DIY to Try: Travel Photo Diorama

Apartment Therapy Tutorial

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I've loved dioramas since the first grade, and don't anticipate that changing anytime soon. Here's a project I first tried a couple of years ago, using photographs from my trips or weddings I attended as a guest. Instead of sticking the pics on Flickr or leaving them forgotten on my computer, they become 3D wooden scenes in a frame. This version is my friend and I playing "El Toro" in the middle of a bullfighting ring in Ronda, Spain. It's totally goofy, and happily reminds me of our trip this past year.

Materials:

  • Any deep photo frame smaller than 8.5" x 11" (I used an Ikea Ribba, which was perfect) 
  • Photo of a background of your choosing
  • Photo of a figure for the foreground, isolated in Photoshop
  • Wood Glue
  • Lazertran
  • Turpentine (preferably in a spray bottle)
  • Piece of thin wood for the background
  • 1/2" scrap plywood
  • Bowl of warm water
  • Small nails
Tools:
  • Iron
  • Pliers
  • Scissors
  • Saw (I use a scroll saw, which works well)
  • Dremel with sanding attachment, or old school sandpaper
  • Table saw
  • Access to laser printer (I go to Fedinko's)
Instructions:
There are lots of ways to transfer images onto wood, but Lazertran has worked really well for me over the years and I always recommend it to others. If you aren't familiar with the stuff, it's a decal of sorts. When you use it on wood, in conjunction with turpentine, the decal seeps into wood fibers. Once it's dry, the turpentine evaporates and leaves just the toner (and therefore the image) visible. It's kinda cool.

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1. Print out multiples of your chosen foreground images onto a sheet of Lazertran, following the instructions on the package. I usually try to fit a bunch on the page. That way, if I screw them up down the road, I have backups on deck.

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2. Cut out around your image and stick the whole thing in the bowl of warm water, making sure that all of it gets wet. Leave it in there for a minute or so.

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3. While the image is soaking, lightly spray a coat of turpentine on a piece of the 1/2" plywood. You want the whole surface to be covered, but you don't want pools of turpentine at the same time. Practice makes perfect here, and it might take a couple of tries to get it down.

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4. The image is ready when it moves around easily on its backing paper. Slide it carefully off the paper and onto the wood. Make sure your hands are free of turpentine and lightly use your fingertips to smooth it down and remove any major bubbles. After a minute or so, the image gets stickier and sticker, so resist the urge to touch it further until it's totally dry. 

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5. In the meantime, cut a sheet of the thin wood to fit the entire back of your frame, then resize your background photo to the same size. Repeat the same process to transfer the background image onto the cut piece of wood, and set that aside to dry as well.

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6. While those are drying, take your frame and remove the glass and other parts. If there are glazier points (the metal tabs that bend and hold things in place), use pliers to remove them.

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7. Once the images are dry, it's time to saw! Using the scroll saw (or anything else you find easier), cut all the way around the image. Leave the bottom flat so it stands on its own two feet. If you are using more than one figure, do that one too.

Tip: When using the scroll saw, first use a series of straight cuts (so you don't have to bend the blade) then go back and fine tune the jagged and angular parts.

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8. Go back over the edges of your figures with either sandpaper or the Dremel until the edges are smooth. (My Dremel cut out during this project, so I had to go old school in my sanding. A Dremel is much easier and faster.)

9. Position your wooden figures inside the frame where you want them, then affix with glue. Note: If you want to use the glass, put it in first, then adhere your figures.

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10. Place the background on the back of the frame and nail in place with small, delicate nails that won't split the frame.

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Display and enjoy your new project, but warning! Like potato chips, these are a little addictive. Here's another one I made for a couple of friends, right after their wedding...

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(Images: Dabney Frake)

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