Time Machine—A Steampunk Shadowbox

Time Machine—A Steampunk Shadowbox2017-12-27T11:25:34-05:00

Project Description

Sometimes a project takes on a life of its own. That was certainly the case when I started to think about what I could submit to the Stampers’ Sampler Tempting Template challenge (June/July 2011, Volume 18, Issue 4, Pinwheel).

I love 3D and interactive projects made with paper. I think it’s fascinating to take paper – a flat, delicate surface – and turn it in to something with dimension or something sturdy enough that it can pop-up, move or spin. As soon as I saw the pinwheel template, I started to think of curls of paper twirling in the wind. A pinwheel immediately calls to mind movement.

So, I started to think about a pinwheel mounted on something – from a card to a canvas. But blowing on the pinwheel to make it spin seemed too traditional. How could I make the pinwheel spin using something non-traditional?

What about bellows? Maybe I could fashion bellows from paper and the user could pump the bellows to make the pinwheel spin? I researched how bellows are made and decided paper bellows would likely deteriorate with use. Creases and gaps would eventually reduce the amount of air forced through the bellows and the pinwheel wouldn’t spin.

Then my engineering background kicked in. By day, I’m Chief Technical Officer of an HR software/web design firm, Delphia Consulting. I went to an engineering college and I’m surrounded by technology problems 40+ hours a week. What about something mechanical? Could the pinwheel spin because of rotating gears or sprockets?

I searched for a source for miniature gears and sprockets and found Servolink. The owner, Ed, is in his 70’s, and has created gears and sprockets for all sorts of applications. We talked and I knew I this could work. The user could turn a crank or handle, which would rotate the sprockets which would turn the pinwheel.

I planned to use a cigar box as the foundation for the project. It would be tight, but the sprockets could fit and the pinwheel could be small.

The sprocket ratios would make the pinwheel spin very fast when the handle was turned. And something spinning that fast reminded me of a machine. What about a “Time Machine?” Something somewhat steampunk style that used a pinwheel as part of the machine? That would work!

But a machine should have sound. The movement of the chain would provide some sound, so that was good. But what about lights? A cool machine would have lights – maybe even blinking lights! So, I started searching for lights. A hobby store might have small lights used in model cars or planes. That lead me to Hobbytown USA where I found car headlights that would work. With some additional components, they could be re-wired to use a switch that would activate the lights when the cigar box lid was opened.

I picked up the mannequin and knew it would be useful for some project but wasn’t sure what. While at the hobby store, I saw a ladder and girder. Maybe the mannequin could be climbing up the ladder inside the machine? That would be cool!! And a girder certainly looks steampunk-ish.

But now a cigar box is too small and with a solid lid, the interior of the machine would be hidden. It should be visible even when the lid is closed. So, the search for a shadow box with a glass door began.

What started as a simple pinwheel grew and morphed in to a glass-front shadow box with sprockets and lights. The pinwheel became the basis of a Time Machine.

The project was so much fun. My crafting family and friends provided support, ideas and extra hands!! I owe a special thanks to  my partner, Joe Morgan, and my friend, Philip Day.

I learned more things to do with the tools I already owned. I discovered that I love layering stamped pattern tissue. I got to use two parts of my personality – engineering and creative. And imagining a tiny world with a gold engineer maintains a time machine was captivating. What tools would he use? Where would he sit? Would his chair have a cushion? I now have a much better appreciation for the world of miniatures and I can’t wait to continue creating small boxes using paper art techniques that pull the viewer in to a new, enchanted space.

Time Machine - Steampunk Style Shadowbox

General Instructions

Box Exterior

1. Remove the lid and hangers from the box so it’s easier to work on.

2. Cut out and emboss cardboard shapes to create designs on the exterior sides and top of the box. Adhere the cardboard to the box making sure any overlapping pieces are fully supported. Add ball chain for even more dimension.

3. Cover the exterior sides and top with aluminum foil tape. Carefully burnish it down smoothly around the cardboard cutouts and chain using a paper stump. Use metal embossing tools for even more texture

4. Cover the aluminum tape with black acrylic paint.

5. After the paint has dried, use steel wool to remove the paint from the aluminum tape as desired. The paint will remain in the cracks and crevices around the embellishments and where there’s texture from the embossing tools, giving the box a distressed steel finish.

6. Paint the underside of the lid and the edges of the box with black acrylic paint.

Substrate (Box Interior)

1. Cover the interior with Gesso using as many applications as necessary to hide the grain and any knots.

2.Pain the interior with acrylic paint and glazes to create a wash of color to use as the base for the collage.


1. Stamp images on pattern tissue. I used about 50 impressions for this project.

2. Cut or tear out the stamped images from the pattern tissue.

3. Collage the images on to the substrate using Perfect Paper Adhesive (PPA).

4. Apply a color wash to any harsh outlines with acrylic paint.


1. Mount the sprockets on the box using wood screws. The distance between the sprockets must be carefully calculated so the connecting chains will have the proper tension. This can be time consuming, but is critically important so the chains will move smoothly and not wobble or fall off the sprockets.

2. Create the lighting system with the desired circuitry. This circuit was designed so a sliding switch turns the power on/off to the rest of the assembly. When the switch is on, power flows to a door switch (that only activates the lights when the door is open).

3. Use alcohol ink to change the color (or tone the brightness down) of the protective covers over the LEDs to match the color theme of the project.

4. Adhere the lights to the substrate.


Use embellishments to create a visual story. Change the color of items using alcohol, distress inks or paint to match the palette of the project.

1. Adhere metal charms, gears and buttons.

2. Create an “electrical cabinet” to hide the battery for the lighting system

  •  Embellish the papier-mâché box lid using cardboard cutouts (lightning bolt and “DANGER”).
  • Cover the box base and lid with aluminum tape.
  • Use alcohol inks to stain the tape.
  • Use steel wool to remove the stain from the raised portions of the box, creating a distressed metal cabinet.
  • Cuts slits and holes in the box so you can slide in the wiring and main power switch.
  • Adhere the “cabinet” to the box, push the wiring and battery into the box.

3. Create the “Chronometer”

  • Use a scroll saw to cut disks from a 1” dowel.
  • Drill a hole in the center of each disk.
  • Paint each disk with black acrylic paint.
  • Create a strip of months or day/year digits using your computer. Be sure the strip is the right length to wrap around each disk (about 3.14”) and the text/digits are equally spaced within the strip.
  • Adhere each strip around the disk.
  • Use a length of dowel to form an axel through the disks.
  • Create a vertical upright from the square post. Paint the post black and embellish with a brass top.
  • Use the Dremel to drill a hole in the side of the box and in the upright.
  • Insert the dowel (with the disks on it) in to the side of the box and the upright.
  • Adhere the upright to the base of the box.

4. Create the “transformers”

  • Paint the table leg to create a gold transformer.
  • Cut lengths of copper wire to connect components in the “electrical system.” Wrap the copper wire around a pencil to create coils. Add beads to look like insulators on the coils.
  • Use mini spools painted gold as junctions for the copper wire.
  • Use the copper wire to visually tie together the different areas of the project. Imagine how power might flow from the large transformer, gears and chronometer to the electrical cabinet.

5. Create the “Engineer”

  • Paint the mannequin in titanium brown and finish with a gold wash.
  • Adhere a small watch gear to his back.
  • Stain the ladder silver using alcohol ink.
  • Use the Dremel to carve out notches in to the sides of the box for the ladder to rest.
  • Adhere the ladder to the box and then adhere the “Engineer” to the ladder posed as though he is working on the electrical assembly.

6. Create the tool box

  • Fill the small metal box with remaining watch gears and a piece of copper wire.

7. Create the Engineer’s chair

  • Paint the chair with a base coat of brown acrylic paint.
  • Add a layer of Walnut Stain crackle paint.
  • Use a felt button as a seat cushion.

8. Create the “Plans” bin

  • Use a thimble to create a bin for documentation/plans.
  • Roll pieces of dictionary paper around toothpicks to create tubes.
  • Adhere the tubes inside the thimble and adhere the thimble to the box.

9. Add the lighting girder

  • Use the Dremel to carve out notches in to the sides of the box for the girder to rest.
  • Adhere the girder to the box and then adhere the light to the girder.

10. Create the pinwheels

  • Cover one side of white cardstock with the aluminum tape.
  • Ink the other side of the cardstock with distress ink.
  • Cut out the pinwheel shapes.
  • Add texture to the aluminum tape using the metal embossing tools.
  • Attach the small pinwheels to the box using a brad. Cover the head of the brads with rhinestones.
  • Attach the large pinwheel to the sprocket assembly using a screw.


1. Add picture hangers to the back of the box.

2. Use alcohol ink to make the brass hinges black.

3 .Attach the lid to the box using the hinges provided.

Tools & Materials


  • 11” x 14” Shadow Box with Glass Door (Michaels)
  • Gesso
  • 101 Artist’s Cement, Perfect Paper Adhesive – PPA Matte (USArtQuest)
  • Cardboard & cardstock
  • Pattern tissue
  • 2” Aluminum tape
  • Wooden dowels, square posts



A Country Welcome (now manufactured by I Brake For Stamps), EK Success, Hampton Art, Just For Fun, Lost Coast Designs, Museum Stamps, Paper Inspirations (now made by Living Word Products), River City Rubber Works, Rubber Stampede, Stamp Out Cute, Stampers Anonymous, Stampin’ Up, Stampington & Company, Technique Tuesday, Toybox and Viva Las Vegastamps!


  • Mannequin, mini spools, papier-mâché box (Hobby Lobby)
  • Sheet music, dictionary pages, circuit diagrams
  • Sprockets, chain (Servolink)
  • Lighting (Hobbytown)
  • Open Web Truss, Stryene Ladder (Plastruct)
  • Gears, Silver Tinker Pins (7 Gypsies)
  • Chair (Hobby Lobby)
  • Silver Fine Weave (Magic Mesh)
  • Charms, Spinners, Knobs, Gears, Adornments (Tim Holtz Idea-ology)
  • Table leg, watch parts, beads, thimble, buttons, ball chain, wire, metal box, keyhole, door switch
  • “God of War” font (dafont.com)


  • Brushes (USArtQuest)
  • Electronic Cutting Machine
  • Embossing folders, dies, Vagabond (Sizzix)
  • Metal  tools, paper stump (MercArt)
  • Dremel, hammer, pliers, scroll saw, soldering iron, drill press, steel wool
Somerset Gallery Summer 2012 (cover)Note: This project appears in the Somerset Studio Gallery Summer 2012 issue (pages 54-57).


  1. marguerite1997 May 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Joe, This is way beyond crafty. I am also an engineer, so when I saw this, I was blown away. Needless to say this is on my artistic bucket list. Thank you so much for sharing this brilliant artistic endeavor.

    Wishes to you on more great ideas, Marguerite W. Meara

    • Joe Rotella May 22, 2012 at 4:26 am - Reply

      Hi Marguerite! Thank you so much for your kind words!! This really has been my favorite project to date. Getting the sprockets and chain to work was tricky – but that's what made it fun!

  2. Lyneen May 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing… love the video!!!

  3. Barbara DeLisle May 22, 2012 at 3:07 am - Reply


  4. Kathleen Leanna May 22, 2012 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    You contantly amaze me with your creativity! What a fantastic contribution to the imagination of the Steampunk world! Thanks for sharing Joe!!!

  5. Linda D May 22, 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Joe, this is just amazing!! Way beyond my non-mechanical mind which makes me appreciate it even more. Thanks for sharing and congrats on getting your project published!!

  6. Jean Moore May 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Totally amazing and intriguing. Joe, this is a fantastic jounry! Congratulations!

  7. Mary P May 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    How absolutely marvelous. I look forward to seeing more of your work. Not sure if I would be up to something so complicated but making things with paper is what I love to do.

  8. Deb Ring May 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    This is so incrediable!! what a wonderful project, video and all the instructions. again amazing piece!

  9. Kathy Cora May 22, 2012 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    Absolutely incredible. I would love to interact with this. What fun & what awesome creativity. Thanks so much for sharing.

  10. Rachél Payne May 23, 2012 at 12:53 am - Reply

    Congrats Joe! What an amazing work! I traveled over from Magical Mixed Art Community. Can't wait to share it with my artist hubby. Keep up the good work.

  11. Hetty May 23, 2012 at 2:16 am - Reply

    What can I say, this is AWESOME!! What an creative imagination.

  12. Trudy Sjolander May 23, 2012 at 2:45 am - Reply

    Joe, Joe, Joe….After I picked my jaw up off of the floor, I watched and loved your video! Love your story-telling skills as well as your amazing artwork! So many perfect details! I could look at it for hours and still find new things. Perfect that you thought to use H.G. Wells' birthday. Love that it turns on and off with the door. No stinkin' wonder it was picked up by the magazine!

    It is a stunning labor of love my friend!


    True 😀

    • Joe Rotella May 23, 2012 at 5:13 am - Reply

      Thank you so much for such kind words!! It means so much coming from a crafting star like you!! See you at CHA!

  13. Ayn Yezzi May 23, 2012 at 3:06 am - Reply

    Joe Your ingenuity knows no bounds !!! The imaginative resources you share enhance everyone's experiences…. Hurray for you and those who follow in your wake !!!!

    Blessed Merry Be

    loving you all !!!

  14. Barbara Washington May 23, 2012 at 5:09 am - Reply

    Joe, I got goosebumps when I watched the video. Your time machine is incredible. I am in awe. And your instructions are fabulous.

  15. Linda Dillman May 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Joe, Not only are you a design/mechanical genius, you are a wonderful storyteller as well. I was so impressed by the Time Machine, but even more so by your narration in the video. What could have digressed into a complex step-by-step visual of the process turned into a great design with a fascinating backstory as well. Not only did you breath life into a project incorporating mechanical devices, you also brought to life a very interesting tale. Bravo. You should bring this to the next card swap. I would love to see the Time Machine in person.

    • Joe Rotella May 27, 2012 at 7:10 am - Reply

      Hi Linda! Thank you so much for your comment and such kind words! I would be happy to bring the piece to the next swap 🙂

  16. Bobbi Wasserman July 13, 2012 at 10:37 am - Reply

    Oh my goodness Joe this is award winning. I love Steampunk and I have made several wall hangings using Graphic 45 papers and Tim Holtz watch parts, etc. So you can imagine how delighted I am to see your wonderful work of Steampunk art. Thanks for sharing it with all of us Mixed Media Artists.


  17. Jayne Fisk July 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    awesome….. no other words for it 🙂 x

  18. David H July 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Loved seeing this in person! Amazing detail! 🙂

  19. Jamie C July 23, 2012 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    LOVE this! I'm so ready to do something steam punk! 🙂

  20. Kari McKnight Holbro October 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    So proud of you Joe! This is FABULOUS!

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