How to Use a Shadow Box to Display Keepsakes

Get ideas and learn how to display photos, trinkets and vacation souveniers in store-bought shadow-box frames. 

I’ve long enjoyed the aesthetic of a nice dimensional shadow box to display photos, treasures, and found objects. They really lend themselves to a creative canvas like no flat photo frame can, thanks to having a built-in gap between the back of the frame and the glass. I’ve used them a lot when designing friendly little Father’s Day gifts and graduation presents, and recently, when I came across a set at the store, I decided to make my own to add a little something special to my own home’s decor.

Note: That’s not me, just the frame lady and the frame boy. I really liked that this trio of 8.5×11″ frames was bundled and sold for $20. If you have a 40% off coupon at the craft store, you might even get the pricing down closer to $12, high-five. They’re affordable, yet not finished and constructed well enough for me to be distressed about tearing them apart and painting them:

First things first: That matte black plastic finish wasn’t quite right for me. It wasn’t in bad shape, not that at all, but instead of blacks, my home’s palette lends more to grays and browns.

Enter Rust-Oleum Oil-Rubbed Bronze spray paint: Each frame was given a shiny new coat, immediately transforming them into something that could be hung on any wall or placed on any shelf.

While the frames dried, I began to map out my plan. Starting by creating my own backdrop for the shadow boxes, I used basic drawing paper (in an ivory color) and traced outlines sized to match the back panel of the shadow boxes.

Trimmed with scissors (and a utility knife for the finer curves), I was ready to start planning the organization of my little treasures.

The treasures themselves, were seashells. Not necessarily seashells that I found and collected for years and am framing for sentimental reasons, just a stash of shells that I bought at a garage sale and stored in a pretty blue glass container until I found a good reason to use them.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to come up with when I started. I played with lots of different arrangements before I began to glue anything in place. Some of my favorites were:

The Christmas Tree:

And The Herringbone:

And the Packed Like Cocktail Sausages:

The resounding winner of my first trial was this design, very similar to The Christmas Tree, but purposely longer, and grading smallest to biggest, top to bottom.

To lock the background paper to the cardboard backing of the frame, I concentrated hot glue to the middle section of the cardboard, where the shells would also be laid. Having the paper reinforced directly beneath the shells will keep them from pulling the paper off the backing, like they might have if the paper was only glued in the corners.

I used a touch of hot glue on the back of each shell too. Just enough to hold it in place without threatening to squish out from beneath the shell and expose itself on the paper. Hot glue is power.

That one happened to be my favorite of the three. It hangs nicely on the wall inside the sunroom, where I can enjoy its symmetry while I drink coffee and check my emails in the morning.

The other two frames were designed also. I really wanted the trio to stay designed as a series, but a series that could be hung together or separately with ease, since artwork tends to move about in my house. I used shells exclusively in one of the other frames, but in a slightly more classic way positioned in rows. A simple starfish (a San Francisco vacation treasure) found a home in the third frame.

While the frame in the front has stayed hung in the sunroom, the other two are currently on the other side of the wall, positioned in the living room.

I actually really like how the glass bulb of the pendant distorts the clean organization of the shells, demonstrated here:

Pretty! And an easy and completely unique project at that.

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