Periodic Table Display for Element Samples




Introduction: Periodic Table Display for Element Samples

About: I love experimenting with science and physics, especially projects that involve electromagnetism, energy conservation and audio.

This instructable will show you how to build a display for an element collection. The shelving itself consists of eight bead-storage boxes from Hobby Lobby, glued together with hot glue. It takes the familiar shape of the 18-collumn standard periodic table, and allows you to arrange each sample by atomic number as based on the periodic law (the principle that chemical properties of the elements are periodic functions of their atomic numbers). Because the entire display is translucent, it keeps the focus on the samples inside while allowing light from multiple angles to illuminate them. It also makes it hard to photograph! I originally wanted to make a display from crystal clear acrylic like others I have seen, but that turned out to be way too expensive. This display cost me about $16 USD in materials, and probably took as many hours to construct. You don't have to be a wealthy eccentric, own special tools, or be a carpenter to build this display. Someone could even build this for their kid and then challenge him to try to fill it with samples!

Never heard of element collecting? Wonder how to get your own collection? Samples of many of the elements can be bought online from suppliers that cater to collectors. Otherwise, you can hunt for them in the real world using my instructable on the subject as a guide. It is a really fun project if you like science, and you don't need a bankroll the size of Detroit. Putting each element it its proper place in the table is a real thrill. My collection may look a little underwhelming, but I just finished the display and still have more elements that I haven't mounted yet!

Here are a few dimensions to help you decide whether this display is right for your collection, and if you have enough wall space.

Finished weight: 2.5 pounds (a little over a kilogram)

Finished dimensions: 31 3/8" wide x 23 3/8" tall x 1 3/4" deep

Spaces for samples are each: 1 5/8" wide x 2 1/4" tall x 1 3/4" deep

Step 1: Obtain Your Tools & Materials

For this project, you will need the following supplies:

  • 8 bead storage boxes, found in Hobby Lobby's jewelry making department. $1.99 USD each
  • Package of 6 All-Purpose hot glue sticks for standard size gun (4"x .45"), $1.99 USD (found mine in hardware store, but Hobby Lobby also carries them)
  • 5/16" dowel stick (I had this already)
  • stainless steel tubing, robbed from dead solar stake light (it has to fit closely over the dowel stick, so the size of the dowel is actually predicated on the size of the tubing you find)
  • four small Phillips-head (hex head is even better) sheet-metal screws (I used 6 x 1/2")
  • Clear mono-filament fishing line (mine was 10 lb. break strength)
  • Small piece of heat shrink tubing or tape

Inspect the bead storage boxes for defects before you buy them. Keep your eye out for broken parts and warped plastic. The boxes are not all the same. For example, each one has a double-sized compartment, equal to two of the smaller compartments. Sometimes it is located on the right hand side, and sometimes on the left. Make sure you end up with at least one box that has it on the right, and one box that has it on the left.

If you pay full price, the bead boxes will cost you a total $15.92 USD before tax. However, Hobby Lobby has printable 40% off coupons available at all times on their website. They are good for 40% off one regular priced item, with a limit of one coupon per customer per day (the coupons are only good during the week in which they are printed, so don't print your coupons too far in advance of your shopping trip). I used four coupons and ended up paying about $13 before tax.

You could also get the hot glue at Hobby Lobby, and use a coupon, but I went to the hardware store.

I already had the stainless steel tubing, heat shrink tubing, sheet-metal screws, and dowel stick on hand.

Tools I used:

  • standard-sized hot glue gun (40 Watts, accepts .45" diameter sticks, heats to 380 degrees F)
  • sharp pocketknife (with non-serrated edge)
  • hacksaw, preferably one with a 24tpi (teeth per inch) blade
  • bench vise
  • two scrap boards
  • drill
  • small drill bits
  • small spring-loaded clamps or clothespins
  • bench grinder
  • heat gun
  • 2 Phillips-head screwdrivers w/ 90 degree bends ( you won't need these if you got hex head screws. In that case, you need two small wrenches or sockets to fit them)
  • 2 or 3 medium to large C-clamps

I don't have a dremmel-type rotary tool, but one of those might work nicely in place of the bench grinder, the drill, and maybe even the pocketknife. Maybe if I am a finalist in the shelving contest I will win one! I don't have a heat gun either, but I have a modified hot-air popcorn popper that works in place of one. It has a metal chimney to help funnel heat and a metal screen to keep things from falling inside it.

Step 2: Cut the Lids Off

We will begin by using a hacksaw to cut the lids off the boxes. Make sure you leave the hinge on one of the boxes as complete as possible. We will use it to hang the display later! This is important!

When cutting things with a hacksaw it is important to keep them from moving around, so I clamped my boxes in the vise between two boards. Then I simply cut through the hinges and removed the lids. You don't have to cut very close to the box itself, because in the next step you are going to use a pocketknife to shave off whatever remains of the hinges. The closer you cut to the box, the less hinge you have to shave off later. The drawback is that if you are not careful the hacksaw blade could scratch the box you are trying to keep.

If you are squeamish about destroying these cute, perfectly good storage boxes, remember that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Take a small, sharp pocketknife to shave off what remains of the hinges (except the hinge on one of the boxes, which we will leave complete). Paring cuts (cuts toward yourself) work best, and it is a good idea to anchor your thumb inside the box for leverage, and it will keep you from cutting yourself. Then, move to the opposite side of the box and shave off the little bump on the front lip of the box that acts as a latch. Now, you should have a nice rectangular box with no lid and smooth edges.

Step 3: Start Cutting Out the Shape of the Periodic Table

In this step, we will put one of the boxes back in the vise and cut it with the hacksaw again. We are making the upper right hand corner of the display. First, pick out a box that has the double-sized compartment located on the right-hand side of the box. Cut it as seen in the picture. The part we are keeping is in the lower right of the picture. If you cut it close, you will have less shaving/grinding to do later, but cutting too close runs the risk of scratching up the piece we are trying to keep. Next, grind and shave on the piece we are keeping to remove what remains of the walls that you cut through. Try to make the sides nice and smooth.

Don't throw away any plastic until the project is complete, as we will need some later to fill in the compartments that are double-sized.

Step 4: Cut the Second Box

Next, choose a box that has the double-sized compartment on the left hand side. We will use it to make the upper left hand corner of the periodic table. Cut it as seen in the pictures - the part we are going to use is on the left hand side. Again, clean up the cut sides so the are nice and smooth. Take your time, as it takes patience!

Step 5: Drill the Holes for Hanging

Now, we get back to the box that we left the hinge intact on. We will drill a small hole in the outer edge of each of the two hinges using a 5/64 drill bit. By outer edge of the hinge I mean that the hole in the right hand hinge is on the right hand side of the hinge, and the left hand hinge has a hole in its left hand side. See the picture. That is all we have to do with this box right now.

Step 6: Check Your Progress

Okay, so lets arrange our boxes and get a look at what we have built so far. Use the picture as a guide. Each bead-storage box is six compartments wide, so we put three of them side by side to make the periodic table, which is 18 columns wide (the box with the intact hinge is the one between the two other intact boxes).

Step 7: The Seventh Series

Now we will cut the middle out of a box as shown in the picture. We will be using the top and bottom pieces, so clean them up! They attach to the bottom of the main section of the periodic table, and will hold the seventh series elements. Notice that my display has a seventh series that only goes to element 112. You could easily butcher an ninth bead-storage box and add the rest of the series to your display, but I have decided not to for now.

Step 8: Take the Leftovers From Step Four...

Next, we will use what was left of the box we cut in step four, cutting and trimming it as shown in the pictures. We are starting to make the part of the periodic table that sits below the table proper and holds the lanthanides and actinides.

Step 9: Cut Two More Boxes

The next thing we will do is cut two more boxes the way the one in the first picture is cut. After they are cleaned up, they should look like the pieces in the second picture. The third picture shows the pieces cleaned up and combined with the piece we cut in the previous step. These pieces make up the section of the periodic table that sits below the periodic table proper, and will contain the lanthanides and actinides.

Step 10: Prepare the Boxes for Gluing

Now we will have to prepare the pieces of the display for gluing. On the bottom of each box, there are two little spots that could have excess plastic that sticks out, and prevent the boxes from laying flat when placed on a flat surface. Check them over with the pocketknife. Next, we must scratch up the surfaces to be glued using the blade of the pocketknife turned perpendicular to the box's surface. Do this so that the surface looks frosted and no longer feels slick. This will help the glue to stick. Put the boxes together in the orientation in which they will be glued to make sure you are scratching the correct part of each box!

Step 11: Break Out the Hot Glue

Now we are ready to start gluing the plastic boxes together. Keep in mind that the plastic we are gluing is considered hard to bond (I tried super glue, epoxy glue, plastic modeling cement, and others; none of them worked). I chose hot glue at the suggestion of my sister. As it turns out, hot glue closely matches the flexibility of the plastic boxes, and also has gap-filling properties that are essential if we are to incorporate a large surface area of the boxes into the glued joint. However, hot glue presents its own particular challenges. For one, you can easily give yourself second degree burns if you aren't careful (I know because I did). Also, each piece that we are going to glue together has to be pre-heated with the heat gun first, then you have to work fast to get the pieces to be glued put together before they or the glue has a chance to cool. You only get one shot, and a few seconds could make all the difference. I insist that you get an assistant to help with this stage, as I did (my little sister helped).

For this part of the build, we will need a flat, smooth work surface. My workbench is warped, so I put down a scrap piece of plywood. Consider laying down newspaper or something to protect your work surface from the hot glue.

We will also need a straight edge that we can push the boxes up against and slide them along. I used C-clamps to clamp a straight board to my plywood. You will see the purpose for this in a moment.

Plug in the hot glue gun and let it warm up. Make sure the cord will reach your work. Pick out the two pieces that will be glued first. I started with the intact boxes – the ones that we didn't cut into, but only removed the lids. Take the one with the intact hinges and pretend you are gluing another box to its side. Lay each box flat on the work surface, butting their long sides up against the straight edge. Start by laying them near each other, and then slide them along the straight edge until they meet. They should now be fitting together in the orientation in which they will ultimately be glued. Plan ahead, and practice your method of gluing with your assistant. Here is how it should go:

The sides of the boxes that will be glued together are warmed up with the heat gun. Once they are getting quite toasty, take one of the boxes in your non-dominant hand. Pick up the glue gun with your other hand and squirt glue onto the side of the box to be glued. Apply about 50% more than what comes out of a toothpaste tube, all along the side of the box. Make sure there is plenty of stick left in the gun before you get going, as you can't load another stick mid-joint. As soon as the glue has been applied (you worked fast, it only took you five seconds!) you set the glue gun down and place your box down as well, butted up against the straight edge like you practiced. Now, your assistant brings over the box that he or she has continued to heat with the heat gun and sets it down, then you slide the two boxes together. Your assistant immediately puts clothespins on the joint to squeeze it together. Now you can relax. If all went well, the boxes are now joined. Use the same technique for each of the box sections to be glued, using various boards as guides to make sure the boxes meet correctly when you slide them together.

Hot glue continues to harden even after it feels like it has cooled, so excess glue that globs into unwanted places is better scraped off sooner than later.

Each box has four small "feet" on the underside, molded into the plastic. If you are gluing a piece that is not a complete box, and therefore has less than four feet, you can make up for the missing foot by placing cereal box cardboard down on your work surface to prop up the parts of the box that don't have feet. This will ensure that boxes with feet meet well with the ones that don't.

Step 12: Time for Pillars

Okay, so now for the pillars that connect the two parts of the display. They each consist of a piece of stainless steel (or nickel plated steel) tubing with a dowel stick inside. Small sheet metal screws go through holes in the plastic boxes into the ends of the dowel rods. I cut my tubing to 2 1/4" long for the short pillar and 4 1/2" for the long one. The dowel rod gets cut to the same length, or a little shorter, but it cannot be longer than the tubing. Just put it in the vise and cut it with the hacksaw. It can then be cleaned up on the grinder if need be. When placing the tubing in the vise, place the dowel rod inside to keep it from being bent out of round. To figure out where to drill the holes in the display, I laid the display flat and then measured up from the work surface 7/8". That gave me one dimension. The other was determined by centering the hole on the desired compartment of the display I wanted to center my pillar on. The hole in the display must allow the screw to pass through freely, but the hole in the end of the dowel rod must allow the screw to grip (but too tight and the dowel will split). Put the dowel in the vise and drill into the ends deep enough for the screws. For a 6 diameter screw like mine this meant a 1/8" drill bit. Once all the parts are cut and drilled, you are ready to assemble. I used Phillips-head screws, so I had to hold one screw while I turned the other. This meant two 90 degree angle screwdrivers. And it was awkward. It would be much easier if hex-head screws were used, because it would allow the use of wrenches and sockets. If the display looks crooked when put together, you can add washers like I did. I added two 3/16" inch washers in between the display and the metal tubing on the longer pillar to make my display look nice and square.

Step 13: Finishing Touches

In this step you have to utilize the scraps that we created in the other steps, using them to create shelves to fill in the double-sized compartments in the bead boxes. You can do this by cutting existing shelves off of the scrap pieces. Make sure you cut as close as you can to what was the bottom of the box. Each shelf will have to be custom cut to width, but then you can simply apply a dab of hot glue to the edge that will be joined with the back wall of the display, and then insert it into its proper place. Two more dabs of glue on the top or bottom of the new shelf (along both sides near the front) will secure it in place.

Other places you can consider putting hot glue are the corners of the boxes. Each box has rounded corners, and when they meet they leave a gap that can be filled with hot glue for a smoother look. This will help disguise the individual boxes. Also, you can flip the display over and apply glue to the seams between the boxes, but this is not necessary.

Step 14: Hang That Sucker

Now for the second-to-last-step, hanging the display. I chose to use fishing line because it is clear like the rest of the display, but this is for looks only. I used 10 lb. Fishing line, passing it back and forth through the holes in the hinges of the hanger box four times, making four complete loops and tying the loose ends together, for a continuous loop mono-filament rope with a break strength of 40 lb. (the display weighs 2.5 pounds, and I would be lucky if the samples I am going to pile onto it could weigh much more than 2). You have to leave slack in the line when you pass it back and forth, this way the total length of the finished mono-filament rope that we are creating will be just over eight inches. You can use a guide to help you the way I did, see the picture. If you are using heat shrink tubing like I did, make sure you go through it on each pass as well. Once you have made the appropriate number of passes through, tie the ends with a square knot plus a few more half-hitches for good measure. Adjust the strands so that they will all carry equal weight when the display is hung. If you didn't use heat shrink tubing, apply some kind of tape to the center of the rope that we have made. If you did, shrink it with the heat gun. I used the tubing that shrinks from 3/16" to 3/32", so it didn't shrink down tight over the mono-filaments, but it would be okay if it did.

Step 15: Display Your Samples - and Make It an Art Piece!

I haven't gotten into mounting my elements much, as I have just finished the display, but I will post what I have done so far. I bought little glass jars with corks for some of the more powdery or fragmented element samples at Hobby Lobby in the same aisle that we bought the bead-storage boxes, they are even the same brand (gadgets and gizmos) and only cost 2.99 USD for eight.

Other options include:

  • Gluing samples directly into the display
  • Glue a small piece of steel like a washer to the bottom of the sample's space, then glue a small super magnet to the sample itself. This will allow you to remove or replace a sample while still keeping it securely in place.
  • Making little stands for some samples, like the coins. They could be made of clear plastic.

Design Considerations:

I considered writing something like The Elements in block letters above the display. On one hand, the letters could conceal the way that the display is suspended by covering up the J-hook and/or nail. On the other hand, this would add to the cost of the project and besides, I think everyone will know what they are looking at when they see the shape of the periodic table.

I could find a sheet of clear plastic and make a front cover for the display, and this would prevent dust from settling on the samples inside. It would also provide a way to label each sample, as letter stickers on the front cover could show the atomic number and the name of the element (or at least the chemical symbol) in each alcove.

Well, that does it. Thanks for reading, and happy building!

Shelving Contest 2016

Runner Up in the
Shelving Contest 2016

1 Person Made This Project!


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12 Discussions


Question 6 months ago on Introduction

I'm giving this a go and so far it looks great. I've got everything cut; starting to grind/file the edges smooth. A few questions:

1. are you having any issues with the fishing line pulling through the hinge plastic? I'm not sure of the final weight, but did you find any reason to harden the hole you drilled in the hinge flange so that the line wouldn't (eventually) cut through?
2. When you grind/smooth the edges after you cut off/trimmed the boxes, aren't you going to gluing most of that? So... one doesn't need to be super careful about not scuffing up the plastic since it's going to get scuffed up anyway, so the glue will stick better?
3. Do you grind everything off those long trimmed edges- (steps 4,7,8,9?) The thinner walls of plastic come off easily, but the heavier, rounded connector posts would take more. Do you grind those down flat as well?
4. Lastly- Since you did this several years ago, how is it holding up? Anything you would change or add?


Answer 6 months ago

Hey there! Making the display shelf, huh? Awesome! I'll attempt to answer your questions...

1. Upon close inspection, no. After three years there is no sign that the hole in the hinge flange is being cut by the monofilament, or the other way around. The display weighs 2.5 pounds without samples.

2. It depends. You are correct that you don't need to worry about scuffing a side of the box that will be glued to another box. In some cases, like with one of the boxes that makes the top part of the display, the side you remove the hinge from will be exposed so you might want to do a nice job on that one. I recommend laying out your boxes and deciding which ones will go where. This will help you determine what sides of what boxes you have to be careful with.

3. Looking at the display, it appears that I did grind or file the rounded connector posts as well, making those sides as flat as I could.

4. The display is holding up well. It isn't exposed to sunlight so I haven't got any damage from that, like yellowing or embrittlement. I haven't added anything to it, though I think I will cut another box and add on the rest of the row so that I have spaces for elements 112 through 118. You might want to do that now.

I'm here if you have more questions, or if my answers were not sufficient. Happy making! I'd love to see your shelf when it is done.


3 years ago

And oh, I voted for you too!


Reply 3 years ago

Thank you for your vote and your kind words. I always hope my instructables kindle people's interest in science!


3 years ago

What do you do for elements that only exist for milliseconds or even less, nanoseconds, or elements that are radioactive or restricted?

I like the idea, but it seems it will never ever be totally filled.

It is a very nice idea and project though.


Reply 3 years ago

You are absolutely correct, my display will never be totally filled. For the elements that are not collectible, you can place a picture of the element's namesake in its display space. For example, a picture of Marie Curie to represent curium or a picture of the dwarf planet Pluto for plutonium. Many of the people and places that have elements named after them also have been featured on postage stamps, and so stamps are another option. Thank you for your comment!


3 years ago

I am just called "assistant?" WTF? Why not at least "Lovely assistant!" And yes, I have joined now. :)


3 years ago

As a chemistry teacher for over a decade, I can really appreciate this! What a fantastic idea!! One does not necessarily have to fill every cube. For those involving radioactive elements, one could use a symbol depicting its use - like a little crab (for cancer), or a symbol of energy. Those that are fleeting and 'to our knowledge' do not exist in nature, can be represented by a future use or a likeness of the scientist that discovered them. One could also have a sculpted form of the element's name - or number, for those that have not yet been discovered... There can be no limits to one's creativity!


3 years ago

Nice! I have Theodore Gray's book *The Elements* and really enjoy it, but I haven't taken up element collecting myself. But if I ever have a house with more space, I might want to do it, and then I will make a shelf like yours :-).

Barry Neeson
Barry Neeson

3 years ago

Really dig this idea. Great work!

Anirudh Ralhan
Anirudh Ralhan

3 years ago

This is a fun project.... But you'll have an extremely hard time filling all the compartments....


3 years ago

That looks awesome, what a cool idea!