How to Build Your Own Shadow Box

Shadow boxes are, in essence, extra deep framing treatments for three-dimensional objects like medals, shells, keys and other mementos or collections. In this tutorial we are going to show you how to create a shadow box with a metal picture frame.

First, determine what size box you need by laying your objects out on a piece of paper and arranging them until they please you. Now, draw a box around your arrangement to represent your frame’s edge. When sizing your box, remember to include the space you want between the edges of the outermost objects and your frame.  Measure your box and note the length and width.

If you’re working with a complicated arrangement and precision placement is vital, you may want to trace around the items with a pencil so you can duplicate your arrangement when you receive all your framing materials. Taking a picture of the arrangement is another good strategy.

Now choose a frame. Take into account how deep your objects are. Objects with thickness and dimension, like shells, need a frame with a deep enough rabbet to accommodate them.

We framed guitar picks. A box 5˝x5˝ was the perfect size and, because picks are thin, just about any rabbet depth would do. For drama, we chose a frame from our Standard Plus 3 metal collection (SP3236) in green. 

In a shadow box, items need to be affixed to something sturdy, just like you would mount art on paper to a mounting board or sandwich it between a board and your mat. Mats of any color and black mounting board are both good surfaces to mount objects on. Here, we’re using an uncut piece of purple mat board and we’re adhering the picks with double-sided tape. We supported the relatively thin mat with a mounting board that will also serve as the back of the shadow box. We completed our treatment with a piece of acrylic for the front and ordered extra mounting board and extra mats to make the spacers needed for shadow boxes (more on that later). 

When the materials arrive, create a clean workspace. Consider laying down a piece of cardboard to protect the frame.

Next, arrange your items on your mat or mounting board. If necessary, consult the picture you took earlier or transfer your tracing from your planning paper to the mounting surface.

Now you’re ready to affix the items. They can be glued, taped or attached with decorative pins. Use what’s best for your particular objects, but keep in mind that some methods are reversible and some aren’t. Don’t risk ruining a precious memento by using an aggressive adhesive, but make sure the method you choose is strong enough to support the item’s weight.

affix items to the backing board

Next, create the spacers from your extra mat and mounting boards. These strips will fit between the acrylic and your mounting surface to create the gap necessary to accommodate your three-dimensional objects.

We are making our spacers out of the extra purple mat board and mounting board we ordered. This gives us the thickness we need to create a sturdy spacer and makes the spacer’s front side match the surface our objects are mounted on so it disappears even when the box is viewed at an angle.

The strips for the top and bottom will be the length of the frame (in our example 5˝). The sides will be ¼˝ less than the length of the frame (in our example 4 ¾˝).

How wide your strips should be depends on the frame’s rabbet and the thickness of your materials. (In our example those materials are the mat, the mounting board and the acrylic.) The easiest way to determine how wide to cut the strips is to put your acrylic and mounting materials (usually mat + mounting board) into the frame and measure the space left over in the frame’s rabbet.  Cut the strips slightly smaller than this measurement to be sure that all the materials fit inside easily.

add tape to the back of matboard strips
Once cut, use double-sided tape to adhere the mat board strips to the mounting board strips with the face (colored side) of the mat board up. Set the strips aside for now.

affix two strips of matboard together to create spacers

Now, attach three sides of the frame and insert the acrylic.

assemble three sides of a metal frame

At this point, you’ll put the spacers in. They should be adhered to the frame’s channel with double-sided tape. Put the tape on the spacers (not the frame), then push the acrylic all the way against the frame’s front and place the top and side spacers against it, leaving space for the artwork and mounting board at the back of the frame. 

put spacers into the frame's channel

Once the spacers have been affixed to three sides, gently unscrew the side opposite of the open side and remove that piece of the frame.

add spacer to final frame segment

Attach the last side and add the remaining spacer to it, as you did with the other three sides.

Slide the artwork and mounting board in the gap between the spacer and the back of the frame.

insert artwork

Attach the last side and your DIY shadowbox is complete!

completed shadow box
Shadow boxes open up a host of possibilities for displaying unusual objects and mementos. With deep frames available in a wide range of both classic and adventurous finishes, you’ll find endless reasons for making your own.  We hope now you see how easy and fun it is and you’ll give it a try. If you do, send us a pic so we can admire your unique display and maybe even copy it!

For other great framing ideas, see our related tutorials and articles:

How to Make a Picture Frame? – Tutorial on Building a Frame from Scratch
Custom Framing a Sports Jersey
How to Frame a Corkboard or Chalkboard Using an Antique Picture Frame
Framing Artwork between Two Pieces of Acrylic
Stacking Metal Frames: Framing Treatment Technique
Custom Framing a 3-D Fish Between Two Pieces of Acrylic
What Kind of Special Framing Tools Do I Need for Using Spacers?


AubreyK | 11/14/2014 2:24:55 PM | 1 comments
very helpful,
12/15/2015 2:57:25 PM

About this blog

Mike Cromly
So, who’s Mike? He is the man behind the mission of getting your picture frames produced and out the door quickly, correctly, with custom frame shop quality. Once your order is placed, it is in the hands of Mike and the many people he has trained over his 35+ years with the company. A natural teacher, he loves to tinker and experiment. Of course he has a nice office, but we rarely find him there. Working in the plant and improving our processes is his passion. Outside of American Frame, Mike is an outdoorsman, avid fisherman, devoted family man and Ohio State Buckeye fan. Mike's Twitter
For more tutorials and articles, take a look at our other blogs - A Good Frame of Mind or At Your Service

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