Introduction: Paper Cut Shadow Box

Picture of Paper Cut Shadow Box

Inspired by Hari & Deepti, my friend and I decided to make a romantic Zelda + Link paper cut shadow box (silhouette box? back lit box? whatever these things are called) for a neato personal birthday present! (Also makes a perfect wedding gift.) Mounted on a wall, or sitting on a desk, it provides a fair amount of glow and looks pretty cool too.

Basically, paper cut-outs are layered on each other in a box with a glass frame. A light source goes behind the cut outs, and makes each layer glow. Generally, the more layers, the cooler the effect! I'll show how I made this shadow box, providing tips here and there. Feel free to give some input and tips (first instructable).

(This instructable may involve sharp tools, nails and hot glue. If you're underage, this is a great project to do with your parents.)
Let's get started!

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

Here's what you may need (be creative!):

  1. Ruler
  2. Cutting device (box cutter, exacto knife, laser cutter... etc. Make sure it's sharp and precise, unless you don't care about torn edges!)
  3. Pencil
  4. Eraser
  5. Blue tape/lint roller (to pick up on any stray lint/pet hair)

Paper Cutouts:

  1. Foam paper (for spacers)
  2. White card stock paper *
  3. Tracing/carbon paper (or a printer)
  4. Tissue paper (for water layers)
  5. Laminating sheets (orstiffening agent for tissue paper)


  1. A Glass/plastic panel (ie. picture frame, plexiglass, etc)
  2. Wood
  3. Wood Glue
  4. Decorative paper/spray paint
  5. Sandpaper
  6. Hot Glue/Sealant (optional)
  7. Clamps (optional)
  8. Nails/screws
  9. Picture mounting kit (if hanging)
  10. Bubble level (optional) (app: ipad/android)


  1. LED strip lights*** (White /RGB)
  2. Power adapter
  3. Twisty ties/ string
  4. Wall hook/hanging device (eg. staples, hooks, bent nails, etc)

A few things to consider:

*Type of cardstock

Different paper weights and surface textures give off slightly different effects. You might end up weirdo-creeping, but experiment by shining a light behind papers! If you can't (or won't), get anything stiff enough to keep a shape, like poster paper or Strathmore 400 Series Mixed Media Pads (unjust comparison shown in pic).

**Box size

We wanted something large for a bare wall, like a 11x14 inch photo frame. We had to make it from scratch. You can always buy pre-made boxes, like shadow boxes!

***Type of lighting

You may or may not want multiple colors (eg. multi-color LEDs can make a noticeable difference when you're attempting white, because 3 separate colors combine to produce white. Makes a neat aurora borealis/rainbow though!). Brighter lights may also make for a more uniform light.

Step 2: Outline

Picture of Outline

1. Draw an outline of all the layers you plan on having, based on the size you want (eg. 11x14").

Add a border (~0.5") on each layer. No important details near the border, unless you don't mind it hidden away.

You can use an art program (and print/laser cut each layer onto card stock). ...Or you can be cheap like me! Draw the outline in one layer, manually. (And make mistakes with a pen.)

2. Number each layer on the outline for easy reference.


1. For the water (layer #9 & #6), use a thin weight paper; papers like tracing/tissue lets you see the back layers better! Reinforce the shape with laminate paper/tape/something.

2. Be mindful of your overlapping layers! Light will still somewhat shine through the card stock, but more overlap means less light shining through, so you can see the layers:

    • (yellow-ish pic, layers 11 & 12) A dark outline appears between the bunny cloud and the cloud behind it.
    • (white-ish pic, layers 5 & 4) The cliff shows behind the girl.
    • (white or yellow pic, layers 1 & 2/3) The back tree layer's leaves were cut out to give more depth(?) to the tree.

    3. Consider the number of layers you're working with. Foam board makes each layer ~3/16" thick, and we lazily settled with 12 layers (2.5 inches total). More layers give more depth into your box, but same some space (maybe 1"+) for your lights!

    Step 3: Paper Layers

    Picture of Paper Layers

    1. Print (or trace out each layer with your tracing paper) onto your card stock/tissue paper. Number each layer to your outline along some inconspicuous border.

    2. Cut out each layer (don't forget about the borders!)

    When cutting (for blades like exacto knives), aim for one deep, clean pass for a spot (with extra scrap paper padding underneath). Using dull blades or trying to pull off parts that aren't completely cut can result in some ugly fuzzy tears. Especially for lots of layers, you might want to wrap some cloth/paper around the grip of your cutting device. ...It can get painful.

    3. Cut out all your foam spacer bits (4 squares and 4 bars for the corners and sides of each paper layer)

    4. Stick spacers to sides and corners of each layer (if you have a water layer like #8 and can't add spacers everywhere, add an additional bit of foam on top of the layer next to it.) Now you have your layers!

    Step 4: Box (Optional)

    Picture of Box (Optional)

    If you bought a box, good for you! Skip to the next step.

    If you wanted to make a box, read on. (Or not, ha. A better box could have been made, like a sliding box, minus the fancy gadgetry, for easy fixing of inside contents)

    1. Measure the thickness of your paper layers, plus about 1+ inch room for lights, picture frame (we decided on the glass picture frame) and backing. This is the depth of the box. (3" would work for our box, but we were lazy, and used the entire 4" board. In hindsight, it probably would have been more useful to save the extra for the framing/backing of the box...)

    2. Measure the length and width of your frame. Measure out the thickness of the wood, and add that to your length and width measurements. (Eg. the picture frame was 11x14". The wood was super thin--1/8" (0.125"). So, we had 11.125" x 4" (x2) and 14.125" x 4" (x2) boards.) The back panel of the box is just the length so 14" x 4" for us (you can add a little extra and shave off excess later, just in case it turns out too small for some reason).

    (if our wood were thicker, I'd probably cut box joints and suffer from trying to cut and fit them by hand, ha)

    3. Cut out the pieces (5 total), and wood glue the sides of the box together, minus the back panel (4 pieces). Clamp sides together, or if you don't have a clamp like us, tape it, and cross your fingers! Set aside the back panel for the end.

    4. Add in the picture frame/plexiglass (remove picture frame backings, if necessary), and glue it down! We used thick coats, enough to put a seal on every crack and inner corner. We used hot glue, but you're probably better off with something heat resistant, like... epoxy? (in case your lights decide to overheat).

    5. Cut your front frame (we used cardstock, traced the outline of the box, drew a .75" border and cut out the front frame). Glue on the frame. (We had small gap, and added a bit of foam prevent it from sinking in.)

    6. Shave off uneven corners, and sand it all down smooth. Clean off dust, and decorate. (We spray painted. You can always glue paper, try (faux) leathering, etc.)

    Step 5: Assembly & Lights

    Picture of Assembly & Lights

    After you have your box and layers done, it's time to put it all together.

    If you're working with a box with an opening in the back:

    1. Cut two sheets of card stock paper to fit snug inside your box.

    2. Place each of your layers into the box, fix any loose ends, and cover with a snug sheet of card stock.

    3. Arrange your lights to illuminate all the areas you'd like. Since we used RGB LEDs thinking it was cheapo and cool to have multiple colors (which kinda is), we had to deal with spots of reds, greens, and blues everywhere. We distanced the lights to the back of the box to help diffuse the lights, and covered the top portion of LEDs to lower the concentration of rainbow up top. The bundle was tied up with twisty ties, and hung along the sides of the box, with wall hooks.

    4. Cut out a small portion of the box, enough for a hole to slip in the cables to the lights. Cover the back with another snug sheet of card stock. Nail on picture hanging... mounts to the back of the box/back panel (and the panel onto the box, towards the top)

    If you have a box that only opens in the front, hmm. Tie together your arranged layers snug as a bug. Then experiment. >_>;;

    Once you're done, hang it on your wall (the bubble level helps), or on your table. Plug in the lights, and admire your work!


    BensonJr (author)2017-09-25

    This is beautiful. Now I know what to do for my sister's birthday. She has always loved Beauty and the Beast and have been wondering what I'm going to make for her. Now I know. Thanks!

    DianeE16 (author)2017-05-06

    Has anyone tried velum in place of tissue paper? It's pretty stiff, and seems like it'd defuse the reflections in the water pretty well.

    otaku tomboy (author)2016-12-11

    what can be the alternative to using led strips(since im not very much acquainted with it)?

    DianeE16 (author)otaku tomboy2017-05-06

    LED Christmas lights. You can find small, battery powered ones at a craft store or on the Internet.

    BebaL (author)otaku tomboy2017-01-05

    I know I bought Xmas lights at the dollar store described as LED lights.

    mh.khan92 made it! (author)2016-01-30

    I made it too.

    FrancescaC25 (author)mh.khan922017-04-17

    Hi! Where did you find the photo for tracing? Anyway you could post a link?

    mrsurfermike (author)2016-05-20

    I know this is a little late, but I found a YouTube video showing someone
    doing a light box similar to this.And
    in the description the user included a link to where you can download the
    layers that he used.Thought it may be
    of help to others that are not so creatively inclined...myself included.Here's the link to the video:

    Hope it helps.Cheers!

    BismitaD (author)mrsurfermike2016-11-21

    thanks a lot...

    RafaelL36 made it! (author)2016-01-19

    I made beast and the beauty scene as a present for my girlfriend

    DmitriiK1 (author)RafaelL362016-11-09

    Man, have you saved templates or something like that?

    techucation made it! (author)2016-11-04

    I couldn't get a good picture because the glare from the glass of the frame, but thanks for the inspiration!

    QiangkuiW (author)2016-10-23

    Thanks bunbun_da_bunni for sharing your tutorial, this is really helpful. I'm crazy about this art so I had created a fb group(Papercut Light Boxes), If you love it too, plz join us to learn together, you can also get some pattern here.

    our group:

    nagoia1984 (author)2015-08-19

    This is just amazing.. would that be Link and Zelda by any chance? Looks like it.. anyway, congrats!

    ranietsd (author)nagoia19842016-05-31

    Isn't that what is written on the first line below the first picture ?

    baradarkayko (author)2016-04-11

    how to find autocad file layers light box??

    baradarkayko (author)2016-04-11

    how to find autocad file layers light box??

    DevinB16 (author)2016-01-29

    i would LOVE a pattern for this. so i can convert to SVG and use my die cutter.

    VishaliB (author)2016-01-26

    Hi i want to make tajmahal shadow box. Can u guys help me to do

    EmmaW32 (author)2016-01-14

    What did you use to adhere the foam-core board to the cardstock? Would school glue work?

    tracyandrook (author)2015-10-27

    Indalecio, that shadow box is lovely. I don't know the game, so that helps.

    DadNerd made it! (author)2015-09-26

    Awesome instructable btw! I made the lantern seen from Tangled for my wife's birthday. It was a lot of work but she loves it. Ihave to say so do I.

    sla5 made it! (author)2015-09-23

    as a wedding-present for my wife

    KenH14 (author)2015-08-27

    Chain N Sprocket (author)2015-08-19


    kirnex (author)2015-08-19

    This is my new favorite Instructable. This is awesome! I have a brother whose wife is expecting, and I think I have to make a woodland creatures scene for the nursery now. Thanks so much for posting this! that a chinchilla on top of your shadow box? He looks exactly like a chinchilla stuffed animal I made for my daughter when she was little.

    bpark1000 (author)2015-08-18

    Nice effect. One problem I would see having is that the unsupported edges of the paper layers would curl in time, especially with humidity. Perhaps using some sort of thin white plastic would solve this?

    If you used 1/8" acrylic plastic for the layers, each could be edge-lit with different colors, but would be more difficult to cut with hand tools.

    Ghalko (author)2015-08-18

    Awesome. We have a place in our new house that was deep enough for a CRT TV, just think of the layering possibilities. :)

    KimB27 (author)2015-08-18

    @indalecio....your box is amazing! LOL, phrasing....

    Indalecio made it! (author)2015-03-12

    I made it too ! But way more badly than the one you all have made.
    I wanted to try to represent a scene from a video game called Journey, on PS3.
    It's a scene where the main character is gliding on the sand, and the sunlight reveals the beauty of the landscape (wonderful light effects on the sand in the game).

    Unfortunately here, we don't have the same effect, as expected anyway. There are a lots of mistakes, but it was really hard to make because I wanted the character's robe and scarf's icons shiny, like the sand, as they are in the game. And the character is on the very foreground, didn't even realize that once beginning cutting layers... That causes issues for all the 10 layers behind : I needed to make coarse adjustements hopefully we didn't see on the picture...

    As I wasn't satisfied of my work, I didn't finish the box. I just did one in a few minutes to put the layers together more easily, but that's all ! I love your box, and the one from NathanLlo and arctrooper, but here in France, I can't find any box with the A4 Format :( Sorry by the way for my bad english
    Thanks for your veeery nice tutorial :]

    Clive37 (author)Indalecio2015-08-18

    This is awesome!

    Lion Christ (author)Indalecio2015-05-27

    This is incredible!!! Very well done, stop trash talking it :-P

    I do have a question though. The sand... is that just a bunch of tiny holes punched in? Is it all on the same layer? If not, how did you go about each layer? I will definitely be using whatever technique you used on my next shadow box, so please describe how you created the sand in this image. Thank you!

    Indalecio (author)Lion Christ2015-06-02

    Hello and thank you for your nice comment :p

    For the sand, i don't know if I did it the best way, but it's the only one I've found to make the foreground sand shiny.
    It's just like you said :
    There are 3 layers I glued together (The sand and the character) and that makes a thick one. And indeed, I did tiny holes on this, it was a veeeery long task... I got blisters on my hand ! But the main reason I glued them is to have a best result with the sand. First I used only 1 layer for the sand and the character, of course the sand was shiny but there wasn't any depth, it was very poor.
    In order to be shiny, all of the layers behind must be empty/cut (without forget to let the edges) in the continuity of the foreground sand.

    Sorry again for my English !
    But anyway you were right on the way i did so good luck for your next Shadow Box, I can't really wait to see yours !

    Clive37 (author)2015-08-18

    It's amazing, just gorgeous

    3DPrasad (author)2015-08-18

    Very creative and very nicely implemented. :)

    Jfieldcap (author)2015-08-18

    Wow, this is amazing. I've got to make it sometime when I have time. Great job!

    LiveCrafts (author)2015-04-12

    Wow, Amazing!

    babak.nikpour (author)2015-04-11

    Hi, I’m Babak. I came form Iran.

    I just wondering if it’s possible to send me a pattern of them? I really love it.

    I wanted to know if it will be possible to send me Training



    NathanLlo made it! (author)2014-06-22

    I did it! Dear god I did it. xD

    I probably started this two weeks ago with my light board that I made years ago, a 16" by 20" drawing I made of your beautiful scene and an exacto knife wrapped in duct tape. With my extreme excitement I managed to trace out all of my 10 layers in a single day and also cut them out in the following two days.

    The next twelve days were focused on the shadow box. Initially I was going to wimp out and go buy a pre made or custom shadow box from Michaels, but the selection was too small and they didn't really have what I wanted anyway. So I went to Home Depot, picked up some pretty leafy molding, beautiful maple stick lumber and luan. That cost me around $40 (the paper used for the actual art by the way was less than $10). Then after the days of annoying fluctuation between putting in work and being forced to wait for Elmer's glue or paint to dry; today I could attach the LED strips, hang it on a wall and call it done.

    I've been staring at it for the last hour and you're absolutely right; pictures do not do it justice... but I'll post some anyway because I'm so proud of it.

    Oh and I put some LED strips on the back of the shadow box as well to give it a cool ambient glow.

    jsullivan24 (author)NathanLlo2015-03-06

    WOW good job how deep is your box?? Did you follow the Original post about to create box? Is everything glued together? anything you would do different?

    Hà UyênB (author)NathanLlo2015-02-07

    I try to find these patterns but I can't. I wonder if you can send me the pattern for this. Many thanks :)

    NathanLlo (author)Hà UyênB2015-02-07

    I actually re-drew this by free hand and then traced the different layers onto different pieces of poster board.

    wooooah, good job! And, very nice box!

    Daffodilgold (author)2015-03-02

    Could you tell me what foam strips you use for spacers please and also the thickness of them ?

    miglpar (author)2015-02-22

    miglpar (author)2015-02-22

    shanisschuah (author)2015-02-06

    about how many metre of LED strip lights we need for this shadow box?

    kgrindley (author)shanisschuah2015-02-06

    We did one layer of LEDs around the whole box facing inward (we differed from the instructable in this regard). So we ended up using ~1.5m.

    These are the LEDs we purchased:

    kgrindley made it! (author)2015-02-02

    My wife and I loved your 'ible. She decided to try this for an art exchange we do with our friends. Here is the finished product:

    Thanks for showing us how!

    aikramer2 (author)2014-11-15

    This is amazing, I saw this project and the same image came to mind! How did you Asuna's hair? it seems like her ponytail is disconnected to the boarder.

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