How to collage photos and knick-knacks in a vintage, mini, super-customizable display

Guest post by Whitney Lee

This project could be more accurately named “Letterpress Drawer Shadowbox and Photo Collage,” but Letterpress Shadowbox has such a nice ring to it. Letterpress Shadowbox. Letterpress Shadowbox. It would be a good band name… maybe for a goth band. Tee-hee.

This project is really tedious — I mean fun! I spent many hours on mine, and even now that it is finished, it isn’t. I’ll continue to make little changes to it for days and months to come. It will evolve!

To create your own letterpress drawer shadowbox, you need:

  • Letterpress drawer (I got mine on ebay) [You can also find them pretty easily in antique stores! -Cat]
  • 3 picture hanging brackets
  • Hammer
  • Sandpaper (optional)
  • X-Acto knife and extra blades
  • Cardboard (I just cut up a box that was lying around)
  • Glue (I prefer rubber cement)
  • Sticky tack
  • Ruler
  • Lots of digital photographs (I used about 55 photos)
  • Printer
  • Photo paper (use a heavier weight)
  • Embellishments- I used vintage wrapping paper, vintage greeting cards, and all kinds of fun and creepy little knick knacks.

Here is my letterpress drawer, freshly unwrapped from being shipped to me.

Man it is filthy! I washed it with warm water and a dash of Murphey’s Oil Soap.

Here is the water before and after the wash. Yuck!

Much better!

There is still goo from the packing tape, so I’m going to sand that off, as well as any other imperfections I see on the frame. Don’t sweat the inside or you’ll drive yourself crazy! Also you’ll be filling it with so much great stuff no one will notice a stray scratch or two.

Next, install picture hanging brackets on the back. This job is much easier before you fill the drawer!

The drawer is pretty heavy so I used two brackets at the top, equally spaced. I put the bracket in the bottom center as a spacer so that the piece would hang evenly against the wall.

Now prepare your photos for print. The first step is to measure your drawer so you know what size openings you have, and how many of each size. I took a photograph of my drawer and printed it out so I would have an easy reference.

Next I measured each opening and wrote the sizes onto my reference page.

My final page looks like this:

Using this reference page I went through my photographs and sized them to fit into the openings. Here is an example of one of the pages that I printed.

Important tips to help you with your photos:

  • When in doubt, make the photo a teensy bit bigger than the opening. You can always trim it down, but if it’s too small you can’t make it bigger.
  • When you want to use a bigger photo, you can have it take up 2 drawer openings.
  • If you do have a photo take up two openings, make sure the person’s face is all the way to the right or left so that it is only in one opening. If a face is in the middle at all it will look weird and wide.
  • Make more important photos bigger! I chose to fill my largest openings with my immediate family (mostly my son Peyton, my man Chico, and myself) and my friends and cats are in the smaller ones.
  • You can look beyond photos of people. I used a couple photos of artwork that is important to me. And photos of cats! Did I mention my wonderful cats?

I chose more snapshot-style photographs overall, and chose ones that have emphasis on art and/or music. That is what represents us best! Maybe your photos will have an emphasis on travel or cooking or books or movies.

Now the real fun begins! Trim your photos with your X-acto knife and straight edge and start planning which openings go with which images. Start with the biggest images and work your way down to the smallest. No need to worry about making them permanently fixed yet — first figure out your overall design.

Okay, now it is time to glue the photographs in. For each one, think about how far you want it to sit back into the drawer. For the photos of my parents (shown below) I want their shining, happy faces to be close to the front.

In order to do this, I cut pieces of cardboard to stack in the letterpress opening, behind the photographs.

This part is tedious — I mean fun! — because it takes 4 layers of cardboard behind each photograph to get it to the height I like. To help speed things along, I made a “master” — a perfectly-sized piece to use as a reference to help me quickly cut other pieces to size. I marked the master so I wouldn’t get it confused with the others.

Okay, back to the photograph of my brother Jordan. Time to glue it in. Here is what I have so far:

I glued the cardboard into a stack. I coated the top of the stack with rubber cement and let it dry. I also coated the back of the photograph with the rubber cement and set it aside to dry.

Next I put sticky tack into the opening, then the stack of cardboard. I’m using sticky tack here so that years from now when I want to update the photographs, I can switch them out more easily.

I put this photograph in next — I love it!

Once all of your photographs are glued in, put in your embellishments. I used sticky tack on the knick knacks too so they can sit closer to the front without falling out.

Hooray, I’m finished. I’m really pleased with the final piece!

Here are some detail photographs:

When you hang your finished letterpress shadowbox on your wall at home, be sure that it is well-lit so that you can see the items and photos that are deep in the box and they don’t fall into shadow. Since there is SO much to look at, it is good to display the piece where someone can stand close to it. Mine? It’s going in the hallway!

Finally I’d like to give Academy Award-style thank yous to my friends Craig Dransfield and Thom Lessner whose artwork is featured in my shadowbox; to my parents and to my brother Jordan Lee, who involuntarily find themselves in the blogosphere; and my artist friend Lisa Choinacky, who let me borrow some of her awesome knick knacks. I’m smiling! I’m waving! I’m walking off the stage… thank you! Thank you everyone!

Enjoy the project!

Comments on How to collage photos and knick-knacks in a vintage, mini, super-customizable display

  1. I love this idea for a printers drawer. I have had a printers drawer for as long as I can remember I used it to display souveniers from travels and life. Right now it sits empty because it no longer represents me as I know me. Time to evolve and put this idea to use. Thank You for the fab idea!

    • well, you could do it with an old silverware drawer, or a sturdy gift box, and some kind of separator thing, like those foldy ones they put in boxes of ornaments? seems like you could find something like that and cut it down to size. it’s not as sturdy, but if you’re only doing pics, or knick-knacks that could be glued to the box itself, instead of the separators, that could work.

    • I used to make these in high school using my mom’s old thimble collection display boxes. They are usually smaller, but still have built in dividers.

      This post brings back memories… I still have the picture shadowbox I made when I was 17 to commemorate a 1 month anniversary. Its funny to look back at now.

    • And 4 years later I finally found a letterpress shadow box drawer at a yard sale (for $4!!!). I saw it and screamed, I guess I’ve been holding onto this project for awhile. πŸ™‚

  2. I just wanted to add that some of those slots look like they would fit a Moo Mini card. You can have a different image printed on each card in your order so you wouldn’t have to destroy original photos or if you just wanted them on a sturdier card stock. They aren’t terribly expensive either.

  3. I actually have a letterpress drawer that I used to display my key collection because the little drawers are the perfect size for keys. I don’t have the wall space for it in the house I’m in, but now I want to put it back up! I always thought it would pop more if I painted it red…time to experiment πŸ™‚

  4. lol… I just ordered one on ebay. I’m so excited to start this project, I have been wanting to do something like this since I was about nine for my sea shell collection (its pretty intense) Now I actually have a beachy spare bedroom in my home to display them

  5. I grew up with having a printer’s drawer for putting small knick-knacks in (as did my mom, aunt, grandmother, and sister)! I like the idea of putting photos in as well.

  6. This is JAW-DROPPINGLY AWESOME. We have some many tiny toys and little quirky figures just scattered around on our bookshelves, and so many wonderful photos we never print because we’re not really frames-on-shelves people… I cannot wait to try this. I hope I can find a letterpress box that’s similar! Thank you SO MUCH for posting this how-to!!!!!

  7. I ordered my letterpress drawer a couple of weeks ago, and am just waiting for it to arrive! I can’t wait to start this project! Thanks so much for the inspiration! πŸ™‚

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