Fantastic Butterflies and How to Display Them




The Victorians loved nature, particularly when it had been killed and put in a display case. One of the more colourful (colorful) manifestations of this was the display of butterflies in wall-mounted frames.

They look lovely, but the butterflies move too fast for a lazy person to catch, and it's probably not the right season to find good specimens [1] so I decided to go with the "fake" option.

I was inspired to make this by this 'ible by Insolitis. Their design looked great, but was dependent on finding plastic butterflies, which wasn't an easy option. When I was in the local $2 Shop (probably a dollar store in the US) I saw a toy which included some small (3"/80mm) plastic aircraft, including one which was obviously meant to be the old F117, known as the Nighthawk. I thought that there was a butterfly called a nighthawk (there isn't, but never mind) and so this project was born.

To make this, you will need some scrap wood to make the box, plus an armful of junk from the corner store:-
small (6"x8", 150mmx200mm) photograph frame (MDF or wood)
bright paints
even brighter glitter
positively tasteful (in comparison) craft feathers
small plastic model aircraft

I used basic woodworking tools and primer and paint for the woodwork.

[1] Probably. If I can't be bothered to chase real butterflies, I can't be bothered to find this out either.

Step 1: Prepare the Model Planes

The toy consisted of six small plastic planes and two plastic devices which used rubber bands to roll the planes along the ground.

The wheels on the planes were removed by levering them out of their housings as shown in photograph 3 above.

The housings were then removed. They can be snipped off with edge-cutters as shown in the fourth photograph, or pared off with a craft knife as shown in the fifth.

The sixth picture shows the profile of a plane once the undercarriage was removed.

Then I took a small scrap of fine (320 grit) sandpaper and roughened the surface of the plastic to give the primer something to key onto. The tin of primer which I used said that the primer would cover anything smaller than 240 grit, so the marks left should not be seen.

I lined all the planes (and the two launchers) up on some old newspapers and gave them a coat of an etching primer. This was recommended to me in the hardware store as being the right stuff, despite not mentioning plastic anywhere in the small print on the can. It looked well dodgy while it was wet, but proved to be excellent.

As a tip, use a bent paperclip or thin piece of wire to move the wet planes onto a clean area of newspaper to dry. this will prevent them sticking to the painted backdrop.

Once the paint has dried, turn the planes over and repeat, so that all surfaces are a nice subdued grey.

Step 2: Prepare the Frame

The photograph frame was designed to hold a thin photograph pressed against the glass and to stand up on a flat surface.

The standing leg was removed by pulling it. Not great quality, but what do you expect for a couple of bucks.

The back panel was held in by four slim pieces of steel which had been pushed end-first into the MDF of the frame.

They had to be removed before taking the back off, and were just pulled out using a pair of fine-nosed pliers as shown in the second picture.

To hold the glass tight against the front of the frame while there was a void behind it to hold the butterflies meant that the metal tags had to pressed into the MDF while they were actually in contact with the glass as shown in the fourth and fifth photographs above. This requires a lot of care to prevent cracking the glass, but I got lucky.

Since the end of the metal tags might be visible from the front, they had to be pushed deep into the MDF to ensure they were concealed by the lip of the front of the frame.

Step 3: Build the Box

The tools and materials are shown in the first photograph.

I measured how high the largest plane was while lying flat, added a margin to that, and then made the happy discovery that I had a strip of scrap 1/4 (6mm) plywood just about that width.

I cut four strips which would conform to the size of the frame. The size was kind of critical, as too big would show around the edge of the frame when it was hanging on the wall and be visually obtrusive, while too small would impinge on the inside of the frame and detract from the butterflies.

The four sides were put together with 1" screws (25mm) and then the back of the box was cut to size.

About that time, I realised that since the thing was going to be painted there was no need to use nice plywood for the back, so I swapped the hardwood ply which had been intended for a piece of real junk (which i think came from packing material. This was glued on top of the frame, and held in place with panel pins.

To provide a standoff for the labels identifying the butterflies, I cut a couple of small blocks of MDF and glued/screwed them to the inside of the box in an appropriate place.

Step 4: Finish the Box

Once the glue from the previous step had cured, I sanded the outsides of the box with 80 and then 150 grit paper to get it "smooth enough."

I drove four small screws a little way into the front face of the frame to allow me to stand the box on their heads while the paint dried.

The inside surface was primed and then the box was laid face-down on the workbench supported on the screws while the outside surface was primed.

Once the primer was dry, the inside of the box was painted a matt black (this was a mistake, see the last step for details).

The outside was painted a gloss white. Both inside and outside were given two coats, with appropriate drying time between coats.

To fit the box and butterflies to the front frame required a bit of thought. The easiest way (driving screws through the frame from the front) would look pretty awful, while gluing would preclude repair or modification. I took some pan-head screws and drilled a counter-bore hole from the back of the frame which would allow the head to go most of the way through the thickness of the box. A clearance hole to allow the thread of the screw to contact the back of the MDF of the front frame completed the prep.

Finally, I fitted the hanging hardware.

The wire for hanging was a bit dodgy as it was single-strand rather than twisted. To reduce the chance of an incautious finger finding the sharp end, and to provide a more secure join, I ran a bead of solder over where the wire was joined to itself.

Step 5: Decorate the Planes

Go wild!

Butterflies aren't exactly known for their restraint and taste, so channel your inner four year-old. Imagine that the intention is to deter any predator by giving them a migraine when they look at you.

I took a couple of the planes, and gave them an all-over base coat of a single colour. The F16 got red and the F117 got blue. No reason, other than making them different. The colours (especially the red) looked very quiet after the paint dried, so each was given a second coat.

Once the basecoat had dried, I painted small patches of colour on the planes, and then while the paint was still wet, I poured matching glitter over the painted area. The idea of using matching colour was that the paint and the glitter would enhance each other, and it certainly seemed to work.

I didn't have bright colours in proper (thin) water-based acrylic, so I was using think poster paints (also from the $2 Shop). Getting a thin, even, flat layer wasn't too important as the glitter would disrupt the profile of the plane, and I was relying on the paint to act as an adhesive anyway. Rather than using a brush, I used cocktail sticks to apply the paint. This actually worked really well and looks far better than my skills deserve.

Step 6: Go Wilder

Having given a dazzling finish to the plane, it's time to break up the silhouette as well.

I had bought a big bag of coloured feathers, some in one shade and some with a pattern printed on them ($2.50!) and picked out a load of blue ones for the blue plane.

Finding a matching pair of feathers was surprisingly difficult. An additional problem was that feathers are "handed" so not only did the feathers have to be the same size and colour, they also have to be from opposite sides of the bird! (For further details, go and learn about why left-handed scribes bought cheaper quills in the good old days).

Once the feathers were found, they were trimmed to length, and the barbs nearer the quill end were cut off with a craft knife.

I tried double-sided tape to adhere the feathers to the plane, but settled on hot-melt glue (technically a cool-melt glue). Cyanoacrylate might work too: let me know if you try it.

After a lot of removing blue fluff from my fingers, the result was the last photograph which looks kind of like a psycho moth.

Step 7: Mount the Planes

The original idea of gluing the planes into the frame didn't work too well. It was at this point that I also realised that a black background did not suit the display, so everything paused while I repainted the inside of the box with a couple of coats of white.

The mark two idea of fixing was to drive a small screw into the box from the back, and to fix a small screw to the underside of the plane. This gave a couple of solid points for the glue to stick to, and that worked well.

The name tags took some thought. I needed a Latin name for the fake butterflies, but wanted them to have some relevance to the original aircraft. Since the F117 evolved from a research project code-named HAVE BLUE, I went with that as the name. The F16 is flown by the USAF display team called the Thunderbirds, so I borrowed the name of an extinct genus to make that name.

To get a nice-looking label, I wrote the Latin name in a larger, cursive font, with a smaller modern font for the English translation underneath. The PDF which I created for the print-shop is attached. I splashed out the sixty cents to get this printed onto thick card (250gsm) and also because the printer at the shop isn't low on toner like my printer is.

The labels were cut out with a craft knife, had their corners rounded with a quarter-round punch and were stuck to the standoffs using double-sided tape.

The result looks pretty good, and is physically robust enough to hold stuff together.

Step 8: Final Assembly

The solidity of the butterfly mounting was proven when the box was fitted to the front frame.

Pushing the pan-head screws down the counter-bore holes and then getting the barrel down the clearance hole left them just contacting the MDF on the read of the front frame.

Those contact points were marked and then an awl was used to make a start for the screw. The screws driven into the MDF of the frame gave more than enough strength to the completed assembly.

A standard picture hook (closed down with a hammer as we live in an earthquake zone) provided enough support for the completed object, which is now a conversation piece on the living-room wall.

Then spend a week cleaning the glitter, glue, paint and feather-fluff from your work-room and you're done.

Step 9: Mistakes, Crimes Concealed and Lessons Learned

The MDF blocks to hold the name tags were too big. Using a print shop to make nice labels on 250gsm paper meant that the labels did not need as much support, and the block was visible behind the label when I used a shorter name and I had to replace that label with a longer one. Next time, use smaller blocks.

Painting the inside of the frame black was not a good idea. It seemed like a good idea, but it didn't show the finished butterfly clearly. I did paint over it, but the thick gloss which I used didn't play well with the underlying matt and showed some cracking in the corners. Next time, I might paint the backboard white but have the sides flat black and see how that looks. You can see the difference between the black rear and the white in the second photograph.

When using hot glue to fix the feathers to the plane, or the plane to the box, DO NOT BE IN A HURRY. Drawing the glue gun away always leaves a thin thread of glue between the gun and the joint. Put the gun down, gently blow at the glue string to harden it, and then cut it with scissors. When you have finished, and the glue in the joints has cooled down and hardened and it is nice and robust, then and only then can you go in with a pair of fine-point scissors and cut the glue close to the model.

Fixing a screw into the underside of the planes _before_ doing all the decorating would have been much easier than doing it when they were covered in glitter and feathers, and would also have made manipulating the planes during the decorating process easier and cleaner.

(Edited 05/02/2019 to add) Finally, after the display had been hanging on the wall a couple of days, I realised that I didn't like the way the F16 looked, so I opened everything up again, removed the plane, trimmed the feathers at the front and added ones at the back. Which is why the "completed" photograph in Step 8 looks different from the "completed" photograph on the front page. Hope that didn't cause too much confusion :-)

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    2 Discussions


    12 days ago

    It's a really cute idea to mix the entomology setting with tiny toy aircrafts! The result is great, your butterflies planes and their names are adorable! And it's a very good idea to include the file with the names, very useful for those who will use your tutorial! Congratulations for the hollow frame, having made it from A to Z from a simple photo frame is great. Good work! :)

    1 reply