Introduction: Glowing Diorama

Just a quick intro how i got the idea for this, if you want to start directly with instructions you can skip this :-)

This year we spent our honeymoon in Japan and had an awesome time there. Also we bought a small beautiful diorama made from paper featuring a scene from the movie "my neighbour Totoro". (Highly recommended! If you ask me it could be the definition of "heart-warming")

When looking through the pictures from our trip i noticed that some had a lot of layers that could be used to make a diorama of my own. Since i work with optics professionally and saw the indoor lighting contest i wanted to combine this with an integrated illumniation. The trick is to not simply create layers of a picture but to get defined glowing areas within these layers. This is achieved with acrylic glass layers within the diorama. Since the light is directed into the small sides of these it can not escape the glass (due to total internal reflection) except for areas which are sanded and therefore scatter the light out of the acrylic.

I hope you will like this insctructable, if you make something based on it let me know!

*just a quick disclaimer: I used a lot of tools and machinery for this but they can be replaced by simpler, more common tools! Also and as always: if you follow this insctrutable you are working on your responsibility, please take care of yourself.*


  • printed pictures of a motive that you like (of course you can use the ones in this insctructable too)
  • acrylic sheets in one or two thicknesses (I used 4mm and 8mm)
  • wooden panels in the same thicknesses
  • some scrap wood for the base
  • small light source, LEDs are recommended (tungsten lamps will become too hot i guess). I used a typical ready to use LED-strip, you will easily find similar types.
  • basic tools (knife, scissors, saw, soldering iron.....)
  • If you have: a laser cutting plotter will help a lot! But you could also cut the acrylic glass and the wood with a fretsaw or (the acryl) with a heated wire. Some types of acryl can also be cut with a jig- or bandsaw. However you should try this with a small test sample first. Most types melt due to heating resulting in a cut that simply melts close again...

Step 1: Prepare Your Pictures

I combined two pictures into one diorama. I love the picture of the forest at Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine and combined it with a street scene from a lady wearing a kimono in Tokyo. The combination might be a bit too cheesy but i wanted to add a bit of a magical moment to the diorama.

So first i had to find layers in the picture and make clear where i wanted to remove parts. Then i used the free and open source software "GIMP" (you can get it at ) to blank out the parts that i wanted to remove at each layer in the diorama. I also played a bit with contrast and brightness but did not change too much.

Of course you could also skip this and simply print the same picture 4-5 times, mark the layers with a pen and cut the parts that should not be seen at this layer.

Step 2: Print and Cut the Pictures

The title of this step almost says it all but there is one important thing: I left a frame on each picture of 5mm width. Since the pictures will be glued between wooden frames later this will give a flat layer between the frames. Else the frames will not be flush fit and you might have difficulties to glue them togheter.

Step 3: Cut the Acrylic Intermediate Layers and the Wooden Frames

Now this step is probably a bit difficult for most to replicate. I used a cutting laser to cut wooden frames and acrylic inlays for these frames. The outside dimensions should fit the dimensions of the pictures. The sides of the frames are 5mm. The frames and acrylic sheets laying in the middle sections of the diorama must be open to the bottom while the foremost one is a real closed frame and the last panel is a closed sheet.

Just an idea for an easier way to reproduce something like this: leave away the wooden frames at first and simply just put square ayrylic plates in between the diorama picture layers. Then build a standard wooden frame for the complete stack or simply paint the top and sides of the diorama to avoid it glowing in all directions (which might also look nice...)

Step 4: Time for Glue

Glue the acrylic sheets into the wooden frames with superglue.

Sorry there is only one picture of this, i had no time for pictures with this glue ;-)

Step 5: Mark and Grind the Acrylic Sheets

Now this can be a bit tricky. Since we want the diorama to glow behind the diorama layers we must mark where to sand the acrylic glass. For this i layed a frame on to a picture layer and marked where the glass is behind the picture. (Leave a lot of space though to the borders of the picture. I ruined one acrylic glass layer by sanding into the visible areas.) Of course you must use a pen that marks can be easily removed afterwards, preferably a water-soluble one.

Then flip the glass to the other side and grind it with a fine sand paper (i used 180 grit, could have been finer)

With this procedure the sanded areas should be directly below the pictures.

Afterwards clean the acrylic sheets thouroughly. (window cleaner works well)

Step 6: Time for Some More Glue!

Glue the pictures to the corresponding frames. (On the sanded side) I used a typical carpenters glue and a brush to get an even layer on the wooden frames. Afterwards i used a sharp knive to trim the edges Then i glued one layer of picture with frame and acrylic glass onto another until the stack was complete. I pressed the complete stack with some old books over night.

Keep in mind that it will be impossible to clean any dust on the sheets later on. Sadly i had some in between the layers that will stay there forever now. $-/

Step 7: Plane the Sides and Give the Wood a Finish.

I protected the front plane with some masking tape and used a razor sharp plane and sanding paper to smoothen the sides. Then i treated the sides and back with oil.

Sadly some dust came in between the layers at this step. I have one acrylic sheet missing in between which i ruined while sanding the picture contours. Therefore there is large opening at the bottom of my diorama. I should have closed it with more tape and earlier.

Step 8: Build a Hollow Base From Scrap Wood

This is very basic. I took a piece of scrap wood and saw and planed it to size to fit the diorama.

Then i used chisels to get a cavity where i can put the LEDs into. This can definitely be done in a nicer way. I am still practicing with chisels and the base got lower in the end than i wanted it to be. Little accident there... well.. it became a bit smaller... :-)

Also i left the back side open for easier access. But now that i see it i cant really explain why, must have been late...

A closed base would definitely look nicer. Maybe i will redo this part some time...

Step 9: Attach the LEDs to the Base and Complete the Wiring

I used superglue to glue the LED-strips in place (the hot glue shown in the pictures didn't hold.

Then i soldered the LED-strips togheter and attached an extension to the LED-power supply. Not shown in the pictures but you will find tons of instructables on LEDs here :-)

Step 10: Complete

Then i glued the base to the diorama, sanded the edges a bit and treated the base with oil.

As always when almost finished: At this point i had some trouble because the power supply of my LEDs was broken and the LEDs would only glow in blue... looked interesting too but not really what i wanted. Fortunately i could get a replacement.

Thats it!! I connected the diorama and switched it on. It is standing on my desk now and I am quite happy with the result, what do you think? I really hope you enjoyed the instructable and the outcome. If you build a glowing diorama yourself please let me know and show it too, that would make me very happy!

Best regards from Germany, Felix

And finally i have some ideas for improvements:

  • do not remove the protective foil of the acrylic until necessary
  • check three times if the acrylic is clean before glueing the parts togheter. I have some ugly smearings which fortunately can only be seen at certain angles and certain light. Still they are bothering me and can not be removed anymore.
  • include the base directly into the wooden frames to avoid a gap betweeen base and diorama
Indoor Lighting Contest

First Prize in the
Indoor Lighting Contest