DIY Shadow Box Art

Creating your own shadow box art can be a satisfying, simple project that you can complete in an afternoon! Anyone can create unique, “outsider art” style shadow boxes with just a few materials and your own imagination. It’s fun to just collect some items that inspire you--a random assortment of toy body parts, doll eyes, bottle caps, metal gears, etc. You can create with a theme in mind, or keep it random and weird. There are no rules, just have fun with it!


To create your custom shadow box, start by placing the items underneath (without the backing) to ensure that there is enough room for the items and that you will be able to close the box with the items inside. Play with composition, too, trying different items in different combinations.

Once satisfied with your composition, prepare your wooden shadow box by applying a light coat of gesso to the surface with a foam brush.

Once the gesso is dry, paint the outside surface of the shadow box display case with red paint. You may need two coats for an even look.

Decide on the background paper and cut a piece that is the same size as the backing of the shadow box. I’ve used a piece of vintage-inspired, patterned scrapbook paper. I liked the way the dark blue paper had a subtle pattern on it and how it contrasted with the bright red paint. You can use any paper that appeals to you. Other good choices are dictionary pages, old book pages, vintage music sheets, ledger paper, vintage maps, etc.

Cut out a piece of paper that measures about 5 ⅛” x 8 1/16”. Adhere it onto the backing with a light coat of Mod Podge on both the surface of the backing and the underside of the paper. Quickly line up the paper onto the backing and smooth out any air bubbles. Apply a light coat of Mod Podge over the top of the paper--this will also ensure that no air bubbles develop. The Mod Podge also provides a nice protective coating for your paper and allows you to easily glue on the collage items later. To line the inside of the shadow box, simply paint it or adhere patterned paper. For the 6” x 9” small shadow box, you’ll need two pieces that measure 7 ½” x 1 3/16”, and two pieces that measure 4.5” x 1 3/16”.

Once dry, lay the items all on the backing to be sure of the placement. You’ll want to make sure to leave a little bit of space at the top and bottom so that the plexiglass shadow box cover can be placed on top of the backing and contain all of the collage items. An easy way to remember where everything goes is to take a photo of it for comparison later.

When satisfied with the placement, adhere the items to the backing with a glue gun. Remember to leave about ¼” from the top and bottom so that the backing can be placed back into the shadow box.

Allow time to dry, then carefully place the backing onto the shadow box and secure with the four hinged pieces on the back.

To create the hinged shadow box art, follow the same directions as the shadow box: First, apply gesso, then paint (or leave as is--the gesso can also create a subtle wash or weathered look). Then, adhere the paper to the inside of each of the halves of the wooden box. Once dry, glue the items to either side with a glue gun. You can create something that spills over from one half to the other, or create two separate “stories” or scenes.

Paint or add more patterned paper to the inside and outside of the box halves. To add paper to the inside of the right box half, you’ll need two pieces that measure about 7 ½” x 1 ½” and two pieces that are about 4 1/16” x 1 ½”. You can also use the paint to distress or add shading to the inside papers. Place a cut-out word into the antique brass label holder and adhere to the inside with a little bit of glue. Then attach the box hardware to the inside of the box with the glue gun.

Tie a string to each of the organs (about 12” each). Gather the string loosely and tie it off at the point where they reach the ornament boy’s hand. Cut the remaining lengths of string, then glue to the hand.

I hope you are inspired by these shadow box ideas and make a unique piece of shadow box art of your own!