I remember seeing handmade shadow boxes when I was a kid, always linked to Grimm's or Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. They mesmerized me with their soft tones and shadows and depth. They hit me right where I kept my imagination
With patience, a few simple tools, and lots of imagination, you can make a shadow box of your own. It requires only materials easily found at a craft store.
Bonus feature: This shadow box is designed to permit you to make as many interchangeable inserts as you'd like so you can easily swap themes. I plan to make an insert for each of my favorite holidays and seasons. (And I'll throw in some Harry Potter, Sleepy Hollow, and other dark fantasy goodies, too.)
Step 1: What You'll Need. . . .
- heavy white card stock
- white foam core
- box (for the enclosure)
- craft light
- craft knife* (like an x-acto) + extra blades
- access to images and simple image-handling software to assemble your own templates
*This kind of cutting can be very intense and requires great care. It can be hard on your fingers after hours of cutting. Look for specialized craft knives that are designed for greater comfort and control.
Step 2: Develop Your Concept
While some people are talented enough to envision and draw layers of a shadow box freehand and from scratch, that's not in my wheelhouse. You can probably accomplish almost any idea if you've got the vision for it. When planning your master concept, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Your shadow box should have several layers. I tend to go with 3-4 of them, but I've seen some that have 20+ layers. That's crazymaking (but beautiful) in my opinion.
- The finished work will look best if the layers complement one another
- They should "stage" in a way such that the back layers occupy a narrower band top to bottom than each layer forward. That is, they will terrace in order to give a sense of perspective while also filling the view well.
- Consider having good framing elements in your forward-most layer—like the arching tree that flows up the left side and across the entire top of the frame in my Sleepy Hollow cut shown here. Clouds in the sky are always good contenders.
All of this said, draw or find your artwork. I like to find pieces and parts that will work together. I'm able to find elements on the internet and cobble them together using any simple app for handling images. (In this case, I used Pages for Mac--not normally a graphic editor, but it works just fine.)
Step 3: Cut Out Your Silhouette Layers
This takes patience and care. If you rush, you're going to mess up . . . or cut yourself. Taking time is worth it.
Step 4: Build a Frame to Support and Separate Each Layer
Using foam core, build a frame to fit the box opening. This one is 7.5" x 7.5" square, 1/2" wide . You want at least one frame in one piece to provide rigidity. After that, you can use 1/2" bars cut from the foam core to hold each subsequent layer. I use one full square and then make the rest of the layers out of strips because it's far less wasteful.
Step 5: Fasten the Layers Onto the Frame
Taking the square frame you made, place it face down. Lay your first (forward-most) silhouette layer on top of it, also face down. When you know it fits, use glue stick to fasten all edges together.
When you have the first layer done, then add a course of foam core strips, matching the outline of your first frame. Fasten with glue stick.
Atop that, fasten your second silhouette layer. Repeat this process until you've got all your layers assembled and glued.
Final step: Fasten a piece of tissue paper or thin printer paper at the very back. This diffuses the light from the bulb, giving a more pleasing overall look.
Now, you should have a rather rigid frame with all layers separated and mounted.
Step 6: Prep Your Box
You can make a box out of just about anything: a shoe box, a custom notched wooden box, or (like I did) a $4 chipboard box from a craft store. I like this idea because it looks natural and nice, and it's ready to go with a few easy cuts.
- One end has a lid. Remove it and put it aside
- Cut the closed end off the box, taking care to keep it even.
- Make a foam core frame matching the one used in the previous step. Fasten it into one opening of the box. This will give it a nice finished look along with added rigidity.
- Get the lid back nearby. Cut a hole in it to accommodate the craft light bulb. Hint: Cut the hole off-center to give you options to orient the light in different ways, depending on what works best for different scenes.
Step 7: Put It All Together!
Now you can put your scene frame into the freshly cut box. Insert from the back. You don't have to push the scene all the way forward. See what works best when you put the light in.
Put the box lid (which is now the back) on, fixing the craft bulb into place.
Turn it on, stand back, and revel in your nice work!