Box · origami · Zhen Xian Bao

Zhen Xian Bao, Post #6, the Big Box

Chinese Thread Book
Chinese Thread Book

This post is the continuation of examining the parts of the Chinese Thread Book, the Zhen Xian Bao.  Each level of expandable parts has its own characteristics. I’m going to be writing about what I call the Big Box, which is the most interior layer of the book.

On my Zhen Xian Bao Pinterest board you can see other ways people have chosen to make this layer box. Mostly what I’ve seen has not set right with me because the big box layer seems too deep. There’s no reason for this interior box to have so much volume, as it can only store a limited amount of flattish items.

Also, from what I’ve seen, the larger boxes are generally made from templates that aren’t particularly elegant. This does seem to be echoing the traditional way of making this structure, but I think something’s been lost in translation. In any case, what intrigues me most about the Zhen Xian Bao is that, at its basic level, the structure seems to ask the maker to modify each decision about the making, according to the whims of the maker and the materials that are being used.

Using thin papers to make the Zhen Xian Bao
Using thin papers to make the Zhen Xian Bao

I like using thin, strong papers to make the Chinese Thread book, but there are reasons to use a heavier paper,and heavier papers seem to beg a different way of working.  Most of the images in this post show heavier paper, which are paste papers done by my friend Julie. Julie gifted me many wonderful studio supplies when she moved out of state, so I wanted to make a Zhen Xian Bao for her, using some papers decorated by her own hand. However, the tutorial video below shows the big box layer using more lightweight papers, like the ones I used in my previous post.

What I will be doing here in the written part of this post is highlighting the generalized measurements for starting the big box, then I’ll show how I’ve made some workflow modifications, which are not in the video,  but which will accommodate  heavier paper.

length measurement for big box
length measurement for big box

Okay, I just have to say that I absolutely loved figuring out how to determine the dimensions for the size of paper that for the big box. It took many sessions of trial and error, and I knew that I was searching for an elegant, self-referencing set of measurements, but it kept eluding me. When I discovered the secret it seemed so obvious, like why didn’t I see that immediately. So satisfying. What’s going on here is that I will be making the big box layer in the same was as the hidden box layer, with one major difference: instead of starting with a square, I start with a rectangle.

The width of the rectangle is measured by marking four widths of the hidden layer box, PLUS enough to create a middle space so that the book closes, plus a little more.  You can see that space in the top photo. For the thinner papers I’m finding that 1 1/4″ extra works fine. For the thicker papers, I tacked on 1 1/2″ but the idea is to figure out how thick your book is going to be, then use this measurement plus about another 1/4″. The measurement you come up with  depends entirely on what you’ve determined the depth of your finished book will be.

Height of the paper for the big box
Height of the paper for the big box

The height of the paper for the big box is more straight forward. Take your hidden layer box and expand  it from the top and bottom. This height, plus an extra 1/4″, will be the height of the rectangle. Now construct the box according steps in the above video, then unfold everything because we need to cut away some bulk from the folded corners.

Big box, in progress, unfolded
Big box, in progress, unfolded

Here’s where I can’t help myself. Time to stop and admire all the beautiful geometry going on here. Snap out of it. Start snipping, but, just in case you missed this inference, this snipping only has to be done with heavier papers. The lightweight papers can stay intact.

Snipping the corners
Snipping the corners

I’ve snipped away the corner triangle, then check out the logic of the rectangle-plus-triangle snip. The fact is, the reason I’m doing it this way doesn’t become clear until it’s time to assemble the box. And it’s one of those things that is totally cumbersome to explain but obvious when you are actually doing it.

Prepping the Big Box paper

Here’s all four corners cut. I will be refolding this so it looks like I’ve cut nothing away.

Folding the box together

Again, this part is easier to see while are doing it. Trying to explain in words would be frightening. Note the glue. It won’t go together without glue.

Big Box, done
Big Box, done

Here it is, reassembled. Looks just like the hidden layer box, only wider.  It’s depth echoes the depth of the hidden layer box, which is also the depth the masu box, and the twist box.  A perfect math for a perfect match.

The PiecesI’m going to show the finishing of this book, just because I can. I chose to make the cover from a single piece of Julie’s paper. I cut the size bigger than I wanted the finished cover to be so as to leave room to turn in the edges.

img_0652After tuning in the edges I glue paper over the part of the paper that will show when the book is open.




geometry and paperfolding · Zhen Xian Bao

Zhen Xian Bao, Post #five-and-a-half

Zhen Xian Bzo in progress
Zhen Xian Bzo in progress

Last spring, when I saw Elissa Campbell’s posts about the Chinese Thread Books that she was making, they reminded me that this was structure that I had been intending to explore. Elissa expressed, in her posts, that she just couldn’t stop making them. I didn’t understand what she meant by that at the time, but, wow, I get it now.

img_0513Before finishing my posts on how to make this structure I thought I’d take a step away from making the models and put together some of these thread books, experimenting with different papers. It was much harder to make a completed Zhen Xian Bao than I could have ever imagined, but not for the reasons that are obvious.

img_0537My problem was that at each and every step of the constructions I had to stop and admire the way everything looked. The geometry of the  each piece, as well as how they looked together, just blew me away.

Click on this picture to see the pattern on the paper up close. It’s worth the look

Not only that, but, also, I got to use papers that I have never been able to find uses for, like this delicate paper embossed with a spiderweb motif. It’s like I was holding on to it for all these years just so I could use it now. Not only did I like the way it looked, but the spider web pattern seemed to be completely appropriate for a thread book.

img_0528At each step, shapes and patterns emerged. I would have to just pause and look at everything over and over again. This is no way to work if you want to get something finished.

img_0547Even the pieces that I was cutting away to discard caught my attention. It was a bit ridiculous.

img_0555I also got to use this nearly sheer blue, fiber filled Japanese paper that I had stored in my flat files for many year. I love flat files.

img_0554It felt painful to attach the boxes together in the proper way. I wanted to be able to look at all pieces of the thread book at once.

img_0541I took way too many pictures.


One of the hardest decisions I had to make was what to use for the covering material. Traditionally the Zhen Xian Bao is covered with indigo cloth. I happened to have, tucked away in my flat files, a large sheet of sturdy,handmade indigo paper. It wrapped nicely around my boxes. Have I mentioned that I love flat files?


When I was finished I decided I needed to make another thread book immediately. This one was smaller because I had some beautiful orange paper that was 21 inches wide, so I started with 7 inch squares so as not to waste paper.


In fact, I just kept raiding stashes of gorgeous papers that I have collected over the years but could never find suitable projects to use them in. Part of the adventure of making these books is seeing how all these lovely papers work together.


My favorite papers to use were thin, strong, textured papers. All my models that I’ve made in my previous posts were made from smooth, machine-made, standard weight (about 24 lb) papers. I liked using them for demonstrations and practice, but enjoy that more unusual papers for finished pieces.

img_0602As soon as I finished the second Thread Book I wanted to make another. I was thinking of using paper bags from the grocery store, to see how they worked. Actually, I want to try out so many different papers and combinations of papers. This feels like such an adventure. But I stopped here, as I actually have to do other things in my life.

img_0605My final decision about these books is still not made…what to use to keep them closed? I have many ribbons, but they all seem to slick.  For now, I have them secured with this pale lavender ribbon that is water stained in a way that seems to go with the wrappers, but I’m not convinced it’s perfect.  In any case, enough of this for now. I’ll be turning my attention back to the final bits of construction soon. The big tray part of the Zhen Xian Bao is what’s up next. And it’s awesome.

Box · Zhen Xian Bao

Zhen Xian Bao, Post #5: the hidden tray

Starting with a square that's 3 x 3 masu box widths wide
Starting with a square that’s 3 x 3 masu box widths wide

There’s a hidden box layer in the Zhen Xian Bao.

It can be thought of as the third layer of this structure, but that can be a bit misleading, as there can be numerous layers of the masu-type box above it.

Two masu boxes hiding the rectangular tray underneath

Many of the directions I’ve seen for this layer include templates so that you can make simple cuts and folds then do some gluing to create the box. I have nothing against templates (well maybe I do…) but the fact is that the template makes  a box that is not nearly as elegant as this origami folded box.

Paper Making Workshop in Shiqiao Village
Paper Making Workshop in Shiqiao Village

However, if the maker is using paper which is like those made in workshops in the Shiqiao Village, then using a template might make more sense, as it appears to me that  using a hardy paper with the origami method would make an overly bulky box.  In any case, whatever method you use is your decision. That’s what’s so awesome about the Zhen Xian Bao: there are lots of personal decisions to make.

Marking a paper strip, 2 masu boxes wide
Marking a paper strip, 2 masu boxes wide

At the end of the post there’s a video on how to make this box. There’s some key points that I want to emphasize here. The first is that this box is made from a square. If you want the rectangular tray to fit exactly under the boxes above it, which is what seems to be typical, then you must  start by first making  the boxes of second layer .  The width of three of these boxes will be the side measurement for the square. Measuring by using the actual boxes is the only way to go, as different weight papers used for the masu boxes will yield different slightly different measurements. There is no purely numeric way to do this. You need to measure using the actual boxes.

The Square
The Square

Once you have the correctly sized square, the next step is to fold the square into thirds. Not halves, which is easy, but thirds, which is tricky.

Folding one-third

Maybe not so tricky, though. After all, your masu box should be right there with you, and the width of the box is a third of the square, so just line up these boxes on the edge of the paper and fold the far edge to them.


Then fold the other edge to the fold you just made and the paper is folded into three equal sections. Yah!


The two outer thirds will be folded in half again…and this is the last of the pictures of the process. The video at the end of this post to show how to make this, from beginning to end. If I make a one-page tutorial on this, it will eventually show up in my blog.

img_0430Here’s the finished box.


Here’s that box, with another next to it, hidden under two masu boxes.

The Reveal
The Reveal

Lifting up the masu boxes reveals the rectangular tray below. You can stack many rectangular boxes for more surprises.

The video of the making of this box:

Uncategorized · Zhen Xian Bao

Zhen Xian Bao Post 4: the second layer box

Left: the closed twist box on the second layer box, Right” the open twist box

Finally I am getting to writing about he next second box of the Chinese Thread Book/ Zhen Xian Bao.

For the record, here are  links to  my previous posts on the Zhen Xian Bao, and to my Pinterest board, which contains sources that I’ve studied:

Zhen Xian Bao, Intro & Examining proportions

Starting with the Finished Size

Top Layer, Twist Box

Zhen Xian Bao Pinterest Board

The Second Layer Box, which echoes most of the fold of the origami Masu Box

I know exactly why it has taken my so long to write about this second layer of the Zhen Xian Bao. This box is basically a Masu Box, something that I’ve been making for many years, but that I had never gotten the hang of teaching. I didn’t want to make a post until I figured out how to communicate that step that everyone trips up on.

This is the where the construction of the box get hard to explain

If you have ever tried to teach this structure to someone you know exactly what I’m talking about. Everything goes just swell until it’s time to make the sides. This is the when I lose all my students…BUT! I’m here to say that I have figured out a way of approaching this step in a way that makes way more sense than I ever thought possible.

There are two key changes I’ve made in my demonstration that make all the difference.

The Folded Paper Grid

First, and don’t roll your eyes and absolutely do not skip this step: I start with making folds that turn my square piece of paper into a 4 x 4 grid.

Bringing the arrowed points together makes origami seem like magic

Second, when I get to this dreaded step, instead of folding up the two opposite wall of the box as is suggested in like, every set of directions that exist, bring together the two corners that I’ve marked in the photo above.

One action creates three sides of the box!

What happens next is like origami magic. As those points come together, the structure stands up and, with the slightest bit of nudging, three sides are formed at once.

Oh. if you haven’t tried to make or teach this box already, none of this will make sense to you. Which is  a good thing, because you may be spared the experience of totally mind numbing self-esteem draining bewilderment.

I haven’t made a tutorial page just yet. That will come later. But here’s a video. Go for it!