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Ok, so you have your source material. You’ve sorted it into piles that make sense to you. And now, you want to put them together. So, you’ve got to cut them up. Now what?

While working on shows and cutting up thousands (seriously, thousands) of pieces, I learned that the most efficient way to cut pieces is in stages. To do this, you will want scissors (preferably in varying sizes, but if you can only pick one, pick a mid-sized scissor), an exacto knife, a cutting mat (I use self-healing mats designed for sewing), and extra blades. Lots of extra blades. A sharp knife is key in avoiding torn edges and hand cramps.

Like so. I use all three sizes of scissors for different things: big ones for cutting the general area of a piece out of a full page before saving it, medium for trimming down pieces before cutting with a knife, and small for trimming the edges off of larger pieces. These scissors were a gift to myself after using just regulation large scissors for years and getting exasperated with them and/or losing them just one too many times. They’re awesome.

I have had this knife since college. My knife and I? We tight. It should be noted that I’ve spent hundreds of hours cutting paper and the *only* time I ever cut myself with the knife was when I was using it to try and remove a label from something. This is to say, if you’re careful when you work and you always use a sharp blade, cutting yourself is rare. I’ve honestly cut myself with scissors more than my knife.

So, to show my process, I’m going to demonstrate with the fiddly bitty bird paper.

This is the paper as it exists pre-cutting. As you can see, it’s a sheet of wrapping paper with the fiddly bird motif repeated. If I were to just take my knife to this and try to capture a single bird, it would take me all afternoon and make me more than a little twitchy.

So. I cut it down first, with the medium scissors.

This has two advantages, it’s now easier for me to see what I’m doing and cut the itty bitty wings much more carefully and it also preserves all of the other birds on the paper – preventing me from accidentally slicing through one with the knife.

And now! The knife! This is the tricky time-intensive part. I would not recommend something like these wings for beginners. It’s totally possible to get very, very precise results with the knife, but it’s also very, very easy to slip and slice through the very tiny detail you’re trying to preserve. Y’know how the advice for most things is to start small? Yeah, with cutting with an exacto knife, start BIG.

Twenty minutes and umpteen cusswords later… You can see when the piece is set on its own like this that it’s not pristine. The little imperfections will disappear when you set it in context of larger collage. I promise. What you want is a clean, crisp image – if you end up with hints of background or non-straight edges, that’s ok. Over-correcting when trimming can be much, much worse than leaving a little around the edges.

Though I will say – and I can’t emphasize this enough – if you’re serious about making clean looking collages, you absolutely must use a knife. You simply can not get precise results with scissors, no matter how small the scissor or how carefully you cut.

One more thing to point out – I cut almost all of my pieces down to the second stage seen here before storage, otherwise storing whole sheets takes up huge amounts of room and cutting pieces down later becomes time-consuming when I’d rather be assembling. The only time I leave pages whole is when it contains more than one image that I’d like to use. I almost never cut images all the way down before storing – the only time that happens is when I cut it to use it and then it doesn’t work in the piece.

Next up – taking all these things that you cut and making a new thing out of them!