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Title: Cigar-Box Dioramas - A "How-to-do-it" Handbook
Author: Neal, Arminta
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           CIGAR-BOX DIORAMAS

                       A “How-to-do-it” Handbook
                              Arminta Neal


  Box preparation, background                                           1
  Foreground blocks and figures                                         2
  Accessories ... paper mache mix                                       6
      Rocks, caves, “moonscapes”                                        8
      Bushes and shrubs                                                10
      Ferns and palms                                                  12
      Water                                                            14
  Larger displays                                                      16
  Trees                                                                19
      Evergreen Trees                                                  19
  Smoke                                                                21
  Snow                                                                 21

Sincere thanks are due Shirley Parman and Doris Samford for their
assistance in this booklet’s preparation.

                     Copyright 1958 by Arminta Neal
                          Second Printing 1961

                           YOU WILL NEED ...

  cigar boxes
  scissors, small X-Acto knife with #11 blades
  Tri-Tix rubber cement, Elmer’s glue
  black construction paper, index cards or similar weight cardboard
  paper clips
  small palette knife or spatula
  spray cans of paint, black rubber-base paint
  piece of plate glass about 12” square

In addition, you are apt to need ...

  Pliobond cement (manufactured by Goodyear)
  tooling aluminum or copper (from craft or hobby shops)
  Balsa wood in ½″ and 1″ thick boards, or slabs of styrofoam plastic.
          Balsa wood from hobby shops; styrofoam from florists, ten-cent
          stores, or insulation companies.
  assorted twigs and dried weeds, collected in the Fall
  sawdust sifted into fine, medium, and coarse grades
  “Rit” or “Tintex” dye—greens and browns
  lichen (from model railroad shops)
  gravel and fine sand
  nut picks, leather modelling tools, dental tools, etc.
  assorted jars with lids, cans, other mixing containers
  paper mache mix (explained in text)
  model kits, novelties, souvenirs, post-cards, etc.


The box can be designed with the lid to open up, down or to one side.
The main label is pasted inside the lid.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

The box is painted on the outside, either with any of the rubber-base
(latex) paints, or with paint from a spray can. The inside of the box is
given one or two coats of the black latex paint. (Other flat black
paints may also be used.)

Be very sure to wash any brushes that are used with the latex paint very
soon after use. Use warm water and bar soap (such as Ivory). Once the
rubber-base paint hardens there is little that can be done to restore
the bristles.

A piece of black construction paper is cut to fit the box interior in a
curve from one side to the other. The magazine picture or large
post-card you are using for the background is pasted to the construction
paper, using Tri-Tix rubber cement. Then this curved paper is pasted to
the box.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]


If it is desired, a foreground base can be made with a block of balsa
wood or a piece of styrofoam plastic. The material is carved to blend,
in surface contours, with the background picture. If the background
picture has land with uneven contours, with hills or bluffs, it will be
best to carve the block with a slope down away from the front of the

    [Illustration: (FRONT, CROSS-SECTION)]

If the background picture shows a low, level, flat area, the foreground
block should be carved sloping up at the back.

    [Illustration: (FRONT, CROSS-SECTION)]

If a flat base is desired, Elmer’s glue is brushed on the bottom inside
of the box and sand, gravel, dyed sawdust or other texture is sprinkled
on the wet glue, after the figures are glued in place.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

The foreground is made from cut-out pictures or from figures and
accessories from hobby shops, ten-cent stores or other sources.

There are two methods of using magazine pictures for the foreground

(1) Paste the pictures to index cards or cardboard of similar weight.
Use Tri-Tix cement. Put the picture face down on scrap paper; brush or
spread a thin but complete coat of Tri-Tix on the back of the picture.
Work from the center out, in radiating strokes.

    [Illustration: SCRAP PAPER]

Turning the picture over, place the center of the picture down on the
cardboard. Smooth down from the center out. Place piece of waxed or
scrap paper over picture, roll down with a linoleum brayer or rolling
pin. This helps to remove all air bubbles.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Let cement dry completely before trimming picture. When the excess
rubber cement (squeezed out on the scrap paper) has changed from milky
white to a translucent material, the cement on the picture will be dry.
Cutting against the plate glass, trim out the parts of the picture
needed with the X-Acto knife. Cutting against the glass produces a
cleaner edge than against a different surface.

If your foreground is the flat side of the box, without carved balsa or
styrofoam block, leave tabs on the bottoms of the trimmed figures. Fold
these tabs back and glue to base.

    [Illustration: TAB]

If your foreground is of carved balsa or styrofoam, trim out figure
completely, then glue supporting wire to the back. Straightened paper
clips may be used, being glued down with Elmer’s glue. Let about ½″ of
wire extend from bottom of figure. When glue is dry, force wire into

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

(2) The second method of using pictures is to glue the picture to a
piece of light weight (tooling) aluminum or copper (about 32 oz.
weight). Brush Pliobond on the back of the picture, smooth picture on
aluminum or copper. Press out all air bubbles. The Pliobond holds
immediately; there is no need to wait. Use scissors to cut out the
picture. Manicure scissors will help in small areas. Narrow strips, such
as the legs of animals, will curl, but the Pliobond will hold the paper
tight, and the metal can be straightened. Fold a rag or smooth-finish
hand towel (not terry cloth) into a soft pad. Place trimmed picture face
down on pad. Using a dental tool, rounded end of a nut pick, leather
modelling tools or similar equipment, work the metal into a rounded
form. Tool in the same manner as in regular copper work.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

When completely tooled, the figure will have an appearance similar to
that of bas-relief. Again, the figures are reinforced with wire glued to
the back, using Pliobond. As with the cardboard backed figures, the wire
should extend about ½″ from the bottom of the figure. The figure is
fastened in the same manner, by forcing the wire into the base block.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

If the foreground figure does not stand higher than the cigar box is
deep, it may be placed on the lid of the box, and the background
material carefully located so that the lid will still close.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]



All ground has texture, whether it is a pine-needle blanketed slope or
an asphalt pavement. The surface beneath our feet looks nothing at all
as does a painted surface. So it is, that one of the most important
points to remember in creating an illusion of reality and depth in a
diorama, whether it is of cigar box or department store window size, is
to create an appropriate foreground texture.

The balsa wood or styrofoam block you may have used in your foreground
provides the main shape and bulk of that foreground. A good paper-mache
mix can be made by mixing equal parts of Plaster-of-Paris, yellow
dextrine, and powdered asbestos. The plaster and asbestos can be found
in building supply stores, and the yellow dextrine at the chemical
supply houses. Denver Fire Clay has the yellow dextrine in Denver. Put
these three dry ingredients in a jar and shake them until they are well
distributed. The mix can be stored dry. To use, add water to the dry mix
to the consistency of putty or a very thick paste, mixing just enough to
use at one time. The mache will form a “skin” on the surface in about an
hour, but can be pushed and modelled somewhat longer. It will dry to a
rock-like hardness overnight. If you plan to build up much thickness, it
is best to do it in several thin layers. Let each layer dry before
adding the next. The mache mix is spread over the balsa wood or
styrofoam block with the palette knife or flexible spatula, to a
thickness of no more than ¹/₁₆″. If the mix sticks to the palette knife
(or to your fingers), moisten the knife just a little, and the material
will not stick.

The mache can be used to make a smooth joint between the foreground
block that slopes up at the back and the picture background. Try to make
this joint a smooth curve, not a sharp angle.

    [Illustration: MACHE MIX]

Cliff faces and large rocks, or formations such as those in a
“moonscape”, can be carved from styrofoam chunks. The blocks or chunks
are fastened together by using wooden toothpicks and Elmer’s glue. The
complete foreground is then covered with a layer of the paper mache mix
to hide the obvious plastic texture. Again, Elmer’s glue is brushed on
and the “rocks” are given a texture with fine sawdust or sand.

    [Illustration: Moonscape]


Another type of cliff face, with a carved cave opening (for bears,
prehistoric cave dwellers, etc.) is made in the same way. In mounting,
the background picture is curved on just one side and the carved cliff
face occupies the full depth of the cigar box on the side opposite the

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

The same covering of mache, glue, and texture finishes this foreground.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

If grass-like “weeds” or plants are to be shown in the foreground they
can be made of hemp rope cut and pushed into the wet mache mix. Dye the
hemp green with “Rit” or “Tintex” before using. The adhesive quality of
the mix will hold the strands securely. When the mache mix has dried to
a rock hardness, the ground is painted with a thick coat of Elmer’s glue
and sprinkled with a generous layer of varying textures and colors. Very
fine sawdust already dyed a bright green is available at model railroad
shops as model railroad “grass”. If you prefer a less brilliant color,
you may dye sawdust with the Rit or Tintex.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Take two one pound coffee cans. Punch holes in the bottom of one with a
hammer and nail. Hold the coffee can against a scrap of 2″ × 4″ wood
when you punch the holes. Set up the cans, the “sieve” on top. Fill the
top can about half full of sawdust. Heat two or three cups of water to
boiling point. Drop in dye tablet or powder and let it dissolve.

Pour hot dye over sawdust. The dye can be poured through the sawdust as
many times as is necessary to get the depth of color desired. Spread wet
sawdust out on newspapers to dry.

It is a good idea to dye several batches with different greens and
browns, and to sift the dried sawdust through a piece of window screen,
then a kitchen sieve, to get fine, medium and coarse grades. A different
texture can be made by grinding up a ¼″ wooden dowel (available at
hardware stores or lumber companies) in a clean pencil sharpener. When
you glue the sawdust—or fine sand—or any other texture to the base, vary
the color and the texture. Use some light green and some dark, and add a
little brown or tan of a finer texture than the green, to resemble dirt
showing through the grass. Gravel ranging from BB shot to garden pea
size can be used for larger rocks. It is also a good idea to use coarse
textures near the front of the box, fine textures at the rear, to
approximate a correct textural perspective.

The most important thing to do in putting in this dirt and grass
covering is to observe nature itself as closely as it is possible,
seeing just how patches of vegetation grow—whether slopes are bare and
what the “mosaic” of dirt and greenness is. The foreground will look
natural only if it is based on observed knowledge of the actual
relationships in nature.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Bushes and Shrubs ...

can be made with the previously described hemp method and by using
lichen from model railroad shops, dried weeds and twigs, fern-like
material (actually a kind of seaweed) usually sold at Christmas time by
ten-cent stores, by using cut paper and any other material that appears
appropriate. Sponges are not recommended. Somehow, they always resemble
nothing but sponges.

_Lichen_ can be torn into little clumps and fastened to the base with
Elmer’s glue.

_Dried weeds and twigs_ can be dipped in Elmer’s glue, then sprinkled
with or dipped into the dyed sawdust to get a different texture in a
bush. If you have cut tiny scraps of colored paper, these can be spotted
on the lichen or dried weed bushes to resemble flowers. A toothpick will
help to put just one drop of glue on the bush—and the same glue-dipped
toothpick will then pick up the fleck of color to put it in place.

_Unprinted newspaper_ (available in pads from art supply stores) can be
used to make the spears at the base of a yucca tree. Cut a strip of
unprinted newspaper. Slash it.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Roll up strip tightly and spread Elmer’s glue along bottom of strip as
you roll. Bend outer layers down to make proper shape.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Prickly pear cactus can be made with pipe cleaners bent into correct
outline, tied with thread, then the outlines filled in with the paper
mache mix.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Ferns and palms ...

Ferns and palms are made by gluing a wire (get a spool of 22 or 23 gauge
wire from a hardware store) between two lengths of gummed paper tape.
Let wire extend beyond paper tape for length of stem or trunk plus the
usual ½″ for pushing into the base.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Bend paper over, trim, then slash. Make several, then twist wire “stems”

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Paint fronds with poster color, water color, or latex white with casein

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

If “fiddlenecks” are required, they can be made from pipe cleaners and
twisted in with the wire stems of the fronds.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]


Wrap stems with ¼″ or ½″ strip of brown crepe paper cut across grain of
package, and fastened with library paste or Elmer’s glue. Bend wire
“fronds” into proper shape. Drill or punch hole in base. Smear base of
tree and hole with Elmer’s glue, mount tree in place. Glue dirt or grass
in place at base of tree.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]


A quiet pond may be made with a mirror. Glue the mirror to the cigar box
before installing anything else. Glue in the background picture next,
then carve chunks of styrofoam for the remaining foreground. Slope
“shores” down toward mirror “pond”. Let the edges of the styrofoam cover
edges of mirror, making an irregular shape for the pond. Glue styrofoam
in place with Elmer’s. For added realism, ripples may be added to the
mirror surface, using clear varnish and oil paints. Mix a tiny bit of
Prussian or “Thalo” blue with some clear varnish. Use just enough to
tint the varnish. Flow varnish on surface of mirror, to a depth of about
¹/₃₂″. Before varnish is completely dry, use an empty “Flit” gun to pump
air over the surface. This air will form ripples which, as the varnish
dries, will remain on the surface. It may be necessary to repeat the air
pumping a few times before the varnish surface hardens.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

A stream can be made using broken glass and some Duco or Testor’s
Airplane cement. The light blue glass from broken telephone line
insulators, light blue Mexican glass or other glass of a light blue
color may be used. Put the glass in a paper sack, then put that sack
into two more sacks. Put the sacks on a solid surface and break the
glass into small pieces by hitting the sack with a hammer.

Make your foreground with styrofoam or balsa wood chunks, covering the
material with the paper mache mix and working out (modelling) the stream
bed with the mix. Let the mache harden before completing the stream.
While the mix is still soft, push in weeds, cattails, any correct
streamside plants, making them from hemp rope or from other previously
described materials.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]


When the stream bed is hard, paint the bottom with a blue paint; lighten
this blue color as you paint from the bottom toward the sides. Along the
banks of the stream, paint in a light brown color. Let the paint dry
completely. Squirt a small amount of Duco or Testor’s along the stream
bottom; sprinkle pieces of glass thickly in glue before the glue sets.
Push the glass into the glue to be sure it is well anchored. Squirt more
cement over top of glass until top surface looks the same as a stream
surface. Again, follow nature as closely as it is possible. Base your
stream direction, flow, eddies, and riffles on observed knowledge. Mix a
little talcum powder in some of the glue and stir quickly and hard to
get a froth. Use this white, frothy material along the part of the
stream surface that would be frothy. If you want the “water” to be
breaking over boulders in the stream bed, place pea-size gravel pebbles
in the stream bed at the same time you place the glass fragments.

Another method for a stream uses aluminum foil and light blue
cellophane. Using ordinary household aluminum foil, tear off enough to
cover the bottom of your stream area. Crumple the foil tightly, then
smooth it out and glue to the base with Duco, Testor’s, or Pliobond. Cut
a piece of blue-green cellophane to fit over the foil. Crumple the
cellophane tightly, then smooth out. Glue the cellophane to the foil
with Duco or Testor’s.

Finish both of the above stream methods by painting Elmer’s glue along
the banks and shore, covering the edge of the water area, then sprinkle
with sand, sawdust, or other texture, and complete the vegetation as
previously described.

                            LARGER DISPLAYS

Most of the methods used in making the cigar box exhibits can be used in
preparing larger displays, but the immediate problem presented is that
of the setting, since there are no standard size boxes of the correct
proportions into which to put your foreground material. This is easily
solved. Use Elmer’s glue and carpet tacks to fasten a piece of
pebble-board, matt board, or poster board to two 1″ × 1½″ wooden

    [Illustration: PEBBLE BOARD 1½″ 1″]

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Nail on top and bottom wooden 1″ × 1½″ braces to give the curve to the

Poke, pull, and bend window screen to form main contours of base.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

Drill pairs of holes around pebble-board background. Push hairpin shaped
wire (stovepipe wire or finer) through screen, through holes, twist
tightly in back with pliers.

Spread paper mache mix over window screen with palette knife or spatula.
Dry tempera pigments may be mixed very _sparingly_ with mache to give a
basic ground color. Smooth joint between screen and background into a
curve, not a sharp angle.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

“Plant” hemp “bushes” in wet mache if desired.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]

  BACKGROUND shaded DARK top to LIGHT bottom
  BASE shaded DARK front to LIGHT back

Mix three sky blues from Towne’s Gold Bond Latex Blue and a latex white.
Paint dark at the top, blend medium in the middle, light at bottom,
blending almost to white at the horizon. Use a soft 1″ brush. Do not be
afraid to blend. Cut and glue a piece of pebble-board to fit between the
bottom of contoured foreground and base. Use Elmer’s glue.

Mix three browns for ground color. Use burnt umber casein tube color
with latex white. Paint dark at front of foreground, blend through
medium to very light at the background. When paint dries, proceed as
with cigar box, spreading foreground surface with a thick coat of
Elmer’s glue, sprinkling on dyed sawdust, sand, gravel, etc. Bushes and
shrubs are made the same way, with lichen, weeds, and other materials.


Autumn and winter trees are made from dried twigs and weeds. Leafed-out
trees are made from clothesline _wire_ and lichen. Twist wire into tree
skeleton shape. See art books on “how to draw trees” for different tree
skeletons and silhouettes. Cover wire trunk with paper mache mix and
model to resemble bark. Tear off small clumps of lichen and glue to wire
branches with Elmer’s glue. Drape some pieces over several branches.

    [Illustration: BASE]

Drill hole in base, glue tree in place. Use paper mache to build up base
of tree and to model exposed roots.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]



Small trees in the distance can be made by trimming bottle or test-tube
brushes to the proper shape. Dip tree in green enamel paint, then
sprinkle dyed sawdust on wet paint, or shake paint-wet tree in jar with
dyed sawdust. Use paper mache mix to build proper trunk texture. Medium
size trees can be made from an excellent “Tree Kit” manufactured by
Aurora Plastics Co., of West Hempstead, New York, and available at most
model railroad shops. This kit contains graduated sections that are
stacked together and glued. It will help to touch up and vary the color.
Oil paints will stick to the plastic. These trees are glued to your base
with Pliobond.

Large evergreens can be made from golden yarrow gathered in fall and
winter. The stalks are dyed a deep green and permitted to dry.

    [Illustration: (unlabelled)]


Use Weldwood contact cement to glue a small diameter wire to under side
of twig. Use tube to spread cement along twig. Hold wire with spring
clothespin and run full length of wire into tube. Let cement dry for
about 15 minutes, _then_ press wire to under side of twig. Bend wire and
stem into desired position. Use fine wire to fasten several twigs
together into branches.

Using a wooden dowel at least ¼″ in diameter (get at hardware store up
to 3′ long), drill small holes through from different angles. Then, by
whittling or sanding, taper the dowel. Poke wire-wrapped branch ends
into holes. Anchor with Pliobond. Let dry, then trim excess branch
lengths from opposite side of trunk. Use paper mache mix to cover wooden
dowel, shape and thicken branches and trunk, and model branch joints.
Paint the paper mache with water colors, poster colors, or latex white
with casein temperas.


                               SMOKE ...

is made by spraying a wisp of cotton with clear Krylon. This clear
plastic in a spray can is obtained from nearly any art supply house and
at most hardware stores. Draw out the cotton into a smoke-shaped wisp.
Spray gently with the Krylon to set shape, then spray again to
strengthen. The cotton may be drawn out even more after the Krylon has

                                SNOW ...

can be indicated by using styrofoam and not coating it with the paper
mache mix. A finer textured snow is made by spraying the Christmas
spray-can “snow” over the modelled paper mache base, and adding sparkle
by glueing specks of salt in place. The spray-can snow is a good
material to use in putting snow on tree branches.

One last minute tip ... when you use a brush with the Tri-Tix rubber
cement, soap the bristles thoroughly before using. Get the brush wet,
then scrub up a good lather with Ivory or similar bar soap; squeeze most
of the lather out of the brush, but do not wash it out. Then, in its
lathered state, use the brush with the Tri-Tix. Wash it out immediately
after use. The soap remaining in the brush during the glueing process
will make the brush easy to clean.

A final word....

Remember always, that it is not necessary for a person to have trained
artistic ability to produce interesting exhibits. Imagination and the
ability to try something new are the only requirements. Materials can be
found, sometimes, in most unlikely spots ... aquarium supply stores,
novelty shops. Once one has become conscious of the possibilities,
miniature things leap into view from the store shelves, and whole
forests of trees can be seen in a weed.

                           CIGAR BOX DIORAMAS

These little displays can be used in many ways. They are simple enough
that a child can make them, effective enough to stimulate interest in
the subject portrayed. They can be made by the teacher and used to spark
interest in new units or made by the students as projects for the unit.
They are useful as follow-up projects after a field trip to a museum,
industry, or other place of interest.

One need not be an artist to create interesting and acceptable displays.
There are many items available from novelty stores, souvenir counters,
or ten-cent stores, which can be adapted to use in the cigar boxes.
Pictures clipped from magazines can be used for backgrounds, as can the
large picture post-cards now found nearly everywhere.

The person who exercises imagination, seeing space ships in plastic hair
curlers and rocket ships in metal pencil protectors, will enjoy making
the exhibits and will be able to share the creative experience with

                              ARMINTA NEAL
                          4960 W. Oregon Place
                          Denver 19, Colorado

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Silently corrected a few typos.

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—Collated Table of Contents, and added some captions to allow the TOC to
  be fully linked.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

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