Introduction: Altoids Tin Pocket-Sized Watercolor Box

Picture of Altoids Tin Pocket-Sized Watercolor Box

This Instructable, my entry in the pocket-sized contest, will teach you how to build your own pocket-sized watercolor box.

Remember when you were a kid and had a watercolor box? Well, this is the grownup version of it, with high-quality pigments. The best thing about it is that you can carry it in your pocket since its made with the ubiquitous Altoids tin.

Oh yeah, this is my first Instructable.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

To make this project, you'll need:

- Altoids Tin (shown in picture)
- White Fimo Clay (shown in picture)
- Cheap white plastic color-mixing palette (shown in picture) - OR - white enamel paint (Krylon spray can or such)
- Your selection of watercolor paints (more on this later)

- Dremel with cutting wheel attachment (shown in picture)
- Sandpaper (anything along the lines of 80 grit is good)
- Oven or Toaster Oven
- Toothpicks

Step 2: Color-Mixing Plate

Picture of Color-Mixing Plate

The mixing plate is the surface where you'll mix your colors while painting. I decided to get mine from a plastic palette I got for a few dollars at my local art supplies store. If you're having a hard time finding something similar, you have a few options: spray the interior of the top lid with white enamel paint or use any thin, white plastic part which has ridges and can fit into the Altoids tin.

Option A) using the plastic palette
- Make sure the section you chose fits in the Altoids tin (the bottom part)
- Using the Dremel, cut slightly larger than the area of interest (see picture).
- Once you've cut it down to shape, clean up the edges with the 80 grit sandpaper. The plastic should be fairly easy to sand away in a few minutes.

The palette I used was made of (I think) polystyrene. This material, when heated, melts but solidifies immediately and the burrs area easy to scratch away. If you use a palette made of other plastics, you might run into problems. Try cutting with a utility knife if you run into that situation

Option B) painting the interior lid with white paint
- Read the instructions on the paint can
- Cover up the other parts of the tin
- Spray

Option C) make your own tray
- Stick to options A or B if you need further instructions ;)

Step 3: Build Up the Interior of the Paintbox With the Fimo Clay

Picture of Build Up the Interior of the Paintbox With the Fimo Clay

Here, I'm assuming that your color palette is made of 10 colors. Adjust if necessary.

Cover the interior of the box with a thin (about 3mm or 1/4") layer of Fimo. Once you've covered the interior of the box with Fimo, split it in 10 equal parts using strips of fimo. I started by laying a strip lengthwise in the middle of the tin, separating the interior in 2 long compartments. Then, I put four equally-spaced strips of clay to split each half-tray in 5. Do the same for the second half-tray.

Once you're done, you should have 10 compartments of roughly equal size. Don't hesitate to play around with the clay to make sure that the compartments have the same size. It's also important to make sure that the surface is as smooth as possible. It doesn't need to be perfect, but the nicer it is, the better it will perform. Make sure that there aren't any cracks in your construction. The walls you build need to be wider at the bottom and narrower. This will make nice cup-like compartments to hold the paint.

Make sure that you leave enough room on top of the compartments to fit the plastic mixing plate when you close the tin.

Sorry, I don't have any pictures of the building of the interior of the compartment. It's simple enough, this shouldn't cause a problem and you can look at the final result pictures to get the idea.

Step 4: Bake the Fimo Clay

Picture of Bake the Fimo Clay

Following the instructions on the package, bake the clay.

In my case, this was half an hour at 265ºF. Yours might be different.

I let it in a few minutes longer, just to be on the safe side. Don't exceed the recommended temperature.

What this does is cure the clay and turn it into a solid piece of polymer plastic. I am not a chemist, but that's my understanding of it.

I used my toaster oven and took it in the basement and opened the windows. I wanted to avoid stinking up the house with potentially toxic fumes. It turned out to be OK.

If your tray dividers crack, they are too thin. You can fix that with epoxy glue after the curing process is done and the thing has cooled down.

An optional step is to apply glossy lacker to protect the clay. It will also make the surface shinier and smoother. I didn't do it and so far, all is good.

Step 5: Transfer the Paint Into the Tray Compartments

Picture of Transfer the Paint Into the Tray Compartments

There are many kinds of watercolor paints. Some are baked into little cakes, some are in the shape of crayons. The ones that interest us here are the watercolors that come in liquid form, in little (expensive) tubes.

The tubes I got were "Holbein Artists' watercolor". These go for about 5$ (or more fore rarer pigments) for a 5ml tube. Expensive. They are decent quality paints though, and I was told they were the "sweet spot" in terms of bang for the buck. If you want to go for cheaper paints, by all means, do so. You can get similar tubes for about 2$ each. You can also get similar tubes for 10$ each, or even 20$ each. Ultimately, it's your call.

Disclaimer: these paints contain various toxic products, which when handled with care, don't pose any danger. These paints are not formulated to be used by children, and should be handled with care.

I decided that 10 colors were enough and I could basically do anything I wanted with them. I chose these. Feel free to use this selection, but bear in mind that my choice is extremely subjective.

I chose 6 primaries (two reds, two yellows and two blues), a secondary (green - because our eyes are very sensible in those wavelengths) and three neutrals:

- Cadnium Yellow (a warm sun-like yellow)
- Gamboge Nova (a.k.a. indian yellow, a yellowish orange)
- Cadnium Red Deep (a firetruck-like red)
- Cadnium Red Purple (somewhat colder than the previous one)
- Raw Umber (a brownish earth tone)
- Hooker's Green (to my eyes, very close to phtalo green - one wonders how that color got it's name)
- Cerulean Blue (sky blue)
- Ultramarine Deep (a darker, colder blue - think bottom of the ocean)
- Payne's grey (a cold bluish gray - If I had to choose a single color, this would be it)
- Burnt umber (a dark earth tone)

How to transfer the paint to the tray:
- To each tray section, one color.
- Squeeze a small bead (about 10% of the tube) into the section. That should be more than enough.
- Add a few drops of water (5-10 drops) to the paint bead.
- using a clean toothpick, mix the water and paint until it forms a thick, uniform liquid of even density, if after mixing it up for a minute it doesn't male a puddle that "flattens", add a few drops of water and keep mixing. When you're done, the toothpick's tip should be barely covered with paint when you remove it from the color mix. If youstill have lumps of paint on it, you're not done or your mix doesn't contain enough water.
- Repeat for each of color.

Step 6: Wait

Picture of Wait

The paint need to dry.

Don't worry, unlike acrylic paint, watercolor paint is revived with water.

Once you're done, you'll have something that looks like the picture.

Step 7: Done!

Picture of Done!

We're done.

That wasn't so complicated, wasn't it?

The nice thing is that we saved money and have better quality paints (and/or more of it) than if we would have bought ready-made boxes. This kit is also smaller than the ones available on th market.

How to use
- Take out a sheet of watercolor paper
- Use a waterbrush (I have a Bienfang watercolor brush (the one with no ink in it, just water)
- Paint!

This is my complete portable watercolor kit:
- My pocket-size Altoids color box
- My pocket-size Moleskine watercolor notebook (the small one)
- Waterbrush (you can also use a pocket-sized brush or a cut-down regular brush with a separate supply of water - I prefer the all-in one option)
- 4H pencil (the older the smaller!)
- Micron pens (or any other waterproof, archival quality ink pen) (this is optional, depending on your painting style)
- A few facial tissues will be useful to clean up when you're done (or pick up excess water on the your paintings).



cyatic (author)2016-02-03

This is just a response to some people about paint cracking. I use American Journey Watercolors the I buy from Cheap Joe's. They are proffesional quality, come in big tubes if you like (37ml), and are very, very affordable. When I put them on my pallet they are very creamy looking and thick. They sat in it for a month without use. I touched the paint with my finger and they feel like hard polymer clay, not rock hard, but you can press down into it. Anyway, I don't work for Joe's, I just thought people here would like this paint. They're always on sale too! Love 'em!

mason0190 (author)2008-06-23

Cut the brush in half and you can keep it in the tin : D

ellsswhere (author)mason01902008-12-08

Nice idea but its a warterbrush... the stem of the brush is filled with water, cutting it in half is not a good idea. yaknow I have run out of water before when carrying a larger sketchbook, we need an instructable which shows some easy method of carrying more water, like a bladder in another altoid tin.

jpmartineau (author)ellsswhere2008-12-08

I've cut mine and it probably keeps 2/3 of the water it used to do. I always have a water bottle on me, so it's not an issue.

ellsswhere (author)jpmartineau2008-12-08

really? how did you seal the severed end... glue or tape? My only concern would be having a brush that is too short to hold comfortably, how does it feel in your hand? Also I carry a bottle with me most of the time as well I just hate contaminating my water, and its awkward trying to fill it when you get to the bottom of the bottle. by the by just made my box with sculpey, works perfectly thanks

mgray2 (author)ellsswhere2015-11-13

I chopped a couple of water brushes and melted/fused the bottom together. I used a cheap hair straightening iron. Of course, the water brush has to be dry.

jpmartineau (author)ellsswhere2008-12-08

I chopped the handle about an inch from the end, removed about another inch or two, and reinserted the end inside the handle, so it "caps" it from the interior. I it with 10 minute epoxy. It holds well in my hand, but your mileage may vary.

KristinB8 (author)2015-10-17

Hi! I saw a video on Facebook of someone making a travel kit. They used the neocolor water color crayons. They rubbed them onto paper, however much they wanted of each color. You can get it built up pretty good. Then they protected top with wax paper. Seemed cool. Hope this helps.

ATLupton made it! (author)2015-04-15

Hey, I gave this a try! I've wanted a travel watercolor set for awhile now. Molding the 'Sculpy' polymer clay into the tin was kind of fun. I fired it in the oven per the package instructions (I think that was 375 degrees F, and 30 minutes). After is cooled I filled each well with a dab of watercolor paint. To speed up the drying process I put the tin in the toaster oven for a few seconds... but I didn't notice the toaster dial got stuck in the "on" position. Ugh! It got a little over-toasty, but I was able to clean it up, reshape the tin, put in new paints, and 'voila'.... I think it turned out pretty good. First pic is the toaster disaster, second pic is after cleaning it up ;)

Nightauel (author)2014-08-24

I haven't done this yet, but I saw a tin done today using Dentyne "ICE" gum trays for the paint. A tray of six individual wells fits nicely into the tin, and you can fit two trays if you stack them and don't put anything else in the tin. Also, KILZ makes primers for all kinds of applications including this one. If you prime the tin with KILZ you can follow with any treatment you want including acrylic paint. Great info about the glycerin, and if you have any left over, you can add some water and blow giant bubbles that last for several minutes, for inspiration.

paappraiser (author)2013-10-20

Great job--- I do this similarly with a Altoids tin.. , but just paint the inside of the tin white and let the paint go in blobs. No filler to separate them. Hint..Wet the pallet 1 hour with a few drops before use, will make the colors richer (instead of jamming your brush into dry colors) . A drop of Glycerin mixed in with the paint keeps them moist.

TheArtyMusician (author)2013-06-24

Hi, can you use Fimo to make the mixing palette on the tin cover? And also, how much does the Fimo shrink after you bake it? Great Instructable BTW, best I've read on the subject ;)

spystealth1 (author)2012-03-20

You could probably use Sugru instead as the paint might wash out better when you want to change colors and you wouldn't have to bake it.

RaNDoMLeiGH (author)2012-02-10

I really love this idea. I wouldn't have thought to use Fimo for the wells! Cool!

I also have one of those snooty Windsor and Newton travel things, got it with a 40% off coupon and birthday money a couple years ago. I use it sometimes at IHOP, hanging out with friends, making those little "artist trading card" size paintings. But this is way cooler.

I'm going to make a couple of these "kits", so when my buddies snicker at me, I'll pull out a tin for them and tell 'em to get cracking on their own ATC. I could even keep them in the glove box of the car for those spontaneous moments where you just have to paint something.

For those asking about rejuvenating dried out tube colors - I have two different types, Sakura Koi and Pentech, some of which dried out in the tube.

I got some empty plastic "jars" - the type that come attached to each other on a strip, the sort that come with paint-by-numbers kits. I cut up the metal tubes and mashed up the dried paint until it  fell apart into smallish chunks. Then I put it into the jar and taped the label to it.

One of my professionally arty friends said if I add just a drop or two of linseed oil it will soften it back up.

I like the idea of glycerine better (as someone suggested)... but in both brands' case, just using water was enough to bring it back to life. In a couple of instances -depended on the color- I had to work it a bit or to let it sit for a few minutes to soften up, but these were long-dried-out hard little lumps. Sakura Koi, a higher quality brand than Pentech, worked up a lot faster. The Pentech type took rather a while to soften but then it had also been dried up a lot longer. (Yeah I should have just tossed them all, but hey, it's watercolor, it should work even when dry, right? And the Sakura Koi was expensive.)

With the Altoid case method, where it's just enough paint to get you through a few paintings, just swiping it with water in the usual way would work just fine.

As to carrying the water... I often need water on the road (makeup jobs, etc). I use either contact lens saline solution (comes in a big bottle, cheap), or refill said bottle with distilled water and enough vodka to preserve it.

If you wanted a palette you could conceivably make one with fimo as well, sealing it with nail varnish or polyurethane, or put in a bit of plastic that fits in the lid if you have it to hand and don't want to spray paint. I use styrofoam plates when I do acrylic, but when I do watercolors I like separate wells. But you can just use a piece of silicone parchment paper (or two or three, they'll easily fit in the lid).

Such a cool idea - thanks!!

Mutantflame (author)2011-10-09

I made something like this a while back, and it really works well and catches peoples attention. I don't know how many times I had to explain how it was made...

Also, I used something called milliput, it is like fimo but does not need baking, and is quite a bit cheaper.

Good instructable!

artbox (author)2010-10-13

Cool! Thnx a lot!

jesebsp (author)2010-08-29

i recently took a water color class and thought about doing this. i have a lot of tins. i cover them with polymer clay. takes up less room than the tray i have (same one you show in this instruction).

BitternBright (author)2008-04-02

Another option on the lid-palette? If you take a pair of needle-nose pliers you can actually pry back the metal prongs holding the lid to the container, spray the lid seperately and then put it back on after it dries.

peapeam (author)BitternBright2010-08-21

When I have spray painted metal, I always heat my oven to 100 degrees Celsius, put the item in the oven, then let it sit until the oven is cold (or over night). That leaves a real nice and durable surface (don't know the word in English, directly translated we call it "hot-painted", like you normally have to have professionals with special hot painting chambers to do). Even did that to the top plate on a high end (custom built) amplifier I used to have, as the top plate was just thick steel, while the front was nice and black. I used matte spray paint like you use on cars (on the part at the bottom of the car, between the wheels) and it produced an unbelievably beautiful surface. You would never know it was painted at home by somebody who had never done it before. Since that I've been sold on that method, it just works so great! I think that method makes a much more durable surface than when you just spray paint it, a surface much less likely to peel as it is used over time.

Yeah, good idea although I've always been reluctant to bend 'white iron" (don't know how it's called in english, sorry) as it's likely to break. Maybe with a little practice!

gheezi (author)2010-03-25

the atloid box is a great idea.  i use the lid as a mixing area.  it rusted. i customized mine a bit, and painted the inside of the lid with hard as nails clear nail polish.  most important.....clean off the lid of any oily residue from the sculpy before baking, cool, and generously coat the inside  lid.

Wolfgang8810 (author)2010-03-14

When mixing the colors how do you avoid contaminating the other colors with only one brush? Or is it not really a concern?


Oooh! This is such an obvious idea, and yet it kind of isn't. Well, now I gotta buy another altoids can because I've already planned something for the one I'm about to finish. Either I'll keep it for myself, or give it to one of my little cousins.

That's the thing with those tins, they're always mysteriously disappearing. I only have one left... They're actually quite hard to find where I live (yet another thing that's hard to find). Anyone know where I can get some Altoids in Montreal? I know a place where they have the Willy Wonka (Sweet Tarts) tins but those are A) ugly, B) slightly larger than the Atoids, and C) I don't like the candy! I could always mail order, but that would be kind of ridiculous.

anabel.khoo (author)jpmartineau2009-09-23

hi ! i am also living in montreal. did you ever find out where to find those rectangular altoids tins in montreal? also, where is the place that sells the Sweet Tarts tins? thanks!! anabel

jpmartineau (author)anabel.khoo2009-09-23

Altoids: no luck so far. I get what I need when I cross the border. The Sweet Tarts, I got at the Petro-Canada at the corner of L'Acadie and Sauvé. Size is pretty much the same, only slightly larger.

Frohickey (author)2009-06-25

I've been told that a drop of glycerin mixed to each colour in it's compartment will prevent it from drying to a hard surface. (when the untreated watercolour from a tube is allowed to dry, especially cheaper brands, it gets very hard and is difficult to dissolve with your brush and can damage it).

tracyherrity (author)2009-05-09

This idea is fantastic! Do you think it would work for gouache? I use both tubes and cake form but taking the tubes out and about can be quite messy. as they mix like watercolours I am wondering wether to try this,has any one else?

rtischio (author)2008-12-11

i am making this for my wife for xmas. i mixed the colors and when they dried some of them cracked. is that normal? if not is it really going to effect the way the paint "paints"? i am not a painter so i have no idea if i screwed it up or not.

lozartist (author)rtischio2009-04-11

I've had this same problem with watercolors before. The cracking is due to the paints being lower quality. Any "watercolor Kit" that cost 5 bucks from AC Moor or Michael's will crack and fall apart after a while. The better quality paint won't crack.

jpmartineau (author)rtischio2008-12-11

I used tube watercolors and it dried sort of "plasticky", but it didn't crack. Did you use tube colors, or cakes? Maybe someone else will know the answer.

rtischio (author)jpmartineau2008-12-11

i used tubes and mixed them with a little bit of water like the i'ble said.

angelcj (author)2008-11-05

methinks it might just be easier to lay a big chunk in the middle, and use the end of something square-ish to imprint compartments in the clay. They'd be more uniform at least. That's what I'm going to try, I'll tell you how it turns out.

snuzzle (author)2008-10-31

So awesome! I always keep a mini sketch pad in my purse, for when the urge/inspiration strikes, but this is incredibly awesome! I plan on doing this asap!

pyromomma (author)2008-10-19

What an excellent mind-shift using Fimo clay! Your idea opens all sorts of possiblilties for things that need compartments in Altoids tins. Thank you!

Also, regarding the brushes tip, I have been using water-brushes for several years (and paying dearly for them) - So I will add your tip to the related Instructable on how to make your own inexpensive waterbrush
I will make one of your watercolor tins for my next international trip (we do not check luggage, so small is better) and include a waterbrush and watercolor board cut into postcard shapes (another very cool instructable at

I will include some painters tape wrapped on a tiny fine-tipped marker (got one for $1 next to the cash register at my local grocery store- it is only 2 inches long) and I can tape the card down, use the marker to make fineline and details or write home, and it should all fit in a quart ziplock with room to spare.

Travel Art in a Baggie! I love it!!
Makes me want to go make plane reservations right now!

Thank you for such a fine fine FINE idea!

Favorited and plussed (wish that I could Plus Plus Plus it!)

(hmm, now what else needs small compartments in an Altoids tin?........)

residentevil5 (author)2008-10-10


mackeystudio (author)2008-08-26

Using baked-clay to make compartments is genius, and has infinite potential for customizing the inside of an Altoid tin. Thank you for this!!!

Commercial "travel paint kits" are expensive and tend to contain poor-quality art supplies. You get what you pay for in artist's materials, so using your idea I can now take my good paint in my choice of colors with me. (I plan to rubberband a paintbrush to the outside of the tin. Clumsy girl that I am, I've snapped many EXPENSIVE brushes over the years - by mistake of course! I never threw them out since the brush end is what matters; still good quality, just with short, splintered handles! Now I can call them portable!)

Acrylic painters could use this too. Most know to keep their paint moist by misting it with water even as they are painting. A misting of clean water on the paints, then some cling-wrap over the compartments prior to closing the lid will last at least a few days. Putting the container in the fridge will keep acrylic paints wet longer. And the idea would be to use up the paint they've put in their tin, not store it forever. Acrylic painters know that if they leave their palette of paint unused too long, even when sealed, that the paint becomes little colorful plastic blob-sculptures :)

This was a brilliant idea and you did a great job creating this Instructable to share with the world!

dunnos (author)2008-04-19

hey dude very nice instructable! one question: can i use an old water color box as a paint source? and if so how should i transfer it? keep it up! Dunnos

jpmartineau (author)dunnos2008-04-19

If you've got watercolor in cake form, you're better off keeping it like that. Maybe you can figure out how to fit the cakes in the altoids tin and make sure they stay put. Some people use double-sided sticky tape or plastic moulding to hold their half-pans in place.

dunnos (author)jpmartineau2008-04-20

cant i dissolve them in water and pour that into my box then w8 ( i dont really care about time) a long time for it to dry would that be a good idea?

kitsuken (author)dunnos2008-05-23

Really wouldn't advise that, you'd pretty mure remove the binding agent from the paint. It might go into a solid form again, but it would be much lower quality. I'd recommend what Jpmartineau said and try to alter the instructable a little so that the tin can take the cake versions. Here's a quick idea on what might work for that: Put the palette into the lid as shown Put a thin layer of Fimo on the bottom of the tim Wrap the cakes of paint in plastic wrap (the stuff used for wrapping sandwiches) Embed the paints into the clay in the rough layout you want Use the clingfilm to pull the paint back out Build up the raised areas in the fimo to make the sections Test the paint still fits properly (still in the clingfilm) Bake and then glaze the fimo (glaze makes it non-porous, so doesn't absorb paint) Take paints out of clingfilm and insert into the completed slots. Little more complicated than Jpmartineau's, but it should do the job for you

PPWEUBTBT? You need to work on your acrostic!

sorry, couldn't help it.

jpmartineau (author)dunnos2008-04-20

Cou can surely do that, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. I'd ask around on more specialized forums...

dunnos (author)jpmartineau2008-04-20

ok, thanks for your help

threecheersfornick (author)2008-07-02

I love it, but I can't help but think that it would be easier to just tuck your fave colour tubes into the tin and then mix them on the lid.

mason0190 (author)2008-06-23

i would fimo the tray in 2 one for rinsing and one for mixing. You want to clean your brush in clear water

marymcandrew (author)2008-06-02

This looks great! I also played around with an Altoids tin after seeing another outdoor artist do it, but she only put three colors in! NOT enough for me to play with! I popped the small metal pans out of old watercolor sets...kept the colors I liked, and re-filled the ones I didn't like with tube colors. I attached them into the pan with "Blue Tack" or Sticky tack...amazing stuff. So I can remove or change them at anytime. I'll put pics up on my nature sketching blog when I have a chance. oh yes, I didn't bother to coat my lid, it's just fine the way it is, the steel color isn't bothersome at all.

XaiofDren (author)2008-05-28

This is an interesting instructable and creative idea. However,
Don't worry, unlike acrylic paint, watercolor paint is revived with water.? So acrylics are one use only, basically?

jpmartineau (author)XaiofDren2008-05-28

Well, acrylic paint dries to become waterproof. Once the water contained in it evaporates, the paint cannot be "re-liquified". I have no idea why or how that happens. My theory is that water molecules prevent polymers present in the paint from bonding together. Once the water is gone, the polymer chains form and you cannot break them with water. Pulled that out of my arse, but it dows make sense.

kitsuken (author)2008-05-23

While I'm not planning on trying this myself (I actually have one of those over priced paint boxes you get in art stores :p) this has reminded me that I was going to spend some time doing plein air sketches in watercolour this summer, so thanks for the reminder (of that and the brush pen, forgot about those)

About This Instructable




Bio: Self-employer Software Developer in Montreal, QC. I am mainly interested in interesting topics, although some exceptions are known to exist.
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