Paper Tole History

There has been much speculation of the origins of the craft of Paper Tole or 3-D Decoupage, as we know it today. The Japanese have for centuries shaped and folded paper into beautiful designs, transforming a 2 dimensional piece of paper into 3-D creations.

Indeed oriental lacquer work formed the basis of the development of the 17th Century art form decoupage. The crafts people of the day embedded designs into furniture by applying successive coats of lacquer, sometimes using 15 or 20 coats.

The French and Venetian further refined these techniques in an art form called "Vue d'Optique" which is considered by many as equivalent to the modern method of using paper sculpture to create 3-dimensional or paper tole pictures.

Through the ages, various names have been given to the art form. Some of the common names used have been papertole, papiertole, paper tole, 3-D paper tole, 3 Dimensional Paper Tole, Decoupage, papier tole, 3-d Art, 3D art, 3-d Decoupage, 3D decoupage, decoupage crafts, 3D dimensional decoupage, decoupage art, dimensional art.

If you are looking for references try using some of the above names as key words in your search to read more of the history of paper tole.

Of more recent times the paper tole has been significantly refined to a wonderful level of artistry using advanced shaping and sculpturing methods. Paper Tole as we know it today really developed in the 1930's in the heartland of USA. During the hardships that was imposed on people during the Depression era, crafters had to be most innovative and make use of resources that were at hand.

It was customary at that time for households to receive multiple Christmas cards with the same image from charity agencies. After the festive season many of these cards were unused and presented an ideal opportunity during the cold winter months to create 3-D paper tole pictures using the resource of multiple copies of the same image.

The craft rapidly developed and moved from layering techniques to actual paper sculpturing. Initially 3 or 4 copies of identical prints were used, but this was further developed to include more prints thus more detail for the finished paper tole.

It was during the late 70's and early 80's that paper tole really developed a surge of interest. At that stage, our friends north of the border took an interest in paper tole and further developed techniques that added both flair and artistry.


As indicated, 3-D Paper Tole is an interesting and exciting art and craft of depth, contour, and perception. Five or six copies (and in some cases many more depending on the complexity) of the same print are used.

The 3-D or paper tole picture is built by cutting out certain parts of different prints of an identical image, then by shaping, layering, and gluing the pieces to the base print using neutral cure silicone, a 3 dimensional effect is created. The option of applying a lacquer or glaze to selected areas on your paper tole is open to highlight the 3 dimensional effect. 

There are 3 principle areas in paper tole that when looking at a 2 dimensional image the crafter must visualize, those being, the background, the middle-ground, and the foreground with several intermediate layers between the background and foreground.

A natural perspective is gained by properly and skillfully shaping each cutout piece before gluing it. In our view, one of the most important techniques that will really elevate your finished paper tole from being really good to magnificent lies in the skill in which you shape or sculpture the individual elements of the picture.

So often people do a wonderful job of cutting, but then fail to properly shape or sculpture relegating their finished paper tole piece to "ho hum" status rather than truly magnificent piece. There is a big difference between "layering" and "shaping or sculpturing", the latter 2 categories being the same technique to really add realism to your picture.

Once the paper tole picture has been composed, certain areas that the artist identifies can be selectively coated with "Glass Kote" lacquer or Water based varnish to highlight those areas and provide a light source, which tricks the human eye to accentuate the 3-D effect in the paper tole. Think of the iris of you eye as being equivalent to the lens of a movie camera. If you point the camera to an object that is reflecting light, the lens is constantly changing its aperture responding to light changes from the object. Your eye operates the same way. We can therefore trick the human eye, by carefully and selectively coating areas of the finished paper tole picture creating to an observer, a more accentuated 3-D effect.

The use of glaze or lacquer is selective on your paper tole, and depending on the image itself, the crafter my not want to use any sort of finish to retain an antique look. For example, some of the nicest Pieck paper tole work we have, has absolutely no glaze whatsoever on it, and it stands by itself, because of the superb cutting and shaping techniques used.

Identify one print from our kit as the "Base Print". This can be any one of the prints supplied in the kit. It is this print which will be the foundation for your work and which elements of the other prints will be placed and glued to.

A handy hint is to write "Base Print" on the back of the print and label the other 4 prints likewise as "Print 1" "Print 2" etc. Check the instructions provided to ensure that the kit does not use any elements from this print before mounting the "Base Print" .

The base print should be mounted on a stiff backing, preferably, an acid free matte board, either 2 or 4 ply, using spray adhesive. There are many ways to mount your base print, with everyone having their own technique. On smaller prints up to an 8" x10" size, you can easily mount this yourself. The matte board is available from any framer.

Make sure you spray the back of the print as well as the surface you are going to affix it to, as this will create a superior bond. Spraying one surface only is a temporary moveable mount and the bond may release in time.

For larger projects, it would pay to take the base print down to your local framer and have the base print vacuum mounted. This is not expensive and will ensure there are no imperfections in the mounted picture.

Besides containing the graphical illustrations for each project, our Kits also take you step by step through all the techniques used to complete your project including cutting techniques, gluing, shaping, coloring, glazing, use of the paper shaper, and framing and display advice.

One of the most prevalent problems facing paper tolers, is the selection of prints suitable for doing their project. There are prints, and there are tole prints There is a big difference between the two. Generally you are looking for prints that have well defined images which you can cut to, and try to avoid complicated backgrounds such as trees etc unless they are defined. Cutting pictures with hair raises a difficult problem in trying to make it realistic.

Ensure the paper the print is printed on is of sufficient weight and texture to properly complete the project. I say this, as choosing the incorrect paper can lead to devastating results when gluing or glazing. For example, it is not uncommon for people to have problems with glue moving through the paper creating an oily mark on the surface. This virtually destroys your work.

All of our prints have been carefully selected to avoid this problem. Be wary of people who sell cheap thin prints, whilst good for framing purposes, are definitely not satisfactory for paper tole work.

Most of our prints are manufactured specifically for paper tole, having the correct texture and weight

Another common problem is choice of glues. Choose silicone, but be sure it is neutral cure and not acetic cure. Acetic cure silicone can be identified by its smell, and is commonly used to glaze windows, where the acid is useful in etching the glass to ensure a good bond. The problem that arises when you use this glue in paper tole is, that the glue inevitably bleeds through the paper (especially thinner papers) creating an oily finish that both destroys the appearance, and makes it virtually impossible to apply a lacquer or glaze to the selected area.

The silicone we supply has been manufactured in the USA to our specifications, especially for the use in paper tole. It is non-acetic, and comes in two sizes. Check our Tools & Accessories page to find it.