Shadow boxes: Preserve mementos in treasured displays

Preserve badges, other mementos in treasured displays

By Valerie Parsons

Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

A blessing dress is one of Jana Zacher's favorite items to shadow-box.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Scouting badges, pins and emblems represent hundreds of hours of dedication in pursing excellence in different areas. The awards, so hard won, are often put away in shoe boxes, dresser drawers or even lost.

Shadow boxes can preserve these memories for the Scout and his family. They provide a barrier to the elements as well as providing a beautiful piece of art to display and enjoy. With the 100th anniversary of Scouting this month, it might be a good time to pull out the Scouting mementos and create a display that will be treasured for years to come.

My friend, Todd, has Scouting memorabilia leading up to his Eagle award. As a "crafty-type" person, I have assembled several shadow boxes for myself and others. Most of them were fairly small, simple and held only a few items. I figured it would be an easy task to assemble a shadow box displaying Todd's items.

But I found, upon gathering everything, that I wasn't certain how to go about displaying them in the safest and most pleasing way.

Enter Jana Zacher. She is the quietly competent frame shop manager for Ben Franklin Crafts in Kaysville and has been framing for more than nine years. I asked for her expertise and advice. She gave me a wealth of information about shadow boxes in general and specific tips for shadow boxes pertaining to scouting.

"Collect the most important items. You'll have too much, then edit the collection down. Think about the size and depth and buy your shadow box accordingly," Zacher said. "Pictures or names are important. Grandchildren may not know who the person is later so you should document what this shadow box is about and be sure to include dates."

Zacher suggests including documentation in the back of the shadow box identifying each item and its significance. She tells of an instance in which a customer brought in a very simple-looking spoon to be framed. "It didn't look at all special, but she (the customer) told about the grandfather handforging it." The spoon suddenly gained significance because of the story.

Special items can be kept longer as reminders of a wonderful era. "Not too long ago, I framed an icing flower from a wedding cake!" Zacher said. She has also framed crocheted baby booties, toys, ballet slippers, record album covers, military items, guns, tools, old veterinary and dental implements, two guitars and even a long warrior spear. Everything looks more important and special when it is arranged in an artful way and framed.

Smaller boxes cost less, but if you have a large sports jersey, the bulk may be too much for the depth of the box.

"As long as you have the depth, you can shadow-box it."

If you can't find a purchased shadow box that will accommodate your items, she suggests purchasing a frame at a second-hand store like Deseret Industries and building a box behind the frame to accommodate your items.

"I have used multi-paned wooden windows to display pictures of children growing up," she said. They make wonderful shadow boxes for pictures of your children from infancy to young adult with included mementos.

You will also want to protect your items with UV protective glass. A good backing for the shadow box is a must. Use a suede board or an acid-free mat board. Some people use a velvet-covered board, but whatever you choose, make certain that it won't fade and that it is acid-free.

When assembling Scouting memorabilia, try to determine the order in which the pins should be displayed. They should be in sequence or order of significance.

Zacher says that when preserving material, it is important to be certain the items are as clean and neatly pressed as possible. Likewise with bridal gowns, sports jerseys or military uniforms.

"Baby blessing gowns are one of my favorite things to shadow-box. They're just so sweet and pretty. You don't want to have a small stain of spit-up or drool yellowing your material for forever."

You may wish to include items like headbands and booties as well.

Organic items such as a bridal bouquet have usually already been dried. You can spray the item with a UV protective spray to preserve it further.

"You'll also want to fold your items and make sure that the bulk won't be too great for the depth of the shadow box." She showed how the scouting shirt can be folded around the backing board to become the background of the total display.

Arrange your items, edit them and begin to secure them to the backing board in layers, back to front. Zacher uses a gun that secures fabrics to the board by means of a small plastic tab, much like clothing stores use to secure price tags. She says do-it-yourselfers can use a needle with monofilament or fishing line and actually sew the item down to the backing board. This is a time-consuming endeavor, but it will not damage the fabric like glue can, and it will allow you to change the display at a later time, should you need to as your decor changes. She often changes the color of a mat board on something like doilies or hand-worked fabric pieces. If they were glued to the backing, it might damage the piece to try to change it.

Zacher also explained that you want to preserve the unique quality of a piece. She tells of putting a shadow box together for a family whose mother had physical handicaps that made it nearly impossible for her to sew her Scout's badges onto his bandelo.

"She had done the very best she could, and you could see how difficult it was for her." Some badges had to be stapled on, rather than stitched. The awkward stitches and staples were not replaced in the finished shadow box; rather, it was a point of pride for them to show. It was one of the things that added charm and uniqueness. They told a wonderful story of a determined Scouting family.

"We once framed a missionary's worn-out shoes," she said. The shadow box also included the missionary's scriptures and items he had collected during his mission to make a unique and personal art piece.

For a less formal arrangement, steel T-pins or pearl-top pins can be used to pin an item into place allowing the pin to show. But care should be taken, Zacher reminded me, in making certain that the pins are rustproof.

She further recommends the use of acid-free glue dots when securing Scouting pins. The glue dots, by themselves, may not hold up to extreme hot and cold, so she removes the back of the pin (those which have the pinch-type round backings) and punches the push-pin through the glue dot to hold it securely. The fabric should not be damaged by the glue dot, should you decide to change the arrangement at a later time.

Zacher also likes to secure metals (like an engraved plaque or badge) with E6000 glue or silicone. Both of these can be cut off later if needed.

Documents can be copied and reduced in size to fit the art piece. Photos can be copied in nearly any size into a sepia tone or made black and white to complement the piece.

To secure heavier items, use wire to wrap around the item in an inconspicuous place and then secure the wire through the board. You will have to create a small pilot hole through your material and the backing board in order to push the wire through.

Most important of all, Zacher says, is to be certain that the wire you use to hang your shadow box is strong enough to hold the weight of your items and attached to your shadow box securely.

"If it falls off of the wall and the glass breaks, it may damage irreplaceable items."

To have a shadow box professionally assembled, "the cost depends on the size and the intricacy of the piece," she said. "It can be as low as $50 to several hundred, but the cost to assemble it is actually minimal. The cost is usually in the frame and glass."

After watching Zacher so ably and quickly assemble the shadow box, I decided that in some circumstances, because of the piece's intricacy and importance, it might be worth paying a professional for his or her expertise.

e-mail: vparsons@desnews.com

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