A shadow box is a mini-museum that displays treasured items inside a protected frame you can stand on a shelf or hang on the wall. Scout badges, christening dresses and booties, wedding bouquets and coronets, antique tin soldiers or small porcelain dolls, hand-cast spoons and forks, an arrowhead collection -- whatever related family or favorite things can be grouped together make a piece of three-dimensional art. There is no one way to create your shadowbox, and there are multiple choices for all-important secure fastening of pieces that range from feather-light to heavyweight.
Most items arranged in a shadow box are fastened to the backing. Light objects may be safely attached to a piece of foam board, usually covered in a flat-weave solid fabric such as unbleached linen. Heavier artifacts need a sturdy backer board -- 1/4-inch masonite covered in felt, silk, velvet or linen resist bowing over time. Select a frame that is deep enough to accommodate the bulkiest object, with enough room for a front cover of museum glass that doesn't touch anything in the display. A larger, deeper and wood- or masonite-backed shadow box is heavy, even before it is filled, and needs secure mounting at the wall studs.
Do No Harm
The shadow box is a protective case for your treasures, not just a display method, so think about what comes in contact with valuable old photographs, irreplaceable textiles and documents, war medals, arrowheads and Uncle Lepidopterist's rare butterflies. Archival-quality suede board, acid-free mat board, colorfast backing fabrics, stainless rust-free pins, acid-free scrapbook papers, archival-quality protective UV clear sprays -- anything that touches or fastens the display objects to the shadow box should be chosen with careful preservation as a criteria. The virtue of acid-free and archival-quality materials includes their staying power. They are less likely to decompose or give way and damage shadow box items, even with age.
Making It Stick
The objects to be fastened in the shadow box determine how you secure them. You have a number of good choices; most are invisible; and many will allow you to disassemble and rearrange the contents of the box in the future, with no damage to the items.
- Clear glue dots work for light objects -- foam, paper, plastic, metal, some fabrics, wood and glass. They require no drying time, are removable and can't be seen -- a good option when you have young helpers who are challenged by messy glue and more ambitious fastening methods.
- Sew clear monofilament thread -- secures an item invisibly and stitches it in place -- delicate or sturdy. Monofilament -- check the label for the weight it can safely hold -- although you'll need a steady hand and modest skill to sew the item so your stitches hold it flat and can't be seen. It's a good option for textiles -- and you can snip the stitches without harming the textile to remove it from the frame.
- Glue guns can be messy and will affect the items fastened with it. If you use it for tough stuff such as arrowheads or metal, be sure the items are glued to a stable backing, not a fabric cover that could pull away from the backing board.
- Double-stick tape is fine for anything not so valuable, not too heavy and not a candidate for rearrangement any time soon. It could harm delicate items and fail under the weight of heavier ones.
- A plastic tagging gun, like the ones used for department store price tags, is very secure and can handle heavier objects. The needle has to penetrate the fabric of the item and the backing -- you may need to fasten objects to a fabric or light backing that then glues or tacks to a sturdier wood or masonite backing.
- Pins are fine if they don't show, but they must be rust-free, stainless, dressmaker-smooth pins that won't catch fibers or discolor paper or fabrics.
- Awkward or heavy objects can be wrapped in thin stainless wire poked through minuscule holes in the backing and twisted behind the sturdy backing to hold the item securely in place. Wrap wire where it is least visible or can be covered by part of the item on display.
- Silicone adhesive is pretty permanent but dries clear, doesn't degrade, and holds stone, glass, metal and other materials. It does off-gas some vapor before it cures, and it may harm organic items such as seashells by dissolving them, so read the manufacturer's cautions carefully.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .