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   HomeArticles / Computers And Homework / Making Dioramas With Your Computer's Help (5-8)

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Going 3-D — Part 1 - Making Dioramas with Your Computer's Help (5-8)
by Hilda and Henrietta

Dioramas are a great way to focus on and learn about a particular place, environment or time period or report on a book you’ve read so that’s why teachers assign them. They give you a chance to make your own three dimensional (3-D) mini-scene like you would see at a history or natural science museum, a zoo, or even an old house that is being used to show what life was like in a certain period of time. In fact while you are designing your diorama, you should think of yourself as an exhibit designer at a museum or zoo. You are trying to capture a little piece of what your subject is all about so you can teach other people about it. You’ve heard the saying "seeing is believing," haven’t you?

But besides doing the research for your 3-D diorama, how can your computer help? Hey -aren’t things that come out of your printer flat?

Sure they are. But here are a couple of secrets for going 3-D with your computer:

  • You can print on things other than paper in your printer. (We’ll be showing you what and how in this series of articles. See the end of this article for how to print on fabric.)
  • Just because something comes out of your printer that doesn’t mean it’s DONE. It could just be the beginning!

Now let us show you what we mean! Let’s say you have to make a diorama of the inside of a log cabin. How would you start?

Do Some Research

First you might look at pictures of log cabins on the Internet, in books, or if you are lucky enough, go see a log cabin that has been preserved as a museum in your local community. Here are some things you might notice about log cabins from pioneer days:

  • They usually only had one or two windows (glass was expensive and heat leaked out of them in the winter) and a door
  • People who lived in log cabins used a fireplace to cook on and for heat.
  • They usually only had a few pieces of furniture like a bed, a couple of chairs, a table and maybe a simple rug or an animal’s hide used as a rug on the floor or hung up on the wall of the cabin.

No matter what the subject of your diorama, while you are doing your research think about the three or four simple but important things you can show other people about your subject by making a scene or exhibit. Write these down so you don’t forget.

Find a Box

OK, now that you know what the inside of a log cabin looks like, you need to find a box to use to make your diorama. Most teachers ask their students to use a shoebox and that works very well for a diorama of the inside of a house or a scene from the rain forest, beach, desert or even a favorite scene from a book you’ve just read. Maybe your teacher wants you to make something bigger. Ask your parents or the adult(s) you live with to help you find a shoebox or a box of the right size for the assignment at home. Make sure you have permission to use a certain box before you take it.

Start Putting It Together

Now it’s time to start working on your diorama. Here are the steps:

  • Decorate the Walls: Most every diorama has three walls or views, a ceiling or sky and a floor, ground or base. You need to decorate these inside walls first. There are lots of ways to do this. You can paint them or color them with markers, crayons or paint. You can measure them, cut construction or other paper to fit on them, and glue that on. Or you can go to your computer and design something to look more realistic.

Let’s take our log cabin. You can use any computer art program like Kid Pix to draw logs and the mortar, wadding or chinking that was applied or stuffed between the logs to keep the drafts out. Before you start, remember that your printer has two ways for printing things out — portrait (like a letter) or landscape (sideways or on the long side of the paper). You can find and choose these in Page Setup in most software applications. If you choose which way you want the logs to print out before you start drawing, the computer will set up a correct drawing page for you. This is especially a good idea when you are drawing the longer logs that will go on the inside back surface of your diorama. If the inside back surface is longer than a sheet of regular paper, just print out two or three sheets of log design and cut them to fit.

Start drawing logs on the computer. You can also add windows, doors and a fireplace and to your log drawings, or you can go back and draw those later on the computer, print them out, cut them and then glue them on top of the logs. Either way set your page up, and don’t forget to add details. Try adding some little circles to represent knots in the logs or darker and lighter logs to represent different kinds of wood. All the logs would not have been exactly the same size so make them look different. It’s these details that will make your background look interesting and special.

Then print your logs, door windows and fireplace, cut them to fit the inside of your diorama and glue them down.

Now go back and make a floor (usually just dirt) and a ceiling (more logs) for your log cabin, print them out and cut them to fit or piece them together to fit and glue them down.

You would do the same thing if you were making a scene from a rain forest or desert or a futuristic factory building. It’s like doing the scenery or sets for a play. Think about what people who look at your diorama should see in the background.

  • Add Details: Don’t stop there with your backgrounds. Just because you printed it out doesn’t mean it’s done! Wad up some tissue, paper or cotton to make it look like the chinking that pioneers stuck between the logs of their cabins to keep the wind from blowing in and glue it down. Add some bark from twigs or branches you collect on the ground outside and glue those inside. You might want to add some pebbles to the dirt floor of your cabin, too. If you have some old scraps of muslin, burlap, or plain color cloth, you might want to add curtains to the windows or use cloth for a blanket over the door to help keep out the cold. Anything you can add to give your backgrounds a 3-D look helps make your diorama look more realistic and special.

This is same for whatever the subject is of your diorama. Glue down some sand if you are doing the desert: add leaves or moss from the craft store to your rain forest; or paint some toothpicks silver and add them to your futuristic factory to make it look like pipes. It’s these little details that will make your diorama stand out and help people think about what they are looking at.

  • Add Props: OK, now it’s time to think about the furnishings or props for your diorama. For a log cabin you will probably want to add a bed, a couple of chairs, a table and maybe a simple rug or an animal’s hide used as a rug on the floor or hung up on the wall of the cabin. If your assignment allows you to use items that come from a store, you might want to check your local craft store for some inexpensive furnishings for your diorama. With your computer’s help you can make most of your own, but there may be some little things you want to add.
  • Furniture: Small cardboard jewelry boxes, empty juice boxes or the bottoms of milk cartons make great beginnings for beds and tables. Ask an adult if they have any you can use. Turn the cartons or boxes bottom side up and get an adult to help you cut the boxes or cartons so they look like they have legs like a table or bed. Use the computer to design a page that looks like "wood" you can print out, cut up, and glue or tape it onto a table top or legs or the legs, bed rails, and headboard and bottom board of an old fashioned bed.

Print your wood design on both sides of a piece of regular paper or use card stock (available at office supply stores - great for this purpose and more durable Send whatever paper you use through your printer twice, once on one side and once on the other). Cut a strip about 1 and 1/2" wide (or a size right for your diorama) and four inches long. Bend it into three equal parts — one for the back of the chair back, one for the seat and one for the legs. Then cut another piece a little longer than the size of the legs, bend back a small piece of it and glue or tape it to your chair. You can leave it like this or cut out rectangles on each leg piece to make smaller legs.

  • Fabrics: Go back to the computer and design an old fashioned quilt for the bed, a rug for the floor or animal hide to hang up on the wall. You can print these out on paper or you can make (instructions at the end of this article) or buy fabric at your local craft store that can go through your printer. These are the kinds of details that will make your cabin look more realistic and teach your audience about life in a log cabin.
  • Details: What else can you add? Don’t forget that your computer can help you make a shape, or color, or background but then you can add to these by adding/ gluing things onto what you’ve created. Make the bristles for a broom on the computer, cut them out, and glue on a stick to make a broom to lean up against the wall of your cabin. What did you do for a fireplace? Would gluing some stones on it make it stand out? What other small things would have been inside the log cabin? A bucket? Plates and a cooking pot? Can you design those on the computer and combine them with other things you have at home to make them 3-D?
  • People and Animals: Look around your house. You may already have some small animals or dolls that you can add to your scene or exhibit. Maybe you can borrow something from a younger brother or sister or other family member. Your local craft store might also have something you can use, if you are allowed to add items from a store. Think about making people and animals out of LEGO blocks, clay, wire or other materials. You also might find some pictures of people, animals, birds, dinosaurs, or other objects online or you can take your own staged pictures with a digital camera. Size these pictures to fit the scale of your display. You can usually do that in any photo editing software you have on your computer, in an art program or even by inserting the picture in your word processor and then using the "handles" or little boxes that appear at the corners of the picture to make it bigger or smaller. Then print your pictures out. If you have some stiffer paper like card stock or cover paper use that instead of regular paper. In either case, when you cut the figures out, leave a small section at the bottom that you can fold under and glue onto your diorama to keep the figure in place. (For ideas on how to make fold over pictures that stand up by themselves, see the next article in this series about how to make a board game.) Remember to add details to your printed out people and animals — just because something came out of the printer it’s not necessarily done!

No matter what the subject of your diorama, use your computer to help you make details that you can add to your mini—exhibit. Think like someone whose job it is to make the kinds of exhibits you see at the museum or the zoo. Be creative!

Instructions for Making Computer Printer Fabric

Anything you design on your computer can be printed out on fabric, just as easy as paper.

Here’s What You Need —

  • A computer with an ink jet printer attached and working
  • A ruler
  • A pair of scissors
  • An iron (ask an adult for help with this)
  • A roll of freezer paper from the grocery store ( Reynolds brand works quite well)
  • 100% cotton fabric with a smooth weaver ( for best success use muslin with a high thread count)

Here’s What You Do — Ask an Adult to Help You! Don’t Try This on Your Own!

  1. Wash and dry the fabric to get rid of any sizing. Iron flat.
  2. Cut the freezer paper to match the standard size of paper the print uses — a regular piece of paper measures 8 and 1/2" by 11". You can use a regular piece of paper as a template.
  3. Cut a piece of fabric just slightly smaller than the freezer paper — 8 and 1/4" by 10 and 3/4 "
  4. Set the iron on high heat and let it warm up. Iron the fabric to the paper until they stick together. Now the fabric will be stiff enough to run through the printer like a piece of paper.
  5. Before you load the fabric/freezer paper into the printer, make sure you know which side needs to go in face up or face down so that you print on the fabric side. If you don’t know, write "front" on one side of a regular piece of paper and write "back" on the other side of the same piece. Do a test print of this paper through your printer by just printing some simple type on it find out which side really is front or back.
  6. Select the image you want to print on to the fabric on your computer.
  7. Load the fabric/freezer paper into the printer so that it will print on the fabric side. (Tip: Make sure the leading edge of the freezer paper is not folded or curled and that no fabric threads are poking over the edges.)
  8. Set the printer for "best quality," and press Print. (The print quality setting is usually in either the print or pages set up dialog box that comes up just before you print.)
  9. Let the print set for an hour to let the ink dry thoroughly. Then peel the freezer paper away from the fabric and uses it in your project just like any piece of cloth. For best results, keep water away from your design.

For more help in making dioramas see:

Enchanted Learning - Dioramas

American Museum of Natural History — Online Field Journal Dioramas

You can find already designed backgrounds for wetland, desert and forest dioramas here.

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