Introduction: Life Behind Glass. Miniature Biography - Shadow Box Assemblage

About: I am an escapee from modern life, now living by the sea in a forest garden in France. After over 20 years industrial experience, I quit my managerial position to study for a degree in Engineering. That done I …

I was inspired to make this project after having watched Tony Curtis' 'Worlds in a Box' documentary on the most famous Box Assemblage Artist, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). These works, were originally intended to bring 'new worlds' in miniature to Cornell's brother who was confined, through disability, within their New York home. It was this unique assemblage art which created a whole new genre of two and three dimensional collage. These works, also known as memory or shadow boxes, are usually made up of found objects, which are assembled within the confines of a box. Whether static or in 'penny arcade' form, the box and its objects may contain a specific narrative, pay homage to a particular person or pictorially represent a memory or event. To give you an idea, if you do not know of this genre, I include above two examples of Cornell's work. One is perhaps his most famous assemblage, the 'Untitled' Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall' and the other is one of his beautiful parrot boxes.

When a friend invited us to his birthday party and knowing he was a fellow; pallet hoarder, repurposer and dumpster diver, we decided that a pictorial biography of his life and interests within a home-made box, would be something he could appreciate. In the spirit of Cornell we decided to try and make everything from repurposed and/or found objects, or create the items ourselves from basic materials. This included the box itself and the glass.

Step 1: Creating the Compostion & Gathering Materials

One of the aspects of Cornell's work which we already followed and which it is a very useful starting point, is to build up a collage within a temporary home. This can take years or days depending on the subject and materials can be safely stored and catalogued until you are ready to complete the assemblage. For example, we have many on-going boxes, including the chicken one pictured above.

In the case of our friend's gift we only had a limited time before the party and most of our items could be sculpted from clay or created from repurposed materials.


As we had decided on a biography box, we picked out some of the aspects in our friend's life that were both important to him and which we believed would come together artistically in a box. The essence of box assemblage is not to overcrowd the work but to get a flavour of the person, place, event, memory or narrative. This was quite literal in our case, as our friend is a professional baker, who had won prizes with his recipe for a local Norman dish known as La Teurgoule. He is also a passionate DIYer, pallet collector and gardener. He enjoys music and the big outdoors, including hunting and fly fishing.

I am well aware that most people may not be in a position to find and recuperate old glass but for those of you who might be, I will include details of what I did. I also used several of my home-made tools to prepare the wood. I will include links to these at the end of the project.


A Shadow Box can be bought ready-made and if you are thinking of making these up as gifts then this might be a good idea, as you may be pushed for time to get them ready for Thanksgiving or Christmas but if you want to have a go at DIY

For the box:

For the Contents:

Step 2: Using Old Glass, Choosing & Preparing the Wood


In our box design we incorporated glass from windows we source from a local joiner. Much of this collection has been used to glaze our house and make greenhouses. In the older windows, the glass contains imperfections of manufacture, ripples and bubbles, features which only add to its appeal for use in artistic projects. This does however, make it more difficult to cut, so in the true spirit of Box Assemblage, the size of the glass dictates the size of the box and thus creates the restrictions of the 'world' in which to assemble the found objects. As previously mentioned, assemblages are often on-going projects, so starting with the glass and then slowly building up a collection can make for an organic process and a very satisfying final effect. Similarly, we incorporated a hinged lid, which could allow for opening and adding to the project. However, I do have a tip on cutting old glass successfully and I will link to that at the end of this 'ible, for anyone who is interested.


Unless you are using inhouse pallets, which are not stamped but for which you will need to talk to your providers, all other pallets are stamped to identify provenance and treatment. I only ever use HT stamped pallets - this means they have been heat treated and are suitable for your projects. In the above illustration you will also see the Characters 'DB' before the 'HT', this means the pallet has been partially 'debarked', which is a process by which most of the bark is removed by cutting tools to avoid the transference of bark-living larvae, including those of the aptly named bark beetle.


Select planks of the same thickness, which are the best looking and the least damaged. For the back of the box we used some tongue and groove, which had been thrown out at one of our neighbouring DIY stores but pallet wood would be fine. Some of the pallet wood I had selected for its appearance was warped, which is quite a common occurrence with pallets.

I started by planing the upper and lower faces of the pallet wood plank. Once I had the smooth planed face of the wood, I could then proceed to deal with the warped edges.

I attached a straight edge to the planks and ran them through my home-made router table. The straight edge ran along a guide after which I could then remove the straight edge, turn the plank over and use the new straightened edge of the plank against the guide to repeat the process on the other edge.

Step 3: Construction


This was a very simple and easy design, accomplished by just joining the wood of the box frame face to face aka a butt joint. This type of joint is suitable for use when you are attaching a backing to a piece and thus giving it additional strength.

The walls were thus assembled using butt joints, glued and nailed. The rear face of tongue and groove can be tacked or stapled in place thus reinforcing and stiffening the structure.

I fitted two recuperated hinges and a catch fashioned from a piece of wood and the box was ready for its lid.


I removed the glass from the recuperated window and cleaned the putty from the edges with a sharp knife.

On measuring the glass thickness, I found that my circular saw would cut a groove of adequate width to fit. I then cut the groove in two of the planed planks and then cut strips from them to make the frame components.

The sawn edge of the grooved strips was 'cleaned' using the router.

The strips were cut to length to fit the glass and I decided to have mitred (picture frame) corners, so I used my home-made hand sander to tidy up the cut ends. (link at end of 'ible).

The frame was glued together around the glass and I used a frame clamp to hold everything together whilst it dried.

Step 4: Making the Miniatures

For the Box Assemblage we used our found objects, plus I fabricated certain other miniatures from scrap metal, pallet and fruit-crate wood and bamboo. These included our friend's hunting gun, fishing rod, spade and fork.

I also constructed a miniature pallet from fruit crate wood.

We made miniature items in modelling clay, which were then painted. These included flower pots, a plaque with a prize trout, a fishing basket complete with a fish, croissants and baguettes. Some of them were made from clay sections which were firstly rolled like pastry and cut to shape. The basket for example was formed from three pieces of flat clay, which were then scored with a knife to look like the basket had been woven. The croissants were made from flattened out clay, cut into triangles and then rolled up like real crescent rolls. Other miniatures, like the dog, teurgoule and fish were sculpted.

Our friend's hunting dog was the hardest of all the items as it is a strange, crazy but essentially loyal companion and work dog but even our friend couldn't call it photogenic, so we decided to make a cartoon version of it which embraced all his best features!

Step 5: Assemblage

The whole idea was to create an amusing, eclectic composition with a dash of surrealism.

The assemblage was first planned and then finally glued with hot melt adhesive onto the back wall of the box, which had been lined with carefully selected papers cut from magazines and sheet music, which reflected our friend's tastes.

We had a great time making all this and it was really well received as a gift. Our friend was particularly touched that we had taken the time to hand-craft all the items and even included his famous secret winning recipe in its traditional earthenware pot and complete with winner's rosette.

I also include another couple of examples of assemblage boxes we have made for our house. The great thing about assemblage is that it can be read on various levels, as each item has a memory which is linked to an event or voyage or aspect of our lives, whereas to others these boxes may be purely decorative.


DIY Hand Sander

DIY Router Table

Cutting Old Glass

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