Cardboard Box-ing Day!

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After the presents have been unwrapped, the turkey eaten, and the cards opened — is there any better way to spend Boxing Day than with some quality tinkering time? If you look around, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the perfect inspiration for crafting, building, and tinkering…boxes!

Cardboard is one of the most versatile materials out there. It’s cheap, lightweight, readily available, strong, and entirely underestimated. There are tissue boxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, cereal boxes, delivery boxes, and gift boxes! The holidays are a perfect time to gather discarded boxes. Check your recycling bin for supplies (and don’t forget to ask a grown-up before taking one in use!).   

Here are some of our favourite ideas to inspire your cardboard creations — and some tips and tricks to get you started. 

Our favorite projects 

Marble Run:

Use your imagination — and a series of tubes and obstacles — to create a winding path for a single marble to travel from beginning to end. Marble runs use gravity, so you’ll need to start the marble high up to make sure it has enough energy to complete the whole run! 

  • Tip 1: Use your biggest cardboard piece as a background, lean it against a wall for stability, and attach tubes and barriers to it to create your run. 
  • Tip 2: Out of tubes? Fold cardboard to create channels! 
The face of a cat is visible through a large circular hole cut in the side of a cardboard box.

Cats might be even bigger fans of cardboard boxes than we are!  

DIY Pet House

Why not use your talent to create a habitat for your pet? Does your cat like boxes? Make it a special one shaped like a rocket! Does your hamster need more exercise? Build a ramp for it to climb!  

  • Tip 1: Read about your type of pet to make sure that you are building a safe environment for it. Some animals will chew the provided cardboard as if it was a snack! 
  • Tip 2: Can you scale up your idea to make forts or furniture for YOU? 

Rube Goldberg

Just like the Marble Run, a series of contraptions are created to build an overly complicated chain reaction machine. But this time, many items are assembled and built to transfer energy from obstacle to obstacle until the last reveal. It’s all about timing, creating momentum, knocking down items, making things roll or fall, and finishing with a bang! 

  • Tip 1: Use other things than cardboard, like your shoe, hockey pucks, toys, dominos…or anything else around you. 
  • Tip 2: Don’t get discouraged! It’s very hard to make it all work in one take; you are likely going to have to try multiple times, but that’s the fun of it! Check YouTube for inspiration. 

Rube Goldberg Machine is an apparatus designed to show the transfer of energy. This machine includes six forms of energy transfer: chemical potential energy, heat energy, light energy, sound energy (vibration), kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy. The machine starts with a golf ball, and through a series of energy transfers uses domino chains, loops, drops, pulleys, levers and a Newton's cradle, before finishing with a marble.

Arcade and Table Games

Think of your favorite sport, video game, roller coaster, or carnival game. Using cardboard, can you re-create the game or be inspired to build your own version? 

  • Tip 1: Some games (especially throwing games) need to be extra strong! Think about ways to strengthen your game, and check out our section on attaching cardboard below. To check out how this ring toss was beefed up, see Instructables Online
  • Tip 2: Can you find ways to make your game multi-player?
Six children sit on the floor, creating small games out of cardboard boxes.

With enough friends to help, it’s easy to create a whole arcade full of different games

Several elastics are stretched over layered pieces of cardboard, with a hole cut through the stack to make a neckless guitar.

Make a string instrument out of cardboard! The NAC Orchestra includes 39 string instruments, each one adding a new sound to the symphony. 

Cardboard Musical Instrument

There are so many instruments that can be created out of this versatile material! Here are the instructions for the String-o-lin!  

  • Tip 1: If you fill cardboard tubes with some uncooked rice or pasta and cover both ends, it makes excellent maracas or rain sticks! 
  • Tip 2: Can you use cardboard to create a whole band? Try making some percussion instruments (something that you hit to make sound), or some woodwinds (something that you blow into to make sound). You can even make your own kazoo

DIY Toys

Doll houses, castles, secret bases, furniture, vehicles, and scenery…cardboard is a great way to bring playtime to the next level. Bonus: you can even personalize it!   

  • Tip 1: Rearrange, redecorate, repurpose. The benefit of cardboard is that you can build to suit any toys you already have! 
  • Tip 2: If you’re designing something to go with a specific toy, make sure you measure to make sure it’s the right size.
A cantaloupe wearing light-up eyes and a cardboard helmet

A cardboard helmet and cardboard glasses make this melon look awfully scary! 

Cardboard dress up

Have you ever wanted to be an astronaut? A medieval knight? A pirate? A king or queen? What about a robot or monster? The future is yours (with a little help from some cardboard).  

  • Tip 1: Make sure you measure twice before you cut! If you want it to fit, you need to make sure you cut to the right size. 
  • Tip 2: Create folds by scoring just the outer layer of the cardboard — this way you will get round edges. 
  • Tip 3: Add decorations, colours, and designs to make your new outfit look fantastic! 

How to attach cardboard pieces together 

We often reach for tape when we want to stick pieces of cardboard together, but the gift-wrapping tape is often not strong enough to do a good job. Fortunately, there are many techniques and tools that could help you shape your cardboard creations.  

Some tools you can use to prep and cut: 

  • Pencil
  • Ruler 
  • Multi-purpose scissors
  • Utility blade (see the security warning below) and cutting mat (or another piece of cardboard)
  • Awl or screwdriver to make holes
  • Pliers

Some tools you can use to attach pieces: 

  • Brass fasteners
  • Zip ties
  • Wire
  • Twist ties (for garbage bags)
  • White glue
  • Tape: masking tape, duct tape
  • Glue gun (make sure an adult supervises!)

 
You can also cut cardboard in specific ways, to add strength to your attachments. Have a look at this picture and observe some attachment possibilities. Depending on your project and the pieces of cardboard you want to fix together, you could use more than one type of attachment. 
You can also reinforce your cardboard by gluing a series of posts — straight or in an X shape — to double up the cardboard and add rigidity.  

An information panel showing different ways to attached cardboard together using structured shapes: flanges, slots, tabs, slits, fasteners, and braces.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ingenium
There are so many ways to make your cardboard creation (almost) indestructible!

Safety First! 

It might “just” be cardboard, but there are some safety rules to keep in mind to avoid injuries: 

•    Inspect your cardboard to make sure there isn’t any staples left that could hurt you. 
•    Check for little shards; we all know that paper cuts are small but oh-so-painful! 
•    You can use sandpaper to soften the frayed and rough edges. 

When using a utility knife: 

  • Always wear goggles.
  • Hold it like a pen and gently apply pressure on it.
  • Always cut flat on a cutting board.
  • Always cut away from your body.
  • Never cut alongside your other hand, especially going toward your thumb.
  • Always retract the blade when done.
  • And never, ever catch a falling knife. 

When using a glue gun:

  • Work in a designated area — over a piece of cardboard or mat is best. 
  • Place a metal plate under the nozzle to catch any drips.   
  • NEVER touch the nozzle (it’s hot!).
  • Wait until the glue hardens before touching it. If you get hot glue on your finger, blow on it to cool it faster; don’t try to take it off or more than one finger will get hurt. 
  • Do NOT pull out the glue stick from the end.
  • Do not put the hot glue gun on its side when not in use.  
  • Never catch a falling glue gun.
A boy plays with a catapult built from a cardboard box

Share your construction with us! Tag the Canada Science and Technology Museum using @scitechmuseum 

A boy cuts flanges into a toilet paper roll and surveys his work

Pondering the possibilities of a well cut piece of cardboard

Go further! 

We are inspired by so many makers and authors who, like us, find cardboard a fascinating and universal material. Here are just a few of our favourites:

  • Boxitects: This is a story about two creative boxitects who love to build exciting things using cardboard boxes. 
  • Cain’s arcade:  When Cain was 9, he built an arcade full of cardboard games in his dad’s auto part store. The arcade caught the eye of a filmmaker waiting for a car part. He loved his games so much that he made a movie, and the movie created a movement! 
  • Zygote Brown Design: Make intricate (yet achievable) wearable costumes out of cardboard. You can download templates for a small fee, or just be inspired.  
  • Make Do: A cardboard attachment system, Make Do offers durable, and easy-to-use cardboard creations. They come with a little screwdriver and a fun-to-use cardboard saw. There is a great inspiration gallery available on their website. 
Author(s)
Profile picture for user Catherine Émond
Catherine Émond

Catherine found her passion for educating in museums settings. She works at the Canada Science and Technology Museum as part of the Visitor Experience team. She enjoys testing and creating ingenious activities for Exploratek, the museum’s maker studio, where she invites people to try a variety of tinkering challenges. She’s inspired by visitors’ creations and loves coming up with new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) projects to try out.

Profile picture for user Michelle Campbell Mekarski
Michelle Campbell Mekarski, PhD

As the Science Advisor at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Michelle’s goal is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public — specializing in making science and technology engaging, accessible, and fun. Michelle earned a PhD in evolutionary biology and paleontology and has many years of experience developing and delivering science outreach activities. When away from her job at the museum, she can be found teaching at the University of Ottawa or Carleton University, digging for fossils, or relaxing by the water.