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How to Make a Shadow Box

by Heartland Box March 12, 2021

How to Make a Shadow Box

If you’re a Baby Boomer, you may remember asking your mom for an empty shoebox to make a diorama in grade school. In a sense, that was a type of shadow box, although different than a traditional version. The wonderful thing about shadow boxes is that they’re as varied as the memories they hold. The possibilities of what to put in a shadow box are endless, which makes creating one a uniquely personal and enjoyable project. 

What is a Shadow Box? 

Shadow boxes are typically constructed from a square or rectangular wooden frame, which can be arranged in a series or set up as a standalone piece. 

The origin of shadow boxes dates back to the superstitions of sailors. When a retiring sailor left his ship for the last time, it was seen as bad luck for his shadow to touch land before he did. Carrying memorabilia, patches, rank, and keepsakes was a gesture to ensure a metaphorical "shadow" of himself would touch land first! This tradition endured in a more logical manner when retiring military personnel received or created shadow boxes to display honorable badges, pins, flags, and other rewards commemorating service to the country. 

Many artists take the concept of a shadow box and transform it into fine art. The most notable example of this art form is work created by the most famous shadow box artist of all time, Joseph Cornell, who was renowned for assemblage creations incorporating discarded artifacts and photographs. 

Shadow Box Ideas 

Shadow boxes are a unique way to display special photographs, nostalgic keepsakes, figurines collected from travels, and many other objects. They are also a terrific solution to resolve some of your dresser or desk drawer clutter. After all, treasured trinkets deserve some love rather than being kept in crowded, dark drawers. 

Choosing a theme is the best way to create the most compelling and enduring statement. Some ideas include sports, family heirlooms, travel mementos, babies and grandchildren, pets, favorite pastimes (e.g., movies, photography, miniature collecting, etc.). If you’re creating one for a special occasion such as a wedding anniversary or Mother’s day, this makes it easier to gather meaningful elements to create an unforgettable gift

How to Build a Shadow Box 

You can construct a shadow box yourself from scrap wood (e.g., cigar boxes or small discarded drawers) or buy prefab ones at arts and crafts stores. Any deep wall frame can be used as a shadow box, and the benefit of using one is that you don’t have to worry about creating various elements (e.g., keyhole hanger on back). You can simply place mementos on the back piece or use mats to cast a shadow to create 3-D artwork. 

How to Fill a Shadow Box 

Before gluing anything into place, gather all the pieces and design the layout. If you layer various elements, this results in a more exciting assemblage. The first piece to lay down is whatever you choose for the background. Ideas for this include decorative art paper, beautiful fabric, or even old magazine pages. It’s a good idea to avoid anything with wild patterns or colors because you want the background to highlight rather than detract from objects. Once you’ve decided on the composition, use glue, pins, or tacks to secure everything to the backing. While not all shadow boxes have glass or acrylic like traditional frames, this is advised to protect the contents from dust and fading. If you use glass, clean it well to ensure it is dust-and streak-free before reassembling. 

If you’ve decided to use original vintage photos, be aware that they’re still subject to deterioration, even when displayed in a shadow box. It’s a good idea to get them digitized first to preserve these memories properly. That way, you can print out as many as you need from the digital files and use them for many other purposes!

Heartland Box
Heartland Box

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