Shadow-Box Trout Flies – How to make your own shadow-box project

Making a shadow-box to display your trout flies is simply and inexpensive.
Making a shadow-box to display your trout flies is simply and inexpensive.

by Allan Burgess

Making a shadow-box to display your trout flies by hanging them on the wall is a great little project. They look super cool in your office, lounge, or “man cave”. They are easy to make provided you take your time and don’t rush it. Keep in mind the old builders’ motto of measure twice and cut once!

You can purchase shadow-boxes complete with fishing flies online if you wish. However, I think it’s more fun to make your own. Making your own will not only save a great deal of money, but you will also get a sense of achievement. You’ll be able to say not only that you tied the flies but you made the shadow-boxes as well.

Shadow-box with mat-board in place.
Shadow-box with mat-board and 12mm strips in place.

If you are still a novice home tyer you might like to purchase a dozen different flies and mount them in a shadow-box to act as a reference against which you can compare your own creations. This is a good idea as it will help you with your sizes and proportions. As I often say to beginners don’t worry if your flies aren’t a perfect match to shop-bought ones. As long as your colours and proportions are about right the trout will never know the difference.

Make a Shadow-Box from Old Picture Frames

Secondhand stores, junk shops and op-shops often have a large range of used picture frames that can be purchased for just a couple of dollars. What you’re looking for are flames that are complete with a coloured mat-board. You can purchase mat-boards separately from picture framers and art supply stores although they will be fairly expensive. You don’t have to have a mat-board of course. Some of the inexpensive smaller size shadow-box frames available at places like “The Warehouse” will look fine without them.

Black Pete trout fly created by John Morton.
Black Pete trout fly created by John Morton.

One of the first things you need to consider is how many trout flies you wish to mount in a given size frame. Avoid jamming too many in close together. Keep in mind that empty space is a design element as well. Your shadow-boxes will look much better if there is sufficient space around each of your flies to be pleasing to the eye. The best way to set them out is to lay them on your board and move them about until the space between them looks in proportion.

Adding Names

Another thing to consider when laying out your flies is whether or not you will write their names beneath each fly. I think is a very good touch to do so. This can be done fairly easily and neatly by placing a ruler on your board to use as a stopper for your pen. You’ll have to add tails to the letters later. I like to use a darker coloured backing board as it creates more contrast between the lighter coloured flies and the darker background. There are coloured pens available, such as Hybrid Gel Grip, which enable you to write with silver or gold lettering so that it can be seen on a darker background.

Shadow-box with the back in place. You can just see the green card.
Shadow-box with the back in place. You can just see the green card.

If you’re making the shadow boxes yourself from scratch using an old picture frame and mat-board begin by taking the back of the picture. The end result will be better if you use something like Custom-wood for the back rather than cardboard which tends to warp over time. So I would replace the back if it is flimsy cardboard.

Shadow-Box Assembly

Next, cut your coloured light card to size and fix it to the back-board using contact adhesive. You don’t want any space to form between the backing-board and the light card so glue it down across the entire surface. You can purchase spray adhesive in a can but I just use Ados F2 sold in a tube and spread it with an ice cream stick.

Place the mat-board on your backing board so you can see exactly how much space you have to work with then layout your flies as mentioned above. I have found the best way to hold them in place is to use a dab of hot-melt glue. If you are going to write the names under the flies you will need to do so before any glueing starts. You might also want to add a short note beneath the flies such as “Taupo Harling Flies Tied By John Smith March 2020” or “Trout Killer Patterns Presented to Uncle Sidney, by Joe Lander, Christmas 2020”. With the flies glued in place and text added, set your backing board aside for the moment.

The next job is to extend the depth of the frame. Trout flies are quite thin so you don’t need to extend the depth to the frame by very much. I use 12mm square lengths of dressed pine available from any hardware store. Cut this to length and mitre the coroner’s to match your frame. You don’t even need to mitre the corners if you don’t want to. You can just butt them together. Now simply glue and nail the 12mm wooden frame you have made to the back of the larger picture frame. Use PVA glue and small nails for joining the two frames together. It might be a good idea to pre-drill the holes first to prevent either of the frames splitting when you drive in the nails. You can also make the shadow-box frame directly on the picture frame one side at a time instead of building the 12mm frame separately and then attaching it. Place a towel or blanket under the front of the frame to prevent it from being scratched while you are working on the back.

I think having the names of each fly included is important.
I think having the names of each fly included is important.

Lower the mat-board onto the glass and fix it in place using small nails as shown in the picture. You can also use hot-melt glue to keep the mat-board in place but that would make it difficult to clean the glass later should the need arise.

Finally, after checking that your glass is clean on the inside one last time tack the back on using small nails. Don’t glue the back on in case one day you want to get it off to clean the glass, or heaven forbid, one of the flies falls off! That hasn’t happened in the 16 years since I made the shadow-box shown in this article but the dark green-coloured backing card has faded a little where it is exposed to the light.

Why not give making one of these shadow-boxes a go? It will look great hanging in your office, study or bach. You might like to consider making one as a gift for a fishing mate. The fact that you made the shadow box and tied the flies will make it an extra special gift that no one else will have.

The back board with the flies glued in place.
The backboard with the flies glued in place. The green card has faded over 16 years but it still looks good. The theme of this shadow-box is Canterbury Lures. The 24 patterns all originated from this province and were created mostly for sea-run trout fishing.