Saturday, August 17, 2013

Quick and Easy: DIY Artist's Light Box

Manufactured light boxes for tracing? Either not bright enough or harshly expensive.
But I've wanted one for years.

 So, taking cues from a number of DIY sites on the subject--some too simplistic and some hyper-technical, I made my own. 

My methods may be foolish. I have no idea if there is an easier way to do any of this. All I know is that it was easy for me, and that's saying a lot.

I rejected box-building as too time-consuming. Figured I could find a ready made, sturdy case. (Almost bought an old silverware box at the junk store. Its great built-in drawer almost had me sold, but the thing had thick, pink felt guts inside--maybe too difficult to remove. And at $14, not cheap enough either.)
Then it occurred to me to look around the basement...

and I found two painter's cases like this--gifts to me way back in high school (thanks Mom!). I used the cleanest one.
Before I did anything else, I called the local plexiglass supplier to see if I could try out some plexi samples before purchase. Their answer was affirmative so I dove into the project.

It was not difficult to remove the dividers with a chisel. (Luckily, the old paint tubes did not require this.)

 Had to cut the opening for the plexiglass, so was pretty happy that I have a Dremel (thanks Dad!). Even happier to find it had a tiny buzz-saw attachment that easily removed the inside of the lid of the case. I left a rim all the way around because, thinking ahead for a change, I knew I'd need a thicker edge upon which to attach the plexiglass. Oh, the blue tape is for masking it off before spray painting the inside. (Sorry, got ahead of the camera.)

 So here is a group of materials, clockwise from bottom:
Blue masking tape 
Westek 36" Ultra Thin LED Strip Light; in three 12" sections. (I bought this only with the assurance of return if it wasn't bright enough. It is bright, but I can still attach one more strip if need be--nice to have options.)
High Gloss White Spray Paint; for reflectivity inside the box
Paint Case; cut up and masked off

 Here are the connected Strip lights and the recently white-sprayed interior of the case. 

I drilled a hole for the cord, then gathered all this up (along with test materials; a pencil drawing, sketch paper, a sheet of 300 lb watercolor paper) and headed to the plexi supply.
I plugged it in, and after testing many types from white to frosted, and several thicknesses, I found that 1/8" thick frosted plexiglass allowed me to clearly view my drawing--even seeing through the thick watercolor paper was not a problem. The 1/8" thick sheet was plenty sturdy for the size of my light box, so I gave the guy the measurements and the piece was cut to perfection.

 Once home, I attached the light strips to the inside of the box with Scotch brand Indoor Mounting Tape (the foam backed stuff with the green plaid paper)...

and turned it on! The lights are much more intense than this photo shows and unlike fluorescent bulbs,
they stay very cool--no vent necessary.

I pre-drilled holes in the plexiglass the same size size as the small screws (see that one in the corner), then screwed it to the top of the box. The plexi edges and corners weren't sharp, but I did sand them, rounding them a bit with very fine sandpaper.

A backtrack: This shows a makeshift grommet on the inside of the box. It's just a Scotch brand peel-and-stick rubber floor-care pad I dug out of the drawer. I cut an X in it with an X-acto knife and threaded the LED cord through. It's a simple and effective way to keep the cord in place without having to buy a grommet or tie a knot in the cord. And the final tests:
A sketch on tracing paper seen through heavy white drawing paper.
and same sketch showing through 300 lb. cold press watercolor paper. (I know this photo doesn't make it look all that clear, but it is--especially in a darkened studio.)

And there she is--finished, cheap, and beautiful! Well, functional at least.
And she's the perfect size for me at
13" x 16 3/4" x 3"

Given that most of the materials were found around the house, my total cost was minimal.
The only things I had to buy were:
 LED light strip pack: $30
Mounting Tape: $6
Frosted Plexi: $8
Gloss White Spray Paint: $7

So for only fifty-one bucks and a bit of problem-solving, I got a solid tracing box that exactly serves my needs.

If you like this but my directions aren't clear, just comment or email me--
and thanks for checking it out!


  1. Utterly excellent, Mr. Bond. I love it ~! At my parents' recently, I came across a slide viewing box, similar, but of light metal. Will take a closer look next time, if one of my sisters doesn't grab it first!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Line. So far it's working very well!

  3. Any chance you could tell me where to get a cheap painters box

    1. Hi Steven,

      I've seen them in thrift stores, garage sales, and antique malls. You might try Craigslist too. Best of luck!

  4. Marjie Vittum-JonesJune 3, 2015 at 12:22 AM

    I am trying to make a light box too, but am unable to find anyone who sells LED strips for even close to a reasonable price. Do you recall where you located your Westek 36" Ultra Thin LED Strip Light; in three 12" sections pack for $30?

    1. Hi Marjie--I purchased mine at a local hardware store, but I found it on Amazon here:
      Best wishes!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  7. This tutorial was really helpful! I made my own light box today based on this and it's really awesome. Thanks!

  8. Hi Miriam--Thank you for taking the time to let me know! I am glad the information was useful and worked well for you. Best wishes!

  9. What a great set of directions, thank you. The only thing I would suggest adding is a little groove drilled in the edge of the lid or bottom of the box, so that you can put the cord inside for storage. You would put it just above the hole where the cord comes out of the box.

    1. You are welcome, Monika--thank YOU for the good suggestion!

  10. Nice.

    But I don't have an old pochade box lying around. To purchase one would put this project way over the cost of buying a light box.

    The upside of yours is that you have a ready made handle for carrying it around and the lid allows access to the inside.

    I do like the concept. Maybe I can take the inspiration and find other materials to keep my costs down. Right now I use a window and a sunny day.

    1. Thank you, mlaiuppa. I definitely wouldn't purchase a new paint box for this. Yes, you might try the thrift stores--I see these once in awhile there or in antique malls for very little cost. There are other types of boxes there as well, and a handle could be made from an old cupboard pull or something similar. But windows worked for me for years as well :) Best wishes!

  11. You could try an old suitcase, briefcase, etc. It looks like any sort of old case could be used, as long as it is rigid.

  12. I used a metal cake pan 13 x 9 for mine, sturdy and it worked great, very reflective too.

    1. I would love to see a photo of that--great idea!

  13. I needed a light box to help my visually impaired daughter see things better. This idea worked fabulously! Thank you!

  14. Wow impressive blog. And this LED Light Boxs are so much beautiful. I was thinking to make my own LED Light Box. For that i gathered many information from this blog. Thank you so much.

  15. Very helpful for working in the evening. The sun has to set eventually, even in sunnier climes.


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