Tips to Making a Light Box

Light box

I let Gruffy down

I love watching old episodes of Gummi Bears while I work. It not only puts me in the right frame of mind for illustrating children’s books, but it also provides the perfect background noise of something mildly entertaining, without being distracting. I know that Milt Kahl would have disagreed with me, as Richard Williams said in his book, but sometimes a little Gummi Bears is just what I feel like and I feel nostalgic about these bears.

Recently when I had tea with Paddy, I took an opportunity to ask her some technical questions. Paddy has a fine arts background and has been in the industry of children’s books, as well as an artist for years. For myself – I’ve done a class here and there, but for the most part it has been a trial and tested method, along with a  fair amount of self-learning. One thing that did catch my eye though, was that after the scanning process a lot of pencil marks come through. It’s a simple thing really – the scanning takings out some of the original colour and so to replace it, you need to tweak your illustrations in Photoshop.

Sir Quentin Blake lightbox
Sir Quentin Blake and his Light Box

It’s not too much of a problem – a little layering, a little multiplying, a little saturation adjust. But the end result is that you can get the colour back, but all those pencil marks that were (for the most part) invisible on paper, all of a sudden raise their head digitally. Even pencil marks that you had rubbed out come back to haunt you.

So I asked Paddy about ways to get around this issue. Her basic answer was to make as few pencil lines as possible. This can be achieved with either using tracing paper or a light box. With tracing paper you have to draw your lines with a hard pencil, then turn the tracing paper on to your watercolour paper and rub the pencil onto it. A tricky process that ends up with a mirror illustration. Also very wasteful with all the tracing paper about the place. The second suggestion was a lightbox. I have seen these often at illustrators houses and there are lots of photos of illustrators hovering over their light boxes. I even tried to buy one earlier this year but discovered they don’t really make them for illustrators in South Africa.

You can get a photography one, but it will cost you a small fortune. If you ask fellow illustrators where they got theirs from, they generally respond with ‘my husband made it’ or ‘my brother made it’ and then point to a photo of a gruff looking man, no doubt with a hairy chest, hardworking hands and tan from being in the sun doing hard labor.

My husband is tall, skinny and plays squash. His job involves him to think strategically, make decisions involving spreadsheets with numbers all over the place, and says things like ‘information user data methods.’  He is the best man on the planet (although that’s my opinion, which might be a little biased), but making things in the garage isn’t really his thing. Something needs to be fixed around the house, I generally do it.

Scott M Fischer Lightbox on the right of his studio
Scott M Fischer Lightbox on the right of his studio

I normally tap into my background of 7 years in a Waldorf Education. Part of that is also 7 years of doing Woodwork, Metalwork and Handiwork. Naturally then, when I thought about making a box, with a light inside, I thought ‘that will be easy.’ In fact, I even made it a little tricky for myself as a challenge and put a slant in, so that I didn’t have to strain my shoulders when drawing. Boy, was I wrong about all this whole thing.

You see, a Waldorf education in Woodwork involves using non-electrical tools, like a hammer, chisel and saw. You spent an entire year taking a block of wood and slowly sanding it down into an egg, or a wooden spoon. Nothing prepared me for the world of drills, drill bits and screws. That’s not to say that making your own lightbox is impossible, there are just some things that I thought I might bring to your attention, or give you some tips on as things I learnt during this whole process.

  1. Chipboard hates screws
    I fell into this trap, as I thought there would be no problem when I saw the endless bags, bottles and containers filled with such things as “Chip Board Screw.” I was using chipboard as my garage holds it in abundance thanks to the previous owners. What I now know is that you can screw chipboard into something, but it doesn’t like it if you screw into the side of it. If you screw into the side, it cracks something fierce. I would recommend you get some nails instead. Make sure the nails are long enough to go through chipboard, into second piece of wood.
  1. Perspex isn’t count to size
    I thought I could just buy a sheet and ask the guys at the shop to cut it down, but this isn’t the case! You have to buy pre-sized pieces. This can be a problem, when you’ve spent the whole previous evening working out the math of your box and then having to buy something that is smaller. Which of course leads me to number three…
  1. Measure, measure, measure
    Things to take into consideration when you measure: the width of your wood will have an impact, find out the size of your Perspex before designing, find out the size of the light fitting before designing, and remember to double check everything when you are done! I didn’t and ended up with giant holes everywhere!
  1. Drill a hole for your cable
    I actually remembered this and was so proud of myself for remembering, that I thought I would it here. Install your fluorescent light fitting, then slip the cable through the whole and only then attach the plug. Isn’t that just so clean?
  1. Late tips from a father
    Actually not all the tips from my dad were late. The one he told me in the beginning was if your light isn’t bright enough, insulate the inside of the box with crumpled foil (shiny side out!). This will reflect the light more and channel it through your Perspex better. The second one he told me only afterward so now it is pretty useless to me, but maybe useful for you: When drilling your Perspex – make a small indentation with your drill. Then stop and pour a few drops of Dettol (yes – the antiseptic!). Carry on drilling in your little puddle of Dettol. Just before the end, add a few drops more. This will make sure the hole is a) slim-lined (not rough plastic edges!), and b) the Perspex won’t jump/slide up the drill when you have completed the hole. Just to be on the safe side though – don’t drill too forcefully!


I hope these tips helps you when you are trying to make your own light box. As for my light box, well, in terms of engineering or carpentry, I am not planning on changing my day job any time soon and I don’t think aesthetically Gruffy from the Gummi Bears would be too pleased. However, I would like to say that even though my measurements didn’t quiet add up and I had to think a little out the box with extra wood, the end result is a light box that I can use. The aesthetics I can clear up with a little paint and glue.

I definitely think in a year or two I will probably have to redo this project and I believe my Light box 1.2 will be much better!