Cardboard Box Engineering

Cool, Inventive Projects for Tinkerers, Makers & Future Scientists


By Jonathan Adolph

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Cardboard is everywhere! For creative kids aged 9 to 14, it’s the perfect eco-friendly building material, and Cardboard Box Engineering is the perfect guide to get them started on inventive tinkering. A working kaleidoscope, a marble roller coaster, a robotic hand, and a wind-powered tractor with cardboard gears are just some of the ingenious projects developed by Jonathan Adolph, author of the best-selling Mason Jar Science. Working with simple household tools, kids can follow the step-by-step photographic instructions to exercise their design smarts, expand their 3-D thinking, and learn the basics of physics and engineering with activities that have real-life applications.


For all the engineers of tomorrow who are kids building with cardboard today


Chapter 1 The Science of Engineering

Why Cardboard?

Know Your Cardboard

The Art of Cutting

Putting It All Together

Tricks of the Trade

Chapter 2 Mechanical Marvels
Robotics & Animatronics

Extending Grabber

Robotic Hand

Flying Pterodactyl

Swinging Monkey

Chapter 3 Sights and Sounds
Audio & Optical Engineering

Cup Amplifier

Box Periscope


Chapter 4 Built to Move
Aeronautics & Nautical Engineering

Twisted Propeller

Three-Wing Boomerang

Rocket Blaster

Missile Helicopter

Soaring Sailplane

Paddle-Wheel Boat

Chapter 5 Elegant Design
Mechanical Engineering

Floating Hummingbird

Rolling Roller Coaster

Air Cannon

Handmade Spin Art

Chapter 6 We've Got the Power
Harnessing Energy

Big Wheel

Solar Cooker

Wind-Powered Tractor

Chapter 7 Serious Fun
Game Design

Tabletop Straw Soccer

Chain Reaction

Bouncy Skee Ball




Metric Conversion Chart

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Clockwise: Wind-Powered Tractor, Three-Wing Boomerang, Soaring Sailplane, Air Cannon, and Chain Reaction.

Chapter 1

The Science of Engineering

Of all the creatures that have ever lived on this planet, we modern humans are the champions of making stuff. I know, I know: beavers build dams, honeybees create honey­combs, birds make nests, and spiders spin webs. Those are all very impressive, especially when you don't have thumbs! But none of that really compares to what people produce today, and if you doubt me, just ask your mobile phone as you are flying in a jet over a skyscraper. We've invented a few things that have caused us problems (I'm looking at you, atomic bomb!), but far more often, we come up with marvels of engineering that change our lives for the better.

Why is that? What allows people to be so good at building things?

In a word: science. We humans have science, the greatest tool ever invented for figuring out how things work, and how they could be made to work better. Thanks to the scientific method — the process of making predictions and then testing them — we can try out our ideas and separate the good from the bad. Science is what gives engineers and designers the knowledge to produce all the amazing devices that surround us — including every toy, game, and electronic gizmo you own.

And here's the best part: You can be one of those people. You can be a designer and an engineer. With the help of this book, you'll learn how to turn old boxes, cartons, tubes, and other cardboard into games, airplanes, robots, roller coasters, and more. And, in the process, you'll see what engineering and design are all about.

Why Cardboard?

To learn how to do anything right, you need to practice. And to practice engineering, you need stuff that can be engineered. That's where cardboard comes in.

Cardboard is an amazing invention in its own right. It's easy to cut and assemble, but it's also sturdy and durable. Even better, it's free. You probably have a pile of it lying around your house right now: mailing boxes stacked in the basement, cereal boxes and cardboard tubes filling the recycling bin. That means you may already have what you need to start making stuff, and maybe even enough to make a project several times.

And that's important, because engineers know that projects rarely work perfectly the first time. In fact, the best engineers love to make things over and over because each time they do, they get a chance to improve the design. They start by building an experimental model, called a prototype, and then improve it using the scientific method — they test the model, see if it works as expected, tinker with it if it doesn't, and then test it again. Whenever something doesn't work out, they've learned something new.

Almost everything you buy travels by cardboard box — 95 percent of all products in the United States, to be exact. That requires about 30 million tons of boxes each year.

Many corrugated cardboard boxes used for shipping have a stamp that gives their rating in an "edge crush test," a measure of how strong they are. Look for it on the bottom of the box (A).

As the great engineer and inventor Thomas Edison said, "When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."

The cardboard projects in this book let you do just this kind of tinkering. They're engineered in a particular way, but other options might be just as interesting. For each project, think about what you are trying to build, how it is supposed to work, and how you might be able to make it work even better. If you hit a snag, be like Thomas Edison and try something else. You might need to substitute a new material for one you don't have or come up with another way to attach two parts. Make adjustments, change the design, test out new ideas, be creative.

Do that, and you'll be learning more than how to build with cardboard. You'll be learning how to build with any material. Because the process of engineering is the same no matter what you are tinkering with, and all engineering is based on the same laws: the laws of science.

Working the Problem

In the movie Apollo 13, there's a scene that demonstrates engineering in its purest form. The team at Mission Control has just discovered a problem with the carbon dioxide filters in the damaged spacecraft, and the astronauts need to fix it or they will die. Back on Earth, the engineers head to their lab and collect objects similar to what's on the spacecraft. "Listen up," says the lead engineer. "We gotta find a way to make this" — he holds up a square filter — "fit into the hole for this" — he holds up a round one — "using nothing but that" — and he points to the pile of stuff on the table. (Spoiler alert: They do it.)

Those engineers helped save that 1970 moon mission, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to solve problems through engineering. In our everyday lives, we are all constantly "working the problem," as the Mission Control engineers put it, whether it's trying to get a chain back on a bike gear, assembling a new toy, or finding a way to fit all your stuff in your backpack. Engineering is about understanding how stuff works, and then using that knowledge to build other stuff that works or to fix things that have stopped working. As Apollo 13 showed us, the results can be out of this world.

Apollo 13 astronaut John L. Swigert Jr. shows how the crew "worked the problem" on the troubled spacecraft.

Know Your Cardboard

Many different materials go by the name cardboard. All are made from a mash of ground-up wood or paper, but they differ in appearance, strength, and texture. To a cardboard engineer, each type is valuable, so start collecting supplies of the following kinds.

Corrugated cardboard. This extra-thick box material, technically called corrugated fiberboard, is what probably comes first to mind when you hear the word cardboard. The sandwich of layers makes it particularly sturdy. But even corrugated cardboard is not all the same: there's singlewall (one inner layer), doublewall (two layers), and even the rare triplewall (three layers!). This is the stuff to use whenever you need a stiff and durable material for a project.

The sturdy outer paper is called linerboard.

Paperboard. Cartons that hold cereal, crackers, cookies, and other dry foods, as well as shoe boxes and file folders, are made from paperboard (also called chipboard), a type of single-layer cardboard. The outside of a paperboard carton is often glossy with ink, while the inside is usually a flat grayish tan. Frozen foods are often sold in paperboard boxes that have smooth white inside surfaces. Paperboard is easier to cut than corrugated cardboard, and it's flexible, so it's easy to roll and fold.

Corrugated cardboard is categorized by the size of the flutes, either A, B, C (the most common), E, or F. Weirdly, that order is based on when the size was invented, not which is bigger.

Plastic-coated paperboard. Cartons that hold milk, orange juice, and other liquids are made from paperboard coated with a thin layer of plastic and sealed with heat to make them waterproof. Aseptic containers — the flat-topped cartons that hold juice, soy milk, soups, and other liquids at room temperature — are also made from coated paperboard, but with an additional layer of aluminum foil that keeps the food inside the cartons from going bad.

Tubes. Like boxes, cardboard tubes come in all sizes and strengths, from narrow drinking straws to wider toilet paper and paper towel tubes and longer wrapping paper and mailing tubes. You can use tubes for supports, cut them into rings, and slice them lengthwise into troughs.

In 2012, British skydiver Gary Connery jumped from a helicopter wearing a wingsuit and landed without a parachute on a 12-foot-high cushion built from nearly 20,000 cardboard boxes — an activity we did not attempt for this book!

Molded pulp containers. Pulp is a paste-like mix of recycled paper fibers and water, sort of like papier-mâché. When it's molded, or formed, and allowed to dry, it becomes a stiff cardboard with surprising strength. Molded pulp containers such as egg cartons and heavy-duty paper plates offer interesting shapes for your cardboard engineering projects.

The cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005, confirming what many people believe: it's often more fun to play with the box than the toy that came in it.

The Art of Cutting

Cutting cardboard accurately, quickly, and safely requires the right tools for the job. In addition to a good pair of scissors, you'll need a small saw, a sharp knife, a straightedge, and a good surface to cut on.

  1. 1. Scissors are fine for cutting paperboard and trimming edges, but they can be hard to use for longer cuts in thick corrugated cardboard.
  2. 2. Cuticle scissors — small pointed scissors used to cut fingernails — are a good choice for precise trimming, especially with thin cardboard.
  3. 3. A small saw is good for making long cuts in corrugated cardboard and removing flaps from boxes. Any fine-toothed variety, such as a drywall saw or hacksaw, will work.
  4. 4. A cardboard saw, such as the Canary Cardboard Cutter, is specifically designed for cardboard. You'll find that it cuts easily, accurately, and safely — and it's inexpensive.
  5. 5. A utility knife with a locking blade cuts cardboard easily. Use it on a cutting mat with a straightedge for making clean, straight cuts.
  6. 6. A craft knife (such as an X-Acto) is a great cardboard cutting tool. You can use it with a straightedge on a cutting mat to make straight cuts, and you can also use it freehand to cut detailed shapes.
  7. 7. A straightedge, such as a ruler, can be used as a guide for making straight cuts. A metal ruler with a cork backing is best. It won't slip on your cardboard and won't be damaged by your knife blade.

Making the Cut

A cutting mat protects your work surface, and since the knife can't dig into the mat, the cutting is smoother and safer.

A nonslip cork-backed ruler works well as a guide for straight cuts.

Cut away from your fingers — and any other body parts that you care about.

Take your time.Rather than trying to cut through thick cardboard with one deep pass, make several careful passes with your knife. It's safer and less likely to lead to mistakes.

Change your blade when it gets dull. A sharp knife is dangerous, but a dull one that sticks or slips is worse.

When using a saw, hold the cardboard on your work table with the cut line parallel and close to the edge of the table for support.

Putting It All Together

When you're building with cardboard, the right glue, tape, or fastener can make the difference between fun and frustration.

Low-temperature hot glue. Hot glue is used with a plug-in "gun." It is the go-to glue for most of the projects in this book, and for good reason. The guns and glue sticks don't cost that much, the melted glue bonds almost immediately, and the glue's gooey consistency adds support and fills gaps. The downsides: it's hot (duh!), it bonds so quickly that you don't have much time to reposition pieces, and it doesn't hold paint.

White glues. Common craft glues (such as Tacky Glue and Elmer's) work well with cardboard, but they usually require that you hold or clamp the pieces until the glue sets. On the plus side, the longer drying time means that you can reposition pieces after you've glued them to get them just right.

Glue sticks. These paste sticks work well for attaching layers of paper, but they aren't strong enough to hold anything under pressure.

Masking tape. This everyday stand-by is an excellent choice for cardboard. It's reasonably strong, bonds well, and is easy to tear. The downside: it can look a bit drab. Blue painter's tape is a more colorful alternative. It's also less tacky, which makes it easier to reposition.

Clear packing tape. Made for sealing cardboard boxes, this inexpensive tape is almost invisible and quite strong, especially for reinforcing seams and hinges. It's far better than ordinary cellophane tape (such as Scotch tape), which often doesn't hold up. Once it's in place, however, it will tear the cardboard if you try to remove it.

Duct tape. This cloth-based tape is handy when you need even more strength and where thickness is not an issue. A layer of duct tape can also give cardboard a durable coating, and colored tapes can provide decoration. But it's harder to tear than masking tape and a bit fussy to cut.

Clothespins. Spring clothespins are handy fasteners for joining pieces that needs to be taken apart now and then. They can also serve as clamps when you're using white glue.

Paper fasteners. These metal pins with bendable tabs provide a quick, easy, and mess-free way to join cardboard piees. They can even allow those cardboard pieces to rotate if you make holes for the fasteners. The downside: they are not very strong and can pull out over time.

Using a Hot Glue Gun

There's no better glue for cardboard construction than hot glue, but keep in mind: it's called hot glue for a reason! Load a stick of glue into the gun, squeeze the trigger, and the glue gets pressed through a hole in the tip and oozes out like hot gooey toothpaste. As the melted glue cools, it hardens, quickly bonding to whatever it's touching. As magical as hot glue can be, keep these safety tips in mind:

  • After you plug it in, let the gun fully warm up (depending on the model, this can take as long as 10 minutes). The gun is ready to use when the glue squeezes out easily.
  • When you're not using it, set the glue gun on a nonflammable surface, like an old dinner plate, a ceramic tile, or a square of aluminum foil. Most guns are designed to stand on their end, with the tip safely in the air.
  • When applying glue, keep the gun's tip as close to the project as possible. Squeeze out a line of glue, then twist the gun as you pull it away. This helps avoid creating long, stringy strands of glue.

    The tip of the gun and the glue itself are very hot. Don't touch them!

  • Hold the glued pieces together for at least a count of ten so the glue can set (it will still be hot!).
  • To remove a blob of glue that's gotten somewhere you don't want, wait until it cools, then peel it off.
  • Have lots of glue sticks on hand (you'll go through them quickly). Make sure that they are the right kind and size for your gun.
  • Unplug the gun when you are finished. If the gun's tip is messy, you — or an adult, if you're feeling nervous about getting burned — can clean it by twisting it in a wad of aluminum foil while it is still warm.


  • “I really wish I'd had a book like this when I was a kid, and I think any young person who gets their hands on this book is really lucky. Who knows what kind of awesomeness this will inspire? I can't think of a better way to get kids away from screens and working with their hands, thinking, and inventing. This book might even change the world!” — Christian Ristow, robotic sculpture artist

    “STEAM activities, such as the ones featured throughout the text, foster creativity, problem-solving, and teach the value of repurposing items… An engaging addition to any “How To” section. This book could be an exciting resource for students and teachers.”
    School Library Journal

On Sale
Oct 27, 2020
Page Count
176 pages

Jonathan Adolph

About the Author

Jonathan Adolph is the author of Cardboard Box Engineering and the best-selling Mason Jar Science. As the former editor of the award-winning FamilyFun magazine, he developed hundreds of “stealth learning” games and kitchen-science activities during his 20-year career. He specializes in making technical information fun for kids and is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts. He lives with his family in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author