Category Archives: How To

How to pack a diorama for shipping

It was with a bit of trepidation that I began packing a diorama for shipment to a museum. My concern of course was that it would be damaged in transit and end up in several pieces. I found myself wondering if a note to the museum staff saying “some assembly may be required” would be in order.

Following the mantra “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” I decided to plan for the worst case scenario: a disgruntled postal worker who has misplaced his winning lottery ticket decides to take out his frustrations on a large parcel labelled “fragile.” How to prepare for this scenario?

The most common indignity suffered by large parcels is that they tend to be thrown rather than picked up and carried. They’re also liable to be crushed under heavier parcels. So packaging should provide (1) shock absorption and (2) rigidity.

When packing a simple object with a hard surface (for example, a glass vase), shock can be absorbed by wrapping the object in several layers of foam, fabric, or bubble wrap. This is fairly easy to accomplish.

A diorama, on the other hand, is a complex object with fragile surface elements. This makes it far more difficult to pack. Attempting to wrap it up like a vase will result in broken pieces. The solution is to support the rigid parts of the diorama and leave space around the fragile parts. To pack my diorama Encounter in North Africa (which you can see being prepared for its journey above) I took the following steps:

1. Find a sturdy cardboard box slightly larger than the diorama you wish to ship. (If you want to be even more cautious, you can build a custom crate out of plywood, but this will increase the weight and hence the cost of the shipment.)

2. Create a “cradle” for the diorama by cutting foam to fit the bottom and all four sides of the box. The foam will provide shock absorption during shipping. It can be cut with a long, sharp kitchen knife and sharp scissors. Always wear gloves.

3. Make a bulkhead to provide resistance to crushing. The bulkhead, which you can see in the middle of the box, was made by sandwiching several layers of cardboard and foam together. It straddles the wall featured in the diorama, which is a hard, non-fragile surface.

4. Complete the packing by cutting pieces of foam to fill most of the box, supporting the bulkhead. Leave space around fragile parts (palm tree and figures). I don’t recommend gluing any foam pieces, bulkheads, etc. in place since this will make it more difficult for the receiver to remove the diorama from the box without damaging it. Instead, cut the foam pieces to a tight fit so they interlock and stay in place.

5. Use transparent packing tape to seal the box. Substituting green painter’s tape or some other tape may result in the tape peeling off during shipping, especially in humid conditions.

6. You may wish to put some “fragile” and “this end up” stickers on the parcel, although no-one knows if these actually make a difference!

This is not something you want to rush. I spread the work over a couple of days. You’ll feel much better knowing that you’ve done everything to ensure that your diorama will arrive at its destination with a minimum of damage.

By the way, postal services in some countries require inspection of parcels prior to shipping internationally. If you live in such a country and are exporting your diorama, don’t seal the box until you’ve brought it to the post office.

There are never any guarantees with the postal service, but if you follow these steps, your diorama should have a safe and pleasant journey to its new home.


Keeping costs down when building your diorama

When e-commerce went mainstream and turned the world of retail and wholesale on its head, it was the consumer who emerged as the winner. Liberated from the monopoly which local bricks and mortar stores used to enjoy, the consumer can go online and hunt for the lowest prices from sellers around the world.

In a previous post, I talked about the decline of the bricks and mortar hobby shop in the online age. Although it would be easy to feel sorry for the hobby shop owner who has been turfed out by online competition, it’s important to realize that he may have just become greedy and priced himself out of business.

Hobby retailers (bricks and mortar as well as online) have a habit of overpricing products which are available elsewhere at far lower prices. They rely on their image as a specialist retailer to justify big margins.

A good example is miniature lighting. I frequently use LED lighting strips in my dioramas. They outlast bulbs by a wide margin, generate very little heat, and are easy to work with. LED strips are available via hobby retailers as well as eBay (mainly from sellers in China and Hong Kong). Guess which is cheaper? The price difference is so big that I wonder how hobby retailers are able to sell any LED strips at all.

Some hobbyists may not have the patience to comparison shop, but for those willing to spend a few minutes surfing the web, the return on your time investment can be considerable. And it can add up over time.

Here are some tips which can be useful in finding the lowest price for the product you’re looking for:

· See if you can determine where the product is manufactured
· Determine what types of retailers carry the product (for example, paints are carried by art stores, hobby stores, hardware stores, home improvement stores, and last but not least, paint stores); also check if the manufacturer sells direct
· Compare prices at each type of retailer in the country of manufacture with retailers in your country (remember to include shipping costs when comparing)
· Check prices at portals like eBay and Amazon

It helps to keep in mind also that the more middlemen you can cut out, the better your price will be. Some products are resold multiple times before reaching the consumer, and the price goes up every step of the way.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that if you don’t mind waiting a bit longer for your product to arrive, you can save a lot of money. Basic shipping rates from China to North America are astonishingly cheap if you don’t mind the four-week wait. I’ve also found shipping rates from Britain to be very reasonable. In contrast, buying from a U.S. source can entail horrendously high shipping charges, particularly on eBay and Amazon. And look out for eBay sellers who price a product at a discount and overcharge for shipping.

You would think that large online hobby retailers would have lower prices because they get quantity discounts when they purchase stock. However, I’ve found that this isn’t always the case. Remember that retailers are under no obligation to pass along savings to their customers. The only consistent advantage I’ve found to buying from a larger retailer is better product selection. If you’re buying several items at once and can bundle them into one delivery, you’ll usually pay less for shipping.

There isn’t one universal rule for getting the cheapest price. It depends on the product you’re buying. So do your research and happy shopping!


Two-dimensional thinking and three-dimensional art

There’s a great line in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Kirk and Spock are waging battle with Khan in the Mutara Nebula. Spock assesses Khan’s tactics and tells Kirk: “His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.” This is just the information Kirk needs to defeat Khan.

The diorama artist works in three dimensions. Yet a surprising number of dioramas are as flat as the Serengeti Plain. Lest the diorama artist befall the same fate as Khan, he should take advantage of all three dimensions. A diorama with peaks and valleys is more spatially complex—and visually interesting—than one that is flat.

Although we live in a three-dimensional world, we carry out many of our day-to-day activities using a two-dimensional mindset. Driving a car is essentially a two-dimensional activity. You can go left and right but not up and down (unless you’re driving through a mountain range). Board games like Monopoly and Scrabble are two-dimensional. The words you’re reading on this page are two-dimensional.

Unless you’re a pilot, gymnast, rock climber, architect or skydiver, chances are you don’t do much three-dimensional thinking. But artists who work in three dimensions benefit from well developed spatial awareness. And this includes the diorama artist.

Certain dioramas will be flat out of necessity. For example, a diorama of an airfield is not going to have hills and trees. Most planes (save for helicopters and VTOL aircraft) need flat runways to take off and land, so a runway diorama will be mostly flat. But even in cases like this, there is usually a workaround. For example, you could add a wind sock (mounted on a tall pole) to your airfield diorama for a bit of spatial variety, as I did on The Wooden Wonder. Or you could go a step further and add a hangar or other type of building, if there’s room.

Setting your scene in the middle of a field or jungle makes it easier to work in three dimensions. You’re free to sculpt the topography to your liking. My Eagle Crash diorama uses a cliff side setting, with each Eagle on a different level to create visual interest.

As you begin working on your next diorama, think about what Spock would say. Are you thinking in two dimensions or three?