- deep shadowbox frame with hinged lid
- string of mini Christmas lights
- heavy tape (masking, electrical, or duct)
- parchment paper
I recently found myself needing to trace some images onto another sheet of paper, and I didn’t have the one tool that would have helped the most — a lighted tracing box. I resorted to the old trick of holding the pages against a window and letting the sun light up my surface, but clearly that’s not a great solution for every case, so I needed a real tracing box. After thinking about it a few days, I came up with a super easy idea for making my own out of ordinary supplies.
The main inspiration struck when I was walking around my local Hobby Lobby craft store and found a 2″ deep shadow box (on sale!) that had an 11″x14″ window and hinged lid. Just like that, the entire structure of the box was done for me, with no construction needed! I just needed to add light and do something to frost the glass.
For the light, I tried to think of something portable, small, and inexpensive. Then I remembered about the giant box of mini Christmas lights we have in the garage. Perfect! I scoured the box for a string of 100 clear mini lights and got to work.
Before we got any further, here are few very important safety tips:
- I used mini incandescent lights, which are fairly cool, but do give off some heat. If you’re going to use the tracing box for extended periods of time, you may want to use mini LED lights, which burn cooler (but aren’t quite as bright).
- To aid with heat dissipation, you may want to drill some holes into the sides of your shadowbox frame to allow for ventilation.
- A hinged shadowbox is great when using the tracing box for extended periods of time, because you can open the lid briefly every 5-10 minutes and let any built-up heat escape.
Light bulbs get hot — even mini ones. Be wary of heat build-up and do not leave the tracing box on unattended!
To attach your mini lights in place, you’ll need some good tape. I used masking tape, but an even better choice would be flame-retardant white electrical tape (using white instead of black will help with light reflectivity). Starting with the end that does NOT plug in to the wall, tape the string of lights down, bulb by bulb, making sure each one is secure and flat. When you get a row of lights down, just start on the next row under that. Remember that the more evenly you space your bulbs, the more even your light will be.
Continue with more rows, until the entire shadowbox is full of lights. The cord is going to get crazy and bunched up as you go, but just keep taping it down as best you can. Leave the end of the cord hanging out, so you can plug the tracing box in later. (You might need an extension cord to reach the outlet.)
Plug the lights in to make sure they all light up and you didn’t loosen any of the bulbs as you were taping them.
The last step is to finish the glass surface of the tracing box. You want a frosty, hazy finish so that light will shine through evenly and softly. You can accomplish this in several ways, and one idea is to use glass etching cream (like we’ve used in the past for custom wine glasses and decorated apothecary jars. Another idea is to apply one or more layers of frosted contact paper to the glass until you achieve the look you like. I didn’t have these things on hand, so I went with what I had — a sheet of parchment paper. I just cut the paper to size and taped it along the edges of the glass. It was a simple and easy solution that’s also reversible if I decide later that I want to use this as a shadowbox again.
Be sure that whatever treatment you use, you do it to the underside of the glass, so that the top side remains a smooth work surface.
And here’s my finished tracing box in action. Besides helping with heat dissipation, the hinged lid lets me easily tuck the end of the cord inside when I’m not using the box. The large surface area lets me trace full-sized sheets of paper, and the slim profile of the box makes it easy to store on a shelf. It works great for me, and I love it!