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Tip Jar: Building a Light Box

Project of the Day: Shadow Puppet Light Box

By Adria Katz [Sketchbook Project, Limited Edition]

What weʼll be making: We’ll be making a light box that can be used as a shadow puppet theater.  Shadow puppets are an expressive and artistic format in many cultures: for example, I was inspired by a performance of the Javanese Gamelan at the Indonesian Consulate in New York.  The craft of making puppets in another thing entirely, but here we will just get into making the Light Box, a covered decorative box that is illuminated by LEDs.  Some of the techniques we’ll use are book binding techniques, of the kind that you’d use to make a book box for fragile or antique books.

Materials for Light Circuit:

  • Copper or stainless steel wire
  • LEDs (I’ll use  just one here.  You’ll need more for a larger box.)
  • Switch
  • Batteries (I’ll use 1.5 V watch batteries here.  LEDs vary by color and number in terms of how much voltage they require.)
  • Electrical tape
  • Two pairs of pliers

Material for the Light Box:

  • Decorative paper
  •  Japanese kozo or gampi paper (or other translucent paper)
  • Book board (one-sixteenth of an inch)
  • pH neutral archival white glue
  • Glue brush
  • Metal ruler (I use the kind with a cork bottom so it doesn’t slide)
  • Pencil
  • X-acto blade
  • Hot glue gun
  • Cutting mat (optional)

Estimated Time: Depending on how careful and meticulous you are, this could take from 45 to 90 minutes.

Letʼs Do It!

Part One: Light Circuit

Circuits seem complicated, and they can be, but they can also be quite simple.  You can take apart any small appliance to use its parts, or you can assemble spare parts that you have.  Know that you may need to insert a resistor into your circuit to protect your LEDs from burning out, depending on your voltage and the resistance of the LEDs you are using.  Use this site to help you calculate the resistance necessary if you have one LED (http://led.linear1.org/1led.wiz) or this one if you have multiple LEDs (http://led.linear1.org/led.wiz)

1.     Assemble your circuit carefully.  I arranged the components of my circuit so that the light source would end up in the center of the box, and the switch would be by the edge, so that it can be tapped on.

2.     Double check that your connections are secure.  The best way to make secure connections is to make a loop in each lead and grasp the two loops each with a pair of pliers and twist them. 

3.     Cover the circuit in electrical tape to insulate it and maintain its shape.


Part Two: Light Box

The most important part of making and covering this little box is to take your time, measure carefully, and think in three dimensions, which can be harder than it sounds!

1.     Measure and trace the size of your box on the book board.  Label its base, so you remember which side is the inside and which edges connect.   My box is small, just 2 ½” x 2 ½ inches by 1 inch.

2.     The next two sides will have the same height, just an inch thick. Use the measurement you have to trace two walls.

3.     The next two sides are 1/8 of an inch shorter, since they must fit between the first two walls on the base.  Trace and label them.

4.     Use an X-acto knife to score and then cut the board into pieces along the edge of the metal ruler.  Use a fresh blade, and drag it across the board 2-3 times before checking to see if it is detached.

5.     We will need to cut out two holes on one of the sides.   One hole is to access the switch, and the other is a grove through which to hold the puppets.  Set one side apart to cut the holes in it.  First, attach the other three sides to the base.  The easiest way to glue the edges of the box together seems silly, but it’s the technique I learned in school!  Everyone loves to put white glue on their fingers, and this is the opportunity to say you’re doing it for the sake of art!  Place a small amount of glue on a finger tip, and drag the tip along the 1/16th of an inch edge.

Then press and hold it onto the base for a few seconds.  Continue to affix all three of the sides.

6.     When you have done so, place your circuit on the base to figure out exactly where you need to cut the hole to access the switch.

7.     The hole should be at least 5/8inch wide and ½ inch tall.  Decide if you need a different size.  Draw this hole on the bottom of the side.  Draw a slit to cut out that is 1/8 inches wide along the top of the side.  Cut these holes with the X-acto knife carefully when you are sure they are in the correct place.

8.     You can glue the last side on in the same way as the others.

9.     Now it is time to cover the box.  Place it upon your decorative paper, and start to envision how the paper will curl up and over the box, without leaving any unfinished edges.  Start by tracing the box, since now measurements with a ruler will be less precise than just using the measurements your box gives you.  Keep the orientation the same, so that any aberrations in the size of your box will be compensated for.

10.  Carefully use the sides of the box to trace their heights around the traced base.

11.  Use a ruler to straighten and extend your lines.

12.  There are a few tabs and mitered cuts you will want to make to allow the paper to seam up perfectly.  On two opposite sides, you’ll need to cut four 1/16 inch taps to go along the top edges of the sides.  On the other two sides, you’ll need to cut four mitered corners to fit over those tabs.  It does not matter how much the edges fold over the top of the sides, as long as they are not longer than the height of the box.  You’re final paper will look like this:

Detail of a corner:

13.  It’s time to glue your cover on.  Depending on how thick your paper is, you may want to thin the glue with a drop of water.  Do not make it too watery.  Use the brush to spread the glue from the center outwards.  Gently press the base onto the paper.  You can use a bone folder if you have one or just your finger.

14.  Use scrap paper to cover one side in glue, starting from the center again, and painting the glue outward.

15.  Press the outside of the side to the paper.  Press the corner tabs onto the adjacent sides, and press the thin tabs down to the top of the adjacent sides.

16.  To cover the holes in the book board, cut the paper as shown in the picture below, to provide tabs to fold over.  Trim the edge so that it won’t cover the hole from the inside.

17.  Carefully apply glue as you did on the first side, and tuck in the tabs.  Make sure they are completely glued down.

18.  Continue with the last two flaps, applying glue, and pressing the paper up and over the sides.  Glue a small piece of paper to mask the inside of the hole so that board is not visible through it.

19.  Use the hot glue gun to affix the light circuit in place so that the switch is accessible through the hole, and the LED is in the center.  The batteries should be to the side.  If you want to, you can cover the LED with a piece of gampi paper, to diffuse the light.

20.  Trace the opening of the box on a piece of gampi paper, and cut out the square to glue it onto the box as a screen.

21.  Slide a shadow puppet through the slit and experiment!

Now you have a little puppet theater!  Hopefully you found that your shadow is clear and crisp.  If not, experiment with a deeper depth of field and quantity of LEDs.  LEDs emit a direct light, so you may also want to angle them away from the screen to diffuse their light.  Maybe a reflective paper inside the box would help maximize the light.  Consider adding a silhouette border around the screen to place the puppet in a setting.  Another helpful tip for cutting out shadow puppets:  find yourself a swivel tip X-acto blade!  It’s the most amazing invention, because it allows you to cut out shapes as if you were using a pen.  It will definitely help against carpel tunnel!  Good luck, and if you have your own helpful tips, please let me know!

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    i wanna do this…. someone should...I’ve always wanted
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