How to Make Shadow Box Shelves

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Keep things organized and show off collectibles or projects with these shelves! Learn how to make shadow box shelves with this simple tutorial.

Hi my Kenarry friends! I am Joannie Hambel from Hambels Get Real, a DIY blog focused on how to add charm and character to your home. I love helping other women learn to use power tools and create the home they dream about. Today I am sharing how I built shadow box shelves to bring some order to my sons room.

If you enjoyed this tutorial then check out how to make sand art next. It’s an easy way to decorate a child’s room.

three shadow box shelves are mounted in a grid on a wall next to a window and long shelf.
Shadow box shelves are a great way to display toys and nicknacks in any room.
pinterest graphic for pinning shadow box shelf tutorial for later.
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It’s March, and spring is just around the corner here in Southern California. Every spring, I get the urge to organize and clean our whole house. Although I don’t always get to the entire house, this spring, I have made two spaces my priority. One of those spaces is my son’s room. He is a lego maniac and hoarder. I cannot get him to let go of anything.

before shadow box shelves and simply updates.
Before Shadow Box Shelves and a little spring cleaning

In addition to helping curate his toys, I built three shadow box shelves for storage.

These shadow box shelves can easily be adapted to your space, plus they are easy to build. I made my shadow box shelves from scrap wood I had lying around. I also finished the shelves with the same paint on my son’s wall. And since I used supplies I already had, this was a really cheap project to do!

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How to Make Shadow Box Shelves

If you have 3/4″ mdf or plywood lying around, you can put these shadow box shelves together in a couple of hours. My shadow boxes are 8″ deep, but you can make them as shallow as you like.

I also made three different-sized shadow boxes. You can see how easy it is to adjust the plan to the size you need.

What you need: 

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Tools to build the shadow box shelves: 

Supplies to build the shadow box shelves: 

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Shadow Box Shelf tips:

Cutting your wood for the shelves

If you don’t have a table saw, you can buy pre-primed mdf boards . Choose boards that are the depth you’d like your shadow boxes to be. For example, my shadow boxes are around 8″ deep. I could have used 1×8 mdf or solid wood boards.

However, I had enough 3/4″ oak veneer plywood left over from another project to build my shadow boxes. I ripped my plywood sheet down to 8″ wide strips.

Then I cut them to size on my miter saw. I cut the top and bottom boards to the length I wanted my shadow boxes to be. Which in my case is 32″, 19 1/2″, and 11″. The sides were all cut to 10 1/4. When the boards are joined together they are all 11″ tall.

Use one of your boards as a template for cutting

When cutting your wood, instead of measuring every single piece, measure and cut the first piece. Then use that piece as your guide for all the other pieces that will need to be that size. In my case, I was making three shadow boxes all different sizes, but all the same height.

Three shadow boxes = 6 sides (2 sides each). Each shadow box is a different size. However, each one has a top and bottom that need to be the same length.

I cut one board to 10 1/4″ . Then placed it on top of the next board. I aligned the ends of the boards together so that they were flush. I positioned the boards so that the blade would cut the next board the same size. For the top and bottom pieces, I measured and cut the top board first. And then used it as a measuring tool to line up and cut the matching bottom board.

using one board to measure the next board makes accurate cuts easy and fast.
The blade is positioned right against the cut piece while the edges on the left are perfectly flush. When the blade goes down to cut the board below the top one, the two boards will be exactly the same size.

Doing it this way, instead of measuring each board individually, ensures that the top and bottom will match as well as left and right sides. Having them exactly the same length will make squaring them up quick and easy during assembly.

shadow box shelf parts are cut prior to running through the router.
All of the shelf pieces are cut to the exact measurements. This is the beginning of making a square joint.
boards are fed through the router table face up.
Feed your boards so that they outside of the box or “face of the board” is up.

Cutting your Lap Joint

It is possible to make this cut on a table saw. But it is much easier and faster to make it with a router on a router table. When cutting a lap joint, you are removing the same amount of wood – exactly half – from each end. This way, when you join them together, their thickness will be the same as the original piece of wood.

A measuring tape shows 3/8
A measuring tape shows 3/8″ as the depth of the lap joint.

See how the wood removed is 3/8″? This is because 3/8″ is half of 3/4″. By removing 3/8″ of material, when I join it to the other board, it will create a joint that is 3/4″ thick.

A measuring tape shows 3/8
3/8″ is exactly half of 3/4″ which is the size of the material I used to build my shadow box shelves

Raise your router bit to cut the wood 3/8″ high. Move your router table fence so the bit will remove 3/8″ of meat from the ends of your boards. You should end up with the ends of your boards looking like L’s. The height of the L = 3/8″ and the depth of the L = 3/8″.

To set up my router, I used two scrap pieces of the same material. I carefully adjusted the router bit until it made the perfect cut/joint.

scrap wood was used to align the router bit just where it needed to be before making the cuts on the real shadow box shelf pieces.
Two scraps of the same material were used to get the router placement just right.

Once my router was set up I ran each edge board through the router. I passed each board two or three times to really get a nice, evenly routed edge.

Lightly sand to clean the lap joint

You may notice your boards will have tear out on the backside of the board. This is caused by the blade pushing through from the top of the board down. This is okay; just make this side the inside of your shadow box. When you run that through the router, the tear-out will get removed for the lap joint. Make sure you run your boards so that the inside of the board is facing down.

boards prior to painting lap joints are cleaned up with a light sanding of 220 grit sand paper to remove the plywood tear out.
All the boards are cut and the lap joints routed and cleaned up

Pre-finish your Shadow Box Shelves prior to assembly

It may feel tedious and boring to paint your boards before assembly. I promise it is a lot easier to paint them now, laying flat, rather than when they are boxes.

boards are pressed side by side and top to bottom while painting to make painting easier and more efficient.
I pressed the boards together like this while I painted to make painting easier and more efficient.

The top and bottom boards of the shelf are the ones that have their ends exposed. Remember to finish those ends too. If you get any finish in the lap parts of the joint, remove it quickly by wiping it away. You can sand the joint if you miss any finish that got into it. However, if you need to sand, be careful not to be too aggressive. You don’t want to remove any wood from your joint. You only want to remove the excess finish that would skew your joint.

stack of pre-finished shadow box shelf parts awaiting assembly.
All the boards are finished and ready for assembly

Joining Your Shadow Box Shelves Together

Applying glue to the shadow box lap joint

Turn all of your boards over so that the inside of your box shelves is facing up. Line them up so that the ends of the boards are side by side. Then spread glue evenly along all of the flat parts of the lap joint. By placing all of your boards together, you save time while gluing.

Wood glue is spread along the lap joint of the edges of the shadow box shelves.
You can just barely see the glue glistening on the joints.

The top and bottom boards cover the exposed ends of the side lap joints. Wood glue creates a strong shadow box joint that can hold plenty of trinkets and books.

I didn’t paint the edges of my top and bottom boards. I wish I had prior to assembly, would have been one extra step I didn’t have to do after assembly.

Joining the top and bottom to the sides

I like to cut a square piece of scrap and use it as a squaring-up tool. First, I place it in each corner as I tape the joint together. Then, I press the two sides I am joining against the scrap, so they don’t have space between them.

nails and tape secure the lap joint on the shadow box shelves while the wood glue cures.
Nails and tape secure the lap joint while the wood glue cures

Once all of my corners are taped, I take my nail gun, and nail through the tape. The nails go on the sides of the shadow box. Make sure to nail into the lap of the top and bottom boards. I nail three nails on each end. The nails secure the joint while the wood glue cures. I fill the nail holes with wood filler and let everything dry.

nail holes are filled on the shadow boxes
Nail holes filled.

Finishing Your Shadow Boxes

Once your shadow boxes are joined together, peel back the tape and lightly sand the wood filler. Touch up the wood filler areas with paint or stain then hang on the wall using appropriately sized wall hangers.

shadow box shelves are placed on the desk top and aligned against the wall they will be hung the perfect distance from the wall.
I wanted a shelf on the wall below the window on the left. I made sure to hang my shelf brackets before I hung the shadow box shelves so that I placed my boxes far enough away to still fit my shelf.

Hanging the shadow boxes on the wall

I used a new product I have never used before, it’s called PicGenie123.

measuring from the wall and marking the studs directly to the shadow box shelf made attaching the hanging hardware accurate and easy.
See the mark at 12 1/2″? That is where one of the studs in the wall behind the shadow box shelf is located. Marking like this made installing the hardware in exactly the right spot a breeze.

I decided where my shadow boxes would hang, and then I measured where the studs in my wall land. I marked where those studs landed on the backs of my shadow box shelf frames. Then I attached the hardware to the backs of my shelves on those stud mark locations.

back of shadow box shelves with the felt pads and hardware attached.
The hardware and felt pads were quickly added to the backs of the shadow box shelves.

Add Spacers to The shadow boxes

The hangers make the shelves hang 1/8″ away from the wall. I added these felt protectors to the bottom of the frame so the shelf was level front to back.

felt furniture pads made the perfect size spacer between the shadow box shelves and the wall.
These furniture floor protector pads were the perfect size to space the shadow box shelves from the wall to match the upper hardware spacing.

Marking your hanger locations on the wall

Making sure my shadow box was level, I pressed it against the wall where I wanted it to be hung. The PicGenie123 made a mark on the wall right where the mounting hardware needs its fastener to go. I used the nail that came in the kit for attaching the hanger to the studs. For the two smaller shadow box shelves there was only one stud behind each of them. I followed the instructions for hanging with the supplied drywall screws that came in the kit.

the picturegenie123 hardware makes a small pinpoint pilot hole for the hardware to attach to.
The hanging hardware makes these small pilot holes in the wall. They mark the location for the screw/nail.

I was able to hang all three shadow box shelves, without a single mistake in 10 minutes.

shadow box shelves are quickly hung with picturegenie123 hanging hardware. The spacing is made accurately by the simplicity of the hardware.
The PicGenie123 hangers made getting these shadow box shelves up quickly and accurately.

I hung the bottom shelf first to get the spacing right between the bottom and top shadow box shelves. Then, I set the next two box shelves on top of the first box. I placed a piece of 1 1/2″ board between them. Then I pressed them into the wall, marking the spot with the hardware. Then hung them following the package directions.

Before Shadow Box Shelves:

Before shadow box shelves and new desk space
This room had plenty of clutter and lacked storage and usable space.

After Shadow Box Shelves:

pull away shot of shadow box shelves over built in corner desk in kids room with color block design.
What a difference a few shelves and some simple updates can make!

How to Build Shadow Box Shelves

Joannie, from Hambels Get Real shares how she recently made shadow box shelves to add some much needed organization to her sons room.
Work Time8 hours
Author: Joannie Hambel
Cost: 8-20

Equipment

  • 1 Miter saw or chop saw
  • 1 Table saw optional see tip in post
  • 1 Phillips #2 drill bit
  • 1 Phillips #1 drill bit
  • 1 Spirit level
  • 1 Sander
  • 1 Finishing supplies
  • 1 Measuring tape
  • 1 Pen or pencil to mark stud locations

Supplies

  • 1 board Length of wood, plywood or mdf. Long enough for two sides and a top and a bottom; My longest shelf was made from an 8' long board. The depth you'd like your shadow boxes to be, I used 1 x 8 (3/4" x 7 1/2")
  • 1 bottle Wood glue
  • 1 roll Painters tape
  • 1 ream 1 1/4" finish nails
  • 1 container wood filler
  • 2 discs Sand paper 120 and 220 grit
  • 8 ounces Paint or stain to finish your shadow boxes
  • 1 package PicGenie123 50 lb+ 2-3 hangers per shelf. Easy to find at Home Depot or Amazon.
  • 2 pieces 1/8" spacer tabs. I used felt furniture rounds. Cabinet door dampeners would also work 2 per shelf

Instructions

Determine What Size Shelf You Need

  • My 32" long shelf was cut from an 8' long board that was 7 1/2" wide. Your needs may be different, but the process is the same.
  • Cut your top and bottom boards the same length. You want them to be the exact length of the shelf you need.
  • Cut your left and right side boards. These will be the height you need minus 3/4" – this will take in to account the amount of length added when the boards are joined together.

Create Your Lap Joints

  • Set your router up in your router table. Place a 3/8" router bit into your router to cut 3/8" high and 3/8" deep. See tips above for extra help. Run the ends of your shadow box boards face up on the router table. Run them a few passes to make sure you have removed all the material you need to to make a proper joint. Lightly sand off any tear out on the edge of the routed profile.

Pre-finish Your Shadow Box Shelf

  • Prime and paint the tops and bottoms of all of your boards. Make sure you also finish the edges on the top and bottom boards of your shadow box. If you are staining, then stain and seal your boards.

Join Your Boards together

  • Spread glue along the flat edges of your lap joint.
  • Join the boards together so that the top and bottom board edges are exposed but the side edges are hidden by the top and bottom boards.
  • Use painter's tape to pull the joints together. I used three pieces of tape per joint.
  • Once you have all of your joints pulled together with tape, nail finish nails 3 per side through the tape into the lap joint being careful not to go through into the shadow box.
  • Let the glue cure.

Finish Shadow Boxes

  • While the glue dries, fill the nail holes with wood filler.
  • When the wood filler and glue are dry. Remove the tape and sand the filled holes smooth.
  • Touch up paint or stain.

Attach the PicGenie Hangers and felt pads

  • Using a stud finder, find the studs in your wall where the shadow box will hang.
  • Measure and mark on the back of your shadow box where the stud will fall.
  • Place your PicGenie hanger centered on the mark and screw into place using a Phillips #1 drill bit and the screws provided in the kit.
  • Place a felt pad on each of the bottom corners of the shadow box shelf.
  • Use two or three per shelf. For anything over 30" I would use three shelf hangers. Consider 4 hangers for anything 48-60".

Hang Shadow Boxes on the Wall

  • Using a level, place your shadow box on the wall where you would like it to hang. Once it is level, press the box against the wall so that the tabs on the PicGenie push into the wall.
  • Remove the shadow box and set aside.
  • Using the screws or nails (nails for studs, screws for drywall) install into the pilot holes created by the PicGenie tabs. The wall screws require a Phillips #2 drill bit.
  • Remove the tabs from the PicGenie hanger using the silver nail in the kit.
  • Hang shelf onto the nails/screws in the wall.
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