Making A Shadow Box Template: Designer Notes
Shadow boxes are made of multiple paper cut layers in a special display box with a glass front panel and backlights (that’s why they are also called “lightboxes” or “back-lit boxes”). Usually, they display a fantasy, romantic, or just calming scenery. Hang them on a wall, put them on a shelf or a table – they add magic and create that special mood when you are carried away with your dreams.
Making your own shadow box
When I first thought of making my own shadow box template, I was 90% sure that they are made only with special cutter machines, like Cricut or Silhouette. But in fact, all the layers can be cut out with a weeding knife. Then stripes of foam paper or thick cardboard are glued to the border of each layer to increase the spacing and add more depth for beautiful shadows. The more layers we add – the more interesting result we get.
This is what you need
Let’s list all the parts of the paper cut shadow box template. There should be:
- Front layers (usually 2-3);
- A layer with a focal point which is the main element of the design, the center of attention;
- Background cut out layers (usually 1-3);
- A solid background layer;
- Optional – extra layers of light-weight or tissue paper to “mute” some parts of the design (like a water reflection).
Designing your shadow box
I am using Adobe Illustrator to create the scenery, but I know this can be made with Inkscape or even within the Cricut Design Space.
Shadow boxes can be of different sizes and proportions. I’ve decided to make it a square because it’s easy to scale and most online stores sell square display boxes.
So my first step is creating a new artboard 8×8 inches. Then I start working with layers. The first thing is renaming the one I already have to “solid background” and creating a filled square to the size of my artboard (8″ x 8″). Then I lock the layer. Now I will not forget about this easiest part 🙂
Then I create a new layer and make a border frame 1″ wide. The width and the form of this frame may vary for different designs. Every cut layer should have a border, so I copy and place it next to the artboard to reuse on other layers. This frame is essential to hold all parts and pieces of the design together.
Please NOTE: No parts of the shadow box design should be “floating in the air”. Everything should be connected either to the frame or to other parts of the design (or both). The elements are not just overlapping the frame and each other – all parts of one layer should be united to make one path.
The front layer: Framing
The front layers are framing the composition. Usually, they don’t have any elements in the middle in order to not overlap with the focal point. My front layers are strings of beards and two small lotus contours. All the elements stick to the frame and the longest strings are connected both to the top and the bottom of the layer for more strength.
Don’t make too small elements
Then I start designing my lotus flower. I wanted it to be light and “airy”, so I made quite a lot of holes in it. And that turned into a challenge later when my fellow crafters tested this design on their Cricut and Silhouette cutter machines. Some of the circles were too small for proper cutting, so I had to edit my flower.
Please NOTE: We should keep in mind the actual size of the elements. If some parts of the design are too small or too thin, the machine may not be able to cut them properly. It would be very helpful to test your design if you have access to a cutter machine.
I’ve asked a crafter to cut out the most complicated layers for me.
Important: Include instructions
Since the lotus lives in the water, I decided to add an upside-down layer with a reflection. This is the same flower, but a little bit squizzed vertically. The reflection should not be as bright as the main element, thus there should be another layer between my lotus and its reflection. It is a square with a cut out upper part (leaving the border frame). The idea is to use the light-weight or even tissue paper for this layer to mute the reflection.
Please NOTE: It might be helpful to prepare a PDF instruction for a crafter and add it to the ZIP folder along with your design, for example when you’d like to highlight which type of paper might work best for your design.
Save the files
The last but not least part is saving and exporting the design. The most common format for the cutter machines is SVG. I’m using the “Save as” menu point, not Export. This is important. I also export a DXF file for laser cutting machines and for the free version of Silhouette application. For the DXF file, all elements of the design should be placed next to each other and not overlap. Also I’m saving a PNG version of each layer separately with a transparent background.
Aaaand – this is it for now. Designing this shadow box – or a lightbox – template inspired me for making more of them. Hope this article was helpful for you. I’d love to see your paper cut designs – please share your experience in the comments below!
If you are interested in buying the shadow box that was created in this example, you can find it in my Creative Fabrica store here.