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January 20, 2021

How to Make a 3D Shadow Box with a Glowforge

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One of the projects high on my list of priorities is how to make a 3D shadow box. I've never made one before, but they intrigued me. I thought it would be an excellent project for the Glowforge laser.

A couple of new tasks I wanted to accomplish was to create living hinges. Basically, with these, the wood is cut by the laser so that the wood becomes bendable. The bendable portion would end up as smooth, round corners.

The second task to achieve was to light up the box using LED strip lights. LED lights are nothing new to most people these days. However, LED strip lighting is quite a bit different.

LED strip lights are still a bit of a black hole in terms of technology. There are many different kinds, and you control them in many different ways.

I set myself the high goal of controlling them with the AppleKit Home app on my iPhone. As I've written about in different articles, I already have the Lutron Caseta devices installed in our home. Those also are controlled by the Apple Home app.

Glowforge Max Cut Size vs. Glowforge Bed Size

With my objectives in hand, I found another opportunity to learn more about my Glowforge laser. I always kind of knew that the maximum cut size was less than the size of the bed. But I never really knew how much so.

The design my wife chose was the Laser Lightbox Lighthouse, Live today, dream tomorrow, SVG Files, Glowforge, Cricut, Silhouette Cameo. We've always found lighthouses intriguing. 

The StarlingSVG Etsy shop created this design. They are another "Buyers are raving! This shop got multiple 5-star reviews in the past seven days" StarlingSVG has a large selection of lightbox designs. Along with lightboxes, they have a wide variety of products using the living hinges.

This particular lighthouse laser design had two different sizes included. Both included six different layers, but one size was 11.26-inches square, and the other was 8.1 inches square. Since my material size was 12-inches high by 20-inches wide, I planned on cutting the larger size.

As you can see from the image below, the maximum Glowforge cutting size is about 11-inches high and 19.5-inches wide. 11.26-inches was just a bit too much for the Glowforge to cut.

You can see the smaller, 8.1-inch size to the left that the Glowforge laser could cut in the same image below.

Glowforge Max Cut Size vs. Glowforge Bed Size

The Lighthouse Laser Cut Files

The purchase included six different graphic files. These included some of the most popular laser vector file types including, AI, CDR, DWG, DXF, PDF, and SVG file types.

most popular laser vector file types including, AI, CDR, DWG, DXF, PDF, and SVG file types

The six layers of the lightbox, with both sizes, were included in each of the drawing files.

The six layers of the #d Shadow Box, with both sizes

Using Adobe Illustrator, I split the original design file into separate large and small files.

I then further split each of these into separate files for import into the Glowforge software. Doing this step is not a requirement, as the Glowforge software can remove some of the designs. I find it easier to work this way.
Large and Small Design Vector files for 3D Shadow Box

As I've written in other Glowforge laser tutorials, I like to change the vector paths' color. Color-coding correctly allows for the shapes to cut from the inside out of the design.

I left the inner shapes black and changed the outer path stroke to a purple. These changes matched the color scheme on the Glowforge laser color-coding steps,

Glowforge laser color-coding steps

A close up below the living hinge shows just how close the different vector paths are. Yet, as you can see, they are different.

3D Shadow Box Living Hinge Design

Laser Cutting and Assembly of the 3D Shadow Box

The design instructions call for using a 1/8-inch thick material. The size is essential for this design so that the interconnecting slots cut and fit together snugly.

I used Baltic Birch plywood from Ocooch Hardwoods, and it cut quite nicely. As with any plywood, some pieces cut better than others. Plywood is a bit of an unknown as you don't always know what material or glue is in the middle section.

 With the smaller design, I was able to cut two layers from each of the material pieces.
3D Shadow Box Layers in the Glowforge Software
Baltic Birch 3D Shadow Box Layers
Glowforge Laser Software with 3D Light Box Layers
Glowforge Laser Software with 3D Light Box Back Side

The final material to cut was for the box sides.

Glowforge Laser Software with 3D Light Box Sides
Baltic Birch 3D Light Box Sides

The corners with the living hinge turned out perfectly. Nice and bendable.

3D Light Box corners with the living hinge

With all the layers cut, it was now time for the assembly.

Assembly worked best by connecting two sides and laying them out on a broad flat surface. Doing this made it easy to insert the individual layers into the slots at the bottom.
Assembly of the shadow box
Assembly of the light box on a wide flat surface

I then connected the remaining side pieces and wrapped them around to the top of the shadow box.

Sides of the 3D Shadow Box

I need to make one comment about lights at this point. The design includes a layer where there are holes cut for where you can insert LED string lights.

The designer recommended a nice set of very inexpensive string lights from IDEA. However, because of the COVID pandemic, IKEA was charging too high of a price for shipping and handling.

I went a different route with the lights and have written a separate article about that experience. Assembly did not include the light holes layer in this project. I was able to attached LED strip lights directly to the back layer.

Light Layer that was not used
Different assembled layers of the 3D Light Box

The final assembly turned out nicely.

The final assembly turned out nicely.

Look closely at the letters between the "I" and the "v" in Live. You can see that there is not much material holding this together.

I learned this after little hands touched it and broke it off. I did recut the layer using the laser, but I placed it one layer back in the shadow box. Moving the layer did require some adjustment of the tabs in the Illustrator design software.

Instead, I used a clear acrylic piece for the front layer, keeping the more fragile pieces protected. I was only able to do this since I did not use the layer for the LED lights.

Once I was delighted with the assembly and lights, I dabbed some glue into all of the side connections. I like to use the Loctite GO2 Glue All Purpose Adhesive, 1.75-Fluid Ounces from Amazon.

 While the sides did snap together fairly snug, it would not take much for them to come apart either.
Completed 3D Shadow Box
Completed 3D Shadow Box with Colored LED Lights

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