Updated on 09.03.14

Homemade Gift Series, Extra Edition: Photo Cubes

Trent Hamm

How to Make Decorative Photo Cubes

This is a last-minute extra addition to the homemade gift series. Sarah and I have gone back and forth for a long while about whether to post this one in the series, but when we showed the items to several people as we were making them, the comments from them were almost universal: “You need to show this to your readers, Trent!”

Why didn’t I want to do a post about it? More than the other gifts in the series, Sarah and I both feel that these gifts will be cherished by the recipients. So, yesterday, I contacted the recipients and asked them to not read The Simple Dollar for a few days – I know the recipients, and I’m quite sure they won’t if I ask them not to.

So, what did we make?

Three finished cubes

We made photo cubes (or, in our case, not quite cubes – I’ll explain below) for home decoration use or paperweight use! The cubes are made out of cedar, though most woods would also work easily for them.

We got the idea from this post at the wonderful alphamom blog and more or less followed the procedure outlined there. I’ll reiterate it here, with some details on our own experiences.

I should note that in the below procedure, I’m often stating “we” for tasks both Sarah and I did individually. She put forth quite a lot of effort during the making of these cubes; in fact, I’d easily say she handled most of the work here, particularly in terms of putting more coats of Mod Podge on the cubes throughout the day.

What You Need

The materials you need are largely straightforward.

A cube-shaped block of wood – or two, or three
Six photographs
Mod Podge
A sponge paint brush
A spray sealant for the finish (to prevent tackiness from the Mod Podge)

On acquiring the wood cubes

We went to Home Depot, selected a cedar 4″ by 4″, and asked them to cut the board every four inches, making (theoretically) 4″ x 4″ x 4″ cubes. I should note here that we tried both Home Depot and Lowe’s for this purpose – the people at Lowe’s wouldn’t cut the board to our specifications and basically acted as though we were a bother, while the staff at Home Depot were very helpful.

The problem with this cut is that the cubes didn’t turn out to be perfectly 4″ x 4″ x 4″. After cutting, the cedar had dried and shrunk a small amount, so we ended up with blocks that measured about 3.5″ x 3.5″ x 4″.

We had two choices at this point: we could either shave 1/2″ off of one end of each cube or we could simply go with the slightly rectangular blocks. Our decision was made after mocking up a few of them – we decided to go with the oblong ones. We found that the slightly askew blocks made for much more interesting stacking possibilities if done in multiples.

If you want cubes, ask for a tape measure to measure the 4″ x 4″ before they cut it for you. Make sure that it actually measures 4″ by 4″.

On acquiring the Mod Podge, sponge brush, and spray sealant

I went to a local Hobby Lobby intending to just pick up the Mod Podge and the brush, but the person there seemed fascinated with the project. She warned me that the Mod Podge might wind up being slightly tacky when we were finished, and she suggested a clear spray-on finishing spray that would eliminate the tackiness.

Both Hobby Lobby and Michael’s were very helpful during our various homemade gift projects. I never went away from either store with disappointment with their prices, product selection, or customer service.

Choosing Photographs

Choosing the photographs made for an interesting experience, too.

Choosing pictures

We decided to make photo cubes themed around our children. In the example above, for instance, we’ve chosen pictures for a cube full of pictures of our daughter.

Now, it’s easy to choose 4″ x 6″ snapshots of your target that are wonderful pictures on their own, but you quickly begin to realize that when you’re cropping them down to fit on the face of a cube, you’re shaving off a lot of the context of the picture. This can quickly make wonderful shots unusable or greatly reduce the likeability of the shot.

In other words, when you’re choosing snapshots for such a cube, choose ones that have a lot of potential space to crop away. If a photo is filled with your target, it’s not going to work for a cube face unless you shrink it down to the cube’s size.

If you do as we did, which involved selecting photographs out of a big box of prints, this is a really important factor to think about, and considering it up front will save you some effort in finding great pictures that work on cube faces.

Making the Cubes

Putting pictures on cubes

As is often the case with projects like this, we put the cubes together during a family arts and crafts session, in which the children were making their own projects at the same time (hence the colorful doodles next to the cubes above).

We used scissors to trim the photos down to an appropriate size for each cube face. This was more of a process of repeated trimming and comparing to the various faces of the cube until it looked appropriate.

At the same time, the cube faces were a bit rough, so we sanded them down a bit. The faces themselves do not need to be perfectly smooth as they will be covered with photos, but the edges should be smoothed down to a nice rounded edge, depending on how exactly you want your cube to look.

About to apply Mod Podge

The photographs were attached to the cubes using Mod Podge that was allowed to dry. This worked very well for directly attaching the photos.

Typically, we attached three photos, allowed them to dry, then attached the other three photos. This enabled us to not have to sit a drying photo on the bottom side of the cube, which might have caused uneven drying or warping (better safe than sorry).

Mod Podge applied

After the photos were attached, we gave three faces of the cube a coating of Mod Podge. When you first put the Mod Podge on, it’ll look like you just coated the face with something white and it’ll look frighteningly bad.

Just wait. It will dry clear and look glossy.

We applied three coats to each face of the cube. We would coat three faces, let it dry, rotate the block, then coat three more faces and allow those faces to dry. Repeat that procedure three times and you have a finished cube.

Cubes in progress

Usually, we had several cubes going at the same time, so we would put another coat on several cubes all at once and let them dry all at once. Honestly, if you’re going through the effort of making one cube, the additional effort to make more is much less – the leap from one to two cubes is much less than the effort for just one cube.

After we had three coats on it, we sprayed the cubes with a clear finishing spray so that they wouldn’t be sticky over long periods. If the cubes are stacked, for example, we don’t want them to become stuck together in a tower.

Three finished cubes

If you’re thinking of doing this yourself, remember you can make cubes of any theme you’d like. Friends have suggested cubes made up of your favorite sports team (perhaps using cropped baseball cards), cubes of the home where you and the person you’re giving the cube to grew up or spent time together when you were younger, cubes depicting a trip taken together, or so on.

If you know of a person’s passion or something they care about deeply and that can be represented visually, you probably have what you need to make a photo cube for them that will touch their heart.

In a few days, I’ll have a final “homemade gift” post that shows what we did to package many of the gifts.

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  1. Andrea says:

    Great post, I can’t wait to get home and see the pictures (Flickr is blocked at my workplace, unfortunately). What a pleasant surprise when I had forgotten that the David Allen series was over and there would be something new and different on a Tuesday morning!

  2. lurker carl says:

    For anyone who may be interested. Unless lumber is rough cut, it is never the actual size stated. It started out as a 4×4 off the log until it was planed true on all four sides. The missing 1/2 inch is sawdust at the lumber mill.

    Photo cubes were a fashion rage about 35 years ago, made of plexiglas with a sponge filling the interior of the cube to hold the photographs in place. A nice thing about the plexiglas version, you could change the photos.

  3. Adrienne says:

    An even easier thing to do is make boxes. I bought $1-$2 boxes at Michael’s last year and made picture boxes. They were especially loved by the kids.

  4. kjc says:

    lurker carl is right: a 2×4, for instance, measures 1.5″ x 3.5″ Trent need to have the lumberyard cut the pieces to 3.5″ long.

  5. Carrie says:

    Lurker Carl said it, but I wanted to reiterate that dimensional lumber (like 2×4 and 4×4) are not actually that dimension in the store. They are usually about half an inch smaller at each measure. So, it would be reasonable to expect a 4×4 to really measure 3.5×3.5.

    This is a cute gift – what I like about the permanent aspect of it is that there will always be pictures of the kids when they are young whenever they visit the homes of the people who received these blocks. I know I always liked to see pictures of myself when I was little.

  6. Johanna says:

    Does anybody else remember that song from one of the PBS kids’ shows (might’ve been 3-2-1 Contact) about how lumber isn’t the size they say it is, to the tune of “Charlie on the MTA”? The chorus went something like this:

    But is it ever the same? No, it’s never the same
    But two-by-four is still it’s name
    So if you’re gonna built a house, be sure you measure
    Because the size is not the same

    The existence of that song always puzzled me. Is this really a lesson that kids in their target audience need to learn? I can’t imagine that there are that many eight-year-olds in the house-building business.

  7. Katie says:

    Hah, Johanna – I imagine someone in the writer’s room had just finished a hellish home remodeling project and hadn’t had time to finish their assigned sketch as a result.

  8. Leah says:

    Adorable! These are super cute. I’m filing this away for the someday in the future when I have kids.

    Just an fyi, you can make homemade modge podge out of Elmer’s Glue and water. it also dries clear, and I’ve never found it to be tacky (tho I used it with tissue paper on mason jars or on paper plates). I don’t know if this is cost-effective. It worked well for me because I was working at a camp where we had massive bulk containers of Elmer’s glue.

  9. beth says:

    Hmm, I definitely like this one! The aspiring photographer daughter has some great stuff laying around and I have been at a standstill trying to come up with something we could send the grandparents, especially since I have been lazy about getting going this holiday season… again.

    I could see in our case that the blocks would probably get painted before the photos, to add some color or a ‘frame’ for some of the artistic photography or to match the team colors on some of the other kid’s sports photos.

  10. Monica says:

    I love this idea! What a thoughtful gift!

  11. David says:

    I had an experience exactly the opposite you describe at Lowe’s. The associate was very helpful–he cut dow rods at my request, something their equipment is not exactly geared for. He even stopped another project he was working on to help me. I tend to think the difference in experiences like ours has a lot more to do with the employee than the chain as a whole.

    Great gift idea!

  12. Amy says:

    Cute kids!

  13. Courtney says:

    Any idea what the long-term effects of mounting photos like this are? I usually don’t ask that kind of question, but I recently gave up on a similar project when someone told me that the acid in the wood will slowly yellow the photo. I’m wondering if the coating of mod podge between the wood and photo would prevent this. Hmm…

  14. kristine says:

    Courtney- good question!

    And if you use computer printouts- the colorfastness is anywhere form 3-10 years. They fade. Ink jets fade faster, and may smear with modge podge.

    What was the exact spray sealant used? Kamar Varnish? Spray polyurethane? Spray shellac? (for the shell of the lac bug…) Clear coat? I am curious as to what goes over modge podge well.

  15. Sara says:

    Neat idea, thanks for sharing!

  16. Rebecca says:

    If you cut the size down to make smaller blocks this could be a great baby present with pictures on the blocks!

  17. J.O. says:

    @ Johanna & Katie


  18. Millie says:

    I love this idea but have a question. Did you use regular photographs printed out from say, WalMart, or computer ones? I am thinking that the ink on the computer ones might smear if they are wet?
    I have loved all the projects and now that I’m on a tight budget, will make good use of these, I think I will start next year’s projects in January and work on them thru the year!
    Looking forward to more homemade gifts projects that someone like me can do!

  19. Cindy P says:

    Ok, hate to be negative about this, but PLEASE make sure that the recipient is someone who wants to display the photos in question and that they have room for them. If not, this gift will just be sentimental clutter. I would much rather receive the photos NOT glued to a cube so I could put them in the frames I use for family photos, changing them out whenever I get updated ones. I don’t need or want a cube of family photos sitting on my desk, coffee table, etc. Maybe I’m a scrooge or grinch or something, but I no longer want to receive any gifts that have to be dusted!

  20. Karen says:

    We did something like this growing up but used a flat piece of wood and made a hanging picture out of it. I think my parents still have them. And very cute pictures of the kids.

  21. Vickie says:

    What a great idea, Thanks for sharing your projects with us. :)

  22. Kai says:

    I’m very much against decoration presents. It’s very presumptuous to figure that you can gift something the recipient will be thrilled to hang up or put on a table.
    Personally, as with Cindy P above, I don’t like anything on my tables, and this gift would just be a guilt trip as I tried to figure out how to get rid of them. Maybe grandparents can’t get enough photos, but even then, it’s locked in to a particular method of display.
    Usable or consumable is my standard for gifts.

  23. Michelle says:

    Anyone have ideas on how to make these lighter. I want to give some to my brother who lives in Czech Republic, for his 2-year-old daughter to get to know her cousin in a “fun” way – toys (blocks) – one featuring each of her cousins in 6 different pictures. :)

    Just seems like 4×4 blocks of wood x my 5 kids (plus maybe aunt/uncles/grandparents) would be rather heavy for shipping overseas…

  24. CathyG says:

    One thing I did for my kids was to find those wooden toddler puzzles with handles on the pieces. We took the pieces out and glued family photos to the inside. My girls were able to see their far-away relatives any time they wanted to.

  25. Tom says:

    To get around your cutting down photos problem with 4×6 prints, just use photo editing software. If you scan a picture or have a digital copy you can easily crop to 4×4 without having to lose a lot of detail. Pictures over 5 megapixels in size can be scaled up without losing any quality to the untrained eye.

  26. Sarah says:

    What a great blast from the past! As lurker Carl says, the acrylic version was popular when I was little…

    Another variant that my family did for me, when we moved away from relatives, was to laminate photos of family members onto small, thin wooden plaques and use them as Christmas tree ornaments. (We even used them to talk about family trees.) I’ve still got the ornaments in use, and the original color prints are still in pretty good shape, 32 years later.

    (I think the plaques are pieces of luan plywood, and they are about 3″ in diameter, in diamonds and circles and hexagons.)

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