Growing up, Alton DuLaney received many beautifully-wrapped presents. “My dad was a great gift wrapper,” he told Mental Floss in 2017. “He always made the holidays and birthdays really special.” Those wraps clearly stuck with DuLaney, who grew up to become creative director at Kate’s Paperie and, in 2008, took home the top prize in the Scotch Most Gifted Wrapper Contest (he wrapped, among other things, a baby grand piano).
These days, the artist is helping novices nail their gift wraps via tutorials on Craftsy.com. DuLaney’s motto? Put the present in presentation. “Gift giving should not be stressful,” he said. “It should be something fun. When you gift wrap something, it shows that you put some individual time and attention to make it something special. If you have fun with it, your gift recipient is probably going to have fun with it, too.”
1. Prep your wrapping workspace …
“Create your workspace before you create,” DuLaney advised. Because he prefers to stand, he makes a sturdy, waist-high table or countertop his base. Whatever you choose to work on, make sure the surface is clean. Ditto your hands: “You don’t want to get lotion or anything that might be on your hands onto the beautiful paper or ribbon,” DuLaney said.
2. … And have the right present-wrapping tools on hand.
No workspace is complete without the proper tools. DuLaney always has a ruler and two pairs of scissors—one for paper and one for ribbon. “Sometimes your paper will have glitter or other things on it that will dull your scissors,” he said. “When you cut your ribbon, you want to have a very super-sharp pair of scissors to get a nice, clean cut.” To tell the difference, he ties a tiny bit of ribbon around the handle of the ribbon scissors.
DuLaney also has two kinds of Scotch tape at the ready: Double-sided for complicated areas, and gift wrap tape with a matte finish “so even when it’s on the outside of the paper, it virtually disappears—you don’t see it.” He also keeps embellishments on hand to decorate the outside of the gift (more on that in a bit). “I like to gather all of those things before I start, and that way, once the creative juices are flowing, you don’t have to stop and say, ‘Where are my scissors? Where’s my tape?’” he said.
3. Use a medium grade wrapping paper.
If your paper is too thin, it will tear easily, allowing package corners to poke through; too-thick paper, on the other hand, leads to a bulky wrap. DuLaney prefers a medium-grade paper with a bit of a metallic finish, which creates nice, sharp creases.
4. Consider doing a practice run before wrapping your actual gifts.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I always tell people to practice,” DuLaney said. “At the end of the season, I’ll go buy gift wrap on sale, and [next year], I’ll practice my wrapping before I start wrapping.” DuLaney advised practicing with ribbon, too.
If he has a special paper—something hand-painted or hand-stamped—DuLaney will do a dry run with regular paper to see how it will work. “Then I’ll unwrap [the gift] and use that paper as a pattern, just like if you were working with a piece of fabric—you would use a paper pattern to make your fabric pattern,” he said.
5. Carefully measure your wrapping paper.
To get the most use from your roll, wrap packages with the longest side of the box facing the cut edge of the paper whenever possible. Then, before making your cut, pull the paper up over the sides of the box to measure: You want just enough wrapping paper on either side so they slightly overlap in the middle—meaning, each side will be a smidge longer than half the width of your box. “If [the package is] big, I’ll actually break out a ruler, to make sure I have more than half,” DuLaney said. He always errs on the side of too much paper—you can always trim later.
6. Place your package top down—and never put tape on it.
When it’s finally time to wrap your present, place it top down on the paper. Next, pull one edge of the paper just beyond the edge of your gift; fold it to hide the cut edge—the white part, which DuLaney calls “the meat” of the paper. Most people would tape that to the package, but DuLaney advises against that. “When you take that paper off, you want both the ribbon and the paper to just fall away and reveal what’s inside it,” he said. Instead, grab the other side of the paper and pull it under the side with the folded edge. Align the folded edge with the end of the package and tape.
Next, rotate the box to one of the open sides and fold the short sides down to create long flaps; repeat on the other side. “This keeps the package from sliding around inside the paper,” DuLaney said. Fold the flap closest to you downward; then, fold the one closest to your work surface toward you and tape. That way, “when you turn the gift over, and place the bow on top, the side flaps are going down, so you don’t see into the workings of the gift wrap.” Finally, using your finger and your thumb, crease the edges of your wrapped package. You can watch DuLaney walk Jimmy Kimmel through the process here.
7. If you run out of wrapping paper, make it look like you meant to do it.
If you mess up and don’t cut enough paper (or are at the end of your roll), it’s no big deal. There are solutions that make it look like that was part of your plan all along—like creating a belly band. “I cut a strip of paper, fold under each edge, and sometimes, I’ll pleat that into a tuxedo fold in the middle, and I’ll tape that to the other paper,” DuLaney said. When he does this, he wraps the gift top-side up. “I’ll have the gift right-side up and will construct the paper on top of the gift, so the belly band becomes the centerpiece.” Have a slice of exposed package on the ends? Use a wide ribbon or embellishments to disguise it.
8. When wrapping cylinders, pleating is key.
There are two ways of dealing with a cylinder: What DuLaney calls the bon-bon method—“where you scrunch the paper on each end and tape the ribbon on it” so it looks like a candy—and pleating. Trust us when we say pleating is easier to do than it is to explain—check out this video for a tutorial.
9. Add embellishments to your wrapped presents.
Once you’re finished wrapping, put the present in presentation by adding embellishments to the outside of the package. This could be as simple as a ribbon, but DuLaney often kicks it up a notch. “I like to give a little gift on the outside that’s a hint of what’s on the inside,” he said. “If I’m giving a book, I might embellish the gift with bookmarks; if I’m giving a journal, I might embellish with a couple of writing instruments on the outside.” Sometimes, his embellishments follow gift wrapping trends.
10. Embrace presents that are unusual shapes.
Wrapping boxes is easy, but what happens if what you need to wrap isn’t box-shaped? DuLaney has several methods for dealing with this. The first—and easiest—is to grab a gift bag. “When I do a gift bag, I gift wrap my gift bag,” he said. “I’ll add a ribbon or a bow around the handle, or I’ll replace the handle with a matching ribbon.” Other times, he might wrap something tangentially related to a gift to place under the tree before revealing the real deal. “If I’m giving someone a tennis racket, I’ll wrap a tennis ball, and when they open that, I’ll present them the racket with a bow on it,” he said.
Another method is to wrap your gift to look like exactly what it is. “Last year on Jimmy Kimmel, I wrapped a vacuum cleaner, and it looked exactly like a vacuum cleaner,” DuLaney said. “[The gift] is a gorgeous paper sculpture when you’re done, but of course there’s no mystery as to what’s inside it.”
If you prefer to camouflage a gift, prepare to get creative. “I’ve done a bicycle before where I wrapped it in all of this craft paper, created cardboard cutouts, and basically turned it into a deer with a scarf wrapped around its neck,” he said. “You’re so distracted by that—you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a reindeer!’—that you don’t even think bicycle until you’re inside it.”
Of course, you could buy a box to put your unusually shaped gift in, but what’s the fun in that?
11. Use dull scissors to curl ribbon ...
When using curling ribbon, sharp scissors are not your friend. They won’t just tear the ribbon—they could cut your finger, too. Dull scissors are the way to go. “When the ribbon comes off the spool, the outside of the ribbon is the finished side,” he said. “The part that goes to the inside of the spool is where you want to put your scissor or your curling tool. I put the scissor under the ribbon, put pressure on it from above with my thumb, and pull. The trick is to only do it once.”
12. … But don't think curling ribbon is your only option.
Depending on what kind of look you’re going for, you might opt for a silk ribbon (to which you'd add angled or forked tails) over a curling ribbon. DuLaney likes to use a wire-edge ribbon, which can help those who aren’t used to tying perfect bows create prettier shapes. “The bow holds its shape really well,” he said. “You can hand-shape the tails that are coming off that bow, and they will hold that shape. A satin ribbon is really beautiful, but can be slippery, and curling ribbon has a limp finish to it, which can look sloppy in the end. With wire-edged ribbon, you can create the bow and then really shape it into something you love.”
13. Don't cut your ribbon off the roll until your bow is done.
Do you eyeball how much ribbon you think you’ll need, cut it off the spool, and hope for the best? Rookie mistake. When he’s tying a bow, DuLaney starts at the top of the gift and gives himself 12 inches of extra ribbon that stays attached to the spool. And, oh yeah, he does his criss-crossing and knotting of the ribbon on top of the gift. “People have a tendency to do that on the bottom of the gift, but then, when they’re done, there’s a bump under there,” he said. “Your gift rocks—it doesn’t sit flat.”
Here’s how DuLaney does it: “I hold the ribbon to the top of the gift with my thumb, wrap my ribbon around the bottom, and bring the ribbon back up to the top of the package, then criss-cross the top of the gift,” he said. “Then I wrap the ribbon lengthwise around the gift, around the bottom, back up to the top, and then I will do my first half knot with the ribbon. I will then tie the bow, and then—and only then—will I cut the ribbon from the spool.”
A version of this story was originally published in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.