Lightup Frame




Introduction: Lightup Frame

This instructable will look at how a custom frame was designed and built with the goal of lighting objects suspended in acrylic blocks. Adding a light source in frame can be an excellent way to highlight a piece of art in a room. By adding lights to the frame an object can be presented as the artist or owner prefers.

I have worked professionally as a framer for 3 years and often do non-traditional frame work. Methods presented here should age well but I would not consider them conservation grade. This framing strategy, while tempting for 2D work, will fail to provide an even light on such a surface and should be used only for 3D work. Gallery style lighting provides the best means for lighting 2D work.

Step 1: Materials and Programs

123D Design or similar

For designing the frame

Meshmixer or similar

For exporting for 3D printing

LED Lights

with remote and plug-in or battery Available from Amazon at a great price and a bunch of preset buy options that allow you to easily choose how you want to power and control them. I totally stole these from this instructable:


For affixing the lights in place.


For backing the object to be floated, in the color of your choice. This can be cut yourself with pretty basic tools or bought pre-cut to size. Tap Plastic here in San Francisco is fantastic for such things.


This can be all sorts of things really and is optional. Anything that is transparent and will soften the light will work. Tap Plastic sells an LED diffusion sheet which is what I used.


I mounted mine between two sheets of plexi but anything suspended in resin is also fine.


Instead of adhering a colored piece of plexi to the resin block you could paint the back of the resin block for a similar effect. It opens up a lot more choices for the color. If you choose to 3D print the frame in anything but black you may want to pick some black acrylic-based paint as well. You will need to paint the inside of the frame to keep it from glowing unattractively.

Microfiber and plexi cleaner


Step 2: Design

I chose to model and 3D print my frame rather than use a traditional wood frame. A standard shadowbox frame could modified with a matte to provide a similar effect (covered later) but the appearance would not be clean as I wanted. Something similar though thicker in some dimensions could be made from wood with the correct tools. Since I do not, and most people do not, have access to the specialized tools to make frame mouldings I will not cover that option. Since 3D modeling programs are readily available, relatively easy to use, and allow for a high degree of customization without the need for woodworking tools, this route will be my focus. The cost of printing, while appearing high in comparison to a standard shadow box, while end up only somewhat more expensive after factoring in the cost of the additional materials needed for a shadowbox.

The goal of the design is to provide a relatively even light all the way around the object while maintaining a small frame profile. To do this a cavity is created between the wall of the frame and the acrylic block into which lights and a layer of diffusion is placed. Several surfaces and ledges were also built into the frame to hold everything in place. Looking at the frame design image you can see these spaces and ledges. These are sized in such way to hold everything tight and flush with one another, helping to prevent light leaks and providing a satisfying finished object free of rattling and with a solid, professional feel.

The rearmost lip in the frame holds the black plexi. The next larger space holds the diffusion, art, and LEDs. A final inner lip was added to hold the diffusion away from the art and in place.


To find the outside sizes:

1: Measure the resin block that the object is floated in. In my case the block was 7.125” x 5.125”.

2: Next find the size of the black backing piece of plexi. To allow space for the diffusion and LED lights I added .5” and then an additional .125” for the lip to hold the plexi in place for a total of .625. Since that is only for one side that amount then needs to be doubled for a total of 1.25” I then added this to the art size giving me 8.375” x 6.375”.

3: For final outside size of the frame I then added .25” to the size of the plexi for a final size of 8.625” x 6.625”. The .25” allows for .125” thick walls at the thinnest point of the frame

To find the inside window size:

1: Subtract a small amount from the art size. I gave mine a .125” wide lip all the way around to hold the art in place for a size of 6.875” x4.875”. Avoid going smaller than .125” for this lip, for larger pieces consider going up to .25” Depending on the piece it might give a better appearance to widen this to increase the viewing angle that the side of the piece is visible from.

To find the depths needed:

1: Measure the thickness of the art, for me it was .4375”

2: Measure the thickness of backing piece of plexi, for me it was .25” I would advise backing plexi at least this thick. Thinner is available but it tends to have a little play to it. Total .6875”

3: Measure the width of the LEDs, for me it was .4375”. If the LEDs are wider than the art is deep you will need to adjust the design by adding additional layers of plexi to make the art as least as deep as the LEDs are wide.

4: Add a small amount for the inner lip in the frame, I arbitrarily added .0625” to round out my frame depth to an easier number of .875” Write all of your numbers down and keep them labeled. You will need them when generating the 3D file.

So for me I had the following sizes:

Art 7.125 x 5.125 x .4375”

Backing plexi 8.375 x 6.375 x .25”

Outer frame dimension 8.625 x 6.625 x .875”

Backing plexi lip 8.375 x 6.375 x .25”

LED, art, and diffusion cavity 8.125 x 6.125 .5”

Art lip 7.125 x 5.125 x .0625"

Step 3: Modeling

The next step is to create the 3D frame model. I would wait to model the frame until the art and backing plexi have been acquired to be sure of the accuracy of the sizes.

1) Open 123D Design and set the units to either inches or centimeters which you are working in.

2) Using the Primitives tool, create a shape with your outer frame dimensions.

3) Create another shape with the same dimensions of your backing plexi.

4) Center the two shapes and then align the top surfaces of the two rectangles. Be careful of the snap as it can misplace your shapes.

5) Using the subtract tool in the Combine menu, subtract the smaller shape from the larger shape.

6) Repeat for the remaining shapes. For the inner raised lip you will merge the shape instead of subtracting it.

7) Save and then export it for your 3D printing program of your choice.

8) From the 3D printing program, select the printer or service you will be using and export a new file.

9) Send off for printing.

Step 4: Fitting

1) Measure and trim the LEDs. Center the cord on the bottom of the frame and run the LED lights all the way around the inside of the frame. You can safely cut (unplugged of course) the LEDs at any of the points where you see the 4 ovals of copper.

2) Every .5” to 1” place a small dab of glue on the inside of the frame. Peel the release paper from the trimmed LED rope and press them into place on the frame. Let dry before placing in the art. Some glues as they dry will off-gas which can discolor or fog the plexi.

3) Prep the art and backing. If you did not have the backing plexi cut by a shop cut it now and drill a portion off the bottom center along the edge to allow the cord to exit the back of the frame. Mount the two pieces together. Paint the back of the art your color of choice and then adhere it to the backing plexi rather than try to glue it straight.

4) Prep and position the diffusion. Cut the diffusion to length and position it in the frame. The material I used was flexible enough to loosely put into place for testing. Power the lights up with the art in position and add diffusion until the desired look is achieved. If you are using the material from Tap Plastic, Glue the diffusion into place along the lip with the textured side facing the art. Do not glue the textured side to the side of the art as it will remove the diffusing effect. The intent of adding diffusion is to remove the appearance of individual LED lights making it appear there is a continuous thing of light all the way around the art. By adding diffusion you can soften or remove the appearance of tiny points of lights around the object embedded in the resin. Feel free to skip this step if you okay with that look.

5) Place into the frame. If the piece is not snug in the frame, tape or glue it into place. Then power it up and enjoy!

Step 5: Extras and Notes


Two eye loop screws should be added during step 2 of fitting. Drill two holes into the backing slightly smaller than the screws; they should be as wide as the central shaft of the screw but slightly narrower than the outer edges of the screw threads. If the holes are too small you run the risk of cracking the plexi when you screw in the eye loops. The holes should be towards the edge of the backing plexi and one third to one quarterof the way down from the top. Screw the eye loops in and run wire between them for hanging. Place adhesive felt feet at the bottom corners.

Leave the backing plexi unglued from the art

Instead of glueing the two together after painting the back of the art you could instead hold it in place with strips of .125” acrylic glued in place along the lip for the diffusion. My original design did this and it worked very well but became unnecessary when I decided to have everything adhered together. You can also roughen the inside edge of these strips to provide the diffusion. I also tried using white semi-transparent plexi for the strips. While very effective at diffusing the light it didn’t transmit as much of it making the whole thing feel too dark.

Different color frames

When I ordered my first frame they sent me a white one instead of black. I chose black for aesthetic reasons and knowing that light transmission would be problem with a white frame. The white material is not opaque enough to not glow when the lights are on. To fix this I painted the inside of the frame black which mostly fixed the problem.

Reflective paint

I’ve considered painting the inside of the frames chrome to try to increase the light output into the pieces but haven’t tried it yet. If one of you try it, please post the results. I would be interested in seeing them.

Step 6: Traditional Shadow Boxes

Here are two basic designs for building a light up frame using a traditional shadow box. To make a frame for the same kind of art used in the 3D printed frame you need to add a matte. A windowed matte creates the necessary cavity for the light but requires a layer of glazing to protect it. Exposed matte ages poorly and is prone to damage. If a different, sturdier material is used glazing could then be avoided.

For the floated work, like a sports jersey, mask, or other object, the work would be lifted by matte or foamcore up off he back float board. The LEDlights could then be hidden behind it providing a strong rim light on the art and glow on the matte. The two designs could be combined to provide both back and front light for the object.

In a future instructable I will go into more detail on how to build a traditional shadowbox and the tools needed.

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    3 Discussions


    5 years ago

    Cool idea. The finished product looks really interesting.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I've been working on various lighted shadow boxes lately. Glad to see someone else doing the same! What is in your frame? It looks like a sea creature of some sort.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    The piece is a praying mantis skin mounted between two sheets of plexi, not something I would recommend doing.

    Let me know if you ever post an instructable making such a frame and I'll link you on here.