clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How to Build a Shadow Box

We show you how to make a DIY shadow box using an old wooden door in 15 steps.

Tom Silva and Kevin O’Connor put together a custom DIY shadow box to display heirloom collectibles.

Precious objects from our past have an unfortunate habit of ending up squirreled away in the attic or basement, neglected and forgotten. With a glass-fronted shadow box, however, those collectibles can have a worthy display space, safe from dust and dirty, clumsy fingers.

In the video above, you’ll see a simple box that Tom and Kevin fashioned, fittingly, from pieces of an old salvaged fir door. Doors like this were often made from beautiful knot-free wood with a tight, straight grain. When oiled it turns a warm honey hue. Yet Tom also made sure to leave behind unmistakable clues about this wood’s origins: See the spots where the hinges were attached?

How Shadow Boxes Work

Parts of a shadow box are labeled including the glass, end pieces, back panels, and wood screws. Illustration by Gregory Nemec

A shadow box can be made of wood and has a glass-front so you can see the items that you’ll store inside it. The glass is fixed into place so to store objects inside the box you’ll unscrew the back.

In the following steps, we’ll show you how to cut down an old door and assemble this project. Plus, you’ll find useful tips for plugging holes and cutting glass. Then, with any luck, you may uncover the right salvaged door at the right price, and after a few hours in your shop, you’ll have a vintage homemade shadow box of your own.

DIY Shadow Box in 15 Steps

Step 1: Find an Old Door

Person carrying an old wooden door to a workshop table so they can convert it into a shadow box. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

A clear finish, like this door has, makes it easier to assess wood quality. Lead isn’t an issue with clear finishes, but it can be with paint. If the paint tests positive for lead, take appropriate safety precautions and strip the door down to bare wood before proceeding.

Step 2: Cut it Up

Person using a circular saw to cut the old wooden door into pieces to make a shadow box. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using a circular saw with a rip fence, or fingers with a steady grip on the saw’s shoe, cut off the door’s hinge-side stile, as shown. (This stile doesn’t have doorknob holes to fill.) Also cut along the other stile and rails to free one of the door’s flat panels.

Step 3: Clean off the Old Finish

Person using a table saw to shave off some old wood finish. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Check for hidden screws, then square up the sides of the stile with a table saw. Tom then quickly shaved the old finish off the stile’s faces with four light cuts, as shown. That saved lots of sanding.

Step 4: Rabbet and Dado

Clean wooden panel laying on a workshop table. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Run the clean board through the table saw two more times to make a ½-inch-by-½-inch rabbet in one corner. The box’s bottom panel will fit into this rabbet. On the same face, 1⁄4 inch from the side opposite the rabbet, use the saw to cut a 1⁄8-inch-wide, ½-inch-deep dado to hold the glass.

Step 4: Sand

Person using a random orbit sander on the wood piece that will form the back of a shadow box. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using a random-orbit sander and 220-grit sandpaper, smooth all sides of the stile. Save the sawdust for the next step. Then sand the finish off one face of the panel, as shown. Start with 180-grit sandpaper, and finish with 220.

Step 6: Plug the Holes

Person plugging holes in wood with glue. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Whittle a scrap piece of wood from the stile into a stick narrow enough to fit in the holes left by the hinge screws. Squeeze Gorilla Wood Glue into the holes, insert the whittled stick, and slice it off flush with a knife, as shown. Use the sawdust saved in Step 6 to color the glue.

Step 7: Apply the Finish

Person applying finish to wooden panel. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Wipe the stile and panel clean with a tack cloth; then, using a lint-free cloth, apply a penetrating finish to all sides of the stile and the sanded face of the panel. Here, Kevin rubs on an oil-varnish blend. For this finish, wait 5 to 10 minutes for it to soak in, wipe up the excess, and toss the cloth in water to prevent it from catching fire spontaneously. The pieces will be dry enough to handle in 10 hours.

Step 8: Cut the Miters

Person using a miter saw to cut a panel for a shadow box. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

When the finish is dry, use a miter saw to cut 45-degree miters into the ends of all four pieces, to the lengths specified on the cut list. When making these cuts, place each piece against the saw’s fence with the dado and rabbet facing out, as shown.

Step 9: Cut the Back Panel to Size

  Person cutting wood panels with a table saw. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Measure the box’s length and width from inside the rabbets. Subtract 1⁄8 inch from both dimensions, to give the panel room to move when the seasons change. Using a table saw, trim the back to those slightly narrower measurements, as shown.

Step 10: Apply the Glue

Person holding up a wood panel and applying glue in 3 lines to the end. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Squeeze glue onto both miters of a short end piece, as shown, and spread it evenly with a cloth. Repeat on the matching miter at one end of each long side piece. A PVA wood glue would work here, but Tom chose instead to use Clear Gorilla Glue, a hybrid, non-polyurethane adhesive.

Working with a Hybrid Glue:

  • Clamp it. Secure joints together for at least 2 hours as the glue cures.
  • Clean it. If any glue squeezes out, wipe it up right away with a dry rag, followed by one dampened with rubbing alcohol. Unlike polyurethane glues, hybrids don’t foam up or stain skin.
  • Store it. After each use, wipe nozzle clean with a dry cloth and tightly replace lid. Store in a cool, dry place with exposure to light. Heat and lack of light can cause product to yellow.

Step 11: Fasten the Miters

Person holding together a nearly completed shadow box, while another person is using a fastener to fix the side panels together. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Fit the glued miters on the end piece against the glued miters of the two side pieces. Make sure the dadoes and corners line up, then clamp the pieces in place with two 2-inch brads, shot through each side of both corners.

Step 12: Score the Glass

Two people wearing gloves and using a glass cutter to prepare the the glass front of the shadow box. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using the box’s back panel as a template, mark the glass with a felt-tip marker. To use the panel as a guide for the glass cutter, reposition it so the cutter’s wheel is centered on the marks. Now, wearing gloves, dip the wheel into cutting oil and pull the cutter in one firm stroke along the panel, as shown.

Cutting Glass:

  • How it works. Glass cutters don’t actually cut through glass. They score its surface with a tiny diamond-shaped wheel. That weakens the glass enough for it to break cleanly when it’s snapped away from the score.
  • Lubricate steel wheels. Glass cutters have either steel or carbide wheels. Steel wheels need to be lubricated with cutting oil before use to ensure that they make a clean, continuous score line. Glass cutters with carbide wheels need no lubrication.

Step 13: Snap and Fit the Glass

One person holding two sides of the DIY shadow box while the other person slides the glass in from the top. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Line up the score mark on the glass with the edge of a table. With gloves on, lift the glass where it overhangs the table and drop it straight down. The glass will snap at the score, leaving a clean, straight edge. Repeat Steps 13 and 14, if needed, then slide the cut sheet into the three-sided frame, as shown.

Step 14: Attach the Last Side

Person using a brad nail gun to secure the top panel on the shadow box after the glass has been inserted. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

With the glass in place, glue the remaining end piece to the frame. Hold the piece in place with a strap clamp and a bar clamp, then shoot two brads on each side of both joints, as shown.

Step 15: Fasten the Back Panel

Person using a clamp to hold together the sides of the shadow box while fastening the back panel into place. Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Turn the box glass side down, then drop in the back panel. Using a 5⁄64-inch bit, drill three evenly spaced pilot holes through the back, angled slightly into the box’s frame. Each long side should have three holes; each short side should have two. Drive a wood screw into each pilot hole. Because the glass in this box is fixed in place, you get to the inside by unscrewing the back.

Tools and Materials to Make a Shadow Box