A handmade gift is a treasure and deserves to be treated as one. Present your holiday candy, cookies, or other sweets in a container that will live on after the contents have been reduced to crumbs. One way to package an herbal gift is in a box like those shown above which owe their simple charm to “antique” herb drawings decoupaged onto the surface. Long after the sweets are gone, the boxes will still be useful for holding paper clips, potpourri, jewelry, mementos, notes, stamps, or loose change.
Decoupage is the French word for “cut out”, and virtually anything that can be cut out can then be applied to a surface.
Any hobby or craft store offers a selection of inexpensive unfinished boxes made of heavy cardboard or lightweight wood in different sizes and shapes to fit your needs; the technique of decoupage is adaptable to any container made of almost any material, even metal. Ours are decorated with illustrations from a clip-art book of old-time plant woodcuts, but any kind of artwork may be used, including pictures from magazines, catalogs, and greeting cards, even fabrics and photographs. Découpage is the French word for “cut out”, and virtually anything that can be cut out can then be applied to a surface. As you become familiar with the technique, ideas will present themselves. Because the illustrations that we chose were black-and-white, we added soft color with oil-based colored pencils.
It’s often easier to come up with a pleasing design to decoupage when the background color on the box is white, off-white, or another light shade that doesn’t compete with the design. We used standard decoupage materials: acrylic gesso, which after many coats will produce a smooth, slick surface; acrylic paint for the background; and a decoupage finish, which adheres and seals the design onto the surface. All are soluble in water, making cleanup easy. A layer of antiquing finish “aged” our boxes to make them more compatible with the woodcut designs. Antiquing shows up best on a pale, muted background.
You can position the cutouts to overlap the top and bottom halves of the box so that the plants seem to wrap around it, but there are many other ways to produce a pleasing design. You can decoupage just the top of the box or do the top and bottom separately with related illustrations. You may prefer to paint the inside and bottom in a contrasting color or decoupage them; you may glue felt to the bottom, line the inside with a satiny fabric (if the box is not intended to hold food), or decoupage a tiny butterfly inside that is revealed like a jewel when the box is opened. Making these boxes personal is part of the fun.
Because decoupage involves a lot of time waiting around for each coat of gesso and finish to dry, we found it most efficient to work on several boxes—as many as a half dozen—at once. Now that you’ve bought the decoupage materials, you might as well use them, and the cost of additional boxes is nominal. The extra decorated boxes are useful to have on hand during the holiday season for any special occasion.
- 2 paintbrushes, one with bristles
- 1 inch wide, one 1/2 inch wide
- #400 superfine sandpaper
- #000 or #0000 steel wool
- Clean rags
- Acrylic paint in a light color
- Acrylic sealer
- Antiquing finish
- Oil-based colored pencils in soft colors
- Small curved manicure scissors
- Decoupage finish
- Razor blade (if design covers top and bottom of the box)
1. With the larger paintbrush, brush a coat of gesso onto the outside surfaces of the box to be decoupaged. Let it dry to the touch, which will take about 20 minutes. Sand each surface lightly with sandpaper, rub it with steel wool, then wipe it with a clean rag to remove any residue. Repeat these steps, applying four to seven coats of gesso, until the surface is smooth.
2. When the box is completely dry, paint the outside surfaces with acrylic paint, and when the paint is dry, spray the box with sealer. Allow it to dry.
3. Apply the antiquing finish (we used Apple Butter Brown by FolkArt) to the surfaces with a damp sponge, following the directions on the bottle, then quickly wipe most of it off with a soft rag or paper towel. The less you rub off, the darker the final color, but it should be light so that the decoupage design will stand out clearly.
4. Now prepare your illustrations. If your design is a black-and-white line drawing like ours, color it in with the pencils if desired. The next step can be tedious but is important to the appearance of the box, so allow plenty of time at this point. With scissors, cut around every flower petal, small leaf, and other fine detail; the closer and more neatly you cut out the design, the better it will look when decoupaged.
5. The decoupage finish (we used Royal Coat by Plaid) both glues and seals the design to the box. Position the herb design on the box. Holding the bottom half of the design, fold back the top half and apply the decoupage finish with the smaller brush onto the back of the design; coat it well, then press it against the box until it holds. If finish squirts out around the edges, just smooth it out on the surface. Repeat these steps with the bottom half of the design. If your design overlaps both parts of the box as ours do, leave a line unglued at the spot where top meets bottom; when the decoupage finish has dried, cut the design apart with a razor blade, then glue down the edges with additional decoupage finish. Apply two or three coats of decoupage finish over the entire surface of the box, letting it dry between coats. When dry, polish with steel wool.
6. If desired, finish the inside and bottom of the box if you haven’t already decoupaged them. The easiest way is to paint those surfaces with the acrylic paint you used over the gesso.
These boxes are the work of Ann Young, our crafty subscription services assistant here at Interweave Press.