How to Create Your Own Box Frames

How to Create Your Own Box Frames main article image
Posted on August 25, 2021 by Natalie Ballard
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There are three types of box frame: the card based folding ones, wooden box frames that are pre-made and two part boxes with a front aperture in the lid. For beginners, this last option enables creativity without lots of complicated mathematics.

You will need:

  • Coloured card
  • Vellum
  • Foam board
  • Battery-powered LED string

The central design

This style of box frame lends itself to perspective scenes where each layer of depth can be linked to a colour. They look stunning in shades of white or go full colour, but what really makes them shine are the lights we add to the back most layer.

Firstly, software… the choice for this project is Inkscape. It’s free and it can trace the way we need to for this project. You could use a pre-built scene but something that is PNG or JPG is perfect for this method. You could also draw each layer by hand once you start to get more confident.

You can source a base image to work with from Pixabay while you are practicing this technique. Here are just a few that caught my eye before I found “THE one”.

Selection of landscape scenes suitable for converting to a layered scene

You want to pick an image with clearly defined layers, and with a clear foreground layer. You also want to consider the finished size of your piece. For example, an A5 box frame will not be able to handle lots of fine detail which you would get away with in a larger A4 frame. You also want your image to have ideally 5 or more layers that you can isolate.

  1. Import your chosen design and resize it roughly to your target dimensions. We will need to add a border to each layer, so we can tidy this up at a later stage.
  2. Right click on your image and select [Trace Bitmap]Screenshot showing the tracing process
  3. Select multiple scans, colour and then stack. This creates the scan we need. You can adjust the other settings to suit your image, be sure to use the Update button to see how your changes affect the trace.
  4. Press [OK] and then close the pop-up window.

This then gives you your layered trace that we can pull apart. 

At this point I swapped to Affinity Designer as my computer was having a bad day. Go to the Objects panel and ungroup the trace. Hide all the layers of the trace apart from the bottom one.

  1. The bottom layer is the widest point of the trace. Now is the time to decide the final dimensions of your design by creating the border that will be welded to each layer as well as being cut from your foam board. Draw your outer border rectangle first, this should be no wider nor taller than your foam board sheets.
  2. Duplicate this and use offset to about 7mm to create the aperture for your border frame.Creating the border based on the background layer
  3. Subtract the aperture from the outside  to create the border frame. Duplicate it and lock and hide one copy as a backup.
  4. Reveal the next layer up from your background. Name this Layer 1. Remove or amend any details you are not happy with. Such as tiny details that would not cut neatly, sky details you don’t wish to retain and so forth. You should also remove all orphan shapes that will not be supported by the outer frame after welding.
  5. Merge Layer 1 with a duplicate of your border frame.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for each of your traced layers: amending each one before welding.
  7. Keep your backup copy of the frame to use as a cutting guide for your foam sheets. You will need one foam frame between each layer and two layers behind the background layer.

Montage showing the layers of the file with the welded border applied

Top tips for the layered inner:

  • You can use layer FX and drop or outer shadow to help you see the layer you are working on where layers colours are close ore identical.
  • Sometimes, you will need to pull out a duplicate layer to use as the foreground layer so you don’t end up with a dip in the lower section of your frame. This will vary by image and by the tracing software you use.
  • Another thing to watch out for are strips of tracing that tether to nothing. Then you need to duplicate the layer above and weld it to the layer that need tethering.

Cutting the file

Export your completed layers to SVG format and import them into your cutting software. If your design is complex or intricate, cut from the back for a neater finish. You can cut one layer at a time from coloured card or cut them all at once from white. I went for the latter option so I could better match the colours of the original photo.

If you are going to add lights (see the spacing section), cut the background layer from translucent material such as vellum or parchment.

Experiment with different materials like glitter card, pearlescent card, textured card, acetate, Doeflex and more.

Colouring the layers using blending brushes and Distress Ink

Spacing and Assembly

Depending on your image, you may wish to change the spacing. These types of images are typically assembled with 5mm foam board between each layer. However, if your image features 2 or more colours in the same “layer” then you might want to adjust this. For example, you could lay two colours directly over each other while still using the foam board between the remaining layers. Another option is to step down to 3mm foam board or even use the same card to cut the spacers; using 1-3 frames between each piece.

If you intend to use lights, you do need to use the 5mm foam for that layer. The string of lights then wrap around your foam frame so that each bulb lies on the inside edge of the foam frame.

You want to assemble your inners (at least temporarily) so you can measure the finished dimensions accurately to design a box that fits. Measure the height, width and, especially, the depth of your assembly.

Making the box frame

With your measurements, you can head to templatemaker.nl and use their template maker. Alternatively, there is a box making extension built into Inkscape that you can use. If you use the Inkscape method, make sure you feed the lights through so your battery pack remains outside the box for battery changes. Likewise, when choosing you template style, consider your battery pack in your design. For example, you could go for a two piece box to hide the battery pack in the back.

Padding: Add 2mm to each dimension to allow for folding; this should increase if you are using thicker card or board.

To this design you want to add an aperture. This should be fractionally smaller than the aperture in your border frame from your inner.

Build your box around your artwork, which will help you form your box easier. This is especially true for smaller dimensions.


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