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How to Make Polyhedra with Business Cards
A vast variety of polyhedra can be constructed easily with standard business cards folded into a simple unit shape (and maybe a little tape to keep them together). Creating different polyhedra using the same unit shape reveals relationships among the polyhedra that are exciting to explore.

What is a polyhedron?

A polyhedron is a 3-dimentional solid that contains flat faces and straight edges. You may be familiar with the five shapes known as the Platonic solids: the tetrahedron (4-sided pyramid), the cube, the octohedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. These are the polyhedra that can be constructed using one type of polygon for all of the faces, such as a triangle, square, or pentagon.

There are also the Archimedean solids, which are shapes that have faces of different regular polygons, such as a combination of squares and triangles. In addition, some of these polyhedra can be "stellated" - their sides can be extended until they intersect with other extended sides. The Great Dodecahedron is an example of a stellation of a dodecahedron.

How to construct polyhedra using business cards

I created the polyhedra on this page with standard U.S. business cards (2" x 3.5"), folded to create two trianglar faces per card. This is the unit shape from which any of these polyhedra can be built. The unit shapes can be combined to form triangular, square, pentagonal, and hexagonal polyhedral faces. Some of these faces are actually cumulations, where the face is replaced with a pyramid, with the (invisible) polygonal face as its base; the pyramid has either negative or positive height with respect to the face. For example, the dodecahedron seen below is actually a cumulated dodecahedron, because the faces are not truly pentagons, but pentagonal pyramids with negative height.

In this article, you'll learn how to construct any polyhedron that contains any combination of triangular, sqaure, pentagonal, or hexagonal faces. Here are some examples:

IcosidodecahedronDodecahedronSmall Rhombicuboctahedron
IcosidodecahedronDodecahedronSmall Rhombicuboctahedron

What you need

  • Standard business cards (2" x 3.5")
  • Scotch tape (optional for some constructions)
  • An idea of what you'd like to construct

Folding the unit shape

All of the constructions on this page use the same basic shape. Here's how to fold it.

  1. Hold the card face-up. Fold the card so the top, right corner meets the bottom, left corner.
    Valley fold from the top, right corner to the bottom, left corner of the card
  2. Notice the parts of card that overlap. Fold these pieces back (actually, whether you fold the overlaps backward or forward depends on the solid you'll be making), so the fold lines up with an edge of the card. Crease the fold. When you let go of the card, you will have a shape that looks like this:
    Valley or Mountain folds on both overlaps
  3. That's it! Now make as many of these as you need for your solid.
Below are a few of the shapes you can make. Use your imagination to come up with more.

Tetrahedron and Octahedron

The tetrahedron and octahedron are two of the easiest solids you can make. Both solids have triangular faces. Since each unit shape contains two triangles, you'll only need two units for the tetrahedron, and four for the octahedron.

These shapes will also stay together without the use of tape. It's quite satisfying to put the units together, because there's a stable state that occurs when the unit pieces are arranged properly and the shape comes together. It's as if all of the faces are exerting equal pressure on the other faces, supporting each other.

For both of these shapes, the overlap tabs will appear on the outside of the solid. Therefore, when you fold the overlaps, fold them in the same direction as the main diagonal fold (since the diagonal fold is a valley fold, the overlaps will also be valley folds). Then, put the pieces together. The overlap tabs of one unit will embrace the non-tabbed edge of another unit.

The octahedron takes a little practice to hold together - with only two hands, it can be tough to bring four units together - but you can do it!

If you make six octahedra, we'll have fun with those later.

Icosahedron

The icosahedron (20 faces) is the next logical step: it's the other Platonic solid with triagular faces, but it's a bit more advanced than the octahedron. With 20 sides, therefore 10 unit shapes, you'll have a hard time putting this together without the help of tape. You're welcome to try. Otherwise, use tape on the inside of the shape.

Start by putting five units together to form a pentagonal pyramid. Each triangle that comprises the pyramid will be one end of the unit shape. The other end of the unit shape will hang off, waiting to be connected to other pieces.

Next, create a second pentagonal pyramid. Finally, bring the two layers of extra sides together - the overlap tabs of one face will embrace the non-tabbed edge of another face, and you'll have another Platonic solid for your collection.

There is an alternate way of creating the icosahedron: as a cumulation with pyramids of negative height. In this case, the units are folded tightly, and the tab of one unit nestles between the two folded-together faces of another unit. You won't need tape for this construction. Since there are 3 faces per pyramid and 20 sides, you'll have to plan for 60 faces, so you'll need 30 business cards for this solid.

Both ways of constructing the icosahedron will result in a solid with the same dimensions (except for minimal differences from the thickness of the cards).

Icosahedra

Dodecahedron

Next stop: the dodecahedron (12 faces). Geometrically, the dodecahedron and the icosahedron are related in all sorts of interesting ways.

We'll actually create a cumulated dodecahedron, because the pentagonal faces will be represented by pentagonal pyramids. 12 faces with pyramids of 5 triangles... that's 60 trigular faces altogether, or 30 cards. (Hey, doesn't the cumulated icosahedron also have 60 triangular faces?)

You'll need tape for this shape, and you'll need to fold the tabs in the opposite direction of the main diagonal fold.

Here's a tip when assembling these pieces: If you look at the picture, you'll see that the diagonal fold of a unit is the edge between faces of the solid. The diagonal fold does not appear inside the pentagonal pyramid. Just something to keep in mind to make sure you're building the shape correctly.

To start, build a pentagonal pyramid with 5 units. Then, for each half of the unit that isn't part of that pyramid, build another pyramid around it - sometimes using unit-halves from the neighboring pyramid (you'll know when).

Dodecahedron

Other shapes

I imagine you're getting the hang of this now, and you can probably figure out how to make pyramids with 4 and 6 triangles. The 4-triangle pyramids will let you represent square faces, and a 6-triangle pyramid turns out to be as flat as a plane.

Here are some of the other shapes I've made using this technique. After making the shape, the next bit of fun begins - going to Wolfram MathWorld to figure out, "Is there a name for what I just built?"

Stella OctangulaStella Octangula
IcosidodecahedronIcosidodecahedron
  • I used triangular pyramids instead of triangular faces to create a striking shape
  • Number of faces: 120 (20*3 + 12*5 - like an icosahedron and a dodecahedron fused together)
  • Number of units: 60
  • Icosidodecahedron on Wolfram MathWorld
OctahemioctahedronOctahemioctahedron
Truncated OctahedronTruncated Octahedron
  • If you insert octahedra into the 4-sided pyramids, you get... a big octahedron!
  • Number of faces: 72 (8*6 + 6*4) (8 6-sides pyramids, 6 4-sided pyramids)
  • Number of units: 36
  • Truncated Octahedron on Wolfram MathWorld
Small RhombicuboctahedronSmall Rhombicuboctahedron
SpikeySpikey
  • Actually a cumulated icosahedron with pyramids of positive height
  • Number of faces: 60 (20*3)
  • Number of units: 30
  • Spikey on Wolfram MathWorld
SpikeySpikey
  • Another view of Spikey
Fascinating relationships

Since all of these solids are built with the same unit shapes, there are some interesting relationships that you can see between the shapes.

Stella Octangula Imagine the stella octangula as two tetrahedra merged together. The volume that is common to both tetrahedra is an octahedron made with unit pieces.
Icosahedron-Dodecahedron relationship The end of an icosahedron (or a cumulated icosahedron with pyramids of negative height) fits within the pentagonal pyramid of the cumulated dodecahedron. (If you're really ambitious, build one dodecahedron and 12 icosahedra, then assemble them - you'll only need 90 business cards!)
Octahemioctahedron-Octahedran relationship A 4-sided pyramid can be filled with an octahedron. If you create 6 octahedra, you can plug them into an octahemioctahedron (as well as a truncated octahedron). The result? A larger octahedron!
Now, build your own!

By now, you must be inspired to build your own polyhedra! If you create something cool, I'd love to showcase it here - and, of course, give you credit for your creation.

You can also create solids with different unit pieces. For example, you can create a Great Dodecahedron with unit shapes that use isosceles triangles with sides 1, 1, Φ instead of equilateral triangles with sides 1, 1, 1.