Sunday, January 1, 2012

Shadow Box & Tripod

I've been meaning and promising to do this for a LONG time. After the fire I had to figure out a replacement for my tripod and shadowbox. I couldn't find the same tripod I had so I researched a new one that was possibly even MORE hefty and stable than the one I had before, but also had the same range of height (I want to be able to look at my stuff from above or straight on - eye level, and anything in between). I found this fabulous, beautiful tripod (below).

I ordered it from Stakemill online, here. It is made in Germany so you know it's well-built. The only downside is - it's expensive! $339, and that doesn't include shipping. But it works like a champ. It's easier to raise and lower than my old one - it has a nifty little crank. Here is all the pertinent info.

Ok, so onto the shadow box. Many have asked if my husband (the mastermind behind the box) is willing to make and sell these. I have asked many times and his answer is always no. Sorry. I figured pictures and instructions were the next best thing, so here ya go!

The idea behind the shadowbox is to control the light on my subject, and mounting it on a tripod gives me the ability to get any angle easily. The first step is to buy the parts. We used mostly PVC because it is lightweight. The diameter of the longer parts is 3/4". You'll want to buy these first corner pieces to fit 3/4". Get 8 of each of these first two pieces - you'll then screw them together to make 8 of what's in the second picture.

The eight assembled corner pieces are shown in this next picture on the left, along with the other two lengths of 3/4" PVC you'll need. Cut eight 20" pieces and four 24" pieces.

Next you'll want to fit all 8 corner pieces to each end of the longer pieces (as shown below). You don't need to use glue. It holds together just fine with friction.

Then fit all the pieces together to form a cube with the 4 longer pieces forming the width of the cube. Then let your 6-yr-old pretend the cube is solid and he is trapped inside (this is a very important step).

This is where my new shadowbox is better than the one I had before. This is a platform that sits under my box, that keeps the thin bottom piece from bending - it basically keeps everything stable without adding a lot of weight. Take my word for it. The bottom part is 1/8" thick and 18" square. The placement of the 10" lengths aren't super important. There are a couple of inches wide. The hole in the middle fits the metal threaded piece that sticks out from the top of my tripod.

So then you sent this whole thing on top of the tripod and screw a big nut on so it stays.

This is what it looks like on top of the tripod.

Next you're going to need four little screws ... what's that, about an inch long?

You're going to use these screws to attach this next piece (1/8") of plywood to the platform you just attached to the top of the tripod. It is 23 7/8" by 20 2/8". The location of the screws isn't terribly important, as long as they go through the 10" lenths. You are going to want to drill two little holes (about 1/4" in diameter) in each corner and one along each side. The exact location doesn't matter.

This is what this piece looks like attached, from below (below).

Next you'll need a bunch of these 8 (or so) inch cable ties, aka quick locks. They don't have to be white.

You'll want to thread a quick lock through each of the little holes on the edges of the plywood, then around the PVC, and lock. It's easier if you get someone to help you with this part since you'll have to hold the PVC cube in mid-air for just a little while until you get enough of the quick locks in. HINT: don't tighten any of them all the way at first. You are going to end up kind of suspending the cube around the wood, and you want all the ties to be evenly tight/loose.

Next comes the back piece, which I suppose isn't entirely necessary. I like it because I often use smaller sheets of paper as backgrounds and I can lean this against the back. This piece is going to be 23 7/8" by 22 7/8" - same 1/8" plywood, with 2 little holes at each corner and one along each side. Do the same routine with the quick locks. You may note I didn't do the quick locks at the bottom, middle of the back piece and back, middle of the bottom piece. I had them before and they got in the way, and I decided I had enough stability with all the others.

I went ahead and cut off all the ends of the quick locks to make it neater.

Lastly, in order to control that light like we talked about, I drape fabric over the whole thing. I like to use white first so my shadows come alive (try black to see what I mean). Then black over that because my overhead light would come right through only white.

I clamp the corners so the fabric stays on. And I pull down the fabric on the front if I need less of my overhead light shining in there.

This is all sturdy enough to clamp a light directly to the PVC, and this is what I've been doing for months. However, I had it attached to a tripod before and I found it was more flexible. I admit I bought an extra long goose neck (from B&H photo) and a special little clamp dealy to attach that to the tripod. I got the lamp head from Wal-Mart.

I'm very happy with this setup. If you have any questions please ask them as a comment to this post. I'm sure I've left some things out and everyone would like to hear the questions. I will leave my answers also as comments. Thanks!


  1. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for all the work you did to post this! :D
    Do you put a piece of glass or something in the bottom of the setup box to reflect the light? I always see such lovely reflections in your paintings.

    Kathryn Fisher

  2. Oh My Goodness, you really DID go 'all out' on this post ! Thanks for all the great details you included, especially for those who are 'constructionally challenged' like me. I'd probably be the one trying to figure out how to put this together.... WOW... I'm gonna file this away for later ! thanks, Carol !

  3. Wow! Great job on such a detailed posting of your new tripod and lightbox. Thanks so much for taking the time to share that...Looks like the few changes are really wonderful and will make a big difference. No questions- Just appreciation:):)

  4. Holy socks Girl!! This is an amazing help to all of us who struggle with finding the right location for our still lifes (lives?!). I can see where it was a ton of work photographing the whole thing step-by-step and I'm sure I'm not alone when I say thank you so very much for sharing. You've always been generous with anything/everything to help your fellow artists and this is over the top!! So thank you so much.

  5. WOW! Your post is so very helpful and detailed! Thanks so much for sharing and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  6. Hi Carol, Thank you so much!
    A friend made your light box for me last year just from looking at the photos you had then. I couldn't find the tripod you had so have a PVC pipe with holes drilled in it at 2 inch intervals going through it and a metal peg that passes through to hold it in position. The biggest problem I have is changing positions up and down. To change I have to take everything apart. I remove the two fabrics and lights, then lift the two foot square "cage" that has 2 1/4 inch pieces of plywood for the bottom and back wall with the PVC pipes that are 3" diameter,off the stool platform The cage is sitting on another plywood piece that is permanently attached to the vertical PVC that has the holes in it to raise and lower through a wooden bar stool. It is extremely heavy and awkward to remove the cage then use a small hammer to remove the peg, raise or lower and then reassemble. I was discouraged yesterday after all that and left it and never went back to paint! I think your new lighter weight and smaller size is wonderful, and even though I am not going to have a new cage made, I may have to get that fancy tripod!

  7. Looks great! My guy is pretty handy too, so thanks for the step by steps!

  8. Thanks so much for this information Carol. I'll be building my own soon.

  9. WOW!!! What a lot of work you did to provide this info to us groupies. Thank you!!! Happy New Year!
    ((Just read the other posts and WOW seems to be the word of the day!)

  10. Wow, wow Carol! Thank you for all the details and photos of the new shadowbox. Could I borrow Jacob to test it too?

  11. going to make sure my husband sees this. thanks for such wonderful directions. appreciate the time it took.

  12. Thanks for your time and effort detailing in pictures (ugh!) how you built your shadowbox . . . I notice in some of your paintings the 'table top' looks reflective . . . what are you using to set your still life on that gives that effect? Thanks! Marjorie Jordan, Atlanta, GA

  13. THANK YOU! I've been wanting to make one of these since you told us about it at your Workshop at Dena's 2 years ago. You wouldn't believe what I've been using up to this point. Feeling enthused!

  14. Many thanks! I'm excited to start building one of these!

  15. Thank you! As always, so appreciate how much you share and give!

  16. Nice! A couple of follow up pics of it in use would be great :) Welcome to Oregon. I moved to Tigard in May - Love it!

  17. I can see why he doesn't want to make them to sell. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Thanks for a great set of instructions! I have a problem... there is no 6 yr. old in my household to play prisoner in the cube. May I substitute a couple of cats? Thanks for your help.

  19. Great instructions I could actually build this! The pic explain it all. Thank you for taking the time and effort for putting this together!!!

  20. Thanks ya'll!! These comments make every minute I spent on this worth it!

    Kathryn & Marjorie, I put glass in the bottom of my box to get the reflections. I'll post a photo of that soon so you can see the angle.

    Gloria, I totally understand your frustration. Sounds like a good tripod is the answer, just like you said. That will make things so much easier.

    Dana, yes you can borrow my son. How long would you like him? A week? That would be perfect - then we could take that romantic vacation we've been putting off for so long! : )

    B Lancton, yes cats will work just as well. : )

  21. WOW! This is great! I've been wanting to rig something more useful- last winter I rigged various cardboard box setups & drapes, etc. for my still-life setups. Winter (and cold wicked wind) has finally driven me inside to paint- and I've been wanting a better rig for my still-life set-ups! THANK-YOU Carol!! :-D

  22. I love the post. I have a box based on your old version and it works very well...Thank you.
    I would love the info on ordering the flexible light attachment from B&H as I have been using an ott light and it is not tall enough.

    Thank you for all your generous information.

  23. Thanks for all the hard work you put into this post. The shadowbox is fantastic !

  24. Carol,

    Thanks so much for the great photos and clear instructions.

    Just wondering if now that you live in a more rainy climate where it's harder to take photos outside, you are using your shadow box for taking pictures of your paintings as well. Yours are always so good and glare free.

    With only the white fabric it looks very much like the setup that I bought for photographing objects without glare (meant for photos for ebay). If you shine a lamp on the top white fabric, and one onto each side, with the painting held in your panel holder, panel holder vertical against the back of the box, it becomes the photography setup. The crank on the tripod would be very use for that as well.

    Such a versatile box, kudos to David.

  25. Curious what kind of bulb you use in the lamp?

  26. Ellenm, the gooseneck from B&H is a Manfrotto 237 (2896) Flex Arm for Super Clamp

    Bobbi, good question! Actually, the conditions here are PERFECT for photographing art. You have to wait until rain stops of course, but overcast light is great. I had a lightbox from before the fire that I used sometimes, but I found taking them outside is far superior.

    Nancycrom, I use a flood lightbulb - 60 Watts. I think it's from GE.

  27. That is so helpful!!! Thank you so much for the extensive information...

    I have one last silly question: what bulb do you use to illuminate your still-life setup? Is it halogen? Daylight? What is the Watt number? (Would it make a difference to have smaller watt numbers?)

    Thank you so much again...

  28. Carol, thank you so much. I plan on having Gene make me a box. You are so nice to share the info. Happy to see you doing well in your new beginnings. Yay!

  29. Thanks for your shadow box formation.You both are diamonds in the art universe.I am a data hog.
    Bob Ragland

  30. That is a serious tripod!
    Thanks so much for the parts, cut list and step by step instructions. Its very helpful and very generous. (Smart design too!)

  31. Carol, David & Jacob, this is invaluable! If you turned it into a short book, I'd buy it, and I bet lots of other people would too! If the book is spiral-bound, it would be easy to refer to "during assembly". Based on the rave reviews you've already received, you could add a few pictures of the glass sheet in use, the various ways use your light(s?) and maybe a few shots of your set- ups! I'm not trying to add to your workload here, I just think a book might benefit you and us groupies who may be new at PVC construction. On a personal note, my husband loves to make stuff involving PVC & cable ties, so I may be gettting A Marine Light Box for my birthday! THANX for the great effort!

  32. Add my thanks to the long list of gratefulfolks for your finely detailed post., and a belated welcome to Oregon. Just in time for the Ducks Rose bowl win, it must have been crazy in Eugene yesterday.

  33. Fantastic! Thank you

    I'm going to try a smaller version to see if I can use the lazy susan I have. I have limited space here.

  34. Thank you for the goose neck model #. Oh, and I wonder if a stand for a projector, collecting dust, would be sturdy enough to adapt for this? If not, a sculpture stand might be a good substitute? A little less expensive than the tripod, and build to hold weight.

  35. Hi there I am also curious about the type of light you use.. Cool, warm, etc. .do you experiment with different kinds of lights.
    many anks for your very generous post!

  36. I do experiment with bulbs for lighting my still lifes, but the one I use most often is a flood bulb, 50 or 60 watts is good. You don't want it so hot it cooks your apples. : ) I also sometimes use a cooler florescent (one of the curly ones) daylight bulb. I use these sometimes for flowers and/or if I want a less intense light. I recommend experimenting until you find some you can depend on.

    I think a sculpture stand would work great! The thing I like about my tripod is that I can raise and lower it quite a bit AND it's sturdy. If you can find the same qualities in something else that is less expensive that's awesome! Let us know.

  37. My husband made me one (his version of it anyway) and I just set up a still life in it and I'm ready to paint. I can see already that this is going to solve my problem of light changing on my still life. Thanks so much!

  38. Hi Carol

    Thanks so much for the pix. Clear as could be.

    I use a sculpture stand a friend gave me instead of a tripod and it works like a damn. I had a red '57 Fargo pickup on it last week and not a wobble or bend in sight.

    Love the bags and buggies. Could you paint one? Just kidding. :)

    Good luck with the new u.


    ps Sculpture stands can be found on EBay from time to time or from a Sculpture Supply house. Google it.

  39. It says 3/4" plc pipe. Does this require 1" 3 way connector? The places I am looking to buy this do not have 3/4" 3 way connectors. Please advise, there are many sizes bigger than 1".