Shoebox diorama

Thinking inside the box

Dioramas come in many shapes, forms, materials and levels of complexity. For most of us though, our first encounter with dioramas came in the form of a shoebox diorama. Whether as a school project, or a fun craft at home. As such, you might tend to think of shoebox dioramas as childishly put together scenes in one theme or another. With clumsily cut pieces of colored paper, lumps of clay, and blobs of glue. But let’s take our thoughts away from those creations for a bit. Instead, let’s think within the bare bounds of that shoebox, that empty cardboard real estate, and see the potential there. There’s a lot of it.

Worlds of potential.

In essence, what we are dealing with is a container, in which we can build a miniature scene. Any scene, as detailed as we want. The borders of the diorama box are like the frame of a window that offers a glimpse of a mini world. Being a box with a self contained scene, you can place it on a bookshelf, nicely tucked in between books. What’s more, the contents of your shoebox diorama can actually be inspired by the books you surround it with. For example, a fantasy scene set in nature, an Art Deco scene straight out of the Great Gatsby, or some romantic scenery that alludes to the works of Jane Austen. To name a few.

Medieval cottage diorama in a shoebox

If it’s tiny enough, a whole world could fit in a box. Or at least, a little peek into that world.

Of course, you may not be looking to make home decor at all. Perhaps your shoebox diorama is to be one of those art projects we discussed a little earlier, and you want it to look as best it can. In either case, this article will give you a couple of handy pointers on how to go about it. So let’s get started!

How do you make a shoebox diorama?

The box

The basis you’ll be working with, is a box. Typically, a shoebox. What makes this type of box handy for this purpose, is the fact that you’ll have a sturdy, intact and even set of walls to build your diorama in. Plus, the lid it comes with adds some perks of its own. You can use it as an extension of the diorama, to add more depth to the scene. Or, if the diorama is contained within the box itself, you can use the lid to close it when the time comes to store away your creation. That way, you’ll keep a Christmas shoebox diorama from gathering dust until the next winter season comes along.

Cardboard box with a Japanese garden diorama

Using part of the box lid as an extension of the ground, this diorama gained a lot more depth, as well as the effect of its scenery spilling out of the box.

Depending on the diorama layout you have in mind, a different kind of box could be more suited for your project. For example, a sneaker box that has its lid attached will give you a more balanced amount of vertical space and ground space to work with. If you’re thinking of working at a smaller scale, a tissue box might be the one to go for instead. Whereas if you’re not really feeling the cardboard framing and going for something more refined, you might want to look into wooden boxes.

Creating a theme

When deciding what kind of scene you’ll be building, it’s good to keep two things in mind. First of course, your own style and preference. What sort of scenery would make you smile each time you see it sitting on its shelf in all its mini-ness? And second, what kind of craft would you enjoy doing? The thing is, some materials and techniques will lend themselves more to certain types of dioramas than others.

Diorama with flowery scenery

Natural scene

When making a diorama of natural scenery, there are multiple ways of going about it. You could sculpt parts of it with clay, like a tree trunk, and even the individual leaves on the branches. Things that you don’t feel like  sculpting yourself can also be purchased, like tiny mushrooms and shrubs. And even though a box may seem like it offers little space to work with at first, there’s a world of possibilities hiding in the interplay between depth and height. Master that, and you will be able to create stunning, realistic scenes that guide the eye through its intricate layers… with a little practice, that is.

On the other hand, you might want to step away from realism, and create something that looks more like a painting. For this, you could print out individual natural structures, like these beautiful mossy forest elements in watercolor, and place these at different depth points in your diorama box. Through such layering, you create an interesting play between the flat prints and the 3-dimensional nature of the shoebox diorama.

Architectural scenes

When the theme of your diorama is architectural in nature, there likely will be less of a layered design as you are working with larger objects. Instead, the buildings themselves give a strong sense of depth and perspective. You can further play with this by trying different angles of placement. If you include an alley, you can make it in an upward slope and have it curve away from sight for a further hint of depth.

Shoebox diorama of an old town

To create houses and other buildings, there are many DIY kits available that give you a great basis to work with. Some of them are physical kits, but many more are digital downloads. Like this medieval house laser cut file, for instance. Digital files such as these require a laser cutting machine – but no need to invest in heavy machinery just yet. By sending the files to an on-demand laser cutting service, you’ll have the wooden pattern pieces in your possession in no-time. Then, with the bare bones in place, a couple of finishing touches will give your mini structures a coat of realism.

Integrating the shoebox diorama

More than just containing the diorama, the shoebox itself can also be made an integral part of the scenery. Especially the back wall of the diorama box offers a lot of possibilities to create illusions of more depth and completion. Just compare the dioramas of the old town and the Japanese garden above. The former would feel far more finished with a painted sky as a backdrop. As for the latter, it would feel rather shallow without the painted city background. Even if that background itself is flat in nature.

Another thing to consider are the edges of the box. If you slide your shoebox diorama snugly between some books on a bookshelf, you’ll probably hardly even notice them. However, if the bare cardboard edges are visible and feel like an eyesore, you might want to do a bit of crafting to integrate them better. For example, you could wrap the box in leather, or make a wooden casing. Alternatively, if your diorama includes greenery, you could let it extend beyond the borders, creep over the edges, and even grow onto their surroundings.

Diorama of a cottage covered in vines

Giant vines taking over! Or, keep your creepers proportional with these.

Shoebox diorama ideas

We’ve shared quite a few shoebox diorama ideas in this article already. But there’s more where that came from. So be sure to have a peek at the different sorts of little worlds below. Which theme would you stick in your diorama box?

Forest shoebox diorama

Forest shoebox diorama

The next best thing after a forest walk, is a tiny forest to look at in all comfort. Would you create the vibrant greens of a forest in mid-summer? Or go for the warm palette of fall?

Winter shoebox diorama

Winter shoebox diorama

Whether it’s a Christmas scene or a non-festive snowy landscape, a winter shoebox diorama captures all the charm of the cold season.

Rainforest shoebox diorama

Rainforest shoebox diorama

If you love nature, creating a rainforest diorama might just be project for you. With a source of inspiration that is so brimming with life, full of vibrant colors and amazing creatures, you can craft a scene that makes you feel some of the excitement of a jungle explorer.

Ocean shoebox diorama

Ocean shoebox diorama

Whether you love the vibrance of the ocean’s coral reef, or you’ve secretly been waiting for an opportunity to create the freak of nature that is the blobfish, making an ocean diorama might be just the craft for you.

Savanna shoebox diorama

Savanna shoebox diorama

Most of us won’t get to experience going on an actual safari. So why not get a little taste of the wanderlust in Africa and create the sights on a tiny scale?

Grump's thoughts on shoebox dioramas

So, you are contemplating to make a diorama. And you’ll sacrifice a box, I hear. Vacating a pair of funny looking clogs from their humble abode and condemning them to sheathe your five-toed stinkers instead.

Good. I have heard of worse fates for shoeboxes. So go ahead and make your fanciful miniature world. Looks like it could be done in a couple of easy steps, beginner-friendly and all that. In theory, at least. I suggest you get yourself some of the supplies listed above. That way, you’ll save yourself a bunch of frustration and get something decent looking. And if not so, worry not. It takes a sharp eye to notice the things you’ve botched when they are at miniature scale. One of the many perks of being small, I say.

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