Being surrounded by piles of cylindrical, spherical, or otherwise non-rectangular shaped gifts can be a nightmare for a non-expert gift wrappers—especially if you've left the wrapping until the day of the big exchange. From creating mountains of scrap paper to sloppily creasing your gifts' edges, it's enough to make anyone want to toss your presents into a gift bag.
But before you despair and throw in the towel altogether, there are some expert and science-backed wrapping tips that might just save your holiday. When it comes to wowing your friends and family with exquisite wrapping, Alton DuLaney is a seasoned authority. Known as "The World's Most Famous Gift Wrap Artist," DuLaney is the host of the YouTube Originals show "The Great Gift Wrap Exchange."
"People all too often view gift-wrapping as a chore, and just give up and throw the gift in a gift bag," DuLaney says. "A well-wrapped gift shows you put thought not only into selecting the gift but also into its presentation."
When it comes to deftly wrapping a gift—of any shape—DuLaney has several tips that can start the job off on the right foot:
- Before cutting your wrapping paper, first drape it around the gift with an inch of overlap to "cover the top, bottom and two sides, and enough paper to almost cover the two ends."
- Trim the length of your paper first, and then the width.
- When wrapping something oddly shaped, don't be afraid to break up the job into individual pieces.
"I've wrapped everything from bicycles to bar-stools, golf clubs to Go-Karts," says DuLaney. "There is always a solution."
As for why these tips work as well as they do, Katie Steckles, mathematician and science communicator, explains that it all boils down to a common geometry problem.
"Since it's all about shapes, gift wrapping involves plenty of 2D and 3D geometry— converting a 3D shape into a 2D net," Steckles says. "And working out how to do that with the least possible overlap so you don't waste too much paper."
For rectangular gifts, or "cuboids" (e.g. a box), Steckles says that the math checks out with DuLaney's approach. To ensure you're cutting the right amount of paper to wrap something like a box, Steckles suggests measuring the sides of the object or rolling the object out on the paper to map its coordinates.
In a video tutorial Steckles made in 2015, which has been viewed more than 500,000 times, she walks through simple formulas to help even the most novice wrapper. For example, when wrapping a cylindrical gift, Steckles says you can measure out the object's circumference (the measurement which loops once around the object) by multiplying its diameter (the straight line that runs across the object's center) by the constant Pi. These kinds of measurements can help you avoid cutting too much or too little paper.
Such methods aren't foolproof for every shape, Steckles concedes. One major outlier when it comes to clean wrapping jobs is a sphere or ball. The modern difficulties of wrapping such a shape may deal with objects like bath bombs or basketballs, but Steckles says the issue of "wrapping" a sphere can be traced back to some of the earliest mapmakers.
"As mapmakers know, you can't represent the surface of a globe without distorting or stretching the countries near the top and bottom of the map," Steckles says. "The geometry of a sphere means it's impossible to wrap a flat square onto the surface without a lot of overlapping or cutting. We say the shape has positive curvature, which means if you draw crossing lines in two perpendicular directions, the surface curves down in both directions, and this is what makes it geometrically different to a flat shape like a piece of paper."
➡️ Try This: The Art of Furoshiki
These mathematical tips can help you reduce the amount of scraps you create during your wrapping frenzy, but the majority of your carefully folded gift wrap is still going to end up in the trash. While some natural gift wrap can be recycled, much more cannot be thanks to plastic or glitter coatings. This waste can add an estimated 2.3 million pounds to landfills annually.
Instead, try wrapping your gifts in reusable cloth. Such decorative wrapping cloths, called furoshiki, can be traced back to 8th-century Japan. This method is low-waste and beautiful—plus, it will save you the trouble of picking up shreds of paper strewn across your home.
If after all these tips you're still struggling to perfectly wrap a present, Erik Demaine, a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reveals a little-known fact that can put your mind at ease: even mathematicians technically don't know how to wrap a perfect cube, let alone a box.
"If [the wrapping] is a square piece of paper, we know the best [way]," Demaine says. "[But] what if I gave you an eight-and-a-half by eleven rectangle? The answer turns out to be really complicated…And again, this is just wrapping a cube. If you're wrapping a general box, it's going to get even messier. Here, we don't even know the right answer."
Trying to answer questions like these is just part of what mathematicians can use wrapping for in the "real" world, says Demaine, whose research focuses on computational methods for perfecting geometrical folding. Demaine and Steckles say that computationally modeling wrapping can help design everything from expertly folded airbags to self-propelling origami robots.
In the end, Demaine, Steckles, and DuLaney all agree that wrapping gifts shouldn't be a chore, but instead an opportunity to express your creativity and your appreciation for those around you. So don't fret if your wrap-job isn't perfect, even mathematicians aren't perfect.