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 youve
read so thats 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. Youve heard the
saying "seeing is believing," havent you?
But besides doing the research for your 3-D diorama, how can your
computer help? Hey -arent things that come out of your printer
Sure they are. But here are a couple of secrets for going 3-D with
- You can print on things other than paper in your printer.
(Well 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
doesnt mean its DONE. It could just be the
Now let us show you what we mean! Lets 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
- 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 animals
hide used as a rug on the floor or hung up on the wall of the
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 dont 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 youve 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 its 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.
Lets 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
dont 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. Its 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. Its 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: Dont stop there with your backgrounds.
Just because you printed it out doesnt mean its 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.
Its these little details that will make your diorama stand out
and help people think about what they are looking at.
- Add Props: OK, now its 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 animals 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 computers 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
- 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? Dont 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
youve 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 its 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 miniexhibit.
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.
Heres 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)
Heres What You Do Ask an Adult to Help You!
Dont Try This on Your Own!
- Wash and dry the fabric to get rid of any sizing. Iron flat.
- 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.
- Cut a piece of fabric just slightly smaller than the freezer
paper 8 and 1/4" by 10 and 3/4 "
- 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.
- 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 dont 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.
- Select the image you want to print on to the fabric on your computer.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
View Computers and Homework Archive