brush to replace embossing tools. Carbon paper, clips and paper masking tape all help with improving the process and end result, but if you do not have access to them, you can still try it.

Tools needed and suggested for debossing
Paper, carbon paper, cardboard, loo roll, pencil, bone folder, small brush, embossing tool, clips, tape, scissors, scalpel.

Prepare your paper by dampening it. For instructions, check out Make at Home: three hacks for better working here. For good results, it is essential that your paper is damp, as it needs to be able to mould easily around your shapes! Printmaking paper with a high cotton content and a maximum weight of about 170gsm will give you the best results. My personal favourite is Zerkall, but you can use Somerset, Fabriano, Japanese paper – try whatever you have lying around. You can find a list of suppliers in the Useful Links sections on the website.

2. Trace your design onto cardboard

The cardboard should be thin enough to cut easily with scissors or a scalpel, but thick enough to give you a visible relief. Bear in mind that your design cannot be too small, or you will not be able to cut it out. Thin lines can be problematic as you will lose detail in the process. Draw your design freehand or use carbon paper to transfer your sketch or print precisely.

Preparing cardboard cut outs

3. Make your relief

First, cut your sketch out of cardboard. If using a scalpel, make sure you use a non-slip cutting mat and a safe cutting ruler. Never cut toward your fingers. I find it easier to cut cardboard with several light cuts rather than force – it is much safer and easier to be precise. Be careful to keep all elements together. The cardboard you cut them out from can be helpful as a guide for positioning them in the right place later.

Do you need to reverse your design?

If you use it right-reading, it will emboss right-reading on the side you are working on, and deboss wrong-reading on the reverse of your paper. The debossed side typically looks nicer because the tools don’t mark it. If you would like the debossed side to be right-reading, flip your cardboard cut outs.

Create your base

On a large sheet of card or paper, mark where your shapes and your paper need to go. If you are planning to for example make a book cover, plan and mark your registration marks now.

Stick your shapes onto this base. If your design is made up of several pieces of card, glue them into the right place first using a bit of PVA or Pritt stick. Then use a large strip of paper masking tape to cover the entire surface. Using a bone folder, carefully press the tape down, tracing your cut out. Make sure there are no creases or overlaps of tape on the surface of your shapes. The tape creates a smoother surface and edges.

4. Deboss/Emboss

Take one sheet of paper out of your stack. Lining it up with your registration marks, if you made any (unlike me), lay it on top of your base. Use clips to secure the paper to the base to ensure it does not move while you are working on it. I started out with one clip and very, very quickly realised that a second clip on the other side was an important thing to have. Small bits of card or paper sandwiched between your printmaking paper and the clips will protect the surface from marking.

First, use your fingers to find the cardboard cut outs underneath the paper and gently start pressing down the paper to make the edges of your design visible. Now switch to a bone folder or other tool with a smooth, round tip. Being very careful, press around the edges of your design. Be gentle, as the paper gets damaged very easily! Use smaller tools for corners and tight spaces, for example the tail end of a small paint brush. Make sure that the tools are smooth and rounded, anything sharp will likely just damage your paper.

This side usually does not look very neat because the tools will mark and change the surface of the paper. The other, debossed side will be the nice one, which is why I flipped my design and stuck it down wrong-reading.

And that’s it! When you are finished, release the clips and flip the paper to reveal the debossed side on the reverse. Flatten and weigh down your paper until it has dried completely.

finished debossing
Finished debossed graphic of Korean syllable blocks

Tips, alternatives and a guide to download

  • Test with small cut offs from paper samples.
  • Take some time to get used to the process and to choose your tools before wasting paper.
  • You can trace the surface of objects instead of cardboard cut outs.
  • Try a negative shape
  • Damp paper is not optional!

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